Review: Finale Audio’s New F-168-II Integrated Tube Amplifier

F168-II as reviewed (Left) and F168R (Right)

Finale-ly: A Finale F-138 FFX Owner Takes The New F-168-II Integrated For An Extended Spin

It’s always a pleasure when Frank Ng of Finale Audio/Triode Lab drops by. His cheery disposition is part of the reason, but playing with amplifiers is my idea of a great time! On that sunny afternoon, Frank left a diminutive Hammertone grey 13.5″ x 9″ case known as the Finale Audio F-168 II integrated amplifier. Frank is the lead person on many fine amplifiers made by Finale and its sister company, Triode Labs. This “Mk.II” amp replaces the original F-168, Finale’s perennial best seller. It boasts a list of improvements, and lists for $2800 Cdn.

At first glance, I was surprised with the amplifier’s size and lightness. This is a fully functional (minimalist) integrated amplifier with two pairs of RCA inputs. Consumers with space and aesthetic concerns may find the colour, power capabilities, size and tidy layout particularly appealing. Also a popular colour with owners of fast cars, judging from the number I’ve seen (automotive-grade finishes are available on all Finale amps). And the colour contrasts nicely with the brushed aluminium control knobs.

The all-important transformers are custom-made and matched by Hammond Mfg., to Finale Audio’s specifications. Combine this with the excellent Mundorf EVO Coupling Capacitors, Furutech Gold IEC, Alps Blue Velvet Volume control, etc., and it appears some serious fun is to be had. The back panel on the slim case offers easy to use 5 way binding posts, two attractive sets of RCA inputs notable by the colour/name – Pink-Lingu Rose-Gold Premium RCA’s. Much to my liking is the prominent display of the four 6BM8 / ECL82 tubes.

Having said that, Frank’s latest effort resembles my first Finale Audio amplifier, the vanilla white F-208a packing 10 watts of power. That amplifier also has a neat row of tubes, but EL 84’s instead. In 2013, Frank arrived with this amplifier to rescue me from a disasterous start with my brand new and very lively loudspeakers. After eliminating other potential culprits for the anemic sound, it came down to a simple mismatch between a reputable 140-watt solid state amplifier, and the 91 db/8 ohm Gemme Audio Vivace loudspeakers.

I was initially skeptical about writing this review. Can this new amplifier actually outperform the much more expensive Finale Audio F-138 FFX amplifier which I now use? I chose the F-138 for its musicality, balanced presentation and the refined sound of an Class A/ 5 watt SE unit. What then, distinguishes the latest F-168 amplifier from his other fine amplifiers, almost all of which are more expensive?

Finale’s new F168-II sitting above the author’s F138-FFX

These questions also caused me to wonder whether comparisons with other amplifiers was a useful thing, especially amongst products made by the same manufacturer. In a perfect world, comparisons wouldn’t be needed. Surely the strengths of the F-168 II should speak audibly for themselves. And I certainly know the sonic signature of the two other Finale amplifiers mentioned above without actively referring to them.

Upon delivery, I immediately plugged the amplifier in: my gratification should be served warm, not cold nor delayed. Since I had company, I chose a casual listening piece for everyone to enjoy, beginning with “Bobcaygeon” by The Tragically Hip.

Immediately, the F-168 II announced that it can speak for itself! It played loud and easily filled our large open space with quality sound. What was surprising, even shocking was the in-your-face presentation and sheer energy that erupted in the room! I seldom play this classic tune and I don’t recall any of my other amplifier set-ups playing this CD with this combination of grunt, clarity and sheer dynamism. The rest of the CD was also a total pleasure..

My thought of writing the review without reference to another amplifier vaporized instantly. The F-168 II is definitely a challenger to my resident amplifier and a head to head comparison is required.

One comment on break in time. Although Frank mentioned that the amplifier had some break in time, I found the sound of this amplifier changed substantially over the course of listening to it. I complained initially about shrill high frequencies. That didn’t last more than week or two, but the amplifier seemed to mature for about a month longer. If I had ended my audition in the first couple of weeks, my conclusions might have been quite different.

   

 

For this review, I selected tracks built around female vocalists/ instrumentalists.

Historically, most of my experience with Cassandra Wilson’s “New Moon Daughter” CD has been with stereos/rooms that have been unable to play this CD really well. At one point I moved to LP’s exclusively for about 10 years, to solve the playback problem. But this is a really well-crafted disc. Her voice and the excellent musical accompaniment poses a challenge to equipment. Wilson’s voice and the relatively complex instrumentation on tracks like “Love is Blindness” and “Strange Fruit” have taken years to get right.

Recently, Cecilia Bartoli’s 1993 disc “If You Love Me, 18th Century Italian Songs” is getting more and more playtime. This extraordinary singer’s technique and tone control is the reason for her stellar career. To appreciate what Bartoli is doing with her voice demands high quality equipment. Two very melodic pieces by Baroque composers Caccini (Track 18 Amarilli) and Vivaldi (Track 20 Sposa son Disprezzata) showcase her incredible vocal skills.

For big male voices and layers of harmony, Terry Evans in “The River”, from the XRCD-24 “Come to the River” is a go to piece. A wonderful gospel-inspired tune. I’d have to say that this may be the most difficult of the play list to get right! Instrumentation is layered on pretty thick, as are the singers’ voices.

Angele Dubeau’s Stradivarius violin teams up with a piano accompanist in John Adams’ pieces “Meditative” and “Relaxed Groove” (anything but a relaxed track). The question is just how much of this majestic violin sound and Mme. Dubeau’s musicianship can we hear?

I will dive right into the evaluative section with comments on this last selection.

The F-138 FFX performed really well on John Adams. The violin was a little more credible, the sounds a little more protracted and tender sounding than when reproduced by the F-168. The skill of the pianist was also a little more prominent. Of course the two amplifiers share pedigree and the difference was small. Essentially the F-138 FFX offered a more nuanced presentation and I could more easily get lost in the music. But in the rarified air of High Fidelity, details like this are important.

I was pleased. After all, I do have a vested interest in this amplifier. And this kind of performance is exactly why I purchased this amplifier and what I should expect.

     

Next up, Cassandra Wilson’s inaugural CD, I have been listening to this CD since about 1998 and I’ve never heard it better. The two amplifiers both performed very well. On “Strange Fruit”, the F-168 II was unbelievably graphic. The strings on the double bass produced long drawn out and previously unheard ‘twangs” that seriously vibrate throughout the room . It seemed unnatural at first, but who’s to say…either way, the effect was mighty impressive. And it did a great job capturing the inflections in Cassandra’s voice. Again, and similar to our first day’s experience with the Tragically Hip, this amplifier can really make music come alive!

Oddly, the F-168 II didn’t carry its lead into the next track, “Love is Blindness”. It too has some really great double bass work, and Wilson’s low husky voice is easily smeared. The F-138 version of bass was clearer, more pronounced and the timing just a little better. Even more obvious were Cassandra’s lyrics which were easily deciphered with the F-138 FFX. To me this was very odd that one amplifier can be better than another in decoding particular tracks on the same recording.

As a general observation, it is obvious that in my living room, the F-138 FFX likes to stay at home, play a little more quietly, even thoughtfully, while the F-168 II lives out in front of the equipment. It prefers mingling with the guests rather than performing in isolation. Who doesn’t like a charming guest at the party, who stirs it up a bit, yet can chat with the best of them? Well, that may be the F-168 II.

Speaking of parties, Terry Evans’ “The River” has up to 10 musicians, including 3 vocalists, demanding one to immerse themselves in The River. This tune is right up the F-168 II’s alley…loud, raw energy powering heavy rhythms, layers of sound all demanding increased resolution and more power from the amplifier. Neither amplifier failed to please – the male vocals are very difficult to distinguish from the instrumentation but they could be heard with either amplifier. In the end however, it is the additional power and the very careful way Finale has tuned the F-168 II that makes it excel on this kind of music. It can play the soft, delicate kind of stuff for sure, but I suggest it prefers the role of the extrovert. An amazing amplifier.

The last back-to-back test for the amplifiers was Cecilia Bartoli’s 1993 disc “If You Love Me, 18th Century Italian Songs”. As one might expect might by now, the F-138 FFX brought Señora Bartoli’s technique to the foreground, her voice effortlessly interpreting every note, inflection and intention of the composers. The F-168 didn’t quite capture her efforts nor the piano accompanist as well, but it did have one important advantage – in my opinion it can play more loudly and without distortion or noise pushing me to jump for the volume control. I wanted more of that gorgeous music.

I’m enthusiastic about both of these capable amplifiers. Noise levels are very low, resolution is high and musicality is great. The F-138 FFX, as a result of its single ended design, sounds a tiny bit more natural and organic – but only by doing direct comparisons (or maybe experience) does it become noticeable.

You may be surprised, but if I had to put my money down again, I would opt for the F-168 II. I oscillated tremendously on this question. However, its gregariousness, slightly forward soundstage, ability to fill this large room with captivating sound and the reasonable price, guided me to this conclusion. The F-168 II has an overall sonic presentation that is maybe more solid state and familiar-sounding to many. Ultimately, balancing the trade offs between the two amplifiers depends on personal taste. One amplifier being more nuanced and with richer textures, or the new F-168-II amplifier perhaps more accessible, with increased energy and offering a high-fibre musical diet to boot. Tough times!

Frank Ng of Finale Audio claims that this amplifier demonstrates their commitment to producing a high-quality, but affordable product. I don’t doubt their credentials. With more 30 years in electronic design, they can produce a great product. Careful selection of materials, parts, and technologies all aid in improving the grounding, reducing noise and distortion, etc., but it will only take you so far. But it takes inspiration, creativity and determination to mash all this together in an affordable package to produce something greater than the sum of its {electronic} parts – a highly engaging, powerful and a very definitely musical amplifier.

 

Editor’s Note: Having a pair of switchable inputs, for many the F-168-II also eliminates the need for a separate preamp. For this review (with both of the Finale amplifiers), Sean used his Aurum Acoustics Integris DAP/DCP/preamp unit, with the reference gain set at zero dB.

 

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About Sean Leighland (2 Articles)
Like many people, live and reproduced music was common in my family. I also experienced important musical boosts from time to time. Having all night private access to the world of music via FM Radio and portable transistor radio was extremely formative. So were the rocking house parties hosted by teenagers and university students. But mine was a passive role. Veni, Vidi, vici, I came, I heard and I left. I entered the game more seriously with my purchase of a pair of Tannoy HPD 12 loudspeakers and a Technics turntable. Decades of casual and pleasant listening ensued until that fateful garage sale when someone walked off with my box of LP's. I spun CD's for a decade until I realized that as fun as it was no amount of coaxing could get me 100% engaged in the music. After one last effort to save myself via a quality Linn Genki player, I finally chucked CD' s entirely in 2003 and returned to vinyl. I was desparate. The day after formalizing this decision with my music loving wife, we rushed out to a Saturday morning garage sale and purchased 80 mint condition pop/rock LP's for $80 USD. No turntable mind you. That would have to wait a couple weeks until a glorious new Audimeca TT. We have not looked back. That decision also ended my casual experience with music. Now I had a true "must have it" audiophile addiction. A couple of HiFi magazine subscriptions, four turntables, three expensive cartridges and five years later my credentials were established. We now had an entirely new audio system complete with a 40kg German turntable and a Schroeder reference Dark Palm Wood tone arm. I had experienced the true pleasure of first rate Hifi as well as price of paying for it. For me, writing audio reviews essentially allows me to combine an act of critical listening, which I was doing anyway, with the definite challenge of communicating abstract and personal observations in a meaningful way. With that effort I hope to identify for the reader products that offer real value and hopefully with broad appeal.

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