"From intimate blues to Def Leppard, the Arias proved unflappable, sailing through the wickedest transients with ease and headroom to spare, and yet producing a natural, dimensional soundfield that was truly magical. Music became involving in a way that kept me bleary and red-eyed until I finally decided I couldn’t do without sleep any longer."

Many of you will not be familiar with the name Aria Audio. However, Counterpoint might ring some bells. Mike Elliott, owner of Aria, gained his reputation in the industry as president and lead designer for Counterpoint, an outfit that specialized in top-notch hybrid audiophile electronics, all of which he still services and upgrades, even though he has no real obligation to do so.

When Counterpoint folded, Mike decided to start another company, this time one much less encumbered by the proverbial bean counters. He wanted to build amplifiers without the constraints that hampered him at Counterpoint, and thus Aria was born.

Aria builds a small range of hybrid amplifiers: from 100 watts to 350. They all come with a lifetime warranty—how many times do you see that?—and the upper-end models can be custom-“voiced” by Mike in your own listening room—another really unique feature.

Aria Audio may be little known, but Mike Elliott’s design prowess is not. IMHO, he’s as good as his craft as anyone out there, and the WT-350XM is stunning confirmation of that. It’s not cheap, but considering that you’re paying factory-direct, it could get a whole lot worse! IMHO, it compares favorably with most anything out there. Sure, if you ever decide to sell, it might be hard to move, since the company is so little-known. But I daresay, if you ever get the chance to own a pair, you won’t be in a terrible hurry to sell. And that’s an understatement.

The amp for review here is the 350XM, a 350-watt hybrid featuring voltage amplification via a 6SN7 tube and a solid-state output section. The XM is Aria’s statement product and is rarely sold here in the U.S. (Most are destined for Asia, where Aria enjoys cult status.) They are built to order and can be designed with the customer’s needs and preferences in mind. I requested Jena Labs wiring throughout, as well as Hi-Fi Tuning fuses. My amp took a few months to arrive, which is par for the course for a totally custom product.

The 350s—as with all of Mike’s amps—come in wooden crates that could probably withstand a North Korean missile strike. Very impressive.

Given the flagship nature of the product, it was arranged to have Mike fly in to help install and voice the amp. That’s part of what you pay for. After some initial tinkering, the amps were ready to be fired up. Stone cold out of the box, they were a little sluggish in the bass, and the highs were pretty ragged—which is to be expected, I guess. But after an hour or so of warm-up, things began to change quite dramatically: The highs became noticeably smoother, and the bass tightened up a bit. Still, dimensionality and image focus weren’t really there, and resolution was just okay. But it was easy to see from the get-go that these amps took control of my speakers unlike anything I’d ever had in my room.

Mike asked me what my sonic preferences were, and I told him: transient speed, resolution, and dynamic wallop, but not at the expense of warmth and musicality. A tall order for any amp, but Mike said no problem. Out came the soldering iron and a box of resistors and other parts, and he was on his way. After about an hour on the bench, the amps were ready to be fired up again. MUCH better! Transients were reproduced with startling speed, and resolution went up a few notches. Still, we all agreed it could get better yet, and the better part of the day and a few hours of the next day were spent tinkering and listening and tube rolling until we hit the magic spot. Even though they weren’t close to broken in, the Arias sounded VERY special indeed: a rare blend of tube liquidity and musicality, and solid-state control and resolution. Now, in all honesty, a number of great amps pull off this tricky balancing act—some tube, some solid state—but, in my listening room, none to the same degree as the 350s. From intimate blues to Def Leppard, the Arias proved unflappable, sailing through the wickedest transients with ease and headroom to spare, and yet producing a natural, dimensional soundfield that was truly magical. Music became involving in a way that kept me bleary and red-eyed until I finally decided I couldn’t do without sleep any longer. J

Comparisons

My references prior to the Arias were the 100-watt DarTZeel NHB-108 stereo amps, vertically biamped to my Von Schweikert VR-9s. Make no mistake: The Darts are very good amps, and one of those few capable of pulling off that tube/solid-state balancing act I mentioned above. Still, even paired with my 96dB VR-9s, and even vertically biamped, they would run out of steam on really heavy rock played at decently loud volumes, softly compressing like a tube amp. The transparency and tonality were quite good, but I couldn’t shake the impression that things could get significantly better on the dynamic front—and maybe on other fronts, as well. Couple that with the Darts’ finicky nature, and honestly I was looking for a change.

Enter the Arias. When compared directly with Mike’s monoblocks, the DarTZeels came across dynamically like a low-powered SET. The 350s had MUCH more dynamic slam and control. To my surprise, however, their overall resolution and tonality were better as well. They actually made the Darts sound thin in the midrange, which I never thought I’d say. Now, that’s not to suggest that the Arias were fattening things up. I never got that impression, nor did anyone who heard the comparison. The general feeling was that the Arias reproduced musical textures and shadings better than anything we’d heard. Suffice it to say, I sold the DarTZeels.

Ever the curious audiophile, I’m always on the lookout for something better. I have a fair amount of experience with Boulder, Lamm, MBL, C-J, Goldmund, and other heavy-hitters, but honestly, I haven’t heard anything that pulls off the Arias’ balancing act quite as well. Sure, there are amps that do this or that slightly better—every component is a series of tradeoffs and compromises— but the 350s are SO good that I have little urge to jump back on the new-amp-every-six-months bandwagon. (In a fit of laughably idiotic audiophile insanity, I almost pulled the trigger on a pair of Karan 1200 monoblocks, but I thought better of it at the last minute, much to the relief of friends, family, and pocketbook! I’m quite glad I did.)

Aria Audio may be little known, but Mike Elliott’s design prowess is not. IMHO, he’s as good as his craft as anyone out there, and the WT-350XM is stunning confirmation of that. It’s not cheap, but considering that you’re paying factory-direct, it could get a whole lot worse! IMHO, it compares favorably with most anything out there. Sure, if you ever decide to sell, it might be hard to move, since the company is so little-known. But I daresay, if you ever get the chance to own a pair, you won’t be in a terrible hurry to sell. And that’s an understatement.

Andrew Claps, Detroit

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