The First Watt F8
Stereophile|December 2020
I spent my childhood summers on the Reichert family farm near Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, where, inside the red 1880s barn, my uncle Harold played 78rpm records for his cows.
HERB REICHERT

He used a wind-up Victrola sitting on a shelf directly in front of the cows, just below a framed reproduction of an Alpine landscape painting. He said the music and the mountain scene relaxed the cows, causing them to give better milk. Harold played the same Gustav Mahler symphony every day. I remember how quickly each disc ended, how I had to run over and change it, and how cross he got when I played the discs in the wrong order. I remember how the room smelled like hay and wet cow pies, how half the sound from the Victrola was a scrapey, hissing noise, and how Mahler’s (and Harold’s) Austro-Bohemian German-ness dominated the room.

These sensuous farm memories entered my mind after watching a movie, Desperate Man Blues, about a notorious radio disc jockey and 78rpm record collector named Joe Bussard, who explains that he found many of his most valuable discs by knocking on the doors of houses without electricity, in one case walking waist-deep through a swamp to get there. Joe Bussard is legend. Watching him in his wood-paneled basement playing rare discs from the 1920s is the purest illustration of what an evolved, music-loving record collector looks like.

Joe wears plaid flannel shirts, drinks beer, and sits in a gray steel office chair at the end of a long wall containing thousands of brown-sleeved, unlabeled, deliberately disorganized 78rpm discs. In front of him are several turntables, including his current favorite, a Technics SP15 with an Audio Technica ATP-12T tonearm. To his side is a 1970s-looking equalizer amp with faders that he plays like a dobro (which he also plays) and a shelf with a row of cassette decks.

Tucked in a corner at the end of the record wall, at least 25' from his DJ command post, sits a single, corner positioned Altec Laguna–looking speaker that is definitely not an Altec. But what is it?

I posted this picture of Joe’s blond-wood corner speaker on Facebook, asking my friends if they could identify it. Twenty-five people guessed incorrectly. Then I ran into an article about Joe Bussard by Sound & Vision editor Al Griffin wherein he described the speaker as “furniture-type.” Intrigued, I wrote Al, asking if he knew the brand or model. “As you say, Joe Bussard is a highly evolved listener, but not what we would call an audiophile,” Al responded. “He didn’t care about frontend gear aside from cartridges and needles and couldn’t tell me the brand name or model of his speaker. I called it a “furniture-type” speaker because it’s likely a DIY creation he picked up at a yard sale.”

Joe begins his listening by pulling a disc from the stacks while telling a little story about the artist or where he found the disc. Next, he chooses a cartridge and a stylus, then adjusts the platter’s speed, usually ±1–3rpm. As the record begins to play, Joe quickly adjusts the EQ (which he does for every disc). This EQ adjustment is an important moment, because it shows that Joe knows what these records are supposed to sound like, and he knows how to achieve that sound. With speed and EQ set, Joe leans back, closes his eyes, and is gone.

Joe Bussard listens with such practiced, knowledgeable intent that it is easy to see that he has devoted his entire life to listening.

FIRST WATT F8

The first solid-state amp I ever used was a Dynaco Stereo 120, which I thought sounded evil. The second was a homemade, class-A, 20Wpc stereo amp. It sounded a lot better but burst into flames during its second week of life. The third was a Hafler DH-200, which I built as a kit then deluded myself into liking. After that, I auditioned and dreamed of owning (but could not afford) the John Iverson–designed Electro Research A75, the AMP-1 by Andy Rappaport, the Mark Levinson

ML-2 designed by John Curl, the Krell KSA-50 designed by Dan D’Agostino, and—last but not least—Pass Labs’ first product, the Nelson Pass–designed Aleph 0.

If I could have any of those dream amps now, it would be the Electro Research A75. And the Pass Labs Aleph 0. Both. I heard an Aleph 3 recently, the Aleph 0’s successor. It was causing John DeVore’s O/96 speakers to sing with sweet, beguiling ease.

Nelson Pass has been designing amplifiers nonstop since co-founding Threshold Audio in 1974. Since then, the sound of a Pass amplifier has evolved to become not just more compelling and definitive but also subtler and more sophisticated—especially his recent, more esoteric designs for First Watt.

Since I started writing for Stereophile, the Pass Labs XA25 and INT-25, as well as the First Watt SIT-3 and J2, have become essential reviewing tools, satisfying both the romantic and engineering sides of my brain while reminding me daily that all my solid-state dream amps operate in pure class-A. When the First Watt F8 was announced (for release in September 2020), I asked Nelson in an email what yet another low-power, class-A JFET amp could possibly add to what I was already getting from the J2, which I reviewed in September 2016. He replied, also by email, “I wanted to create yet another amplifier with the SemiSouth SiC R100 power JFETs, so in 2015 I developed a design with the same output stage but an alternative front-end circuit. As the years went by, I put some more work into it, and now we are finally releasing it as the F8.” (In the next two paragraphs, the words are his but the emphasis is mine.)

“The F8 is a stereo, two-stage single-ended class-A amplifier using the [new-old-stock] Toshiba 2SJ74 P channel JFETs and SemiSouth R100 SiC power JFETs for signal gain, plus IRFP240 MOSFET mu-follower current sources, for a total of only three devices per channel.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

RELATED STORIES

The View From Space

A startup uses satellites and AI to measure, and maybe mitigate, the climate crisis

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
October 11, 2021

CIA Creates Working Group on China as Threats Keep Rising

China is an especially difficult challenge for the U.S. intelligence community.

3 mins read
Techlife News
October 09, 2021

JAKE GYLLENHAAL CARRIES CLAUSTROPHOBIC ‘THE GUILTY'

An emergency dispatch center doesn’t exactly sound like the most visually exciting place to set an entire film. But the technical limitation of being imprisoned in a soulless office while high stakes action takes place off-screen can be an inspired storytelling gimmick in the right hands, as it is in “ The Guilty,” directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by Nic Pizzolatto and starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

3 mins read
AppleMagazine
October 01, 2021

EXPLOSIVE PHYSICAL RESPONSE - Joe McNally

Website: portfolio.joemcnally.com

10+ mins read
Lens Magazine
September 2021

The Three Faces of Joe

Ever wonder what would have happened if you’d chosen a different path in life? James Wolk leads different lives in Ordinary Joe

5 mins read
TV Guide Magazine
September 27 - October 27, 2021

BITTER BARACK SETTLES SCORE!

Refuses to help Biden save his presidency after cruel humiliation. Obama won’t take Joe’s calls

3 mins read
Globe
September 27, 2021

BIDEN'S SON IS NEIGHBOR FROM HELL!

Malibu in uproar over $20G-a-month rental

2 mins read
Globe
September 20, 2021

Taylor to Joe: PUT A RING ON IT!

She’s ready for it! The pop star has been patiently waiting for a proposal from her British beau for more than two years.

1 min read
Star
September 20, 2021

Selena Gomez: BACK FROM THE BRINK!

THE FORMER DISNEY STAR OPENS UP ABOUT HEARTBREAK AND HEALTH WOES IN A CANDID NEW INTERVIEW.

1 min read
Star
September 20, 2021

Two by Two

Two husband-and-wife teams create businesses and lives they love.

2 mins read
Cottages and Bungalows
FMD Christmas 21