Hi-fi isn’t just about listening to music. Of course, sounding good has to be its primary function, but it also serves an aesthetic purpose too. There’s no shortage of equipment that fulfills one of these roles perfectly well, but rarely do you find something that excels in both, like Lecson’s legendary AC1/AP3 II pre-power.
Back in the mid seventies, hi-fi design was in crisis. Most British products were utilitarian to say the least, while Japanese electronics were usually as over the top as Gary Glitter in full stage garb. Until the advent of the Lecson, that is.With electronics by Bob Stuart and industrial design by Allan Boothroyd, the AC1/AP3 II looked more stunning than Farah Fawcett in hot pants. Undoubtedly one of the most visually arresting designs of its time – or ever, for that matter – it predated Bang and Olufsen’s famously sparse, elegant brand of modernism by several years.
While everyone else’s preamplifier was a either a dull black box with cheap looking switches or an aluminium clad behemoth with an array of huge brushed chrome knobs, Lecson’s AC1 dared to be different. A sleek planar design, its eleven rainbow coloured sliders controlled volume, balance, input selection, tape monitors, bass, treble, headphones, stereo or quadraphonic operation, high and low filters and power on/off.
Inside, things were no less innovative. The five inputs were switched by FETs via reed relays, not to prevent the frequent pops and clicks that many contemporary designs made when changing input, but for longevity. As the tracks on conventional switches – even gold plated ones – invariably oxidise, Lecson decided to do the switching electronically. Likewise, the effects of dirt contamination between the wipers and the tracks of normal potentiometers was reduced by placing the AC1’s volume pot in a feedback loop. The preamp’s flexible filtering options were also said to be designed for low transient distortion, and the tone controls were automatically by-passed when set to zero.
The AP3 Mk2 was Lecson’s top of the range power amplifier, offering a claimed minimum of 100W RMS per side into 8 ohms. Although Boothroyd’s industrial design is striking by any standards, its beauty was more than skin deep. Its distinctive metal canister construction was ideal for dissipating heat, as Musical Fidelityís Anthony Michaelson subsequently confirmed with his gargantuan X-A200 monoblocks.
Unlike most mid-seventies transistor amps, the AP3 II was designed to be good at real world music making rather than achieving amazing measured specifications. Whereas contemporary Japanese super amps used shed loads of negative feedback to get massive power levels with infinitesimally low distortion, Lecson took the other route. Instead, the circuitry was designed to be as linear as possible before negative feedback was applied. This meant overall feedback levels were kept right down, making for a highly natural sound.
To help it along the way, the AP3 got a beefy toroidal power transformer with unusually small, multiple smoothing capacitors, plus oversized, fuse-protected 30amp output transistors and an internal thermostatic cooling fan. Together, these meant the amp could handle the full energy of the power supply without blowing, obviating the need for sound degrading protection circuits. Yet the output stage was still protected – in the event of a short, the transistor fuses would blow to protect it.
Together the AC1/AP3 II sound surprisingly close to a good modern transistor amplifier. Lively, open, clean and immediately musical, this combo avoids the showy, hi-fi feel of much Japanese transistor exotica, but still manages to do the biz as far as smoothness, detail and neutrality are concerned. While not as tuneful as, say, the latest Naim NAP250, it’s far sweeter and smoother. Likewise, todayís top integrateds are more transparent and refined, but not that much…
Indeed for a twenty year old design, there’s a remarkable couthness to the treble and tautness to the bass, plus a natural musicality that will never go out of fashion. The Lecson family didn’t stop with the AC1/AP3. There was also the FM1 tuner, blessed with the same stunning visuals as the AC1, which also came with the DR1, a space-age optional digital readout module. Then there were the AP1 and AP1X power amps with similar looks to the AP3 but lower power (the AP1 put out 50W, the beefier AP1X 75W). Pay up to £500 for a good AC1/AP3 – a lot of money but remember that when new back in 1977 the pair cost £440.
The Lecson team were a talented bunch who went on to even greater things. Hi-fi trainspotters may know that Allan and Bob went on to form Meridian, while Lecson’s Technical Director, Stan Curtis, set the world alight with his seminal Cambridge CD1 back in 1985.