October 1, 2008

Grant Fidelity RITA-880 Integrated Amplifier


Best Product Debut

Though a relatively young firm, Grant Fidelity offers an impressive line of audio gear, from CD players to such high-end amplifiers as the company’s new RITA-880 ($5299 USD). The company, which is based in Calgary, Alberta, strives to live up to its motto of "Twice the Quality and Sound at Half the Price" by outsourcing production to China. This is, of course, a well-worn path for audio companies. What sets Grant Fidelity apart is that it hasn’t merely shipped production eastward to some unknown entity, but has partnered with well-known Chinese audio manufacturer Jungson to turn out products designed to GF’s specifications. It’s not difficult to see a familial resemblance between the RITA-880 and Jungson’s own JA-88D integrated amplifier; but unlike Jungson’s solid-state offerings, Grant Fidelity’s electronic components all use vacuum tubes.

Description

RITA stands for Reference Integrated Tube Amplifier. Grant Fidelity claims that the class-A RITA-880 delivers 45Wpc to its 4- and 8-ohm speaker outputs with a total harmonic distortion of <1% (1kHz/1W), a frequency response of 18Hz-38kHz, +/-0.5dB, and a signal/noise ratio of >95dB. The RITA-880 measures 15.5"W by 10.9"H by 17.6"D and weighs 84 pounds. GF provides a two-year warranty on parts and labor, and six months on the factory-supplied tubes.

The RITA isn’t well built; it’s well overbuilt. The main chassis is made of black-anodized aluminum plates that, at 1/3" thick, are the most substantial I’ve seen in an audio product. The side panels feature nicely rounded corners and, alongside the completely enclosed tube compartment, have two rectangular, mesh-covered openings to facilitate ventilation. The large, one-piece top plate has another eight vents directly above the tubes, as well as a silk-screened Grant Fidelity logo. This top panel must be removed to install or replace the tubes, a task easily accomplished with a screwdriver.

On the RITA-880’s rear panel are five inputs, one balanced and four single-ended, and four pairs of speaker binding posts for the output transformer’s 4- and 8-ohm taps. The 15A IEC power connector and fuse holder are located at the bottom middle of the rear panel. Posts and jacks are of fine quality, and felt very solidly mounted. The RITA-880 is an integrated amplifier, but its lack of pre-out and main-in connectors means it can’t be connected to other preamplifiers or power amps.

Up front, a chromed-steel faceplate provides contrast to the elegant matte black of the main chassis. The faceplate, which standoffs separate from the main chassis by about half an inch, is itself nearly 1/2" thick. I’m not crazy about the amp’s shiny look and would prefer to see it in the available matte-black finish. That aside, I found it difficult to fault the RITA-880’s build quality.

It took me some time to realize that there’s a Grant Fidelity logo in the bottom left corner of the faceplate -- silk-screened white, it’s nearly invisible against the mirror-like faceplate. That invisibility also prevented me from noticing that on the opposite corner, silk-screened the same white, is the model name and "Vaccum Tube Amplifier." Oops. I later noticed the same misspelling on the rear panel -- a minor thing, but audiophiles willing to spend over $5000 on equipment are known to be a finicky bunch.

Also on the front panel are two output meters and an array of controls. The meters’ gradations are etched into a clear glass panel sandwiched between faceplate and chassis. Oddly, they’re not labeled with any numbers or units of measurement, offering no clue as to whether they indicate the output power in watts, volts, or decibels. The glass panel can be lit from the top by an array of hidden blue LEDs, which cause it to glow bright blue. The display can be defeated by using the Light Control on the rear panel, but this also turns off the meters, making the front-panel display an all-or-nothing proposition.

Front and center, just below the meters, sits a small blue LED panel that displays the volume setting (0 to 99) and the selected input (1 to 5). Below that are four small buttons: + and - for Volume, Mode for input selection, and Mute. These are arranged in pairs to either side of the large main Power switch, for which I developed an active dislike: the RITA-880 would fire up when I pressed Power, but shut off as soon as I released the button. The problem, I discovered, lay in the long plastic rod that connects the button to the actual power switch, which is at the rear of the chassis. If the button isn’t pushed exactly dead center, the rod slips off the main switch before the latter has locked in to its On position. As tube amplifiers don’t like rapid on/off cycles, this problem must be rectified if future RITA-880s are to enjoy trouble-free lives.

The Volume, Mode, and Mute functions are replicated on the included remote control, which has a body of machined aluminum and top and bottom panels of real wood. The bottom section, removable to permit access to the battery compartment, is ingeniously held in place with two magnets. With the Grant Fidelity logo burned into the wood, the RITA-880 remote is a somewhat cheesy affair, but it’s definitely nicer than the generic plastic remotes that often come with other, similarly priced components.

Although the RITA-880’s volume control seems to be a pretty high-tech design, it’s the slowest I’ve encountered. When the volume is changed, a mechanical clicking sound can be heard emanating from somewhere deep within the amp. Removing the bottom plate, I discovered the source of the noise: a circuit board populated with quite a number of relays (which click when activated) and transistors. Although Grant Fidelity makes no claims regarding the volume control’s performance, relay-based volume controls are considered by some to sound better than resistor-based types. That said, it took 16 seconds to ramp up the RITA-880’s volume from 0 to 40, where I did most of my listening. Going from 0 to full power (99) took just a shade under 40 seconds. Of course, if there’s a need for instant silence, the Mute function will get you there lickety-split. I didn’t find the clicking overly intrusive, perhaps because I was usually preoccupied with the RITA-880’s sound.

Setup

Anyone who owns a tube amplifier knows that they are inherently heavy beasts, and the RITA-880 is no exception. It’s the first audio component I’ve reviewed that arrived in a wooden shipping crate -- packaging that protected the amplifier on its long journey from the Far East, but added 28 pounds to its shipping weight. This made moving the RITA-880 into my home all the more challenging. However, I was pleased to discover a (weight-) saving grace in the way the crate is put together: remove a couple of tabs, and the crate’s sides and top can be lifted off its base, leaving the RITA-880 fully exposed.

The bulk of the RITA-880’s weight is toward its rear, where the substantial transformers are housed. This fact would seem to offer a good reason to include at least one handle on the rear panel to ease moving the amplifier around, but there is none. Standing, as it does, proud of the main chassis, the RITA’s polished steel faceplate makes an acceptable and sturdy front handle, but more are needed.

The RITA-880 is delivered with two pairs of Electro-Harmonix KT88 output tubes and a pair each of Sovtek 6SN7 and 6SL7 tubes for the preamplifier section. All tube pairs are factory-matched, and each tube is labeled according to which socket it should occupy. I had to ask Grant Fidelity to learn this, but the RITA-880 is a fixed-bias design (see below), meaning that, once installed, the tubes require no tweaking. In fact, the tubes that arrive with each RITA-880 have already been carefully matched to the unit they ship with. For this reason, Grant Fidelity does not recommend tube rolling, though if different tubes are desired, the company will provide matched quads of the tubes they carry or supply the owner with the specs they need to order replacements. Preamp and driver tubes can be easily rolled.

A 6' power cable and a pair of cotton gloves are included with each RITA-880. Included with my review sample was a notice warning that the amplifier might emit "pooping sounds" as it warmed up -- a phenomenon, the notice assured me, that is perfectly normal. You, too, can rest assured that the RITA-880 is not flatulent. (It didn’t make any popping sounds, either.)

A rudimentary manual accompanied the RITA-880. Basic and generic information about tube-amp setup is offered on the Grant Fidelity website, but it’s no help when it comes to learning if the RITA-880’s output tubes must be biased, or how one would go about doing so. That’s a pretty glaring oversight, and one I expect most RITA-880 owners would find hard to swallow.

System

The RITA-880 drove two pairs of speakers: the PSB Synchrony Two B ($1500/pair) and the Exodus Audio Kepler ($1000/pair). Digital sources were a laptop computer playing EAC-ripped lossless WAV files through Foobar2000 and J. River’s Media Jukebox software. USB-to-S/PDIF conversion was accomplished with a Blue Circle USB Thingee, digital-to-analog conversion by an Audio Note Kits DAC 2.1. Speaker cables were the Supra Ply 3.4/S, interconnects the Furutech FA-13S and FX-Alpha-Ag. The RITA-880 was powered solely via its included Grant Fidelity PC 1.5 cable.

Listening

If I can be excused for playing up some Far Eastern stereotypes: the RITA-880 may be the size and weight of the audio equivalent of a sumo wrestler, but it had a ninja’s speed, finesse, and concentrated power. Yes, sumo wrestlers and ninjas are Japanese, but I think you get my point: The RITA-880 could be light, airy, and delicate. It could also kick serious butt.

The RITA-880 puts out only a claimed 45Wpc at full tilt, yet it drove the power-hungry PSB Synchrony Two Bs with much greater ease than could my twice-as-powerful Simaudio Moon Classic i5.3 integrated. Even at moderate listening levels, the RITA-880 somehow managed to smoke the Sim when it came to motivating the PSBs’ woofers. When I fed the Grant-PSB combination "Jump," from Van Halen’s Best of Volume I (CD, Warner Bros. 46332-2), I was vaulted directly into the over-the-top arena-rock concerts of my well-spent youth. Want pounding drums? You got it! Want guitars so crunchy you think you’ve got a Marshall amp stack in the room? You got it! Want the enormous wall of fuzzy sound created by a 1980s synthesizer? Rock on, man!

And rock on and on and on. Nickelback’s "How You Remind Me," from Silver Side Up (CD, Roadrunner 618485), offers some simple but compelling drumming at the beginning of the track, just before the percussion is buried in an avalanche of crunching electric guitar. I’m no psychiatrist, but I think I experienced some cognitive dissonance when my eyes had trouble making sense of what my ears were hearing. How could such small speakers, and an amplifier of such lowish power, reproduce kick drum so convincingly that it induced a sympathetic vibration in a floorboard that had never before made a sound?

Delving further into the synergy of the Grant and PSBs, I cued up Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me (CD, Blue Note 32088). This recording is one of my staples -- not only because it’s well recorded, but also because it sounds as if the vocal microphone is placed about a millimeter from Jones’s lips. Although Jones hardly belts out lyrics Janis Joplin style, the dynamic power of her voice, combined with the intimately positioned mike, can induce fits of distortion in lesser audio equipment.

But when Norah met RITA, Ms. Jones fared quite well indeed. The RITA did add a touch of tube warmth to voices, but that’s what tube amps do -- and warmth certainly does not equal distortion. The RITA-880 was quite revealing, too, in that the reverberation added to Jones’s voice at the mixing board was very noticeable, as was the fact that this effect is not part of the sounds of the accompanying piano and bass. This had the curious result of making the recording sound spacious and constrained at the same time -- an odd production choice that the RITA-880 easily unmasked.

The RITA-880 was not the sort of amplifier that was satisfied with playing background music while I went about reading or completing household chores. No, this lady demanded my full attention. The first of many times I noticed this was while playing Harry Connick Jr.’s "The Last Payday," from Blue Light Red Light (CD, Sony BMG 722982) -- recorded, apparently, in the presence of a pool table. As a player breaks the balls, the RITA-880 and Synchrony Two Bs delivered a sublime crack that was so pleasing to my ears I had to hear it again and again. Of course, that wasn’t the only thing thrilling about the sound of this recording. The brass section was tonally pure and emotionally compelling, and Connick’s slightly warm and forward voice traded center stage with a reverberant saxophone across a wide soundstage on which the RITA-880 placed each player as a three-dimensional being in a three-dimensional setting.

The RITA-880 was getting along so well with the PSBs that I felt it my reviewer’s duty to try to muck things up by using different speakers. Replacing the Synchrony Two Bs with the Exodus Audio Keplers was revelatory. The first track I played through the Keplers was "The Battle," from Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard’s soundtrack for Gladiator (CD, Decca 013192). My intention was to hit Play and walk away, but the RITA-880 wouldn’t let me escape so easily. Forget about a warmup period -- the RITA-880 was ready to go, and the Keplers were going along for a wild ride.

"The Battle," which accompanies a combat scene, was composed to convey both the majesty of fighting for the greater glory of Rome and the horror and brutality of hand-to-hand combat. When reproduced properly, "The Battle" is steeped in visceral emotion -- the massed drums, brass, strings, and woodwinds are epic in their proportions and power, and it saddens me to think that most people have heard it only through home-theater-in-a-box speakers. Had more heard it through the RITA-880 driving Exodus Audio Keplers, world peace might have broken out, for through this dynamic duo, "The Battle" was both uplifting and terrifying -- just as it should be. The RITA-880 did have some difficulty untangling the web of instruments as crescendos built, and in particularly loud passages the amp exhibited a tendency to meld different instruments together into a bit of a knot. But overall, the RITA-880 left me shaken and stirred.






Switching to simpler recordings, I dusted off "Man in Black," from Johnny Cash’s The Legend of Johnny Cash (CD, Hip-O 528802). This recording is a bit odd; the bass and drums seem well recorded, but the guitar is metallic and harsh, and Cash sounds as if he’s been recorded over a telephone. Despite those handicaps, the RITA-880 did an able job of making this recording more than palatable. There’s something to be said for a vacuum tube’s ability to add warmth and life to even the worst recordings. Those last two words can’t be applied to Cash’s "Rusty Cage," from the same album, which is as musically simple as it is amazingly compelling. I defy anyone to listen to this track through the RITA-880 and not bob his or her head to the captivating guitar riff.

Conclusion

The Grant Fidelity RITA-880 integrated amplifier is built like a battleship and weighs as much as a boat anchor. It sounds terrific, has tons of drive, and is largely free of coloration. It manages to sound far more powerful than it is, and can drive tough speaker loads that, at least on paper, should give it problems. I’m disappointed by the lack of setup instructions, but the RITA-880 is a new product, and I expect more documentation will soon be forthcoming. I’m also willing to give Grant Fidelity the benefit of the doubt regarding that Power switch, which in any event is easily rectified (as is the spelling error).

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the RITA-880, and I suspect that tube lovers will find it compelling enough to bring it home for a serious evaluation. But if its impressive build quality and high performance don’t convince you, maybe this will: Grant Fidelity’s introductory price for the RITA-880 is $3975 -- 25% off the suggested retail price of $5299. That makes this solid integrated amplifier an especially solid value right now.

. . . Colin Smith
colins@soundstageav.com

Grant Fidelity RITA-880 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $5299 USD ($3975 introductory price)
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Grant Fidelity
Calgary, Alberta
Canada
Phone: (888) 477-5379, (403) 251-0466

Website: www.grantfidelity.com

 


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