Ampsandsound Bryce, Introduction(s)
Ampsandsound Bryce is the name, 13″ wide, 7″ tall, KT88 equipped. Licensed to thrill. (website)
Some of you may recall my previous review of the Ampsandsound Zion Monoblocks, which remain the best sounding amplifiers I’ve ever heard in my system. As we speak I’m in the process of purchasing a pair… I couldn’t resist. They are just that good. Justin Weber (founder and audiophile) actually told me one of his customers has the bias on the Zions so dialed in that he is getting half a percent of total distortion at full output power. Wowza.
Words and Photos by Grover Neville
I digress from the subject of today’s review however, the $18,000/pr Ampsandsound Bryce. Whereas the Zion represents the thinking of Harman Kardon as executed by Justin Weber, with his proprietary iron and unwavering insistence on artisanal build quality combining with the neutrality of the Citation V circuit accounting for a stunningly accurate presentation, the Ampsandsound Bryce monoblocks are a touch more romantic in execution.
Each Ampsandsound Bryce is a small, almost cute monoblock amplifier coming in quite a bit smaller than the Zions, and equipped rather differently. The Bryce trades the push-pull output and complex input stage for a completely single-ended construction, from 12AX7 input directly to a fixed-bias KT88 or KT120/150 stage. At the recent THE SHOW Long Beach show, Justin Weber told me plainly:
“The Citations were tuned by Stu Hegeman and Harman Kardon, and have my thumbprint on them only as a byproduct of my proprietary transformer technology and attention to build quality. The Bryce and Red October represent Ampsandsound’s sound ideal from the ground up.”
The aforementioned Red October is a 300B DHT amplifier, and is a single-ended dual mono design much like the Bryce, though it skips a few traits that make the Bryce unique. Firstly, there’s the fixed bias scheme of the Bryce—toss out your voltmeters and probes because biasing is as easy as flipping a switch in the back, to toggle from KT88 to KT120/150 mode. The amplifier offers a few extra watts in the latter mode, though be careful to switch the amps off and remove the KT88s before doing so.
In addition to the fixed bias, the Bryce also uses a fixed 6dB of feedback and a more complex and robust power supply than previous single-ended Ampsandsound amplifiers, and is able to generate a much more robust B+ rail. All of this adds up to better bass, better dynamics and better power delivery across the entire impedance curve, all of which are things Ampsandsound is known for.
The other thing to mention is Ampsandsound’s very special transformers, which are an in-house, original design. There are a few special elements of these relating to the inductance and construction which I’m not at liberty to detail, but that seem to create a unique house sound—namely much flatter response and much deeper low bass than most tube amplifiers typically deliver. More on that shortly.
When you first receive a pair of Bryces, you will be greeted by two huge flight cases. They are perhaps not as fanciful as a pair of oak crates, but once you get used to them you’ll wonder why anyone ever ships amps any other way. These are safer and more secure than any packing method I’ve seen, and they make moving and transporting the amplifiers a total cinch. Inside the flight cases is the set of stock tubes, quite likely to include a pair of JJ KT88s, power cords for each amp and a minimum of paperwork, packing peanuts or other unnecessary bits and bobs. Simple and sweet.
Much like other Ampsandsound amplifiers, the Bryce is turret-boarded, completely point-to-point hand wired and uses exceptional parts and Jupiter condenser caps. Even the input power transformer is of a proprietary design. In fifty or seventy-five years a tech will be able to open a Bryce amp and easily repair and work on it, as opposed to more disposable circuit board designs.
The exterior design of the Bryce is cold-rolled steel with numerous options for a very nice matte-textured paint finish in a variety of colors. This is old school, robust build at its finest, and the amplifiers are substantial and hefty and the chassis is strong enough to stand on. I find the retro industrial look quite attractive, and though they are heavy their small size means the amps are easy to carry and place.
The rear of the Bryce has XLR inputs which are transformer coupled—again with proprietary and expensive Ampsandsound iron—a pair of RCAs, standard IEC plug, bias switch and 8 and 4 Ohm speaker binding posts. Those binding posts are both wound directly off the transformer, rather than having a single output winding, so no matter the tap you’re always coming directly off the transformer.
Onward now to the most important part—the sound.
Ampsandsound Bryce, For The Sound
For those who aren’t familiar with triode-strapped KT88s, you’re not alone, as these tubes are typically run in push-pull or ultralinear rather than dual-mono single-ended. On plugging in the Bryce for the very first time, you may be surprised if you’re used to the high-power but somewhat flatter, less romantic sound of tetrode-run KT88 amplifiers.
The Bryce, much like all of Ampsandsound’s amps, has an incredibly dense, tactile, and sweet harmonic color. It’s flat enough and clean enough that this does not feel like an egregious coloration, and even fans of “solid state neutral” should not find this objectionable. Think of it less as a romantic veil over the music, and instead an inner liveliness and palpability. Having heard this same subtle but addictive tone across Justin Weber’s other amps, I feel confident in saying that the Ampsandsound iron is a big contributor to this.
Complimenting this density and intensity is the aforementioned cleanliness of the sound, which is both whisper-quiet and extremely clear. Forget what you think you know about transformer-coupled single-ended amps, the Bryce exceeds most solid state amplifiers I’ve heard in the detail and clarity department, not just in the midrange.
The low end, of course, is where most listeners will notice this. Each Bryce puts out absolutely enormous low end and no, it isn’t one-note. We’re talking low down into the 30Hz and below range, with a seismic rumble and tightness that I’ve not heard from any amplifier before. Imagine if you will the grip and dynamics of a powerful solid state amplifier, yet with the quality that great tube amps have whereby the low end seems to shape itself to the relative textural quality of the music.
I would be fibbing if I said the level of low end was completely neutral on the Bryce—it is not. However, despite its slightly elevated level, the bass performance is so iron-fisted, tight and delightfully liquid in its presentation that unless you have a particularly problematic room, the bass is never overwhelming. In fact, I found that for music which had modest low end content it actually made the tracks sound supported and filled in, again like the amp was adjusting itself to the program material somewhat. In a strange way, the low end effect reminded me more of a well-placed subwoofer than an amplifier.
When it comes to high frequencies, the amplifier does not disappoint either. There’s a liveliness and glow to the upper registers that was almost invisible but just sparkly enough to make the high end special. Even on somewhat bright recordings or speakers the high end was never once harsh, but it also seemed to liven up systems that had a slightly muted top end. Again, the signal seemed to morph itself to the room and speakers once the Bryce was in the signal chain.
If I had to describe the overall curve of the Bryce, there is a slight harmonic u-shape, which draws attention to the lows and highs, but it isn’t so much an immovable frequency coloration, and more a tilt at the very ends of the spectrum, and I find this quite a pleasing choice. Most speakers could have a sense of a little extra in the very lowest lows and a live dynamic in the very highest harmonics above 10kHz. Neither of these take away from the incredibly smooth and crystal clear midrange either, as if the Bryce is saying welcome home, you can have your cake and eat it too.
Now let’s talk pairings. If you see the 12-15W output rating of the Bryce you might think this is exclusively an amp for high-efficiency horn speakers like Klipsch. But do you recall that little trick with the inductance I mentioned earlier? It helps the Ampsandsound Bryce amplifiers reach closer to full output power at all frequencies because the impedance curve can more closely match the output device to the speaker. Most amplifiers are cruising along using not more than a few watts even at fairly loud levels, so while a 12W amp that is only delivering 12W between 100Hz-10kHz is going to sound bandwidth limited even if it delivers the first watt at full bandwidth.
In the process of listening to the Bryce, which involved our very own Dave McNair purchasing the amplifier after my review period and having myself, Graig Neville, Eric Franklin Shook and others put ears on it in North Carolina while wired into Dave’s system. We also tried it on many speakers. It drove, in no short order, the Von Schweikert Ultra 7s, the Wilson Sasha DAW and Sabrinas, QLN P5s, Proac D30RS, Acora SRB and SRC-2s, ATC SCM20s and Focal Kanta No. 2s. Not once did the Bryce ever give up or seem to run out of steam—even on the very hardest, most punishing loads at extremely loud volumes there was perhaps just the slightest sense of a transient softening, but the low end never gave up and the soundstage always retained its coherence. For my part, I was particularly surprised that the little Bryce amps drove the Wilson speakers especially well.
So you’re probably thinking, “Alright, alright, enough raving Grover, we get that you like Ampsandsound.” Well, I do like them, and as evidenced by Dave’s purchase of the review pair of Bryce monos and my imminent purchase of the Zions, that sentiment is widely shared. Eric Franklin Shook is even considering an Ampsandsound amplifier to take with him on his PTA Roadshow.
There simply isn’t anything out there in Amplifier Land that feels like such a lack of compromise, and now you, our dear readers, are in on the secret. Best amplifiers in the world? Quite possibly. For now, we can at least settle for the best amps I’ve ever heard.
Additional Commentary from Senior Contributor, Dave McNair
After buying a pair of Bryce Monos and flipping out over these amazing creatures, I have to add a few more thoughts to Grover’s piece.
My first in-person introduction to the world of Ampsandsound was via the Nautilus, which I will expound on in an upcoming review. The Nautilus, while transcendent in its portrayal of musical textures, was not quite enough power for the speakers I use. Justin and Grover suggested a pair of Bryce monos would be just the ticket.
After suspending disbelief that a single power tube, 12 to 14 watts, power amp would get my mojo risin’, I took the plunge. Mind you, this happened while I had in my listening room a pair of mondo-sized tube amps for review that, while not in my price range, I had become quite enamored with.
Months of enjoyable listening while driving a multitude of modern, medium efficiency speakers has me convinced that Justin Weber has made some kind of deal with the devil to gain special access to secrets that bend the laws of physics. Or he just knows what he’s doing. Whatever.
The Bryce Monos have the shocking ability to filter out the tiny little things I don’t want to hear while delivering to the speakers all the good stuff I do want to hear. They reside in a unique space of just enough tube color to be exciting and fun, but neutral and clean enough that they are never too warm and romantic. I’ll never know how a 14 watt single ended triode can go so deep in the low end and maintain tight control of even the biggest bass, but they do. I know they are a simple, low power, pure vacuum tube circuit, but I never feel like they give up any detail, clarity and dynamic impact in exchange for their glorious technicolor sonic texture. Get the cake. Eat the cake.
Specs: Ampsandsound Bryce
Bench report with 12AX7 inputs with 5ARA4 rectifier and KT88’s
Input sensitive: with 12AX7 input @ 650mV P-P
Noise: with 8 Ohm is 1.1mV RMS
Max Power: @ 8 Ohm is 12 watts RMS
Ultra-wide bandwidth; 6Hz to 40kHz @ 1 watt
Power and Noise specs are dependent on tube selection.
Actual size is 13″wide, 10.5″deep, 7″ tall
Bench report with 12AX7 inputs with 5ARA4 rectifier and KT120’s
Input sensitive: with 12AX7 input @ 780 mV P-P
Noise: with 8 Ohm is 1.4mV RMS
Max Power: @ 8 Ohm is 12 watts RMS
Max Power: @ 8 Ohm is 15 watts RMS with KT-50 power tubes
Ultra-wide bandwidth; 6Hz to 45kHz @ 1 watt