CLONES AUDIO 25iRX INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER REVIEW

CLONES Audio 25iRX is a small integrated line-level amplifier from Taiwan that costs less than $2000. The amp’s predecessor was a firm favourite and a real bargain of an amplifier. Will the new amp impress in the same way?

A small and stylish amp about half the depth of a shoebox

Pretty much exactly eight years ago HiFi Pig reviewed the original power amps from Clones Audio, and the reviewer liked it a lot and I personally used the integrated as a reference for a long while. The integrated was shamelessly a gain-clone design that used relatively inexpensive parts because the owner FunJoe (Mat) reckoned they sounded better, and it cost the princely sum of $629 and came with a five-year warranty. I ended up having the amp at home for a good while thereafter and used it in systems that far outweighed its price, and to very good effect I must hasten to add. Indeed, it powered our €30K Avantgarde DUO XDs very nicely – in fact, it was an excellent match for the DUOs and I used it a lot on them in preference to many other far more costly amps. Stupidly I gave the amp away to someone who ‘needed’ an amp but who then promptly sold it. Had I not given it away I think I’d still be using it on the Avantgardes in place of the Hiraga Le Monstre. You live and learn!

I recall having Gilles who makes the Leedh brand of loudspeakers round to pick up a pair of his speakers we were reviewing and I asked him to allow me to show him a little amp that really shouldn’t drive his inefficient speakers at all. He was amazed by the Clones’ performance to the point he went away and designed an amp for his own use using similar principles and for his own personal use.

In short, the original 25i punched well above its weight and, to my mind anyway, was way under-priced – really, it was the HiFi bargain of the decade in my opinion.

Time moves on and Mat has moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan, his then newborn son we exchanged loads of emails about back then is eight years old, and he has a daughter too. I’ve followed his business with interest in the last few years and it’s been a joy to see it grow. I was chatting to my friend David Cope in the States who runs Old Forge Audio in Connecticut and he was enthusing about a new amp he was trying out with various set ups he had. We chatted and it turned out David was talking about the Clones 25iRX that we are talking about in this review. An email to Mat (I still find it hard not to call him FunJoe) and a few days later we had a unit at Hifi Pig Towers.

FIT, FINISH, AND FEATURES

The 25iRX is a completely new design of amplifier to the original 25i and I can’t for the life of me understand why Mat didn’t choose to change the name of it to something that differentiated it from the initial integrated because in my mind the comparison, particularly the price comparison, will always be there in the back of my mind.

The 25iRX is still an almost square box shape of diminutive proportions (190mm x 170mm x 130mm) but feels slightly bigger and more substantial than the 25i had – it’s 6kg in weight. It’s also still handmade to order, and still pretty minimalist in its aesthetic – which I really like. The front panel is black brushed aluminium and the finish really cannot be faulted in my book. The metal frame sits on a dark wood block (see pics) and there are three adjustable feet to level the amp.

On the front panel you have the little Clones’ logo, a volume knob which you press to change the three source inputs, and a small display that displays the volume…or input.

Around the back you have three RCA line inputs – channel one inputs are far right and far left which is a little different from the norm but pretty cool, I suppose. There are a pair of five-way speaker binding posts that are really nice quality and accept  – yep, they accept all the usual kinds of speaker connections including bare wires – and apart from the IEC power input and switch that’s it.

Along with the amp, and a departure from the original, you get a basic little remote that changes channel and volume and has a mute function. All this works very well and as you’d expect.

You get 30W into 8Ohms instead of the original’s 25W, which leads me back to the question “Why call it the 25iRX”?

The circuit of the amp is based on Clones’ AP2 preamp as buffer, though in a simplified form, and a LM3886 based power amp. One of the key differences that is immediately evident with this new amp is that the chassis is different, with Mat suggesting that the small cube shape has been used to control and reduce vibrations in the chassis. He also says that he considers every part of the design plays a part in the overall sound – and that goes down to the “screws, the size of the PCB, spacers, and cables…”. All soldering (silver) is done by hand. Most parts are now also from Taiwan including the toroidal, the binding posts, the AC input, and even the cable mounting block. All cables inside the 25iRX are from Japan.

Clones Audio integrated amp

Three inputs should be enough for simple set ups

SOUND

For this review I used the Clones amp with a LAB 12 DAC being fed by a Raspberry Pi with a linear PSU and running Roon. Speakers used were a pair of Falcon LS3/5as, Diptique dp77s, and Xavian Perlas – I also hooked the amp up to the DUOs for old times sake.

From the first proper listen of the amp (and with the Falcon LS3/5as in place) it was clear that this was a class act, much in the same way that the original 25i impressed from the very off. It’s replacing a big Krell in the system I chose to slot it into and so that’s a bit of a tough act to follow. However, it did very well in the main, and one of the first things I noticed was the very detailed image that was being cast before me. There isn’t the same amount of welly that you get with the Krell, nor the effortlessness of delivery, but at lower levels, it sounds very impressive indeed.

Stereo imaging is often the first thing that grabs attention with any bit of kit (it’s one of those things that I’ve always looked for when listening to music from when I first started to get into proper HiFi) and the little Clones has this down to a fine art. Stability is key to generating that image and the 25i seems to be controlling the speakers very well and allows a degree of separation of instruments and effects that is pretty impressive at any price. I’m given a full and wide soundstage that is deep and with everything present and correct, even at these low volumes.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young of late and the recently Young Shakespeare is one album I’ve really been enjoying -it feels as though you are with the audience, the recording is fab and there is an intimacy to the recording that really comes across when listening. The Clones amp allows all of this to come through, and what is particularly impressive is the purity of the recording being kept intact. At low volumes it’s almost like being sat looking up at the performance from a few rows back. The warmth of this recording just shines out and the fragility of young’s vocal is expressed really beautifully. There is a distinct absence of anything feeling brash or being pushed to the fore, and little details like him hitting the body of the guitar aren’t missed or glossed over by the amp. I very much enjoyed the combination of the Flacons and the Clones.

The LAB12 is a very organic sounding DAC and you “get” that with this amp in the chain – actually, I’d suggest that the two are a very good match in that they combine to give an effortless and totally natural feeling to the music you put through them. Of course, this is pretty simple music and I’m playing it at low levels, but the detail and ‘feel’ is there in buckets. Turning up the volume a tad and Cowgirl in the Sand is still delivered effortlessly and with the same level of detail being present. Look, this is just a bloke and his guitar, but I feel connected to the music to the point I feel almost part of the audience and can virtually smell the weed and patchouli hanging heavy in the air.

Switching out the Falcons for the Diptyques I thought that the 25i would really struggle  – these are pretty demanding loudspeakers and do like a bit of power up ‘em. However, despite having to turn the amp up a bit, I felt that same level of connection and the same feeling of being in the audience as at lower levels. To get the Diptyques up to a level I’m used to listening to, however, I had to push the amp a little and in crept a tad of upper-end distortion to the point I had to turn the amp back down again – clearly, these are not a good match for the Clones, which is no surprise really given that they are a demanding and power-hungry loudspeaker (hence the Krell being in the system) and the 25i is a pretty modestly specified amp. I give up on this partnership pretty smartish and put in the Xavian Perlas.

One small point here is that when you turn the amp on and off it goes virtually silent and you have to increase the volume to the level you were at previously – I found this a bit annoying until I got used to it.

Clones Audio Amp inside

Inside the amp is clean and uncluttered

This again is a very good partnership from the very get-go and I was able to crank up the volume to good and loud levels when listening to Cowgirl In the Sand…for about the tenth time on the trot. That purity of tone that was allowed to come through with the LS3/5as was still there, but I felt that this partnership of the Clones and a much less demanding loudspeaker really created the perfect storm. I’m not a huge believer in that whole synergy thing to be honest, but with amplifiers and loudspeakers it’s important to get things that work well together and these work very well together and so the rest of the review process was carried out with the Xavians in place.

Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (24/88) was presented with the solidity and weight that it deserves, and yet that level of detail the amp gives was maintained. Basslines bounced along with speed and underpinned the whole of the mix. The guitar chops were likewise speedy and on point. I pushed the volume pretty hard and the amp does indeed break up a little when pushed too hard, there I no doubt of that, but keeping the volume to sensible levels there’s very little to moan about and plenty to commend. In a bigger room this partnership would struggle to get to levels I enjoy but to be fair this room is probably around the size of a standard UK semi’s living room – I’d actually like to hear this amp with a pair of high-sensitivity full-range drivers as I think that would be a good match – and indeed for the brief spell I had the amp on the DUOS I had absolutely no complaints whatsoever. This may seem completely stupid, but the $2K Clones amp on a €30K pair of Avantgardes is a very commendable partnership and one that may allow folk thinking that they have to spend tens of thousands on an amp to partner these speakers pause for thought and to re-evaluate their options.

Back to the Perlas and on the new Dr Lonnie Smith (and Iggy) album Breathe the tone of the Hammond B3 is presented beautifully and the dynamics of the first track (Why Can’t We Live Together), particularly the drums, come across…errr…dynamically. This is a speedy little amp, for sure. There’s a really cool and typically jazzy guitar solo that is slightly muted in its playing and that is presented really well too. Small details shine through with this amplifier in place.

Clones Audio amp back 2

Single-ended RCAs only

Dylan’s Hurricane (192/24) is a real treat at a reasonable volume and there is that level of detail that really draws you into the recording and lets you forget about the actual performance of a system and get on with listening to the music. And I did listen to a lot of music through the Clones and Perla combo – from Bad Brains to Piano, and Violoncello classical music to Dagnasty. I think that is a part of what some folk don’t really get about a high level of audio, it’s not about over analysing a sound and questioning every nuance. No, when a system gets it right you are able to relax and forget about the system and that is something worth paying for and seeking out in my book. I got this with the Clones amp when appropriately paired with the right speakers and thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.

CONCLUSION

This is a very fine sounding amplifier, of that there can be no doubt, however, there is a large-eared, off-white Loxodonta in the room making trumpeting noises with its trunk regarding the price of it. I worked in sales for years and one thing when we were told when working out the price of a product was that it was easier to go down in price than it is to go up. The old price of the 25i was US$629, whereas the new unit (with the same name…pretty much) costs US$1979…and you still have to add import duties if they apply to your place of residency. By anyone’s standards, and whatever may have changed under the hood, that is a big perceived increase in eight years, and folk who remember the price of the original, as I did, may well take a step back at the US$1350 price hike – it’s more than three times the price of the original! And you get three years less warranty than with the original’s five years. With all that said, I think the original amp was way under-priced and the new amp has better casework, better components, and, of course, now has distributors and dealers in place, and these all things that will naturally increase the final market price of any product.

However, get beyond this moaning about comparing apples and pears (though in this particular grocer’s shop they seem to be called pretty much the same) and you will be rewarded with a gloriously clean, dynamic and entertaining amplifier that really excels on music that has been well recorded and well mastered.

Even-handed is a phrase I’d like to use with regards to the Clones amp, and whilst it is best with relatively simple tunes, it can rock out and rave a bit too. It has good control across the frequency range with good solid bass and well presented tops. However, it is detail through the all-important mid-band where the Clones amp shines and particularly at reasonable volumes.

Clarity and detail are the Clones amp’s main attributes, but you do need to pair it sympathetically. Get this pairing wrong and things can get a bit too much for it – as they did with the Diptyques – but get it right and you will be a very happy camper.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality:

This is a very nicely put together amplifier that looks so much better than its predecessor. You can see the level of detail that has gone into the build of it and it looks great. The wooden base is a nice touch. The speaker binding posts on the back are very good.

Sound Quality:

I’d describe this amp as an audiophile amplifier in that it excels in detail and clarity of the mid-band. However, the speed and dexterity of the bass is very good too. Overall it is and amplifier that really oozes quality and class when used within its limits. Push it just a little too far and it gets a bit upset! Personally, I think it could do with a bit of an increase in its output but that is something all prospective buyers will obviously (hopefully) take into account.

Value For Money:

I’m finding it very difficult to look at this amp and not see that it is called (pretty much) the same as an amp I had the pleasure of owning seven or eight years ago and yet it costs a LOT more. With that said, it is a sub $2000 amplifier (though import taxes will apply for many) and it performs accordingly. I wouldn’t say it was the bargain that its predecessor was, but it’s not daft expensive either. Actually, it still represents excellent value for money.

We Loved:

Fit and finish

Detail and clarity

Solidity of soundstage

Good bass performance that underpins the whole delivery

Excellent mid-band clarity and tone

Relatively neutral in character, though slightly warm through that mid-band

We Didn’t Love So Much:

Needs to be partnered sympathetically

Pushed too hard it becomes harsh to the point of being pretty much unlistenable

Not enough headroom for playing at volume through inefficient loudspeakers

No balanced input

That price hike

Price:

$1979 plus any import duties.

Elevator Pitch Review: A well put together and well thought out amplifier that has a clarity of delivery that is enviable when kept within its modest limitations. Partnered with sympathetically specified speakers and in a suitably sized room it will please many. Pushed too hard and beyond its limits it becomes a tad harsh in the top end. It performs very well for its price but it’s not the cold stone bargain its predecessor was.

Stuart Smith

Supplied By Clones Audio

SPECIFICATIONS

  • Output power:  Max 30 W / channel into 8 Ω

  • Input impedance: 100k (unbalanced only, 3 inputs)

  • Gain: 30dB

  • Dimensions: 190mm(W) X 170mm(D) X 130mm (H)

  • Weight:  6.0kg

  • 2 year warranty

  • Handcrafted and built to order

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