Audiozen Embrace Amplifier REVIEW
This is a review summary written by Terry Ellis June 2022
For the full review please see my YouTube video linked here
Audiozen Embrace Amplifier Review
The full name is the quirky ‘Audiozen Embrace Zen Hybrid Hugging Amplifier’. Just let that sink in.
The keen audiophiles among you, I am sure, are always on the look-out for the ‘gem’ HiFi products. I think this is even more the case today as pretty much all HiFi sounds good so finding a “gem” normally means it must be really special.
I don’t care who makes a product, I simply ask myself “could this product sound amazing”, if there is possibility of ‘yes’ it interests me. That is how I felt when I looked at the Audiozen Embrace. It is an interesting combination of a NOS “New Old Stock” tube preamplifier and a solid-state power amplifier, with quirkiness. In reality, this amplifier has been nothing like what I was expecting. I think it’s a wonderful combination of clever simplicity, an addictive sound presentation, and overall exceptional performance for the money.
Audiozen are an Italian HiFi manufacturer that I was unaware of before this review and yet they have been manufacturing HiFi components since 2008. The Embrace is part of their Zen line of products, it is a hybrid integrated amplifier although I think it is clever. It’s a two chassis design, semi separating the NOS tube preamplifier from the solid-state amplification built into one chassis, which is separate from the power supplies, of which there are three in the second chassis. The two chassis are connected together with a custom umbilical cable. What that creates is almost a dual mono NOS tube preamplifier with almost separate stereo power amplifier but remaining compact overall and modest in price, a clever way of doing it. Just to confirm this is just an amplifier so no DAC, no phono stage, no streamer, no headphone amplifier. I know there is a current trend for fully loaded amplifiers, but I still believe that for the best performance separates is the way to go, but I am happy to be proven wrong there.
The Embrace does the important audiophile things really very well – excellent timing, fantastic transparency, great sound stage, with depth to its presentation both forwards and backwards from the speakers plain, good tonality and more. However for me the stand out aspect of this amplifiers sound is its overall presentation character and I think there must have been a serious amount of thought put into this the designer. If you are thinking a tube preamplifier means warm, cosy and pipe and slippers type of sound, this amplifier is strictly the opposite of that. It sounds more typical solid-state, fast and detailed rather than stereotypical “tubey” euphonic, although there is a bit of that for sure.
What there is in abundance, is immediacy, strong transient attack, what you might call a more ‘live’ sound and by that I do not mean PA speaker system ‘live’, no one wants that. I mean dynamism, transients that have real attack and impact, which can be tight and focused creating a feeling like you are listening to a big and more expensive amplifier. This is quite amusing because when you look at the amplifier internals, big is not what you see, your eyes might struggle to believe your ears.
I know some audiophiles will relish this idea, others might doubt enjoying this type of sound all the time, totally understandable, but once you have heard it you might just find it very addictive. The energy, transient clarity, tightness and solidity of sound combined with other important audiophile attributes such as transparency, tonality, grace and ease with the right setup.
There is also an incredible amount of control from the Embrace. Listening to Poem of Chinese Drum, by Hok-man Yim, is a real experience with the Embrace and the Mission 770 speaker combination. The drum hits are big and powerful but you can still hear the intricacies of the tension in the drum heads, the decay of the notes and echo in the room before the next drum attack comes at you even faster. This shows how fast this amplifier is and how it delivers its power in an instant. All this is achieved with incredible control and amazing holographic 3D imagery. Everything in this track sounds beyond the plane of the speakers, which is impressive.
Admittedly, this is an audiophile recording so switching to Metallica – Hardwired I am not sure if this would be a metal-heads first choice of amplifier on paper, it is not in my usual musical listening repertoire, but Metallica on the Embrace was a real experience. The Hardwired track is not only portrayed with all the intensity, speed, percussion, volume and ass-kicking this music should have, but also with control, poise and an air of real quality. The amplifier’s quality easily shows just how the music has been made and mastered. This isn’t an extreme clinical analysis of the quality, the presentation holds your attention on the music and it’s a real experience to listen to this track on the Embrace
I love how you can then change to a movie soundtrack, perhaps something from Hans Zimmer and your emotional state changes too as you are drawn into the music deeply, rather than being hammered into submission by it. The big crescendo peaks in the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack have real scale, top to bottom room-filling scale and impact, which I didn’t know the Mission 770s were capable of. The music in a lot Hans Zimmer soundtracks gets very intense at times. In the main, the Embrace does an amazing job of not only keeping up but keeping the intensity level peaks where they need to be, often one big scale peak after another is hard hitting at loud volumes. Its composure is not quite perfect, but it is very impressive for an amplifier at this price level. My slight complaint here could be down to something else in my system, perhaps not the amplifier at all.
I then switched to some big-voiced female singers. Lyn Stanley is one I use quite often for evaluation purposes. Her voice sounds big, warm, rich and solid, commanding your attention. The big double bass in the Bye-Bye Blackbird track is huge, detailed and insightful. It is presented with a clarity that’s new to me. It was then that I realised the Embrace amplifier is a bit special, if it’s opening my eyes to a new way of presenting music I have listened to many times before on amplifiers costing much more money, it’s definitely a gem.
There is no real weakness either. There is great solid bass, which can have a really big scale and impact when listening to some grimy rap like Fredo – Back to Basics. The bass in that song is incredible. The presentation of the soundstage commences with bass back behind the speakers, but later it is out in the room, throbbing you in the listening chair. It’s a fun track when its delivered liked this, and shows that the Missions can do some great bass, even better than I previously thought another nice discovery. Vocals are presented with character, more character than I am used to, another addictive aspect. They are presented just that little bit more special, there is less density to them compared to some other amps I have here, but there is also more clarity and freedom. You can hear into the vocal a little bit more because they noticeably sound a little more live, open and expressive. The treble is crisp, airy and really spot on for detail and presence, but this all depends on the quality of the signal coming into the Embrace.
Warming up to it
The exceptional sound I have just been describing I did not did not get immediately. In fact, my first impressions were not positive. As in typical tube amplifier design, the Embrace is singled ended RCA input connection only, and so I decided to go with a Chord Electronics DAC rather than an R2R DAC because R2R perform more optimally when used balanced. As the Embrace is a dual chassis construction, I was a little rack space limited and so I started with the Chord Qutest. My whole system was stone cold, including the amplifier, and for the first hour or so I hated the sound. It was hard, aggressive and mechanical, and really not nice to listen to but, I could tell there was something stand-out here, the immediacy, energy and clarity was there and it encouraged me to persevere.
I thought that perhaps this is an amplifier that will sound best with a vinyl source. I prepped the AVID Ingenium, and this allowed me to setup a new toy I have to play with as part of my vinyl journey, the AVID Pellar phono stage. I was very impressed. This was the best I had heard the Ingenium sound and by far the best I have had vinyl sounding in my room. That encouraged me to go back to my digital setup and make some buffer settings changes in my custom music server source for the Singxer SU6 Digital to digital convertor. I also messed around with the Chord Qutest voltage, discovering that 3v sounded surprisingly the best, the higher voltage seemed to give the most solid sound.
I was happy with the changes, and by now the Embrace had been on for a few hours and I felt its sound had changed for the better. This is likely why there are three power settings. Off, On, which makes sense, but there is also a standby option, which turns off the amplifier, but leaves the preamplifier on so that the tubes stay glowing and warm. This is probably intentional to try and reduce the warm up time it takes for the Embrace to sound its best. This is a great feature and I used it all the time.
A Tale of Two DACS
Listening to the system with the Qutest DAC, I was getting most of the sound I described earlier, except there was a little bit of high frequency edginess, even with the filter mode set to a warmer sounding option. Deeper bass notes weren’t quite as clean as I have had before from the 770s and there was a little bit of a hollowness caused by some upper bass / lower mid-range leanness. That was totally fine, but I felt it could be better.
I also wasn’t sure if this effect was caused by the amplifier or the DAC so I changed to the Chord Hugo TT2 DAC, which I know is great in all those areas. Once the TT2 was installed in the system the amplifier now delivered in all the areas I had been concerned about better than I was expecting. I also noticed a significant drop in the system’s perceived noise floor, producing what is euphemistically called a ‘darker background’ that delivers a tighter and stronger, more tonally saturated presentation. This was all for the betterment but it did push the systems balance to being slightly darker than with the Qutest.
Not only was the Embrace able to deliver a much better sound with the more expensive TT2 DAC, but it was also transparent enough to show me some of the clear and major differences between the two Chord DACs. I found this impressive and, overall, my preference was for leaving the Hugo TT2 in the system but I was missing a little bit of the Qutest’s airiness and openness, and that is where I could have added the Hugo M scaler. Instead, I thought it would make more sense to do some amplifier comparative listening.
A Comparison Above and Below
I have listened to four integrated amplifiers since I have had the Mission 770s in my room. They are all good amplifiers and I liked them all for different reasons.
The Kinki Studio EXM1+ for its clean sound and deep soundstage. I liked the Audia Flight FLS9 for a similar reason but preferred it for its more solid and more authoritative sound. The Leema Tucana II Anniversary I like for its lively, more upfront and energetic presentation.
What’s interesting here is that two of these amplifiers cost significantly more and yet, with the Audiozen Embrace, it feels like you don’t need to choose as it can give you it all, all the strengths of all the amplifiers, pretty much without any drawbacks.
I don’t quite know how, but the Embrace sound presentation seems to go very deep away from you, behind the speakers, yet produces a sound which also feels out in the room. It is like the depth of the soundstage starts at you the listener, rather than starting at the plane of the speakers. It is something really very impressive. The immediacy of sound seems crisper and quicker than I recall from the more expensive amplifiers, and definitely crisper, quicker, and livelier than the Kinki Studio. The dynamics are impactful, easily as good as the best of the bunch here, maybe even better. The Embrace really comes over as a powerhouse type of amplifier, when on paper it really does not, so it must all be in the clever design.
The power supply chassis is a good size and is quite heavy. The main chassis is small and surprisingly light. It is the opposite of what you expect from a high performance amplifier.
The clear top on the amp allows you to see inside, I really like this and it shows confidence in the design and build. Inside one side appears to be an extremely simple preamplifier board with some nice polypropylene clarity caps and Togram ECC82 NOS Tubes. I think they are from the 1960s and don’t seem too expensive to replace. On the other side appears to a be a very simple and small amplifier board and its a class A/B amplifier that produces 100w per channel into 8 ohms, and 175 watts into 4 ohms. I guess the sound quality must be in large part from the simplicity and cleverness of the design. Keeping it simple and the use of tubes perhaps helps to create the immediacy of sound although I have no doubt other components are high quality as well and are contributing.
Is the Embrace perfect? Of course not, but it is not easy to find fault with its sonics. Its overall build quality is very good, the volume control and the input channel selector have an old-fashioned heavy weight solidity to them, and I find the Embrace’s very quirky design charming. Unfortunately, if it matters to you, the lack of markings means you have no way of knowing what the volume is set to when viewing from a distance. I think the price is very appealing also. At £3,590 it is not cheap but, compared to other amps of similar quality, it is not expensive either for the sound it delivers. The same sound from a bigger brand name would probably cost double.
The remote control makes little sense because you can only adjust volume and so there are lots of unused buttons. It is also hard to use it to set the volume exactly where you want it so the remote could be better. I love VU meters, and the meters used in the Embrace have a great action and motion to them, but yI could not see them from twelve feet away which is a real shame, and so I turned off their illumination try and forget about them.
The long warm up time required to achieve optimal sound could be a negative for some audiophiles and the volume control being called the ‘Hug Intensity’ is certainly something I haven’t seen before!
Finally a Conclusion
To sum up, I am excited by this amplifier and have really enjoyed my time spent with it, and unusually what you see is not what you get, it could be very easy to misjudge the Embrace. Don’t make that mistake. I have particularly enjoyed it with the Mission 770 speakers because they performed to a new level in some areas and reaffirmed to me what seriously good speakers they are.
If you are in the market for a new amplifier, especially if you want one to power your new Missions, don’t overlook the Audiozen Embrace, seek it out for a demo if you can and make sure it has been on for a few hours before you listen critically. I think it is next-level awesome and a real HiFi bargain, even at its price point. I am in no rush to pack this one back up and I am thinking, with more component experimentation, I can likely take things even further. Hopefully, more on that soon.
A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price
For the full Specification of the Audiozen Embrace
See the website here