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Amp Choices for KEF Reference 1s

To Doug Schneider,

Thanks for your KEF Reference 1 review. Your review provided enough insight for me to make an informed decision towards buying my KEF Reference 1s -- thank you. My budget is slightly slim now and I can spring for a high-quality amp of 125Wpc into 8 ohms or a more powerful amp of 250Wpc into 8 ohms, but [the latter] is considered high value rather than highest quality. Which amp do you think would provide better service to the speakers?

Thanks,
Jared C.
United States

Great choice on your loudspeakers! Now, let’s see what we can do about the amp.

First off, it is important to understand that in order for a loudspeaker to increase its output level by just 3dB, you need to give it double the amplifier power. As a result, all other things being equal (including both amplifiers’ abilities to drive difficult loads, which I’ll touch on below), that 250Wpc amplifier will only give you 3dB more output from your speakers than the 125Wpc one can. That’s not a lot, since a 10dB increase is required for a perceived doubling of loudness. As a result, a 3dB increase will only come across as a little bit louder. Does that little bit matter to you? You will have to decide.

Another thing to consider is how well each amp will drive more difficult loads. An 8-ohm speaker load is considered typical, which is why power ratings are always stated that way. However, that 8-ohm loudspeaker rating is more or less an average, because a speaker’s impedance varies based on frequency. For example, the Reference 1 is rated as 8 ohms, but dips as low as 3.2 ohms near the bass region, so it can be a bit challenging for some amps. To understand better how well those amps will drive your speakers, you really need to know how well they perform into 4- or even 2-ohm loads. I suggest looking into that a little more since the 8-ohm rating only tells you so much.

Obviously, based on the above, I can’t tell you which you should buy -- there’s not enough information. However, I will tell you a story about an amp purchase I made almost 30 years ago, which wound up being a mistake and might help you today.

Back around 1990, a company called Forte offered the Model 3 and 1A stereo amplifiers. From what I could tell, they were basically the same amplifiers, just that the Model 3 was a class-AB design, so it ran cooler and was rated to output 200Wpc into 8 ohms, while the 1A was biased as pure class-A, so it ran much hotter and could only deliver 50Wpc into 8 ohms (I suggest looking up differences between AB and A if you do not already know, since it’s too lengthy to get into here). Since both amps had essentially the same parts inside, they had the same abilities to drive difficult loads. They were also priced the same.

At normally listening levels, the 1A sounded markedly better than the 3A did -- it was smoother sounding overall, and there was more body and realism to the sound. Sonically, it wasn’t even close, at least at normal listening levels. But because the 3 could deliver more power, it could play speakers a little bit louder (its 200Wpc rating gave it 6dB more headroom than the 1A).

Being a young, naïve audiophile, I wound up buying the Model 3 simply because it was more powerful. I was scared that I would run out of juice with the 1A. That was my mistake. All the time I had the 3, I never used all the power it could provide and I always knew that the 1A sounded so much better and would’ve likely provided me with more than enough power. As a result, I always regretted the decision I made. That’s not to say that the lower-powered amplifier will always sound better. It’s just that whichever one you choose, make sure it delivers sufficient power and gives you all the sound quality you truly desire. . . . Doug Schneider

Sonus Faber Olympica III vs. PSB Imagine T3

To Doug Schneider,

I am considering the purchase of floorstander speakers (my Sonus Faber Guarneri Evolutions, although eminently civilized, often sound too thin). You have reviewed three models that interest me: Sonus Faber Olympica III, Focal Sopra No2, and PSB Imagine T3.

The Sopra No2 I have auditioned at home and found a bit too harsh for my taste; the Olympica III I intend to audition soon. Unfortunately, the PSB Imagine T3, which I am very curious about given their whole concept, user opinions, and rave reviews, aren’t auditionable here and would imply a blind buy.

Would you be so kind as to comment on its relative merits vis-à-vis the Olympica (and, BTW, the Guarneri)?

Thank you for your time.

Best,
Henrique B.
Portugal

I’ve witnessed too many cases where someone buys something unheard and isn’t happy afterwards, so I always caution against it. As a result, I’m glad you were able to hear the Sopra No2 and that you plan to audition the Olympica III. In my opinion, if you like the Olympica III, just buy a pair and forget about the Imagine T3 if you can’t hear it. But if you don’t like the Olympica III and you’re still wondering about how it compares to the T3, I’ll give you some thoughts, though I’d still caution against buying based only on what I say, whether here or in the reviews. Remember, I loved the Sopra No2 when I reviewed it, but you found it too harsh sounding.

PSB’s Imagine T3 is probably the most neutral- and natural-sounding speaker Paul Barton has ever designed. It exhibits a very smooth- and even-sounding midrange, clean and extended highs, and extremely deep bass -- quite a bit deeper than the Synchrony One, which it replaced. Overall, it has such a balanced sound that some have criticized it for being a little bit boring sounding, since no part of the audioband sounds too forward or too relaxed or sticks out in any way. For those who value strict neutrality, they’ll likely love it because it really doesn’t have much of a sonic personality. However, for those who want a little bit of character, they might find the T3 lacking pizzazz that other speakers exhibit.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Sonus Faber’s Olympica III is full of character, but it does have more character than the T3. Compared to the T3, the III’s midrange is smooth but subtly relaxed, which gives it a bit of laid-back sound; its highs are actually a little more prominent, yet always clean and sweet; and its bass is a little fuller, though it doesn’t go quite as deep and isn’t as tight. When I reviewed the Olympica III, its departures from strict neutrality were obvious, but I still loved the sound because it was so pleasing overall. Insofar as how Sonus Faber’s Guarneri Evolution compares, I can’t tell you, because I’ve never auditioned it critically. The only thing I will say is that the Imagine T3 and Olympica III don’t sound thin.

Broadly, that’s how I think the Imagine T3 and Olympica III compare; however, as I mentioned, don’t base a buying decision on what I just wrote. Whenever possible, try before you buy for long-term satisfaction. . . . Doug Schneider

Luxman L-550AX -- the Little Amp that Probably Can

To Hans Wetzel,

Great and informative article on the [Luxman] L-550AX. I am thinking of buying one but I am worried that it might not have enough power to drive my Spendor D7 floorstanders in a medium-sized room (4m x 6m). I am running a MacBook to the stunning Questyle CMA800i DAC-headphone amp. Any thoughts?

Cheers and thanks,

Corey Tai
United States

Spendor’s D7 is specified as having a sensitivity of 90dB (1W/m), which is above average. Combined with the fact that Luxman rates their amps’ power outputs very conservatively, and that your room isn’t particularly large, I think the L-550AX would be a fine choice provided that you won’t be playing organ music at ear-splitting levels. Do it! . . . Hans Wetzel

Hegel Hum?

To Garrett Hongo,

I enjoyed reading the review of the Hegel Mohican CD player. I am considering purchasing this player and have read a few reviews for it, but none of the reviews I’ve read mention whether the player is silent in operation, if there is any mechanical noise from the transport, or hum. As I sit close to my kit this is an important factor for me when purchasing new hi-fi.

Kind regards,
Robert H.
United Kingdom

Aloha Robert, glad you enjoyed the Hegel Mohican review. Your question about its quietness of operation is a very good one! I had noticed no noise whatsoever during the entire time of evaluation, but, just to be sure, I played it silently just a moment ago and it is absolutely dead quiet. No transport noise at all. It’s an important point I should have noted in my review, in fact, so I’m very glad for the chance to put that on the record. Thank you for asking. . . . Garrett Hongo

How Much Hegel Power?

To Doug Schneider,

I’m looking for an amp for my PSB Imagine T2 speakers to replace a NAD C 375BEE. Would the Hegel H80’s power be enough for the T2, or do I need the bigger H160?

Thanks,
Narek A.
Armenia

Hegel’s H80 and H160 are respectively rated to deliver 75Wpc and 150Wpc (both in 8 ohms). Since each 3dB increase in speaker volume requires a doubling of amplifier power, that means that the H160 won’t play the T2s all that much louder than the H80 can. Still, you might need that 3dB of headroom that the H160 can provide, since it could mean the difference between running out of power and clipping during musical peaks versus having enough juice to sail through it all cleanly. Of course, this will all come down to how loud you play the speakers, which will depend mostly on the size of your room (bigger rooms tend to need more power) and the SPLs you typically listen at. From what I read, your NAD C 375BEE is rated at 150Wpc into 8 ohms, so you can use that as a gauge for how much power you need. Since I don’t know your room size or listening preferences, I’ll leave it to you to decide if the H80 can meet your needs or if you’ll need to step up to the H160. . . . Doug Schneider

The Best Power Amp for Vivid’s Giya G1

To Doug Schneider,

First, I would like to say that I really enjoy your reviews. They are thorough and you do a great job of conveying what I feel is important about the components. I also appreciate that you have the equipment measured.

Your review of the Vivid Giya G2 was what turned me onto this brand and ultimately lead to my buying G1s. I am searching for an amplifier to use with them (currently use Spectral but feel it is not doing justice to the bass). Since you review tons of equipment and you reviewed the G2s, I thought you might be able to help. My question is: If you could pair any amplifier to the G2/G1, which one would you choose? I am expecting you will need a little information as well. For budget around $50k or preferably less (this budget range is what makes this difficult as there are soooo many options). I mostly listen to vocals, blues, acoustic stuff, with some classical and jazz. I want the sound to be dynamic, with excellent soundstaging and imaging (the Vivids do an excellent job of this). I get most of this (minus the bass) with the Spectral. What is missing is the “texture” to the sound. I don’t have that “I can smell the resin on the bow” sound that I am wanting.

Thank you for any advice you can offer. I am hoping that one amplifier just pops into your head and you think is a no-brainer choice.

Todd
United States

For $50,000, you can get pretty much anything! There’s no question you have many options. However, even though you’re willing to spend that much, none of the amps I’m going to mention even come close to approaching that price, yet could all deliver the kind of performance you need. I can’t say they’re no-brainers, since you’ll really have to listen for yourself, but they’re definitely what I’d begin my search with, even if you have the money for something that costs more.

If you great want bass control, extraordinary resolution (high detail is what I believe allows someone to “smell the resin on the bow”), and more-than-enough power, look to the Devialet Expert 1000 Pro monos, which will cost you $34,990 -- well within your budget. Because each amplifier is in its own case, it’s a true dual-mono design, with each amplifier rated to deliver 1000W into 6 ohms or 750W into 8 ohms. Plus, if you go this route, you don’t need a preamplifier or a digital-to-analog converter -- it’s all built in.

If you want to stick with a pure power amp, I’ll give you these options: the Luxman M-900u and something from Bryston. The Luxman M-900u is, to date, the best-sounding power amp I’ve heard. It’s so smooth and sweet sounding that you’d swear it has tubes inside, though there’s not. The M-900u is a solid-state design that is conservatively rated to output up to 150Wpc into 8 ohms (our measurements show output greater than 200Wpc) and can ably drive pretty much any speaker to high volume levels. I didn’t get a chance to use the M-900u with the Giya G2s since they weren’t here at the same time, but I played the M-900u with many other speakers and its sound always impressed -- clean, dynamic, weighty in the bass, and awesome resolution. The M-900u’s price is $20,000, which, again, is well within your budget.

I mention Bryston because I powered the Giya G2s with their 4B SST2 (300Wpc into 8 ohms) and it worked incredibly well -- the amp provided more than enough power, tremendous bass control, and plenty of detail. At its price of about $5000, the 4B SST2 was an absolute steal prior to being discontinued. Bryston has replaced the SST2 series with the SST3 models and their performance is supposed to be even better. Frankly, the new 4B SST3 might be all you need -- and it’s only $5695. It, too, is rated at 300Wpc into 8 ohms. However, I sense you probably want something more, so you could look to their top-of-the-line model, the 28B SST3 mono amp, which is rated at 1000W into 8 ohms and is priced at $10,995 (you’ll need two of them, so double that). They also have many models in between.

Some audiophiles overlook Bryston, thinking their amps are too cheap to be considered among the best. Not true at all. Bryston’s amps offer performance that compares to and often betters amps priced much higher. Plus, their amps come with a 20-year warranty, which kicks the crap out of the two-, three-, or five-year warranties that most companies offer on their amps. They have been making amplifiers since the 1970s, so they really know what they’re doing and stand behind what they make -- there’s a lot to be said for that.

Insofar as amplifier recommendations go, that’s what comes to mind. I hope it helps. . . . Doug Schneider

Audio Research's GSPre -- Why the Tubes?

To Doug Schneider,

I enjoyed your review of Audio Research’s GSPre. You raised an issue that has “bugged” me since I acquired an LS27 linestage -- the tubes inside some of ARC’s amps don’t necessarily color the sound. That’s a good thing, IMO, as I want to hear everything in the recording, unblemished.

My question is simply: If the tubes don’t color the sound (and the sound quality is fantastic in my system!), then why have them there? (I’m not an electrical/audio engineer.)

Thanks for reading.

Pete
Canada

What you’re asking is something I’ve asked myself; however, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer comes not from second-guessing the design choices of the company, but from listening to the result. I listened to the GSPre and found it to sound fantastic. From what you’re telling me, your LS27 sounds great as well. What’s more, they don’t have the stereotypical tube-type colorations, such as an overly warm sound or rolloffs at the high- and low-frequency extremes. Could they have gotten a similar result with all-solid-state designs? Since Audio Research only makes tubed equipment, we’ll never know. But, as I mentioned, I have given up guessing. In the case of the GSPre, I can only say that, based on how it sounds, the end certainly seems to justify the means. . . . Doug Schneider

New Bryston DAC vs. Old

To Philip Beaudette,

I enjoyed reading your review of the Bryston BDA-3: concise, balanced, and insightful.

I wonder, though, how does the BDA-3 do sonically when compared to a BDA-1. I have the BDA-1, and love it. DSD is overhyped IMO, so I don’t really need/want DSD and HDMI capabilities.

Thanks for any insights on this.

Regards,
Pete
Canada

I can’t answer your question directly, because I’ve never heard the BDA-1, let alone had the opportunity to compare it with the BDA-3. However, I have a fair amount of experience with Bryston DACs: I had one onboard the Bryston B100 SST integrated amplifier I used to own and I reviewed the BDA-2 and BDA-3. I also reviewed the BCD-1 CD player. As a result, I feel qualified to at least comment on your question.

When I reviewed and ultimately purchased the BDA-2 DAC, I was able to compare it directly alongside the DAC built into my B100 SST integrated amplifier. I found the two sounded far more similar than different. I don’t think it should come as a surprise that that these two DACs share a house sound. Both are highly transparent and resolving of musical detail, while remaining faithful (i.e., neutral) to the source material. Although I found the BDA-2 slightly more laidback sounding than the B100’s onboard DAC, the difference was small. In fact, my decision to purchase an outboard rather than onboard DAC when I bought the B135 SST2 integrated amplifier had more to do with the fact that, as a reviewer, I wasn’t happy I couldn’t use my DAC each time a new integrated amplifier came in for review.

While the BDA-3 may not sound identical to the BDA-1, I do not expect it would sound drastically different. Part of what distinguishes these two pieces is the fact that the BDA-3 has a number of HDMI inputs and can decode DSD, two features you have indicated that you don’t require. Furthermore, you said you’re happy with your BDA-1. Unless you can get your hands on a BDA-3 to audition and you completely disagree with what I’ve said here, I would stick with what you already have. I think there is a tendency to assume that as companies come out with new versions of their products, this somehow makes the earlier versions markedly inferior. While this may be true in some instances, I don’t think it applies here, especially in the case of a company such as Bryston, which has a long history of delivering well-designed, solidly engineered products.

In short, if I were in your position, I’d save the money you might spend on the BDA-3 and put it towards investing in some new music. My guess is that discovering new music will be more far more rewarding than hearing your existing collection through what I anticipate will be a fairly similar-sounding DAC to what you already own (and love). . . . Philip Beaudette

Bryston Mini A and Mini T

To Philip Beaudette,

I’ve read your reviews of the Bryston Mini A and Mini T. It would be nice to have a bit of a comparison of the two. I’m looking for a system to complement my Rythmik Audio 15” subs. My primary goal is reproducing orchestral music with good dynamics. Good dynamics is why I’m looking at the Minis. Any suggestions or insights would be appreciated.

Thanks,
Bruce Fenster
United States

If you're looking for a dynamic speaker for large-scale classical music, both the Bryston Mini T and its smaller sibling, the Mini A, can certainly deliver. When I reviewed the Mini A, what impressed me the most was its ability to maintain its composure and play with low distortion even at volumes I thought would give it trouble. The Mini As might be miniature in stature but when it comes to their output, they are anything but small. Unless your listening room is quite large, I am pretty certain they will be able to reproduce the large-scale dynamic shifts in your music collection.

As you know, the Mini T is a larger version of the Mini A. As loud and clean as the Mini A can play, the Mini T can play louder still. Its bigger drivers can move more air and, in combination with its larger cabinet, its woofer can generate deeper bass. The Ts are better suited to a larger room where you can actually take advantage of their greater output and awesome dynamic capabilities.

Given that you are using multiple 15” subwoofers, I am going to assume that you have a fairly large room and/or that you really like to push the dynamic envelope. Without knowing anything else about your system or room, I’d be inclined to lean towards the Mini T over the Mini A. Since the Mini T can play lower in the bass than the Mini A, you should be able to cross that model over to your subwoofer at a lower frequency, thereby allowing the Mini T to play more full range. Furthermore, because the T can play louder in the bass, you might be able to dial back a bit on the volume of your subwoofer, which, in turn, could help to more seamlessly integrate your speakers and your subwoofer. Subwoofers sound best when they don’t call attention to themselves, but instead transition smoothly with your mains.

I hope that this helps. Please let me know if you have any further questions. . . . Philip Beaudette

Hegel H360 vs. Devialet 120 or 200?

To SoundStage!,

Hegel H360 vs. Devialet 120 or 200? Anyone done this comparison? Hans? Or Hegel HD30 and amp vs. Devialet?

Thanks,
Danny
Israel

It’s interesting that you should bring this up, because I was just talking to Hans Wetzel about all the integrated amps he has reviewed and has on hand. He owns a Hegel Music Systems H360 and a Devialet Expert 200. He was also the one who reviewed the Devialet Expert 120, though he doesn’t have that in-house anymore. However, Devialet is sending him the new Expert 130 Pro for review, which he should have in a few days. I suspect that his review of the Expert 130 Pro will discuss most if not all of these amps, since he always includes comparisons. The review won’t appear on this site, though; instead, it will be published on SoundStage! Access, since he’s senior editor for that site and it fits nicely into the content there. . . . Doug Schneider

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