Amp of Ages: Why Power Matters

Several years ago, I was invited by Dan D’Agostino, the founder and then chief engineer of the high-end audio manufacturer Krell, to visit the company’s headquarters in Connecticut. D’Agostino is best known for his audio electronics designs, and under his leadership, Krell built a legendary reputation for its amazing amplifiers. (He’s since left and formed an eponymously named company for which he’s doing the same thing.) I was shown a lot of prototype tech that day, none of which I can really recall today. But what I do remember—indeed, what I’ll never forget—was a demonstration of a pair of absurdly massive amps cabled to a pair of large floorstanding speakers.

I was standing in front of those speakers when out of the silence came a stupendously loud bass-drum thwack. This was not like any drum thwack I’d ever heard from an audio system. It was a sound that, in an instant, communicated the complete and total domination those amplifiers exerted over the cone speaker drivers. It exuded the brute force I might associate with a powerful sports car engine, but accompanied by fine precision and ironclad control. My body reacted viscerally to the sheer force of it, and a sudden surge of adrenalin emanated from my core out to my extremities as if gliding on the spokes of a wheel. It was at that moment I came to understand the power of…real power.

I was reminded of that day as I edited Fred Manteghian’s review of the Bryston SP3 surround processor and 9B SST amplifier for our January 2013 print edition (now on newsstands). Like Krell, McIntosh, and a few other boutique companies we might name, Bryston made its reputation on its overbuilt, deliciously powerful, and highly reliable amplifiers. I quite expected this separates stack to make Fred’s big, hungry Revel Salon speakers do the happy dance, and I wasn’t wrong. Truly great amplifiers often cost real money. They come in their own chassis, not crammed into the back of an A/V receiver. They have a large dedicated power supply and a giant transformer, sometimes several. They have big, manly heat sinks and hernia-inducing mass. And when you encounter one coupled to good speakers, you know spontaneously that you are not in Kansas anymore.

Go back and read Kris Deering’s remarks on the John Curl-designed Parasound Halo JC 1 amps. These monoblocks cost $4,500 each. But the moment Kris heard a pair driving his Paradigm Signature S8 main speakers, he knew those amps would never leave his system. Or read Michael Fremer’s description of the $6,000, seven-channel McIntosh MC8207.

The point of all this is not that you need to spend all that money just to have a great-sounding home theater or to make you feel puny if you haven’t spent five figures on audio electronics. In fact, there are some great brands out there that can put you in the big-power leagues for not too much coin, relatively speaking—I'm thinking of the Outlaws and Emotivas of the world. But there are degrees of everything. And if you’re truly after the Holy Grail of home theater, a keepsake amplifier is part of that equation.

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COMMENTS
Jarod's picture

This is just a great article!! I could read stuff like this all day long. Very cool!

David Vaughn's picture
Whenever I read about power amplifiers (or write about them), I can't help but think of Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor's grunting (hur, hur hur) when describing the specs :)
Mercedesman's picture

I am curious though, there is a huge price difference between the Krells, Macs and Brystons of the world when compared to something like a Emotiva power amp.

I have had the opportunity to hear Bryston and Parasound amps for extended periods and some exposure to Macs and Krells, and I'm just not hearing any appreciable "improvement" in SQ over any of the Emotiva amps and I'm mostly talking about their XPA-1 mono blocs.

The specifications of all these power amps are all so similar if not identical (at least audibly) so what is the reason that the "boutique" amps are better?

What is the benchmark or litmus test? I'd love to know because I can't seem to find any "improvement" from the $995.00 Emotiva to the $4500.00 Parsound or the $8000.00 Bryston.

The biggest difference is Bryston and Parasound are N.American made in small quantities and sold through dealers that typically make 40%-50% mark-up. Knowing electronics pretty well, when I look inside a power amp I try to find how it can cost $20,000.00 in some cases. It can't...

Emotiva is designed in the US and made in China, and sold direct to the end user via the internet. Thats a huge savings. Some say the Emotiva XPA-1 if sold through the traditional path to the market would sell for $3500.00-$4000.00

Where am I going wrong?

Kris Deering's picture
Mercedesman, You may not be wrong. In regards to the Emotiva mono blocks I've heard nothing but good things from people I trust on the matter. They measure very well and have solid specs. I have personally not heard them so I can't comment on the quality, but again based on conversations I've had with people I trust wholeheartedly on these things, they are a steal. In the case of my JC-1s, they sound amazing and their performance continues to impress me with everything I throw at them to this day. The fact that they were designed from the ground up by John and his team gives me all the confidence I need to know that every detail was covered in the design and building of these amps. Who knows, if I had the chance to sample the Emo's before I got the JC1s I may not have purchased them. But I don't regret my decision with the Parasounds at all. Happy hunting!
Mercedesman's picture

Hi Kris,

I think Parasound makes superb products and I always have. But in many ways Emotiva always gets the backhanded compliment "for the money" or for "budget minded enthusiasts"

Thats a lot of hooey if you ask me. They not only sound good for the money, they sound good at any price. There is a new XPR series with 1000 wpc mono blocs, a 2 X 600 wpc stereo amp and a 5 X 400 wpc multi chan amp. They all sound amazing and they are all less than $1700 each.

These publications will never give Emotiva their due because all the high dollar guys will pull their ads. imagine trying to sell a $20,000.00 mono bloc when you can come within inches for $1400.00?

Rob Sabin's picture
Thanks for the interesting comments here, guys. Let me throw in my own two cents. First, whether you believe me or not, amplifiers sound different. Take two different amps rated at the same per-channel power capabilities (measured all channels driven, please), put them on a REVEALING speaker with other electronics in the chain staying exactly the same, and a trained audiophile ear will hear differences. They may be spatial differences evident in soundstage or the precision of imaging within that soundstage, they may be differences in dynamics and how the speaker maintains control or otherwise interacts with the speaker elements, but you'll hear differences that the specs tell you should not be evident. I learned this early in my career at The Absolute Sound magazine, where at any given moment we had state of the art speakers in our reference systems that revealed differences in virtually every tiny change we made in the system. Even the differences in interconnect and speaker cables on high end systems like that are immediately evident, though I believe many enthusiasts who operate in the realm of normal purchasing power are not likely to hear differences when upgrading to uber-expensive high end cables. (That's an issue for a separate blog). We listened almost exclusively on vinyl in those days, and we could tell when the humidity level rose because you could hear how it affected the stylus damping in the phono cartridges. The point here: If you've got really decent gear surrounding it, you'll hear what makes a great amp great.

Second, Mercedesman is not wrong in believing that the high end amps mentioned above are all sold with healthy margins attached that dramatically drive up their cost beyond the cost of build. This is the way of the high end -- manufacs accept they won't sell a lot of them so the idea is to get as much as you can for the units you do sell. If a publication reviews it well, that adds to the mystique and allows it to capture its high price among the few who have to have it. I'm not suggesting that there is no value in these amps or that they are a rip off, or that they do not, in fact, deliver a noticeably more stellar audio experience than what else is out there that might be rated similarly. A John Curl amp is a John Curl amp, and a Dan D'Agostino amp is a Dan D'Agostino amp. Our colleague Steve Guttenberg, who writes our Vintage Gear blog for us and does the Audiophiliac blog for CNET, just told me he recently purchased a used Krell amp designed in Dan's early days with the company. Steve knew the amp because he'd sold that very unit back when he was a high end audio salesman, and he bought it back from the same customer many years later. It just sounds amazing in his system. Whatever these guys know about designing amps, it's golden, and it's not just about hitting a spec. As a company, you can't fully reproduce that magic in your products without a truly gifted designer behind you.

That brings us to Emotiva. I mentioned them and Outlaw specifically because they inhabit a unique space in audio commerce -- that of an Internet-only operation focused on trying to deliver high-end value and sonics at prices that are higher than the mass market stuff but quite reasonable if not downright cheap next to what the McIntosh's, Bryston's and Parasounds of the word might charge (not to mention the exclusive, uber-high end brands out there). I recently visited Emotiva's headquarters in Nashville and saw the new reference amps, both inside and out, and I was very impressed with the build quality. They are true audiophile products. From what I learned about Emotiva's design approach, I feel confident saying that, if we got to bench them, they'd meet if not exceed their specs and look flat as a pancake in their response characteristics. What I can't tell you about, though, without listening on a great reference system or giving them to a reviewer on our staff who does, is their "magic" factor. That's the more subjective part of the experience that makes a Krell a Krell or a Curl a Curl. We'll find out when we get a chance to test these.

Jarod's picture

Well said indeed! Looking forward to you guys reviewing the new Emotiva monos. I sure love my Emotiva XPA-3.

Mercedesman's picture

Thanks Rob for your candor, especially about the pricing differences and the mystique of paying a lot and thinking your getting a better product, because many times you are not.

Yes, there are SQ "differences", but that does not always translate into better. I personally think that Bryston amps are on forward side of the audio spectrum when compared to an Emotiva which has a warm, tube like quality..

I look forward to head to head to head "double blind" comparo of the Emotiva, The Parasound and Bryston ...

When will you be doing that?

Best!!

jdskycaster's picture

Rob,
Long time subscriber of HT Mag and I enjoy receiving it every month. I had an opportunity several years ago to participate in double blind listening tests of amplifiers. The results where surprising to say the least but to net it out there was not a single participant that could reliably pick out the "high end" designs over more moderately priced but well designed offerings.

I do not disagree with you when you say that you heard differences. Where I differ is in how the changes were made and if they were quantifiable and reproducible via an scientific testing method. If not perception and bias plays far too major a role in what we think we hear.

I would love to see HT Mag conduct a double blind listening test of amplifiers for publication in an upcoming issue. How amplifiers sound seems to be one of the most hotly debated issues in audio circles. Really looking forward to an HT Mag ultimate amp shootout!

JD

thepcguy's picture

Good luck with the ABX blind testing request. You will NEVER ever get a response to that. Have you seen ANY? EVER?

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