SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published August 1, 2002


Niro 1000 Integrated Engine

Gosh, the Internet's a strange place. No matter how perverted, sleazy, and morally corrupt your interests are, you can find some non-judgmental corner of the Web where you can commune freely with people with similar interests. On the other hand, say something relatively innocuous -- that you can hear the differences between two amplifiers, for example -- and people will fall over themselves in the rush to vilify you.

I know.

Boy, do I know.

So I'd have to be crazy to claim that I've seldom auditioned any component that offered me more unadulterated musical pleasure than Niro's $6990 Integrated Engine. But it's true.

Mad you say? Bwah hah hah hah!

Audiophiles will scoff because it's a mere $7k -- and an integrated amp to boot. Non-audiophiles will scream what do you mean "mere"? And the measurements-über-alles crowd will jump all over me for using vague terms like "pleasure." (I'm not sure which they consider more egregious -- that they don't know what "pleasure" means or that they don't know how to measure it.)

So go ahead -- call me crazy. But that's the way I see it.

Every one is more or less mad on one point

I reviewed the Niro 100 Control Engine and Power Engine in December 2001 and the company history and philosophy are outlined there, but you can also refer to the company's own website, of course:

The Integrated Engine shares most of the same design philosophy as those separates. It's built on a grand scale and seemingly every electro-mechanical detail has been closely scrutinized. However, unlike the separates, the Integrated Engine offers balanced audio inputs and outputs as well as remote control.

The Integrated Engine is huge -- wider, deeper, and taller than most stereo components (and, at over 74 pounds, it’s heavier than most, too). It looks like an architectural folly -- it has some of the same futuristic Victorian style that made Brazil so visually compelling. No component I have ever reviewed has drawn as much astonished commentary from audiophile and non-audiophile alike as the Integrated Engine has. One friend described it as resembling a steam-driven Rolodex, everybody who dropped by had something to say.

The amplifier houses most of its circuitry in an 18"W by 20"D chassis with a sloping faceplate dominated by a huge volume control. Also present on the amp's faceplate are a sizeable power switch, an IR receiver, and four touch-activated source-selecting buttons. Rising above the chassis to a height of 15", like a peacock's spread fan, are a pair of arc-shaped banks of heatsinking.

The amp's rear panel is mirror-imaged with the left channel's inputs and outputs on the opposite side of the right's. Balanced and SE inputs and monitor inputs and outputs are arrayed at either end of the rear panel. In the center is an IEC socket and arrayed in a semicircle above it are four WBT speaker terminals.

The Niro Integrated Engine is rated at 80Wpc and the company claims it delivers up to 30W as class-A power, a claim I can easily believe considering how much current it draws and how hot those heatsinks get. Concerning that current-draw, by the way, don't even think about connecting the Integrated Engine to a power conditioner. I popped two MOVs on my API Power Wedge Ultra 116 before I wised up and bypassed it, going straight into a PS Audio Ultimate Outlet, which performed as advertised.

I used my reference CD player, Musical Fidelity's Nu-Vista 3D, as a source and drove several different pairs of speakers, ranging from the Dynaudio Evidence Temptations (now sadly departed, sniff) to the Polk LSi15s and the Thiel CS1.6es. I wired everything with Shunyata Research products: Aries interconnect, Pythagoras speaker cable, and Anaconda vX power cords.

Poets do not go mad; but chess players do.

Let's talk housekeeping for a second. The Niro Integrated Engine won't fit on any audio rack you currently own. My modular Selway Rack comes close -- actually, the Niro would fit on the largest of the three platforms, if I moved the rack out from under the shelf that overhangs it, but that would put the Niro 36" high, which would work okay, but looks funny. The amp fits on the middle shelf as long as I don't try to place it inside the tall shelf (the "rack" consists of three discrete units that nest inside one another to create the illusion of a three-shelf single unit), but overhangs slightly front and back. If I were keeping the unit (and I want to), I'd order one of John Boos & Co.'s 4"-thick, 24"-by-25", end-grain hard-rock maple kitchen island tops and replace the slightly small platform currently on the Selway. (Sure, at 64 pounds and a list price slightly over $300, it's over the top, but the Niro is so strikingly handsome that it's easy to get carried away by details like this -- besides, the Integrated Engine's too darn big to hide, so you might as well turn it into theater!)

And take heed of my warning about heat. The Niro throws off serious BTUs -- it seems to be the equivalent of a fairly big tube power amp in this regard. New Yorkers without AC would be unable to sit in the same room with it during the summer months. If you live within the Beltway, fuhgeddaboudit from June to September. You'll definitely know how much you love audio when you get your electric bill: The Niro makes those wheels inside the meter spin like tops.

Other than that, I can't really pick any nits concerning the Integrated Engine, except that you might want to lay in a large supply of melatonin if you buy one. Otherwise, the Niro just might keep you in such a state of sustained musical excitement you may never feel like going to sleep.

The Integrated Engine took care of all the usual audio stuff superbly. It drove speakers to any volume I could tolerate and its control functions are all simple and reliable. (Actually, I did think of a nit to pick: the volume control makes it hard to set loudness levels consistently and reliably. To standardize output levels for auditions on different days, I had to measure the output at the binding posts -- not that this would ever come up in anything other than a review context.)

The unit had a relaxed, burnished midrange that rested upon a rock-solid, imperturbable bass bedrock, and its sweet high-frequency overtones seemed to climb straight to heaven without missing a step or turning the slightest bit sour. Tonally, its performance was as natural as any audio component I've ever heard.

The integrated amp, much like the Niro separates, is billed as mechanically and electrically quiet. Certainly, it's about as silkily, flatly quiet as anything I've ever heard. More tellingly, it presented a deep, vast, detailed soundstage that seemed to extend from my room to the horizon. As far as soundstaging is concerned, it trumped just about any amplification device I've ever heard this side of the Conrad-Johnson ART. And, as much as I love the ART, the Niro's silence was even blacker and deader.

Though they go mad they shall be sane

But come on, let's be honest here, soundstaging is just a detail. Oh, it's an extremely nice detail, and it goes a long way toward making stereo music reproduction more believable as music, but we don't have to have it to experience musical involvement. We don't get it at all with monaural recordings, and I'd rather hear the 1936 Toscanini/NYP recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony than just about anything recorded in stereo (pace Erich Kleiber).

As good as modern high-fidelity reproduction is, there still remains a tremendous gulf between recorded music and the real thing live. Well, d'uh, I hear you saying.

I had an experience last week that reinforced just how wide the gap still is. I was having a pre-prandial libation with a friend at a swank mid-town eatery's downstairs lounge. At 7 p.m., in the martini-bar upstairs, the evening's entertainment began -- a pianist playing a piano amplified through a hideous-sounding PA. Let me recap: We were seated in a noisy bar and someone began playing a piano on a different floor, out of sight, and reproduced through a crappy sound-reinforcement system -- and, after three notes, my companion said, "That's live."

Here’s the kicker: Even though it actually sounded worse than the sound systems most bars use for recorded music, we enjoyed it more than we would have enjoyed, say, a Bill Evans record -- and trust me, this pianist was no Bill Evans. So, if it wasn't the sound quality and it wasn't the performance quality, what musical quality was it that we were responding to?

Surely you don't think I have the answer to that, do you? 'Cause I don't. But I think the Niro Integrated Engine gets some small part of that quality right. Not all of it, by any means, but a smidge.

But the thing is, very few audio components have any of it, and the difference between none and some is amazing.

Yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes

You'd think, given that I do this for a living, that I'd get a little jaded -- and maybe I do, a bit. I hardly ever see truly bad audio products any more. Even speakers, even cheap speakers have gotten pretty good. A colored or seriously flawed product has become the exception, not the rule. One expects a certain level of quality from the contemporary audio product.

But the special ones still stand out. My pulse races when I hear a good band rock out -- like when the 1936 incarnation of the New York Philharmonic sunk its teeth into the cosmic square dance of the Seventh Symphony's allegro con brio and galloped thunderously home with it [Grammophono 2000 78791 CD].

My spirit soared along with Lowell George's ascending slide riffs in the live "Fat Man in the Bathtub" on Hotcakes & Outtakes [Warner Archives R2 79912]. More than that, I had a heaping helping of that "live voices in other rooms" sensation from the concert hall ambience and the band's on-stage energy.

As I began my final auditions of the Integrated Engine, my wife left town for some much-needed R&R on San Diego's beaches. Left to my own devices, I didn't descend into bachelor-fantasy debauchery at all. Instead, pretty much deprived of all human contact, I spent entire days in an audio haze playing records I'd forgotten I loved, pursuing obscure song segues deep into my music collection -- gee, when was the last time I heard my Jona Lewie EP? I'd forget to shop, forget to eat -- at least until after all the delis closed. I lived on coffee, seltzer, and granola for days on end.

And music.

Glorious, light-filled, energy-restoring, intoxicating, satori-inducing music. And, exactly like the real, 100% unadulterated live stuff, I could never seem to get enough. The Niro 1000 Integrated Engine made me want to listen to music. Music heard through it fulfilled me, but never sated my desire for more.

We are all born mad. Some remain so.

niro_integrated_rear.jpg (30320 bytes)No, you can't measure that, but that doesn't mean that musical satisfaction doesn't exist. It might not mean much to you, but it means the world to me -- and the Niro is one of the favored few audio products I've heard that has it.

If you're a practical person, there's probably no way I can convince you that the Niro Integrated Engine makes sense. It's huge. It's heavy. It's inefficient. It gobbles electric power so vigorously, you can almost hear the mad whirrrrr of the electric meter hidden down in the basement. It will heat an unventilated room like a sauna. And you can buy a perfectly respectable 100Wpc integrated amplifier for less than $1000.

But, to paraphrase Auden's defense of opera, people do not make music when they are being practical. The Niro Integrated Engine is an extravagant product -- a practical man didn’t design it, a man obsessed by the details designed it. And, while any well-designed and constructed amplifier can reproduce pre-recorded music, the Niro -- on some level I cannot explain with the practical side of my brain -- exalts it.

No, there are lots of integrated amps out there if you are practical -- but if you're besotted, obsessed, consumed, overwhelmed, and swept asunder by music, well, brother, have I got an amp for you.

Now, as for me, my wife gets back in five days. If I drink lots of coffee and employ the old catheter-into-the-flower-pot stratagem, I can spend at least 100 hours listening to the Niro before she gets back and still have over ninety minutes to clean up.

...Wes Phillips

Niro Integrated Engine
Price: $6990 USD
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Nirotek America Corporation
P.O. Box 6065
Ventura, CA USA 93006
Phone: (805) 644-9226
Fax (805) 644-0861


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