AMPLIFIERS

 

AMPLIFIERS

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)