Hans Wetzel is a cautious, subdued reviewer, more likely to understate than to overstate how a product performs. So when he raved about Benchmark Media Systems’ AHB2 amplifier in his June 1 SoundStage! Access review, stating that it “may be hi-fi’s biggest bargain” today, we knew that its performance must be as special as the measured results that accompanied the review, and about which Bascom King said: “I measured less distortion and noise in the AHB2 than in any other of the many power amps I’ve measured over the years.”
The AHB2, Benchmark’s first power amplifier, is priced at $2995 USD and specified to deliver 100Wpc in stereo mode or 380W when bridged as a monoblock. Benchmark says that it uses “THX-patented feed-forward error-correction technologies,” and that the AHB2 offers a signal/noise ratio of 132dB, A-weighted (130dB unweighted) -- extraordinarily high -- and distortion of less than 0.00011% at full power, which correlated not only with Bascom’s measurements but with Hans’s listening impressions:
Only one other amp has come close to matching the AHB2’s utter lack of noise and grain. I recall putting my ear practically on my speaker’s tweeter, to hear only the faintest white noise from the Devialet 120, and I had much the same experience with the AHB2. There was just nothing there. Reading this on your screen, it might be difficult to imagine so total an absence of grain or noise floor in the sound of your own system. But let me tell you, the effect was profound.
The AHB2 was incredibly transparent. It just tore down the cloud of ambiguity that burdens the sounds of, well, just about everything else I’ve heard.
I threw on “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” from the Postal Service’s Give Up (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Sub Pop), and was floored by the AHB2’s powers of resolution. Ben Gibbard’s voice emerged from my speakers with great precision and articulation. I could easily pick out the contours of his voice from the foreground of the soundstage, the drums and backing voices recessed and to either side of him. The stereo imaging was superlative. The entire recording was laid bare before me, bereft of artifice, totally clear. It was the kind of outright clarity, quickness, and tight-fisted control I’d expect from a pair of massive monoblocks. The transients in the opening of “Sleeping In” only reinforced this impression, with outrageous delicacy and effortlessness.
As for the AHB2’s accuracy and overall sound quality, Hans had this to say:
Live recordings seemed perfect fodder for the AHB2, so on went “Little Lion Man,” from Mumford & Sons’ The Road to Red Rocks (16/44.1 ALAC, Island). Again the Benchmark illuminated a track I’ve heard dozens and dozens of times in the last couple years. Lead singer Marcus Mumford’s voice was completely unencumbered, unfettered, unburdened by previously unrecognized shackles. The sound was cleaner and clearer than my Hegel H300 [$5500] ever could manage with this track, while just as smooth and easy to listen to. And the Benchmark’s squeaky-clean sound was still somehow unapologetically neutral. Coloration of any kind was wholly absent. Those wishing for a euphonic midrange should temper their expectations.
The AHB2’s appeal was precisely in its ability to simultaneously speak the languages of unswerving accuracy and of heart and soul while, for better or worse, revealing every nook and cranny of every recording. Lead singer Till Lindemann’s opening lines in “Spieluhr,” from Rammstein’s third studio album, the excellent Mutter (16/44.1 AIFF, Island), practically dripped with his heavy, foreboding enunciation. In terms of linearity, the Benchmark was ruler flat across the audioband. The attack of Christoph Schneider’s drums was reproduced with real impact, but not overcooked in terms of slam. Despite its cacophonous nature, “Spieluhr” never sounded harsh or abrasive in the highs, never approached the tetchy, brittle treble I occasionally hear from some other amps.
Where the AHB2 falls back, it does so in areas that have mostly to do with its affordable price. To substantially better it, you’ll probably have to spend much more money, as Hans explained:
There’s no question that many high-priced amps offer current, wattage, and an ability to drive brutal impedance swings that the Benchmark may not be able to match. The lavish, artisan-level casework that accompanies such designs can also be quite impressive. But the expectation is that, by virtue of their intimidatingly beautiful physical appearance, and through an astronomical asking price, the buyer will get better sound than anything else out there. Benchmark’s AHB2 smashes this notion to bits. It’s every bit as good as the revolutionary Devialet 120, and, with the right partnering electronics, may provide even better sound than that svelte French amp.
That the Benchmark Media Systems AHB2 achieves the kind of performance it does for its price is why Hans Wetzel made this the final sentence of his review: “If ever there were a giant-killer of an amp, this is it.” But irrespective of price, that performance is why, this month, the AHB2 is being recognized as a Recommended Reference Component -- it’s an incredibly good amplifier that can take full advantage of the high-resolution music sources that audiophiles have access to today. No wonder Hans raved about it.
Manufacturer contact information:
Benchmark Media Systems
203 E. Hampton Place, Suite 2
Syracuse, NY 13206
Phone: (315) 437-6300
Fax: (315) 437-8119