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October 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Enjoy the Music.com Special 20/20 Award
Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award
High-End Audio Amplification --
Page 1
Steven R. Rochlin chooses the most notable products during the past 20 years.

As Chosen By Editor & Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin

 

  Let's face the facts, amplification might not seem like the sexiest part of high-end audio. It is generally a box of some type that just sits there and doesn't move. Unless there is a power meter or pulsating 'magic eye' vacuum tube, generally an amplifier has a power on light and that's pretty much it.  Without a way to amplify your source, be it digital, analog or live stream, your loudspeakers have no way to produce sound. Enjoy the Music.com gives out very few awards and within our amplifier awards we want to take caution as there are manufacturers who time and again produce outstanding products. With that said, there will be only one award per manufacturer. There are manufacturers who produce a wide variety of ways to amply, such as McIntosh who offers both solid-state and vacuum tube varieties, to be fair we want to spread the amp love as far and wide as possible.

The nearly constant barrage with 'best of' and 'top picks' featuring hundreds of products elsewhere, there is little doubt Enjoy the Music.com is perhaps the most conservative of magazines when it comes to giving out special accolades. With our annual Blue Note awards possibly being the most sought-after within the audiophile industry, as only a very small handful of products get special recognition each year, we want to highlight our 20th anniversary by using our 20/20 vision as it were and look back to some of the best gear.

Enjoy the Music.com Special 20/20 AwardAs Editor and Creative Director for Enjoy the Music.com, it is my honor to look back at the many thousands of reviews and choose the top 20 per category. This month my choices are for the very best in amplification over the past 20 years. In case you missed it, we've already posted our Special 20/20 Award for Analog/Cartridges and our Special 20/20 Award For Digital. Each month i'll follow up with other product types.

No one said that picking only 20 products during the past 20 years would be easy. i take this task with much reflection and contemplation as have seen and heard many thousands of amplification devices over the years. Using my 20/20 hindsight to decide upon 20 pieces of high-end audio equipment is no easy feat! Of course many of these products have been superseded and no longer available as new, yet you may find them used at very attractive pricing. High-end audio does not need to be high priced and here is where some bargain hunters could greatly benefit. Of course some new products will make a good showing as they are today's leading-edge creations. With that said and in no particular order, as Editor and Creative Director of Enjoy the Music.com here are the Special 20/20 Awards for the most notable high-end audio amplifiers during the past 20 years.

 

ElectronLuv Vacuum Tube Amplification
ElectronLuv Vacuum Tube Amplification
Josh Stippich's company ElectronLuv produces amplifiers; each being a one-off artisanal design. No two are exactly alike and he'll handcraft a special amplifier design and motif just for you! During T.H.E. Expo 2003 in Las Vegas he was showcasing the 75TL monoblock amplifier ($35,000 in 2003 dollars). My show report says "Hold on while i clean off the wet spot in my...". That same year during the Vacuum State Of The Art Conference And Show (VSAC) ElectronLuv has their GM100 (Pinto) monoblock tube amplifiers that employ a massive Russian GM100 transmitter tube to produce 10 watts of output. While the GM100 tube is rather exotic, other supporting tubes include mercury vapor(!) Western Electric 354 (made over 30 years ago) and 866. Lundahl trannies and the like make this direct-coupled amplifier. Naturally it is Class A single-ended, which pretty much all of their designs adhere to. Of course i wish we could review one of Josh's amplifier, yet can say that if i ever win the lottery Josh is the first guy i'll be calling on the phone to handcraft a very special custom tube amplifier. Every time i see a sensual ElectronLuv amplifier during a high-end audio show my manly bits still get... you know.

 

Pass Labs X250.8 Solid-State Stereo Amplifier
Pass Labs X250.8 Solid-State Stereo Amplifier
Every longtime audiophile worldwide knows the name Nelson Pass. His amplification designs have appeared within the like of Nakamichi, Sony, Threshold... and of course Pass Labs. Years ago Enjoy the Music.com did a Special Edition featuring Pass Labs that provides great information about the company history, Nelson himself chiming in about Class A, plus many reviews of their products. Within this month's Superior Audio review of the Pass Labs X250.8 ($10,000), Anthony Nicosia says, "As with other Pass Lab products, it has been my pleasure to experience, the X250.8 was again another great performer. Fit and finish of the product is excellent and in keeping with the quality of sound the amplifier was able to reproduce when placed within my system. Soundstage depth behind my loudspeakers was a surprise that I did not expect and added a welcomed dimension to performances that were already a pleasure to listen to. While drawing on 25 pure Class A watts most of the time, when it was needed to move into Class B with all of its 250 watts this amplifier never sounding harsh nor lost its "magic". You can read this month's review of the Pass Labs X250.8 stereo amplifier at this link.

 

Benchmark Media AHB2 Solid-State Stereo Power Amplifier
Benchmark Media AHB2 Solid-State Stereo Power Amplifier
Racking up award after award is the Benchmark Media AHB2 solid-state stereo power amplifier. For the relatively low price of $2995 you get 100 wpc stereo @ 8 Ohms (380 watts bridged mono) and a stunning frequency response from a grand-shaking 0.1 Hz to hummingbird-like 200 kHz (+0/-3dB). You get both unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR, high quality speaker wire binding posts, etc. Using some super tweak circuitry and other modern bits, this tiny 11.04" wide by 3.88" tall and 9.34" deep amp weighs in at only 12.5 pounds! Within his review, Enjoy the Music.com reviewer Greg Weaver says, "Don't make the mistake of assuming that because of its realistic price, miniscule size, or its feather-like weight, that this is not a serious amplifier. To dismiss it with such a foolish and inaccurate assumption would be to your great loss! This little upstart will change the way you look at, and listen to, amplifiers from the first time you hear it. And while I don't really need another amplifier, I'm going to find a way to both placate my wife and work with the fine folks at Benchmark to give this little giant slayer a new home here in the Midwest. Yes, it is that good! I can't imagine a higher recommendation, can you?" Read our review of the Benchmark Media AHB2 stereo power amplifier here.

 

conrad-johnson Limited Edition ART Monoblock Amplifier
conrad-johnson Limited Edition ART Monoblock Amplifier
conrad-johnson limited edition ART monoblock is this longstanding and highly respected company's current reference amplifier. Only 250 units (125 pairs, $39,000) will be sold through selected conrad-johnson dealers and distributors. It produces 275 watt of power and is also available as a stereo amplifier (model ARTsa with 140 wpc). The audio circuit has just three very essential elements; consisting of a SET voltage gain amplifier direct-coupled to a cathode coupled phase inverter (SET), which in turn drives the KT120 vacuum tube output stage. All tubes, all triodes. Having personally reviewed a few conrad-johnson products over the years, somehow we've lost track and have not reviewed one of their products in many years. Exceptional reliability and customer service is backed by true reference level sound quality and parts. Not a single bit inside a conrad-johnson product has been taken for granted and each product is carefully hand assembled in the USA by highly skilled technicians. You can read our review of the conrad-johnson MV60 stereo tube amplifier at this link.

 

McIntosh MC75 Monoblock Vacuum Tube Power Amplifier
McIntosh MC75 Monoblock Vacuum Tube Power Amplifier
"Hold on there a sec Steven" you say, "this list is the best amplification during the past 20 years and thus ye ol' Mc amp is disqualified!" Not so fast there my good man as this is the new version of the fabled McIntosh MC75. Notice the balanced XLR inputs, different speaker wire bonding posts, etc? Naturally it has McIntosh's Unity Coupled Circuit design, a modern extended frequency response from 10Hz to 100kHz and long tube life. Those hefty oversized transformers and sturdy metal chassis make this seemingly small 75 watt amplifier weigh in at nearly 40 lbs. Output tubes are a pair of the reliable and rugged KT88, with three small signal tubes filling in the remainder of the amplification circuitry. Within this modern design is the company's Sentry Monitor tube protection circuit to ensure the MC75 will have a long and trouble free operating life. Of course you could buy a mint condition pair of original MC30 tube amplifiers, yet those do not meet our 'rules' of the past 20 years. Enjoy the Music.com has reviewed a few bits of McIntosh gear and, don't tell anyone this, we've got another one coming soon! :)

 

Audio Note Ongaku (Both Japan And UK Versions)
Audio Note Ongaku (Both Japan And UK Versions)
You read that right, as we'll have one of each thank you. The Japanese version of the Ongaku resided within my home for years and brought thousands of hours of musical bliss. The latest version of the Audio Note UK Ongaku is a modern interpretations of the Japanese original. It is almost reminiscent of the fabled 1950's triode output tube of your choice versus the most updated modern version. Both are extraordinary by any measure, yet each has a unique flavor to the sound that is not to be missed! Ok, so neither one would win any beauty contest, unless it is the most extremely expensive and massively heavy with visually unbalanced design. That award it might have a chance of winning. Yet hook either the UK or Japanese version into a proper high-sensitive speakers such as horns or Audio Note's own creations and you'll get gently washed over with magnificent music. It takes tens of pounds of silver and precision hand-winding of the output transformers to make an Ongaku. How many pounds you ask, how does something like 30 lbs of pure silver, maybe more! Rich, natural, textural and 9D sound (3D x 3D). You can read my review of the Audio Note UK Ongaku here and an article by the late great Hiroyasu Kondo-san about the Japanese Ongaku at this link.

 

David Berning microZOTL Headphone Amplifier (Version 1 And 2)
David Berning microZOTL Headphone Amplifier
Had planned on giving the David Berning microZOTL headphone amplifier ($680) a Special 20/20 Award months ago, as Senior Editor Dick Olsher was blown away by its sound quality. Keep in mind DO's review was 15 years ago! Within this month's edition of our Review Magazine we provide a world premiere review of Version 2.0 ($1100). Ok, so 15 years ago the headphone market had not exploded as it has during the past few years, yet we here at Enjoy the Music.com are always paying close attention to all things audio. Dick Olsher's review back in October 2000 says "The microZOTL’s greatest potential, in my opinion, is as a headphone driver for both low and high impedance designs, but it is versatile enough to find a niche in more exotic applications such as a tweeter amp... Here, for the first time, through the magic of ZH technology it is possible to glimpse directly into the passionate soul of a 6SN7 dual triode, unobstructed by intervening layers of conventional transformers and power tubes. It's a wonderful experience, and if you’re a headphone aficionado, you owe it to yourself to reach out and feel the magic." Fifteen years later our reviewer Tom Lyle says, "But forget for a moment that this headphone amplifier is powered by tubes and has no output transformer as part of its circuit. The Linear Tube Audio microZOTL 2.0, with technology licensed from David Berning, is an excellent headphone amplifier for one reason and one reason only – it sounds excellent. The fact that it can drive just about any headphone being sold today is a benefit, as well as the fact that it can be used as a 'personal amplifier' for those that have a desktop system with speakers that are not self-powered. I give the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL 2.0 my highest recommendation." You can read Enjoy the Music.com's review of the original David Berning microZOTL headphone amplifier here and this month's review of the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL 2.0 headphone amplifier here.

 

Bryston 7B SST2 C-Series Monoblock Power Amplifiers
Bryston 7B SST2 C-Series Monoblock Power Amplifiers
There's simply no escaping it, as Bryston produces some of the world's most solid, incredibly reliable, and mission-critical solid-state amplification within the industry. Many recording studio's worldwide rely on Bryston amplification to work day-in and day-out... as do many multi-channel custom home audio systems. Having used a pair of Bryston monoblocks during my review of the Magnepan 3.6 speakers, and giving them the full torture test, nothing, and i truly do mean nothing, ever hiccup or missed a single fraction of a beat. Our reviewer Anthony Nicosia says, "My experience with the Bryston 7B SST2 amplifiers was nothing short of breathtaking. Being able to listen at levels quiet enough to allow my loved ones to sleep undisturbed, while still retaining a solid feel to the music, was definitely a big plus in my book. The amplifiers had a very tube like magical transparency that gave the music a live "you are there" type of effect. It did all this yet still put out 600-watts of solid-state power whenever it was called upon to do so. They gripped my seven-driver (185 pounds each) Legacy Focus 20/20 speakers with its 12-inch transition woofer and two 12-inch subwoofers and then never let go. I always felt I had plenty of power in reserve as if they were coasting along like a runner in a marathon with plenty of stamina left in the tank. Put them in the proper listening environment, with the right associated equipment plus some good cables and get ready to re-listen to some of your old selections as if for the first time. I like amplifiers that can create good depth to the soundscape and here once again the Bryston's delivered." You can read our review of the Bryston 7B SST2 C-Series monoblock power amplifiers at this link.

 

 

---> Next page for Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award for high-end audio amplifiers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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