Black Ice Audio F35 Tube Integrated Review. This is the one!!
By Steve Huff
My VIDEO Review!
I have been lucky enough to have Black Ice’s lowest cost integrated along with their flagship integrated here for review. I already did my video review of the FX10, which blew me away for the size, power and cost (under $650). If I were still running Klipsch Heritage speakers of ANY type, the FX10 would be my integrated of choice and I can imagine just how well it would do with a set of Cornwall IV’s. I can not imagine finding anything like it for anywhere near the price as it’s not a cheaply made amp. It’s jewel like and hefty in weight but sounds magical. True tube sound with EL34 tubes. See my video on that one below:
I have heard high end over $10k tube amps (Up to $27k) and the lower budget HiFi tube Amps from Amazon in the $1300 range. Heck, I even reviewed this integrated tube amp which even had a DAC for $180.
None of them were as dead quiet as the Black Ice Audio F35.
What I have here and what I have been listening to is a bone stock F35, so I have none of the upgrades here. My thoughts are based solely on the stock unit, and as a stock unit it sounds so nice and rich.
Before I talk about the experience with the F35 let me state that I tested it with a few speakers. First was with the high end Focal Diablo Utopia Evo, then the Alexandria Audio Monitors and finally the CSS and Jay Lee Typhons which are tall two part tower speakers (see my review of the speakers below). I tested this amp with and without a subwoofer as well as with a Bluesound Node X (streamer and DAC) and a Lumin U2 with Weiss 204 DAC.
My review of the CSS Typhon Speakers, and the F35 makes an appearance!
When the delivery truck arrived on a hot summer day I saw the driver unloading one large box and one small box. I knew the small box was the FX10 so the large box had to be the F35 and indeed it was.
I first listened to the FX10 and while only 10 watts of power comes out of this little amp, it was powering the Alexandria Audio monitors with ease (They are 91db efficient). I love the true tube sound of this little amp and for me, it sounded better than one integrated I had here that cost $3500 (which I did not review as it buzzed so loud). So my 1st impression with Black Ice Audio was truly a huge thumbs up. Value with top build quality and sound.
But I knew it would get better with the F35.
When I placed the F35 in the position of the FX10 I was literally and truly happy to see the quality of the F35’s build and design. It’s the kind of thing I usually see in the amps that cost double.
A glass panel on the front with touch control means you change inputs just by touch and each input lights up as you touch it. There is a unique and nicely lit Black Ice script on the front and the Bias meter also glows orange when on. On top of the transformer covers there is another lit up Black Ice logo and it just looks like pure class. The body is finished with a Carbon Fiber look and the entire amp is just gorgeous in the flesh.
I have the black one here and when I compare it to others at this price range in looks and quality feel, the Black Ice is just leagues above the others. It looks and feels like a high end piece (because it is, you just do not have the crazy high price tag). I love when companies make a quality product and they keep the price right and fair. My communications with Jaime at Black Ice have also been remarkable. I can tell he has a passion for this stuff, just as I do and he believes and stands by the Black Ice products.
The F35 has two balanced XLR inputs that can also be used as single ended. There are a total of four inputs as well as a SUB out.
The Black Ice F35 is able to use a variety of tubes. You can choose them depending on what you want from it. I was sent KT88’s as well as KT77’s and I had some EL34’s to try out as well. Depending on the speaker I preferred different tube types.
For the Diablos, the KT88’s ruled the day and I have to say that the F35 powered them without a problem .The sound was incredible as well. There was punch and the midband was full and silky. The top end was extended more than most tube amps and the bass…the bass…WOW!
Black Ice knows what they are doing as they say that the bass with the F35 is as good or even better than some Solid State amps, I have to agree as the F35 was bringing a big controlled deep bass performance. CRAZY! The bass was not wooly or loose either, it was tight, controlled and had impact. This is a rarity in tube amps, and Black Ice created the circuits here, which others have copied in their tube amp designs.
These tubes are known for bringing forth a smoother midrange so vocals will sound sweeter with the EL34’s. Also, the top end was a bit more muted. Bass was not as punchy as the KT88 but these tubes sounded lovely without any kind of offensive sounds. Treble, mids and bass were smooth and alive. These tubes sounded best with the Typhon speakers as they smoothed out the treble on these speakers which can be just a hair pronounced at times.
The Kt77 variety was my least favorite with the Focal and Typhon as they seemed to bring out more of the treble, which eventually can lead to fatigue. With the Alexandria Audio’s thought, these were the winner. Big, smooth, powerful and very very nice.
You can also throw in KT120, etc. I did not have any on hand to try.
All tube amps need to be biased upon setting up for the first time (well, after 10 minutes or so of warm up) as well as a couple times throughout the year or when you change tubes. As tubes age, the bias can drift and the amp will work its best when tubes are biased just right.
Luckily, biasing with this amp is as easy as it gets and it’s actually kind of fun. The F35 has a big bias meter on the top that glows orange when you turn the bias dial to each tube’s bias setting.
To bias you simply turn a small screw using the provided tool until the bias hits the sweets spot. The manual explains the sweet spot of each tube type. Takes about 1-2 minutes to bias all four power tubes. The 12AX7 tubes never need to be biased.
The Black Ice amps are not auto biasing. Some say that using auto bias may lower the sound quality. As for me, I love the manual aspect of it just as I enjoy using manual focus lenses when I take photos. I checked the bias of the KT88 tubes that I left in for most of this review after 3 weeks and they were still spot on. So it holds bias very well.
Many tube amps can run so hot that you could fry an egg on them (maybe, haven’t tried). I have had tube amps that burned me and some that heated my room up so bad I had to stop listening. The Black Ice F35 does get warm but it never heats the room nor does it get hot enough to burn me.
After testing the amp with all of the speakers I have on hand, I stuck to the F35 with the Alexandria Audio Monitors as they are a great match and sound lovely with tubes.
The F35 is not a big warm lush sounding amp. It has tube qualities yes, but it is not one of those tube amps that will sound slow, muffled or boring. It has some life, excitement and a sense of power behind it. I started out with some good old audiophile faves.
Diana Krall’s “Love Letters’ sounded so beautiful. The strings, the piano and her voice was just so realistic, so present and visceral. The F35 with Alexandria Audio’s speakers threw a nice wide soundstage that was also a bit tall. It was not forensic in what it was doing, rather it was more natural and sweet but with gobs of details in the treble. When I say “gobs” I do not mean this in a negative way. What I mean is, this is not a warm gooey amp. You will get all of those details along with a rich midrange that is crystal clear with some body. The bass is just incredible for a tube amp.
Switching to Ghost’s “Bible” the sound starts out mellow and when everything kicks in the room is filled with a sense of energy and power. Yep, imaging is also special here with instruments appearing where they should. Within the large stage that is presented you can almost see the performers in that space. I hear this all the time with $10k amps but many amps in the F35’s price range do not do everything. So far, the F35 does do everything I look for in a high end amp.
When you plug in the F35 the front logo lights up in white light and the main logo glows orange. The amp comes with an all metal remote as well which is nice to see. These days there are so many amps that ship with cheap small plastic things that they call remotes. Good to see Black Ice using solid metal chunks for their remote : )
This amp is solid. I see no flaws in construction, no short cuts taken and it seems to me that Black Ice wants to make very high quality amps at prices anyone can afford. Even the little FX10 feels so solid and this is remarkable to me as I do see some things come through here that are built so cheap and have issues yet they cost a fortune.
The F35 is an amp I could see selling for $6000 in todays HiFi world yet they sell the stock unit that I have here for $3,000. I’ve listened every day since it arrived. I even left it on 24/7 for a week to ensure there were no issues with the amp or tubes. I had no issues.
From what I see, everything about Black Ice Audio is about quality and passion. They believe in what they are doing and that is important as it means that those who make these amps are just like you and me. BTW, these amps are fully designed here in the USA by Black Ice but made in their own factory in Shanghai China.
Quality control is all done in the USA and all amps are checked, tested and burned in before shipping to customers. That is awesome as it means your amp should never arrive DOA (as one too good to be true tube amp from Amazon did for me recently).
Black Ice gas a process for making these amps and you can read all about the process here and why Black Ice puts their amps against brand, regardless of where they are made or what they cost.
Some of you may know Black Ice as they used to be known as Jolida and their little FX10 amp still is branded as Jolida on the box. If you are curious about the history of Black Ice/Jolida take a look at this page that describes every detail.
What I am saying here is that while these products are made in China they are top quality and made in Black Ice’s own factory. Quality control is excellent here and these amps are in no way compromised because of where they are made. I LOVE when this happens as it saves us money, we get a top quality product that we would usually pay more for and the service from Black Ice is all here in the USA. It’s a win win.
I really enjoyed my tine with the F35 from Black Ice and did not want to see it go. Black Ice is allowing me to hold on to it as a long term loaner, for future reviews and comparisons. Nice.
What are the cons? Well, this is a tube amp so if and when a tube dies or blows, you will need to replace it and these days tubes are not cheap. There is some heat, as with all tube amp designs but this one is not a roaster as my Pass Labs XA 60.8s are. The sound is remarkable for what this cost but it will still not sound as refined as a $20,000 integrated amp in the treble
Black Ice may also send me some other gear to review such as their Pre Amp, Phono Stage and maybe even some mono amps. All I know is that after hearing their most affordable amp and their flagship integrated I can say that both sounded lovely and it all comes down to matching your gear with the amp. For example, you do not want an FX10 for 84DB 4 ohm speakers.
As for power, the F35 drove all speakers I tried with it and without issues or problems. This amp can boogie with the best of them and after much thought I will declare the bone stock F35 to be the finest tube integrated amp I have heard for under $5k.
Not just the sound but the design, build quality and attention to detail. I also take into account the company, the service, the people behind it.
The Black Ice F35 is a tube integrated amp that for me, defines what a well designed tube integrated amp should be. Sure, there are many others out there, and you can pay less or pay more. You do not always get what you pay for out there but with Black Ice you get a bit more in my opinion.
Get integrated amps and so far my Black Ice experience has been stellar.