My dad was a man with many talents, but playing, listening and recording music was one of those that he was particularly passionate about. I became very aware of this passion when I, a youth of probably no more than eleven, discovered that Deon had indeed some good taste in music when I unearthed some White Snake recordings from his LP collection. This did not completely forgive him for owning lots of ‘jazzy’ albums in the eyes of a budding metal guitarist, but it was a start and I wanted to capture that for myself.
I proceeded to load the record player of unquantifiable value with aforementioned White Snake LP, looted a pair of Maxell MX 90 blank tapes from a draw, and popped them into the tape player/recorder. The cellophane wrappers, carelessly discarded to the side, ended up on the pre-amp, and were slowly transforming into a pile of toxic smoke and embers to the sound of Here I Go Again. Unbenounced to me Deon had just walked into the room and was processing what was going on, molten plastic and all.
Swifter action was never given.
He was more worried about the potential fire hazard than the equipment, but I realised then that these black boxes and wires were probably also very important. But this is not news to regular readers who are familiar with Deon’s writing, because he injected that passion for HiFi into every review, opinion piece and comment that he wrote.
My grandmother tells the story of how one evening my grandfather, Stan, had a pressing deadline to complete but Deon and a friend of his were in his room blasting away music. Finally Stan could not take it any longer and pushed the door open to my dad’s room and was greeted with a cacophony of sound (their description not mine) and a visual representation of Frankenstein’s laboratory if Frank was more into NAD than resurrection. I was assured that there was an equal amount of cabling involved.
I like to think that this was the birth of Audio Video for my dad. Maybe not that day but one just like it; music and equipment and experimenting with how to make it sound better with whoever would listen. His study is still like that and that is how I remember him: a passionate man, a loving father to my sister and I and the perfect partner to my Mom, truly in his element when he was writing and listening to music as loud as the walls would allow.
He passed away Monday morning, 17 June 2019. If anyone wants to send their thoughts please do so to me, at email@example.com
AVM is a new arrival on the SA audio scene, but the German marque’s provenance is widely acknowledged in Europe, where its combination of fine workmanship, ease of use and sonic capability has gained it many friends. The Inspiration CS 2.2 4T is a good case in point.
Audio Video Manufuktur (AVM) is a German audio brand that designs, develops and produces an extensive array of mainly stereo audio products at its facility in the town of Malsch, near Karlsruhe in Germany.
Its proudly ‘Made In Germany’ tradition means that all its products are manufactured in house, while the majority of its suppliers are also located close by. This benefits quality control and consistency, underpinned by a commitment to craftsmanship that’s evident in the sleek casework and superb finishes typical of AVM’s products.
The AVM catalogue is extensive, embracing everything from turntables and loudspeakers to pre-amps, power amps and media players. However, its most intriguing offering is an array of all-in-one, one-box systems that combine an integrated amplifier with CD playback, FM tuner and media streaming capabilities.
AT FACE VALUE
The Inspiration CS 2.2 4T is one of those. It wraps an extensive array of functions and features in a compact but sleek and meticulously finished, all-metal enclosure that’s attractive enough to be deemed a ‘lifestyle’ device, but with serious sonic credentials.
The 4T is the flagship of the Inspiration range, and offers various enhancements over the standard CS 2.2, including an upgraded phono stage, the addition of Bluetooth connectivity and the latest Wolfson 192 kHz/24-bit DAC.
At only 340mm wide, it’s significantly smaller than conventional DIN-sized audio components, while the screwless casework, seamless panel fit and tactile quality create a sophisticated, upmarket aura.
The front fascia is home to a disc-loading slot, a flush-mounted rotary volume controller and small soft-touch buttons some which change function depending on the operation mode. There’s also a large, blue-illuminated LED display with adjustable brightness and a satisfyingly large, alphanumeric readout.
The rear panel is less minimalist, offering a trio of stereo, line-level RCA input sets, as well as an MM/MC phono input. There also fixed-level record, and variable-level pre-amp outputs, and a USB Type A socket for USB drives, while digital connections are served via coaxial and Toslink optical inputs and outputs.
The back panel offers screw-in mounts for two antennas – one serving Bluetooth 4.2 reception, the other for 802.11 Wi-Fi. An Ethernet socket for cabled LAN connectivity is provided, too.
From a control perspective, there’s a chunky metal remote control handset that looks the high-end part, as well as an RC9 IR/IRF remote which has its own, integrated status screen (another part of the 4T upgrade package).
However, most users are likely to opt for the RC S app, offered free for both iOS and Android devices. It’s intuitive and functional, even if the interface could be prettied up a little.
Using the app also highlights some of the CS 2.2 4T’s less obvious talents. For instance, access to the Tidal and Qobuz streaming services is built in, as is an Internet radio tuner with literally thousands of stations to choose from.
The Inspiration will also stream from DLNA and UPnP-compliant NAS devices on the same network, with the app again the best way to navigate through the content of NAS-based music libraries.
UNDER THE COVERS
It’s hard to fathom how AVM has managed to squeeze so much functionality into such a compact box. Certainly, the casework is filled to the brim with circuitry and cabling, although the execution expresses the same level of craftsmanship and commitment to quality as the exterior.
The slot-loading disc-reading mechanism is CD-specific, rather than a generic DVD drive, and is purpose-built by Teac for AVM. The drive is said to be much more accurate and reliable than generic drives, with commensurate gains in quality.
The in-built DAC is AVM’s own design, employing an unspecified, but latest-generation Wolfson DAC chip. All incoming digital signals, regardless of resolution, are upsampled to 192 kHz/24-bit using digital signal processing, before being converted to analogue.
In LAN streaming mode, the DAC is compatible with lossless FLAC, WAV and AIFF files at up to 192 kHz/24-bit. ALAC files are also supported, but only up to 96 kHz/24-bit, while lossy formats include MP3, WMA, AAC and Ogg Vorbis.
Part of the secret behind the Inspiration’s compact size is the fact that it uses a pair of Class D output stages, which are not only smaller than conventional Class A/B designs, but also run a lot cooler.
The CS 2.2 T4 has a rated output of 110 watts RMS per channel into 8 ohms, and 165 watts RMS per channel into 4 ohms.
The AVM can be customised to suit personal preferences in several areas. For instance, the tone control can be deactivated, and if activated, tone control adjustments (bass and treble) can be made for each source individually.
Other adjustments include loudness and balance, while inputs can be renamed, or even deactivated if not in use. Input sensitivity for all inputs (but not for the CD or tuner sources) is individually adjustable between -9,5 dB and +10,0 dB.
You can also choose to bypass the output stage if the Inspiration is being used as a pre-amp in conjunction with a separate power amp.
The AVM is not compatible with the Roon music management system, nor with MQA files – although, I suspect the logic behind this omission is a belief that the Inspiration already offers its own streaming and source management, while the benefits of MQA remain controversial.
After all, the AVM’s all-in-one approach is focussed on ease of use, without any sonic compromises, and without the need for too much in the way of high-tech know how. For many, the attraction of the CS 2.2 4T will be its plug ’n play simplicity.
I used the AVM in conjunction with my Vivid Audio V1.5 reference speakers, with a PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Network Bridge II providing a digital counterpoint.
SOUNDS LIKE …
The Inspiration CS 2.2 T4 delivered an instantly engaging, accessible sound that invited the listener to sit down and simply enjoy the music. Its approach was smooth and slightly warm, with a particular focus on texture and timbre, which allowed the music to take on an almost palpable quality.
However, it never became so warm and fuzzy that it interfered with the AVM’s ability to retrieve and present the finer details and nuances of the music: rather, the sound had an almost organic quality that seemed to bring instruments to life with conviction.
The soundstaging was tidy and incisive, with succinct placement of individual components, while the AVM was able to spatially contextualise the music – from the intimacy of a jazz quartet and the clubby exuberance of a blues ensemble to the majestic scale and impact of a symphony orchestra.
The AVM never overstated or exaggerated its musical fare, but still seemed to make the most of the music. It created enough sonic room to accommodate every facet of a performance, and while it always kept a close rein on the music, it never did so to the detriment of the music’s energy or impetus.
Tonally, the AVM delivered a rich sonic bounty, with a generous foundation of bass, a smooth and almost organic midrange, and clear but slightly sweet trebles. The sound was by no means rolled off, but ensured instant approachability and engagement.
The result was a compelling and fatigue-free delivery that encouraged extended listening, regardless of source. Also, the inherent character of the AVM was maintained regardless of source, be it from its internal CD drive, from the music library on my Synology NAS, or streaming from Tidal, the sonic results remained musically accessible and engaging.
Elvis Costello’s Look Now sees the popmaster returning to the lucid charm and songcraft of his early work, but infused with a maturity and heft that adds unexpected musical gravitas.
The AVM captured the intimate ambience of the recording and age-burnished timbre of Costello’s vocals with an engaging accuracy that grasped the essence and thrust of the music, rather than merely analysing the sound.
There was an inviting lucidity and approachability to the sound that invited close and extended encounters with the music, regardless of genre.
The CS 2.2 4T was as at ease projecting the brooding atmosphere, the broad sonic expanse and the rich complexity of movie soundtrack maestro Hans Zimmer’s ‘Black Knight Trilogy’ (from his Live In Prague set) as it was bringing the stand-up bass and abrasive vocals of Casey Abrams on ‘I Put A Spell On You’ from the same-titled album vividly to life.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There was a certain ‘rightness’ and authenticity to the way the AVM handled the music that just sounded right, and put a smile on my face (and everyone else who heard the CS 2.2 4T).
It always sounds larger, more incisive and more musical than you expect from a compact, attractively styled one-box system, proving that aesthetics can be more than skin deep.
Importantly, the app makes navigating the unit’s considerable feature set intuitive, ensuring that you don’t have to be a technophile to use and enjoy the AVM.
Built like a tank (albeit a very pretty one), and with a compact footprint that will make it easy to accommodate in even smaller rooms, or minimalist décor schemes, the Inspiration CS 2.2 4T finds an impressive balance between lifestyle design, a versatile feature set and true sonic appeal that also vindicates its asking pride.
Power output: 2x 110 watts (8 ohms), 2x 165 watts (4 ohms)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 96 dBA (25 watts/4 ohms)
Frequency response: <5 Hz – >50 kHz (4 ohms)
Integrated sources: CD, FM Stereo tuner
Analogue inputs: 3x stereo RCA, 1x MM/MC phono input
Analogue outputs: Pre-amp out, Record out
Digital inputs: 1x coaxial RCA, 1x Toslink optical
Digital outputs: 1x coaxial RCA, 1x Toslink optical
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11, Ethernet
DAC chip: Wolfson, upsampling to 192 kHz/24-bit
Streaming services: Internet radio, Tidal, Qobuz
Network services: UPnP, DLNA
Dimensions (WxHxD): 340x 80 x 350 mm)
Weight: 10 kg
PS Audio DirectStream DAC + Bridge II
Naim Uniti 2 all-in-one system
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers
Synology DS 213+ NAS
Casey Abrams – Put A Spell On You (Chesky)
Elvis Costello – Don’t’ Look Now (Concord)
Hans Zimmer – Live In Prague (Eagle Records)
The Anthem STR line-up consists of a pre-amp, a power amp – and now, also an integrated amp. The pre/power impressed when on test a year or so ago. Can the one-box integrated deliver similar sonics in a more convenient form factor?
When Canadian firm Anthem launched the STR pre-amp/power amp combo last year, it reached for higher sonic ground. The duo was ambitious in both tech and sonic terms, and the results were musically engaging.
Now an integrated amplifier has joined the STR family, the idea being that it provides most of the pre/power’s facilities and capabilities, but in a single box. Not everyone has the space for a separate pre-amp and power amp, after all – and opting for the integrated has a pride advantage, too.
Like the pre-amp, the STR Integrated comes with Anthem Room Correction (ARC) built in, which promises optimum performance, regardless of speaker type or room acoustics. That’s a big promise to keep, though.
The power output is a little lower, compared to the pre/power, but the claimed 200 watts/channel into 8 ohms (and 400 watts into 4 ohms) still provides plenty of muscle and drive, even when partnered with less sensitive or low-impedance speakers.
AT FACE VALUE
The STR Integrated amp closely follows the design language established by the pre/power. The look is chunky and contemporary, with large alphanumeric display taking up almost half of the partly curved fascia.
A large volume controller is flanked by basic array of small, round switchgear, with most users expected to use the full-feature remote control for day-to-day use. All-metal casework and a hefty18 kg weight confirm the Anthem’s robust build quality.
As with the power amp, heatsinking for the Class A/B amplifier is internal, making for a clean, uncluttered look. Peer under the covers, and the large toroidal transformer is an obvious feature of the tidy circuitry.
The rear panel provides a good indication of the amp’s comprehensive feature set. In analogue terms, a single XLR balanced input set is joined by five single-ended RCA pair, and that excludes the separate moving coil and moving magnet inputs for the phono stage.
There’s also a full complement of digital inputs, spanning two coaxial RCA and two Toslink optical digital inputs, as well as an AES/EBU socket and an asynchronous Type B USB input. Audio outputs include fixed and variable RCA outputs, and dual subwoofer outputs.
Network connectivity is provided via Ethernet, and there’s also a mass storage-capable USB Type A port, while custom installers will welcome the inclusion of an RS-232 serial port, and 12V triggers. Robustly engineered binding posts complete the back panel offering.
UNDER THE COVERS
That large, centrally located toroidal power supply mentioned earlier is only one aspect of the STR’s meticulously laid out circuitry. The amp’s topology favours short signal paths and a high-current, high-output design that is stable all the way down to 2 ohms.
There are eight bipolar devices for each channel, and careful component selection and matching adds to the amp’s sonic potential.
The STR incorporates both a digital-to-analogue converter, and an analogue-to-digital converter, the latter to enable signal processing and application of the Anthem Room Correction system to incoming analogue signals.
The ADC converts incoming analogue signals to 192 kHz/32-bit digital signals, but users can choose to bypass this step, and to listen to the original, unprocessed analogue signal provided by the source component instead.
Digital data is automatically upsampled to 192 kHz/24-bit resolution, while the USB input will support higher resolutions: PCM up to 384 kHz/32-bit, as well as native playback of DSD 2.8 and DSD 5.6 material.
Setting up the STR integrated also highlights some of its unique features, notably the ability to convert incoming analogue to digital signals, and applying Anthem Room Correction. It’s important to note that ARC only works with signals in the digital domain, so analogue sources passing through without being converted won’t benefit from ARC’s attentions.
That large display makes sense once you embark on the menu-driven set-up process, which is intuitive enough – but the big display makes it all so much easier. Each input can be customised, and the options vary.
Even better, can you have different configurations for one input stored under different names, allowing instant switching between digital conversion and analogue pass-through, for instance – or the application of more than one speaker profile to the same input.
But the amp’s real secret weapon is its built-in ARC Genesis room correction, which includes subwoofer management. ARC is already considered the class of the field in domestic surround sound room calibration, and its introduction in a stereo role here brings all the benefits to music lovers.
One caveat: for the ARC settings to be activated, the incoming audio signal needs to be in the digital domain. That means that all analogue audio sources need to be converted to 32/192 PCM. You can run in conventional analogue, but it means the ARC adjustments cannot be applied.
The latest ARC Genesis is a lot more user-friendly than the previous version, and is also Mac-compatible for the first time. It really is plug and play, using the supplied USB microphone and stand.
You open the software, plug in the mic, follow the on-screen instructions, and in about 10 min, you’re done. You can also tweak the settings after the room has been measured, and save different settings in different profiles, then swap between them on the fly.
For tweakers and advanced users, there is a broadened, improved scope for target curve adjustment, and the measuring process can be interrupted, resumed or repeated at any stage, rather than having to start from scratch every time.
ARC can be used in three ways – using the free ARC mobile app in conjunction with the smart device’s own microphone; using the same app but with the microphone provided with the STR amp; and finally, employing the fully-fledged ARC Genesis software on a PC or Mac, together with the ARC microphone kit (calibrated microphone and stand) that’s also supplied with the STR.
The results are impressive regardless of method, and the mobile-based measurements are quicker and easier. However, it’s worth using the PC/Mac software and calibrated mic for optimum results. It also allows post-measurement adjustments of the measured target curve.
For this review, I performed a fully-fledged ARC Genesis calibration sequence using my 13-inch MacBook Pro. The process was seamless, quick and intuitive, with a clear interface and repeatable results.
I then configured the inputs to allow a direct comparison of analogue and digital signal feeds from the same sources (a Lumin D1 streamer, and a Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite disc player) – in other words, allowing a comparison between the STR operating in analogue mode, and with digital conversion invoked and ARC applied.
To make the ARC’s task even tougher, I used a pair of KEF LS50 standmount speakers, linked to our Atlantic Technologies active subwoofer. ARC Genesis includes bass management, and the STR can run one or two subs in mono or stereo configuration.
First things first: once you’ve heard the impact of ARC on overall system sound, you won’t want to be without it.
The improvement in sound is quite remarkable, demonstrating in the first instance the pivotal role that the acoustic environment plays in system performance, and what benefits are to be gained from addressing the almost acoustic anomalies present in most ‘normal’ rooms.
Without ARC, the Anthem sounds bold and boisterous, with plenty of pace and muscle. It takes the music by the scruff of its neck and projects it with verve and vigour. The result is exciting and powerful, with broad staging and tidy, incisive imaging.
However, invoke ARC, and the changes are as dramatic as they are musically convincing. This is not a case of DSP-instigated hyperbole, but of optimising the performance to the ultimate benefit of the music.
Immediately apparent is the way the soundstage opens up, affording the music more breathing space. The sound image is allowed to extend across all three dimensions, with depth the most obvious beneficiary.
But height and width also become more generous, creating a musical picture that extends well beyond the boundaries of the room. It also allows large-scale works to attain the kind of presence and stature you’d expect of the real thing, even with bookshelf speakers and a sub, as tested here.
On ‘Riviera Paradise’ off the Sweet Release set by Reese Wynans and Friends, the amplifier delivered the sweeping synths and melancholy guitar with a fluid ease and inviting intimacy. The Hammond B3 sounded real and impactful, while the percussion was presented with precision and power.
Gentle electric guitar licks added to the appeal, while the STR also recreated the spacious, slightly reverberant ambience of the recording with confidence and credibility.
I was particularly impressed by the staging, which was almost palpably three-dimensional, allowing precise positioning of the ensemble’s various members, but never at the expense of overall cohesion or musical authority.
On ‘Make It All Go Away’ from Brad Mehldau’s latest release, Finding Gabriel, the STR easily managed to pick its way through the multi-layered arrangement, with the digitised chorus and vocals spread wide to the left and right, the drums anchored dead centre, and the multi-faceted keyboards projected with spatial and temporal precision.
The dimensionality was so pronounced that it took on an almost surround sound-like stature. Again, the STR allowed a level of insight and attention to fine detail that greatly enhanced the listening experience, while retaining the thrust and cohesion of the music.
Cellist Edgar Moreau’s performance of Offenbach’s lovely Grand Concerto For Cello In G Major is engrossing. His command of the instrument is lyrical and intense, underpinned by impressive technical virtuosity.
The recording not only captures the solo cello’s depth of tone and texture, but also the agility and impact of Moreau’s playing, while the orchestra is presented with intimate restraint.
The STR’s treatment of the performance was immaculate, easily tracking the music’s dynamic swings and intricacies, while never losing sight of the cello’s starring role.
The Steve Gadd Band’s eponymous, Grammy Award-winning set is a slick, tautly structured and engaging album that’s also immaculately recorded. On the opening ‘I Know, But Tell Me Again’, the rollicking electric bass finds a perfect rapport with the upbeat drumwork and the sassy brass, while keyboards and guitar wait their turn to take centre stage.
There’s a lot happening on the busy, albeit expansive soundstage, and not surprisingly, Gadd’s drumwork is always at the forefront, providing an intricate rhythmic framework for the band’s other members.
The pace is unrelenting and energetic, but the STR always sounded up to the task, easily translating the shimmer and excitement of the music, while also ensuring an accessibility and lucidity that allowed the full scope of the performance to be appreciated and experienced.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In purely sonic terms, the STR Integrated is an adept, powerful and composed amplifier with a penchant for pace and passion. It’s not intimidated by large-scale productions, and delivers its sonic wares with an energetic enthusiasm that makes the music come alive.
That’s not to say that it isn’t able to capture the subtler nuances and details of the music. It’s able to pay as much attention to the finer elements of a performance as it does to the broader, bolder strokes – but it’s the cohesion and impetus of its delivery that stands out, together with wide-open staging.
There’s no doubt that the ARC system plays a pivotal role in the amplifier’s capabilities, and it would be pointless to use the amp without taking advantage of those benefits. Adding to ARC’s appeal is its bass management feature, which does a compelling job of integrating subwoofer delivery into the overall performance.
In that sense, this is probably not an amp for purists, who will baulk at the notion of digitising incoming analogue signals – although direct comparison will leave no doubt as to the musical benefits.
Add smooth tonality, plenty of inputs, superior subwoofer management and an overall sense of musical authenticity to the equation – all in a handy single-box form factor – and you have an enticing alternative to conventional high-end amplifier solutions.
Power output (20 Hz – 20 kHz, <1% THD): 2x 200 watts (8 ohms), 2x 400 watts (4 ohms)
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 80 kHz (+0, -0,1 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 120 dB (<0,1% THD)
Digital inputs: 1x AES/EBU, 1x asynchronous USB, 2x RCA coaxial, 2x Toslink optical
Analogue inputs: 1x balanced stereo XLR, 4x stereo RCA, MM/MC phono stage
Outputs: 1x line-level stereo RCA, 1x variable-level stereo RCA, 2x subwoofer out RCA
Connectivity: 802.11 Wi-Fi, Ethernet, RS232 serial port
Dimensions (HxWxD): 172 x 432 x 445 mm)
Weight: 18 kg
Lumin D1/L1 network player/server
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD player
Primare PRE32 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
KEF LS50 speakers
Atlantic Technology subwoofer
Reese Wynans and Friends – Sweet Release (J&R Adventures)
Brad Mehldau – Finding Gabriel (Nonesuch)
Offenbach – Grand Concerto For Cello In G Major – Moreau/Merlin/Les Forces Majeures (Erato)
Steve Gadd Band – Steve Gadd Band (BFM Jazz)
If you recognise the RME brand, you’re probably an audio professional. The German company specialises in digital audio solutions, primarily targeting the pro audio industry.
However, there is a fringe of home audio enthusiasts that has discovered and started using RME’s products. Recognising that there may be some opportunities in this crossover market, the company is producing some pro-standard products specifically for home use.
The ADI-2 DAC is a case in point. It’s based on the ADI-2 Pro, with the major difference being that the Pro includes analogue-to-digital conversion. However, the DAC retains the Pro model’s superior build quality, and its fully balanced, symmetrical circuit topology.
The DAC moniker itself is somewhat of an understatement. Yes, the ADI-2 is a DAC, but it’s also a highly competent and powerful headphone amp – good enough for highly critical studio monitoring purposes.
In true pro audio fashion, the device also offers a level of customisation that’s streets ahead of any conventional hi-fi component.
That customisation may by definition be too complex and unintuitive for some, but highly attractive to others. It all depends on your requirements, and to what extent absolute accuracy is a priority.
Superbly built and presented, the ADI-2 DAC is a compact, half-width component that will easily find a home on a desk, as opposed to an equipment rack. The look is functional rather than conventionally pretty, but not unattractive – another typical pro attribute.
The front panel layout is deceptively simple with a soft-touch power button, a generous IPS high-res colour display, a large turn-and-click rotary controller flanked by four function buttons, and a pair of smaller rotary controllers on the far right.
The colour screen can be switched off for users who find it distracting, but it provides a host of useful information, including peak level readings, a 30-band spectrum analyser, volume and system status information, and more.
The control interface uses a series of menus and submenus navigated by the switchgear provided. It’s reasonably logical once you understand the underlying operating protocol, albeit more complex and less intuitive than your typical hi-fi component.
There is a compact remote control with basic functionality, plus four programmable keys, which will be useful to those intending to use the RME in a hi-fi setup.
Of particular note are the two headphone outputs – a standard 6,35 mm headphone socket, and a 3,5 mm minijack socket specifically designed for in-ear monitor use. Each gets its own, bespoke amplifier, but the latter has different gain setting to compensate for the typically higher sensitivity of IEMs, with a lower noise floor to match.
The output stages are extremely robust, and offer exceptionally low THD values, as well as the ability to drive high-impedance headphones effortlessly. Add a 120 dB signal-to-noise ratio, and headphone (and IEM) fans will be in audio heaven.
The rear panel provides further insights into the DI-2 DAC’s capabilities. In addition to the expected USB 2.0 Type B socket for hooking up a computer, both coaxial digital and Toslink optical digital inputs are provided. Surprisingly, given its pro origins, there’s no AES/EBU XLR input – possibly to save costs.
There are also two line output sets – one balanced XLR, one line-level RCA – to allow the REM to be incorporated into a conventional hi-fi system, as opposed to being used for headphones only. Those line outputs are muted when headphones are plugged in, however.
Both the RCA and XLR line output levels are adjustable in four steps to allow for more accurate system matching when the RME is hooked up to a home audio system.
As mentioned, one of the key attractions of the ADI-2 DAC is its configurability. Specifically, there’s a five-band parametric equaliser with preset memories. For less precise, rapid tone control, bass and treble can be adjusted up to ±6 dB.
For low-level listening, there’s an advanced, adjustable loudness control. Also, the AKM AK4490 DAC chipset offers six of different oversampling filters. The chipset operates at sampling rates up to 768 kHz at depths of up 32 bits, while an internal clock delivers top-class accuracy and jitter suppression.
Once set up, all the parameter settings can be stored – and the ADI-2 has nine memories, allowing rapid swapping between different adjustment sets. That’s particularly useful if the ADI-2 DAC is being used for different applications: different headphones, for instance, or when linked to an audio system, etc.
For a complete run-down of the ADI-2 DAC’s almost overwhelming feature set and options, you can visit the RME website . The very comprehensive manual is also available for download from the site.
Sonically, the ADI-2 DAC places the emphasis squarely on neutrality and accuracy – and that’s not surprising, given its pro audio heritage. That said, the digital filters and parametric equalisation, as well as the tone control allow the sound of the DAC to be tailored to suit room conditions, system limitations, and personal preference.
The whole concept of the ADI-2 DAC revolves around accuracy, linearity, ultra-low noise superior signal-to-noise ratios. Using my Sennheiser HD800 headphones, with the source signal provided via a MacBook Pro running Roon via USB, the sound was open, airy and spacious.
Yes, adjectives like precise and revealing do come to mind, together with an effortlessness, despite the Sennheiser’s high impedance. Sonically, the RME tells it like it is, warts and all, so that it rewards a good source signal, and ruthlessly reveals flawed ones.
Compared to my PS Audio DirectStream hi-fi DAC, the RME sounded leaner and cleaner, with a comparably open soundstage and excellent dimensionality. It resolved a higher degree of fine detail, but lacked some of the PS Audio DAC’s emotive appeal, sounding somewhat stark and unforgiving.
At just short of R30,000, the RME ADI-2 DAC is expensive. But it is a serious piece of kit, with a features set miles ahead of conventional, hi-fi orientated DAC/headphone amp combos, and a level of performance that underscores its pro audio pedigree.
It’s not for everyone, but if uncompromising accuracy and extensive configurability, as well as versatility and superb execution are top of the priority list, the RME Audio ADI-2 DAC fits the bill perfectly.
DAC chip: AKM AK4490
Digital conversion: PCM: Up to 786 kHz/32-bit. DSD: 2,8 / 5,6 / 11,2 MHz
Frequency response: 0 Hz – 88 kHz (@192 kHz, -1,0 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 120 dB
Output level: 1,5 watts/channel (headphones), 40 mW/channel (IEM)
Digital inputs: Coaxial RCA, Toslink optical, asynchronous USB 2.0
Analogue outputs: Balanced XLR, single-ended RCA,
6,35 mm stereo headphone jack, 3,5 mm IEM minijack
Dimensions (WxDxH): 215 x 150 x 52 mm
Weight: 1,0 kg
Wild and Marr
REVIEW UNIT SUPPLIED BY
Trying to keep up with the latest formats, codecs and tech on the AV receiver front seems nigh impossible, thanks to an ongoing quest for performance enhancement. Yamaha’s latest flag bearer links loads of muscle to a long list of features and robust build quality. What more could one ask for?
Versatility, power and tech – those are the cornerstones on which Yamaha’s Aventage AV receivers have always been built. They are the royalty of the brand’s home theatre product range, designed to meet the demands of fastidious home theatre fans.
These days, those demands extend much further than sonic urge and the latest surround sound codecs, though: AV receivers are also expected to perform network and streaming functions, deliver multizone and even multiroom functionality, and provide wireless connectivity.
With so many talents, it stands to reason that a user-friendly interface is vital to accessing all those features, as is an intuitive room calibration system that allows the receiver’s performance to be optimised for specific acoustic environments. Finally, stereo fans will want their AVR to deliver on the two-channel music front, too.
It’s the kind of jack-of-all-trades expectations list that can trip up some AV receivers. However, Yamaha’s top-flight Aventage models have always managed to juggle most of those AV balls successfully – and that’s certainly true of the current top-of-the-range RX-A3080 model.
AT FACE VALUE
As much as Yamaha tends to introduce a new line-up of receivers every year or so, those with familiar with the brand’s AVRs will instantly recognise the RX-A3080, and its range-topping status.
It’s a large, robust-looking beast of a home theatre receiver, but with some sleek sophistication mixed in for good measure. The execution is almost minimalist, with just two rotary controllers (for volume and source selection), small buttons for power and Pure Direct mode, and a large, bright LED display.
A secondary set of switchgear, inputs and outputs is concealed behind a hinged cover. The control set essentially duplicates the key functions provided on the remote control handset, together with a headphone input, USB Type A port, and the minijack for Yamaha’s YPAO room calibration microphone.
At just short of 20kg, the A3080 is hefty machine, supported on no less than five feet, including a fifth, centrally mounted wedge meant to further reduce mechanical interference and resonance.
Predictably, the rear panel is a busy place. Besides the usual array of HDMI inputs and outputs, supported by component and composite video for legacy components, two aspects are particularly noteworthy.
Firstly, there’s an MM-compatible phono input for those keen on dabbling in some vinyl playback. Also of note are the XLR balanced stereo input and output sets, which promise a lower noise floor, as well as greater tolerance of longer cable runs.
Depending on the number of active channels in use, the A3080’s amplification can be configured to bi-amp the main, front left and right speakers – useful in installations where the main speakers are challenging to drive, or where stereo-mode fidelity is a priority.
Similarly, the Yamaha can be set up two additional zones. And then there’s MusicCast, which allows any source linked to the A3080 to be wirelessly shared with other MusicCast-compatible devices on the same network. You can out more about MusicCast here https://europe.yamaha.com/en/products/contents/audio_visual/musiccast/index.html
Finally, the A3080 comes with a slim and sexy, all-metal remote control handset with soft-touch controls and intelligent backlighting. But the best way to control the receiver’s considerable spread of capabilities is via the Yamaha AV Controller app, which puts the full spectrum of features at your fingertips.
UNDER THE COVERS
As befits a range-topping AV receiver, the RX-A3080 has been designed and constructed to exacting standards. I’ve already mentioned the robust, all-metal casework and the fifth, wedge-shaped support to further address resonance and vibration.
The big AVR gets the circuit components to go with its lofty aspirations, including a generous power transformer, and the latest ESS Sabre ES9026Pro DAC chipset. It also features advanced digital signal processing, and carefully selected and vetted circuit components.
The Yamaha can play back almost every conceivable lossy and lossless audio file, including WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, WMA and MP3. It copes with PCM data up to 384 kHz/32-bit, and plays back DSD up to 11,2 MHz.
On the video front, the A3080 offers upscaling to 4K and native 4K pass-through, HDMI eARC, and compatibility with HDCP2.2, HDR10, Dolby Vision and BT.2020
The Yamaha was set up in a 7.1 configuration, using our usual Atlantic Technology 7.1 speaker system. I also hooked it up to our studio network via Ethernet, and once the resulting Internet connection was established, the receiver automatically identified and downloaded new firmware.
Next, I ran the latest version of Yamaha’s YPAO room calibration system, now featuring multipoint measurement and 64-bit equalisation. The brand has always been a top performer in this department, and the latest version is both easy to use and effective.
It also has so-called 3D capabilities to operate in conjunction with object-based surround formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to run YPAO: just plug in the supplied microphone, initiate the automated measurement regiment at up to eight different points, and the Yamaha does the rest.
As has been my prior experience with YPAO, the results were both accurate and effective, and certainly allowed the RX-A3080 to show off its sonic talents to impressive effect.
The good thing about the RX-A3080 is that it can be as brutal or as refined as it needs to be. Put it in command of an action movie, and it creates an almost combative sonic landscape that completely immerses its audience in a torrent of sound.
Fortunately, the big Yamaha also has the refinement and the composure to effortlessly maintain control, projecting dialogue and presenting detail with an incisive clarity of purpose that adds to the realism and immediacy of its performance.
It’s certainly able to to harness all that audio muscle for a more noble sonic cause when required, happily swapping its more usual surround role for stereo music duties. In that mode, it can be a subtle and perceptive performer, never overstepping the mark and always remaining in unruffled control, while capturing the essence of the material it’s presented with.
The Yamaha AV Controller app makes it easy to access and enjoy the A3080’s comprehensive feature set, underlining how vital the intuitiveness and functionality of a control app is.
Because of the colourful and logical user interface, finding and playing and Internet radio stations is a simple affair, as is navigating the music content of a NAS device.
You can also log into streaming services such as Tidal, or hook up your iDevice using Apple AirPlay, or non-iOS devices using Bluetooth. There’s even voice control via Amazon’s Alexa system.
But the RX-A3080 shines brightest when required to do what it’s likely to be tasked with most of the time: making movies come alive. I usually tend to watch selected scenes from a spread of moves when reviewing an AVR, but the Yamaha’s performance was so compelling that I ended up watching more than a few from start to finish – it’s that good!
One of the stand-out titles during these extended auditions was Mad Max: Fury Road – a movie where the effects are system-challenging, but don’t serve to simply dress up a thin storyline or poor cinematography.
The Yamaha always retained firm control over proceedings even under the sustained onslaught and often almost physical impact of the battle scenes, the snarling machines, the gunshots and the explosions.
It created a solidly focussed, expansively rendered surround sound image that was utterly immersive and convincing, even without the benefit of any height speakers or object-based surround decoding: just plain old 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.
The audio perfectly and precisely mirrored the on-screen action, adding to an addictive sense of engagement that had me riveted to my seat for the duration.
Moving on to David Gilmour’s Live At Pompeii performance, a reprise of the legendary Pink Floyd concert, the Yamaha underlined that its talents extend into the stereo realm.
I deliberately selected the two-channel audio option, and was rewarded with a generously dimensioned, precisely imaged performance. The A3080 believably captured the ambience and energy of the concert, faithfully portraying every aspect of the detailed mix.
The front-biased staging of the stereo mix made for greater authenticity without losing the ambience and atmosphere of the ancient arena, nor the electricity of the performance. As a result, it was easy to become part of the audience, rather than simply watching the Blu-ray.
The receiver’s muscle and pace ensured that the momentum and flow of the music was sustained: Gilmour’s guitar had just the right amount of bite and grit, and the percussion were delivered with punch and slam.
The soaring keyboards and passionate backing vocals were the final ingredients of a soundstage saturated with glorious sound.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Modern AV receivers have to be multifaceted, multi-talented components to compete in a crowded, price-sensitive segment. The RX-A3080 is a cut above in functional and sonic terms, presented in robust casework, and intuitively accessed via Yamaha’s excellent control app.
This latest version brings further improvements to the YPAO calibration system, which ensures the Yamaha performs to its full surround potential, even in difficult environments, while it also steps up a notch in terms of its stereo capability and overall musicality.
Add multizone and MusicCast-based wireless multiroom capability, an extensive features list that includes a catalogue of digital signal processing-induced sound fields, as well as a measure of future proofing via firmware updates, and the Yamaha RX-A3080 easily warrants its flagship positioning.
Power output: 150 watts/channel (8 ohms, 20 Hz – 20 kHz, 0,06% THD)
Surround sound formats: Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and below
3D surround sound formats: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Audio DAC: ESS Sabre ES9026Pro Ultra
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 100 kHz (+0, -3 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >110 dB
HDMI inputs/outputs: 7/3
Analogue video inputs: 2x component, 3x composite
AV inputs: 4
Audio inputs: 1x RCA MM phono, 3x RCA line-level stereo, 1x XLR balanced stereo
Audio outputs: 1x 7.2 pre-out. 1x stereo front XLR out. 1x stereo RCA Zone 2 out, 1x stereo Aux (front panel) 1x stereo headphone jack (front panel)
Digital inputs: 3x RCA coaxial, 3x Toslink optical, 1x USB Type A (front panel)
Connectivity: Ethernet, 802.11 Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay2, MusicCast
Dimensions (WxDxH): 435 x 474 x 192 mm
Weight: 19.6 kg
Marantz SR-6011 AV receiver
Oppo BDP-95EU universal player
Atlantic Technologies 7.1 surround speaker system
Epson EH-TW5500 projector
Synology DS-214se NAS
Mad Max: Fury Road (Blu-ray)
Blade Runner 2049 (Blu-ray)
David Gilmour – Live At Pompeii (Blu-ray)
Various – Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013 (Rhino Blu-Ray)
Primare has been revamping its entire range of specialist audio components, and the i15 Prisma is the Scandivian firm’s all-new integrated amplifier. But don’t be fooled by the amp’s compact dimensions …
The Swedes know all about stylishly minimalist design. Theirs is a pared-down approach that frowns on frippery, and focuses on the essentials only.
It also demands that those essentials are perfectly, meticulously executed, and exude an honesty of purpose that vindicates the apparent simplicity of the design. It’s a classic case of form remaining consistently cognisant of function.
Primare is a brand that epitomises the Swedish design ethos perfectly. Immaculately understated, its components exude a timeless aesthetic that is distinctive, with a hewn, crafted solidity to match.
The i15 Prisma is part of Primare’s all-new range, and introduces a more compact form factor for ‘entry-level’ models. At 350 mm wide, it’s scaled down about 25 percent compared to the typical DIN-sized components we’ve become accustomed to. But smaller by no means suggests inferior in this case.
AT FACE VALUE
Size apart, the i15 Prisma remains true to Primare’s design ethos. If you’re familiar with the marque’s products, you’ll recognise the solid, all-metal casework, and the prominent, round-cornered fascia, with its central OLED display, and the small, round soft-touch buttons.
The look is, as already mentioned, minimalist in the best Scandinavian tradition. The i15 rests on a trio of chrome-trimmed isolating feet, and since this is the Prisma model, you’ll also notice a pair of antenna protruding from the rear.
Those antenna look after Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and join a fairly crowded rear panel – one drawback of the smaller form factor. If you’re a committed analogue source fan, you might also be disappointed by the presence of just one pair of RCA analogue inputs.
There is also a dual-purpose 3,5 mm minijack input that can operate as both an analogue and a digital input, but yes, if you have a long list of a analogue gear to hook up, the i15 Prisma is not for you.
That aside, this is an immensely versatile little amp (and by little, I’m referring to the unit’s physical dimensions, not its sonic signature). It offers four digital inputs, plus the dual purpose minijack already mentioned.
The presence of a Wi-Fi antenna and Ethernet port also confirms the Primare amp’s ability to be linked to a network, which provides Internet connectivity for access to Internet radio and streaming services, as well as to the content of any NAS devices on the network.
The i15 offers fuss-free Bluetooth connectivity, as well as Apple AirPlay playback. It also comes with integrated Chromecast, which allows access to an extensive catalogue of music streaming services, Tidal and Qobuz among them, via the Google Home app.
Chromecast means the i15 will be able to communicate and share content with other Chromecast-integrated devices, opening the door to multiroom applications. There’s even voice control via Google Assistant.
Finally, the i15 is compatible with Spotify Connect, further extending its list of potential sources.
UNDER THE COVERS
The i15 might be compact, but it packs 60 watts of power per channel, thanks to a pair of Hypex UCD 102 power amp modules. These Class D devices differ from Primare’s own UFPD 2 amplifier modules, but offer keener costing thanks to greater economies of scale.
Power is delivered by a fast switch-mode power supply offering stable voltage despite demand swings, while capacitors add a buffer that allows the i15 to cope with sudden transient bursts.
On-board digital to analogue conversion is provided by the AKM AK4490EQ chipset, offering 32-bit processing and supporting sampling rates of up to 768 kHz and DSD at 11,2 MHz, albeit via the USB Type B input only. Coaxial and Toslink inputs don’t reach beyond 192 kHz/24-bit PCM signals.
Most of the popular lossy and lossless music file formats are supported, including WAV, LPCM, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, MP3, MP4 (AAC), WMA and OGG. DSD128 is supported by the USB Type B input as well as via WiFi, Ethernet, and storage devices connected via the USB Type A input.
The i15 was used to power a pair of KEF LS50 bookshelf speakers, with much of the listening done using the amp’s streaming capabilities to access Tidal high-res files, as well as music stored on a Synology NAS.
The Primare was linked to our network via Ethernet to ensure a stable connection for high-res files. However, it worked perfectly well using a WiFi connection instead. Bluetooth pairing was easily and seamlessly achieved, too.
The evaluation unit arrived brand new, and was allowed to settle in for the first 100 hours or so before the review was embarked on in earnest.
While the i15 is supplied with a conventional and well executed remote control handset, I found the Prisma app offered an intuitive and informative gateway to the i5’s features and capabilities.
As already alluded to, don’t be fooled by the compact footprint of the i15 – it doesn’t sound anything like that at all. Instead, it has a big, and generous, and visceral delivery– more like one of those big and beefy, defiantly analogue amplifiers we all used to like so much 20 years ago (and still do).
It’s clear that the 60 watts per channel that Primare rates this most junior member of its amplifier line-up at is conservative, even taking the efficiency of the partnering KEF LS50s into account. Indeed, as a quick aside, the Primare/KEF combo is a marriage made in sonic heaven.
There’s a richness of tone and texture to the Primare’s performance that endows the music with presence and body. Acoustic guitars are presented with a fullness of timbre and a clarity of character that is goose bump-inducing, pianos display just the right balance of percussive intent and lyrical flow, and vocals sound, well, authentic and downright real.
In that sense, the Primare goes about its business with distinctly un-electronic approach: this is an amplifier that focuses on making the music come alive in all its emotive, charismatic, all-embracing glory.
Part of the i15’s magic is its ability to make the most of what it’s being offered – to musically contextualise the analogue and digital information it is being presented with.
Yes, there is loads of detail, and a wide-open soundstage provides full and unencumbered access to the music. But it’s the sense of authenticity – the joy of being able to savour the performance as a whole, rather than seeking out and isolating specific elements – that makes the i15 so compelling.
On ‘The Nearness Of You’, from the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio’s Midnight Sugar, that sense of immediacy and ‘being there’ was perfectly illustrated. The piano sounded splendidly vital, thanks to the recording’s ability to grasp the instrument’s bright and cheerful approach, while also capturing the dynamics and percussive impact.
The stand-up bass may be in a supportive role here, but it was presented with verve and clarity, allowing the listener to closely follow and enjoy the dialogue between piano and bass. The lower registers were delivered with surprising power and intensity, yet never threatened to overpower the piano’s sparkle.
The lucidity of the recording also allowed the articulate percussion to come into its own, so that the subtlest brush of the snare and every cymbal’s shimmer were done full justice, with the kick drum’s steady, solid thump providing the rhythmic backbone.
The remastered, SACD version of Roger Waters’ classic, if somewhat self-indulgent Amused To Death remains not only musically immersive, but also a stern test of system staging and imaging. It’s a challenge the i15 passed without breaking a sweat.
The amp managed to make the most of the music’s sonic panoramas, enveloping the listener in a 360-degree soundscape that often creates an almost surround sound-like impression.
It’s also a busy recording, with loads of effects and spurious voices, and yet the Primare was never intimidated, always remaining in control and presenting the various elements with composure and clarity.
‘Late Home Tonight’ showed off the amp’s ability to find just the right balance between the sleek acoustic guitars, the sweeping synths and the soaring strings spread wide and deep across the soundstage, and Waters’ centrally focussed vocals.
It also easily coped with the various effects and the eventual, climactic explosion at the end of the track – the latter delivered with enough intensity to get you jumping right out of your seat.
The Trondheimsolistene’s superbly recorded rendition of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D Major really propels the listener into the very soul and intent of the music. The Primare convincingly captured the tempo and the pathos, the sheer power and the technical splendour of the performance.
I enjoyed the way the music was afforded the freedom to fill the room with sound, making the most of the LS50 speakers’ generous sweet spot and superb transparency to unshackle itself from the electronic bonds.
The amplifier’s timing was exquisite, allowing the agile, eloquent strings to shine and sparkle, while it wasn’t in the least intimidated by the recording’s often challenging dynamic swings. It’s focus on the music remained unwavering and convincing.
At the same time, the Primare created a sense of space and immediacy that allowed the ensemble and soloist Marianne Thorsen to come to sonic life, and to weave a vivid, emphatic and ultimately engaging music picture.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Primare components have a tradition of over-delivering on their sonic promises, and that’s certainly the case here.
Any concerns that the use of the generic Hypex amplifier modules, or the reduction of the amplifier’s footprint, would impact negatively on the i15’s performance are quickly and emphatically dispelled: this is a gutsy, lively and compelling amplifier.
The Prisma functionality is a major boon, adding a comprehensive and well-integrated package of streaming and network playback capabilities, together with Chromecast-aligned features, to the Primare party. Control and ease of use via the Prisma app is admirable, too.
The smaller form factor makes for a less obtrusive shelf presence that will please some, and is certainly more easily integrated into lounges and living rooms, while still exuding a sense of Swedish style.
Most of all, the i15 always compels, regardless of genre, delivering its musical wares with an expressive enthusiasm and truthfulness that makes it a joy to listen to.
Power output: 2x 60 watts (8 ohms), 2x 100 watts (4 ohms)
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 20 kHz (-0,5 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >80 dB
Analogue inputs: 1x stereo RCA set, 1x 3,5 mm minijack
Analogue outputs: 1x stereo RCA set
Digital inputs: 1x coaxial RCA, 3x Toslink optical, 1x 3,5mm jackplug,
USB Type B, USB Type A
Digital outputs: 1x Toslink optical
Connectivity: 802.11 Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay, Chromecast
Dimensions (WxDxH)|: 350 x 329 x 73 mm
Weight: 6,4 kg
KEF LS50 speakers
Electrocompaniet P2D integrated amplifier
Lumin D1/L1 network streamer/NAS
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite SACD player
Bryston BDA-3 DAC
TelluriumQ Blue cabling
Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio – Midnight Sugar
Roger Waters – Amused To Death
Mozart – Concerto in D Major KV218 – Marianne Thorsen/Trondheimsolistene
You don’t have to actually listen to the new Audio Research Reference 160M monoblocks to fall in love with them.
Audaciously different by the high-end marque’s usually conservative styling standards, they radiate a certain desirability that will have even solid state fans reaching for their credit cards.
So, how different can a power amplifier be? In this case, very different: the Reference 160M gets a transparent fascia that allows an unencumbered view of the glowing tube complement behind it, while also providing a home to an integrated power meter.
The meter scale is etched into the dual-layer fascia, while hidden LEDs illuminate the markings to display power output. Clever, elegant and distinctive, it makes conventional power meters look, well, just a little bit ordinary …
But let’s not get distracted by the sexiness of the Ref 160M. There’s a lot more to the monoblock than aesthetic appeal. If you leave the covers off (as you should) you’ll see the four KT150 output tubes, as well as a pair of 6H30 driver tubes.
They form the core of a circuit design that’s been pared down in the interests of a simpler, more direct signal path, with commensurate gains in sonic capability. Solid-state power regulation translates into better efficiency, stability and reliability, Audio Research claims.
Other highlights include custom-made components, a four-layer circuit board said to reduce the noise floor significantly, and a power supply featuring a new high-energy capacity transformer and bulk storage capacity network to cope with the current demand of transient peaks.
Finally, the Ref 160M also offers a choice of triode or ultralinear listening modes – another Audio Research first. Claimed power output in the former mode is 75 watts, while 150 watts is available in ultralinear mode.
I got a brief chance to listen to a pair of Reference 160Ms at Johannesburg agents HFX Systems recently, running in ultralinear mode, and hooked up to a pair of Sonus faber Serafino loudspeakers, with a McIntosh C2600 on pre-amp duty. Delivering the digital source signal was a Mark Levinson Reference No.30 disc transport.
I was immediately struck by the full, tactile delivery of the amps. They exuded a distinctive body and presence that was arresting, yet never became overbearing or bloated.
There was a delicious richness that allowed the Ref 160Ms to communicate their musical message with substance and authenticity. As a result, it was easy to identify the actual performers on the large, almost cinematic soundstage.
There was no shortage of low-frequency energy: the bass was bountiful, but still well controlled and incisive. The midrange was a particular highlight, offering a combination of smooth liquidity and texture that really made the music come alive.
I expected the trebles to be sweet and sleek, and indeed, they were certainly elegant and approachable. But there was no sense of the exaggerated glow or burnish that can sometimes typecast valve amps: the high frequency detail remained crisp, clear and ultimately revealing.
The monoblocks easily kept up with the pace and the dynamics of the music without belabouring the point. To their credit, they produced a sound that was always more like music than hi-fi: the electronics took a back seat in favour of emotion and pathos.
However, it was the ability of the Ref 160Ms to recreate the stature and the presence of the music that impressed most. They endowed the sound with an almost physical charisma that made it easy to forget that I was listening to recorded music.
Acoustic guitars had just the right shimmer and polish, and bass lines were delivered with impact, yet not confrontationally so. Vocals were endowed with a three-dimensional presence, bolstered by the realism of tone and texture.
Adding to the sense of involvement was a soundstage that was spectacularly open and unencumbered, allowing the music free rein, and creating a sound picture that refused to be contained by the physical boundaries of the room.
The sound picture was panoramic, but not exaggerated, affording the music as much space and air as it needed, but without overstating the musical case.
Imaging was beautifully three-dimensional, adding to the sense of experiencing the music, rather than just listening to it. The sound was unequivocally believable, but the system never allowed the accuracy or precision of the delivery to get in the way of the music’s emotive content.
I was impressed with the way the monoblocks provided huge lashings of control and headroom, even at higher listening levels, without getting in the way of the music’s flow. For all their pace and kick, there was an intoxicating ease and accessibility to the music that always had me looking for another disc to play.
If there is a criticism, it was that the bass could be a tad overstated on certain recordings, but it may well be that the all-tube front end fed the Sonus fabers a musical diet that was just a little too rich at times.
Even so, the overall transparency and accessibility of the system was laudable, allowing an engaging and above all entertaining listening experience. Yes, the Audio Research Reference 160Ms are something special – and not just because they look spectacular!
Power output: 140 watts continuous (20 Hz – 20 kHz)
Frequency response: 0,5 Hz – 110 kHz (-3 dB at 1 watt)
Inputs: 1x XLR balanced, 1x RCA single-ended
Outputs: 4/8/16 ohm speaker binding posts
Dimensions (WxHxD): 438 x 254 x 470 mm
Weight: 25,5 kg
There’s a certain elegance to a simple, functional design that focuses on performance rather than frippery. The original Audio Analogue Puccini integrated amplifier was a case in point – and its successor continues that tradition, while adding further sonic urge and impetus
There’s a reason why Italy enjoys a reputation for flair, style and passion. From food to fashion (and the occasional Ferrari), Italians have a knack for producing goods that are both visually appealing and instantly desirable.
The same is true of Audio Analogue. The Italian maker of high-end gear has been dishing up immaculately audio components for 25 years now, which is a significant milestone in an industry best known for its volatility.
The original Puccini was one of those just-right designs: an integrated amplifier with the ability to extract the music’s message in a way that was simultaneously sonically approachable and musically credible.
The Puccini Anniversary was created to celebrate the company’s 20 years of existence by harnessing that compelling musicality in an up-to-date expression of the audio art.
AT FACE VALUE
The Puccini Anniversary epitomises a less-is-more approach. The all-metal enclosure looks smart and feels sturdy in a way that suggest longevity, while managing to exude an understated sense of aesthetic appeal, too.
The amplifier’s satisfying solidity is underscored by its 18 kg weight – the legacy not only of the casework, but mostly the large toroidal power supply housed inside.
In ergonomic terms, the Puccini Anniversary adopts a less-is-more approach. The 14 mm thick, solid aluminium faceplate is dominated by a centrally located, recessed rotary volume controller that takes the form of a shallow disc.
It’s daringly unconventional and indisputably stylish, if not always that practical to operate. There are no other switches or buttons – but all is not quite as minimalist as it seems.
It turns out that the rotary controller is more than just a volume adjuster. Press it briefly wake the amp up. Press it for longer to switch it off. Selecting inputs sequentially requires a 3 sec press of the controller.
Pinprick-sized, white LED indicators confirm source selection and volume level. Because they are also recessed, the LEDs are only clearly visible when you view the amp front on: viewed from above, the lights become all but invisible.
You can also adjust the adjustment response of the controller in four stages to better match the sensitivity of the loudspeakers the amp is hooked up to. Other available settings include balance, and the brightness of the front-fascia LEDs.
Frankly, most users will prefer using the accompanying, all-metal remote control for daily operation, though. The chunky handset offers sequential source selection and up/down volume control, as well as small metal buttons for mute, on/standby selection, and setup.
At the rear, a symmetrical input layout confirms that the Puccini Anniversary follows a dual-mono, fully balanced circuit layout. There are five stereo input sets, of which one set caters for balanced XLR connections. The remainder rely on gold-plated RCA input sockets.
In short, this is very much a focussed design in the classic integrated amplifier tradition, without add-ons such as built-in D/A converters or network capability, which have become popular in recent times.
UNDER THE COVERS
For all its apparent simplicity, there’s a lot of tech hidden away in the Puccini Anniversary’s all-metal chassis. The volume controller is a case in point: to allow it to perform its multiple functions, it employs four high-precision Analog Devices digital potentiometers – two per channel – offering the four selectable adjustment curves.
The gold-plated RCA connectors feature Teflon insulation and are soldered directly onto the circuit board, where they’re activated by signal relays. In addition, the circuit boards use double-thickness copper tracks for optimum conductivity.
As already mentioned, the circuit layout is a dual-mono, fully balanced configuration, while that beefy, centrally located toroidal power supply is rated at 700VA. The design allows for three pairs of power transistors per channel, while the milspec resistors, high-grade polypropylene capacitors, and solid-core pure 7N OCC copper internal wiring all confirm the Puccini Anniversary’s pedigree.
According to Audio Analogue, the reimagined Puccini does away with global feedback, which allows it to cope with low-impedance speaker loads. Usually, negative feedback is applied to control distortion, but the company says the new circuit shows no oscillation tendency or high-frequency resonance.
The spec sheet shows a claimed output figure of 80 watts per channel into 8 ohms, rising to 160 watts into 4 ohms and 300 watts into 2 ohms – underscoring the amp’s ability to drive low impedance loads.
SOUNDS LIKE …
There’s something visceral and intense about the way the Puccini Anniversary goes about its musical business. It seems to capture the essence and the soul of the music with an authenticity that demands and compels.
Also apparent is the amp’s superior control and precision. It never throttles the music with its authority, but it does ensure that the full harvest of musical content is presented with flair and flourish.
That’s true regardless of the musical fare presented: be it the delicate details and harmonics of an acoustic set, the grit and grind of some dirty blues, or the power and majesty of a symphony orchestra in full cry. The Audio Analogue treats them all with an unerring sense of truthfulness and believability.
Tonal range is admirable, and there’s certainly nothing shy about the amp’s bottom-end foundation – it delivers bass riffs and kick drum impacts with muscle and impetus.
While there is a fullness to the midrange and a smoothness to the trebles, the overall sound doesn’t display any tube-like warmth, and there’s no sense of the upper frequencies being attenuated or even rolled off.
Yes, the tone is rich and even saturated, but the music never becomes bogged down, always retaining its pace and incisiveness.
The speed and attack of Antonio Forcione’s acoustic guitar on Tears Of Joy were reflected with real vivacity and splendour. But precision was also very much a part of the Pucccini’s sonic equation.
The amp never sounded sloppy – it easily kept up with the music’s pace, showing off an agility that allowed the sparkle and speed of the guitar work to be highlighted with true conviction.
It also showed off a real ability to express the presence and dimension of the instrument, so that it became a living, almost tangible entity on the soundstage.
At the same time, the amp didn’t allow any detail to escape its attentions: the slide of fingers on the fret board, the punch and impact of the bass notes, the shimmer of the percussion, the sonorous timbre of the instruments – all were delivered with an enthusiasm and a precision that never became analytical, but celebrated the essence of the music instead.
That talent to grasp the heart and soul of the music also extended into grittier material. On The Big Bad Blues, Billy F Gibbons takes ZZ Top sensibilities and sleezes them down into a slow fuse-shuffling, axe-grinding, foot-tapping display of Texas-style blues that will have you out of your seat and boogying the night away.
Gibbons’ guitar spits, whines, screams and pleads, all against a solid backdrop of wall-to-wall drums and bass. So intense, so powerful is the music that you could be right there, next to the stage, watching Gibbons and friends hang loose. Who said the Puccini Anniversary can’t rock ’n roll!
In this context, the amplifier always sounded more muscular than its claimed specifications suggest, displaying loads of headroom and control, but without stifling the energy and enthusiasm of the music.
Meticulously recorded and performed with both musical sensibility and emotive expression, Marianne Thorsen and the Trondheimsolistene’s performance of three Mozart violin concertos is a stern test for any system.
It is especially critical of brighter set-ups, while serving up a rich bounty of beautifully presented detail that demands exceptional resolution of detail to be fully appreciated.
Under the auspices of the Puccini, the recording was a joy to listen to. There was a liquid ease to the delivery that encouraged complete involvement with the music, without the sound becoming lazy or laid back.
Staging was open and inviting without any sense of over-emphasis or artifice, simply reflecting the ambience and air of the actual performance, and adding to the engaging nature of the music.
The Puccini displayed a real talent for pace and timing, closely tracking both Thorsen’s assertive solo violin and the accompanying orchestra with confidence. Dynamics were particularly well represented, adding to the realism of the delivery.
Also of note was the absence of any ‘electronic’ signature. The sound here had an almost organic quality – not in terms of tonal warmth or texture, but rather as far as the amp’s ability to render the music with a sometimes startling aura of natural realism was concerned.
Veteran jazz and fusion ace Bob James sounds mellow and polished on Espresso, his recently released set, displaying an almost intuitive command of the piano that is both articulate and inventive.
Also obvious is the chemistry between James and his co-stars in this trio: Michael Palazzolo on bass, and Billy Kilson on drums. The timing is sublime throughout, with both players fulfilling much more than just a supporting role.
The drumming is both inventive and precise, while the muscular, athletic bass is equally expressive.
I enjoyed the way the Puccini was able to express the close communication between the three artists, and the intimacy of the performance, while still affording each instrument ample acoustic space. That in turn allowed the listener full, unimpaired access to every element of the recording.
And again – there was nothing slow or laborious about the Italian amp’s approach: it sounded agile and lively, while keeping the sparkle and presence of the music very much alive.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s easy to like the Puccini Anniversary. It has both the flair and the punch to make the most of almost any recording, while adopting a rich and almost organic sonic approach that adds lustre and presence to the music.
Not that the amplifier could be accused of overt warmth or exaggerated saturation: it remains tonally poised and dynamically agile, regardless of genre, while affording the listener an illuminating insight into the core of the music.
There’s loads of power and headroom, too, allowing the amp to deliver punch and pace in spades, while it’s lucid and particular enough to add precision to its array of talents, too. Yes, the pricing is on the premium side, but it’s easily outweighed by the amp’s sheer capability.
Sometimes, simple isn’t just elegant, but better, too: and that’s certainly the case here.
– 80 watts per channel (8 ohms)
– 160 watts per channel (4 ohms)
Frequency response: 0 Hz – 80 kHz
Signal-to-noise ratio: 110 dB
Inputs: 4x stereo RCA, 1x stereo XLR
Outputs: Two speaker binding post pairs
Dimensions (WxDxH): 445 x 390 x 120 mm
Weight: 15,5 kg
Lumin D1 network player
Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
KEF R500 loudspeakers
B&W 702 S2 loudspeakers
KEF LS50 loudspeakers
Synology DS214se NAS
Antonio Forcione – Tears Of Joy (Naim 44/16 WAV)
Billy F Gibbons – The Big Bad Blues (Concord 96/24 FLAC MQA via Tidal)
Mozart – Violin Concertos – Marianne Thorsen/Trondheimsolestene (2L 96/24 WAV)
Bob James – Espresso (Evosound 44/16 FLAC)
High-end audio and designer aesthetics don’t necessarily go hand in hand. But French marque Devialet has managed to combine sculptural design with top-class sonics, with some clever electronics added for good measure
It’s been a good six years since Devialet first burst onto the high-end audio scene with an all-in-one device that not only looked like a work of sculpted art, but promised exceptional sonic performance, utilising several innovative technologies.
That first-generation Devialet was called the D-Premier, and if anything, the sheer beauty of the slim, shiny enclosure counted against the newcomer: ‘serious’ audiophiles wrote it off as just another expensive example of lifestyle audio.
As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Devialet sought to deliver true high-end performance from an all-in-one device, harnessing the benefits of short signal paths, innovative technologies, painstaking build quality, and a user-friendly interface.
Since that first D-Premier, the original Devialet has benefited from an ongoing development process. The range now consists of three stereo and three dual-mono models. The stereo versions can be upgraded to dual-mono status, and multi-amp configurations are also possible.
The version under scrutiny here is the Devialet Expert 220 Pro, which sits between the more affordable Exert 140 Pro and the more expensive Expert 250 Pro in the stereo line-up.
AT FACE VALUE
Crafted from a single billet of aluminium and polished to a mirror finish, the ultra-slim Devialet still looks as futuristic as the original. The all-metal enclosure is almost completely devoid of any switchgear, except for a power button on the front, and a circular digital status display on the top panel.
The remote control is also more objet d’art than handset. Designed for desktop use, it’s a solid aluminium device consisting of a plinth which is home to a rotary controller. Buttons above and below the controller offer power on/off, mute, source selection and tone adjustment.
For more convenient handheld use, there’s also a free Devialet Expert app, which also offers volume control, source selection and mute functions.
The rearmost part of the Devialet’s top panel can be removed to gain easier access to the rear panel. Because the enclosure is so slim, the rear panel facilities are crammed together quite closely, requiring some care when making the various connections.
Overall execution is exemplary in both visual and quality terms: the mirror finish is flawless, the rear panel cover fits precisely, and the remote control’s level adjuster operates with a heft and precision that is very much upper league.
The only visual flaw? That shiny, reflective finish gathers fingerprints with alarming alacrity …
UNDER THE COVERS
I don’t want to spend too much time dissecting the finer technical details of what makes the Devialet tick. Those who want to delve deeper into its patented technologies can visit the Devialet website here.
However, its worth considering at least some of the 220 Expert Pro’s core technologies. For starters, there’s the hybrid Class A/Class D amplification, dubbed ADH Intelligent, which has been further refined for its use here.
Those improvements include an upgraded ADH Intelligent amplification section, featuring new Class A and Class D amplifier modules, a new power supply, and upgraded temperature management.
It effectively offers the best of Class A (musicality) and Class D (efficiency) by running the two technologies in parallel. The result is the pace, agility and low heat levels of Class D, linked to the tonal bandwidth and musical soul typical of Class A.
As for rated power output, the Expert 220 Pro is credited with 2x 220 watts into 6 ohms.
One of the core design principles of Devialet is the use of short, integrated signal paths, allowing more efficient signal transfer between pre-amplifier, power amplifier, digital-to-analogue converter, analogue-to-digital converter and phono stage.
All of these modules would usually be separate components in a traditional high-end audio system. Here, they’re all located in one enclosure, allowing fast and direct signal transfer from source to speaker binding post.
The Expert 220 Pro also features the latest version of Devialet’s so-called SAM system. Short for Speaker Active Matching, it uses digital signal processing to match output performance to the particular characteristics of specific loudspeakers, measured for that very purpose.
The list of SAM-calibrated speakers is already an extensive one, with more being added regularly.
AIR is another Devialet technology, this one referring to the Expert 220 Pro’s ability to stream audio content at up to 192 kHz/24-bit resolutions, using either Ethernet or Wi-Fi. It does so regardless of format or streaming service: for instance, it’s compatible with Tidal and Spotify, is Roon-compliant, and recognises MQA-encoded music.
The phono stage comes as a bit of a surprise in such a digitally orientated, futuristic product. It offers exceptional adaptability to a wide range of MM and MC phono cartridges, with preset settings for many of the better known high-end cartridge brands and models already included.
For instance, it offered settings for my Ortofon Cadenza Black, but there were no listings for Van Den Hul cartridges, which meant I had to input the values for The Frog MC cartridge manually – an easy enough process.
Not only can you set loading and capacitance, but also choose from 13 equalisation curves that not include the more conventional RIAA 1973 and 1953 curves, but also various other, brand-specific ones from the likes of Decca, RCA, Columbia, EMI and more.
The Devialet allows firmware-based upgrades to ensure constant improvements and feature additions, all downloadable and user-installable.
On that subject, the Devialet’s array of inputs, both digital and analogue, can be configured, and fine-tuned, depending on the specific end-user’s requirements.
The configuration process is highly intuitive and done using a web-based configurator, then stored onto an SD card which is then inserted into the Devialet to transfer the configuration.
Three stereo RCA input sets can be configured as either phono, line or even individual SPDIF digital inputs. There are also optical digital inputs, an Ethernet socket, a USB Type B connector.
Selecting mono or stereo operation, and choosing the SAM setting for your specific speaker type (or switching SAM off) is also done using the configurator.
With everything in one sleek enclosure, set-up was simple. I connected my Vivid V1.5s to the rear binding posts, and hooked up the Devialet to my network router via Ethernet cable.
Next, I utilised the built-in phono stage for my Avid Diva II SP/SME 309/VdHul The Frog record deck. An analogue input set was used to connect my PS Audio DirectStream DAC.
I then used the on-line configurator to customise the various settings, including selecting the Vivids from the SAM drop-down menu list, and configuring the phono stage for the Van Den Hul cartridge.
Once stored onto an SD card, the configuration file was then transferred to the Devialet. I was up and running in less than 20 minutes, without any rocket science involved.
SOUNDS LIKE …
Let me say this right from the outset: I have never heard the Vivid Audio V1.5s sound so good! For compact standmounts, they have always impressed with their tonal range, linearity and pace, but the Devialet made them sound bigger, faster and more transparent than ever.
I can only assume that the DSP-driven SAM system is the reason behind this enhanced performance, allowing the 220 Pro’s output characteristics to be perfectly matched to the capabilities of the speakers.
So, just on that level alone, the sound in my listening room was given a substantial boost. With the list of SAM-measured speakers spanning something like 800-plus models from an extensive list of marques, and more being added all the time, the 220 Pro should accommodate a high percentage of quality speakers out there.
I briefly ran the Devialet with SAM switched off, and while the results were still musically and sonically satisfying, the sound lost some of its impact and dimensional precision. A measure of bass extension and speed was lacking, and while staging and imaging remained invitingly realistic, the sonic picture wasn’t quite as finely detailed.
Needless to say I conducted the remainder of the review with SAM activated, and I would suggest that it’s a vital element of the Devialet’s talents.
I enjoyed the way the Vivids became even more transparent on the soundstage, effectively disappearing as point sources completely, and freeing up the music.
The soundstage was vast and all-enveloping, even in my relatively compact listening room, while precise imaging qualified that staging in truly three-dimensional terms. As a result, instruments and vocals were allowed to occupy precisely delineated positions, adding to an overriding sense of realism.
As mentioned, the Devialet managed to extract a broader tonal range from the Vivids than I’ve heard to date. The lower registers were delivered with loads of pace and momentum, but remained in perfectly linear balance, adding vital foundation and urge to the music, but never becoming overpowering.
The midrange was smooth and approachable, but neither soft nor oversaturated, allowing ample insight and detail retrieval. The delivery steered a satisfying path between lucidity and presence, never endowing the music with too much body, but not reverting to clinical analysis, either.
The trebles were clear and revealing, and while those with a predilection for the warm, somewhat rolled-off sound typical of valve amplifiers may consider the tonal signature in the upper frequencies on the aloof side, I enjoyed the way that lucidity revealed fine details and highlighted subtle elements without reverting to a dissection of the music.
Indeed, there was a unity of purpose and an overall grasp of the music’s essence that made spending time in the company of the Pro 220 a thoroughly rewarding pastime.
It also has to be said that the Devialet partners seamlessly with the Roon music management software I run in my listening room – another significant plus point, as Roon not only counts as one of the best-sounding playback systems, but also one of the most intuitive and feature rich.
Since Roon has Tidal as an embedded streaming service, those who believe in the benefits of MQA-encoded music will be able to use the Devialet’s MQA-unfolding capabilities to good effect, further adding to its appeal.
The atmospheric ‘All Is Quiet’, from The Devil Makes Three’s Chains Are Broken set, features bold, Shadows-style lead guitars, a brooding bass and wide-open staging – and it made for riveting listening.
The laid-back percussion and almost casual strumming of the rhythm guitar may take a back seat in the mix, but were brought to full account here. The vocals were allowed to soar high above the accompanying instruments, adding to the sense of immersive dimensionality.
For all its slow-fuse sleaziness, the music was delivered with succinct definition and composure, adding to its overall lustre and appeal.
The recently released remastered version of Led Zeppelin’s rather messy and often underrated original soundtrack, The Song Remains The Same, brings new sparkle and definition to the music, without losing the electricity and ambience of the original live concert.
On the evergreen ‘Stairway To Heaven’, the Devialet was able to dig deep into the heart of the performance, hauling out little snippets of information that I hadn’t heard before.
Jimmy Page’s guitar, which can sound jagged and edgy, gained both presence and definition, while John Bonham’s urgent drumming underpinned the performance in typically boisterous fashion.
By comparison the keyboards and bass pedals of John Paul Jones were an almost understated but no less powerful presence.
Rising jazz star Camille Thurman’s Waiting For The Sunrise, recorded for the Chesky label, shows off a reverberant ambience that can sound almost too overblown on some systems. But here, it added life and vibrancy to the performance.
On ‘September In The Rain’, the sheer power and stature of the double bass was rendered with the kind of vitality usually associated with bigger speakers and bigger systems.
The slap of fingers on strings, and the speed and tonal depth of the instrument sounded, well, just the real thing, while the sax blew and blustered with infectious enthusiasm.
Even so, Thurmann’s deft, agile vocals always commanded centre stage, alternating between lyrical phrasing and delightful scatting. The Devialet had no trouble keeping up with the pace of the music, again delivering a full, deep sound picture that was painted with both passion and realism.
The phono stage of the Devialet is every bit as good as its makers claim: ironically because it is able to digitally define the required cartridge parameters so precisely.
It was able to replicate the bold, sonorous sound of Dave Alvin’s guitar on the title track of Blackjack David to spine-tingling effect, while also doing full justice to the drawling vocals, both spread across and into the vast prairie of the soundstage.
The low frequencies were delivered with loads of presence and impetus, especially when the sound picture fills up towards the end of the song. At the same time, the Devialet maintained its clear, measured adn ultimately realistic approach.
It treated microdetails with reverence, yet never to the detriment of the music’s broader, bolder strokes, while spreading the sound across a dark, noise-free backdrop.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Expert 220 Pro is easily the finest and most believable expression of the Devialet formula to date. It has loads of muscle and momentum, linked to the kind open-window staging that affords both insight and immediacy.
With so much breathing space, the music is delivered with a vitality and splendour that’s carried through regardless of genre, while the clarity inherent to the Devialet’s approach ensures a full and thoroughly believable harvest of musical information.
The 220 Pro is able to make the most of signals delivered by separate sources, and it even made lossy material from Spotify sound pretty good. It also excelled when employing the in-built phono stage.
But to my ears, it was at its very best when playing high-res digital audio files from my Synology NAS. There was an added liquidity and approachability to the sound which had me listening into the wee hours of the morning on more than one occasion!
The combination of the Devialet, a fast network connection, and Roon music management accessing a NAS-based music library and Tidal’s streaming service is a match made in hi-fi heaven. Simple, elegant and user-friendly it is, above all, magically musical.
Power output: 2x 220 watts (6 ohms)
DAC: Cirrus Logic WM8740
ADC: Texas Instruments PCM4202
Digital conversion: Up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM, DSD64 (via coaxial SPDIF and USB)
DSP: 3x SHARC 400 MHz DSP chips
Signal-to-noise ratio: >130 dB (unweighted)
THD: 0,0005% (130 watts/-106 dB)
Digital inputs: 2x coaxial digital, 2x optical, AES/EBU, USB 2.0
Analogue inputs: 1x line-level RCA, 1x phono (configurable)
Connectivity: Fast Ethernet and proprietary AIR wireless
Dimensions (WxDxH): 383 x 383 x 40 mm
Weight: 5,9 kg
The Devil Makes Three – Chains Are Broken (New West 96/24 FLAC)
Camille Thurman – Waiting For The Sunrise (Chesky 96/24 FLAC)
Led Zeppelin – OST: The Song Remains The Same (Atlantic/Rhino 96/24 FLAC)
Dave Alvin – Blackjack David (Hightone/Mobile Fidelity Soundlab LP)
PS Audio DirectStream + Bridge II DAC
Avid Diva II SP/SME 309/Van Den Hul The Frog record deck
Sutherland 20/20 phono stage
Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp
PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers
Synology DS213+ NAS
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.
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.
– 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
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
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.
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.
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
– 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
STR pre-amp: R71 995
STR power amp: R101 595
Audio Specialists https://audiospecialists.co.za/
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
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.
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.
Loads of grip and authority from this sleek, well-featured stereo amp
Revealing nature requires source components of equal stature
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
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
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.
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.
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!
– 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
PL Computer Services
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
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.
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.
Lucid, approachable and ultimately honest approach that allows unfettered, believable access to the music.
Sonic honesty may be considered too unwavering for some.
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
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
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.
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.
Plenty of grip, plenty of musicality.
May be too honest for some.
– 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
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
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)