The Bricasti Design M28 Monoblock Amplifiers are the finest amplifiers I’ve heard in my system to-date. The clarity, musicality and overall performance was nothing short of breathtaking; paired with their matching M1 DAC, the Bricasti-based system produced music as I’ve never heard it before, at least not here at home. The amplifiers, quite different from what I’d been led to expect, were dead-neutral and a gorgeously natural tonal match for my loudspeakers — they also drove the living snot out of them. Far from an exercise in analytical data-mining, the Bricasti pair did that thing that we audio writers love to hear but hate to write about – they completely defied stereotypes and just “made music”. As a result, I gave up trying to pigeon-hole them and simply fell into the soundscapes they helped weave. They’ve earned our highest recommendation.
- Transparent! “Bump on a wire” without being cold, analytical or boring
- Oodles of power
- Cool-running Class A/B
- Trim control on-the-amp can eliminate separate preamp
- Amps are really big
- Trim control is tiny
Stereophile on the M28
I’ve spent some time puzzling over Michael Fremer’s review of the Bricasti M28 monoblock amplifiers, which is probably a weird place to start my own comments. Oh well.
Mr Fremer, a writer I’ve been following for about 20 years now, is really a wonderful person. I’ve met him a couple of dozen times over the last few years while covering the audio show circuit, and I’ve been consistently impressed by how shockingly smart and witty he is. His incredibly “good company”, he has more stories than an encyclopedia and he has an ear for language that I not only envy but also truly admire. He is, in short, my hero.
So, about that Bricasti review. I’m not gonna say it was aliens, but … it was aliens. Had to be. There’s really no other explanation.
I could make this short-and-sweet, and just say that about the M28, I have to believe that he was simply mistaken. I’m not exactly sure how he arrived at the conclusions that he did, but I can only assume he was doing something that I was not. That does happen.
His conclusion, that the M28 had a distinct sonic coloration, that is, it introduced some roundness (aka, blunting of transient attack), was something that I was simply unable to reproduce. Using a reference-quality DAC like the one Bricasti also happens to offer (the superlative M1, which I’ll be covering separately), and running that DAC directly into the amplifiers (as the manufacturer actually recommends), yielded detailed oodles of retrieval hitched to a most natural timbre, weaving some of the finest overall sound quality that I’ve heard here at home. And yes, I’m including the absolutely stunning $50k Soulution 530 integrated in that assessment.
Now, don’t get squirrelly. I’m not attacking Fremer and I wouldn’t dream of it. I happen to disagree with his findings, and having spent the time with the amplifier – with most of that time spent with the “matching” DAC – I feel I’ve got a slightly different take. Unhappily, that take does not line up with his findings. So, what this says to me is that either my gear “works better” when compiled with all-Bricasti bits (or, conversely, Fremer’s gear had something akin to an allergic reaction to them), or … it was aliens.
I have heard a few alternative theories, however.
The most plausible — at least to the Conspiracy Theorist Community (CTC) — is that the preamplifier in question, a truly lovely DarTZeel NHB-18NS, is wholly unsuited for use with its included balanced connections. Given that the Bricasti monoblocks are pretty much designed around the idea of being fully balanced (there’s more than a little emphasis on the balanced architecture in the marketing blurb, for example, and then there’s this from the manual: “The M28 is a true balanced amplifier and best performance can be realized if using the M28 with a balanced source”), we might expect that the two were connected thusly, and that the resulting sound was somewhat short of thrilling. Impedance mismatches are like that – and that’s why “component matching” is important.
Since I started work on this project, Stereophile Editor John Atkinson has since issued a follow-up to the Fremer review, and in fact calls out this possibility (that is, a potential for an issue with the DarTZeel pairing), which gives significant weight to the proposal made by the CTC. Which, given the CTC is essentially a group of armchair-quarterbacks, is remarkable. Anyway, in that follow-up, Atkinson does make use of the PS Audio DirectStream DSD DAC, a very interesting converter that we’ve noted does introduce sonic artifacts that seem to be particular to FPGA-type converters, namely, a tendency to round-off the leading edge of transients (which was ameliorated, but not eliminated by the Pikes Peak update). More food for thought.
The final element in the mystery? The speakers used. Fremer has made a bit of hay over his reliance on the monolithic monsters from Wilson Audio, their flagship Alexendria XLF loudspeakers. The XLF are unbelievable speakers, both in looks and in sheer performance, and at 4Ω nominal and 93.5dB sensitivity, Wilson actually recommends a minimum amplifier output power that is inline with what a single-ended triode, like what a 300b tube can put out (7 watts!). While I’m quite sure sound would come out of the speakers (unlike what might happen if you strap a Magico or YG to a 300b amp), I don’t know anyone actually silly enough to drive their XLF with a low-power triode. I’m kidding. A little. But the point is, I think an amp as beefy as the 200wpc (into 8Ω) M28 from Bricasti should be fine handling the XLF speakers. Chalk one against the CTC there.
But … perhaps tilting things in my favor …. are my speakers, the Contriva Diacera SE from German loudspeaker company Tidal Audio. Finished to a fare-thee-well, this stunning 3-way design features custom-for-Tidal drivers from ceramic phenom Accuton, and most specifically, showcases a diamond tweeter. The speaker is a 6Ω nominal design, and also reasonably flat in it’s impedance response, making it a transducer that is quite felicitous of fine amplification – including the aforementioned 7wpc 300b SE amplifier, such as the S10 from BorderPatrol electronics that I have and am quite fond of, and use routinely with speakers from Living Voice and DeVore Fidelity). Admittedly, I typically lash that amp to something a bit more sensitive than the 87dB Contrivas, but I have wired the two together and it sounds amazing … but I digress. The point, and I do have one, is that this magical pair of speakers just so happens to be the same speakers that Bricasti designer Brian Zolner uses to voice his electronics.
Now, it’s a truism that all loudspeakers are not created equal. It’s also a truism that the speaker+amp match is the most important one you’re going to make (barring a speaker+room mismatch). That is, the speaker is only going to be able to do so much with an amp that’s not up to the challenge. Now, I’m not one of those that will endorse the notion that “all properly designed amps sound the same”, but I do believe that some amps will better “correct” the deficiencies built into a speaker than others will, and getting back to the point, I do believe that some speakers simply need more help to sound “correct” for any given listener. I also believe that the Tidal speakers, as a brand, tend to need less “correction” to sound “correct”. That is, an amp that is designed to make up for certain disadvantages, or said another way, an amp that tends to provide just a little sumpin’ sumpin’ along some certain parameter, tends to be blazingly obvious on a Tidal speaker. Conversely, one could expect that an amp that is designed on such a speaker may not be expected to provide a little sumpin’ sumpin’. Even if your speaker really wants or needs it. Just a thought.
In my time with the M28, I did run them with a variety of other loudspeakers, including the high-sensitivity Ulysses v2 from Daedalus Audio and the mid-sensitivity Avatar OBX-RW from Living Voice UK. In each case, the result was similar – that is, transparently warm. Is that a thing? Fine. It is now.
In comparison to my reference gear, I found the M28 to be most similar to the 300wpc skull-crusher from Vitus Audio, the Reference Series RS-100 amplifier – that is, the M28 was endlessly capable. Sonically, the sound of both amps is very linear, with great extension and reach, and just a hint of warmth throughout the audio band. On the M28 specifically, bass performance, even on wildly exaggerated tracks like Lorde’s “Royals” track off of Pure Heroine, was life-threateningly deep, with excellent texture and startling attack.
Compared with the Soulution 530, the sonics were tonally more dense coming through the Bricasti. Zoë Keating’s solo cello on Into the Trees seemed almost threadbare on the Soulution in comparison with the fuller sound of my reference Vitus amplifier. That album, played back through a pair of pure Class A Pass Labs 100.5 amplifiers, traded some frequency extension found in the Vitus for an almost spooky lit-from-within character. The Bricasti, in my experience, stole the pure extension of the Vitus and added much of the golden tone of the Pass. This is the sort of compromise I can get behind.
One more comparator I was able to make was to the Tidal Audio Impulse. That amplifier, I noted, was (literally) made for the Tidal loudspeaker line, and with it, the Tidal speakers sounded fulsome, rich, and extended. By contrast, the Impulse was also warmer and rounded, and also a bit less detailed than the Bricasti amplifier. On Copland’s Fanfare, the bite of the clarion horn was simply more abrupt when played through the M28. This piece of music is where the rounding of the DirectStream DSD DAC (fronting the big Vitus amplifier and/or the amps from Pass Labs) was also apparent, but here, I heard none of the transient softening that Fremer noted.
Like I said. Aliens.
Taking it Direct
I’m not a fan of using your DAC as a preamplifier. I’m pretty sure I’ve been clear about this in the past, but aside from the obvious – I have a turntable that I’m not giving up – I just haven’t found attenuation in the digital domain to be transparent. At least, not beyond a certain point. That “certain point” varies by design, but seems completely inevitable. Most digital attenuators can knock off 6-12dB without any loss to data fidelity – but much beyond that, “bit tossing” may radically reduce the resolution of the playback. Given that I don’t listen to my Big Rig at anywhere near full volume, I would always be forced to dig way into the digital attenuator – and even more so with any of my current stable of moderate-to-high sensitivity speakers.
I’ve discussed a lot of this in my exploration of the Seta Buffer from Channel D. That device is a high-quality fixed-value (but user-configurable) analog attenuator that’s designed for use between the DAC and the amplifier. The idea is that by using super-high-quality resistors between the DAC and the amp, the Buffer one-ups the traditional variable-value resistor-based attenuator knob on most preamps and simply knocks the overall output down to levels that can then be comfortably dialed in with the attenuator built into the DAC; this allows that digital attenuator to always remain comfortably within it’s “complete transparency zone”. That is, instead of turning the DAC down by 30dB or more for comfortable listening, you can set the Buffer to shave off 24dB, leaving the remaining 6dB or so for the DAC. As I noted in the review, this works pretty well, but does add the complicating factor of an additional powered device (with another set of connectors and power brick/cord), and removes the ability to
get wiggy change settings without having a screwdriver handy.
Bricasti takes this one step further/better than the Seta Buffer: the M28 monoblock pair has matched user-configurable, fully analog, fixed-attenuation settings built-in. That is, each has a Buffer On Board, though Bricasti calls it “trim control”. From the manual:
The attenuator is set by a logic controlled relay switch and is adjustable in 6 dB steps. The M28 is shipped with no attenuation, or the switch set full clockwise. The switch is stepped with detents; using a small screwdriver and turning the switch counterclockwise will add more attenuation from the factory default position of no attenuation. There are 4 steps of 6 dB each so a full 18db of attenuation can be applied to the input.
As far as I know, these are the only power amps that offer this feature. I think it’s cool. Needing a screwdriver to get at it, though, isn’t all that fun. Here’s to hoping that in the next revision, this feature gets an easy-to-reach (and chunky!) knob with some easy-to-read level-markings.
In practice, my own listening preferences generally left them with about 12-18dB of attenuation, though I did most of my listening with them wide open and fronted by a quality (balanced) preamplifier, like the Vitus Audio RD-100. With the attenuators in action, I was able to happily front the amps with the matching M1 DAC and a set of Purist Audio Designs Anniversary XLR interconnects.
The result? The most transparent sound I’ve ever heard in my home system.
Detail was layered, assuming the recording had that sort of thing hidden in the bits. You know that part in Jazz at the Pawnshop, where everyone is pretty much washing dishes while the band plays? Yeah. All of that is all around you in this recording. Played back on the all-Bricasti front end, it’s distracting. I don’t like being in a smoke-filled bar — for pretty much any reason — and this recording, trite as it may be, was making me downright queasy with the 3-D effect I was getting. So much for that album. Whew.
I’ve already mentioned Fanfare for the Common Man, so perhaps this plays a bit false, but … I’m really not a classical music fan. No, really! I want to be. Dr Karavitis, our overseas Editor-at-Large, has been not-so-gently chiding me about this glaring hole in my musical vocabulary, so I’ve been attempting to address it. Baby steps. Which is why John Williams’ Star Wars score is coming up now. Big. Brassy. Bold! That opening fanfare lifts the hairs on my neck and cannonballs images of a childhood spent pretending to be Darth Vader across my mind’s eye. Oooh, the shivers! But it’s the brassy brassiness that leaps out at me. This is, in a moment, exactly when I started scratching my head at Fremer’s note about “roundedness”. Yeah. I got none of that – not at all. With this setup, I could almost tell that the London Symphony Orchestra had recently polished all of the brass. Shazam!
The M28 amplifiers are hella-big. Each one is almost the size of the hard-to-believe Soulution 530 integrated, and yes, there are two. Each one weighs as much as an elephant, so plan on not hoisting them up and down flights of stairs (that is, don’t do what I had to do). The look and feel is understated and quite attractive, and should fit most modern decors, assuming “décor” is even a relevant consideration.
The main issue I have with these amps, aside from their sheer size and how much floor/rack space two of these suckers will consume, is the price. $30,000 for amplifiers is way up in the “ha ha, you crazy” territory for most folks. I really wish this wasn’t an issue, but we’re talking more than a car; for example, more than a new Dodge Charger, Ford Focus, Nissan 370z, Audi A3, Jeep Wrangler, Mini Cooper, Chevy Camaro, or Mazda Miata. The question of whether or not this kind of purchase “makes sense” isn’t something an audio reviewer can make for you, so I won’t bother to try.
What I can offer is that these are the amps I’d most like to have to drive my Big Rig. Boy, howdy, do I want a pair of these amps. If you’re the kind of person interested in taking your DAC fully into a DAC-direct mode in order to get as transparent a sound as possible, I cannot think of another solution as elegant or as satisfying as the Bricasti M28.
Sonically, I find these amps to be without issue and I have zero complaints about the sound, the signature, or their contribution. I found them linear, with effortless extension. I have heard amps with faster and deeper bass – this is where the Soulution lives and breathes, and where the Merrill Audio Veritas was a real champ (and at ¼ the cost!). But neither the Veritas nor the 530 were able to bring this level of warmth and subtle sense of real life that so often eludes an ultra-clean presentation. Compared with the other end of the amplifier spectrum, with the pure Class-A amplifiers from Pass Labs, for example, there is a trade-off between muscularity (point: Bricasti) and mid-range illumination (point: Pass), but this is less than I had anticipated and marks the point in the path where we begin wandering down toward a discussion of “system synergy” and away from the amplifiers per se.
In short, my speakers and I were absolutely thrilled with the time spent with the Bricasti M28 amplifiers. The M28 have earned a spot on our Most Wanted List and are an easy Editor’s Recommendation.
About the aliens? No idea. But it was totally aliens.