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.