October 1, 2007
A Lifetime of Solid-State Amplifiers: Reflection on the Heavyweights
Ive always owned good solid-state amplifiers, and sometimes great ones. In the early days of my reviewing career I gravitated toward these designs due to their low maintenance, quiet operation, and the ability to drive whatever speakers were on hand at the time. Consequently, my comfort level in assessing them was high.
One reason for this is that Ive also had, mostly, large speakers in large rooms that necessitated such amp/speaker pairings. There have been many of these heavyweights -- truly powerful amplifiers able to drive demanding speaker loads -- in my home through the years, and so I thought it about time to reflect back on them. I wont have the space to discuss all of them, but will hit the high points. The prices listed are what I remember them to be at the time.
One of my earliest remembrances of great solid-state was the Krell KSA-250 ($6700). Here was a 250Wpc stereo amp (more like 325Wpc on the test bench, if I remember correctly) with never-before-heard-of bass response: deep, immensely powerful, and utterly profound. It was commonly believed back in the 90s that if you couldnt get good bass from your speakers, you could buy a KSA-250 and then hear all they could do. I later upgraded them to the 500Wpc mono version, the MDA-500s -- brutes that built on all of the strengths of the KSA-250. They ran scaldingly hot, however, so summertime listening was painful -- as were the sharp heatsinks. The KSA-250s are still widely available used, but theyd be due for a capacitor replacement about now, so remember that if youre looking.
My thrill with Krell continued through several years. I tried the S-series, KSA-200S and 300S; I also owned the older KRS-200 monos for a while; the last Krell I owned was the FPB-700cx stereo amp. However, the best Krell of all time, in my opinion, was the 400Wpc Krell Audio Standard monoblock ($32,000/pair). A pair of them had a dimensional quality that all other Krells seemed to lack. Paired with the right speakers, such as the original Wilson Audio X-1 Grand SLAMM, they threw the most expansive soundstage, and had a naturalness and ease that eluded the others. About a year ago I bought a set of KAS-2 monoblocks ($22,000/pair), the little brother to the mighty KAS, to see if they had the same magic. They didnt. I sold them a few weeks later.
One of my fondest silicon memories was of the Coda System 100 ($8500). This 100Wpc two-piece amplifier sounded as sweet as most any amp Ive ever heard. It had perfect tone, great drive, excellent focus, and was dead quiet. It was also one of the best-built amplifiers Ive had. Coda is still in business in Sacramento, California, though they keep a low profile. The System 100 is a giveaway bargain if you can find one used -- Ive seen them for about $2300. Even today, Id still be tempted to pick up a used System 100. Its that good.
I also spent time with the Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 8T ($9800). This 250Wpc beauty had one of the most natural midranges of any solid-state amplifier Ive heard. It was creamy-smooth in the highs, and never fatiguing with any speaker I ever paired it with. The bass response was lacking, however: it was soft and indistinct, which was a deal-breaker for me. Ive heard that Rowlands 8Ti-HC (for high current) improved in this area; Id like to hear one.
The Gryphon Antileon Signature ($24,000) will go down in history as a classic. If you like mammoth drive coupled with an analog feel, this is the amp for you. Its smooth and dimensional and casts a magnificent soundstage. The only downside is the price -- but then, youd never have to worry about upgrading. I almost bought the review sample I had back in 2004, and on several occasions since have wished I had. This 150Wpc class-A amplifier is one of my desert-island amps.
Simaudios Moon Evolution line is special. I just purchased a P-8 preamp ($12,000) to use in my reference system, and the 250Wpc W-8 ($11,500) amplifier still holds a warm place in my heart. These amplifiers are warm and cozy, with all the attributes youd want in a well-thought-out package. I know Simaudio is now considering launching a statement line above the Evolutions. I cant wait for some news on that.
Gryphon isnt the only good SS amp to come from Denmark. Ive used the 100Wpc Vitus SS-101 ($30,000) for the past year and find it a remarkable performer that strikes me as somewhat of a cross between the Simaudio and Gryphon -- a classification that makes it quite special in its own right. There are more powerful mono versions of these amps that I understand are even better. Perhaps Ill get to hear some one day.
Ive used many more solid-state amplifiers than those listed above: Halcro dm68 monoblocks, a Boulder 1060 stereo amp, others from Krell and Mark Levinson, Thresholds from Nelson Pass, etc. At present Im listening to the Pass Labs X600.5 monoblocks, which Ill be writing about soon.
Perhaps Im still searching for the perfect solid-state power amp; perhaps its a bad case of Audiophilia Nervosa. In any case, youll read about more of these brutes from me in the future. Ive heard about some exciting new models that will be debuted at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show. No doubt some of those will find their way to Ultra Audio and yours truly.
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