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THE METAXAS IKARUS INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
Reviewed by Greg Borrowman, AUSTRALIAN HI-FI BUYERS GUIDE,Australia
The original Ikarus (Icarus) was the well-known but ill-fated Greek aviator whose father pioneered wax/feather technology but who died when the sun melted the wax during a test flight over the Aegean back in ... well, a long time ago.
This Ikarus is unlikely to suffer any such catastrophic heat stress--its a beautiful and superbly handcrafted integrated amplifier from another Greek pioneer, Melbourne's (and the world's) Kostas D. Metaxas.
Kostas is the founder of Metaxas Audio Systems, acclaimed for its highly original (both visually and electronically) amplifier designs and for the meticulous construction quality and finish of its products.
The Ikarus is an unusual beast to find in such an audiophile habitat--a 40 watt integrated amplifier (not a pre/power combo) with an optional in-built phono stage (not an outboard module) and with facilities for connecting, not only a CD player, tape recorder (monitor and record) and FM tuner, but also a stereo VCR. (Needless to say, the tape machine can be analogue or digital).
In true Metaxas tradition, the Ikarus is a thing of beauty and a joy forever-- even before you switch it one. The top panel is a flawless sheet of mirror-finish anti-magnetic non-resonant stainless steel that is pierced by oblong vents near its left-hand edge. These top vents surmount identical bottom panel vents so that air convection currents operate optimally to cool the beast within.
The fascia is a 3mm thick black mild-steel plate with brand, model, serial number and the calibrations of its six front panel controls engraved in white. Knobs and switches are in chrome steel and there is a single red power-on LED above the power switch. Controls comprise a 40-step rotary volume control (marked from 1 to 10) a detected channel balance control mute and record/monitor toggle switches and a rotary input selector.
All controls are solidly seated with a firm and positive action with the exception of the input selector which uses a mechanically relay and which, at least on my particular sample, felt a fraction loose.
The mirror-chrome back panel rivals the fascia in splendour with its six pairs of gold-plated Tiffany RCA sockets (only five pairs if you buy the Ikarus without a phono stage), two pairs of heavy-duty speaker terminals (for individual bananas, spades and bare wires but, unfortunately not Pomona double-bananas), bule-buttoned phono ground terminal and IEC-standard power socket for the supplied, detachable, Australian-made Burton power cord.
Were this beauty only skin-deep, you'd be looking at a $500 price tag and not nearly two grand. But Kostas knows better than most that although a pretty face will open many doors, it takes the inner beauty of finest selected components to keep a Metaxas customer happy.
The Ikarus design was broadly modelled on the power amplifier circuit of the ultra-linear MAS Iraklis power amplifier, with an added 10dB of overall gain ( and only 6dB of negative feedback) that lets it accept a line-level signal. According to Metaxas the input stage incorporates an ultra-low noise push-pull, complementary differential pair which is absolutely stable into difficult speaker loads. This is one of the areas where audiophiles are prepared to part with large sums, even for relatively low power output - to drive their favourite and often vanishingly low-impedance speakers.
The NEC driver and output transistors have been chosen for their high-speed power handwidth out to 5MHz, without the need for any slowing "lag compensation". An Italian hermetically sealed, gold-over coin-silver rotary switch and top-quality Alps volume potentiometer are the only signal path elements between the incoming signal and the amplification stage. An Alps +-6dB balance 'pot' operates in a feedback loop for minimal degradation of the source signal.
The Ikarus layout is pure dual mono; power supplies incorporate individual high-speed diodes and nearly 40,000mF of filtering. Only the 150 watt toroidal transformer is shared by both channels.
If you are not running a turntable, the Ikarus is ready to go and will come up to critical listening performance standards after a burn-in period of about 24 hours. (If you are using a moving-magnet, low output moving-coil, induced-magnet or electret phono cartridge, you'll need to option-in the phono stage (an additional $275) and then set about custom-tailoring the Ikarus' input impedance and capacitance for your particular cartridge. Factory-set phono mode suits the average MC cartridge (it' s actually optimised for Clearaudio MC cartridges) but with the Ikarus' mirror-top removed, eight micro-switches are revealed. Seven of these allow adjustment between 47 kohms and 100 ohms and the eighth is a 270 picofarad setting for r.f. capacitance loading. The switch setting permutations give a total of more than 60 impedance values to match precisely any moving coil cartridge).
In my listening sessions the Ikarus amazed me with what 40 watts can sound like. I hitched up to some efficient two-way studio monitors they reproduced solid mid-bass with a strong impression of deep lower bass. With larger two-, three and four-ways, this promise turned into tight, solid, satisfying bass. Mids were neutral and transparent and the highs were shimmering and detailed with neither harshness nor a hard gloss. The sound is astonishingly finely-etched, even at very low volume levels. The phono stage proved the equal of all the cartridges (MC and MM) I could lay my hands on (though there's a definite bias towards moving-coil cartridges).
Compact discs often revealed their own faults rather than showing up the Ikarus, which simply made me curious to hear the version of the Ikarus which comes with its own built-in DAC.
Just a small cautionary note; the Ikarus runs mostly Class-A (though it's technically a Class-A/B design) and starts to generate considerable heat as soon as it is switched on. So don't cover that beautiful, mirrored roof (as if you would) or stack the Ikarus on top of other heat-generating components.
For sheer beauty (sonic and visual) uncharacteristically good connection flexibility and the ability to drive difficult audiophile speakers, the MAS Ikarus is the best 40-watter around.