AMPLIFIERS

 

AMPLIFIERS

It’s easy to underestimate the capabilities of Primare’s latest integrated amplifier. But the minimalist appearance of the new I35 isn’t at all reflected in a sonic performance that’s generous and thoroughly entertaining.

Hi-fi components have a certain appeal that is often more in the eye (and the mind) of the beholder than borne of any recognisable aesthetic excellence. Indeed, outside the circle of audio enthusiasts, many of those components look like little more than dressed up boxes.

However, there are some exceptions – and Primare qualifies as one of those. You don’t have to be an audio aficionado to appreciate the brand’s minimalist design language.

Even better, this is not a case of form dictating function – quite the opposite is true, in fact. While Primare’s electronics look sleek and elegant, their designs pay as much attention to pragmatic aspects such as ergonomics and ease of use as they do to visual and tactile appeal.

No surprise then that Primare is a Scandinavian company – Swedish to be precise. After all, only the Scandinavians can make ruthlessly practical and unambiguous design also look good. Really good.

The Primare I35 integrated amplifier is the latest addition to a range of products that is currently undergoing an overhaul. The sleek cosmetics are typically Primare: uncluttered, simple to use, and easy on the eye.

The I35 can be ordered in three different versions. As tested here, it’s a stereo integrated amplifier with analogue inputs and the latest version of Primare’s Class D amplification technology. More about that later.

The I35 can also be had with an integrated digital-to-analogue converter based on AKM’s AK4497 chipset. The plug-in module offers two coaxial and four Toslink optical digital inputs, as well as a coaxial digital output, and can be added to a standard I35 as an upgrade at a later stage.

The ultimate iteration of the I35 is the I35 Prisma, which not only incorporates the DAC module, but also a network-based connectivity, control and streaming solution. Prisma is also a retrofittable module, and includes wired and Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth, AirPlay, Chromecast, streaming and more.

At the time of writing, the I35 DAC and I35 Prisma were not available yet, but with stocks expected to arrive locally in the next few weeks, we’re planning a separate review on the I35 Prisma as soon as a review unit becomes available.

AT FACE VALUE

Offered in either silver or black, the I35 keeps things simple with a fascia dominated by a crisp OLED display, and a minimum of buttons.

Large rotary controllers look after input selection and volume, while small buttons provide intuitive access to other control functions, including a set-up menu. However, most users will opt for the slimline remote control handset, which make using the I35 an intuitive affair.

The finish is top-class, accompanied by a solidity that speaks of craftsmanship and infers longevity. It really is a handsome piece of kit, and worth displaying for all to see, rather than hiding it in a cupboard.

There are no surprise on the rear panel, which offers a choice of balanced and single-ended inputs, as well as single-ended fixed-line and pre-amp outputs.

A tidy row of gold-plated binding posts makes for positive, fuss-free speaker connections, while the Primare also offers R232, 12V trigger and IR in/out facilities for custom install integration.

UNDER THE COVERS

As mentioned earlier, the I35 is a Class D design employing Primare’s Ultra Fast Power Device (UFPD) modules. This latest iteration of the technology is known as UFPD 2, and features significant performance improvements, specifically as far as reduced distortion and a lower noise floor are concerned.

The intricacies of UFPD 2 preclude a full description in the context of this review, but for those interested in delving into the technical details, a full design brief dealing with the technology can be found here.

Primare claims exceptional linearity, fast responses and high current output, which suggests the I35 should have no problems coping with difficult loudspeaker loads. Claimed power output is 150 watts/channel into 8 ohms, and 300 watts/channel into 4 ohms.

SETTING UP

The Primare was hooked up to our KEF R500 reference floorstanders via TelluriumQ Blue bi-wire cabling, with the source signal provided by our Lumin D1 network streamer, sourcing content from Lumin L1 and Synology 214se NAS devices.

A Marantz KI-CD Pearl Lite CD/SACD player was also used, connected to the Primare via XLO Reference interlinks. An Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp served as a sonic counterpoint.

SOUNDS LIKE …

The Primare displayed a liquid, easy-on the-ear approach that was instantly appealing and ultimately revealing. The amp was able to grasp the essence and character of the music with a confidence that benefited both the credibility and accessibility of the performance.

The delivery was pacy and precise, with plenty of grip and control, even at high listening levels. At the same time, the Primare allowed the music’s natural timing and rhythm to shine through.

The amp wasn’t scared to do full justice to the kind of deep, powerful bass that can intimidate lesser designs: it reproduced those low frequencies with all the energy and tactile intensity they deserve.

There was a slight bloom to the midrange that added presence and realism without tainting the overall sound, while trebles were sweet and detailed. The I35 isn’t warm in the tube sense of the word, but certainly tonally approachable, and never cold or clinical.

The amp’s accessibility extended to a real talent for generous, smoothly rendered soundstaging that afforded the music plenty of dimensional scope. It allowed large-scale performances to be produced with authority and realism, but it was equally adept at recreating the ambience of more intimate ensembles.

The eloquent sax and almost tactile bass on The Yellowjackets’ ‘When It’s Time’ (off A Rise In The Road) sounded rich and real, thanks to ample tonal depth and close attention to the finer nuances of the recording.

That said, the almost tender piano and the percussion’s delicate splashes of hi-hat remained clearly present, creating a perfectly balanced sound picture rich in detail and texture.

The Primare’s ample headroom and control was ably demonstrated on Robert Plant’s Lullaby and … The Ceaseless Roar. Here, the intricate rhythms and complex arrangement of ‘Rainbow’ showcased the amp’s poise: it easily picked its way through the dense layers of vocals, guitars and percussion, while also recreating the music’s expansive landscapes.

Plant’s restless, weather-beaten vocals dominated proceedings with just the right level of verve and energy, while the amp’s ability to reflect the airy atmosphere of the recording added to the realism and engagement of the music.

Yello’s Flag might be considered too gimmicky to be taken seriously, but I enjoy the irreverence and humour of the Swiss duo, and the album is also a good workout for any system.

On ‘The Race’, the effects are almost cinematic in their surround-like-staging and complexity, while the percussive attack can be almost physical at louder volumes.

The Primare navigated its way through these challenges without raising the proverbial sweat, always remaining in supreme control and extracting impressive tonal depth and composure from the KEFs.

Eugene Istomin’s measured and insightful reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21, accompanied by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz’s direction, showcased the fluid and revealing nature of the Primare.

Istomin’s piano sounded regal and commanding, with the amp faithfully capturing the timbre and percussive intricacy of the instrument. At the same time, it did real justice to the orchestra’s sweeping symphonic vistas, conveying a compelling sense of scale and grandeur.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Primare I35 might look sleek, compact and minimalist, but it performs with a robust assurance that comes as a welcome surprise. It packs a mean punch in terms of sheer speed and power, but qualifies those traits with insight and accessibility.

On a practical level, the ability to upgrade the I35 by adding in DAC and Prisma network plug-in modules protects the initial investment and to some extent future-proofs the amp going forward, given the possibility of fitting updated modules, should they become available.

However, it’s the ability to reveal the heart and soul of the music that is the Primare’s most endearing trait. It certainly proves that Class D has come of age, and that efficiency and pace can be delivered without sacrificing the emotive core of the music.

Deon Schoeman

VITAL STATS
Power output:
– 2x 150 watts into 8 ohms
– 2x 300 watts into 4 ohms
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (-0,2 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >100 dB
Inputs: 2x balanced XLR, 3x single-ended RCA
Outputs: 1x line out, 1x pre-out
Dimensions (WxDxH): 430 x 382 x 106 mm
Weight: 11 kg
PRICE
R63 000
SUPPLIED BY
Sky Audio

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amplifier
Lumin D1 network player
Marantz KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD player
KEF R500 loudspeakers
KEF LS50 loudspeakers
TelluriumQ and XLO Reference cabling
Isotek power conditioning

SOFTWARE
Yellowjackets – A Rise In The Road – (Mack Avenue 96/24 FLAC)
Robert Plant – Lullaby and … The Ceaseless Roar – (Nonesuch 44/24 FLAC)
Yello – Flag – (Universal 44/16 WAV)
Mozart – Piano Concerto Nos. 21 and 24 – Eugene Istomin/Gerard Schwarz/Seattle Symphony (Reference Recordings 176/24 WAV)

A brand new stereo pre-amplifier and power amplifier combination from Canadian audio marque Anthem links innovation to loads of tech – but thankfully doesn’t lose sight of the music in the process

Anthem is arguably best known for its home theatre products – and specifically for its AV receivers and AV processors. The brand has created a unique niche for itself in an overcrowded AVR market, thanks to a combination of robust build quality and exceptional performance.

That performance is augmented, to a significant extent, on the company’s proprietary calibration system that allows highly accurate measurement of speaker response in the end user’s acoustic environment, and then calculates room correction based on those measurements.

While the notion of room correction is nothing new – all AVRs offer some form of correction and digital signal processing – the Anthem system is based on a high-quality microphone, an accurate measurement system, and sophisticated software.

The downside is that it takes a bit of time and effort to complete the calibration process. But the results ensure a level of optimisation that is virtually unrivalled outside professional calibration systems.

The arrival of Anthem’s new STR stereo amplifier products, comprising an integrated amplifier, pre-amplifier and power amplifier, also marks the application of the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system in a stereo context.

This latest version of ARC addresses the ease-of-use issue by offering two more user-friendly, mobile app-based alternatives. One uses the device’s own microphone, and the other requires the use of a better, purpose-designed USB microphone, supplied with the STR pre-amp.

To be fair, the latter comes close to the Windows-based system, and will probably suffice in most cases. But when you’re setting up a system once, it’s worth making the most of it, and there’s no doubt the Windows-based system remains the best.

The question is whether ARC’s impact on overall sound performance will be as marked as in its multichannel application – and to what extent the Anthem reputation for components that punch above their weight is applicable here.

AT FACE VALUE

We’ve come to expect solid, no-nonsense build quality from Anthem, and the new STR pre/power combination is no different. But the innovation that’s aslo part of the marque’s mantra is even more obvious here.

The STR power amp is a big and heavy beast, confirming that this is no lightweight Class D design. Cleverly, Anthem has located the heatsinking internally, so that there are no sharp edges, and the result is a clean, contemporary execution.

Almost 50 percent of the front fascia is taken up by a large colour display that acts as a bright, clearly legible watt meter. The display mimics two large analogue VU meters, one for each channel, on an arced, vertically arranged scale.

Those with a preference for minimalism might find the concept a little garish or gimmicky, but it adds to the amp’s high-tech appearance, and as the likes of McIntosh, Technics and Accuphase already know, many users actually like them.

The display can also be set to show internal temperature (a useful feature – in our listening room, the temps stabilised at between 32 and 34 degrees C), and the meters can be set to show watts into 4 ohms or 8 ohms.

Too bright or too distracting? The display is dimmable, and can also be switched off completely.

The metal fascia to the right of the display is subtly curved, creating further visual interest. It’s home to just three small buttons: a power switch, and two buttons marked Dim and View.

The former adjusts brightness, while pressing the latter brings up a detailed status and information screen. Using the View and Dim buttons together allows access to a set-up menu.

The menu allows the display parameters to be adjusted, including the brightness, the information shown, the impedance used by the display to express output, and the temperature units.

The rear panel offers few surprises, with a choice of single-ended RCA and balanced XLR inputs, a single pair of gold-plated binding posts for each channel, and an IEC power socket. Toggle switches allow the amp to be powered up by 12V triggers, or by auto-detecting an incoming audio signal from the pre-amp.

The matching STR pre-amp follows the same clean, contemporary styling direction as the power amp. Again, the left half of the fascia is occupied by a large, high-res display that shows volume level in large numerals by default. This display can also be dimmed or switched off completely.

The right-hand side of the faceplate hosts a large rotary controller, and buttons for mute and power on/off. The remaining four buttons are used to access and navigate the pre-amp’s setup menu, in conjunction with the rotary controller. More about those options later.

By comparison, the rear panel is densely populated, providing an initial indication of the STR pre-amp’s comprehensive feature and function list.

Both balanced XLR and single-ended RCA connections are catered for in analogue stereo input and output terms, but the STR also offers digital inputs in AES/EBU, coaxial, Toslink optical, and asynchronous USB flavours.

Its talent set extends to an integrated phono stage with separate moving coil and moving magnet inputs, although gain and load cannot be adjusted, which limits this feature’s usefulness, especially for moving coil cartridge fans.

Paradoxically, the phono EQ can be adjusted to get the most from older, pre-RIAA records such as 78rpm discs, or even older shellacs. It’s a unique capability that will please collectors of vintage vinyl.

A feature familiar to users of Anthem AV receivers, is the STR’s in-built room calibration system. I haven’t seen Anthem use this in a stereo application before.

Anthem Room Correction (ARC) is a comprehensive room calibration system that uses a pre-calibrated microphone, in conjunction with Windows software, to measure the acoustic properties of a room, and then adjust frequency response accordingly.

As this correction occurs in the digital domain, the STR employs its own 192 kHz/32-bit analogue-to-digital converter to transform analogue input signals into digital streams before applying the room correction curves.

Of course, nothing prevents the STR pre-amp user from not applying ARC, and to use the pre-amp in a conventional, all-analogue role. Each of the STR’s inputs – analogue, digital and phono – can be individually set up to this end.

The STR can also be configured to share the front left/right loudspeakers, as well as up to two subwoofers, for use in both a stereo-only system and a multichannel setup. A home theatre bypass function allows configuration of selected XLR or RCA inputs and outputs for this purpose.

UNDER THE COVERS

One could write an entire article just on the technical aspects of the STR pre-amp and power amp. For those who’d like to delve into all the detail, the product sheets of the two components provide a comprehensive rundown.

They’re available for viewing and downloading here.

However, it’s worth highlighting some of the key aspects. The power amp uses a proprietary input stage with eight bipolar input devices in a cascoded feedback arrangement.

On the output side, 16 bipolar devices per channel operate in a Class AB configuration. Each channel gets its own, low-impedance power supply, allowing the two channels to operate independently and to cope with very low impedance loads.

The output stages are directly coupled to the power supply capacitor bank to keep the impedance low, thus freeing up more power.

The STR power amp continuously monitors temperature, voltage and current to determine actual load, and reacts instantly to overload events in order to protect both the amp and the speakers connected to it.

The STR pre-amp is both an analogue and a digital pre-amp, and either controls and passes on analogue audio signals with minimum intervention and maximum signal integrity, or converts them into192 kHz/32-bit digital signals, after which it is able to apply ARC-derived processing for room correction.

It’s also able to upconvert and reclock lower-resolution digital audio signals to 192 kHz/32-bit resolution. The DAC features thin-film resistors and low-noise op amps, and the DAC stage has been optimised in its entirety, rather than simply relying on the DAC chip itself.

The DAC will decode incoming PCM digital signals up to 192 kHz/24-bit via AES/EBU, coaxial and Toslink optical. The asynchronous USB input will even accept 384 Hz/32-bit PCM, as well as DSD 2,8/5,6 MHz.

The pre-amp offers an extensive array of set-up options. While it has two stereo XLR balanced inputs, four stereo RCA inputs and both MM and MC phono inputs, each of those inputs can be customised.

In fact, up to 30 virtual inputs can be created by saving different settings for the same input (for instance, analogue direct or digital conversion) and naming that input accordingly. You can change the input offset to compensate for source components with different output levels, and associate the input with a different speaker/room correction profile.

Again, there’s a lot more detail to be found in the STR pre-amp datasheet, downloadable from the Anthem website here.

SETTING UP

The STR pre-amp and power amp duo reviewed here were brand now, and were allowed to burn in for a good150 hours. They were partnered with both our regular KEF R500 reference floorstanders, as well as a pair of Paradigm Persona 5Fs submitted for test (review pending) at the time.

Both analogue and digital source signals were delivered by our Lumin D1 network player, allowing a direct comparison between the STR pre-amp’s analogue and digital sections, as well as comparing ARC-calibrated signals with unaltered ones.

The Lumin sourced its material from a Lumin L1 NAS, as well as a Synology NAS – and since the D1 is MQA-capable, I also roped in some of the MQA-encoded material on offer in streaming service Tidal’s Masters catalogue.

The system was calibrated using ARC twice: once while the KEF R500s were in use, and again when they were swapped with the bigger Paradigm Persona 5Fs. In both cases, the different inputs were configured with and without the relevant ARC profile activated.

The calibration procedure requires a minimum of five measurements, using the supplied microphone, and takes about 20 minutes. However, it’s worth spending the time – the results are significant, and will also address system issues such as asymmetrical speaker placement and level imbalances.

I also tried the mobile app-based version of ARC, and found that using the app with the supplied microphone yielded very good results, while offering a more intuitive measurement process.

Even with the full Windows-based measurement process, results will obviously vary, depending on the system and the acoustic environment it operates in, but there is no doubt that ARC succinctly and successfully addresses a variety of anomalies.

SOUNDS LIKE …

I started off a succession of listening sessions with the KEF R500s partnering the STR pre/power combination.

Comparing the pure analogue sound of the STR pre-amp with the ARC-managed digital inputs proved interesting: in the AVSA listening room, ARC certainly had the ability to tame and tauten any excessive mid-bass response, allowing a cleaner, more impactful representation.

As a result of the significant improvements in low-frequency definition and control, the overall sound picture was more incisively presented.

The effect of ARC further up the frequency scale was less pronounced in our particular room and with the two speaker pairs employed, but actual results will always depend on speaker set-up and positioning, and actual room acoustics.

The Anthem STR duo delivered a sound that was bold and attention-grabbing, with plenty of pace and an abundance of headroom. They took command of the music, regardless of genre, and always managed to extract the essence and intent of the performance.

Soundstaging was expansive, affording the sound plenty of spatial scope. That sense of wide-open space was further qualified and refined by an ability to believably recreate ambience and dimension, further contributing to a vivid, engrossing sound picture.

There was never any sense of exaggeration or artifice, however: large-scale works were presented with measured majesty and muscle, while more intimate performances retained the delicacy and nuance of the real thing.

The STRs presented their sonic wares with a burnished assurance that believably captured the timbre and texture of the music. Rather than clinically accurate, the sound was a smooth and endearing one.

That doesn’t mean that the trebles were rolled off, nor that the sound was warm in a valve-like, glowing way. There wasn’t any dulling of detail, either.

The tonal range was broad, extending from a deep, sonorous low-frequency foundation to upper trebles lucid enough to capture and project fine strands of detail.

The STR power amp is a muscular beast and never got even close to running out of steam, even at higher listening levels. It always sounded effortless and in control, and never robbed the music of pace or effervescence, while also affording it loads of dynamic scope.

As a result, there was a real sense of flow and momentum to the way the music was delivered, further adding to the appeal of the listening experience.

While the results with our KEF R500s were very favourable indeed, hooking up the STR combo to the unashamedly high-end Paradigm 5Fs allowed the class and capabilities of the pre/power duo to shine through even more vividly.

Of course, it also helps that Anthem and Paradigm are closely aligned, and that the Personas were used during the final development of the STR line-up.

As the larger Personas are able to reach down substantially lower down the tonal ladder than the KEFs, they also benefited more from the ARC’s attentions, and there was never any doubt that the overall delivery with ARC in play was consistently better.

Listening to the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio’s rendition of ‘The Nearness Of You (from Midnight Sugar) was a revelation: the performance was vividly and persuasively portrayed, allowing each instrument to be closely examined while retaining the taut interplay between the musicians.

The Anthem system had no trouble reflecting the dynamics of the production, allowing the percussive impact and the delicate intricacies of Yamamoto’s piano to be portrayed with equal verve.

The rich timbre and eloquent attack of Isoo Fukui’s upright bass were perfectly preserved, while the carefully measured drumming of Tetsujiro Ohara was delivered with impeccable timing and presence.

With ARC, the delivery was tonally linear but never constrained or bland, allowing the low frequencies to be produced with measured power and authority, even at higher listening levels.

The stereo image was completely seamless and generously dimensioned, affording the three performers an almost physical presence on the soundstage. The delivery was so lucid and vivid that the illusion of hearing the actual performance, rather than a mere recording, was consistently and believably maintained.

Dire Straits’ classic, eponymous debut remains one of my favourites, and ‘Lions’ is as good a track as any of the more widely acknowledged hits accumulated by the outfit over the course of their career.

The bass lines on this track can be overbearing on less balanced systems, but here, the perfectly modulated control of the STR power amp and the clarity and detail of the pre-amp made for engaging, foot-tapping listening.

With the bass providing an almost physical foundation, the lead and rhythm guitars maintained a close and entertaining dialogue on either side.

The percussion provided an effervescent backdrop of pace, while Knopfler’s casually delivered vocals were set far back in the sound image. Despite the very apparent placement of the instruments, there was a thrilling cohesion to the mix that really brought the music to life.

Hans Zimmer’s sweeping sonic vistas and evocative, cinematic melodies have never been portrayed more vividly than on his Live In Prague set. It’s compelling listening, but also a stern test for a system because of its extended tonal range, complex arrangements and expansive, densely populated soundstage.

The STRs were able to portray the ‘Gladiator Medley’ on the set with both bold vigour and compassion, allowing not only the broad strokes and the arresting tempo of the music, but also the fine details and subtle tonal hues to be appreciated.

Again, it was the energy and the attack of the STRs that impressed, allowing the full impact and tempo of the music to be expressed with an almost visceral, emotive intensity.

But this is also music typified by extreme dynamic shifts, and the STRs were able to closely and confidently track those shifts, while also delving deep into the heart and soul of the music. The result engaging and spellbinding.

While the sheer density of the music often threatens to mask individual instruments, the clarity and purpose of the STR duo’s approach allowed exceptional insight, unravelling a sound that can all too easily sound oversaturated. Add a vast and enveloping sound image, and the listening could only be described as immersive.

Finally, if you want to hear acoustic bass that you as much feel and experience as hear, then Brian Bromberg’s aptly titled Wood is not to be missed.

On ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, the bass is the solo star, without any distracting accompaniment, and the result is a virtuoso demonstration of both Bromberg’s musicianship, and the sheer breadth of sound and power that can be extracted from a acoustic double bass.

The solo instrument filled the room with a richness of tone and a hue that would threaten to become overwhelming in a less poised set-up.

However, the Anthem STRs were not in the least intimidated, easily following the intricacies of Bromberg’s playing and reflecting the full spectrum of the insturment’s tonal range and percussive traits. Bass will never be the same again …

THE BOTTOM LINE

With the STR pre-amp and power amp, Anthem has successfully migrated its innovation, digital signal processing expertise, room correction know-how and commitment to quality into the notoriously difficult high-end stereo environment.

The pre-amp’s versatility and the power amp’s tremendous reserves make for a satisfying partnership, while also delivering as far as musical accessibility and engagement are concerned.

VITAL STATS

Anthem STR pre-amplifier
Frequency response (analogue): 10 Hz – 80 kHz (+0,0, -0,10 dB)
Frequency response (digital 192 kHz): 10 Hz – 50 kHz (+0,0, -0,10 dB)
THD + N: 0,0006% (DSP); 0,0016% (analogue direct)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 113 dB (DSP), 120 dB (analogue direct)
Digital inputs: 1x AES/EBU, 1x asynchronous USB, 2x RCA coaxial, 2x Toslink optical
Analogue inputs: 2x balanced stereo XLR, 4x stereo RCA, MM/MC phono stage
Outputs: 2x XLR (configurable), 3x stere0 RCA (configurable)
Connectivity: 802.11 Wi-Fi, Ethernet, RS232 serial port
Dimensions (WxDxH): 432 x 377 x 100 mm
Weight: 7,6 kg

Anthem STR power amplifier
Power output:
– 400 watts/channel (8 ohms, 20 Hz- 20kHz, <1% THD)
– 600 watts/channel (4 ohms, 20 Hz- 20kHz, <1% THD)
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (±0,1 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 121 dB
Inputs: 1x stereo RCA, 1x stereo XLR
Outputs: 1x set of five-way binding posts
Dimensions (WxDxH): 432 x 470 x 172 mm
Weight: 27,3 kg

PRICE
STR pre-amp: R71 995
STR power amp: R101 595
SUPPLIED BY
Audio Specialists https://audiospecialists.co.za/

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Lumin D1 network player
Marantz KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD deck
Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
KEF R500 loudspeakers
Paradigm Persona 500F loudspeakers
Isotek and Tice power conditioners
XLO Reference and TelluriumQ cabling and interlinks

SOFTWARE
Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio – Midnight Sugar (Sony Music 44/16 AIFF)
Brian Bromberg – Wood (A440 44/16 FLAC)
Dire Straits – Dire Straits (Universal/Mobile Fidelity DSD64)
Hans Zimmer – Live In Prague (Eagle Records 48/24 MQA FLAC via Tidal)

With its curved fascia, finely finished controls and blue indicators, the Marantz PM8006 is a handsome piece of kit, with a features set to match. But it’s how this stereo amplifier treats the music that really counts …

 

Stereo amplifiers used to be the main building block of most audio systems, until home theatre made its appearance, and AV receivers stole the show. Today, most one-system households will have opted for some form of multichannel set-up, usually linked to their TV and DVD or Blu-ray player.

However, stereo is making a comeback. The unexpected (and seemingly sustained) resurgence of vinyl, together with the growing popularity of quality music streaming services, as well as the convenience of downloading music, are all conspiring to create a greater awareness of stereo’s sonic appeal.

Consumers are finding that a half-decent, well set up stereo system can provide staging and dimension to rival that of multichannel systems, with the added benefit of simplicity (only two speakers, three if you really feel the need for a subwoofer) and ease of use.

No wonder then that stereo components continue to feature in the catalogues of most of the bigger brands, while specialist and high-end audio marques have remained resolutely stereo-centric.

All of which brings us to the PM8006, the latest addition to the extensive Marantz stereo amplifier offering.

AT FACE VALUE

The PM8006 is a handsome amplifier, reflecting the current Marantz design aesthetic. The design’s curved faceplate, and the deep vertical grooves behind the primary rotary controllers are distinctively Marantz, and certainly distinguish the amp from the many plain, DIN-sized boxes of electronics out there.

The all-metal enclosure feels reassuringly substantial, and the control layout is tidy. The two aforementioned rotary controllers (for volume adjustment and source selection) frame four smaller controls that look after bass, midrange, treble and balance settings. The inclusion of midrange adjustment is unusual, but used to often feature in vintage Marantz amps of the 1960s and 70s.

Four pushbuttons that illuminate in a pleasant blue when activated look after speaker A/B selection, power amp direct mode and source direct mode. More about those later.

A row of blue indicators provides visual confirmation of source selection, while a power button and a stereo headphone jack complete the front switchgear complement.

The rear panel offers some surprises. For starters, the dual speaker binding post sets are particularly nicely turned out, with grippy screw-down terminals and protective sleeves to prevent errant wires from shorting.

Also pleasing is the inclusion of a MM-compatible phono stage, complete with signal grounding post. There are five line-level input sets plus a recording loop.

The Marantz also offers a pre-output set (if you want to hook up a separate power amp) and a power amp direct input for easier integration in a home theatre system. An IEC kettle-type power input socket also allows the use of upgraded power cables.

UNDER THE COVERS

Marantz is not shy to describe the PM8006 as an audiophile product, and it warrants that tag with elaborate internals. The amp employs a fully discrete current feedback design with symmetrical circuits and a beefy, double-shielded toroidal power supply.

As we’ve come to expect of Marantz, its proprietary Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Modules (or HDAMs) are used instead of chip-based op amps. They feature surface-mounted surface components and short signal paths.

According to the company, the MM phono stage isn’t just a run-of-the-mill device, but a new design that makes its debut in then PM8006. It’s been optimised for sound quality by simplifying the signal path and employing two-stage amplification to reduce per-stage gain, while RIAA equalisation is achieved via a dedicated HDAM module running in Class A.

Finally, the volume control is IC-driven in a quest for improved channel separation, dynamic range and reduced distortion, while offering the tactile heft of an analogue, resistor-based control.

The PM8006 is rated at 70 watts/channel RMS into 8 ohms, and 100 watts/channel RMS into 4 ohms, with THD at 0,02% and a signal-to-noise ratio of 106 dB @ 2V.

You’ll find a more detailed run-down on some of the PM8006’s technical highlights here.

SETTING UP

The review unit was brand new out of the box, and was afforded a good 50 hours of playing in time before any listening commenced. As it turns out, it continued to improve, but seemed to reach sonic stability at about the 100 hour mark.

It arrived at the same time as the Marantz ND8006 CD/network player reviewed some time ago (review here) and was listened to in partnership with that unit for part of the review, although I also used our Lumin D1 network player.

Speakers were our trusty and still absorbing KEF LS50s, as well as a pair of revealing Spendor A2s on review at the time (review here)

SOUNDS LIKE …

From the outset, the Marantz sounded bigger and bolder than its elegant aesthetics suggest. It displayed plenty of grip and control, but never to the detriment of the music.

The integrated amp maintained an eager and agile pace, with a light-footed, effortless approach that underlined its ample muscle. To its credit, the PM8006 always allowed the music’s own, inherent heart and soul to come to the fore.

The upper trebles displayed a slight sheen which could be deemed too tonally eager, and should be kept in mind when speaker matching. That said, after those first 100 hours or so of playing, this became less pronounced.

The midrange was smooth and even, with a cleanly linear approach that added to an overall sense of musical honesty. It was partnered by a bass response was punchy and authoritative, but never overpowering.

The Marantz displayed plenty of low-down oomph and momentum, adding substance to the sound, but not to the detriment of the delivery’s overall suppleness.

Switching to Source Direct mode resulted in a slight opening up of the soundstage, together with an enhanced sense of clarity and more pronounced upper-frequency detail. But the overall sound was slightly less tonally cohesive and a little more clinical as a result.

Invoking Source Direct model also cuts the tone controls – bass, midrange, treble – and the balance adjustment from the signal path, which is exactly what the purists will expect. But it’s worth considering that those tone and balance controls can be useful to tailor the sound to personal taste, even if it flies in the face of audiophile practice …

Staging was a highlight. The Marantz sounded expansive and accessible, spreading its musical wares wide, deep and high on a generously proportioned soundstage. The amp painted a seamless sonic picture that was vividly and realistically presented, creating an engaging rapport with its audience that made for satisfying listening.

On Sting’s The Last Ship the mix is lucid and approachable, always placing the vocals at dead centre, with arrangements that allow the often delicate ensembles of acoustic guitars, accordions and strings to show off their timbre and lustre to full effect.

The Marantz did well to embrace and promote these traits with conviction and composure, projecting the recording with just the right balance of momentum and transparency.

It preserved the delicate guitar and wistful accordion on ‘I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else’ while ensuring the bass was delivered with ample impact. Sting’s vocals remained unimpaired and clearly rendered throughout.

For something livelier, I swapped Sting for Santana’s Corazón, and the Marantz easily coped with the often crowded arrangements. It picked its way through the densely layered percussion and the energetic keyboards, while showcasing Carlos Santana’s searing, always articulate electric guitar.

On ‘Besos De Lejos’, the music filled the listening room to the brim, making the available space sound larger than its physical boundaries suggested, and deftly exploring the interplay between guitar and vocals, while the intricate percussion was presented with potent and presence and precision.

The evocative Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op 102 is a dramatic and engrossing work, dominated by the passionate dialogue between the two instruments, set against the sweeping sonic vistas of the orchestra.

The PM8006 never sounded in danger of losing its composure. It kept a close rein on the music, but again without robbing it of dynamics or lustre, and providing ample insight and dimension. The amp managed to convey the full majesty of the orchestra, while also doing full sonic and emotive justice to the solo violin and cello.

The Marantz wasn’t in the least intimidated by the dynamic extremes of the recording, while its layered, generous and accessible staging provided plenty of breathing space for both orchestra and soloists.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Marantz likes to tout the PM8006 as an audiophile-grade component, a kind PM-10 Lite with the credentials to be considered above the run of the mill. Certainly, the execution is first class inside and out, while the facilities on offer are comprehensive, too.

But – more importantly – the PM8006 also delivers on the sonic front. It sounds pacy, punchy and commanding, with a penchant for wide-open staging and pin-point imaging that makes for inviting, engrossing listening.

The amp’s tonal approach is neutral, as it should be, allowing it to accurately reflect the characteristics of the source signal, while there’s never any indication of running out of steam: it always sounds more muscular than its 70 watts-a-side rating implies.

In short, the Marantz PM8006 is class act, demanding partnering components of equal stature, and capable of putting a smile on any music fan’s face.

Deon Schoeman

PROS
Loads of grip and authority from this sleek, well-featured stereo amp
CONS
Revealing nature requires source components of equal stature

VITAL STATS

Power output: 2x 70 watts (8 ohms), 2x 100 watts (4 ohms)
Frequency response: 5 Hz – 100 kHz
Signal-to-noise ratio: 106 dB (2V input)
Inputs: 5x RCA stereo, 1x MM phono, 1x power amp direct in
Outputs: 1x stereo record out, 1x stereo pre-out
Binding posts: 2x sets, five-way
Dimensions (WxHxD): 440 x 379 x 128 mm
Weight: 12,0 kg

PRICE: R24 990
SUPPLIED BY: HFX Systems

TESTED WITH
Lumin D1 network player
Marantz ND8006 CD/network player
KEF LS50 and Spendor A2 loudspeakers
Lumin L1 and Synology 214se NAS devices
TelluriumQ and XLO Reference cabling

SOFTWARE
Sting – The Last Ship (Universal 96/24 FLAC)
Santana – Corazón (Sony Music CD)
Brahms – Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Opus 102 – Spivakov/Kniazev/Temirkanov – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RCA Red Seal 44/16 WAV)

PS Audio’s Stellar range is meant to offer superlative value – and it does. But even without its keen price tag, the Stellar S300 stereo power amp would have been deemed a star performer that can hold its own in top-notch company …

 

It’s taken more than six months to write review – perhaps more, because I can’t quite remember when the PS Audio Stellar S300 was first delivered for review.

It arrived brand new, and while I decided to purchase the review unit after the first five hours of listening, the amp kept on shifting the sonic goalposts. As the S300 employs a Class D output stage, I never anticipated any extended run-in time – but I was wrong.

I can now confirm that as good as the S300 sounds virtually out of the box, patience is richly rewarded: after well over 300 hours, there have been consistent improvements in overall performance, with low-down bass punch the single biggest beneficiary.

AT FACE VALUE

The Stellar range – currently consisting of the Gain Cell pre-amp/DAC (review here), the S300 stereo power amp under scrutiny here, and the M700 monoblock amplifier. The range attempts to offer that most elusive of combinations in hi-fi: affordability and sonic excellence.

The Gain Cell pre-amp/DAC already provided some insight into how successful this PS Audio initiative has been, offering as it does an extensive features list and satisfying sonics at an attractive price point – even when paying in our exchange rate-weakened SA currency.

The S300 is the pre-amp/DAC’s natural partner. It shares similar cosmetics, with identically configured, all-metal casework. The S300’s sturdy design does without the pre/DAC’s controls and display, and what remains is elegantly simple and attractive.

The top and bottom anodised alloy covers (available in black and silver) are curved at the front to form a split front fascia that’s adorned by nothing more than the ubiquitous blue-lit PS Audio logo that is also the power switch.

The sides feature cooling louvered, but the S300 remains only mildly warm, even when driven with gusto. The rear panel is occupied by two sets of stereo binding posts (making life easier for those with individual cable runs for bi-wired speakers), and a choice of either balanced XLR or single-ended RCA inputs.

An IEC power socket is accompanied by a rocker on/off switch, which remains permanently on during normal use. The front power button switches the amp between standby and operational modes. For custom installations, the S300 is equipped with a 12V trigger input/output pair to allow for remote switch-on

The casework sits on simple rubber feet, and more fastidious users may want to upgrade these to something with slightly better isolating properties. That said, the overall impression is of a solidly built, attractive, no-frills piece of kit.

UNDER THE COVERS

As it turns out, the real attention has been lavished on what matters most: the electronics. The S300 is a hybrid design that combines the acknowledged strengths of Class D amplification – high efficiency, low distortion, high current and absolute linearity – with an innovative input stage that addresses any concern about harshness and clinical tonality that some still associate with Class D tech.

PS Audio calls the in house-designed input stage an Analog Cell. It features a fully differential, zero feedback, discrete Class A circuit employing MOSFETs, and was carefully voiced during hundreds of hours of listening tests.

The Analog Cell concept recognises the need for an efficient, truthful interface between pre-amp and power amp, while allowing the sonic signature to be fine-tuned in order to iron out any tonal anomalies.

The Class D output stage employs a fully balanced, dual-mono design, with each channel benefiting from its own, separate power supply. PS Audio has opted for the Danish ICEpower Class D amplifier modules.

Originally developed for sue by Bang & Olufsen, the ICEpower technology has been extensively developed and improved since the late 1990s, and is now widely adopted by many leading audio brands.

In the case of the S300, power output into 8 ohms exceeds 135 watts per channel, and reaches beyond 300 watts per channel into 4 ohms. The amp is 2 ohm stable, with a frequency response that extends all the way to 50 kHz.

SETTING UP

The S300 was first powered up in the AVSA listening room, where it partnered its Stellar stablemate, the Gain Cell pre-amp/DAC in a system that also included a Lumin D1 network player, Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp, Parasound Halo A21 power amp, and Vivid Audio B1 Decade loudspeakers.

It was after that initial review and about 25 hours of play-in time that I opted to buy the review unit for use in my home listening room, where it now partners a Naim Uniti2 used in pre-amp only mode, and powers a pair of Vivid Audio Oval V1.5 speakers.

As I mentioned earlier, I delayed compiling the final review several times as the amp seemed to improve steadily over time. With well over 300 hours now under its belt, I think it’s reached a representative level worth recording.

Source material for the review was provided by a PS Audio DirectStream DAC equipped with a Bridge II network interface and running the latest Red Cloud firmware. Roon V1.4 and the recently released V1.5 software was used to manage music selections from either from a Synology NAS-based library of ripped discs, or from Tidal in high-res formats.

SOUNDS LIKE

Two words come to mind when describing the Stellar S300: punchy and open. This is an amplifier that approaches its musical task with an enthusiasm that’s infectious. It manages to extract the essence and vitality of a performance with such glee that you can’t help but be drawn into the music.

This is an amplifier that has pace in abundance, easily keeping up with the most upbeat of recitals. It never allows the music to run away unbridled, but at the same time, it ensures that the sound never seems tethered or restrained.

Staging is generous, not only filling my listening room with sonic vistas, but ensuring that those vistas are presented with a sense of scale and air. There’s always plenty of breathing space for instruments and vocals, and the Stellar ensures that the broader, bolder swathes of sound don’t end up obfuscating the finer nuances of the music.

Yes sir, the slim S300 might sound fast and even furious at times, but it also has the finesse and the elegance to retain those details and subtleties so vital to the overall believability and emotive appeal of the music.

Fine imaging and focus harness the space and scale of the delivery and quantify it in three-dimensional terms, so that the music takes on an almost panoramic quality that makes the most of the music without having to resort to cold analysis.

Tonally, the Stellar doesn’t sound anything like the early iterations of the Class D genre. There is no hint of any edginess at the upper end of the spectrum, nor is there the clinical, soulless accuracy that was so impressive initially but would become fatiguing all too soon.

Instead, it’s the tonal breadth that pleases most, here: there is a wholesomeness, a tactile presence to the Stellar’s performance that adds to the overall sense of engagement: you end up wanting to hear more and more of your library under this amp’s auspices.

Van Morrison’s collaboration with organ ace Joey DeFranceso on You’re Driving Me Crazy (Sony Music) was gleefully rendered by the Stellar. It exploited the intimacy of the recording, but also made the most of the soaring, splashy organ and Morrison’s almost conversational vocals.

This is one of those sets that gets your feet tapping from the opening track, and while the recording’s focus is very much on the two main protagonists, the Stellar showcased the entire band’s contribution with equal verve.

‘Close Enough For Jazz’ is good case in point: here, everyone gets a turn, from the dexterous guitar and relentless stand-up bass to the boisterous brass. The cymbals crash with just the right intensity and the rim-struck snare sounds snappy and, well, just right.

If it’s scale and splendour you want, look no further than Hans Zimmer’s cinematic soundtrack masterpieces, as captured on Live in Prague (Eagle Records). The Blu-ray disc is masterful in surround sound, but the stereo mix on the double CD is no less compelling.

I’m not much of a soundtrack fan, but this production is one of my current go-to’s, thanks to a powerful and all-embracing sound that always sounds too densely arranged, too crammed with sonic action, to be emanating from just two loudspeakers.

In fairness, it’s a stern test for a system, with a tonal range that will relentlessly test the nether frequency regions, and can be equally punishing in the HF range. Lesser systems will wilt under the onslaught, but the Stellar seemed unperturbed.

It effortlessly recreated the vast 10 000-seater hall’s ambience, and captured the majesty and momentum, the tiny slivers of detail and the breathtaking dynamics of the music with a muscular confidence that allowed all the glory and intensity of the performance to come to the fore.

Downsizing to the intimate, binaurally recorded of Casey Abrams on Put A Spell On You (Chesky), the thrilling sense of realism, of being there, was even more pronounced. The Stellar brought the deep, resonant acoustic bass, the smooth but articulate guitar and the finely rendered percussion into sharp, vivid focus.

The stage depth and sense of ambience was particularly powerful, and while the recording often spreads the various instruments quite far apart, the thrust and cohesion of the music was always maintained. Each instrument was perfectly, wholesomely captured, but there wasn’t and sense of over-emphasised warmth or exaggerated saturation, either.

Instead, the Stellar always maintained its equilibrium, exercising control without robbing the music of its inherent soul and vitality. On ‘Nature Boy’, the mellow richness of the saxophone provided a riveting counterpoint to the finger-strummed bass, the brush-snared percussion and Abrams’ almost plaintive vocals. Pure, musical magic!

THE BOTTOM LINE

Here’s the thing: the Stellar S300 sounds like a big, beefy solid-state power amp with plenty of urge and loads of reserves. It’s smooth and melodious and meticulous in a way that’s almost tube-like, but with the impetus, agility and grip of classy solid-state circuitry.

Yes, it’s precise. No, it’s not clinical. And it never sounds harsh or harassed, even when approaching club-like levels. The Stellar S300’s composure never sounds even remotely under threat, and it rises to any occasion and every challenge with a certain delight that promises consistent entertainment, regardless of genre.

If the above sounds like the signature of a high-end amp, it is – and yes the S300 can and should be considered a high-end design. Which makes the price tag all the more remarkable. This is a power amp that won’t be disgraced in even distinguished audio company and punches well above its weight – quite literally!

By Deon Schoeman

VITAL STATS
Power output:
– 2x 135 watts into 8 ohms
– 2x 300 watts into 4 ohms
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 20 kHz (±0,5 dB, 2,8 Vrms, 4 ohms)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 100 dB (1kHz, 300 watts)
Damping factor: >1 100 (8 ohms, 50 Hz, 2,8Vrms)
THD + N: <0,02% (10 Hz – 20 kHz, 1 watt/4 ohms)
Inputs: 1x stereo RCA, 1x stereo balanced XLR
Outputs: Two stereo binding post sets
Dimensions (WxHxD): 432 x 83 x 366 mm
Weight: 3,63 kg
PRICE
ZAR21 000

SUPPLIED BY
PL Computer Services

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Naim Uniti2
PS Audio DirectStream/Bridge II DAC
Esoteric UX-03 SE universal deck
Linn LP12/Ittok/Ortofon Quintet Black S record deck
Avid Diva IISP/SME309/Van Den Hul The Frog record deck
Valve Audio Whisper phono stage
Sutherland 20/20 phono stage
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers

SOFTWARE
Van Morrison/Joey DeFrancesco – You’re Driving Me Crazy (Sony Music 44/16 FLAC)
Hans Zimmer – Live in Prague (Eagle Records
Casey Abrams – Put A Spell On You (Chesky 96/24 FLAC)
Neil Schon – Electric World (Virgin 44/16 WAV)

If the mark of a good pre-amplifier is to precisely control the path and the gain of an audio signal while also preserving signal integrity, then the new Bryston BP-17B3 Cubed Series pre-amp deserves high marks indeed …

 

The thing about pre-amplifiers is that, by definition, they should sound like nothing at all. In other words, their role is not to improve or colour the incoming signal, but to retain its integrity while directing it from input to output.

Yes, of course, a pre-amplifier’s role also includes the ability to adjust system volume by altering signal gain, but again, it should do so without modifying the nature of the signal itself. In other words, a good pre-amp should be sonically transparent.

The reality, or course, is quite different. We know that the differences in technologies, components, circuit designs and many other factors all influence the performance of a pre-amp. Most end up with a certain sonic signature – some more pronounced than others.

It should come as no surprise that Bryston’s all-new BP-17B3 (or 17B Cubed) pre-amp seeks to adopt a neutral, truthful approach. The Canadian company has a long-standing reputation for creating components that mix robust construction with musical authenticity – perhaps best epitomised by the classic 4B-SST power amp.

It’s also true that the marque’s latest line of electronics, collectively known as the Cubed Series, has upped the sonic ante considerably. The Bryston 4B3 stereo power amplifier tested recently (full review here)  displays a new level of flair and musicality, while still remaining true to the intrinsic Bryston ethos.

AT FACE VALUE

The BP-17B3 is meant to mirror these traits. In some respects, it continues the Bryston commitment to solid build quality, no-nonsense execution and honest performance. But it also adds innovation to that list with a new input stage design that promises improved musicality.

The new, more contemporary exterior design is still typically Bryston – robust, but elegant and nicely finished, as one would expect of a high-end audio component.

The thick alloy faceplate has bevelled edges and is dominated by a large rotary volume control with a silky action. The array of small, soft-touch buttons looks after source selection, balance, mute and power standby/on. There’s also a headphone socket.

The rear highlights the 17B3’s versatility. It offers two balanced XLR stereo and four single-ended RCA stereo input sets, as well as a line-level RCA tape loop. The pre-amp also provides two  stereo RCA output sets, and two stereo XLR output sets.

One of the XLR output sets can be configured to operate in fixed-level mode, allowing it to be used in conjunction with a separate headphone amp such as Bryston’s own BHA-1.

Add 12V trigger jacks and an RS232 port for custom installation commands, and versatility is one aspect well catered for.

But wait, as they say in the classics – there is more. The 17B3 can be fitted with a choice of optional modules. For vinyl fans, Bryston offers a moving magnet-only phono stage, which takes the place of one of the line-level input sets.

Given the 17B3’s target market, a MM/MC compatible module would have been more useful, but then, those users serious about vinyl will probably prefer a more specialised off-board phono stage anyway.

The second option is a D/A converter module that cleverly shares a stereo analogue input set. Thus, the input set can still be used as a standard stereo analogue input, or as two coaxial digital inputs. The pre-installed Toslink inputs are also activated when the DAC module is installed.

The DAC is compatible with PCM data streams with sampling rates of up to 96 kHz at a maximum 24-bit resolution. While offering a convenient way to hook up digital sources, I’m pretty sure most BP-17B3 users will want a more sophisticated DAC solution.

UNDER THE COVERS

The 17B3 is a proudly solid-state, full Class A design that has its roots in the original BP17, but benefits from a raft of improvements and upgrades in line with the entire Cubed Series amplifier range.

The most significant development is the introduction of an all-new input buffer, co-developed by Bryston CEO Chris Russell and the late Dr Alexandru Solamie. The so-called ‘Salomie’ input stage is notable for its linearity, and ultra-low noise and distortion levels, effectively promising optimum purity of the incoming signal.

Augmenting the new input stage is much improved RF and noise filtering, while the volume control features a new high-precision, symmetrical design.

 

SETTING UP

The Bryston pre-amp arrived brand new, and from past experience, I know that the brand’s amplifiers only really come into their own after an extended run-in period. Thus, partnered by the 4B<sup>3</sup> power amplifier that arrived at the same time, the 17B<sup>3</sup> was put to work for an initial 100 hours before I took a first listen.

Initial auditions were conducted in the AVSA listening room, hooked up in turn to either  to our stalwart Parasound Halo A21 power amp, with the music signal provided via a Lumin D1 network player coupled to a Bryston BDA-3 D/A converter. The 4B3 power amp was alternated with the Halo A21 during the review period.

In addition, I also hooked up the 17B<sup>3</sup> to a second system, partnering a PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp, with sources including a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, and a Linn LP12/Ittok/Ortofon Quintet Black record deck via a Valve Audio Whisper phono stage. Speakers were Vivid Oval V1.5s.

SOUNDS LIKE …

As already mentioned, the whole idea of a good pre-amp is that it acts as a system switching and control station without imparting any sonic signature of its own on the sound – in theory, it should allow the inherent tonal and timbral qualities of the music to shine through unencumbered.

That’s certainly the case here: the 17B3 gets out of the way of the music completely, operating with a level of sonic unobtrusiveness that allows the music full, free passage from source to listener.

There was never any sense of the pre-amp imparting its own character or signature on the music. It faithfully reflected the inherent traits and nuances of the incoming signal, and delivered that signal with a sense of purity and lucidity that, if anything, seemed to provide a clearer, more emphatic view of the music picture.

The Steve Gadd Band’s Way Back Home: Live From Rochester NY  shows the veteran drummer in fine, typically syncopated form, accompanied by an equally stellar cast of musicians that includes trumpeter Walt Fowler, Michael Landau on guitar, Larry Goldings on keyboards and Jimmy Johnson on bass.

The slow-fuse rhythms and gradual build-up of ‘Cavaliero’ sounds deceptively simple at first: guitar and bass introduce a lazy melody, with Gadd’s snare keeping easy time. But as the song progresses, the band increasingly turns up the wick, until the stage is filled to the brim with pounding percussion and searing solos.

The Bryston never allowed the busy, layered mix to intimidate it, allowing a consistently clear yet full-hued view of the performance, while also accurately reflecting the electric ambience of the concert, and the energetic enthusiasm of the performers.

Neo-country balladeer Chris Stapleton’s raw-edged vocals and sparse arrangements on From A Room: Volume 1 sounded evocative and spell-binding under the auspices of the 17B3: it laid bare every vocal nuance, every fuzz-laden guitar note, every resonant drum beat with care and precision, yet without losing sight of the music’s emotive impact.

On ‘I Was Wrong’, the electric guitar was almost visceral in its intensity, matched only by Stapleton’s passionate performance, while bass and drums provided a reassuringly steady foundation.

The Bryston managed to capture the broad essence of the recording to a tee, while never shirking its responsibility to discover and present fine tonal and timbral details. Staging was wide open and airy, with plenty of dimensional clues ensuring an enthralling, enveloping listening experience.

The sheer scale and dynamic swings of the so-called ‘Organ’ Symphony No.3 by Camille Saint-Saëns is a challenging work for any orchestra, and by implication, an equally onerous test for an audio system.

To the Bryston’s credit, it made the most of the performance by the Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern, beautifully captured in high resolution by Reference Recordings. The orchestra sounded majestic and muscular, while also allowing close and meaningful examination of subtle details.

Again, the result was an immersive and musically believable listening experience underpinned by a powerful sense of authenticity that allowed the music to come alive.

THE BOTTOM LINE

With the 17B3, Bryston has finally produced a pre-amp that is an able and sonically talented match for the marque’s power amplifiers. It has the ability to unlock the essence of the music, and to present it with a compelling sense of realism.

It may end up sounding too honest for those accustomed to a more polite, perhaps tonally mellower approach. But it certainly isn’t clinical or unforgiving, and if we accept that the primary mandate of a top-notch pre-amp is honesty, then the BP-17B3 deserves to be considered an undisputed member of audio’s premier league.

DEON SCHOEMAN

PROS
Lucid, approachable and ultimately honest approach that allows unfettered, believable access to the music.
CONS
Sonic honesty may be considered too unwavering for some.

VITAL STATS
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (±0,05 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: -102 dB (RCA, <10 Hz – 20 kHz)
THD: <0,0025% (1Vrms, balanced)
Inputs: 4x single-ended stereo RCA, 2x balanced stereo XLR
Outputs: 2x single-ended stereo RCA, 2x balanced stereo XLR
Dimensions: (WxHxD): 430 x 116 x 330 mm
Weight: 5 kg
PRICE
R50 253
SUPPLIED BY
Aeolian

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
PS Audio S300 power amp
Lumin D1 network player
Bryston BDA-3 DAC
PS Audio DirectStream/Bridge II DAC/streamer
Linn LP12/Ittok/Ortofon Quintet Black record deck
Valve Audio Whisper phono stage
KEF R500 loudspeakers
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers

SOFTWARE
Steve Gadd Band – Way Back Home: Live From Rochester NY (BFM Jazz 44/16 FLAC)
Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1 (Decca/Mercury 96/24 FLAC)
Saint-Saëns – ‘Organ’ Symphony No. 3 in C Minor – Stern/Kansas City Symphony (Reference Recordings176/24 WAV)

Part of the latest Bryston Cubed amplifier range, the new 4B3 is a powerhouse with no shortage of muscle. But finesse and musicality are part of the formula, too.

 

Think Bryston, and you immediately think power amps – heavy, no-nonsense, muscular power amps built like tanks, and designed to last a lifetime.

Yes, the Canadian brand’s comprehensive product portfolio includes a diverse array of high-end and pro audio gear, all produced to the same, heirloom-grade standard. But for decades now, the legend of Bryston has been centred around power amps like its indestructible 4B SST – a true audio classic.

It means that the SST’s successor, the 4B3 (read 4B Cubed) has big boots to fill. Fortunately, Bryston hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel: it’s simply tried to make what was good – no, great – even better.

AT FACE VALUE

The 4B3 features a beefy, no-nonsense yet attractive presentation, underscored by its reassuringly robust construction. A thick alloy faceplate is aesthetically lifted by a sculpted design featuring bold etched branding, scalloped detailing, dual LED power/status indicators and a large power button. The amp’s dual mono internals are hinted at by substantial heatsinking on either side.

The rear panel features a choice of single-ended RCA or balanced XLR inputs, and a pair of sturdy, gold-plated speaker binding posts. Three toggle switches allow a choice of stereo or bridged mono operation, XLR/RCA input selection, and either 23 dB or 29 dB of input gain.

UNDER THE COVERS

While the 4B3 succeeds the much-lauded 4B-SST2, it effectively shares its predecessor’s power output stage. The input stage, however, is brand new.

Thus, the 4B3 retains a dual-mono configuration, with a large toroidal power transformer for each channel, and eight bipolar devices a side. The new input stage promises a much lower noise floor, reduced distortion and enhanced bandwidth.

SETTING UP

The amp arrived brand new, together with Bryston’s new 17B3 pre-amp (review pending). Both units needed to be run in thoroughly, and sounded somewhat veiled on initial switch-on. It took at least 100 hours for the power amp to start showing its true colours, and 200 hours to reach optimum levels.

For the review, the 4B3 was partnered with Primare’s elegant and versatile PRE32 pre-amp. Of course, I also ran it with the 17B3 for the sake of comparison – and it has to be said that the all-Bryston combo is a pre/power match made in audio heaven.

SOUNDS LIKE …

The word authoritative is the first that comes to mind once you settle down for some concerted listening. But while the 4B3 does take supreme control of the music, it does so without robbing it of pace, flow or dynamics.

There is an approachability born of sonic authenticity to the delivery that draws the listener right into the heart of the performance. Indeed, the Bryston captures the energy and electricity of a performance with an intensity and clarity that demands full attention.

Regardless of material, the Bryston served up its musical wares with an honesty, a crisp precision and an unbridled vigour that allowed it to easily keep up with the pace and complexity of the music.

On Chano Dominiquez and Gerardo Nunez’s Jazzpaña II, the swirling rhythms, sassy brass and vibrant acoustic guitars were accurately and vividly portrayed, easily capturing the percussive snap and sparkle of the music.

At the same time, staging was seamless, positioning a finely focussed sound image on a panoramic soundstage that allowed a believably painted, three-dimensional presentation. There was an inherent lucidity to the delivery that further highlighted the transparency of the Vivid loudspeakers, and made for rewarding listening.

The tonal spectrum was broad, but with no particular emphasis in any particular band. The 4B3 easily explored the considerable low-frequency potential of the Vivids, but never sounded bass-heavy.

The amp’s linear progression into mids and highs allowed a tonally full but measured performance unmarred by any midrange glare or treble edge. Indeed, this sense of tonal balance added further weight to the overall sense of musical realism.

Thanks to the Bryston’s talent for scale and dynamics, the Oslo Philharmonic sounded majestic and yet lyrical in its accompaniment of Hilary Hahn’s lithe and engrossing interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Vitally the 4B3 never sounded forced or overbearing – it made its sonic point with élan, even at lower listening levels, while still providing unrestricted access to and insight into the essence and the spirit of the music.

While the Bryston sounded regal and commanding on full-scale symphonic works, it shone equally brightly on more contemporary material.

The amp revealed all the urge and impetus of the distortion-edged guitar, the deep and punchy bass and the anguished vocals of Chris Stapleton on ‘I Was Wrong’ (from From A Room Volume 1). The Bryston certainly approached its task with a certain glee and enthusiasm that contributed to its captivating grip on the music.

It embraced the less organic, much more electronic edge of LCD Soundsystem’s comeback album, American Dream, with equal eagerness, projecting the shimmering synths and bone-vibrating bass chords with compelling vigour and presence. And yet it also afforded James Murphy’s deadpan vocals all the air and space required to remain clearly, eerily distinct from the dense, wall-to-wall arrangement.

Even pushed hard, with volume levels approaching the pain threshold, the 4B3 retained its inherent authority and composure, and never showed any sign of sonic glare or strain. But for all its muscle, the amp was equally comfortable with exploring the subtle nuances of Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau’s marvellous, atmospheric collaboration on their eponymously titled set of banjo/piano duos.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Bryston 4B3 is a powerhouse that builds on the considerable and well-deserved reputation of the 4B-SST. It retains its predecessor’s talent for incisive, powerful and gripping performances, but adds a new sense of air and finesse that allows a richer harvest of detail to be added to the mix.

The result is another classic, highly desirable power amp in the making.

By DEON SCHOEMAN

 

PROS
Plenty of grip, plenty of musicality.
CONS
May be too honest for some.

VITAL STATS
Power output:
– 300 watts/channel (8 ohms)
– 500 watts/channel (4 ohms)
– 900 watts/channel (bridged mono, 8 ohms)
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (±0,1 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 500 (20 Hz/8 ohms)
Dimensions (WxDxH): 432 x 412 x 160 mm
Weight: 26,2 kg
PRICE
R79 290
SUPPLIED BY
Aeolian.

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Primare PRE32 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
Bryston BDA-3 D/A converter
Lumin D1 network player
Synology 216se NAS
Oppo BDP-95EU universal deck
Marantz Pearl KI Lite CD/SACD deck
Vivid Audio B1 Decade loudspeakers
KEF R500 loudspeakers

MUSIC
LCD Sound System – American Dream (Columbia/Sony)
Chris Stapleton – From A Room Vol 1 (Decca/Mercury)
Chano Dominiquez/Gerardo Nunez – Jazzpaña II (Karon/Act)
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E Minor – Hilary Hahn/Janowski/Oslo Philharmonic (Sony Classical)
Chris Thile, Brad Mehldau – Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau (Nonesuch)

There was a time when integrated amplifiers were considered compromised, compared to the more fancied, and dearer, separate pre-amp and power amp combinations. But is that still the case?

Over the past few years, an increasing number of top-class integrated amplifier designs have proved that they can stand their ground against separate pre/power offerings. The Cary Audio SI-300.2d is a good case in point.

Its objective is to deliver the performance of a pre-amp/power amp combo from a single-chassis design. But it adds an extra spin to the integrated amp ball by including a digital-to-analogue converter, thus further extending the unit’s capabilities (and reducing the number of boxes in your hi-fi rack).

AT FACE VALUE
Reassuringly solid, the all-metal SI-300.2d looks and feels the high-end part. Its no-nonsense styling focuses on functionality, with a central volume controller, an LED alphanumeric display on the left, and old-school but charming VU meters on the right.

An illuminated power button is joined by a long row of round pushbutton controls on the lower edge of the faceplate. The top panel has vents for the internal, integrated heatsink. That said, the Cary doesn’t run all that hot – just pleasantly warm.

The rear panel provides an overview of this integrated amp’s versatility. It caters for four stereo analogue inputs – two XLR, two RCA – and a raft of digital inputs: AES/EBU, Toslink optical, 2x coaxial and a USB Type B.

Two antennas allow for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi respectively, and there’s also an Ethernet wired network option. This network connectivity allows for the use of a neat iOS/Android app, which makes source selection, volume control, display brightness and source selection even more convenient than using the supplied remote control.

However, it doesn’t allow for access to and streaming of source material from network-attached storage devices, which seems like an opportunity missed.

The Cary offers a set of pre-amp outputs for those who want to upgrade to a separate power amp. And there’s also a choice of Toslink or coaxial digital outputs.

UNDER THE COVERS
The Cary is a pretty sophisticated piece of kit, and a powerful one, too. Rated output is a healthy 300 watts RMS/channel into 8 ohms, and 450 watts into 4 ohms from the amp’s solid state Class A/B circuitry.

On the digital front, a two-channel AKM AK4490EQ 32-bit D/A converter offers upsampling up to 768 kHz/32-bit PCM and DSD256 (11,2 MHz.) A 128-bit DSP engine is used to upsample the digital input signal from native resolution and bit depth in selectable steps.

In the case of 44,1 kHz native res, the steps are 48/88,2/96/176,4/192 kHz, as well as 352,8 and 705,6 kHz, all at 32-bits. The Cary will also upsample to DSD64/128/256.

For input signals operating in 48 kHz steps, the upsampling options are 88,2/96/176,4/192/384 and 768 kHz, again all at 32-bit, as well as the three DSD options. You can also bypass the upsampling completely and run with the native resolution and bit depth.

SOUNDS LIKE …
The Cary’s sonic talents are pretty much in line with those solid, no-nonsense looks – it delivers a bold, full-blooded and arresting sound that immediately gets you to sit up and take notice.

Running our Lumin D1 network player into the Cary’s balanced inputs, the Punch Brothers’ The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch 96/24 FLAC) sounded astonishingly vibrant and lifelike. There was a visceral intensity to the music that endowed voices instruments with body and presence.

On ‘I Blew It Off’ the violin, cello and banjo sounded lifelike and incisive, weaving a textured, tonally vibrant backdrop against which the vocals were vividly presented. The percussion had tremendous impact and precision, emphasising the effortless pace of the delivery.

Tonal range was expansive: the amp’s muscular, intense low frequency delivery underpinned the music’s timbre and authority. I was struck by the dynamic intensity of the sound, and the ability of the Cary to explore both the explosive and the subtle, intimate elements of the music.

But perhaps the most appealing, the most arresting part of the Cary’s performance was the imaging: the amp’s ability to create a lifelike, convincing performance was underscored by a real talent to present a finely delineated, thoroughly three-dimensional sound picture.

As a result, it was easy to recognise the specific spatial and temporal positioning of each instrument and voice on an open, seemingly infinite soundstage.

I’d be a fool not to admit that the review system’s Vivid B1 Decade speakers played a key role in this seamless, precisely rendered and musically enthralling sound picture, but that said, they were a perfect match for the Cary’s urge, speed and outright musicality.

This was particularly apparent on the slick, immaculately produced eponymous album by Fleetwood Mac stalwarts Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie (Atlantic/Warner 44/16 FLAC), which can sound almost too glossy and bright on some systems, but which was presented with just the right amount of impetus and heft here.

On the catchy ‘Red Sun’, I was again struck by the generosity of the staging and the precision of the imaging, as well as the fullness of tone and the overall intensity of the music.

The sound wasn’t rich in a bloated, rolled off, oversaturated way, but would be best described as full-range. The amp certainly has the muscle and the authority to prevent the sound from becoming unruly, but never gets in the way of the music’s inherent energy and flow.

On the Dunedin Consort’s slightly austere but no less compelling rendition of Mozart’s Requiem (Linn Records 192/24 FLAC), the amp accurately rendered the recording’s spatial intimacy and precise vocal placements, while also exploring the slightly drier tonal character of the period instruments. The fine balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra was perfectly maintained throughout.

Switching to the Cary’s own DAC via the D1’s coaxial output, the sound was slightly clearer and more precise, and also appeared to gain a little bit of extra breathing space. However, the midrange also sounded a little leaner.

The lower registers retained their urge and authority, and imaging was finer, adding even greater focus. Staging was expansive, but the dimensionality was slightly less defined as far as depth was concerned.

I experimented with the Cary’s upsampling feature, but found that the results varied too much from recording to recording to be conclusively better at any given sampling rate. There were gains in some areas and compromises in others, compared to the native mode, which to me sounded consistently best and most balanced throughout.

Upsampling to DSD appeared to offer greater precision, but sometimes at the expense of the music’s character. Deciding on an upsampling rate will most probably depend on personal preference, although the differences are often subtle.

THE BOTTOM LINE
The Cary SI-300.2d is a triumph – an integrated amp with extensive facilities that allow  the use of a variety of sources, and a sonic approach that makes the most of the incoming signal, regardless of whether it’s analogue or digital.

The ability to upsample the digital signal allows further flexibility, while catering to different sonic preferences. The amp delivers so much urge, with so much finesse, that it’s hard to imagine why one would want to add an extra power amp – but the pre-outputs leave that option open, too.

The Cary proves just why high-end integrated amps have become so popular. Its spread of talents is so convincing, both musically and technically, that it should meet the demands of even the most fastidious audiophile with confident and compelling ease.

VITAL STATS

Power output (8 ohms, 20 Hz – 20 kHz): 2x 300 watts RMS
Power output (4 ohms, 20 Hz – 20 kHz): 2x 450 watts RMS
Frequency response: 0 Hz – 50 kHz (±0,1 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >100 dB, A-weighted
D/A converter: AK M AK44090EQ, 8x oversampling
Analogue inputs: 2x stereo RCA, 2x stereo balanced XLR
Digital inputs: 2x coaxial RCA, 1x Toslink optical, 1x AES/EBU, 1x asynchronous USB Type B
Connectivity: Ethernet, 802.11 Wi-Fi, Bluetooth V4.0
Outputs: Stereo pre-out, 1x coaxial digital, 1x Toslink optical
Dimensions (WxHxD): 438 x 152 x 457 mm
Weight: 23,6 kg
VERDICT
A versatile, visceral, powerful performer that never loses sight of the music’s emotional intricacies. Riveting when paired with source components of equal quality.
PRICE
R90 000
SUPPLIED BY
The Listening Room 031 584-7194 / 021 418-4379
WEBSITE
www.thelisteningroom.co.za

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT    
Primare PRE32 pre-amp/MM30 media board
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
Lumin D1 network player
Bryston BDA-3 D/A converter
Vivid Audio B1 Decade loudspeakers
KEF R500 loudspeakers

MUSIC
Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch 96/24 FLAC)
Mozart – Requiem – Dunedin Consort (Linn Records 192/24 FLAC)
Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie – Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie
Joe Bonamassa – Blues Of Desperation (J&R Adventures 44,1/16 FLAC)