After reviewing the TIDAL Audio Prisma preamplifier in 2020 (linked here) and hearing Doug White (of The Voice That Is) do his jaw-dropping TIDAL Audio system demos at two Capital Audiofests, I jumped at the opportunity to review their new entry-level Intra amplifier. I also knew that describing the sound of the TIDAL Audio Intra amplifier would be tricky, but I like to be challenged. So grab a beverage and your favorite comfy chair, and come along as I probe the mysteries of the Intra power amplifier.
Intra The Dragon
My road dog companion and regular listening buddy, Eric Franklin Shook, called me and said, “How big is your trunk? We’re gonna bring back the new TIDAL Audio Intra amplifier from CAF for you to review.”
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
We had Eric, plus our audiophile pal Langston Styles, and me in a two-door coupe. And I knew Eric always brings a lot of stuff to audio shows cause he likes to be prepared for anything that could happen. “We’ll make it work if I have to tie you to the roof,” I replied. Then I peeped the TIDAL site and saw that the TIDAL Audio Intra is in the same size case that houses their Prisma preamps. Whuut? Okay. We won’t have a problem fitting it in the car, but now I’m really curious.
Flash forward to the three of us in Doug’s room on Thursday night before the show. Wow. Big, gorgeous-looking anniversary edition TIDAL Contriva speakers, a TIDAL Prisma preamp, and a stack of digital source components from Ideon Audio – their Absolute DAC, Absolute Stream, and Absolute Time reclocker. I spied the little Intra amp in the rack. Doug played some tunes, including a jazz project I had recently mastered. The sound was as expected: crystal clear, dynamic, huge when called upon to be, AND seductively smooth amid all the detail. I think I saw little wisps of smoke come out of Langston’s ears when he sat transfixed in the center spot.
Throughout the weekend, I returned a few times to get more of a taste of this extraordinary sounding system while privately gloating with the knowledge that I would soon be able to hear the TIDAL Audio Intra in my sonic pleasure palace.
A Closer Look at the TIDAL Audio Intra
When I checked out the website for some additional info on the TIDAL Audio Intra there was little other than basic stuff. Hmmm. I did find out that the Intra contains four separate amplifiers and can be configured in several ways.
On the back, there are 4 balanced XLR inputs and four pairs of speaker cable terminals. There are a few mini toggle switches and an ethernet input for use with TIDAL preamps as a control signal for powering on and off. The toggle switches enable the user to select different operating modes: two-channel, four-channel, and a high power two-channel setting for use with subwoofers or extremely power-hungry speakers. The four-channel setting may be used in two ways: 1) in an AV multi-channel setup or 2) passively bi-amp speakers with bi-wired connections or even actively bi-amp when using an external, active crossover. I used the regular two-channel mode and never lacked for power.
Speaking of power, the TIDAL Audio Intra power output is spec’d as follows:
Stereo mode single-amping: each power supply powers one channel only
- 2 x 340W at 8 ohm
- 2 x 670W at 4 ohm
Dual stereo mode bi-amping: each power supply powers two channels
- 4 x 290W at 8 ohm
- 4 x 540W at 4 ohm
Dual mono mode for LF amplification: BTL mode per stereo module for low-frequency applications, such as for the TIDAL LPX technology to drive TIDAL speakers bass-active.
- 2 x 1,180W 8 ohm
- 2 x 1,900W 4 ohm
TIDAL Audio Intra, Sounds
Upon first hearing the Intra in my system, I was like “Damn, this thing is great but it has no sound; how am I gonna talk about it?” This situation is a rare but not unheard-of plight for a reviewer as our own Graig Neville recently found in his Atoll preamp review. But as the hours rolled on, my impressions slowly emerged. I did a lot of morning listening before I started work each day. A lot of times I had to tear myself away from spinning records or streaming digital to swap system connections in order for my mastering rig to feed the system.
First off, the way the TIDAL Audio Intra amplifies high-frequency waveform accelerations is unique to any other amps I’ve heard. I’m talking about bursts of high-frequency energy like s’s and t’s on a vocal. Cymbal crashes. Squeaks from an acoustic guitar player’s fingers sliding on round wound steel strings. Upright acoustic bass strings slapping against the fretboard. That sort of stuff. Wait, is it called a fretboard if there aren’t any frets?
The beryllium tweeters in my Acora SRC-2 speakers are electron microscope-level revealing. Fed by top-shelf components, the speaker doesn’t sound bright or overbearing but it will tell the listener exactly what’s going on up there. The TIDAL Audio Intra exhibited the cleanest, most hash-free high-frequency transients of any amp I’ve yet to hear. Zero glare–while simultaneously delivering a staggering level of detail and information that never feels decoupled from the core of a recording. An absolutely seamless weave of all fundamental tones and accompanying harmonic content gave me the clearest, cleanest picture of recordings, with zero listener fatigue. I heard the exact same thing when I heard the Intra at CAF on that pair of TIDAL Contrivas with diamond tweeters. Somewhat similar to my power amp references, a pair of Pass Labs XA-200.8, but different in that the Intra has a complete absence of grit as opposed to a very slight smoothing effect exhibited by the Pass.
Another attribute that I heard early on was what I feel to be a perfect portrayal of the mid-bass region. Some amps have a luscious, zaftig mid-bass that can be quite enjoyable, as evidenced by my Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200. Other amps sometimes feel lean in this region but may have other attributes or a positive system synergy making it a moot point. The Intra is neither. Prior to hearing the Intra, I would have thought that being very neutral in this range would tend to make thinner recordings less enjoyable. Nope. Something about the Intra’s extremely holistic and coherent overall vibe allowed me to simply listen and enjoy virtually any recording without being distracted by thinner, less-than-great mixes.
Dynamically, the TIDAL Audio Intra is in a class of its own. It’s never jumpy or artificially exciting but effortless in the way it plays dynamic contacts, macro, and micro.
I can’t say a whole lot about the midrange because once again, there is virtually nothing to say other than it’s perfect. However, some listeners that like to hear a lot of added texture in the midrange won’t get that. I’m referring primarily to most vacuum tube amps’ ability to manufacture a tonal and dynamic profile that imbues recordings with more information than what’s actually there. That’s also known as distortion – which is not always a bad thing, but TIDAL is one of those companies that feels like lack of distortion does not equal lack of musicality. I tend to agree, although I love the sound of a well-designed tube amp.
Some of y’all know by now that I’m a bass freak. The low-end reproduction of the Intra was as deep and controlled as I’ve ever heard. Whatever circuit tuning was done to arrive at the desired amount of system damping was very well chosen, in my opinion. Recordings with a large low end were appropriately huge, but with zero overhang or smear. This is NOT to say the Intra sounds too tight or lean. The Intra did not seem to magically manufacture very low sub-bass content in the way the Pass XA-200.8 seems to.
On recordings with a compelling sense of space, the TIDAL Audio Intra added or subtracted nothing. All the spatial cues on my favorite records were as dramatic as ever, yet without any additional voodoo that some amps will inject.
Some Tunes That I Played
Of course, I played lots of vinyl. But during the review period, I upgraded the software and firmware in my Innuos Zen Mini about 4 generations beyond what was on it when I purchased it. It makes no sense to me but I definitely heard a positive change to the sound of digital recordings streamed via Qobuz and CD rips stored on the Zen Mini feeding a BorderPatrol SE-i or Merason Frérot DAC.
There was a noticeable increase in smoothness and far less edge and grain than before. This compelled me to play a lot more digital than usual. Yes, the vinyl I played sounded amazing, but my first thought that the cleanliness of the TIDAL Audio Intra would need some analog sauce to make my system come alive was not the case.
XTC’s masterpiece – English Settlement
Streamed off Qobuz, sounded fantastic. The TIDAL Intra did a great job reproducing all the layering and ambient cues along with the transient smack of Terry Chamber’s drum tracks. Clear and detailed yet with all the warmth I love to hear. Like sitting outside wrapped in a cozy blanket on a crisp and sunny winter day. I even played Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons to get a feel for how some of the thinner, brighter XTC catalog would sound. The Intra passed this test with flying colors.
Pino Palladino – Notes With Attachments
This is a recent find that I’ve fallen in love with. Hard to categorize instrumental music is one of my favorite (non)categories of music. Google Pino and you will get an inkling of his oversize contribution as the bass player of choice on a zillion cool projects. This solo album is musically and sonically a real treat. It’s a great example of a modern-sounding, live performance-oriented recording that takes (what sounds like to me as being) musical sketches and jam sessions that were woven into a finished-sounding, and compelling stew of sonic layers. This recording has lots of detail and spatial info without being anywhere near bright. And the low end is huge on a lot of cuts. The TIDAL Audio Intra provided a perfectly clear window. I like!
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach – Painted From Memory
This one is an old fav that I revisited on Qobuz. I have the vinyl which sounds excellent, but these comments pertain to the digital version. This album has adult-themed lyrics and gorgeous melodies over complex (by millennial standards) harmonic chordal structures, the kind of music that actually made it to the Top 40 back in the 60’s. Imagine that! I’ve heard this album sound a bit strident and kind of pushed on a lot of my earlier systems. With the TIDAL Audio Intra getting a signal from the dac(s) via a VAC Master Preamplifier and amplifying a pair of Acora SRC-2 loudspeakers, I hard nothing fatiguing in the seductive amount of detail and space on this excellent Kevin Killen engineered recording.
When spinning records to get a handle on the Intras (non)sound, I used a TW Acustic Raven LS and Raven tonearm fitted with a Charisma Audio Signature One cartridge feeding the built-in phono preamp in a VAC Master Preamplifier. This is the best-sounding analog rig I’ve had the pleasure to hear at home and one of the best sounding analog front ends I’ve heard, period.
Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (Acoustic Sounds UHQR on clear vinyl)
Jesus H. Christ was this one great. Just about every bar of this record seems blessed by forces beyond our comprehension. Lightning in a bottle was captured during this session. The TIDAL Audio Intra invisibly delivered the goods of this greatest-yet, reissue. I forgot about everything the night I listened to this record – the system, the events of the day, my name – all of it. Miles and company emerged with startling reality from a deep black background but not utter silence. I could actually feel the history-in-the-making studio atmosphere floating behind the players.
Little Feat – The Last Record Album (O.G. first pressing)
I know I talk about this one a lot, but it’s so damn good. Plus I know it well, which makes this record a great test for any component I’m reviewing. Again, I had a hard time listening analytically cause the Intra simply delivers any and everything from a recording with total precision and a complete lack of coloration. It was easier than ever to hear the slight amount of tape hiss and either tape or groove pre-echo at the transition of “Romance Dance” into “All That You Dream”. Not exactly musical information per se, but a great indication of the TIDAL Intra’s resolution and invisibility.
Late in the review process, I took the Intra over to my pals at Ember Audio + Design to gather a few more data points. Hearing the TIDAL Audio Intra drive a pair of Wilson Sasha DAW speakers was revealing. We had a vinyl platter party consisting of Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman, “Take On Me” from The Last Of Us – OST, Pharoah Sanders’ exquisite Floating Points, and the Megadeth classic Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying. I heard the same expansive layers of depth, impressive low-end size and grip, and extreme high-frequency clarity with a total absence of grain that was in evidence on my home system. It was becoming clear to me (and my friend Ember co-owner Chris Livengood), that the sound of the Intra, in addition to being quite compelling, inhabits a unique sonic space that is unlike any other amplifiers we’d heard.
So Why Is It The Size Of A Tidal Preamp?
Brace yourselves for this little tidbit of info: IT’S CLASS-D!!!
Whuuuut? That’s right. The TIDAL Audio Intra is TIDAL’s first standalone entry into the world of switching or Class-D amplifier topology.
I asked TIDAL’s creative force and CEO, Jorn Janczak, for some insight.
For TIDAL’s collaboration with Bugatti, it was decided that the design of the TIDAL for Bugatti Royale series loudspeaker be self-powered. To fit the required amplifiers inside the speaker necessitated something smaller and lighter than their existing line of amplifiers. And most importantly, this new amp HAD to have the sound quality synonymous with what listeners expect from TIDAL. Class-D was an obvious choice but could it be made to sonically surpass anything currently available?
Apparently, the folks at TIDAL felt that the design efforts to fulfill this tall order were so successful, a standalone amp should be offered. Enter the TIDAL Audio Intra.
I’ll just say that calling the Intra a fantastic sounding amp “for Class-D” is an insult to both the amp and the design team. Just like any other playback equipment made by TIDAL, the Intra lives in a class of its own – gear that is so transparent and at the same time aurally satisfying, it defies description. So how did they do it?
To quote Jorn Janczak:
“All available OEM kit’s etc. did not satisfy us, since even if they could sound pretty good nowadays and actually are a real killer for the money, they still always have this… I would call ‘distant’ and ‘dry’ sound? But we managed to have a solution and were able to design a power amplifier which actually blew our mind. Combining completely diametric things, like sound vs. size and efficiency, and power. A tour de force squeezed into a block of aluminum with 4 channels, extremely expensive to manufacture. The key was to analyze and overcome what makes the sound so ‘brittle’. It was at the end of the day the sum of many steps all lined up, there is no such thing as a groundbreaking new technology or so. It was a long and painful process of iteration and doing things just the right way – as we define it this way.
But since the result was so good (for the Bugatti project), I wanted to trickle the whole amplifier project down and use some of the experiences we made to see if we would get similar but smaller modules inside the cabinet height of the Prisma. And this is what we did. And to answer your question: yes, we did things for the Intra with the support of a supplier but then massively bent things for us into the direction we needed it – by leaving no stone onto another stone the same way it was. The other important part, the whole front-end, and input section is 100% in-house made and uses a lot of parallels from the discrete, Class-A input stage of the Prisma.”
So there you have it. Refinement redefined. That may not seem as sexy as a hi-fi product that purports to re-invent the wheel via ground-breaking new technology, but I have found over and over again that my favorite sounding products reach a high level of sonic satisfaction through their designer’s long, arduous task of refining existing tech coupled with scrupulous attention to detail.
Sometimes I can’t remember my kid’s birthdays. I definitely don’t remember what music I worked on last week. But I do remember where I was when we watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and I’ll remember where I was the first time I heard Class-D NOT sound like Class-D: in Doug White’s demo room at CAF 2021, and confirmed a few days later in my home system.
TIDAL Audio Intra, I’ll Take Two
Living in my ‘Musical Fortress Of Solitude’ and only emerging for the occasional road trip to hi-fi shows and local live music (even in the ‘Before Times’), I don’t consider myself to have a finger on the pulse of the high-end buying, audiophile community. That’s my way of saying I can’t say for sure who this incredible-sounding amp will appeal to. The TIDAL Audio Intra is priced at $28K. While not exactly a cheap date, I can’t think of any other amps I’m familiar with that offer Intra’s level of power and transparency in this price range. Any other contenders will be very large, very heavy, and very expensive. The fact that an Intra can almost be picked up with one hand (27 lbs), generates no heat, and will most likely NEVER need servicing is just icing on its exemplary sonic cake.
But let’s be honest, a lot of audiophiles will have to leave their biases at the front door of the hi-fi showroom. I know I did. At the beginning of my listening sessions, I had to almost force myself to ignore its size and Class-D origin. After a short time though, I was completely drawn into the Intra’s charm and listenability – oblivious to notions of what I thought an amp of this quality had to look like. Plus, I had flipped over the sound in Doug White’s room at CAF, before I knew anything about the amp.
In fact, I predict the TIDAL Audio Intra is going to be the new sonic high-water mark a lot of companies will try and emulate with their designs, Class-D or otherwise. Good luck with that.
Do you listen to music or listen to the gear? If you are an audiophile and primarily a music listener that either never had, or has grown past fetishizing the gear in a high-end system, the Intra could be your speaker’s new best friend. For astute listeners who demand the utmost in neutrality and transparency in a high-power amp without any sacrifice in musicality and emotional engagement – who don’t like the notion of a pair of 150-pound monsters that may or may not have a zillion tubes, and can’t or won’t part with six figures for amps, the TIDAL Audio Intra is your amp. Highly recommended.