CES Report - Alan Sircom on solid-state electronics over $15,000

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers
CES Report - Alan Sircom on solid-state electronics over $15,000

 The $15,000 solid-state stereo amplifier world is an indicator of the entire two-channel audio market. Sources go in and out of fashion. Loudspeakers can end up in home theater systems as well as stereo set-ups, but a large number of new stereo amps reflects a buoyant two-channel world. And the inverse is also true.

Arguably the most significant two channel amp launch at the show was the new Momentum amplifier from Dan D’Agostino. Priced at $42,000 per pair, the elegant and distinctive mono power amplifier delivers a healthy 300W into eight ohms, 600W into four and 1,200W into two ohms, and yet weighs just 90lbs. The amplifier uses solid copper heatsinks at either side of the Jules Verne-esque case complete with large power meters. Played with an Apple/dCS source direct (there’s a preamp coming too) into a pair of Wilson Sasha W/P speakers via Transparent Audio cables, it’s not hard to hear why Dan thinks the new Momentum is the best amp he’s ever come up with. The battles between D’Agostino and his former company are still in the skirmish stage, but the Momentum says Dan’s back with a vengeance.

The other big launch was not exactly a new product, more new to the US. The Devialet D-Premier integrated DAC and amplifier from France has finally crossed the Atlantic. This slim, elegant and very shiny design uses a wholly new circuit design – Class ADH, which uses a small Class A voltage amplifier for show and a larger Class D current amplifier for go, in a manner not dissimilar to Quad’s classic current dumper design, brought into the 21st Century. The result is a 240watt amplifier that sounds like a Class A model, but offers almost 85% efficiency. The inclusion of a 384kHz DAC and having the amp run in the digital domain virtually from the phono plugs to the speaker terminals is exciting, too. The amp, hanging from the wall, was demonstrated running from a MacBook Pro into a Weiss INT202 FireWire to AES/EBU interface and out to either a pair of Focal Scala Utopia or Crystal’s new non-glass Arabesque III, all running through Crystal cables. The small Devialet D-Premier is distributed by Audio Plus Services and will retail at a shade under $16,000.

‘Small’ is not a soubriquet you could apply to Boulder’s new monster 3000 power amps. Nothing about them counts as ‘small’, unless perhaps you are comparing them to a Buick. The new mono amps came about as a request from the company’s Asian distributors. “Make us something bigger” they cried… and Boulder stepped up to the plate. Of course, weighing in at nearly 400lb per side with an additional 75lb for the marble plinth alone, being about the size of a car engine, and delivering 1.5kW per side (eight ohms, doubling to 3kW and 6kW into four and two ohms respectively), you are going to need a bigger plate. A 240v plate too; the Big Boulder only runs off 240 volts, so your cooker or heating circuit will need an extension to feed the 3000. Everything is attention to detail here; the asymmetric chassis means different four different heatsink designs for each pair of amps, the rear panels are ‘handed’ and inside each amp is more toroidal transformers than you’d find in most complete systems. Boulder doesn’t expect to sell many 3000 in the US, especially given the $180,000 per pair price sticker, but in places where big is still beautiful, this chunky contender will prove popular.

Staying in the upper atmosphere for a while longer, the new Constellation Audio amplifiers (brought to you from the people who created the Continuum turntable) are designed by a dream team of top engineers (including John Curl, Bascom King, Peter Madnick, and Demian Martin) to design two ranges of products every bit as uncompromising as that cost-no-object Aussie record deck, only this time made in California. The Reference Line of products (including the vast 1,100W Hercules power amps – once again requiring 240V power - and Altair line preamp on demonstration) are a headline-grasping $205,000 for the set launched last year and first seen on US soil here at the CES. This year, Constellation was also showing the prototypes of the upcoming Performance Line, comprising disc player with USB input for around $15,000, a line pre for between $15k-$20k, a phono stage costing somewhere in the $12,000-$15,000 mark and a 125W stereo power amp costing around $20,000, with a 250W mono version waiting in line. I don’t know how this will play with Leema Acoustics of the UK though; that company has had a Constellation Series in the market for some time and includes products called Pyxis and Altair in its amplifier line-up…

Pass Labs is also known for its big amps, but next to the Boulder and Constellation, the two new UA-class prototypes demonstrated at the show were almost dwarved by comparison. It’s still early days in the development of these two new four box, single-ended Class A designs, and the name is still a work in progress. The two chassis mono amp – which uniquely spreads half the amplifier circuit across the two chassis, rather than a discrete amp/power supply layout – will be available in either  or 300W mono designs and are expected to cost $45,000 and $70,000 pre pair respectively when they are released mid-year.

Simaudio was showing off its new flagship mono amplifier, the $38,000 per pair Moon 880M, together with the matching two-box $25,000 850P line preamplifier. These were being fed by a 750D DAC with built-in CD transport, and both new amplifier products were showcasing the down-to-earth innovation that has become synonymous with the Canadian company. The 880M mono amps deliver a healthy  800w, the first 10 of which are in Class A, and uses Moon’s own output devices, while the 850P features Moon’s new M-Octave damping system that is said to make the preamp one of the quietest ever made.

Most of this section is purely about solid-state amplifiers, but Jeff Rowland is worthy of note, because of its complete package. In two rooms, the system comprised the upcoming DAC, with the new $12,800 Corus preamplifier and the new $13,500 625 power amplifier. The $9,800 DAC is exciting in its own right, being the first digital audio product from the company, but is still in the final stages of honing. The 300w 625 stereo power amp, on the other hand, marks a return to traditional discrete zero feedback, Class AB power amplifier design after the brand spent many years in the Class D realm. The amplifier case is hewn from a solid billet of aluminum. Partnered with a pair of Vienna The Music loudspeakers, a Mach 2 music hot-rodded Mac Mini controlled by a iPad and Nordost cables, which all created a beguiling performance.

Jones Audio was one of the few companies not in the Venetian tower and consequently it was struggling to fight a large cuboid room. But the company fared remarkably well, with its new $24,000 per pair Series 2 mono amps (and prototype preamp) driving a pair of Revel Salon 2 loudspeakers. First shown at Rocky Mountain, this 300 watt mono chasis with the distinctive edged chassis and laterally-arranged MOSFET layout and advanced power supply, this made the very best of a very bad job. Anything that can make a room that bad sound that good must be doing something right.

It wasn’t all North American amplifiers, though. The new $15,000 Accuphase E-460 replaces (surprise, surprise) the E-450. The 180watt per channel MOSFET Class AB amplifier features a new version of the precise variable resistor-free AAVA integrated amplifier/volume control stage. The amplifier was launched mid year, but this was the first time the amp ws seen at a show.

Finally, perhaps the most unexpected amplifier of the show was the new offering from Swedish loudspeaker manufacturer Marten. The new $45,000 M-Amp mono is a an inverting globally self-oscillating Class D design delivering 550 watts into eight ohms. It features the company’s unique Adaptive Modulation Servo drive. Marten also announced it’s new M-Furniture range (which was supporting an EMM Labs disc spinner and EAR324 preamp) and playing through the new $93,000 Marten Coltrane 2 loudspeakers. The system looked and sounded truly wonderful, and both amps and speakers are well worth checking out.

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