The Black Ice Audio F22 Integrated Amplifier gets a thorough work out and evaluation. Douglas Moore reports!
Something is going on with high-end audio that to me seems quite interesting. The music-loving youth are exploring different music and many are going in a direction that is contrary to what one may have thought- particularly with the sheer amount of technology at people’s fingertips today.
Go into any mom-and-pop record store and you will see what I am talking about. You may notice everything from young adults and school-age kids buying records that I grew up with from bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, Alice and Chains, and even going back into the sixties and seventies with bands like Zeppelin or The Doors. They look with the kind of excitement that I had shopping for albums when I was their age. They are bucking the trend with how they listen to music at home.
With all the purchasing choices out there for music especially streaming options which are much cheaper these kids are buying vinyl records! I have asked a few of them in passing why they are into records and I get responses anywhere from they want something tangible or they like the “warm” and “real” sound a record can produce.
I especially notice that when they talk about audio products there is never a mention of new AV receivers or 7 channels systems. No – two channel seems to be where these young people are focused and they treat their music playback much differently than they do their gaming or movie watching.
One area that has somewhat surprised me with this group of individuals is that they fall into two camps. One is the measurement group that looks at every specification very closely and wants the lowest possible distortion and highest Sinad or signal-to-noise and distortion. They will buy components solely based on these merits and will be profoundly protective of their choices. The other group is the group that cares more for the tone and sound of a component and how the sound touches their emotions and does not care if it has the lowest possible distortion.
While these arguments over what is important in audio playback have been around for a long time it seems that there are some new soldiers on the battlefield. I for one take a more neutral approach and see the merits of both sides but always use my ears to guide me toward my final personal truth.
The product under review here falls into the latter camp regarding its placement in the audio world. Tube amplifiers have seemed to stand the test of time, and there seems to be a lot of excitement around more affordable tube amplifiers lately which is good as it gets more people into the hobby. This means that tube amplifiers being as popular as they are speak volumes about how passionate people are about them.
If you ask any of the tube amplifier fans out there they will reply with about the same response. They just present the music with more realism than other designs. Most of these fans know that these products make more distortion, and have lower signal-to-noise ratios but most will say that these even order distortions are what give these products their soul and sound. Both camps have their fair share of products to choose from that cater to Their sensibilities about which camp they choose to be in.
Black Ice Audio is a company that has been around for a long time. You might not have heard of them by their present name because they were once called Jolida. Founders Mike and Hansen chose this name to honor their mothers as Jo was Hansen’s mother’s name and Lida was Mike’s. With the start of Jolida in 1983 they became distributors of vacuum tubes and other electronic components.
In 1984 they got a contract to build a silicon steel transformer. While this transformer did not meet the contractor’s needs they decided to use their knowledge to build audio transformers. Jolida, the company was born and has had several awards and accolades in the audio world. Eventually, they decided to start Black Ice Audio. In 2013 Jarred Dunkerson took control of operations and eventually clasped the helm of CEO at Black Ice.
Their latest lineup of integrated amplifiers seems to have something for any tube lover from their entry-level Glass FX10 compact to their Fusion F22 and F35 full-sized integrated. I talked at length to Jarred about his amplifiers and he said himself that the Fusion F22 was one of his favorite amplifiers in the line and sent one out for me to review.
The Fusion F22 shares a lot with its larger brother the F35 with the exception that the F35 has balanced inputs and 10 more watts at its disposal. I would say if you do not need balanced inputs the F22 will be a better deal since it is less expensive than its stablemate. Black Ice Audio also offers upgrades on their amplifiers from level one to six and offers better parts for better sound. These upgrades can be done at purchase or later as well. The unit I was loaned is a stock unit with no upgrades to the parts.
Jim Fosgate himself worked with Black Ice Audio to develop the Odyssey Circuit that they utilize in the Fusion series of Integrated amplifiers. This circuit allows the preamp tubes to automatically balance when the power tubes are biased. This V drive circuit is part of what gives Black ice Amplifiers the sound that they do while simplifying the circuit design and reducing phase inversion. Here is a full description of this technology if you would like to learn more.
Opening the box
When I received the Fusion F22 and upon opening I was greeted by the amplifier itself accompanied by all of the tubes in their respective boxes, a remote, a manual, and a power cord. Also in the box was a set of nice gloves to install the tubes without touching them with bare hands. There was also a tool used to bias the tubes once installed and a guide to help with that procedure.
Taking the amplifier out of the box and installing the tubes was easily accomplished as long as you take your time and treat the tubes with care making sure they seat into the sockets properly. While this process is a little more of a chore than a solid-state amplifier, it’s something anyone can do, and knowing Black Ice Audio is an American company just a phone call away should give anyone a piece of mind should they run into any issues.
It is nice to see that Black Ice didn’t just ‘phone it in’ with their remote control. The F22’s remote is metal and they keep it simple with the controls. There is an On/off, mute, volume, input, scrolling input, and a headphone button. The remote seems to be built well and worked perfectly in the time I spent with the F22. I still have flashbacks from the Cary Audio SLI-80HS I reviewed last year that was a killer tube amplifier which had a remote that I could have been better throwing in the backyard!
Setting The Unit Up
The Fusion F22 has a simple back panel layout that includes 4 inputs, a fixed record output, and a single subwoofer output. Even though I use REL subwoofers that use high-level inputs having duel subwoofer outputs would have been better for the people running duel subwoofers with the low-level signal. The F22 does not have a phono input so the use of a separate phono preamp will be needed. The speaker jacks are of high quality and accept both banana plugs or spades and have separate 4 and 8-ohm taps.
Lastly, you have a main power switch and power cable input should you choose to upgrade the power cable at some point. I used my custom-made power cable as it is my reference.
The front panel is also well laid out and simple. The black Lexan-style front panel has capacitive touch buttons instead of push buttons which is different but cool and they worked flawlessly in the time I had the unit. There is a volume knob and headphone jack as well.
After connecting everything up I simply turned the unit on and we were in business. Black Ice recommends that you go through the bias adjustment on the amplifier first thing before playing. This was a simple procedure with help of the bias adjustment tool and the direction sheet provided by Black Ice. This amplifier does not have automatic bias but in light of that the procedure went smoothly.
The folks at Black Ice Audio recommend checking the bias several times during the break-in period and also periodically as the tubes age. When Jarred sent me the amplifier he said it had about a week of break-in already on it but I would need to run it for at least a couple hundred hours before settling in for the review. The only setup issue I had was once I got the unit up and running for a while the volume would not move with the remote control. One quick email to Black Ice and they told me that during shipping every once in a while the volume knob will get pushed back against the front panel too far in transit and cause it to catch. I gently pulled the knob out just a hair and all was good.
The only other issue was a slight channel imbalance as I was breaking in the amplifier. I contacted Black Ice again and was told to check the tubes to make sure they were fully seated and to continue the break-in. When I checked the tubes I did notice one of them had a slightly bent pin so I gently bent it straight and reinstalled the tube and again all was fine in the world.
There is a knob on the top panel of the amplifier that is located under a meter used for the bias adjustment. You simply turn the knob to the power tube you want to adjust (the meter will illuminate when the tube is selected) and use the included tool to turn the adjustment to the required bias. The included sheet will tell you the proper bias level for any tube you will use with the amplifier in the future. The F22 allows for the use of EL34, 6550, and KT88 through KT150s. The sample I was sent had 6550’s and that is what I am basing my review around.
I let the unit run during the day playing streaming music from multiple sources and even playing tv through the amplifier to finish the break-in period. Like many audio products, the F22 had a stiff and bright sound at first. Having a strong belief in breaking in products I knew this was temporary. I am well aware of the merits of proper break-in time and gave the F22 the schedule it needed.
The first album I played once the F22 was fully burned in was South For Winter’s 2022 album “Acoustic Sessions”. This album is a beautifully put-together album that shows off the abilities of a system with both acoustic guitars and male and female vocals. The song “Ten Black Crows” is my favorite song off this album and the Fusion F22 did this song proudly. The acoustic guitars were full-bodied and natural. Vocals seemed to float between the speakers back in the soundstage like they were recorded. For an acoustic song, a lot is going on in the mix and can get crowded sounding on lesser systems. The F22 allowed me to hear every instrument in its own space. Soundstage was as wide as the recording called for and the imaging was good.
While I have said many times that I don’t use the typical “audiophile” music to do all of my reviews Chris Stapleton’s 2017 album “From a Room: Volume 1” should tell you that. My favorite song from this album is “Death Row”. This song will surely test the ability of your system to produce strong bass while also keeping its composure doing so.
The F22 surprised me with its bass depth as it gave both my Spatial Audio open baffle speakers and REL subwoofer a good workout on this song. While the bass hits the depths it brought out the thunder the detail and tightness which was much better than some tube amplifiers I have heard. Chris’s vocals had clarity and focus while imaging and sound staging were quite well placed in the mix. I did get the slightest bit of aggressiveness with the vocals on the more dynamic parts compared to my reference amp but I am not sure if it was the amplifier itself or the 6550 tubes causing this as 6550s tend to be more in-your-face and dynamic. I would have loved to hear what a set of KT88s would sound like in the F22 since I loved them in the Cary Audio SLI-80HS I reviewed last year.
Julians Lage’s 2023 album “The Layers” is such a great album I reviewed it and it is available here to read. My favorite track on this album is the first one. “Everything Helps” as it shows the musicians showing their stuff. The Fusion F22 brought the guitars to life in my room and allowed the body of the instruments to shine as well or better as any amplifier I have had in my system. The stand-up bass also set well into the mix and had good weight while keeping detail.
Black Ice Audio says that the 6550 tubes are great for rock, hip-hop, and dynamic music and I can believe that. The drums had good drive with the snare and toms and good detail with the cymbals. The 6550s did give a more forward presentation than I am used to and at times I would have wished that I had some KT tubes to try with the F22.
Knowing that I was going by memory as it has been a few months since I had the Cary Audio SLI-80HS in my system I knew that I would not have a real-time comparison between it and the F22. Also, the power tubes were different being that the F22 used 6550 and the SLI-80HS used KT88s which would further change the resolve of the comparison. I will say that both amplifiers have some qualities that most people associate with solid-state gear which I attribute to the Solid State Rectification in the Cary and Jim Fosgate’s Odyssey circuit in the F22.
The Bass was deep and solid on both amplifiers only being bested by my solid-state Pass Labs reference. Both amplifiers did the music justice regarding soundstage, imaging, and detail. The Cary audio amplifier seemed to give me a little more of that tube stereoscopic goodness in the midrange. This could be partly attributed to the all-hand-wired design of the Cary vs more circuit boards in the Black Ice F22 as well as the different tubes being used in each. It must also be said that the Cary SLI-80HS is almost exactly twice the price of the F22 so the fact that the F22 held its own says something indeed!
For a more real-time comparison I compared the Black Ice F22 to my long-time reference the Hegel P20 preamp and Pass Labs X150.5 power amplifier. When I switched back to my solid state reference after living with the F22 in my system for more than a month I was surprised at some of the differences.
While some people say that Tube amps are warmer sounding that was not the case here. Going back to the Hegel/Pass combo gave me more sense of ease with the presentation. The F22 seemed more immediate and in your face in comparison. Depending on the music being played it could be a good or a bad thing. There was a difference in the bass being that the F22 seemed to have a very natural albeit slightly slower bass than my reference although the F22 is not shy of deep bass by any means.
As far as imaging goes both were excellent and on par with each other. Where my solid-state reference showed its stuff was in soundstage width. The Hegel/Pass combo has a soundstage that is hard to beat being wider than the speakers when called upon. The F22 just could not compete with that soundstage.
Lately, I have seen many tube products in the affordable high-end category, many from Chinese companies I have never heard of. The competition in this category must be tough with the number of entries available.
Black Ice Audio is an American company that owns its factory in China to make its products. The fact that the support system and headquarters are here in America has merit. Also Black Ice Audio warranties their amplifiers for 5 years of parts and labor and 1 year or 1000 hours on the tubes themselves seem to be above par with the competition.
I liked my time with the Black Ice Audio F22, It sounded sublime and had a good build quality and reliability for its price. If you are just getting into this hobby or want to make your entry into the tube world the Fusion F22 would be a great place to start. The icing on the cake is that changing power tubes will give you different qualities and Black Ice Audio also has an upgrade path on their website should you want to take your amplifier to the next level. I strongly recommend you go check out the Black Ice Audio F22 as I can safely give it a high recommendation.
Maximum Power Output: 75 W per channel at 8 ohms, 25Hz to 60KHz with 6550 Tubes
65 W per channel at 8 ohms, 28Hz to 72KHz with EL34 Tubes
Rated Output Power: 60 W per channel at 8 ohms, 25Hz to 60KHz with 6550 Tubes
50 W per channel at 8 ohms, 28Hz to 72KHz with EL34 Tubes
Frequency Response: 8Hz to 130KHz + 1dB (at 1 watt into 8 ohms)
Bandwidth: 15Hz to 80KHz + 3dB; 0dB 60 W 1KHz
Distortion THD: Less than 1% at 20 V output, 28Hz to 15KHz
Circuit Type: Fully Balanced differential push-pull
Inputs: 4x RCA
Input Impedance: 100Kohms
Input Sensitivity: 1V at 1KHz for 60/70 watt output
Output Impedance: 4 ohms and 8 ohms
Negative Feedback: Less than 4.5 dB
Noise and Hum: 95dB below-rated output
Tube Complement: 4 x EL34 or 6550 power output; 4 x 12AX7A/ECC83
Power Requirements: 110V-120 VAC 60Hz 6 watts-standby, 450 watts maximum (220 VAC 50Hz option)
Dimensions: 14.5 inches (37cm) wide by 11.5 inches (29cm) deep by 7.5 inches (19cm) high
Weight: 32 pounds (14.5 Kg) net, approximately 43 pounds (19.5 Kg) packaged
PRICE ~ from $2500.00
Review System: Speakers: Spatial Audio M3 Turbo S open baffle./ REL T9x subwoofer/ Digital: Denafrips Venus II, / Modified PC-based Music server/streamer. Analog: Vintage Hitachi PS-17 Turntable, Darlington labs MP-7, and SU-7 phono preamp, Audio Technica VM95SH cartridge Amplification: Hegel P20 preamp. Pass Labs X150.5 power amp. Conditioner: PS Audio Quintet. Cables: Iconoclast SPTPC speaker cables, Mogami RCA interconnects, Mogami XLR interconnects, Iconoclast BAV REL subwoofer cable
21310 Ridgecroft Drive
Brookeville, MD 20833 (301) 953-2014
WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !
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