EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers – Day 20

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers, Neli is out, and I have some free time…

Out come the CDs that I know Neli looks askance at… :-)

Patrick O’Hearn [forget which one, but they’re all good], Jean Michel Jarre, Live in China, Klaus Schultz, Angst, Moody Blues, Threshold of a Dream (SACD)….

I think...
I think I am.
Therefore I am!
I think...

Holy cow. I always think of when I first played these albums, over and over, pre-teens to early twenties, how I LONGED for the music to sound this way. Talk about angst…

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers are going to drive the poop out of your speakers

We’ve never had bass like this here, like we have with the MTRX on the Acapella Atlas. It really kicks my butt. [3 x 10 inch woofers (one is isobaric). I think the built-in Bladeilius amps on the 6 x 9 inch woofers of the Marten Coltrane Supreme speakers we had here are of the laid back bass variety, like most solid-state amps that have a decent midrange. Edge amps are another one].

It is a supremely bold effort – to make solid-state amps that are incredibly ballsy but still sound like music.

It is like what Krell should have been. What it wanted to be when it grew up.

I tell you, these amps are the ultimate ‘Boys Toy’ :-) :-)

It is so hard to tell how loud it is, everything is so clear sounding, and it is so much fun to keep turning up the volume. I have to do the old trick of talking out loud to the room to see if I can hear my own voice… or not…

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers are going to dominate the sound of your system

This not a bad thing. :-)

We are doing a few cable shootouts these days. Nordost Valhalla and Odin. Acrolink [forget which models]. NVS Sound [lots of models].

Going from $16K Odin to $4K Valhalla interconnects is instructive.

A little duller sound, a little fuzzier imaging, a little nosier background.

But that is it.

Still have most of the slam, the control of the speakers, the notes staying separate in their little envelopes, the melodies not getting all fuzzed together… the amps still were doing their thing. The intrinsic character of  the system stayed really pretty much the same [mostly, I missed the Odin’s black, black, BLACK background].

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers are going to ruin other solid-state amps for you

Those others? They are really dull-sounding and really wimpy. A bunch of girly men [I’m reading Arnold’s book. So… :-) ]. They, in hindsight, cannot keep separate melodies separate, the cannot reproduce all of the instruments of an orchestra at the same time, they cannot reproduce bass with all the authority of true-to-life bass [which the best tube amps can do, but not at this volume!!! Yeehaw!!!].

The EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers are a really bold effort to make a solid-state amp that is not just a ‘convenience’.

Sure, most solid-state amps are reliable, you turn them on. They work. They get the music from the preamp to the speaker. What’s to complain about?

It is like when (a few) cable companies started making cables that were not designed to fuzz out the sound. Most cable companies still make blurry-sounding cables so that you don’t get your ears chewed off by the horrible edginess of the upstream equipment. When they started making cables clear sounding, letting us hear the music, it was like a dream come true for people who like hearing the music.

I like hearing the music. It is really awesome. And I bet you do too.

The MTRX amps will be at CES 2015 driving Wilson Alexia speakers. Maybe the Venetian will let them crank it up once in a while. But even if they don’t it should be quite interesting. I’m really looking forward to hearing that system – and triangulating it with what we hear here. Yep. Interesting.




EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers – Day 15

EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers day 15 report.

I want to talk a little about our history with amplifiers.

Our first real amplifier were Levinson 20.6 100 watt/channel pure class A amplifiers. We got them about four years old, used [from Alvino at the old Sound Hounds. We still see Alvino at RMAF once in awhile. If you want to blame someone, blame him :-)], and they were so much better than the $4K Denon and the Adcom 555 (I think) before that. So much more authority and openness. The Levinsons warmed our living-room during the Winters and heated it to near intolerable levels during the summers for about 5 years.

Then we got the Edge NL10 amps. So much clearer, much more resolution, more life.

It was just a few years later when we got the Lamm ML2.1 single-ended tube amps here. Music. Sweet Music. This was not just great sound, but music.

Then there were the Audio Note UK Kegon 300B SET amps. This is when ‘drug-like’ sound started to infect me. When I started getting random flashbacks to when I was young and ‘hearing’ music for the first time. This was when my life opened up, and I chose to live a life that was accepting of any and all, but still all too rare, not-your-ordinary-everyday mind-altering ‘music experiences’.

And this lifestyle required tube amps.

Because solid-state amps sound D.E.A.D. Or at least, they used to.

All the vocals on solid-state sound as if the singer was a tired over-worked professional belting out the 34th take in a sterile, smoke-filled studio in some drab building in the big city. They ‘fake’ any emotional involvement in the song.

All my life, until tubes, this is how I thought music sounded. Listening to music like this, it was still enjoyable. It is not like there is a choice provided to most people. It is either solid-state sound, or no music at all.

Like music on TV, Lawrence Welk – all the fake smiles and fake emotions. No emotion in any music. When learning guitar or in the [required Junior High School] glee club – when they said ‘Emote!’ I had no idea what the heck they were talking about. None of the music I had heard had any emotion in it. It was all reproduced with solid-state. And later bad digital. I thought professional musicians were not supposed to emote, it wasn’t professional.

A month or so ago, we had an 100% solid-state system here for a few weeks. No tubes. At all. And the above paragraph describes the truth that I re-realized about my, and probably many others, relationship to music and the lack of real human everyday emotion in most of it… if you listen to it on solid-state equipment.

Fred posted a comment a few weeks ago about how he did not care how the MTRX compared to other solid-state – how did it compare to the best tube amps?

Well, I’ve finally moved past a lot of the need, that I personally felt, to compare it to other solid-state amps. I’ve gone down the list of other amps and determined how and why they had not met my needs. They did not support my ‘musical mind-altering lifestyle’.

Essentially, solid-state amps have been unable to convey real, honest-to-goodness we hear it everyday, human emotion.

A few weeks ago our solid-state system was the EMM XDS1 CD player and EMM Labs PRE2 into the Edge M12 amps. All are on the musical side of neutral. But no emotion. D.E.A.D.

But yesterday we put in the EMM Labs PRE2 in to replace the [tube-based] Audio Note M9 Phono preamplifier. We are 100% solid-state, again.

But there is still emotion! It is different. A little bit different. There is not that tube-driven dynamic swell of exuberance for each note like tubes provide [what is more ‘real’?]. But there is sufficient resolution and control of the dynamic swings in a voice that there is actually some emotion communicated from the musician to the listener here.

We have been enjoying a very rich Heart and Mind sound here, with the AN M9Phono in the system. It is hard to weigh and tell you the ratio of Heart to Mind that that system has, as my mind is still very, very fascinated by what the MTRX are doing. So much clarity and so much more dynamics and accuracy and so like real music.

All I can say is that there IS some heart to the EMM Labs MTRX amplifiers, unlike any solid-state amp I have heard.


Or, I think, they are able to let through the subtle details of the music, the details that convey emotion from one human to another. Subtleties of breath inhalation and exhalation, subtleties of harmonic structure changes in a voice, the slight off-the-beat notes that indicate suspense or excitement, depending on if they occur right before or right after the beat used by the rest of the music. Solid-state amps haven’t been able to do any of this stuff [yeah, I know, some very famous reviewers do not care. To them music must be fine without the ‘subtleties of emotion’. But that doesn’t mean that we have to think it is fine, too.].

These subtle details are required for my personal music-holic lifestyle. Not sure I can ‘travel to strange new worlds’ in my listening chair without them.

“Engage warp drive, Sulu”… I mean ‘MTRX drive’.

Break-through amplifiers

Let’s discuss break-through amps:

What makes a break-through amplifier?

One thing one wants to see with break-through amps is that they are paired often with outstanding speakers, cables and sources. Somebody might be making a break-through $2500 amp, but if it is paired with $2500 speakers and a $2500 CD player [or laptop] then the flaws in the associated equipment will drown the performance of the potentially break-through $2500 amplifier.

Then, if the amp is indeed found paired with megabuck associated gear, the system has to sound good. Otherwise, well, what is the point? And there should be multiple systems in which the amp sounds good – to help rule out the anomalous ‘too-tired to tell good from bad’ or the much more fun – ‘was kinda buzzed and it sounded AWEsome…’ effects.

1. Simplicity of design. There are a number of amps which are very complex. Complexity [think ‘Microsoft Windows’] causes fragility and unevenness of quality across the performance spectrum.

2. New levels of performance, typically in areas people had thought were pretty well exhausted. Think ‘Google search’.

The Lamm ML3 signature amplifiers and the Audio Note U.K. Gaku-On amplifiers are two break-through amplifiers [AN also makes several other amps with the same architecture as the 211-based Gaku-On: the Kegon Balanced 300B amps for example, but lets just talk about the Gaku-Ons for a bit].

Are there other break-through amplifiers?

Historically there was the Kondo Ongaku in the early to mid-90s. Discrete components and extreme attention to each component (many of which were custom), the SET (single-ended triode) architecture, and lots of silver, especially in the custom silver-wound transformer are some of the major highlights at the time.

David Berning also made an amp or two with innovative architectures and which sounded pretty good in several systems. They never seemed to position the amps as state-of-the-art level amps, however, and the largely fickle press largely ignored them.

OK. What about, you know, NOW?

The Audio Power Labs amps are potentially break-through amps. They use some innovative techniques in their amplifier designs, and sound pretty good, although the systems they pair them with have so far had very serious flaws prohibiting any kind of ultimate determination of their quality. [and we blew an opportunity to hear them up here. Doh!]

What about solid-state amps?

Almost all amps have a cool little innovation here or there. The big EDGE NL Reference amps had a simple design and broke new ground, but Edge abandoned that approach and decided to go more for the ‘me too’ sound. The Pass Labs ‘First Watt’ amps are another potential, but in the end just reducing the output is not an innovation and break-through in-and-of-itself.

But if you take the Bryston as the baseline solid-state amp [basic, reliable amplification with a 20-year warranty] then other solid-state amps just seem to be the Bryston with more resolution, or more powerful, or heavier, or cooler looking, or smoother response but are not really letting us see deeper into the music.

So I am not sure there have been ANY break-through solid-state amps.

For those of you who have not heard all the recent over-hyped $120K – $150K solid-state amps, or have only heard these amps and no others, they are better than the $30K amps of a few years ago, but only incrementally. If you want the best solid-state, you have to plunk down the cash, but innovation is happening elsewhere [but check out the new Pivetta “Opera Only” amplifier at 160,000 watts as a possible contender. This is still really new, and are custom built-to-order, but certainly innovative. Stay tuned…].

So, 4 or 5 break-through tube amps, no break-through solid-state amps to speak of, and all this in, what 25 – 30 years?

Note we are not talking about SUCCESSFUL amps. There have been a lot of those and most ‘best of’ lists are just talking about these puppies. And we are not talking about good amps. There are a lot of those [assuming we are grading on a curve which changes every year].

I AM talking about Led Zeppelin versus U2. Zeppelin, a break-through band combining blues and amplified [metalish] music for the first time [watched some of Song Remains the Same last night. What has happened to rock? It is like everyone now acts like they are just playing on the David Letterman show (though I did like Imagine Dragons on Leno – but no break-through here, I think)], versus U2, who were successful but not a break-through band [and the Stones? Massively successful, but… I can see us spending way too much time arguing about this…. so moving on…].

Why talk about break-through amps?

Because they are cool. Because they are making a leap forward [as opposed to incremental improvements, many of which seem like just an update the make the sound reflect the fashionable sound of the day (resolution, dynamics, air, soundstage depth, SPL, amount of bass, slam, etc.)]. Because they are trend setters and there will be many copycats [sort of. This kind of imitation is WAY more common in speakers [can you even count the number of Wilson clones, or Kharma clones, or Sonus Faber clones?], and even cables, than amplifiers].

So, even though the break-through amplifier technology will be largely ignored [which says something about the type of people building amps: iconoclastic to a fault], it is teaching us listeners what we can hear if the amplifier is really, really good. It will influence the listener’s tastes more so than amplifier design, per se.

So, it influences our tastes. This is important.

It also influences our reach, our ability to look behind the reproduction, behind the music if you will, and see the deeper picture.

Because listening to live music is hardly ever leisure listening, it being hard to relax and there is certainly few musicians with a rewind feature, it is up to us listening to the music through reproductive gear to determine what is really good about a particular piece – or at least it is certainly easier for us if we can just get the reproduction to mimic the original production as well as we can. This is really fun and mind-expanding and is one of the benefits of our hobby as our systems get better and better.

I wanted this post to talk about the difference between the AN Gaku-On amps and the Lamm ML3 amps… but this is already kind of lengthy, so we’ll push it off into a future post.