Electrocompaniet ECI 80D Integrated Amplifier Review
Stephen Dawson says this Norwegian integrated gives enjoyable digital and analogue listening in a reasonably priced package…
ECI 80D Integrated Amplifier
We're long past the days of minimalist, less-is-more integrated amplifiers. In the last few years, the breed has morphed into more sophisticated and versatile designs. Electrocompaniet's new ECI 80D is a case in point; it may be a well proportioned, slimline box but it packs a large punch in terms of power, connectivity and – the company claims – sound quality. Let's take a closer look…
Consider first, the analogue section. Its power amp offers a claimed 80W RMS per channel of Class AB power into 8 ohms, almost doubling into 4 ohms – including protection against DC output, overload and temperature. There are two sets of stereo RCA inputs, along with a pair of RCAs for a moving magnet phono connection. If you want to upgrade the power amplifier, you can use this unit as a preamp too. A choice of 6.35mm and 3.5mm headphone sockets are fitted, although oddly and inexplicably they're both on the back panel.
Looking at its digital functionality, and this amplifier has three optical digital TOSLINK inputs and two coaxial ins. All of these support signals from 16-bit/44.1kHz up to 24/192; that's as far as S/PDIF can handle. Also built-in is Bluetooth 5.0; as well as the standard, relatively low-quality SBC codec, the Electrocompaniet offers AAC and aptX HD. AAC is the best format available from Apple devices, while some higher-quality Android phones offer aptX HD, which is really quite listenable. More devices offer regular aptX, and aptX HD is backwards compatible (at reduced quality, of course) with regular aptX. My phone confirmed the aptX HD support.
To my eyes, this is a lovely looking amp. Available in black finish as standard, there's also a white colour option. The black review sample features classy gold-coloured buttons which are accented by the 10mm thick Perspex fascia. To the left is a display panel with fluorescent blue lettering over a black background, showing input, volume level and digital audio quality of the incoming signal, when and where appropriate. This is the classic Electrocompaniet look and is arguably as distinctive as McIntosh. One problem for me was that I didn't find its volume control buttons as satisfying to use as a knob; you might as well use the bundled remote.
The width of this amplifier is a major annoyance. At first glance, it looks normal but is actually 470mm wide, which is the same as the huge, full plinth version of the Michell GyroDec turntable, for example. Most hi-fi separates are around 434mm wide, and most hi-fi racks are built for this; my own can handle components up to 450mm across. Some may see this as Electrocompaniet being typically quirky, but to others, it's a deal-breaker sadly. Ironically, since I had to position the ECI 80D on top of my rack, at least those headphone outputs were easier to reach…
The amplifier's main output is switched between loudspeakers and headphones manually using a button on the remote control, and every time you do this, the new output goes back to a default level of 10 on a scale of 100 – which is inaudible at that level. It's understandable why this is done – so as not to default to too loud a listening level – but operationally it's still a bit of a pain. Indeed it appears that this amplifier has protection circuitry built-in, which seems to kick in if the headphone output goes significantly above four volts output – with some headphones I tried at higher listening levels, the output was muted, and “PROT” was shown on the display.
Throughout the audition period, the ECI 80D found itself hooked up to my VAF Research I-93 floor-standing loudspeakers, claimed to go down to below 20Hz with suitable amplification, and with an amp-throttling claimed nominal impedance of a mere 3 ohms! Happily, though, the Electrocompaniet seemed in its element, proving perfectly comfortable driving them. Music sources included a Denon audio streamer and a Rega Planar 3/Rega Exact turntable, plus my aptX HD-capable smartphone.
This amplifier delivers a neutral, controlled and musical performance, as you would expect from this brand. It's a clean sound that doesn't impose any particular character on the music but drives hard and loud without complaint. For example, the remarkable sounding 1982 self-titled album from Weather Report was a pleasure to hear. My copy is the original nineteen-eighties CBS half-speed-mastered disc, which has prodigious bass – but this was tight and controlled from the Electrocompaniet. My reference VAF speakers really do need a stern taskmaster to give their best, and this amplifier proved up to the challenge.
Not only was the soundstaging impressively wide, but also precise in the placement of the instruments, with a decent amount height in the delivery. Occasionally the percussion danced high above the front soundstage. The excellent performance continued with my network music collection. The Ry Cooder track Nobody from the album Jazz was delivered with a rare presence, as though the vocalists and accompanying guitar were physically laid out between the speakers. Sweet, truly sweet.
To test this amplifier's muscular mettle, I then moved to music that's unlikely to be described as sweet and makes considerable demands on its power amp stage. Nature Boy from Primus is led, as always, by Claypool's bass guitar, but the recording from this strangely frenetic group has a surprising amount of space within, providing the playback gear is up to the challenge. Even via my big VAF speakers, the Electrocompaniet exercised first-class control over the woofers. The ECI 80D has a high quoted damping factor of 300, which was borne out by high volume listening and allowed the recording's air and space to shine through, in turn letting serious levels of fine detail to emerge.
For dynamics, I rarely need to look further than the Chandos recording of the Shchedrin ballet version of Bizet's Carmen, this one performed by the I Musici De Montreal, directed by Yuli Turovsky. This is a percussion-heavy arrangement, and two things were soon apparent. The amplifier delivered instant and tight transients, ensuring an exciting cohesion in the work; each instrument was nicely located in its place on the stage, and even at almost unrealistically high levels it held in place securely, the ECI 80D not giving any ground. The Electrocompaniet's headphone output sounded great too, whether using my Focal Elear or Sennheiser HD 560S dynamic phones, or Oppo PM3 planar magnetics.
Electrocompaniet's ECI 80D integrated amplifier is a quirky but appealing premium-priced integrated amplifier. It packs a lot of power, has a wide range of functions and sounds the part too, including with headphones. Factor in the interesting and/or distinctive styling and rock-solid build quality that's typical of this brand – and it has much to give.
Stephen Dawson started writing full time about home entertainment technology just weeks before the DVD was launched in Australia. Since then he has written several thousand product reviews amounting to millions of words for newspapers and magazines around Australia.
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