Electrocompaniet has been around for a long time and while this amp certainly doesn’t date from the company’s earliest days, it’s hardly a spring chicken. Still, if they got it right first time round and all that... It’s a notably large beast, wide and deep, which is only partly accounted for by the use of through-hole components which take up a lot more room than the surface-mount ones used for instance by Arcam and Cyrus. But Astin Trew, likewise, uses through- hole, plus valves and more features than the ECI-3. In fact it’s easy to see ways in which this amp could have been made several inches shallower, so the size is clearly a design decision.
The mains transformer almost disappears in such space, but it’s chunky and assisted by unusually generous amounts of smoothing capacitance. Across the case, meanwhile, sits the heatsink, on which are mounted the output transistors and small-signal stages sit in the middle. Input selection is done with relays and there’s a traditional volume control, but it’s not connected to a knob. Instead the up/down buttons on the characteristic diamond array (or the remote, of course) operate the volume via a motor. This can be a pain and it’s certainly slower than a single-turn knob, but Electrocompaniet has got it just about right and it’s easy to ‘nudge’ the volume up and down in very small increments. Setting is shown by a blue LED, which is visible through the front panel, tracking the volume control’s setting mechanically.
Apart from one pair of op-amps, the circuit uses only discrete transistors and not a particularly large number of them either. Inputs run to six, one of which is balanced, while twin recording outputs are joined by preamp outputs, the latter balanced and unbalanced.
Although there was more praise than blame for this amp, it divided opinion to some extent among our listening panellists. The main reason for this was clearly a very small degree of brightness compared with most of the models in the group. In a perfect demonstration of why no one product will suit all listeners all of the time, one listener found this made the sound exciting, while another felt it simply spoiled the whole presentation. The third listener noticed the brightness but it didn’t seem to bother him profoundly one way or the other.
So if we discount the comments of the individual for whom this amp was a bit of a trial, it seems there is plenty of detail and insight to enjoy from the ECI-3. There’s also good bass, possibly not the most extended and certainly not the most indulgent, but precise, crisp and rhythmically driving.
Imaging is intriguing, excellent laterally with a very high degree of precision but a little compressed in terms of depth – I felt the same when listening sighted to the amp. Images come forward slightly compared with the group average, but this isn’t particularly distracting and, if anything, adds to the excitement that the amp is capable of generating.
Perhaps, more than any others in this group, though, this amp seems to make its best impression slowly, something that one can’t very well establish in a quick-fire comparative test. Most likely, this is simply down to the fact that with a couple of hour’s listening, one becomes familiar with the brightness and this dominant characteristic is perceived to be very beguiling and persuasive with detail. It makes sense then, to listen for a long period to really appreciate whether the brightness gets more or less apparent, before judging this amp!
WE SAY: Sound is a little on the bright side. If this doesn’t completely alienate you, there is a lot to enjoy in the rest of the ECI-3’s character, especially the way it deals with detail. Precise, but not clinical, sums it up.
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