Amplifier MadnessFiled Under: Why The Hell Not. Wild hair? Yeah, maybe. Two over-achieving and "moderately priced" transducers fell into my Magical Hand of Loudspeakers -- the Magnepan 3.7s and the Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon -- so naturally, I shuffled, dealt, played a hand, shuffled again, and well, I just repeated until I was done. The result? Entertainment!
Here are the various setups:
- Magnepan 3.7 with Odyssey Designs Kismet-in-Khartago mono block amplifiers
- Magnepan 3.7 with the Job 225 stereo amplifier
- Magnepan 3.7 with Merrill Audio Veritas mono block amplifiers
- Magnepan 3.7 with Red Wine Audio Liliana mono block amplifiers
- Magnepan 3.7 with Vitus Audio Reference RS-100 stereo amplifier
- Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon with Odyssey Designs Kismet-in-Khartago monos
- Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon with the Job 225
- Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon with Merrill Audio Veritas
- Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon with Red Wine Audio Liliana
- Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon with First Watt SIT-1 mono block amplifiers
- Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon with Vitus Audio Reference RS-100 stereo amplifier
Most of this was done DAC-direct from my Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC with Alpha USB converter, but I did switch in my reference, a BorderPatrol Control Unit EXT1 so I could roll in my vinyl front end. All signal cables were from WyWires. Power cords came from Triode Wire Labs. Power conditioning was courtesy of a Shunyata Research Hydra Triton.
Before we pull things apart, lets take a look at the supporting cast.
Tekton Designs SEAS Pendragon
In some very important ways, the SEAS Pendragon from Tekton Designs is the opposite of the Magnepans, and having them both here has been quite an eye-opener. First, at $2,500, the Pendragons are a startling value in today’s high-end, regardless of the yardstick you’re using. This is the third pair of Tekton Designs loudspeakers I’ve had here — the first was the “regular” Pendragon I wrote about last year. Those speakers I found absolutely exhilarating — but while my praise fell a bit short of the paroxysm of joy that some of my peers might have expressed, I was very impressed. I was even more impressed, however, with the Lore S, a design leveraging upgraded drivers from SEAS. That design clearly took the Tekton Design another big step forward and I pretty much fell all over myself recommending that loudspeaker to anyone willing to sit still long enough for me to jump up and down at them.
So, when Eric Alexander mentioned that he was going to do a version of the Pendragon, leveraging the upgraded drivers (and including a few tweaks he’d learned along the way), I promptly lost my shit and started clamoring for a pair.
Here’s the short of it: they’re outstanding.
But getting back to that comment about being the opposite of the Maggie. What I mean by that is this — where the Maggies are weak, the SEAS Pendragon is strong. Where the Maggie is strong, the SEAS Pendragon is weak. Pretty simple, right? So, lemme unpack that a bit.
First, the new Pendragon may not reach as far into the cavernous deeps that the older version did, but I’m willing to bet that you’re really not going to care. This is plenty-deep for a full-range loudspeaker, and in most rooms (that aren’t huge), the bass will still be life-threatening. This is a big, ported design, so expect to need some serious room treatments or you’re gonna shake your junk off the walls as they flex like that piece of bow-shaped exercise equipment you haven’t been using. It’s nuts. The bass is tight (depending), fast, and has serious force. I freakin’ love it. Moving up the spectrum is where things take a delightful departure from past offerings, however — the mid-band here is fully resolved, and this sense of expert handling climbs up the ladder into an airy stratosphere. Now, here’s where the Maggies really shine (assuming you’ve done your homework and tamed them) as that ribbon will show you … well … whatever is in your source material. Revealing? Yes. Absolutely. Ruthless? No, not precisely — but again, that can be a matter of your taste and tweaks. The Tekton, by contrast, still feels a bit dark and a little polite with the highest frequencies. Detail and air are most definitely there, but low-level info is not going to be spotlighted, not like the Maggie can and will. Likewise, the crazy-eerie mid-range lifelikeness that the Maggie can create with vocals and top-to-bottom coherence is simply not in spec with the Tekton. Said another way, the Tekton does disappear into the sound stage and that sound stage is fully populated by right-sized imagery, but the Maggie simply does the “transparency thing” better. That’s not entirely fair, though, as this is a panel strength and vanishingly few box-speakers can really “go there”.
Turning to music, the SEAS Pendragon has no clear preferences. Anybody into techno or house music (or any of its relatives or derivatives) will be stunned by the SEAS Pendragon. But then, large-scale orchestra fans will be well-sorted here, too. In fact, the big Tekton just loves music — all of it. And unlike the older, bigger “plain” Pendragon, the new one plays quiet just as composedly as LOUD.
Best thing about these speakers? I mean, aside from the price. And the deep deep bass. Yeah, aside from that. It’s dynamics. With a sensitivity of 95dB, you get horn-like jump out of them, and that’s hilarious. Big amps, small amps, who cares. A handful of watts will take you to crazy-stupid volumes, and if you ever want to have a block party in your basement, you’re pretty much all set.
I wrote a while back that the Lore S was Tekton’s “Best Yet”. Consider this an update. The Tekton SEAS Pendragon is head-and-shoulders above that quite-excellent loudspeaker.
The only real downside I can see is the level of fit-and-finish. My loaner is a plain, unadorned black box. It is, quite frankly, boring and unattractive. I highly recommend talking to Eric about veneers and exploring them before making your purchase.
The Magnepan 3.7s I’ve had here, in house, for a couple of years now. I think they’re spectacular values in today’s high-end audio, and at $5,500 a pair, its been hard for me to come up with a pair of loudspeakers that can seriously take them on. I bought these full-retail and waited months for my turn in the pre-order queue to come up. Their arrival pretty much made my year — and I still love them.
They’re not wart-free, of course. The main problem I have with them is their size — they’re most definitely a investment when it comes to space, and this is really the only serious caveat I can attach to them. You have to be ready. That aside, they proved wildly easy to get positioned — 3+ feet off the front wall, and at least 6 feet apart (edge to edge), and Bob’s your uncle. They’re dipoles, so side-wall reflections aren’t as present as perhaps you’d expect with a regular soft-dome/rigid cone loudspeaker. There is that honking-big ribbon, however, and I found that the Maggies tended to sound best toed in; I typically set them to “firing” over my shoulders. You can fiddle with the sound stage quite a bit with toe in, but too far off axis and I found a drop off in detail.
Bass is another thing that will take some getting used to — it’s most definitely there. But. Well, it just isn’t kick-you-in-the-gut, (aka, “subwoofer”) bass. But it is the most coherent bass I’ve enjoyed here at home. In fact, that’s the hallmark of this speaker line — stunning top-to-bottom coherence. Images tend to be a little larger-than-life, but the window they open onto the performance is just stunning. My Maggies tend to play best with vocals — no other loudspeaker I have can quite touch them there. With the stock config, I found the treble a bit strident, so using the supplied resistors (or some equivalents) is pretty much a must — and even then can be on the “lively” side of life. Favorite music? Live performances! Anything jazz, classical, or something that deserves real scale. Some folks have said they’re not really “rock speakers”, but what they’re really waving at is the “panel bass” — add a pair of subs (for support below 30Hz) and insanity ensues pretty much immediately.
I’ve been feeding my Maggies a steady diet of Class A, starting with the superlative Plinius SA-Reference stereo amplifier and evolving over the last year to the Pass Labs XA100.5 monos. With that much power on tap, the bass actually has thwack, and the level of performance I pulled from them was reference-caliber. Now, the XA100.5 retail for $16,500 — quite a bit more than the price of the loudspeakers. The pairing is outstanding, yes, but I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t some way to get a better price-level match.
Listening to Amplifiers
Which led me to this bizarre little adventure. In a rare cosmological event, I looked around and found a whole mess o’ amps “lying about”. A kindly visitor, who seemed to be torn between having me committed and/or mounted under a microscope for further examination, gently asked if any of these amps “made a difference” and if so, how much they differed. Well, here’s the long-winded answer to that question. As if you expected anything else.
Amplifier: Pass Labs XA-100.5
First up is my reference, a pair of XA-100.5 mono block amplifiers from Pass Labs ($16,500/pair). Generally considered a bit more linear than the 30.5/60.5/160.5 series, these 100.5 are rock-solid in the best sense of the cliché. The amps really do some truly remarkable things that make them a tremendous reference and/or baseline product. Characterizing them is hard, especially without comparisons as the amps tend to vanish. They’re not warm or dark. They’re not lean or bright. Bass? You want bass? They have you covered — bass will be deep and controlled, regardless of the loudspeaker. You want to hear vocals? Here you go — your midrange will be neither recessed nor inflated. A fan of detail? Wanna learn what brand lip of moisturizer the singer favors? Well, that may be more Soulution, but the Pass Labs amps do reference-level detail retrieval, neither throwing that ambiance too far forward nor burying it down in the mix. They are, in point of fact, one of the most transparent amplifiers I’ve found and, generally speaking, tend to make everything they’re paired with sound pretty damn good. They’re my reference. They’re outstanding.
Amplifier: Odyssey Designs Kismet-in-Khartago
Klaus Bunge of Odyssey Designs is a force of nature and I can’t recommend a visit to any of his demos enough. It’s a shame he doesn’t do more audio shows, because, as an Internet-direct kind of guy, hearing his gear before jumping in is going to be a challenge. Oh well. All I can say is, “have no fear”.
The problem, at least as I see it, is that his website is kinda like the menu at a Chinese restaurant, a comparison I’m sure he’s just thrilled with. Anyway, his breakdown does really seem like more of a suggestion, and if you ask nice, he’s happy to provide the “insider menu” — which is where Klaus really seems to prefer to operate. Take my Kismet-in-a-Khartago. This was a special order job, as much of his stuff appears to be, and when I laid out my interests and preferences (balls-out performance, aesthetic can go hang), he suggested that his top-flight amp design might (just barely) fit into this smallest and happily most affordable amp chassis. So, for $4,000, I ended up with a pair of amplifiers that can (and do) retail for significantly more than that, especially in Europe, where the same designs are marketed under the name of Symphonic Line. Ta da! The output of the Kismet is “somewhat north of 200 wpc” according to Klaus and represents his current best-thinking about amplifier tech.
Now, I’m a fan of Klaus’ work, and these Odysseys are the main reason for my fanboi status. Paired with the Maggies, the sound was fulsome and rich, with deep reach and impact. I could hear Klaus laughing at me all the way from Indianapolis for ever doubting that the amps would handle the Maggies. $4k is quite a step down from my reference Pass Labs XA-100.5 monos, but wholly welcome with a very welcome step down in bulk — my system shed about 40lbs+ (each) moving the Odysseys in place.
The build quality of the Khartago casework is, by design and deliberate choice, relatively simple, so I’m not going to fault this. You want bling, Odyssey has that. You want to save a few bucks, you can, but that will mean the less bling-y casework. I’ve used this particular amp-speaker pairing quite a bit as I found the price points relatively agreeable, and with the matching colors, I was all System Black with this pairing.
Tonally, I put the Odysseys on the warm side of the Pass, and they tended to sound a bit smoother, too, with a hair less fine-detail retrieval. Translated, the Odysseys were totally non-fatiguing and generally kinder to shit recordings than the Pass. That said, they passed the “Cricket Test” with flying colors.
Power was never an issue here, and the “several hundred” watts into the simple 4 ohm load was clearly more than enough to pull uncompressed sound well past my tolerance for pain.
Moving them over to the Tektons provided a denser tonal palette. Even though a 95dB sensitivity meant that the Odysseys were pretty much loafing, the sound stage was deeper and wider than what they were able to do with the Maggies. Placement was very specific, with great separation and air. I might have managed to coax a whopping 10 watts out of these amps before I had to hit the “mercy” button on the remote on the DAC. You wanna go all PA on the Tektons? These might be a good amp to pair with them.
Amplifier: Job 225
The Job 225, according to the enthusiastic reporting over at 6moons, is something of a techno-marvel coming out of Switzerland, courtesy of Goldmund. This amp is rather petite (14″x10″x4″), with a modest heft (15lbs), and yet because of its Class A/B design, is good for 210 watts per channel into 8 ohms. The amp is said to have “extremely wide bandwidth” (something north of 100x “more” than the average amp) and be DC-coupled to address phase issues. It’s sold direct only, and only available in the US ($1,699). Did I mention how tiny this thing is?
The Job is by far the least expensive amp in the lineup here, and quite frankly, sounded it. I know there’s a ton of enthusiasm out there in the Land of the Forum, but while I think this amp does some amazing things, a bit of a reset might be in order.
First, that ultra-wide bandwidth is very impressive. But while it certainly feels very speedy, the sonic signature is quite a bit more spare than the Odyssey sound. If the Pass were neutral, the Job would fall on the other side of the line from Odyssey. There’s also a bit of a “scooping out” in the lower-mids/upper-bass that makes the sound, at least on the Magnepans, feel a little less than satisfying. Here’s the issue, at least so far as I can tell — the Maggies need help “down low”. That is, they’re already a little less than robust “down there” and any amp that doesn’t offer a very solid and fulsome presentation is going to fare less well overall.
Moving over to the Tektons proved a bit problematic at first — the amp has no way to cope with ground-loop issues, so have a care. Not sure it was the only noise issue, though. Running it DAC-direct on a high-senstivity loudspeaker revealed some hash that was unacceptable and completely untraceable — a preamplifier was absolutely required. Unfortunately, this meant doing an apples-to-oranges comparison, so make a note, and we’ll move on.
So, as to what I was able to pull out before the comparisons went sideways — the amp is absurdly fast. Which brings me to a weird point to have to make — tastes will drive your reaction to this amp. Well, to any component, actually, but let’s just draw a circle around this amp and the one to follow because they’re qualitatively different. What do I mean? Well, I tend to randomly and somewhat haphazardly clump audiophiles into one of two camps — one that tends to favor tone, and one that tends to favor detail. No, neither of these are “correct” or “incorrect” — this is purely an aesthetic judgment about the leanings in one’s personal taste. Yes, these cuts are unhelpfully blunt, but the point is this: I can totally understand that this amp will either thrill or tire depending entirely on your tastes. Me, I think this pairing with the Tekton was interesting in that it tended to light up the upper registers in ways that the Odyssey did not, and tended to not provide the support down-low that the Tektons really didn’t need. Which is a long way to go to say that the pairing of the Job to the Tektons was far more satisfying than the pairing with the Maggies.
Ultimately, I need to play with this amp more. I’ve included it here more for a sense of completeness (it looked sad and forlorn when I told it that it couldn’t play) than a sense of fairness. Anyway, more to come.
Amplifier: Merrill Audio Veritas
The Veritas mono blocks from Merrill Audio are the latest audiophile darlings, and represent the current SOTA around Class D amplifier technology, sporting as they do the new Hypex Ncore 1200 modules. The specs are astounding, and Merrill have gone out of their way to then incorporate “audiophile notions” on top of specification glory, including Stillpoints footers and wrapping up the boards in a big ass block of aluminum. Cardas binding posts, XLR-only inputs, and a custom finish (my demos were a satin red) round out the picture. For power amps, I have to say, my back loves the Veritas: 33lbs is pretty much perfect to create the illusion that you actually have something yet doesn’t require a wheeled dolly to maneuver around the room — which is how I get the massive Silver Circle Audio Tchaik 6 around. I have another dolly under the plinth that my Raven AC-3 turntable sits on … but I digress. The Merrill Audio amps, at $6,000 each, are very nearly the most expensive in the bunch, bar one, and by far the most powerful. I figured my Maggies were going to just freak with all that on tap.
Bringing the Merrill Audio Veritas monos in was, in many ways, hilarious. 700 watts into 4 ohms brought the Maggies to as much life as they have ever had. Big panels may well be made to be driven by amps with super-high damping factors — in this case, 2,000 into 4 ohms — which meant that the bass was pretty much the most impressive I’ve ever heard from these speakers. Sha-zam!
Moving over to the Tektons, it was blazingly obvious that the Veritas were also just extraordinary at retrieving detail. That comment about the two audiophile camps? This is definitely a detail amp — and barring the vastly more expensive Soulution integrated I had here earlier in the year, the Veritas are the most resolving amplifiers I’ve ever heard. Noise floor? Ha. Ha. Ha ha. Hahahahahhaha! Oh, that’s rich. Noise floor? What is this “floor” you speak of? The Veritas, instead, seems to levitate over an elevator shaft — there is no floor. Everything — every nuance — erupts out of vast, empty space. It’s a little disconcerting, actually.
Tonally, I think the Veritas tends to rival the Pass Labs for the title of King of Neutrality. There’s not a lot to call out here — there’s no emphasis on any part of the audio band. “Ruler flat” is one of those things tossed about a bit too freely and tends to include a variety of sins. Small variations. A response that might look “fuzzy”, even, with all manner of harmonic irregularity. Zoom out, normalize, and bam, the response looks flat. Does that make sense? Well, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about flat. Like zero deviation. Anywhere. This is “textbook” in ways that not even the Pass Labs can manage.
Again, this gets back to that question of what kind of audiophile are you? I know many audiophiles that would pretty much park on the Veritas like it was some kind of scenic overlook and start building the home they’d want to retire in. Paired with some different loudspeakers (like the TIDALs, for example), the effect of all that flat-response and zero-noise can create a presentation that is entirely otherworldly. It’ll raise the hair on your neck. With the Maggies, it was the masterful sense of control that caught my imagination. With the Tektons, it was the crazy silences.
Where I think the Merrills do not excel is a sense of natural timbre. While clearly more refined than the little Job, the Merrills were simply choosing to weave a less nuanced tapestry than the Odyssey or Pass Labs amplifiers — and I say it that way because it really does seem like a choice. I’ve spoken with the designer, Merrill Wettasinghe, on several occasions — and he is unapologetic. If you want “tube character”, get tubes. If you want speed, detail, and an altogether thrilling presentation, Merrill has you covered.
Amplifier: Red Wine Audio Liliana
Speaking of tubes ….
Vinnie Rossi of Red Wine Audio has been steadily exploring the limits of battery-powered designs for the better part of the last decade — one of his latest (and currently the most powerful in the lineup) is the Liliana. 115 wpc into 8 ohms and doubling down into 4, the Liliana is a not only battery-driven but features a 12AX7 tube.
The new wooden faceplates add a retro and classy look to the — again — very maneuverable amps. Who says you need big iron to drive your speakers? Ha ha! Seriously — my back was just loving this lineup — and honestly, it’s one of the reasons this whole super-swap was even possible. But I digress … again. Back to the wood — there are a few options available to you, so you can mix and match to your taste. My wife suggested that the amps would look better with wooden knobs, and I promised to pass that along. To be fair, with winter approaching and random static electricity build-ups now arising magically with the cold and the dry, the less metal I have to touch, the better.
Moving from the Veritas to the Liliana was something of a whipsaw — I was clearly back to a “tone amp”. Where the Veritas has created a sense of mastery and control, the Liliana brought organic life to the party. I was immediately struck by how similar the Red Wine sound was to the Odyssey — warm, rich, tonally dense — but it then added another level of refinement and some very welcome top-end finesse.
With my Maggies, I was struck by the sound stage, which seemed to take what the Odyssey offered and built on it, specifically extending it backwards and away — we were going deep and wide, kids. Nice view! Bass was round and fast, and if it wasn’t as controlled as the Veritas, it wasn’t far behind.
With the Tekton, I found the pairing to be just as rewarding — tonally three-dimensional, with a huge sound stage and a non-fatiguing presentation. That latter bit was again reminiscent of the Odysseys, but I found that the sound stage was the least detailed of the group — at least initially. The crickets on Chris Jones’ “Roadhouses and Automobiles” seemed to take a quiet step back, falling deeper into the image.
I was puzzled by this, because with the battery-powered design, I figured we’d be talking “This Void has been brought to you by Blacky Blackerstein”, but that’s not what I was hearing. In fact, I was getting a detail-stealing quiet buzz out of one of the loudspeakers — not audible at the listening position, but there when you got closer. And then I found that hitting the ground lift button on one of the amps’ chargers completely eliminated the little buzz. Ahem. Anyway ….
Contrasted with the Veritas, the presentation was certainly warm if not quite buttery-smooth, but the image of me covered head-to-toe in delicious dairy fresh deliciousness was hard to shake. You’re welcome. Ha!
And that’s when I took that extra step. I sat back, squared my shoulders, and told Sulu to “Engage!”. Okay, no, but it certainly felt like that, after I wandered over to the rack and turned the amplifiers over to “full battery mode”.
The trickle-charger is almost invisible. Almost. But that faint veil, once gone, was actually completely noticeable — especially on a 95dB loudspeaker. The noise floor becomes laughably absent and every bit as empty and hopeless as Clooney spinning off into deep space during Gravity. Detail, formerly obscured, sneaks back into the sound stage, which also manages to take a firm step up to reference-cabliber. The end result was deep, soul-scratching satisfaction.
The only nit? The play time. May be an issue for you, or not, but all-battery mode will not carry me through my all-day blast-a-thon. The manual says 6-8 hours on a charge, and I find that this is a fairly accurate assessment. I’m told that there may be options for those of us with this “issue”, but we’re now way out of scope ….
Honestly, the trickle-charger sounds damn good. But having the all-battery mode “in reserve” kinda makes the Lilianas feel like they’ve got this hidden nitrous injection option. Can’t use it all the time, but when you really need to, you can just nail it and take the performance to eleven. And that is pretty awesome.
Late Edit (1/18/2014): I spent some time swapping tubes — and I’m glad I did. With different tubes, everything changed. Well, no, not everything, but my nits about detail and smoothness were entirely tube dependent. Swapping out the tubes in the amps through a variety of choice vintage selections yielded surprising results. You want quiet? Got it. Want more tone? Got that. Want more bass? Sure, no problem. The trick is finding the “everything” with a single tube — a problem common to all tube rollers. Coolest bit? Tuning to taste. I am going to be really disappointed when these leave!
Amplifier: First Watt SIT-1
Speaking of “being out of scope”, there are those First Watt monos, but it the spirit of giving, I thought I’d just include them here as a sort of aside.
The First Watt SIT-1 mono block amplifiers are famous, due in no small part to the effusive praise heaped upon them by 6moons. At less than 10wpc, there was no serious way that they’d do anything helpful with my Magnepans, but they seem pretty much ideally suited to the 95dB Tektons, so I figured “what the hell”. This entire amplifier mashup doesn’t really make any sense anyway, so I might as well go bananas. So, yes, the SIT-1s stepped in for a tour. Just because.
It’s worth noting, first off, that the First Watt SIT-1 are weird. I mean, it’s solid state — right? Right. Yet … At 8 watts into 4 ohms, they practically beg for a comparison with a single-ended triode … but that would lead you down the wrong path. The SIT-1 is low powered, yes, but that’s about the only comparison worth making as it really doesn’t sound like my BorderPatrol S10. It doesn’t it! The sound is entirely solid state, with a seamless top-to-bottom presentation that blended a few very interesting facets of the amps that came before.
Overall, the sonic signature was more Odyssey than Veritas (or Pass, for that matter) — that is, it was slightly to the side of “warm”. Bass was totally linear, too, and very articulate — and very reminiscent of the control that the bigger Pass Labs amps brought. It also brought great sound-staging, taking a backseat maybe to the Red Wine. In fact, I found this amp really hard to fault — it might have been a little less authoritative “down low” than the very best, and the mid range might have been a little less rounded than a “good tube” is stereotypically great for, but those were small and the upper mids and treble were faultless.
Was this the perfect all-around-er? Well, no, not quite.
At 95dB, the 8 watts were more than enough to drive the Tektons to insane volumes and at no point did I feel that the Tektons were suffering — at volume, the bass was tight and sound stage expansive and uncompressed, even when I was attempting to elicit some kind of primal response out of the dog. Ahem. Anyway, assuming you have a loudspeaker that can handle being fed a diet of rich food served on tiny plates, the SIT-1 may fit you just fine.
That’s a big assumption, there, though.
While the SIT-1 did create sound with the Maggies, I had the volume completely pegged into the ceiling on the Berkeley DAC and even then, the sound was not terribly loud. Dynamics were a bit compressed and the overall presentation felt a little flat — but there was music. So there.
Amplifier: Vitus Audio Reference RS-100
It’s hard not to be impressed with Hans-Ole Vitus of Vitus Audio — he’s a bear of a man and has a personality to match. It’s also, perhaps, a mark of that personality that his entry level lineup is called “Reference”. It’s like he’s saying — “Yes, I understand what you mean by that word and this product line is every bit as good as the very best that you’ve ever heard. That’s where I start. And of course, I take it quite a bit farther than that.” The RS-100 is a 300wpc Class A/B amplifier (his more expensive amps are usually Class A) and weighs enough that it earned itself a dolly [sigh].
At $14,000, the Reference RS-100 was the most expensive alternative to the Pass Labs that I had on hand, and that meant it’s clearly past what “normal” buyers of the Magnepan or Tekton loudspeakers would seek out. To be fair, so are the Pass Labs XA-100.5. I usually have one of these two amps paired with some truly spectacular loudspeakers from TIDAL, but happenstance had it that they were temporarily relocated a bit too close to the vortex, so the Vitus got sucked into the project quite against it’s will.
It is, in every sense, a “reference class” component, and one that starts a long chain of uncomfortable “what if” explorations that lead (inexorably) into components that cost more than a condo. Ahem. Vitus Audio is a great reason to be rich, if you ask me. Sign me up!
Vitus does seem to have a “sound” — one that is both harmonically rich and extraordinarily refined, but not exactly invisible. With the Maggies, the Vitus sounded a tad gentle “up top”, which made me wonder if they were backed off just a bit. No matter — this speaker is a bit forward as it is, so this was a superlative pairing. Strings just sailed and the 300 watts were more than enough to cause the panels to figuratively explode with sound — stunning bass, blistering transients, a holographic midrange …. Oh, my. Of the bunch, the Vitus seemed to take all the edges and polish them, presenting an organically high-resolution image. It was like a characteristic cherry-picker — bass like the Veritas, midrange like the Odyssey, sound-stage like the Red Wine, and speed like the Job. With the airiest treble of the bunch sitting on top of the presentation like a big, fat, juicy cherry.
Moving the Vitus over to the Tekton seemed a bit absurd, but of course I did it anyway. Tonally, the Vitus felt a bit less rich than the Red Wine, but added a bit more refinement over the Odyssey. It also presented with bit more meat on the bone than the Pass and significantly more than the Veritas and vastly more than the Job. Punch down low was on par with the Pass, if a bit less than the Veritas.
All in all, this was a glorious romp. No, no one is ever going to pair this amp with either of these loudspeakers — that’s clear. But that’s not to say that the amp can’t get dirty and sling a side of beef around like a pro. It can. But it can then brush off the tux and sit down to table at Downton Abbey like it was born to it.
Hmm. Perhaps I should chart this out.
For the sake of ease, I’ll use a 5 point scale (higher is better) — but let me emphasize that this is fairly meaningless, both to me and to you. All I’m trying to do here is relate each product to the others in the Rogue’s Gallery — a different lineup might mean a different position. In other words, this scale is absolutely not absolute, but relative to each other. I’ll go farther and say this isn’t intended to be granular, either. Again, all I’m trying to do is indicate what each amp did really well in relation to the others.
I’m using the Pass Labs XA-100.5 as my reference, so call that a flat-4 all the way across the board for no other reason but that I find it “significantly better than average in all areas”, and no, that’s not faint praise. That’s a reference standard.
What I’m trying to do is show, visually, where the other amps fall relative to that reference level. Do they rival it? Similar scores aren’t an indication that any two products “sound the same”, but rather, “they perform at or around that same level.” The question, then, is, do they clearly overtop it? And not in the kinda-sorta way, either — I’m looking for a clear improvement. Or, do they clearly fall short — and if so, how short?
Here’s the breakdown:
*Tube swapping can and will change all of these numbers — the numbers here reflect my experiences with the stock tubes.
What this means, to me, is that there are quite a few real values to be found out there!
First, let’s start at the end and work backwards. With the $14,000 Vitus Audio RS-100, I would offer that this is an incredibly musical amplifier and one that pretty much does everything not only well, but at a true reference level. It’s frighteningly good, but it isn’t invisible in the way that the Pass Labs is — there is a “house sound”, one with texture and a good degree of saturation, not quite a Class A presentation and no obvious “thickness”, like say what a tube may introduce. With the right speakers, I found it intoxicating. If I were in the market for an amp and $15k was what I could spend, I might be done. Pretty much for forever. For those of you that are curious, I should note that moving up the food chain in the Vitus Audio lineup means more of just about everything — I’ve had some experience here, and I have to confess that doing much more exploring has my wallet cowering in terror. Quick note: I have the rating very similar to the Pass (okay, it’s the same), but this isn’t to say that both sound the same — they just “moved me” pretty much to the same level. I think they paired the best with the Maggies, where the extra juice wasn’t necessary but was certainly appreciated, but the Pass on the Tektons was stunning.
Next, the $10,000/pair First Watt SIT-1 amps are hilariously good, and while I agree with the conclusions that 6moons reached, I found the character of the amps a little different. If you’re surprised by that, you shouldn’t be. Srajan and I are different people, with different expectations and different experiences. He’s also way cooler than I am. But the upshot is, if you have a high-sensitivity loudspeaker, the SIT-1 amps might be real heart-stoppers. While I’m not ready to dump my tube gear just yet, I can understand why Srajan would consider doing so.
Speaking of tube gear, the $5,995/pair Liliana monos from Red Wine Audio were easily the surprise of the bunch. It’s hard to argue with these amps — the sound stage is reference-level, the tone is fabulous, and the bass beats the living piss out of what your typical tube amp would ever be able to produce — and they can do that into loudspeakers that would routinely make a tube-amp blush and look for some kind of towel to wrap up in. Speaking of tubes, this is the real secret here — a good tube swap can really do a number on your results, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Just remember to flip to full-battery to get the most that these have to offer!
The next up is the $12,000/pair Veritas monos from Merrill Audio. All I have to say here is “holy cow!” Careful matching, both to loudspeakers and personal taste, is absolutely required, but if this is your cuppa, you are in for a treat. Crazy-good dynamics, deep-space backgrounds, and detail retrieval that is on par with the best — the absolute best — that can be had at any price. Of course, the cost to entry here is also pretty stiff, but since Class D seems to be getting so much attention these days (both in the press and from designers), it was worth exploring. And, to be fair, the pair are a good deal less expensive than the Pass Labs monos I have lounging around.
The $1,699 Job 225 was a sneaky surprise. I bought this amp on a whim, due in part to the buzz that a friend managed to sneak in when my guard was down (thanks for the tip, Norman!) and in due part to glowing review on 6moons. I will say this, it is very good for the price. As the least expensive amp in the group, the fact that it falls at the bottom of the heap is perhaps not surprising — but. Consider how well it did against some truly reference class gear! The amp needs a bit more exploration on my part, and the performance so far completely justifies that. Stay tuned there.
Next-to-last is the chimera I picked up from Odyssey Designs, what I’ve been calling the Kismet-in-Khartago. This amp has set a new standard for performance and very easily earns it’s place as not only the value leader in this bunch (price is ~$4k/pair in my configuration), but a call to Klaus is now my reflexive recommendation for just about anyone looking to move into audio’s high-end from whatever entry-level they started out on. Sure, there’s better, but I’m really not sure you’re going to care. This is crazy good for not-insane coin.
Last (but not least!) are the $16,500/pair Pass Labs XA-100.5. These amps are just so scary-neutral it’s nearly impossible to find fault with them. While they may not exactly set SOTA performance levels, they clearly and cleanly exceed “average” in every category I’ve cared to explore with them and do so with a consistency that is exemplary. Perhaps even more importantly, at least to me as a reviewer, is that set very comprehensible standards by which to explore other gear — this is precisely the definition of “reference standard” in my book. Tubes, exotic circuits, esoteric design and rare parts may offer their own fascinating contribution to the sonic signature of any particular piece of gear, but with the Pass Labs gear, it’s all solid design work carrying the day. They help me create a window through which I can see arid landscapes, bucolic fields and jungle wilderness and know those disparate views for their inherent beauty — all while still thrilling on their own merits.
Okay, so that’s it. That’s my survey. If possible, I’ll be offering up more on each of these in turn at some point soon, so thanks for the attention. And as always, fell free to chime in on the comments.