Here’s lookin’ at you, kid. Casablanca is a classic that stands up to today’s films, and having the wonderful ampsandsound Casablanca monoblock tube amplifiers in my listening room certainly invoked thoughts of nostalgia. Much like Humphrey Bogart, Justin Weber is a man of passions and perfections. Ampsandsound, the company, is his playground to find vintage circuits of the best designs of yesteryear and implement them with modern materials and technologies. It’s not as if you added Bluetooth to a Marantz 7, but rather if you took a Citation II and improved all the parts, including the power supply and the transformers, with the best technology available today.
It begs the question, “Has circuit design really gotten better, or just more complicated?”
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
At AXPONA 2023, Justin Weber partnered with Acora Acoustics, SW1X, TW Acustic, and VAC to show off the new ampsandsound flagship amplifier, the Arch. In addition to the Arches, a pair of Zions was on hand along with a “display only” Casablanca. I have heard several offerings of ampsandsound at other venues, but the Casablanca caught my attention. Based on the classic Eico HF97, this push-pull design supports several tubes including KT88, 6550, and EL34 for power, and 12AX7 and 6SN7 for the front end–all common and relatively available.
With the KT88 or 6550 tubes, output is rated at 60wpc, and with EL34 tubes it’s 45wpc. These power ratings approach the Arch and Zions, but at about 1/3 and ½ the price, respectively. I wanted to know if the ampsandsound Casablanca had the same vibe that I had heard with the Arch, Zion, Bryce, Red October, Black Pearl, etc.
I’ve spoken with Justin about his products and vision several times. His design philosophy can be distilled down to this: find an interesting circuit from a great product of the past and make it as great as it could be today. This is a no-holds-barred effort. If there’s a way to make is sound better, Justin is going to look into it.
Inside the ampsandsound Casablanca
At ampsandsound, everything is over spec’ed. The power rating of the ampsandsound Casablanca is 60wpc, so this will be a conservative rating that will pump out 60W on a bad hair day during a brown out. This level of over-specified parts also makes for total harmonic distortion levels that smoke most tube amps on the market and will put many solid-state amps to shame. We are talking 0.124% at max rated power!
This allegedly makes the loading on the tubes easy as well, which should ensure long tube life. The sonic backbone of an ampsandsound amplifier like the Casablanca, however, is the custom transformer. A closely guarded corporate secret, the hand-wound transformer, combined with point-to-point wiring and a robust power supply, provide the makings of something special – just add tubes.
This attention to detail also applies to how the ampsandsound Casablanca monoblocks were shipped. Two heavy-duty ballistic plastic cases showed up at my door. With handles, wheels, internal foam padding and sturdy handles, these are likely the most practical and likely most expensive shipping containers that have been delivered to my doorstep. But the extra cost to avoid potentially damaged gear is par for the course for ampsandsound.
The act of unboxing these amps, installing the tubes, and firing them up was a pleasure. They did need to be biased, which is very easy with a simple volt meter. The bias plugs and adjustments are right on the board and it’s easy to insert standard pins from most cheap meters. Biasing was quick and easy: KT88/6550 tubes use 550mV while the EL34 biases to 450mV. Once bias is set it remains pretty solid and does not need to be checked very often. Justin has a simple and clear write up on how to do this safely; we are still talking tube circuits without all the modern fail safes. So if you do something daft there is the possibility you could break something that would also break an old tube amp.
As monoblocks go, these are fairly compact, but they might be tricky to fit onto a single shelf in a typical rack. They aren’t too tall, but everything from speaker taps to the input connectors to the power cord is all on top of the unit, so it can get busy. To save on sheet metal costs, the Casablancas take a few short cuts–using a lower cost wood frame instead of powder coated sheet metal is one example. That doesn’t mean the Casablancas are cheap–they still will set you back $16,000 for the pair. To my ears they are still a great value, but more on that in a minute.
ampsandsound Casablanca Sound
The ampsandsound Casablanca monoblocks have classic looks, but do they have a classic sound? I’ve reviewed a few tube amplifiers during my time with Part-Time Audiophile, including offerings from Qualiton and Audio Space, but the ampsandsound Casablanca is on another level. These amplifiers took a little time to break-in, but one evening my ears perked up. What just happened? Imaging was much deeper and further back, bass was tighter, and the imaging of instruments became more focused. So be patient if you get these new–you will be rewarded after several weeks of listening.
The Casablancas were delivered with J&J KT-88 tubes. These offered solid bass, sparkly highs, and a solid midrange presentation that belies typical tube amplification. No syrup, no dramatic roll-off of the highs and lows, no petering out when the volume control is turned up. There is a definite vintage tube sound, but without most of the compromises that come along with that before going considerably upmarket in price. The frequency response was full to the high and low extremes. Some tubes amps have a roll-off at the limits, but not so with the ampsandsound Casablanca.
Speaker matching will still be a consideration with the Casablancas. A low efficiency, low or swingy impedance load, or a heavily damped speaker, like my Vandersteen Model 3 or say a Wilson, might not be an ideal match. But most modern speakers approaching 90db efficiency or more should perform well.
The biggest area where the ampsandsound Casablanca exhibits this is in the bass. I tried the 16-, 8-, and 4-ohm taps. The 16-ohm tap, which many of the PTA crew swear is the where the magic happens, just didn’t have enough oomph to drive my Vandersteens in a satisfying way. The 8- and 4-ohm taps sounded better, especially in the bass. So, make sure to spend some time with the various taps and see what’s best for you.
Before we leave the bass, the Casablancas didn’t drive my Vandersteens like some solid state monsters I’ve had in the system, like the Classé DELTA Stereo, Rotel Michi S5, or my Mark Levinson 5805 could. But all those have at least triple the power of the ampsandsound Casablanca monoblocks. With most efficient speakers, the Casablancas will have plenty of satisfying bass. The bass presentation of the Casablancas was robust with good body, producing a full round sound. It didn’t have the speed or control of the solid state amps mentioned above, but it was more akin to the best offerings of high powered tube amps I’ve heard at shows from companies like VAC. Solid.
Treble was sublime, offering a perfect balance of sparkle and tonality. Some tube amplifiers can offer up a sweet treble that softens the transient edge. Cymbals are a great acid test for this and cymbals were snappy, clear, and had wonderful decay with the Casablancas. You’ll have to bring your own syrup to the table as none was exhibited in the treble with any of my listening. Amazing treble that can compete with the best solid state offerings – check.
On to the midrange, the main course, the Show, the Big Time. This is where tubes have that je nes sais quoi, that elusive quality that most solid state just can’t match, that sultry reach out and touch the music feel that eludes description. Much like Casablanca, the film, love can have the quality that hurts as much as it elates. The very best tube amplification approaches solid state, but some amps go too far in my opinion and lose a bit of the vibe that makes tube gear so appealing to me.
The ampsandsound Casablanca walks the fine line of the solid state leaning while preserving the bloom, air, and mystery that tubes reveal within the music. The midrange is super clean with the Casablancas, the soundstage presentation is wide and deep with such good imaging around instruments that as I write this, it makes me stop and pay attention. Certain instrumental passages just reach out, tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, buddy, stop what you’re doing, and notice me sempai!” The ability of a system to capture and enrapture my attention in this way never ceases to surprise me. Some might call it the goosebump moment, I’ll just call it rapture or nirvana, but I’m a sentimental type I guess.
The midrange of the ampsandsound Casablanca monoblocks had presence from front to back, as well as across the plane of the speakers. The illusion of real instruments in space is excellent as I listen to the xylophone mallets and percussion bounce around the soundstage on John Kaizan Neptune’s “Five Nodes” off the excellently recorded Asian Roots album.
Female vocal fans will love what the Casablancas do. Vocals just kinda hang front and center stage, and you can almost see the singer standing in front of the microphone. The richness and throatiness of the vocals is mesmerizing. Transients are great with a balance of speed and body around the notes. I’ve heard amps with faster transient attack and I’ve heard amps with more bloom and richness around the notes, but I think the Casablanca strikes the proper balance of these often opposing qualities beautifully.
I’ve heard more midrange richness in tube amplification, especially single ended triode (SET), but the ampsandsound Casablanca is the full package. What it might give up to the best midrange, syrupy tube amps, it makes up for at the frequency extremes and in power levels that allow folks to experience some of what the best tube amps have to offer on a much wider variety of speakers. No longer are folks limited to crazy-efficient horn designs.
The ampsandsound Casablanca is not as refined as the Zions or the Arches. The Zion has more of that tube vibe on the systems I’ve heard it on, and the Arches are cleaner and more powerful. But the Casablanca is a ridiculously great amp for the price.
KT-88 v. EL-34
After listening extensively with the KT-88s, I swapped in KT-77 Genalex Gold Lion tubes, which are basically a high quality EL-34. Holy moly! If the KT-88 was a high quality Old Fashioned with just the right amount of orange peel and a black cherry, the KT-77 was a Cognac-infused Sazerac. The complex textures and sonic smorgasbord with the EL-34 was perhaps a bit gratuitous, but immensely satisfying with the right music. The midrange was far more prominent with a softening of the frequency extremes.
Female vocals gained that in-your-listening-room quality that so much of the SET crowd strives for. It oozed sultry without sacrificing much on the bass or treble. There was a richness added to the sound which made for a more visceral emotional experience. On more intimate music I didn’t miss the bass and treble extension too much, as the trade off for the midrange purity and texture was well worth it.
On highly dynamic drums with heavy transients, however, the leading attack was softer and perhaps a bit slower despite the richer texture. Soundstaging was a bit further back from the plane of the speakers without losing any of the forward imaging that I was hearing from the ampsandsound Casablanca monos with the KT-88s. Even strident metal music had a softening of the edges and no harshness, which is a departure from neutrality for sure but could be a boon for some harsher recordings, especially bright digital ones.
I wish I had some 6550 tubes on hand to play with as well. The Casablanca will satisfy that tube rolling itch that many aficionados crave. I think which tube choice appeals more depends on several factors, some of these factors relate to gear choices and speaker efficiency, personal preference, and musical selection. Smooth jazz, female vocals, chamber music, and music that sounds best with rich musical textures will sound amazing on the EL-34 style tubes, while I think the KT-88 is the better all-around performer for those with a greater variety of musical tastes and who want the all the frequency extension and dynamics the ampsandspound Casablanca is capable of delivering.
A Bitter Farewell
Just as Rick Blaine’s love for Ilsa Laszlo ended with a mix of love lost and making the world a better place, my time with the ampsandsound Casablanca was bittersweet. So I suppose this is my “We’ll always have Paris.”
Packing them back up was a painful departure, but for where my system is right now and as a review tool I’m not ready for the Casablancas yet. The Vandersteen Model 3 is a good speaker and one I’ve enjoyed for two decades, but with the ampsandsound Casablanca I felt the weak link in the system was the speakers. Many of you will say, “Well, duh, get some real speakers.” But as Aaron Sherrick from Now Listen Here would say, “Vandersteens don’t do anything wrong.” Which as a bass head, is how I’ve felt about the Model 3 all these years.
But the ampsandsound Casablanca just kept saying, “I’ve got more in the tank. You just can’t hear it.” So, I’d certainly encourage consideration on speaker pairing, leaning towards high efficiency speakers. Justin does lots of his voicing on horn and LS 3/5A speakers. Justin is also a speaker builder, but that’s a story for another day.
As Rick Blaine walks into the evening fog with Louis Renault as the plane departs for America, if you purchase a pair of these wonderful ampsandsound Casablanca monoblocks you too will say, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”