Roy Grégory

Maximal Minimal… The Neodio TMA Integrated Amplifier

By Roy Gregory.

There is a popular adage in audio that the best sub-woofer is the one you don’t notice – until you turn it off. Yes, I know that it’s an amplifier – not a sub-woofer – but in a weird yet very real way, that’s exactly how I feel about Neodio’s TMA integrated.

When it comes to producing products that challenge convention, Neodio has a rap-sheet as long as the company’s history. Based in Bordeaux in the South West of France, it has produced a string of interesting, often exceptional but always intensely musical products. Perhaps the most obvious example was the Origine CD Player. Just when the audio world had seized on the appeal of high-res recording and file replay, seeing the future in terms of hard discs linked to complex, multi-chassis digital solutions – Neodio launched an expensive, one-box CD player. Distributors and journalists scratched their heads and tutt-ed at this commercially obtuse decision – while missing the rather more significant points that: not only was this the finest sounding (and certainly most musically communicative) digital source then extant, it was one of the prettiest and most stylish too. Actually, let’s make that ever. In fact, in my experience, the Origine CD player quietly maintained its ascendency over all but the (vastly more expensive) Wadax products until really quite recently, when a lack of transport mechanisms finally killed the design.

Then there’s the astonishing B2, a product the size and shape of a hockey puck that is part footer, part coupler, part damper part something else altogether. Yes it works under equipment, but it works on top too. It works under power strips and speaker cables. It works on the floor around speakers, on shelves, on windowsills… It defies categorization – or understanding – but it definitely works and, in some cases, spectacularly so. Stéphane Even of Neodio brought that same innovative flair to cables and other, more eclectic products: an adjustable internal bracing bar to upgrade existing speaker cabinets, anyone? No part of the system or its circumstances were off-limits, with a series of radical and occasionally brilliant solutions the result. M. Even is far from noisy, but when he speaks about matters audio, he’s one those to whom you should listen.

Currently, the company produces only one item of electronics, the TMA amplifier (soon to be joined by a matching and similarly priced DAC). In due course, expect to see a set of separates, based on the same ultra-minimalist and eco-aware philosophy. But for now, the TMA is it. The initials stand for The Minimalist Amplifier and the man isn’t kidding. For your €4,600 you get four line inputs, a volume control and two pairs of 4mm sockets for the speaker outlets – and NOTHING else. No remote, no internal DAC, no wireless connectivity or streaming capability, no alphanumeric display or user tuneable facilities of any kind. You get to select a source, set the level: And. That. Is. It.

Sometimes less really is more…

Fortunately – and far from surprisingly – there’s a lot more here than meets the eye. Starting with the general philosophy. In a world where each and every electronic box, phone, watch or gadget seems to do more and more (most of it irrelevant, unnecessary and detrimental to performance) a return to a more minimalist focus on core-functionality is a natural step. In audio terms, the separation of (or distinction between) digital and analogue circuitry brings obvious advantages, benefits that are too often conveniently ignored in pursuit of, well, yes – convenience. Creating a dedicated, analogue amplifier, shorn of the apparently obligatory digital inputs and circuitry, is a fairly obvious step. But the TMA goes a lot further than that.

In what Neodio dubs the Blue Program, it has committed to creating a more sustainable company and product line: carbon footprint is reduced by using locally located sub-contractors; circuits are designed and components are selected on the basis of long-term availability in order to maintain serviceability and a long working life; products come with a 10-year guarantee for original owners, three years for subsequent buyers; products are designed to be upgradable over time as circuits evolve; manufacturing techniques and finishes are chosen for proven longevity and minimal ecological impact; plastic has been entirely eliminated from the packaging. It’s a little like designing a car in this day and age that the owner can actually work on, with parts readily available off the shelf and no electronic management or diagnostics required. It also recognises a simple social pressure: people, especially young people, have less money and less space to devote to hi-fi. If we want them to engage, we’d better make it affordable, practical – and we’d better make sure it delivers. The TMA ticks all those boxes. But what is really shocking is just how distinct that makes it from the rest of the market.

Once upon a time, this sort of hair-shirt amplifier was the bread-and-butter of ambitious but affordable audio systems. These days they’re almost unheard of. But back in the day they were successful for a reason – and it’s a reason we seem to have lost sight of. It can be summed up as “more music for less money” – which is a world away from more facilities/options/stuff for less money. It firmly puts performance first on the basis that performance is all you get. In the case of the TMA you also get a very simple but attractive box, but this amplifier really is about and only about the music.

Inside the TMA, you’ll find more, thoughtfully executed aspects to the design. A 300VA transformer and 44,000uF of reservoir capacitance is plenty for a 2x80W output, without being overkill. The output stage, built around high-current MOS devices has its own, shunt-regulated supply. The amplifier is built on a single, large PCB, with the well-spaced dual-mono circuit specifically designed to aid clarity and ease future servicing – even if the technician doesn’t have a schematic. Cables from the output stage to the speaker terminals use Neodio’s cotton insulated Fractal 8 and the low-mass connectors are mounted on a PMMA rear panel, to help damp the all-welded chassis, and decouple the sockets, both electrically and mechanically. The amp stands on three Delrin feet and, like everything else to do with this product they have carefully auditioned for maximum sonic and musical goodness. Pick up the TMA and, at 14kg/31lbs you’ll notice that it’s reasonably but not overly heavy. You’ll also notice that the lid can ‘clank’ – but like the feet that has been listened to and critically damped for maximum musicality. Kill it completely and you kill the sound too.

Other than that there’s little to say about the TMA save for one word of warning. The inputs are not numbered, front or back. Instead, they are identified using a simple graphic. Just be aware that the graphic is a mirror image of the front-panel – meaning that the extreme right input indicated on the amp’s rear corresponds to the extreme left position on the input switch. Likewise, the ‘red’ speaker sockets are in the upper position, the right channel inputs are the lower sockets in the RCA pairs.

Stéphane Even was bullish about the driving capability of the TMA. Despite its modest rated output he is clear that it should handle some surprising speaker loads. In part that is down to the use of quite high levels of global feedback, an approach that certainly delivers low-frequency control. Unfortunately it also gets a bad press as it often produces an over-damped and sat-on sound. Except that that isn’t how the TMA (or any other Neodio product) sounds at all. Listening to the unit I was astonished to hear that it’s a high-feedback design, but then, as M. Even was quick to point out, it’s not the feedback that’s the problem, but the way it is generally implemented. He spent three-years working on the TMA circuit to combine the amp’s easy musicality with the drive and control that comes from the careful application of GFB. In this case, the results speak for themselves.

The first speaker I hooked up to the Neodio was the Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Concert Grand, chosen for its modest efficiency, considerable bandwidth and a bottom-end that needs an iron fist in a velvet glove approach to maximising the benefits without suffering the consequences. I was expecting a stern test of the TMA’s capabilities, but in practice it barely even noticed the challenge – and I barely noticed the amplifier, so effortlessly did it slot into place.

Natural born amplifier…

The word I want to use to describe the TMA’s sound is “natural” – but it is a word that is so over-used and clichéd when it comes to audio commentary as to be almost meaningless. Yet that is exactly how this amplifier sounds: exactly how it makes a system sound. So perhaps I should endeavour to explain what that word means – at least in this context. Look it up in a dictionary and you’ll find a range of meanings, from “usual” to “unaffected”, synonyms from “normal” to “accepted” and “expected”. All of them describe the sound of the TMA, suggesting a quality that is as rare as it is valuable. Plug the TMA into a system and suddenly, the music sounds exactly the way you expect it to. It sounds almost naively simple, but that really is the case. It’s open, relaxed, it has presence and a sense of tempo (fast or slow), tonal colour, energy and expressive intent.

How does the TMA succeed in delivering what so few of its price peers (or even products at many times its price) seldom do? It’s all about balance and perspective, scale and above all, proportion. The Neodio manages to maintain a sense of balance between the elements in the sonic landscape, between the weight and energy at the top, through the mids and deep into the bass. It has a stability, dimensionality and steady point of view that anchor the performers and their performance in space. It manages to sound realistically present and scaled, so that the elements on the soundstage appear at the right distance and fit together. But by keeping everything in proportion, in terms of instrumental scale, relative energy, dynamic shifts and density, it stops the music getting bent out of shape. It preserves the original relationships (dynamic, spatial and temporal) between all the different elements – whether that’s between a singer’s voice and the guitar in their lap, or a full orchestra going through the gears. And because of all that, what you hear is presented with the shape and proportions you expect.

Don’t all amplifiers do that? Not even close. A bit of extra energy here, a non-linearity there and all of a sudden your sonic picture is growing lumps, bumps and carbuncles – hesitations in the rhythm or phrasing, notes that last to long, get too loud or not loud enough: aberrations your ear and brain spend time and effort on deciphering. That’s the same ear and brain that are designed to reconstruct or recognize the three-dimensional sonic landscape around you.

It’s not hard to find examples, not of what so often goes wrong, but what happens (as with the TMA) when it goes right. Anastasia Kobekina is a recent discovery. Her album Ellipses (Mirare MIR604) captures the young cellist playing 11 miniatures with a total running time of just over 50 minutes. Solo pieces and duets (with piano, clavecin, guitar or percussion) they perfectly suit the energy, vitality and attack in her playing. Yet a track like the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 is a study in poised restraint, the cello in intimate conversation with the guitar. The TMA effortlessly maintains the relative scale of the two instruments, their placement, the proportions of the soundstage. There’s no missing the fact that the guitar is held horizontally and the larger volume of the cello vertically. The sheer stability of the picture allows you to simply accept the size, position and spatial relationship between the instruments, leaving you free to concentrate instead on their musical interplay, the evocative contrast between the length of the cello’s bowed phrases and the attack of the guitar’s picked lines. The unimpeded clarity of the musical conversation is as subtle as it is beautiful, but what is less immediately obvious is that it’s the timing and placement of the notes, their natural sense of length and decay that’s holding the whole thing together, that give it the natural sense of shape and pattern that makes it so easy to revel in the music and the playing.

Switch up to the final track, Gallardo (written for her by the cellist’s father) and the impulsive dance rhythm and dynamic graduation that propel the music, the chopped action of bow on string and the percussive notes of the tambourine are perfectly mapped and traced by the TMA. The skittering cascades that close out the track have a glorious feeling of controlled abandon. A telling example of the amplifier’s control over time and amplitude, just as its grip of structure and pattern allow it to navigate the angular, deconstructed, avant-garde shapes of Thierry Escaich’s La Folia, anchoring them to the underlying sense of that propulsive pace and rhythm.

Of course, such small-scale forces and simple recordings should be easy meat for a small, straight-line, minimalist amplifier like the TMA. Even so, the results arte impressively musical and engaging, the natural balance and perspective the amplifier brings to the presentation really allowing the music to breathe, a quality that’s obvious on such intimate pieces. But what about larger scale and more complex pieces? Dynamically and structurally, music doesn’t come much more demanding than the Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Ms. Kobekina again, this time with the Berner Symphonieorchester and Kevin John Edusei (Claves Records 50-1901). From the jaunty opening bars, the performance and recording establish the relationship between soloist and orchestra, with the cello clearly setting the pace and prompting the orchestral contributions. The tonality, so reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony, is spot on – even down to the explosive detonations of the bass drum. The TMA keeps everything in its place and perfectly balanced. As the performance crosses into the Second Movement, it conjures the solo part, growing it perfectly from the orchestral string opening, re-establishing the primacy of the solo cello. The Cadenza is a natural highlight, but what really impresses is the way the transition into the final movement is driven by the soloist, right up to the shockingly abrupt close.

t’s not a work that’s short of recordings and pretty much every cellist with a recording contract has attacked it at one time or another – not least because of the virtuoso performance it demands from the soloist. But what sets this performance apart – and what is so clearly revealed by the TMA – is the sense of the work as a whole, the balance of solo part and orchestration, the central core of musical purpose. Kobekina’s reading has quickly become a favourite, not least because of the clarity with which the TMA (the first amplifier I played it through) captured and presented its holistic integrity and innate musical balance. I love the way in which the little Neodio preserves both the body of the cello and the attack and energy in the playing. Normally, amps at this price level struggle to do both, generally settling for one or the other. Playing the disc on the main system clearly reveals greater focus, dimensionality and resolution, more texture and harmonic development, richer colours and a broader palette. If you want lush rounded colours and sumptuous warmth you can sink into, that isn’t what the TMA delivers. Instead it offers the bones and body of the performance, rather than the clothes hanging from the frame. And just like clothes, remove that frame and they fall in a shapeless heap – just like music played through warm and woolly amps devoid of temporal and dynamic authority. It’s the shape and sense of the music that the TMA makes recognisable: and not just recognisable, but instantly so.

That’s what I mean when I refer to the amp’s presentation as ‘natural’. It has the stable perspective, the inherent balance of energy, freedom of pace, the expected scale and perspective I associate with live performances; foundation stones that make the performance being presented more convincing and more accessible. Everything falls into place – in both spatial and temporal terms. You stop worrying about what’s there and instead you relax, you start appreciating and enjoying what’s happening. And don’t underestimate the importance of stability in the picture as a whole. It’s what allows the clear definition of relative position and amplitude. It makes the whole picture and pattern of the music both more intelligible and more easily recognised.

As well as the Vienna Acoustics speakers, I ran the TMA with the more efficient Living Voice R25s (a speaker more in line with the Neodio musical philosophy) and the Raidho DT-1.2 stand-mounts – a match for size/domestic impact, if not price. In each case, the TMA rose willingly to the challenge, mating seamlessly with the load presented and bringing the best out of each speaker: colour, scale and dimensionality from the Vienna, crisp energy and vitality from the R25 and spatial and dynamic resolution from the Raidho. The TMA does seem to be both capable and a genuine all-rounder. At 80 W/Ch, you might want to watch out for really efficient speakers (the volume control really needs to advance past 9:00 o’clock to avoid dynamic compression) but even the r25’s were running around the 10:30 point…

The other aspect of system matching for any amplifier is of cours, cable. Neodio also offer a full range of power and signal cables and the amp arrived with a pair of Origine 150 interconnects (€800 for a 1m pair) and the new Fractal 16 speaker cables (€1,500 for a 3m pair), which puts them right in the ballpark for a system built around a €5K amplifier: or makes them a bargain if you are exploiting the TMA’s ability to play with far pricier partners. Unsurprisingly, given Neodio’s holistic approach to systems in general, these delivered some seriously synergistic results, easily exceeding the musical performance of the (rather more affordable) Chord Epics I’d otherwise been using. The affect of the cables was to take the choke off of the system, allowing the amp to stretch its dynamic muscles and breathe considerably more easier, thus building further on its established strengths. It’s not that the TMA didn’t work with the Chord cables. Indeed, it was an impressive combination. It just worked even better with its own wires, to the extent that I’d be inclined to include them in the budget if at all possible.

The challenge with any product like the TMA that punches well above its weight – and especially if it does so in ways that escape nearly all its price peers – is the question of what exactly you equate or compare it to. My resident ‘reach for’ one-box solution is the Levinson 585 integrated. It’s significantly bigger than the TMA, much heavier, more versatile and incorporates a DAC. It’s also more expensive, so not really an equivalent, mechanically or conceptually. But, played along side the Neodio, the TMA makes it sound overweight, muscle-bound, sluggish and smudged. And let’s bear in mind that the 585 is here for a reason. Along with the Gryphon Diablo 120, it is the best all-round performer I’ve used, which coupled with its versatility and ability to drive pretty much anything makes it an invaluable and generally speaking, musically satisfying tool. The TMA leaves it exposed as clumsy and inarticulate, something the 585 normally does to other, more expensive integrated amps.

Acting up…

When it comes to musical structure and shape, the TMA is such an exceptional performer that it demands comparison to far more expensive equipment like the TEAD Vibe and Linear B mono amps, or the CH Precision L1/A1.5, pre-power combinations that share that lucid sense of time and space and place that allows us to hear the way in which the music is put together. In one sense, such comparisons are ludicrous, given the cost differential. But in another, they do serve to highlight not just what the TMA is capable of, but also where it falls short.

One casualty of the TMA’s sense of spatial and temporal integration and overall musical coherence is a lack of immediacy to go with its considerable instrumental and vocal presence. Combine that with a muted colour palette (at least when compared with the very best available) and you have the basis for its characteristic musical presentation. The Neodio is anything but forward. Whilst its presence, dynamic scaling and musical energy are anything but mid-hall, the coherent acoustic does sit back behind the plane of the speakers. Maybe mid-hall (but a very, very good hall) is the way to think about it. Listen to familiar voices and their scale, presence and dimensionality are impressive, their connection with the instrumental backing secure and articulate, making phrasing more obvious and the musical accents and emphasis applied by the musicians more effective. Throw in the natural sense of pace, the way the music breathes and you have all the ingredients for an engaging and powerful performance. The wistful ‘Separated’ (from Eliza Gilkyson’s Land Of Milk And Honey – Red House Records RHR CD174) is a perfect example. The gentle pulse of the rhythm section is effortlessly locked to the ebb and flow of Gilkyson’s deeply felt vocal, letting it soar without losing the grounded emptiness that underpins the track. The result is unquestionably beautiful – and affecting – even if it’s missing the intimate harmonics and inflexions that make the identity of the singer so unmistakable. It’s still Eliza Gilkyson, with all her lyrical brilliance and emotional power – but it’s not like having her voice here, in the room.

You’ll hear the same musical integrity but subtle distance or absence of individual character on Red House stable-mate Lucy Kaplansky’s equally impressive album The Red Thread (RHR CD166) and on other vocalists where I know their voices from both conversation and performance. Ultimately, it comes down to a lack of the lowest level resolution. You hear it in the missing vocal inflexions. You hear it in the lack of harmonic texture on strings. But that is judging by the highest standards, a judgment invited by the TMA’s astonishing sense of musical organisation and integrity – categories in which it challenges far, far more expensive products.

Rather than ‘reach out and touch’ intimacy, the Neodio delivers musical and sonic substance. You’ll never be left wondering whether this is a great piece or why the person wrote it. If communication is the goal, then the TMA is right on target. There are amps at this price or a little more that sound ‘nicer’ on first listen; that have a warmer balance and richer colours, a more immediate and immediately impressive sound. But what none of those products possess is the easy, natural, communicative presentation that makes the Neodio so listenable, both in the short and the long-term. As I pointed out earlier (but it’s worth repeating), that natural sense of shape and structure equates to the bones and the flesh that covers them. Then over that you get the colourful and stylish clothes that people wear. The problem comes if you invest in those clothes at the expense of the frame to hang them on. At best they don’t fit properly, at worst they fall in a shapeless heap on the floor. It’s an interesting image, given the number of musically incoherent systems I’ve come across over the years…

In some ways, the TMA is the ultimate PRAT amplifier. When Linn and Naim first coined the acronym (Pace, Rhythm And Timing) to summarise the key elements in musical reproduction it was in the face of a dominant philosophy that fastened on frequency response and measurable distortion. It was a back to basics approach that called for a complete re-boot. It also went hand-in-hand with a Front-End First philosophy that emphasised the importance of the source signal. Along the way, the speakers became something of an afterthought (which in the case of some of those early Linn speakers was probably no bad thing). The Neodio builds on and re-shapes that approach, keeping the core truth but adopting a more even-handed approach to its system partners.

The TMA excels when it comes to exposing the musical skeleton, with that unusually stable picture and exceptional musical and rhythmic integrity. The structural connection between the different parts in a performance, be those vocal or instrumental, is explicit. Each separate part of the performance is combined into and contributes to the whole.

It wraps that skeleton in the flesh and fibre of the performance, the musical energy and the dynamics it generates. The Neodio tracks dynamic range with unimpeded gusto and a seemingly unburstable enthusiasm. Push it really hard and the sound starts to congeal and ultimately harden, but by that stage it will almost certainly be uncomfortably loud! What the TMA adds to the PRAT party is the ability to drive real-world loudspeakers, something that was confined to more expensive amps in the original philosophy. By delivering not just load tolerance but a serious measure of low-frequency control, the TMA is unexpectedly comfortable – indeed, it’s at its considerable best – driving full-bandwidth loudspeakers. The challenging and revealing Vienna Acoustics are a case in point, but it’s a point that was underlined during a brief outing with the Sasha DAWs: room rattling output levels may have been compromised, but the engaging musical integrity was never in question.

Right thinking…

What the TMA does is preserve the spatial and temporal relationships that are at the core of any musical performance. It does it with an effortless clarity that allows it to really anchor the system. Because it doesn’t tailor or bend things out of shape, it is inherently unobtrusive, musically and functionally invisible. You simply don’t notice it doing what it does. With that secure footing established, you can then shape the system through the choice of partnering equipment. Pair the Neodio with an affordable but engaging CD player (or better still, a basic record player and phono-stage) along with a small pair of two-way speakers and you’ve got a classic starter system with exceptional musical potential. Elevate the quality of the front-end, extend the quality and bandwidth of the speakers and the system will grow, built on that stable musical foundation delivered by the amp. In the same way that the amp stands behind the music, it allows the system as a whole to do the same. I spent a lot of time running the TMA sandwiched between the Vienna speakers and the TEAD Groove, fed from a Kuzma Stabi M or VPI Avenger front-end, with seriously entertaining results. By getting the structural aspects of the performance so firmly established, the Neodio allowed the system to really exploit the musical potential of these extravagant partners.

It’s those core values (and the ability to deliver them) that set the TMA apart and make it such a rewarding and enjoyable listen. Its circuit topology, its whole philosophy, is in stark contrast to current thinking, but then its performance is in stark contrast to the competition too. Its ‘music and only the music’ approach is a breath of fresh air in a market congested with mediocre, all-singing, all-dancing but underperforming products. It’s a breath of fresh air for anybody who wonders whatever happened to the classic ‘starter system’. The TMA might cost a lot more than a NAD 3020 or a Rotel RA820BX once did, but it will take you way further too, both now and in the future. These days, ‘budget esoteric’ is a term applied to products that purport to do everything that flagship systems do, but in a compact, single-box device. Sadly, all too often the “do” is defined in terms of functionality rather than performance. The TMA stands that on its head. It goes back to its roots and back to what really matters. Listen and at first it might seem sonically unspectacular. But you’ll soon realise that it’s also (and because it’s) astonishingly natural and communicative. The best amps, the best systems ARE the ones you don’t actually notice. If it’s the sense and sensation of the music that matters, there are few better places to start than Neodio’s TMA.

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