At first it sounded like a great idea. A few months ago, Bryston Audio (website) asked me if I wanted to review the newest version of their truly iconic power amplifier, the 4B. They offered a very intriguing wrinkle to this review of this Bryston Audio 4B³–would I be willing to compare the sound to a perfectly restored early-generation Bryston 4B-ST?
“That sounds really interesting,” I replied. “Sure, I’ll do it!”
I knew I wanted to revisit with Bryston because I found their B-135³ integrated amplifier, which I reviewed for The Occasional a couple of years ago, to be a really good feature-packed product that sounded much better than I expected. That bumps up against a subject I’ll discuss in a minute—a “trademark” sound and what that means to audiophiles.
Once the two Bryston amplifiers arrived at my door, I started wondering about Bryston Audio’s intentions for this comparison between the 4B³ and the original and what they hoped I would discover during the review period. As I saw it, there were at least a few possible scenarios:
- I’d find that the Bryston Audio 4B³ was a huge improvement over the ST, and that I could talk about all the new tech and circuitry design changes over the years and how they are responsible for sonic improvements.
- I’d find very little difference between the Bryston Audio 4B³ and the older amp, therefore confirming that Bryston’s been making excellent amplifiers for decades and they deserve the success they’ve had in high-end audio.
- I’d find out that the original Bryston 4B-ST, restored at the factory, would be so good that Bryston would launch its new Restoration Division with the slogan “We’ll make your old Bryston sound exactly like the latest version!”
- Maybe I wouldn’t like either amp. It happens, sometimes.
That last option was dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the room once I plugged the Bryston Audio 4B³ into the reference system for the first time. My first impression was simple—oh, this is nice—and I let the amp break in and I listened for a few weeks while the original amp sat in the corner of the room and took copious notes.
A Quick Discussion of “Trademark” Sound
Before I start examining the sonic differences between the Bryston Audio 4B³ and the older 4B-ST, I wanted to bring up a subject that we audio reviewers have been recently discussing. It’s not about a company’s trademark sound per se, but whether or not some of the most famous marques in the high-end audio industry are shifting their overall sound due to new technologies or, more specifically, changes at the top. A new vision, in other words.
I’m talking about brands that I’ve never really warmed up to in the past, but suddenly I’m loving everything they do. I’m talking about the more human sound I’m hearing from the last few Wilson Audio designs thanks to Daryl Wilson, or the way durable and experienced companies such as Sonus faber and Luxman have taken it to the next level of performance and now find themselves at the top of the mountain, looking around to see who else is there.
I’m looking at my reference system right now. Bryston Audio 4B³ power amplifier. Parasound JC3+ phono preamplifier. The Technics SL-1200G turntable I’ve used as my personal reference over the last couple of years, FFS. These Sonus faber Maxima Amators, which feel like they were custom-made for my personal tastes. Five years ago, I’d be surprised if you told me I’d be blissfully satisfied with a system containing those brands. But I am.
“Is the Bryston 4B³ power amplifier really that good?” someone asked me earlier in the review process. This person was concerned that they’d never really cottoned to the Bryston sound, whatever that is. I told them yes, emphatically so. Whatever the Bryston sound used to be, forget about it.
Perhaps that’s what I’d find when the old Bryston 4B cut in for a dance.
Bryston Audio 4B³
The Bryston Audio 4B³ (aka 4B “Cubed”) solid-state power amplifier is a bit of a beast. It has 300 watts per channel into 8 ohms, 500 into 4. It’s a true dual-mono design, with each side sporting separate power supplies and transformers. It’s heavy, perhaps a little heavier than I suspected because it’s not a HUGE amplifier. The older amp, surprisingly enough, was nearly as heavy despite having a slightly smaller internal volume due to the spaces allotted for the heat sinks.
That’s one of the differences between the sixth-generation Bryston Audio 4B³ and the 4B-ST—the newer amp is cooled purely through convection which cancels the need for “noisy fans.” I often left the 4B³ on for days at a stretch, maybe longer, and when I’d touch the top plate it would only feel a little warm, barely so. Impressive.
The Bryston 4B³ power amplifier features the same patented Salomie circuit that is found throughout the new Cubed line. This circuit, developed by the late Ioan Alexandru Salomie in conjunction with Bryston, features a low-noise input buffer that’s super-linear. This patented circuitry reduces RF and audio interference.
The Bryston Audio 4B³ costs $6795, which is surprising because of its superb fit and finish, solid construction and notably good looks. You can get the 4B³ with either black or silver faceplates, and with or without “pro” racks. Mine came in silver with those magnificent handles.
A reader just sent in a comment to PTA asking me why I don’t always include a list of associated components in my reviews. While I do tend to talk about amps and speaker combos, or the different components making up my analog rig, I don’t include that giant cumbersome list because my system is always evolving as review gear comes and goes—especially over a few weeks or months.
That said, I did keep my audio system constant during the review period so I could properly hear the differences between the Bryston Audio 4B³ and the 4B. In addition to the aforementioned Technics SL-1200G turntable (fitted with a Nasotec headshell and the ZYX Ultimate Airy X cartridge), the Parasound JC 3+ phono stage and the Sonus faber Maxima Amator loudspeakers, I also used the Unison Research CDE CD player I’ve had for the last decade, the BorderPatrol DAC SE-i and Merason Fretot DACs, and the Innuos Mini Zen with outboard power supply. My preamp was the Pureaudio Control. Everything was connected by Atlas Cables’ Mavros interconnects and Mavros Transpose speaker cables, aided by Atlas’ Grun earthing system. Power conditioning was supplied by my AudioQuest Niagara 3000, with Furutech NCF products and Les Davis Audio 3D³ constrained layer damping discs used throughout the system. And, of course, everything sits on my gorgeous equipment rack from Fern & Roby.
Whew, that was a lot. I probably forgot a couple of things, too. Now I know why I don’t do this on every review.
Sound of the Bryston Audio 4B³
As I mentioned, my first impression with the Bryston Audio 4B³ was extremely favorable, but it did also force me to fall back on those “trademark sound” issues. I’ve always known just a handful of factoids about Bryston products—they’re from Canada, they have a legendary 20-year warranty, they’re extremely reliable, and some people feel there’s a “dryness” to the sound. When I reviewed that Bryston B-135³ integrated amplifier, that dryness simply didn’t exist—or it was so far in the background that it didn’t really matter.
I didn’t hear that dryness at all with the Bryston Audio 4B³ power amplifier. The first thought I had was “there isn’t a thing wrong with this sound. This sounds like a number of highly regarded power amplifiers I’ve used over the years.” Nothing seemed amiss. This was, in the most general terms, was a top-notch $7000 power amplifier. I had no complaints, and that’s not damning with faint praise either. All was well.
Over time, I did start to notice the Bryston Audio 4B³ does have a particular sound. Again, it’s nowhere near dry, but it is laid-back. The amplifier was so good at establishing air and space and distance, and perhaps that vista of the open plains beyond the back wall of my listening room might be construed as dry to those who may not understand what the term really means.
Beyond that, the Bryston 4B³ provided ample bass, deep and layered and full of slam. Sam Minaie’s double bass on Kane Mathis’ stunning new album, Geminus, captured the essence of every note whether it was high, low, slapped, plucked or otherwise extracted. It’s some busy work, but the Bryston kept up and still provided a wonderful amount of inner detail that still made perfect sense to these ears.
The highs were equally impressive and still attached to that idea and illusion of the open country in front of you. Drummer John Hadfield is enamored with the sounds of his cymbals, and I was able to get a quick fix on location within his kit, and the distinct sound each cymbal created. I instantly thought to myself that this is a man who makes careful choices when it comes to the individual components of his percussion ensemble. I haven’t even mentioned the main event, which is the exciting performances of Kane Mathis with his kora and oud. But I did in the review.
Time came to make the big switch. I was a little nervous. Finally, I was going to find out why the folks at Bryston wanted me to compare the older 4B to their new Bryston Audio 4B³. My first thought this time? It was “uh oh.”
Before I elaborate on that, I should talk about that Bryston 4B. The first 4Bs appeared way back in 1978, and this one was obviously from the later ST line. Cosmetically, the Bryston Audio 4B³ trounces the older amp. Gone is the thick and swoopy faceplate and the more advanced binding posts. The 4B³ is a beautiful example of modern industrial design meant to accentuate your home, while the 4B is decidedly utilitarian in appearance. One notable feature—the older amp has provisions for XLRs, which I almost didn’t expect.
Gary Dayton, VP of Bryston, explained his motivation for sending me this Bryston 4B-ST:
“I’ll confess that my motivation for sending a wise-old-owl and spring-chicken was that I wanted to spark greater interest in our trade-up program. I thought you would like them both but certainly find differences between them. There are thousands of audiophiles out there still listening to their vintage 4Bs purchased new in the 70s, 80s, and 90s – a fact that we are very grateful and humbled to acknowledge. But, we have worked so very hard in the lab over the years to develop electronics that sound even more pure than those that came before. I want those vintage Bryston owners to hear what we’ve been up to. Our 20 year warranty makes it difficult for those folks to turn the old products loose, so we’ve designed a trade-up program that we’re looking to expand upon this year. A secondary benefit of the program is that we’ll have stock of lovingly restored older models ready to re-home. After restoration, these amps should continue to make people happy for many more years to come. We’ll sell them for far less than the cost of new amplifiers (obviously) so they make a great entry point for music lovers that can’t afford Cubed Series models, or for those just looking to explore our products.
Okay, so let’s talk about that uh-oh.
It wasn’t the kind of uh-oh that signaled that something was wrong. That uh-oh implied that this wasn’t going to be as easy of a comparison as I’d wagered. I plugged in the 4B and I thought uh-oh, this amp sounds really good, too. The 4B³ and the 4B sound similar in many ways, so you could honestly say that these were both Bryston amps, and they sounded like it. The differences, however, were intriguing and unexpected.
I used three sets of recordings to judge those differences: the Kane Mathis album, the four Chet Baker reissues just released from Craft Recordings, and Masabumi Kikuchi’s Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recording. That Mathis album, with all that intricate and dizzying work on the kora and oud, would bring out each amp’s ability to retrieve detail and make sense out of complex musical passages. The Chet Baker albums would let me know how this powerful amp does with incredible jazz performances from the late ‘50s, and the final selection would give me a chance to judge the Bryston sound(s) with a well-recorded grand piano.
Compared to the Bryston Audio 4B³ power amplifier, the older 4B sounded a little more forward, which tended to tame and maybe even restrict that feeling of a limitless horizon. Deep bass wasn’t quite as fulfilling on the older amplifier—there was slightly less meat on the bone. Finally, Sam Minaie’s double bass on Geminus was still jumping all over the place with dynamic abandon, but I felt I might be missing that last bit of detail that was easily revealed by the 4B³.
Okay, that doesn’t really sound like much of an uh-oh. The newer amp was clearly better than the older amp, right? Wasn’t that expected?
Hold on there, champ. Here’s the thing: the 4B made a very strong case for itself. That more forward delivery felt just a little more engaging to me on the Chet Baker set. Baker’s horn is the ultimate ballad horn, full of complex feelings that primarily focus on being poignant. These albums are all about intimacy, love and maybe even a little sexy time. I felt that connection with the older amp. I’m not suggesting that the Bryston Audio 4B³ lacks anything in this department; I simply noticed more of that with the 4B. Over time, I thought to myself that the 4B still stands on its own as a powerful yet expressive amp, one that deserves its place in the pantheon of excellent power amplifiers.
In other words, uh-oh. This isn’t going to be as cut-and-dried as I thought.
Remember all of those scenarios I predicted with the comparison of the Bryston Audio 4B³ and the 4B-ST? None of them applied. Here’s the real scenario:
Both Brystons offered completely satisfying but slightly different sound. I could stick either one in my system and completely forget about the other. Mostly, it comes down to whether you like a relaxed and laid-back performance (the 4B³) or something that reaches out and caresses your face while you’re listening to music.
Neither one sounded dry. In the least. Let’s put that particular “trademark sound” discussion to bed.
The Bryston Audio 4B, however, is an amplifier that’s completely worth evaluation if you need a powerful, well-built and well-engineered engine for your high-end audio dream machine. Yes, the 4B is still a major force in amplification in 2021.
The older Bryston Audio 4B makes a very compelling argument. It’s good to know that you can find one used, have it brought up to spec, and let it power any contemporary audio system out there with finesse, clarity and ease. Both amplifiers, naturally, are highly recommended.