Digital Amplifier Company MEGAschino MK2 Mono Amplifiers
I have been a tube guy all my life since I bought and built a Dynaco SCA-35 with money from my paper route at age 14. That said, I've owned some fine solid-state amps and preamps over the years – a Phase Linear 700, the Quatre DG-250 (mine didn't blow up on me, but did when my brother-in-law took it to college), an Aragon 4004, and several lesser lights. But normally, my system has been tube-based; conrad-johnson preamplification and Music Reference amplification for most of the last two decades.
I've reviewed and/or had in the home for extended periods some very fine non-tube amps, too, from Linn, Mark Levinson, conrad-johnson, and more. Of these, two were digital (Class D) power amps. Both were modest in price and size, sounded decently good for the money, but could not compete with my Music Reference RM-9II.
I thus came to the review of Digital Amplifier Company's Cherry MEGAschinos with both wariness and excitement. Wariness, because Class D is often scorned by serious audiophiles. But excitement? Over the last several years we have seen on the market many well-reviewed and well-regarded Class D amplifiers. Among these was the MEGAschino stereo amp, given a truly glowing review by Jeremy Kipnis in Enjoy the Music.com's Review Magazine.
Jeremy called it "an outright benchmark maker" and "a total success". Those quotes understate his enthusiasm for the MEGAschino. He was not comparing the amplifier to other Class D units, but rather to the best he had heard.
And so it is with my experience of these remarkable components.
What I will try to highlight are a few elements that characterize and differentiate the monoblocks and the Mk II version of the MEGAschinos, both stereo and mono. O'Brien is quick to remind people that there are many kinds of Class D. It is "like the other classes of amplifiers, but more so". He points out that the variations in software and circuitry make for a greater range of implementations of the design of a digital amplifier.
Unlike most other manufacturers of digital amplifiers, Digital Amplifier Company does not use off-the-shelf boards and then apply their own modifications and design tweaks. According to O'Brien, every amplifier is designed "from scratch, down to the smallest component on our boards." This gives him the flexibility to design "exactly what he wants as opposed to force-fitting a generic design." One might say that that process could be less efficient than buying an already excellent module and working with it, but O'Brien is able to evolve the designs on the fly and stay efficient by eliminating the extra element in the supply chain.
Some history of Cherry Amplifiers proves instructive. All of the Cherry designs going back to 2007 are still being sold. While Digital Amplifier Company's boards are not being made for the early (Classic Cherry) amps, many customers are still running those and there are some boards and upgrade kits still in stock. Digital Amplifier Company will refurbish them and sell them at a discount to both existing and new customers.
Starting with the Maraschino (c. 2013) all the monoblock Cherry amplifiers are supplied with RCA-to-XLR adapters. The end-to-end balanced design prevents "power supply pumping" and thus allows power supply stability via true DC coupling, without any servo or series capacitance in the signal path. All the newer amplifiers from Digital Amplifier Company / Cherry (Maraschino, the x-Cherry multichannel amps, and the MEGAschinos) are DC-coupled.
For the MEGAschino stereo amplifier, O'Brien took the same new modulator technology employed in the Maraschinos and made "radical changes to the output circuitry to allow higher voltages". The changes extended the bandwidth from 100kHz to 150kHz, while roughly doubling the power output.
The Mk2 MEGAschino(s), both stereo and monoblocks, arose from the initial experience with the design. While the power supply is unchanged, the effective capacity of the amplifiers has increased "due to higher efficiency at all power levels". Along with the greater capacity has come a significant reduction in distortion at medium (i.e. "normal") power levels. It is worth noting that the distortion levels are minuscule in any event – and that bears out in the listening.
It is important to understand that changes at Digital Amplifier Company are not made to rush out an ostensible upgrade for marketing purposes. O'Brien is rigorously methodical and scientific about everything he does; he is known for abhorring "snake oil" in audio. Listening is the final proof, but O'Brien is a firm believer "in measurements as a means of validating (his) work".
Next up was Ray Brown's Soular Energy [Pure Audiophile 002 pressing of the Concord Jazz recording]. My notes: "Holy cow". From the first tones of "Exactly As You Go", I had never heard bass like this before. My Ars Aures Midi Sensorials have the ability to go very low; this was firm and full and deep, with great consistency in tone, timbre, and overall 'heft' from the low bass notes to the higher ones. I like this record very much but had never liked it this much. Beyond the bass, the piano sounds just right with the microdynamics of Harris' playing rendered beautifully. Immediately one felt this doesn't sound like a club or a large room – it is just a great studio recording. I thought this is what they were hearing in the studio.
After just a few hours I had already concluded that I had never heard this precision or articulation of voice or instruments before. Further, the depth and width of the soundscape appeared to vary appropriately with the recordings.
A more crowded or congested recording for me, but also a favorite, is Aimee Mann's Whatever [Tidal stream]. The first two cuts, "Fifty Years After the Fair" and "I Should've Known" sound no more congested than the LP and less so than with my Music Reference. The album is a tough test for any component that might be forward or etched but the MEGAs allow for great articulation and nuance of her voice and no hint of dryness, much less bloat. For "Mr. Harris", from the same album I wrote "what a beauty, I've never heard this so sweet". The oboe work, including the lovely short solo by Michael Breaux, just shines, exquisite at any volume level.
Listening And More Listening
I heard more of "Seven Veils" by Peter Murphy [Deep – Tidal stream] than ever before, jumping up an entire synth filigree in the left channel that had for decades been nothing more than some background texture. Bass has been touted as a strength of Class D amplifiers; the differentiation between deep bass, bass, and midbass is sharp; each remains rich in tone and timbre.
From CD, the 1970s recording of Beethoven's Tempest Sonata No. 17 (Decca CD 438 730-2) maintains a stately flow all the way through – I couldn't find any flaws no matter how hard I tried. Again, the presentation is silent, absent of any spurious resonance. Silence may be good, but more important is that the essence of the music comes through – I did not even know that the recording was this good, far better than most people think.
Oscar Peterson Trio with Milt Jackson [Verve LP UMV 2062 Japanese pressing] highlights the fluid interplay between Jackson's relaxed bassline and Peterson's declarative drive on piano. Deep bass and fine balance through the sonic spectrum are offset only by some bits of vinyl congestion here and there on the pressing (notably in "A Wonderful Guy").
With digital source material, differences between Tidal MQA, Tidal standard, CD, and Spotify are clear and consistent. For me, the higher the resolution, the richer the sound, and the greater the emotional impact of the music, other things equal. Analog is, of course, at its best highly resolved and carries the "weight" that for me distinguishes analog sound. But less than perfect or noisy analog is revealed as only a pretender to very fine sound. The MEGAschinos distinguish among and between superb, very good, and passable analog recordings better than any amplifier, or any single component, that I have heard. On the one hand, that can be a bit disappointing – I have discovered that I like some records a little less (though I may love the performance). On the other hand, the palpable truth of a great vinyl disc is its own reward.
So, as revealing as the MEGAs are, how will they sound on "low-fi" source material? The answer is, on balance, pretty good.
Classic low-fi or raw recordings like Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair [Matador LP, OLE 051-1] or Sleater-Kinney's The Woods [SubPop LP SP1110] contain a lot of distortion either native or overlaid. The MEGAs, while ruthlessly transparent and incredibly quiet, manage not to be cold or clinical, which would doom those records for me. You get raw, you get distortion, you get whatever the musicians offer up. If it is there on the recording, you will hear it. And if the music appeals to you, that appeal won't be diminished by the amplifiers' transparency.
Overall, in my system the MEGAs produced notably consistent impressions, regardless of the type of signal source – silent backgrounds, no noticeable added distortion, great clarity, and pleasing, even sweet musicality.
After living with the MEGAs for a month or so, I joked with my wife that I was trying to decide whether they were stunningly stupendous or stupendously stunning. That's obviously a lot of hyperbole but it speaks to the enthusiasm I felt with the MEGAs in my system. It would be irresponsible of me to state that they are better than everything else. I haven't heard dozens of super-amplifiers in my home, and my system, while pretty good, is not a half-million-dollar rig tweaked to a fare-thee-well. But as noted earlier, I have had some fine amplifiers in my home over the years. These easily exceed all of them in overall sound quality, lack of distortion, transparency, liquidity, and yes – pace, rhythm, and timing.
They are toe-tappingly good, they communicate the emotion in music, and they are a constant, pleasant surprise. I struggled to detect weaknesses; at times, there was perhaps a hint of leanness to the midrange. It is equally possible that I am accustomed to midrange that is not lean enough! I cannot be sure.
Within his review of the stereo Mk1 version, Jeremy Kipnis said "The MEGAschino amplifier by Digital Amplifier Company is one of those rare cases where time, money, expertise, and sonic truth have been brought together in pursuit of forging a new level of emotional connection to your favorite music." What I can add is that one can discard the notion that a Class D amplifier cannot get the music right. The MEGAs gave this longtime tube guy the sweetest and most realistic music to date in my home. At a minimum, they deserve to be in any discussion of the finest amplifiers being made today.