All Amps Do NOT Sound The Same
by, 09-02-2012 at 09:34 AM (2709 Views)
I'm not one of those "audiophiles" that picks a particular set of good gear, and stands pat for 10, 15, or 20 years. I understand their argument; rather than constantly auditioning new kit, they are sitting back and enjoying music. However...how can you truly be satisfied with your system, if you're not entirely convinced you've got the "best" (sounding) one; respective to your budget of course. Sure...someday (and that day may not be far off) I'll settle-down with just the right combination, and even though there is no such thing as "perfect"; I'll have shopped-around and heard enough good gear, to feel content with the choices I've made. It's funny; I've held this philosophy for the last 5-6 years or so (as long as I've seriously been into "hi-end" gear to begin with), but I had never thought of my approach in this particular way until yesterday: it's like I'm equipment dating...lol. You remember; lots of great gals along the way...but you really need to try a few, before you feel convinced that when you meet "the one", she's the woman you want to live with for the rest of your life.
Right now, I'm being an absolute slut, with regard to power amps...lol. Speakers; I'm a Dynaudio guy, through and through. I quickly burned through Focus 140s, Contour S1.4s, Special 25s; until I reached the top of the mountain. I'm convinced, I've arrived at the alter with my current C1 Signatures (unless, of course...I get more space for my listening room, and upgrade to a trophy-wife like the C2s). I'm a wholly digital guy, so source and DAC will be what they will be. I do believe in synergy between pre-amp and power-amp; so I will typically try a matching pre, to whatever power-amp has caught my fancy at that moment (although I'm convinced Conrad Johnson tube amps, are about as good as it gets...and my current ET-3 might be a keeper, no matter what power-amp I run her into).
Which takes me back to the power-amps. That I can think of, here are the ones I've tried...in chronological order:
NAD 325BEE (IA)
B&K Ref 125.2
PS Audio Trio A-100
(David) Belles 150a Hot-Rod
Conrad Johnson mf-2500a
NAD M3 (IA)
Belles 150a Ref v2
Conrad Johnson mf-2250a (current)
BAT VK-220 (current)
Rega Brio-R (IA current)
and I just bought a McCormack DNA-225 as my latest audition. That what; 14 power-amps or IAs, in like 6 years time? Like I said; I've gotten around, when it comes to power-amps! These choices have varied in size, power, price...bias class (you see two flirtations with class-D, as well as the digital drive of the NAD M3); yet I heard distinguishing characteristics between all of them. Which is why I can't understand these guys who say all (SS) power amps sound the same. It just doesn't appear to be true at all, in my...rather substantial...experience.
I, and countless others, have had real knock-down, drag-out debates...with the "objectivists" or "scientists" if you will (mainly on that other forum, where the "scientists" abound); those who claim amps that, more or less, measure the same...must sound the same. Don't get me wrong; I consider myself to very much straddle the fence between those that find a 5-figure amp is needed to get good, "audiophile" sound (you'll notice none of my choices, hit that lofty mark...so I can't speak to what those mega-buck amps may or may not sound like in comparison)...and those who would say you can find no difference between a $5k amp and a $500 one (or even AVR!). Because I straddle that fence, I sometimes find myself in a position where I'm defending a position I don't quite wholly believe.
I get their point, to a certain extent. I think where that side hurts their case, is with the absoluteness of their assertion. "All amps sound the same" is pretty hard to swallow; especially in a hobby, where guys pride themselves on having "golden ears", and being able to sniff-out even the smallest differences between Silver ICs and Copper ones, lol. To say all amps sound the same, is to take away a BIG part of the hobby, that gives them joy. What we...on the other side...really hear is "you're an audio-fool...to fret and audition power-amps; you might as well pick the cheapest thing, off the local big-box shelf...because they all sound the same anyway" (of course, when challenged...they usually fess-up to owning Krell, or some other big-power, big-buck brand themselves...but that's a post for another day). That's when the holy-war ensues...lol.
Because I don't like being on the side, that says you must spend 5-figures to get a good-sounding power-amp; and I can't abide by the "all amps sound the same" credo...let me try and bring the two sides closer together. What I can concede...again, after 14-some auditions, at a pace of 2 or so per year...is this:
A- The differences between power-amps (and to be fair...the other side, is always quick to point out we're talking about SS amps here; tube power-amps are a whole different animal...and you'll noticed I've never tried one anyway)...at least the ones of similar power, and measurements; are more "subtle", than perhaps other kit. In other words, the differences between a (well-made) $500 power-amp, and a $5,000 one...may not be as obvious as the differences between $500 and $5,000 speakers. So...if their argument is really (and I think sometimes it really is) you can get more sonic impact by putting funds into speakers, as opposed to upgrading to a mega-buck power-amp; ok, I can buy that...at least more-so than "all amps sound the same". On the other hand, are you gonna drive your mega-buck speakers with some cheap, P-O-S power-amp? Garbage-in, garbage-out...and your system is only as strong as its weakest link, and all that shite...are all still in play, right?
B- I do believe the "law of diminishing returns" are maybe most evident, when it comes to power-amps. The idea being, a power-amp might be the "simplest" of gear, to executive competently. So...a decent EE, should be able to easily design a properly-working circuit, that produces "good" sound...with decent power, and low amounts of distortion. And that it can be done, for say $500-$1,000; and that anything beyond that is audiophile window-dressing (like heavy casings, and thick, elaborate face-plates) and reputation. Now I don't buy into the fact that so-called audiophiles (I actually hate that label...but that is also a post for another Sunday), see a name on a piece of gear and automatically hear good or bad; I know I don't roll that way...and I know a lot of enthusiasts who don't like the sound of Krell, for example. So there...lol!
Sure, there's some bias and star-f*cking in this hobby...lol; I just don't see it as any different than most. Is a Porsche really faster than a Corvette, or is it a matter of style; the subtleties? Is a Mercedes really a "better" car than a Hyundai; and if it's indeed "better", is it better to the tune of $50,000? That's where the other side, does get it wrong. If you hear...or even think you hear (after all...your perception, no matter what the reason...is your reality); small, subtle differences between $500, $5,000, and even $50,000 (wow!) amps...only you can decide if that last nth of resolution, or top-end, or bass-grip...is worth another $45,000.
I can't imagine how much better a $50,000 power-amp sounds, than one of the really good ~$1,000-5,000 ones I've tried; but then again...if you're buying $50,000 amps, there are probably a lot of things about your life, I can't really imagine!