In May 2020, when MSB Technology announced their S202 stereo amplifier ($29,500, all prices USD), I thought it a perfectly sized power amp. I could move its 90 pounds myself, and its dimensions of 16″W x 7″H x 19″D meant that it could fit many places, including the shelf of an average-size, high-end audio rack. Still, I could see, even in the photos, that it was a substantial machine. Its contoured aluminum case and chassis—in this model they’re the same thing—were obviously the results of lots of CNC milling, and inside, its jewel-like parts and layout made clear that the S202 was a lot more than a pair of tiny class-D amps rattling around inside an otherwise empty box.
I guess this admiration for the S202’s inner and outward appearance is a confession: I fancied some of the more superficial aspects of this newest member of MSB Technology’s stable. But there you have it—I had to hear this thing. I requested a sample from Vince Galbo, MSB’s North American Sales Manager, and not long after I found a crate on my doorstep, return address Watsonville, California.
Watsonville or Cupertino?
Years ago, I bought my first Apple MacBook laptop computer at a Best Buy. I’d been waffling between getting my usual, a Dell, or voyaging into the Appleverse—a big step. But once it was clear to the Best Buy salesman that I’d decided on the MacBook, he took on newfound energy. “Are you excited?” I looked at him a bit perplexed, and he quickly followed up with: “Buying an Apple is special, dude.”
Several MacBooks and iPhones later, I get it. Apple tries to make shopping for and buying their products an “experience,” and at that they’ve been largely successful. From the design and layout of an Apple Store, to the packaging, to the look and feel of the products themselves, nothing is left to chance. Before you use or even touch a MacBook or iPad or iPhone for the first time, the Apple experience, designed to tickle the senses, has done just that.
I can’t say that MSB’s packaging has risen to the Apple level—it’s perfectly acceptable boxing similar to what many companies offer—and there are no MSB Stores. But MSB’s products boast levels of refinement of design and assembly similar to those of the Cupertino-based powerhouse. I unpacked the S202 and noticed many fine details—and zero flaws. An example: Where it meets the faceplate’s upper edge, the top plate is shaped to accommodate a front-plate tab engraved “200 series amplifier.” The heatsinks, too, are subtly curved to meet the curve of the faceplate’s edges. The fastening hardware is concealed, giving the S202 a clean, refined look, while the rounded corners and panel edges make it softer to eye and hand than are most big amps. The black bottom plate’s four foot-like corners establish a solid-looking stance.
In all, the S202 meets the definition of vault-like. All of its fine machining details combine to far eclipse the squared-off construction so typical of big amps. But you don’t need Enola Holmes to figure out what look and feel MSB has gone for. The combination of silver-anodized case and black bottom plate (the S202 can also be ordered in all black) is suspiciously similar to the black keys and silver case of my Apple MacBook Pro. Watsonville is an hour’s drive from Cupertino. Maybe it’s in the water.
The S202’s side and top panels might begin as thick, sharp-edged billets of aluminum, but by the time MSB’s CNC machines are done with them, all of the heatsinks have been routed out of the metal. This means that the sinks are contained within the thickness of each panel, rather than protruding as fins—there’s nary a sharp edge or square corner to be found. At bottom center on the front panel is an illuminated MSB logo that glows white for On, red for Off, and pulses amber in Standby. Flashing red or flashing amber indicates that the S202’s protection circuitry has been triggered. Above this is the Power button, and above that the smaller Standby button. Under the front panel’s bottom edge are three controls: a Power Control switch, for the 12V trigger connection; a Display Brightness rotary control; and a Long Delay switch for lengthening the power-on sequence. When the S202 is plugged in, it automatically detects whether it’s being fed 120V or 240V, and adjusts itself accordingly.
On the rear panel are two pairs of very-well-made binding posts that can be easily tightened by hand, and are angled slightly so as not to unnecessarily stress speaker cables. There’s one pair of balanced inputs (XLR)—there are no unbalanced (RCA) connectors—12V trigger ins and outs, two ground posts, a fuse bay, an IEC power inlet for the supplied C19 power cord, and a three-way toggle switch for setting the input impedance to 1.2k, 300, or 75 ohms. I asked CEO Jonathan Gullman why that toggle is needed:
Traditional amp designs have unavoidable noise, due to the properties of traditional input stages. This noise is amplified all the way to the output, thus reducing resolution and dynamic range (many times requiring negative feedback to correct). Amplifier designers have always dealt with this challenge of trying to minimize the noise effects with design and component selection. MSB’s new design eliminates this excess noise by rethinking the entire input stage and removing this problematic circuitry completely. MSB has optimized the DAC-to-amplifier connection using an impedance-matching technology that is user-selectable with a switch.
MSB recommends the 1.2k ohms setting for any non-MSB component connected to the S202, 300 ohms for use with MSB’s Discrete DAC, and 75 ohms for when the S202 is driven by MSB’s Select, Reference, or Premier DAC.
MSB claims that the S202’s circuitry is fully discrete, with a class-A, matched-impedance input stage and no negative feedback. For years, feedback has been the subject of many an audio debate; I asked Gullman for MSB’s take on it:
While intended to control the woofer motion more accurately, negative feedback is still there in the upper frequencies, causing phase and stability issues, which translate into smearing of the delicate and dense harmonics of massed violins, piano, acoustic guitar, etc. These errors are usually reduced with things like “minimal” negative feedback, or local instead of global negative feedback. MSB removed these phase and intermodulation errors completely by eliminating negative feedback altogether. In MSB amplifiers the woofer is controlled in different ways, including oversize power supplies consisting of the best transformers.
The power supply is a large toroidal (donut-shaped) type, with filter capacitors mounted directly behind it. What MSB calls the Core of the S202 is a custom, CNC-machined housing that contains the amp’s circuits—the printed-circuit boards (PCBs) are populated in-house. This self-contained Core subassembly is rigorously tested to meet specifications and provide high reliability. MSB takes great pride in possessing a well-appointed PCB shop, which gives them considerable control of quality. This and their CNC machines mean that MSB actually makes its products in-house, instead of merely assembling subassemblies made elsewhere. One of the few exceptions is the anodizing of the aluminum case panels, a potentially toxic process that’s heavily regulated in California. This is done by a third-party shop that specializes in anodizing.
The S202 is specified to output 200Wpc into 8 ohms or 380Wpc into 4 ohms at <1% distortion. The signal/noise ratio is >133dBA, the output impedance is 0.01 ohm, and the frequency response is 20Hz-20kHz, ±0.03dB. MSB has long been proud of their power amps’ wide dynamic ranges. I asked Gullman for a more complete explanation:
Dynamic range is defined as the loudest sound an amplifier can reproduce down to the softest sound before the signal is equal to the noise floor. While we may think of dynamic range in terms of loudness, it is the noise-floor spec compared to zero noise where the biggest range of opportunity exists. While we may argue that a noise floor that low is well below the range of human hearing, there are dense low-level harmonics going on in that range that, when incorrectly reproduced, intermodulate to cause incorrect results in the audible range. This type of low-level distortion limits the ability to reproduce things like the beautiful overtones and natural harmonic textures on close-miked piano, voices singing in harmony, and the upper partials of virtually all instruments. That last bit of soundstage can also be lost in this low-level information.
The S202 is warranted for five years.
I connected the MSB Technology S202 directly to my MSB Discrete DAC, making sure to follow MSB’s recommendation to set the S202’s input impedance and the Discrete DAC’s output impedance both to 300 ohms. The S202 drove two sets of loudspeakers during its stay with me: my reference Vimberg Tondas, and the review samples of the Estelon X Diamond Mk IIs, which came to me from Estonia. All interconnects, speaker cables, and power conditioning were by Shunyata Research. The sole source component was my Apple MacBook Air laptop running Roon, Audirvana, and the Qobuz streaming service. Later in the listening period I switched to MSB’s Premier DAC, but unless otherwise indicated, the following comments on sound quality are made in the context of my usual reference system. The only variable in these evaluations was the S202 itself.
Most amplifiers make some type of noise: mechanical sounds, usually from a large transformer, or electrical noise audible through your speakers’ tweeters, or both. The MSB Technology S202 made neither. Mechanically it was dead silent—when I laid an ear against its top plate, heat aside (the top and side panels got slightly warm), I was unable to tell whether it was unplugged from wall, plugged in and set to standby, or fully powered up. Nor did either pair of speakers I used produce any noise when I pressed that warmed-up ear against a tweeter. None.
My first few hours with the MSB were notable not for any specific sonic character I could identify (yeah, I know—that’s my job), but because of how I felt as I listened to music. I don’t think anyone would argue that music can’t deeply affect a person’s mood—that’s why we listen to it in the first place—and that there are mechanisms at play in listening to music that we can’t easily define and still don’t understand. So when I tell you that those first sessions with the S202 were a bit different from my norm, I’m being sincere.
First, that listening was relaxing, even as I marveled at what I was hearing. Usually, these are mutually exclusive feelings, but not with the S202. After my first few days of listening, having concluded that the S202 was uncommonly easy to listen to, I tried to figure out why. This was not easy. No matter what music I played, I heard no sonic artifacts that I could attribute to the MSB. There were no sonic traits that existed independent of the source material. Instead, I found myself marveling at the music itself.
As I listened to Hilary Hahn perform J.S. Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No.3 in E Major, BWV 1006 (Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Sony Classical/Qobuz), I was amazed at the sheer brilliance of the high frequencies. Hahn’s violin was surrounded by startling amounts of air and sparkle and light, and no matter how loudly I played this recording, the music remained easy to listen to: the music was thrilling, but the experience of listening to it was emotionally/psychologically/physically relaxing. What I heard was detailed, but not spotlit or fragmented—it simply flowed. Can you have more detail and substantially less listening fatigue? The sound of music through the S202 was smooth, not smoothed over. As Hahn moved her violin while playing, the image of the instrument swelled and shrank in the most realistic way imaginable. This finely graded dynamic range made the image of the violin sound as if it had come to life in my room. The coolest part was that nothing about its sound was subdued, and it never occurred to me to lower the volume. Talk about a stress reliever!
These initial experiences came to define all of my time with the S202. No other change of power amplifier had ever let me hear anything quite like it. Obviously, I was listening to an entire system of components, but inserting the S202 made that system less evident or “visible” to the ear. What I heard wasn’t the typical veil being lifted away from the sound—it was more as if the ship of sound had weighed anchor—the music now seemed to float free of the components, instead of being tethered to the system by the sorts of colorations and/or distortions that normally call all too much attention to the gear that’s reproducing the music, or trying to. Track after track, I heard a similar effect; hour after hour, I enjoyed listening to music more than I can recall.
The S202’s tonal balance was neutral—so neutral that I found it difficult to analyze the sound by breaking it down into bass, midrange, and highs. Instead, I heard soundstages completely disconnected from the speakers, and aural images on those soundstages that were surrounded by sparkling air and were effortlessly shaped. Depending on the track, it could be a really beautiful presentation.
I cued up the title track of London Grammar’s latest, Californian Soil (24/44.1 FLAC, Metal & Dust/Ministry of Sound/Qobuz). I’ve listened to this track often in the last few months, and this time, sure enough, all of the audiophile traits that I’ve heard before and listen for were there: the full, pulsing bass that easily started and stopped each Vimberg’s three woofers; the huge soundstage, as wide and deep as I’ve heard from this track; the reverberant atmosphere, fully developed; and Hannah Reid’s signature singing, tonally perfect, clean, and natural. And there was something new. This time listening to “Californian Soil,” I was more aware of Reid’s voice in the intro, seconds into the track, floating just to the left and just behind the right speaker. The image of her voice was completely disconnected from the speaker, and as it moved toward the center I could follow it so precisely that I could almost see her drifting ghostlike before me.
In combination with my MSB Discrete DAC, the S202 produced sound that was uniquely special. I had not experienced this kind of synergy before in my current listening room.
Now I moved my reference Vimberg Tonda speakers ($38,000/pair) out and replaced them with Estelon’s X Diamond Mk II floorstanders ($78,000/pair). Of course, when I did this, I also temporarily swapped in my long-term reference amplifier, the Boulder Amplifiers 2060 ($44,000, discontinued), and reacclimated myself to the new sound. Only then did I swap back in the MSB Technology S202.
Listening to the MSB Technology combination of S202 stereo amplifier and Discrete DAC driving the diamond-tweetered Estelons was endgame audiophile stuff. I’m not sure I’d ever heard high frequencies so purely reproduced. In fact, the ease with which I could hear detail in the treble was astounding. When I listened to jazz pianist Shai Maestro’s Human, with trumpeter Philip Dizack, double bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Ofri Nehemya (24/88.2 FLAC, ECM/Qobuz), I could hear deep into the light cymbal taps in the first few seconds of “Mystery and Illusions.” I was amazed that an audio system could produce sounds so delicate yet so precise—it made most reproductions of this track sound like a wash of noise by comparison. As I listened to this passage through the MSB-Estelon combo, I wondered if I’d have heard the same level of detail had I actually been in the Studios la Buissonne, in the south of France, as this music was made. Or was it producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Gérard de Haro’s microphone placements that were letting me hear so much deeper than I would have had I actually been there, but seated some distance away? That’s all conjecture; what was clear was that the MSB S202 gave me a clearer view into the music than I’d ever had—an experience I had not expected.
I next swapped out my MSB Discrete DAC ($21,380 in my chosen configuration) for MSB’s Premier DAC ($24,950 in base configuration). The Premier sits one slot higher than the Discrete in terms of MSB’s DAC implementation. The sound of the S202 with the Premier was—
Hold up. My review of the Premier is still a ways off. You’ll have to wait for that report.
I asked the question in the title of my February blog on SoundStage! Global: “MSB Technology: Can Entry Level Be Near State of the Art?” Here I answer it. First, I state unequivocally that the pairing of MSB Technology S202 power amplifier and Discrete DAC sounded better than any combination of electronics I’ve heard in my current room. My sense is that these components enjoy a familial synergy that would be hard, if not impossible, to duplicate by mixing and matching models from different manufacturers. Could there be a combination of DAC, preamp, and power amp, each from a different manufacturer, that might eclipse them, even at multiples of the MSB combo’s total price? Sure. Or maybe not. If you believe, as I do, that synergy matters in component selection, perhaps synergy in this case yields a better result than more costly electronics could muster. I understand that this is all supposition on my part, but what I heard from the MSB products working in concert has set the bar high indeed—higher than I’d ever heard in my room.
Early in 2021, as I finished my review of the Estelon X Diamond Mk II speakers, I vowed to then clear my schedule so that I could experience MSB Technology’s ecosystem of gear. Although that journey had actually begun the previous summer, when I bought an MSB Discrete DAC, I could now hear MSB’s D/A conversion directly driving MSB amplification. This is a review of MSB’s S202 stereo amplifier; it’s also an exploration of what MSB gear can do when entrusted with the entire signal path, right up to the loudspeakers.
The MSB S202 is one of the finest electronic components I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. Given the right circumstances and the right partnering gear—i.e., an MSB DAC—the S202 can produce state-of-the-art sound. Full stop. Couple that sound with its jewel-like build quality, completeness of aesthetic design, and faultless performance across all fronts, and I have no reservations in recommending it for any system in which 200Wpc is enough power and for anyone who can afford to spend $30k on a power amp.
The MSB Technology story doesn’t end here. Soon you’ll read about what I heard when I partnered the S202 with MSB’s Premier DAC. The best is yet to come.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers: Estelon X Diamond Mk II, Vimberg Tonda
- Amplifier: Boulder Amplifiers 2060
- DAC-preamplifiers: MSB Technology Discrete and Premier
- Source: Apple MacBook Air laptop computer running Audirvana, Roon, Qobuz
- Interconnects, speaker cables, power cords: Shunyata Research: Alpha USB link, Delta IC balanced interconnects, Alpha SP speaker cables, Venom NR-V10 power cords
- Power conditioner: Shunyata Research Hydra Alpha A12
- Rack: SGR Audio Model III Symphony
MSB Technology S202 Stereo Amplifier
Price: $29,500 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
MSB Technology Corp.
15 Brennan Street
Watsonville, CA 95076
Phone: (831) 662-2800