In all likelihood, some will notice this review has
some things in common with my November 2011 review of the Edge
10.2 power amp, because Maker Audio is led by Tom Maker, one of the
founders of Edge which was sold to RB Manufacturing in 2008. I recommend reading
that older review to familiarize oneself with some of the construction ideals
that were carried over to the current design, although the Edge 10.2 and the
Maker Audio NL14+ are different animals, the Edge 10.2 is a single chassis
design versus the Maker Audio NL14+ which is a two chassis monoblock. There are
still some sonic similarities, yet they have been improved upon in this new
amplifier. Those familiar with the older design will probably notice that the
new Maker Audio amps have done away with the thick aluminum cabinet, instead
using laser cut stainless steel on this pair of amplifiers. More important are
the internal changes; the new amps have 20% more output power, increased
transformer efficiency, and the shielding of these transformers have been
improved. Plus, they use a new filtering power supply that was derived from the
older design in the Edge amps, yet built into the new models so no external AC
line filters or conditioners are needed. Best of all, Maker Audio has
significantly decreased the price
of their new amplifiers compared to older Edge models.
For its power supply Maker Audio "preforms" the capacitors. Basically, this is done by putting all the caps in a big oven and heating them to 175F for 24 hours, and then follows this up by cooling them for another 24 hours. They run 4 to 5 Amperes of current through each and every capacitor for an hour, and then they sit for 3 hours. The capacitors are hand matched for value and AC resistance to within 2%, which ensures that all the capacitors in the amps are working at the same level. This greatly reduces the break-in time for the amp from 1000 hours down to a more realistic 250. The cryogenically treated circuit boards of the NL14+ are thicker than "normal" circuit boards. Maker Audio specifies 2 ounce copper for the boards, and they also allow for "open" traces, which means they do not silk-screen the entire trace, which allows a larger build-up of solder on the traces and thus more current handling on these traces. They also plate the double sided though-holes on the printed circuit boards with gold so that they get the best possible soldering connection, which among other benefits improves upon the long-term reliability of the assembly.
Maker Audio's new output resistors use a unique ceramic technology that is specifically made for their use, so where a normal 5 Watt resistor may cost 30 cents these are close to 20 times that cost. Maker Audio claims that the sonic difference between the inexpensive resistors and the resistors used in their amplifiers are considerable. Also matched by hand are the differential input pairs, which are matched to a tolerance of .5% after purchasing them in lots of 25k, which only about 1500 are selected. The internal feature that will most likely impress, and in my experience is unique, is their laser biasing -- in which a laser diode tracks the DC rail voltage by shining into the transistor junction which, according to Maker Audio, favorably affects the driver transistor.
The NL14+ monoblocks are rated at a hefty 325
Watts per channel into 8 Ohms. Weighing in at over 110 pounds each, they weren't
nearly as difficult to install into the system as they were to carry up two
flights of stairs to my main system. There they stayed; flanking the Arcici
Suspense equipment rack connected to a Balanced Audio Technologies VK-3iX
preamplifier by two 1.2 meter Furutech Lineflux balanced interconnects. The
analog source remains a LyraKleos phono cartridge mounted on a Tri-Planar 6
tonearm. The tonearm was one of the last that original company owner Herb Papier
hand-constructed for me at the turn of the century, which as far as know was
first used in his massive system for a short time before he handed it over. The
Tri-Planar is affixed to the arm-board of a Basis Debut V, which was upgraded
from a Gold model by A.J. Conti and his team in New Hampshire which was a quite
expensive (at least to me) upgrade. What was even more surprising was that it
took almost six months to complete. The tonearm is wired with Discovery cable,
which continues as it exits the tonearm for a little more than 1 meter and then
terminated with Cardas RCAs. The phono preamp is a Pass Laboratories XP-15 set
with a resistance of 100 Ohms and boosts the gain of the cartridge to 66 dB. The
digital front ends consists mainly a Dell PC running Windows 7, running the open
source FOOBAR 2000 which plays FLAC files that are stored on external
hard-drives. It took a while to get everything set the way I wanted, but along
with other configurations I was able to set Kernel Streaming (KS) so that it
bypasses the computer's internal mixer, sending an unadulterated music signal to
the USB outputs.
The USB cable is a GT2 by Furutech, which is connected to the DAC I happen to be using; currently I've been switching between a Wadia 121 Decoding Computer and a Benchmark DAC1PRE. The Benchmark's days might be numbered as I've been itching to get my hands on one of their newer DAC2 processors. Also used is an Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition to spin SACDs, with its analog outputs connected directly to the BAT preamp. Every once in a while I'll play a CD, DVD or DVD-A through the Oppo, with its digital output connected to the DAC de jour with either a Virtual Technologies or MIT 75-Ohm digital cable. I tried a bunch of speaker cables with the Maker Audio NL14+ to connect to the host speakers, a pair of Sound Labs DynaStat electrostatic/hybrids. Models by Virtual Technologies, MIT, and DH Labs were used at one time or another. The speakers are augmented by a Velodyne HGS-15b subwoofer, which to some it might seem odd that I use such an "old" model, but this monster not only uses a 15" woofer, but is powered by its internal amp that puts out 1250 Watts with a peak power of 3000, and can reach down to 18 Hz with a tolerance of 3 dB. One of the differences between this and the newer model is remote microphonic crossover and level set-up, but I've learned quite well how to set up this model without any external help. Of course I realize there have been other improvements since this model was manufactured, as a result I wouldn't refuse a newer subwoofer system. But I'm not in any hurry; mostly because of the top-notch sonic results I've obtained with it over the years, not to mention the fact that it has been so reliable.
With the NL14+'s in the system I dug deep into my music collection playing old favorites to hear them with them in this new light, as well as some new favorites. I seemed to subconsciously (and consciously, I'll admit it) favor vinyl over digital only because it sounded better, and seemed to bring out the best in the gear under review. I listened to all formats through the NL14+'s, and they were able to bring out the best traits that are contained within them all. Even though the digital front-end is certainly more than listenable, and I should be very glad that I've been able to reach this level, so if I were left only with that format I'd be ok, at least for a while. But I've upgraded my vinyl playback system to a higher level than my digital, so that is the best way to describe my time with these Maker Audio amps.
One record I've heard all my life (or at least it seems that way), is The Who's Live At Leeds, the version I currently listen to most often is the reissued LP on Classic Records. A relatively new one that I've been listening to almost constantly is Pentagram's Live Rites, the limited edition double-LP of these underground doom-rockers recorded live in Finland in 2011. What could an all analog pressing recorded in 1970 have in common with a digital (most likely) live recording pressed onto vinyl less than three years ago? Musically and sonically, plenty: Both feature a power trio – guitar, bass and drums, with a lead singer with occasional back-up vocals. Both have guitarists that aren't afraid to overload both their amps and the recording medium, and both LPs – when considering their sound quality, anyway – are gems with slight flaws that only add to the excitement of the recorded material. Neither of them are audiophile recordings in the sense of real musicians playing real instruments in a real space, yet the younger set will debate that fact and I'll back them up on this – that these are real musicians, and although their instruments are all connected in some way directly to the recording console, the experience of listening to these records is not diminished by the fact that the excellent soundstage reproduced on these slabs of vinyl does not replicate a "real" space. Through the NL14+'s, in one's mind's ear one could easily isolate the sound of the instruments and the vocals in space, especially the different parts of the drum kit. The Maker Audio amps have a keen sense of separation of each sound without overanalyzing, that is, on both records the drums sound like real drums recorded in a live setting, not letting any frequency overwhelm the others even though these frequencies seem to be extended far beyond the levels of human hearing. Some of the bass frequencies on the kick drums, and sometimes even the toms, are subsonic and can only be felt, of course adding to the exhilaration that a loud rock record can produce.
On the other end of the sonic spectrum lie the cymbals, which emanate from the tweeter section of my speakers without a hint of spit, strain, roll-off… name your treble-anomaly. Added to this was a natural ping and splash, which depended not only on the strength of the stick hitting the cymbal, but the location on where the cymbal was struck. The upper-treble of the NL14+ was complex, natural sounding and appropriate. It was piercing when it needed to be, sparkling when it needed to be, and very "pitch" specific at all times. I could go on, but the most important feature of the treble, at least to me, was that it was able to differentiate between treble sounds, so for example, besides all the traits listed above it could discern between the different size and shapes of the cymbals, which became even more important when playing jazz albums that featured skilled and creative drummers. This trait bled over to classical, too, where the different instruments that contain lots of treble energy combine to form a large part of the ensemble. So when NL14+'s ability to separate instruments and groups of instruments combined with its discernment prowess in the upper treble, it led to a more natural sound, and aided in achieving that paradigm of real instruments recorded in a real space.
But I digress. Both the rock albums mentioned above were also a showcase for the midrange, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Lead vocals as sung through a hand-held microphone might not be a purist's idea of a way to judge midrange transparency, but neither would a microphone pressed up to the grille of a guitar or bass amp. Still, the midrange was so natural sounding that it was as if the Maker Audio amps became an invisible link in the chain. Yes, they provided the power that was needed to push the music to a more than realistic level without a hint of strain, but it also added very little of its own character to the sound of the instruments and vocals that contained a great deal of midrange energy, in other words, all of them. More than ever before I was hearing exactly was pressed onto to the records, and the exact intentions of the musicians and all the people and machinery that were involved in bringing the performances into my listening room. One might think that I'm trying to say that the NL14+'s sounded as the proverbial straight wire with gain. They weren't, and if I had discovered this Holy Grail I'd be the first one to tell you. But still, the NL14+'s seemed to provide my speakers with a purest signal I've ever experienced from my upstream gear.
At the same time I am writing this review, the Winter Olympics are being held in Sochi, Russia. Regardless of height of excitement or depth of indifference one may have for this event, it has encouraged me to play some Russian music. One of the best recordings I played was the triple LP set of Romeo & Juliet on Decca with Lorin Maazel conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. When hankering for a recording of real musicians playing in a real space, this set is a perfect example. This recording has been a favorite of mine since I first acquired it on a London pressing the late 1980s. Word on the street is that the Decca and London versions are identical in that the discs themselves were pressed in the same factory in England with different labels, but in the US London Records made their own inserts and sleeves. Still, the excellent copy I now have on Decca always makes me happy every time I spin it, not only for the excellent performance that was captured, but the records' excellent sonics that Decca's British team of producers and engineers were able to capture. There are so many moods that are involved in Prokofiev's score, and it's a record with such excellent sound quality that these records have spent plenty of time on the turntables at audio shows back in its day. I'm sure there are still some that use this as a demonstration disc. Of course they are likely to play the more turbulent scenes where the orchestra is going full tilt. And so I did when I played it with the Maker Audio NL14+'s in the system, making the window frames of the listening room shake even when the volume was set to a normal (ahem) listening level. Even during the more tranquil scenes and passages this disc was a showcase for the positive traits of the amps. But lately I've been drawn toward the more turbulent episodes -- it is these that push the equipment to its limit, is a showcase for the gear under review. As early as side one on the first disc, during the Act One track seven, titled The Duke's Command, it seems to have it all -- the entire orchestra roaring fff with added percussion including the familiar tubular bells, and it's no wonder that that these records were used during audio shows: its fine sonics are joined by electric performance, and as an added benefit the composition is a masterpiece.
In my listening room the NL14+ was able to separate each instrument in the score without ever sounding analytical, it was as if I was listening to the ballet score recorded so many moons ago (1973 to be exact) through some sort of sonic picture window. No home stereo is going to be able to replicate the sound one hears when sitting close to the orchestra, the proscenium of the theater in full view. But the important gestalt and the bursts of suspension of disbelief never occurred as often previous to installing the NL14+ in my system. Breaking down the characteristics into treble, mid, and bass, seems highly unnecessary, as the record sounded like music, plain and simple. Yes, the bass was tight, tuneful, and muscular, reaching to subsonic levels. I could close my eyes and picture clouds of rosin surrounding the double bass section, the cellos closer to the mid-section of the soundstage, the NL14+'s transparent midrange aiding not only their sound, but the entire middle section of the orchestra.
The highs of the Maker Audio NL14+ amplifier sounds pure and sweet, and not once did I think of jotting down the words "tube-like" or "solid-state" in my listening notes because the sound of the amps did not belie the innards of the amps, in other words, this was just not an issue that one thinks about when hearing music. A live orchestra does not sound like tubes or transistors, it sounds like music. Audiophile traits such as soundstage seemed almost secondary, the sound of the amp stepping out of the way to deliver more of the traits that were present on the recording than traits that are part of the personality of the amp. Yes, the soundstage went wide and deep, beyond and behind the speakers, and peeked out into the room to envelope me in sound, at the same time without seeming as if it was doing this in a forward or aggressive manner. I think that some might find fault in the Maker Audio amp in that the image outlines weren't as razor sharp as I've heard some amps render them, but the organic method in reproducing the music was there in spades, and to think of the music broken down into audiophile approved terms seemed at times seemed silly, because again, I was listening to the NL14+'s reproduce music in my listening room with a level of performance that was previously unequaled.
That being said, the Maker Audio NL14+ monoblocks are statement amplifiers that are available for a relatively down to earth price that certainly impressed me, and likely will impress anyone who has the opportunity to audition them. It certainly didn't hurt that when set up in my listening room they look fantastic – Maker Audio's decision to clad them in stainless steel rather than the more common aluminum has paid off – the fit and finish of these amps are outstanding, and they look great. I feel privileged that I have been chosen as one of those audiophiles that had the opportunity to audition them for an extended period, and I hope this review gives one a vicarious thrill, at least enough that it compels one to find a way to audition this Maker Audio component.