Audio

Finding audiophile bliss with a high-end Japanese amplifier

Here's a tube amp for the 21st century, the Luxman LX-380

The Luxman LX-380 is a vacuum tube integrated stereo amplifier with a long history, it's the 12th-generation model, which originated with the SQ38 amp that debuted in 1963. Luxman was founded in Japan in 1925.

I went to Adirondack Audio's New York City showroom to check out the amp. Even before I listened I noted the exquisite tactile feel of the controls, knobs and switches that all play a role in the LX-380's appeal. The chassis is sheathed in a handsome wood case, so there's no doubt build quality is far beyond what you get from top-of-the-line Denon or Pioneer receivers. The LX-380 is made in Japan in limited quantities for well-heeled audiophiles.

The Luxman LX-380 integrated amplifier

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The LX-380's connectivity suite isn't all that generous, but it's certainly adequate. You get five pairs of stereo RCA inputs including one phono input for moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges. There's also a Rec Out/Monitor, Pre-Out/Main-In jacks with two sets (A and B) of speaker-binding posts and a front-panel 6.3mm headphone jack. All connectors are of very high quality.

Please note the LX-380 is an analog-only design, without a single digital input. I don't see that as a serious drawback, though. Digital technology is still changing from year to year, so it makes sense to buy a top-notch external digital converter such as the Schiit Yggdrasil for use with the LX-380, and plan on upgrading or replacing the converter every four or five years.

The LX-380's tube complement runs to four 6L6GC and three ECC82 tubes planted within its 17.3x7.7x15.8-inch (440x170x403-mm) chassis. Power output is specified at 18 watts per channel for the 8-ohm speakers. The amp weighs a solid 38.8 pounds (17.6 kg)! One nitpick: the little remote control handles only the volume and mute functions.

The amp was hooked up to a pair of Technics SB-R1 tower speakers for all of my listening tests, and amazingly enough the LX-380's eighteen watts per channel didn't reign in the sound. True, I wasn't playing music crazy loud. But at a perfectly satisfying level, the LX-380 didn't disappoint.

With jazz singer Cassandra Wilson's sultry take on Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay," her vocal was beautifully rendered, and the band's hand percussion and stand up bass had just the right bounce. The catch with tube amps is some of them sound too tubey -- too soft or too warm or with overly ripe bass. The LX-380 doesn't go there, it almost sounds solid state in its clarity, but it has more body and substance than most solid-state amps.

Sticking with jazz, I went for some of pianist Dave Brubeck's finest works. The system's control and precision brought out the best in the sound of his piano -- his touch on the keys and his rhythm always sets my feet a-tapping. The LX-380 connected on a deeper level, so I had a better sense of the music's spontaneity.

I pushed the LX-380's volume harder with blues guitarist Buddy Guy. His music nudged me back in my seat, but I felt the LX-380 wasn't totally in its comfort zone. It was happier with acoustic music. Perhaps mating the LX-380 with an easier-to-drive speaker such as my Zu Druid V would allow those 18 watts per channel to rock out with greater conviction.

It's hardly a surprise to learn that the Luxman LX-380's build and sound quality come with a luxury price. In the US it's $7,995. UK and Australia prices haven't yet been set, but that converts to £6,195 or AU$13.830.