Hi-Fi Thoughts: Volume 1
In Between Amplification
By: Joe Kanaan
The New Year is upon us, and as I reflect on 2014 the word "inspiring" comes to mind. On a personal level, my wife and I finally settled down in Edinburgh, a city we love and cannot get enough of. If you haven't been to Edinburgh yet, you should. With the settling of ourselves, extending our family seems beautifully inevitable - an adventure both my wife and I greatly look forward too. But for you readers, more importantly, during this past year I started building up my system from scratch and enjoying it every step of the way.
On and industry level, 2015 looks like it could be a fantastic year for the world of Hi-Fi. This past year saw the advancement of network streamers, hi-resolution downloads, lossless streaming and not to mention the continual growth of vinyl record sales. Turntable manufacturers are producing the best disc spinners we have ever seen, understanding the market is ripe and the people are yearning for great turntables to play their treasured collections. People are starting to see the true benefits of high quality play-back, not only with vinyl but downloads as well; more and more manufacturers are bringing out network streamers, while those who already produce them seem to keep improving the quality of music they play.
It seems to me, people today are into their music more than ever; everywhere you turn people are listening to their favorite artists. Walking into work one of my greatest joys is seeing someone lose themselves to the music playing in their ears or through a car stereo. Their body moves in time with the rhythm of the music while their lips expel silent words (and in some cases, loud words) of their beloved artists. As a person in an industry that values the quality of music reproduction, I must not forget it is the love of music which creates the foundation on which my livelihood depends. I would be foolish not give a large amount of credit to portable audio. It is drawing the masses in as it continually improves with the must-have smartphones, dedicated players that support hi-resolution playback, and headphone companies producing cans that clearly allow us to hear the difference between a compressed music file and a lossless music file (let-alone hi-resolution files). What does this mean to me?
It means people unknown to our industry are seeking ways to get their music out from their ears or cars and into their homes, realizing for the first time or remembering again how good music can sound. Lucky for them, this is one of the most exciting times to enter into Hi-Fi; one box (amplification, network streaming, internet radio, etc) and two speaker solutions are sounding better than ever, while traditional hi-fi kit (integrated amplifiers and separate pre/power/sources) are pushing the limits to what quality music reproduction can achieve in a home environment. This applies not only to the hi-end market, but also the low and mid-market hi-fi components, as it becomes more and more cost-effective for manufacturers to trickle down technology into their lower-end products. This is not to say the cost of individual components aren't on the rise. It is inevitable that they would be with the rising cost for raw materials, packaging, shipping, etc. But let’s think about that for a second - a mobile phone will cost you more than a high-quality entry level integrated amplifier, or CD player, or turntable, or speakers. And trust you in me, those hi-fi components will outlive any mobile phone. So in relative terms, to get good music into your home is not out of the reach of most people.
Again, 2015 is looking very promising. Personally, this year will see me continuing to build up my system. Last year, with settling in Edinburgh, I decided it was time to start afresh with my system. The only component to make the transition was a turntable of my own creation and though it performs at the £2,000 mark, it is more nostalgic then a turntable I can reference. I will eventually add a reference turntable to my system; hopefully I will be able to do it this year (if money permits), but the next component on my list is amplification. With that in mind, it's not odd for me to write that my adventure has gone down a nontraditional path - but whose doesn't? We work with what we have and what the depths of our pockets will allow.
Anyone who’s into their hi-fi has heard of how to build up a system - start with the source, then the amplification, then the speakers, and finally the cabling. Individually, we seek out a sound perfect to our ears; the synergy of all the components working together is what takes us to our music sanctuaries each time we listen to our systems. My speakers, Harbeth's Super HL5 Plus, were the first to find a place in my home. I fell in love the first time I heard them, they just sound right to me and naturally permit the source(s) and amplification to do their job. Second, came my Naim ND5 XS network streamer. Naim sources (CD players and network players) have ever intrigued me. Naim has a good way, at least to my ears, to present the music beautifully and truthfully. And next to be added, amplification.
One component that has seen vast improvements over the last five to ten years is the integrated amplifier. As of late, this option has become more and more attractive to me. I like the idea of having my pre-amplifier, power-amplifier, and phono stage/amplifier all in box. As for my better-half, she really likes the idea - three boxes turned into one is almost like a dream come true for the partner of any hi-fi enthusiast. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I must admit, I worry about sacrificing the level of play-back I've come accustom by using separates. But in writing that, it seems now more than ever a person can expect the performance of separates from an integrated amplifier at any given price point.
My reference to these "given price points" is based off my experience with the different Quad kit I've had the pleasure of listening to in my system over the years. The Quad 99 series, the 99 Pre and the 909 Power amplifiers, made up my amplification for years. Now the old 99 series takes form in the Elite series and with minor (but significant) improvements they are still very attractive to me. They punch way above their weight in regards to cost, which is just over £2,000. The next "given price point" is around £5,000 where the Quad Platinum series comes in. I have spend significant time with the Platinum Stereo power amplifier and the Platinum DMP (Pre/CD/DAC). I have to admit, I was exceptionally impressed with these; it was one of the was the best sounds I have heard from my Harbeths, but the DMP lacked analog inputs and for me I couldn't live without listening to my record collection. However, the recent release of the Platinum Pre has brought this series right back to forefront of choices. Going with the Elite Pre and QSP (the new 909) or the Platinum Pre and Stereo doesn't fill my desire to get a one box solution for all my amplification needs.
With those price points in mind, I sought out integrated amplifiers. The £5,000 mark is really stretching my budget. So I have begun my search in the lower of the two price points. If I find amplification at this price point, it would leave money for the purchase of a reference turntable, or a foundation to build my savings on. The integrated amplifier would have to be damn near as good as the Elite Pre and QSP or if possible, better. A high performing MM phono stage (and if possible MC capabilities) added to its specifications would be very appealing indeed. I know this is a tall order, but considering the Elite Pre has three different setting for both MM and MC, I had to believe it could be achieved. The last option I am looking for, and most integrated amplifiers at any price point have it, would be pre amplifier outputs; this way I could add a power amplifier, if I wanted to add another box. Would this defeat the purpose of having an integrated amplifier? Yes. Nonetheless, I like to future proof and it wouldn't hurt to have this option when reviewing a power amplifier.
The amplifiers I choose to audition/review come from three of the biggest manufacturers in the world of Hi-Fi - Arcam, Naim, and Linn. Arcam's A39 integrated amplifier is a recent addition to their FMJ range. Naim's Nait XS2 has seen vast improvements in it's latest incarnation. While Linn's Majik-I uses the latest technology Linn has trickled down from their flagship range.
Arcam's A39 is the least expensive of the group; coming in at £1,500. On paper, the A39 ticks all the boxes I am looking for. It has pre amplifier outputs, an integral MM phono stage, and enough power to drive my Harbeth Super HL5 Plus speakers. Arcam decided to use the same topology used in their flagship integrated amplifier, the A49. The A39 has less power than its bigger brother with outputs at 120 watts into 8 ohms and 240 in 4 ohms. The first 20 watts is in pure Class-A and the next 100 watts comes from Class-G amplification. A side note here: Class-G amplification is not easy to get right, but lucky for us Arcam has been using Class-G for some time now in their AV amplifiers and listening to the A39, a person can tell that they know what they are doing when it comes to this type of amplification. Again, on paper, this amplifier was looking very attractive. Also, at this price, if I wished to get a good external phono stage, say the Trichord Research's Dino MkIII at £499, I would still be just under the £2,000 mark. I know this would be adding another box, but the versatility and performance the Dino gives would be worth it. The build quality of the A39 is what you would expect from an amplifier at this price and from Arcam. It's not a small or lite weight amp, measuring 43.3(W) x 42.5(D) x 10(H)cm and weighing 11.5 kilos. So make sure you have space for it, especially in regards to its depth.
Next on my list is Linn's Majik-I, coming in at £1,630. Initially I noticed the difference in weight from the other amps. The Majik-I only weighs 4.9 kilos, but let me assure you it doesn't sacrifice power output (100 watts) or build quality. The lite weight is in direct relationship with Linn's use of their Chakra amplification, which is trickled down technology from their Klimax range. The Majik-I runs a lot cooler than either the Naim or Arcam. Again, this amplifier ticks all the boxes on my requirement list. One can expect from a company, whose been producing a reference turntable for over forty years, that they know what they are doing when it comes to creating exceptionally good phono stages. The integral MM phono stage is top notch and can be upgraded to a MC phono stage for £330 (keeping the price still under £2,000). On this point alone and on paper, this amplifier does everything I was hoping for - three boxes in one. There is enough power on reserve to drive my Harbeths without question and if I so wished, I could easily add a power amplifier.
The last on my list is the Naim Nait XS2, coming in at £1,650; which makes this the most expensive of the three amplifiers. The XS range is Naim's entry into upgradable hi-fi components, by the addition of power supplies. And though it is the most expensive amplifier I auditioned, a second box is a necessity. Now this can be seen as a bad thing, but let’s look at it a bit closer before we make a judgment call. This amplifier might be rated at only 70 watts a channel, but I assure you, this is a conservative figure as this amp as more drive in it than any other amplifier I auditioned. The build quality is superb and though it has a good amount of weight to it (over 10 kilos) it is not overtly big. However, the XS2 does not have an integral phono stage. I could add a Naim Stage Line phono stage, which comes in four different options (K, S, E, and N) depending on your cartridges output load and sensitivity. Bei ng able to match your cartridge's sensitivity and load should make for better sounding play-back. The Stage Line will not break the bank at £340 and keeps the total cost under the £2,000 mark. As mentioned before, this phono stage will add another box, defeating the hope of turning three boxes into one. On the other hand, the Stage Line is not very big, 5.7(H) x 12.1(w) x 18.7(D)cm, and works in conjunction with XS2, drawing its power from the amplifier via Din connection. So no need for a mains plug. I could live with adding a Stage Line. With that being said, the XS2 could happily support a power amplifier of your choice, though you will need to get a Din to RCA interconnect. If you go down this route, just make sure when ordering this cable your retailer knows exactly what you are using it for, so they can instruct your chosen cable manufacturer to get the pin configuration correct.
As they say, the proof is in the pudding; so how did these integrated amplifiers perform against one another?
Lucky for me, my day job gives me access to untold amount of hi-fi equipment, so I was able to assure each amplifier was thoroughly run in, over a hundred hours on each amplifier, before I took them home. I managed to get all three amplifiers on my component rack, making it "easy" for me to switch between them on the fly. Over the course of a month I listened to many albums, three times ago. I think by the third time listening to any given album, my wife was at a breaking point, but there I sat giddy as a school boy continually asking her if she was hearing a difference between each amp. Her response, "Sure..." followed by a phrase in Sicilian dialect, which I cannot translate. Oh the hard life of a reviewer. Anyway...
Let’s start with the Arcam A39; right from the beginning, I was impressed. Actually, I'm not sure if that best describes my reaction to this amplifier. Reviewing my listening notes, a phrase kept coming up - "Arcam's best amp." Now before you jump the gun, I meant this relative to cost; but nonetheless, I meant it when I wrote in my notes and when I write it here. I seriously think this has to be Arcam's strongest product in their FMJ range. It was able to bring forth many of the intricacies and details that are generally lost in amplifiers in the sub-£2,000 mark. The sound-staging was pretty damn good as well. It wasn't as fast at the Naim but it still had plenty of drive to keep me intrigued. I never felt bored with the A39. I wanted to keep listening to it, not because it grabbed me and said listen to me like the Naim, but because it lured me in with it ability to reveal bits of music that others fail to present. It did this without losing a sense of rhythm and pace. The high frequencies were not overtly bright nor were they lifeless; for example, cymbals were sharp, precise, and not at all splashy. The low end frequencies had authority, though they did not have as much impact the Naim presents. In the midrange, the A39 excelled, it was breathtakingly good and to my ear, almost tube like. This amplifier was a true joy to listen to, it competes with any I have heard in its price range.
The Linn Majik-I is next on the list. This amplifier surprised me. It has a much more "laid back" presentation to how it portrays music compared to the Naim (and even the Arcam). Where it excels is in the three-dimensional sound stage it reveals in the music you play through it. The soundstage reaches far beyond what I would consider "normal". The stereo imaging is some of the best I have heard in the sub-£2,000 range. This amplifier doesn't grab you by the ears and make you listen to it like the Naim, rather it invites you into this three-dimensional world of music it creates in your listening room. Linn amplification sounds like nothing but Linn and for many people it is a love-hate relationship. As for me, I would be on the former side of this relationship; but I must admit, it took time for me to get used to it. Like the Arcam, the detailing in the high frequencies is exceptionally good, precision with an airy mystique is really something special. The midrange frequencies is where this amplifier really sets itself apart. It is the midrange that I believe creates this love-hate relationship among hi-fi enthusiasts. This excellent midrange seems to sacrifice the low frequency grunt the Arcam has, and the Naim has in abundance. Because of this, the music can seem a bit dry and lacking body, emotion, and weight. It isn't until I reached about 55 to 60 on the volume that I finally heard some low end grunt, but these volumes are not practical in my flat (my neighbors would be severely upset with me if I listened at those volumes regularly). But in short intervals with the volume turned up, the Majik-I came alive and sounded great. I have heard this amplifier in active form with a pair of Linn speakers; the problem I had at lower volumes with my Harbeths are cured with the Majik-I being active.
And last but not least, the Naim Nait XS2. Every time I switched over to this amp, I felt like was being born again. In my listening notes, comments like "Shit yeah" are written throughout. This amplifier smacks you in the face and demands you listen to it. You cannot help but obey it. The XS2 is the fastest of all three amplifiers. Its speed and agility in presenting the music is beyond anything I have listened to in the sub-£2,000 range. The high current Naim is famous for drove the hell out of my Harbeths; it was impossible to get it past 9:00 on the volume dial in my flat. One time, when I knew all my neighbors were out, I reached 11:00 and I swear Jimi Hendrix was sitting next to me on the couch, but for extended listening it's just too much for my flat. Where this amp really surpasses the others is its ability to present the music at low volumes and not lose any quality. The music was full of low end grunt. When a bass guitar and/or a bass drum was being played I felt and heard every note clear and with precision one comes to expect from Naim. The midrange was just as good with a sense of life-like realism. The high frequencies weren't splashy or frail, cymbals sparkled and I felt I could almost reach out and touch them. The soundstage was wide and deep. For all the attack and emotion the XS2 reveals from the music, it fell a little short in drawing out the intricacies and minor details the Linn, and especially the Arcam, were able pull from the music. I know if I was to add a power supply this would correct the problem. Naim power supplies power the pre-amplifier stage. However, this would add cost and another box. Don't get me wrong, this is one exciting amplifier to have in your system.
Choices. That is what life is full of; if it is choosing where to raise a family or buying an amplifier, at some point we all have to make a choice. Having the chance to audition these three integrated amplifiers was an absolute pleasure. Each one has its own characteristics that are going to work for different listeners. Those looking for an amplifier that can truly give you everything in one box and are able to play your music at higher volumes allowing a three-dimensional world of music to be created in your listening room, the Linn might just be the right integrated amplifier for you. If you like a lot of low end grunt without missing out on emotional context of your music and don't mind adding an external phono stage, the Naim is calling you to come and listen. As for me, I prefer to be somewhere in between the Naim and Linn, exactly where I would comfortably place the Arcam. The A39 worked for me and well in my system. I liked how it brought out the small details and had plenty of power on reserve. That is not to say I wouldn't be happy with the other two. Don't let me decide for you, I urge you all to seek out your local dealers and have a listen to the Naim, Linn, and Arcam if you are in the market for sub-£2,000 integrated amplifiers. Let your ears be the judge.
To conclude, 2015 is looking like a very good year for music lovers and in doing so, the Hi-Fi industry. With more and more people appreciating quality music on the go from portable players and in their cars, it seems logical to believe they will want to bring this quality into their homes. One box and two speaker solutions are improving every day, and for us traditionalist the advancement of integrated amplifiers and separates is ever increasing. Personally, what the Nait XS2, the FMJ A39, and the Majik-I proved to me is that high quality amplification is more possible today in the ‘low’ and ‘mid market’ than ever before without needing to go down the separates road. However, I cannot help being still drawn to the Quad Elite Pre and QSP. I know it's not a one box solution, but I really enjoy listening to it. Maybe my ears have come accustom to the Quad sound. I don't know. We are creatures of habit; but some habits are meant to be broke, so I move onto the next "given price point," up to £5,000. So my search for a one box solution to all my amplification needs continues.
Until next time...
Keep enjoying your hi-fi and never forget, it's the love of music that drives us forward.