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Audia Flight FLS9 Integrated Amplifier REVIEW

Review
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This is a review summary written by Terry Ellis May 2022

For the full review please see my YouTube video linked here 

It is often the case that you appreciate a HiFi component much more when you have had it in your system for a while and then replace it with something not as good. This is because you instantly notice going backwards in sound quality I think much more obvious than going forwards. I feel this can sometimes mean we can take good components for granted. That has kind of been the situation with my review of Audia Flight FLS9 Integrated Amplifier because I do feel I was maybe taking it for granted during the review period, however, making comparisons with other components showed me just how good it sounds.

A Lot of Amplifier

Towards the back end of last year, 2021, I reviewed my first Audia Flight component, the FL Three S, which I thought was a really good sounding amplifier for the money. Its price is currently around £2.5k and my only complaint with it was that I felt like you needed to turn up the volume in order to unleash the maximum drive and dynamics from it. However, when I did turn it up, its composure stayed mostly intact so it was fine to do so but just felt unusual compared to other amplifiers that seem to hit their “best” sound with the volume set lower.  I do know there can be much more to this and the amount you turn the volume wheel has no real reflection on an integrated amplifiers power.

The FLS9 is a very big step up from the Three S, for starters it costs nearly two and a half times as much £5,950, which is a serious chunk of money for an integrated HiFi amplifier. This particular unit I had for review had both of its expansion slots filled with the optional DAC and phono stage modules installed, which pushes the total price up to a very serious £8,900. Consequently, my expectations were very high but also grounded as I have reviewed many amplifiers around this money and so know they can justify that level of expense.

This is a lot of amplifier; physically sitting next to the Kinki Studio EX M1+, or the Leema Acoustics Tucana II Anniversary, the FLS 9 is noticeably deeper and a fair bit chunkier.

This makes sense when you open the case and take a look at the internals. You can see the amplifier’s external shape is allowing space at the rear for the expansion boards and also the needs of the shielded 1,000w toroidal transformer, the 120,000 microfarads of capacitance, the 12 output devices and their cooling, the extra thick copper printed circuit boards, the balanced design and other exciting stuff.   All this adds up to 150w power per channel into 8 ohms, 290w into 4ohms and 500w into 2ohms.

The internal design also explains the unusual rear layout of connections, with all the main inputs and outputs being on one side.  I was impressed to see this many connections, and some audiophiles will certainly appreciate having two sets balanced inputs, as did I.

In terms of design aesthetics, my thoughts are mixed. The FLS9 looks nice, but it won’t win any beauty contests compared to some other amplifier designs in 2022 and recent years. The silver finish appears to look a little more special in the photos. I am a fan of the solid top plate with the logo engraved into it, however, that top plate does sit right above the amplifier’s heat sinks and it consequently gets warm, as does the whole amp.  Sat on the very top shelf of my rack provides a lot of ventilation, the FLS9 never became hot, but its running temperature maybe something to consider if you plan to install it in some kind of furniture with minimal ventilation. It should be fine, but probably worth asking the question first just to make sure.

On the front of the case is a blue OLED screen that is clear and easy to read for volume and other settings even when sitting over twelve feet away.

A Big Positive

I want to start with the big positive for this amplifier and that is sound quality. This is an excellent sounding amplifier and I have enjoyed many hours listening to it through the Mission 770 speakers. In some ways, with some music, the sound quality has been outstanding.

Vocals have excellent resolution. There is a solidity, authenticity and a holographic nature to how they are presented, that left me wanting for nothing. I have been totally smitten with the vocals in nearly every way possible. In order to achieve this level of performance the amplifier must have great control of the speaker drivers. It sounded fast, which prevented any bloom or over-hang of notes. That carries over into an excellent soundstage with fantastic clarity from left to right and all points in between. The FLS9 is able to render instruments, or different musical elements in space, with good clarity and resolution, and with some music the sense of space is extremely impressive.

The treble was a little softer than I expected, which at first seemed like a bit of a negative. However, I soon realised it was for the betterment with some less well polished music, and there is just a little bit of sweetness to how the treble is presented which adds some sparkle to the sound, and makes certain music that little bit more pleasing.

I found that bass was impressive for its authority and control. Listening in isolation, I was extremely happy with how the FLS9 was able to achieve a solid and strong bass performance with excellent timing and precision. However, I found myself in a very similar situation to when I reviewed the Audia Flight FL Three S, in that I was turning up the volume to what seemed to be a high level in order to achieve the sense of scale and impact to the music I like. I do listen loud, and my room being fully acoustically treated, soaks up any excess sound and allows music to be played louder without listening fatigue. Again, this was no problem, as the FLS9 allows you to turn the volume up with no noticeable sound degradation or a limit whereby any sound compression becomes audible.   This makes me wonder if this is just how Audia Flights amplifiers are designed, they seem to offer a huge amount of volume adjustment range.

There is an interesting phenomenon here because I think the FLS9 naturally wants to sound relaxed, but by turning the volume up you can make it sound more impactful and gritty. This is great, except at times when listening to a very random selection of music streaming from Qobuz, not all of it is reference sound quality and the combination of the FLS9 and Mission 770 were very resolving of this. I don’t see this as a negative as it is not the fault of the equipment if the music sounds tense because it has been mastered to sound loud.

Overall, I was very impressed with the FLS9, but I do think I was, perhaps, taking it a little for granted as it wasn’t grabbing or fighting for my attention and therefore my focus was more on the speakers and I suppose the music. However, as I said at the start of the review, it is often when you take a component out of the system that its quality becomes truly apparent.

Revealing Comparisons

Switching the FLS9 out of my system for the Kinki Studio EX M1+, which only costs about half by comparison but is an excellent amplifier for the money, it was apparent straight away why the FLS9 costs more.  Listening through the EX M1+, most of what I had been really enjoying about how my system was sounding was still there, but in a more subdued and less special way. The vocals recessed back and lost some solidity and some dynamic capability and expression.  The soundstage was still present, but it sounded somewhat faded and less resolute. The overall scale and impact of the sound was just softer, and not nearly as impressive. These comments reflect back to my review of the M1+, in that I really liked that amplifier, but I would have liked a “bigger” one more and I think FLS9 is that bigger amp, providing the bigger sound. Please don’t forget that the FLS9 costs double that of the M1+, and so it should sound better, and it does so justifying its extra cost.

I next put the Leema Acoustics Tucana II Anniversary amp into the system. This amp costs about the same as the FLS9. Both are excellent integrated amplifiers and the difference between them was not huge. I’ve found the differences harder to distinguish and define categorically.   The Audia Flight sounded more rounded and pleasing, whilst the Leema sounded more precise and resolute. The Leema had the edge for bass control and solidity whereas the Audia Flight had the edge for treble and vocal sweetness.  The Leema sounded more forward and wanted the music to come out into the room to engage with the listener in a more immediate way, the Audia Flight sound was a little more relaxed and its intent is to draw the listener in for more. The Leema gets loud very quickly when the volume is turned up, so much so I lowered its gain setting, the Audia Flight is the opposite, and you have the volume high all the time. The designs are clearly very different and which you might prefer will depend on any number of factors.

The Audia Flight does offer something that the Leema doesn’t, and that is the ability to install a DAC, or a phono stage, or both, which could be great if you want to reduce your box count.  I am still very new to vinyl playback and I did test the phono stage and found it showed promise over the iFi Audio Zen Phono but my listening to this was limited.  The FLS9 has inputs for both MM and MC cartridges, with a set of switches for changing the impedance to suit your cartridge.  The phono stage module costs £1,100 which appears to be very reasonable.

I am pleased to report that the DAC section surprised me. It sounded much better than I expected and, for outright clarity and resolution, it bettered the more expensive external DAC I was using, the Hibiki SDS, which is a very good R2R resistor ladder DAC.  However, over a longer listening session I still preferred the sound of the external DAC more because, whilst the internal DAC sounded more tightly focused and precise, which balances really well with the sound of the amplifier, for musical enjoyment the external DAC for me had the edge. There is something a little special subjectively for me about how the SDS DAC sounds that was lost with the internal DAC. However, you may view this differently.  The internal DAC does have seven different digital filter modes which is a bit of a slog to work through and, by the time I reached number six, I had forgotten how number one sounded. I was not able to quickly a/b compare the modes, which didn’t help. It is great to have the choice but I found that once I started testing the different DAC modes, I didn’t find one that was the best of everything, or that could better the external DAC.  For reference the internal DAC upgrade costs £1,850. I would have preferred it to have a BNC SPDIF connection, rather than just an RCA.

Niggle-Time

With a product at this price level, I think it is right to have very high expectations and some niggles are justified. My first niggle is with the buttons on the front and the remote control. Sometimes I pressed the mute button on the FLS9 and nothing would happen even though I heard the click of the buttons motion. Maybe with my fat fingers I hadn’t pressed the button fully in enough, this is possible but I did find it a little frustrating. Then you have the Audia Fight amplifier’s menu system, I found it to be a little clunky to use,  mostly because there is no back button. Once you make a selection or an incorrect selection, you have to wait a few seconds to go back again. I did get used to it, but found it not as intuitive as some others I have used.

For me the biggest niggle is that the amplifier remembers the last volume it is playing at when you turn it off. In a way this is great, because you don’t have to raise the volume all the way up from -90 every time which takes a bit of time.  However, if I was playing it loud the evening before, and forgot to turn the volume down before powering the FLS9 off, then the next time you turn it on the volume starts rising back to that same level, if music is playing it gets louder and louder, and you cannot seem to override the rising volume with the remote or the main volume control. This is again not the end of the world but could be a little frustrating at times..  Also, sometimes when you are in control of the volume, and you are making large adjustments quickly, because there is not much range for adjustment, the volume seemed to lag a little bit and could end up playing louder than I intended when it caught up.

I want to be clear about this, the reason I am calling these niggles is because none of them stopped me use and enjoying listening to music through the FLS9 and it is likely that I if I owned one, over time, I would change my behaviour to work with, and not against, the amplifier’s idiosyncrasies.

Great Headphone Section

I want to finish the review on a positive note, and that is the built-in headphone amplifier. This impressed me. It sounded solid, punchy, detailed and musical, mirroring what is good about the FLS9 through speakers back into headphones. This was a pleasant surprise. It is a very usable headphone section.

Overall

If you want it to be, the Audia Flight FLS9 can be your all-in-one high end music hub, just add your sources and speakers to this amplifier-DAC-phono stage-headphone amplifier, which all deliver a very high standard of sound.  This amp gives you options. If you prefer to use an outboard DAC / phono stage, that’s fine, it’s your choice. What that means is you are not paying for features you won’t use.

In the main, I have been very impressed with the Audia Flight FLS9 for its excellent sound quality and but at its price there is a huge amount of competition available. I think FLS9 easily does enough righ for it to be worthy of you seeking out for a demo.

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For the full Specification of the Audia Flight FLS9  
See the website here

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