January 18, 2012

Best Amplifiers 2011.

In 2010 we dabbled in more than a few power amps, but the situation is outta control in 2011 as our pre amp lust took over and ran amok!

We found the latest batch of luxury audio equipment level of pre amps to be the most neutral, transparent and offer the lowest noise floor of their kind yet. Even the best pre amps made just a few years ago, will sound some what tonally rose tinted and lacked the full transparency factor that allows the lowest of harmonic and timbrel details to be fleshed out, compared to those listed here.

All that I've mentioned of course, excludes the tube based VTL 5.5 Series II Signature. This pre amp remains special to me because of it's non-conformist, i.e. more colourful sonic character. Some like it, others do not, as we have found, and will likely to split opinions.

Sorry guys, we got some what carried away and neglected to find any bargains here this time.

TAD C-2000 pre amp is our current reference!

TAD C-2000 pre amp.

We were completely stunned by how far, this pre amp moved the hifi and musical performance goal post ahead compared to the rest of the pack! It virtually disappeared from the equipment chain, with no sonic character what so ever for us to latch on. A total musical chameleon, it just reflects each and every recording as a whole, without any of the filtering effects in transmission properties when adding another equipment to the chain. Everything in a given recording, even the most subtle of details missed by others, is effortlessly portrayed by this TAD, giving every note it's due time and space to fully develop, lingers on just that bit longer, slowly evaporating in to a fine mist of "air", before the next note starts! The C-2000 is also the most natural sounding pre amp, most free from electronic artifacts that I've yet heard, period! I can't wait to hear how much more it's bigger brother the TAD C-600 has to offer?

Jeff Rowland Corus is one interesting pre amp, but one of my favorite.

Jeff Rowland Corus.

The JRDG Corus is the budget version of the Criterion flagship. The only areas where corners seemed to have been cut is the simplified switching power supply, compared to the more elaborate battery/charger based unit that comes with the Criterion. The sound quality however, does not reflect the cost cutting! It's easily the best performing pre amp that came calling to my system over the years. The sound is exciting, yet at the same time exacting. It's totally neutral when it comes to tonality and one of the most transparent pre amp available now. Perhaps there's a positive sonic synergy matching my Pass Aleph 0 power amps, while in some systems the Corus can sound a bit on the analytical side, which may lead some, if most to prefer the next candidate on the list!

Many will like the Ayre KX-R for it's highly musical and natural presentation.

Ayre KX-R.

Holding joint honours with the JRDG Corus is the Ayre KX-R flagship pre amp. In the context of my already slightly warm sounding system, the Ayre came across as just slightly less muscular. However, I know many who may prefer the more forgiving qualities of this pre amp over the earlier two candidates. Supremely musical and dead silent, jet black back ground lets images stand out in a rather laid back sound stage. The KX-R is just as transparent as the JRDG and never have these two pre amps split more opinions than before, despite their near equal sound quality assessment!

VTL 5.5 Series II Signature can be ordered with a phono stage card, which occupies nearly half the internal space!

VTL 5.5 Series II Signature.

This is the only tube based pre amp design we've tried and it stood out for daring to be different, even if it sounds a little o'skool. Unlike the latest ARC tube pre amp designs which aim to close the gap with solid state likeness in it's sonic character, the VTL should be congratulated for standing it's ground sound wise, just being on the tube side of things. It's warm, inviting tonal colours are as easy on the ears as wearing a pair of well worn jeans. Still highly transparent enough to allow music listening sessions to be enjoyable, while only a slight softening of dynamics and transient was detected, compared against the rest in this group. Full bodied imaging realism and ambiance cues are a plenty, as any proud tube design should be. Viva la difference!

Not that we've played with much power amps this year(as a matter of fact, I didn't), however I feel the following amplifiers are worthy of ones consideration should one decide to do some power shopping. Listed in no particular rank or order.

1) Pass Labs XP-20 pre amp
2) Parasound JC-1 mono block
3) FM Acoustics FM108 mono block
4) TAD M2500 power amp
5) XTZ A100 integrated amp

Next, Best Speakers 2011.


Munwai said...

Pricewise, I don't think the XTZ is in the same league as the other amplifiers mentioned. Is the inclusion of the XTZ more on absolute performance, or due to it's price/performance factor?

Big E said...


You're correct. The inclusion of XTZ integrated amp on the list is due to price/performance ratio above all.

Gotta include a budget entry and it's the first one that came to my mind!

Big E said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Munwai said...

thanks for the reply Big E, just wanted to see the context of things. keep up the good work, always very good to see the posts by the hifi unlimited team :)

Xav said...

Late to the party buy...

Have you guys any experience with Accuphase current amps / preamps ? What are your thoughts compared to your selection ?


Big E said...


There no Accuphase dealers in Malaysia as yet. So we never get the chance to tango with them.

I've a buddy who has an older Accuphase pre amp from the 90's. I thought the sound was on the warm side of neutral, but the level of transparency would be totally out classed by today's best pre amps.

Too bad we can't get Accuphase's latest models.