Last month I established an upper limit to the retail cost of the loudspeakers I’ll eventually select: $39,900/pair. This month I look at amplification. But first, I want to discuss system configuration.
For a while now, I’ve favored avoiding an analog preamplifier, instead opting for a DAC with built-in volume control. Of course, this can be argued both ways: Some audiophiles prefer the sound, or maybe just the system configuration, of a system centered around an analog preamp. But I prefer to avoid the complexity of the extra component and attendant wiring, because I still think that the simpler an audio system is, the better it sounds. Provided that the DAC with volume control is of high enough quality, I’ve found such systems to sound more resolving and natural. The simpler setup of DAC to amp to speakers also lets me divide my budget fewer ways, and so make fewer compromises in each component category. I can spend all the allocated amplification budget on a single component: I can consider, for instance, a $27,000 stereo power amp or pair of monoblocks, instead of a $13,500 preamp and $13,500 power amp. That greatly expands my choice of amplifiers.
So let’s put the upper limit for amplification at $27,000.
With all that in mind, I’ll start off with the first round of amplifiers that have appeared in my viewfinder. The Boulder Amplifiers 1160 stereo amplifier costs $27,000 and has a number of things going for it that are attractive to me. It outputs 300Wpc into 8 ohms and is stable into virtually any load, and for those reasons is a perfectly adequate reviewer’s tool. It’s also new, and Boulder products have the longest life cycle of any company I know -- they’ve made some of their models for over 20 years now. So if I buy an 1160, at least I know I’ll be able to have current-model amplification for probably as long as I’ll be in the reviewing game. As for sound, though I haven’t heard the 1160, I did own its predecessor, the 1060, and its big brother, the 2060, and loved the neutral, quiet sound of both.
I’ve written about the fact that I bought a used Coda Model 11 stereo amplifier to use in the interim to drive review speakers. When I hooked it up, I could not get over how good it sounded, which is amazing -- it’s 20 years old. So of course I have to include in this list Coda’s System 150 ($17,500), the update of my favorite Coda model of all time, the System 100. Coda flies under the radar of many audiophiles, but don’t let that fool you. Those guys in Sacramento have been building great amps for longer than I’ve been an audiophile, and I’ve been of fan of every one I’ve heard. I bet this new model is the real deal.
I’ve admired T+A Elektroakustik from afar for a while now. I’m always interested in their display at Munich’s High End, because they typically display something cool, and often innovative. Whenever I’ve heard their components in systems at shows there’s been, essentially, nothing to fault. The only question is, in their vast line of electronics, which model should I look at? I could see myself owning a PA 3100 HV ($21,500) -- the lone integrated amplifier on this list -- but if I have a DAC with a volume control, the volume-control functionality of an integrated would be pointless. Perhaps the better candidate would be the A 3000 HV power amplifier ($18,500), rated to deliver 300Wpc into 8 ohms. I could add the PS 3000 HV external power supply ($13,500) for an even more ambitious approach, but then the total cost of my amplification would exceed 30 grand. Hmm . . .
At a slightly more attractive price than the Boulder 1160 is the Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Progression Stereo ($22,000), which delivers 300Wpc into 8 ohms, or doubles down to a whopping 1200Wpc into 2 ohms. As a former Krell owner -- I probably had at least ten different models of Krell amp over the years -- I know D’Agostino’s older work well. As with T+A, I’ve heard his present company’s products only at shows, but have never failed to be impressed.
Finally, my list must include some model of vintage amplifier. For a couple months now I’ve been using a Coda Technologies Model 11, and I’ve been so satisfied -- no, thrilled -- with its performance that I’ve found myself asking: How much better can it get? I’ve paraded expensive amplifiers through the Music Vault for many years, and now, with this 20-something-year-old amp, I’m not missing any of them? What gives? The whole experience has got me thinking about other vintage amps, perhaps with a couple grand invested for new capacitors and a thorough tune-up.
For instance, one of my favorite stereo amps ever was the Krell KSA-300S, which sold for $8900 in the mid-1990s. If a power amp is only as good as its power supply, the 185-pound Krell had at its heart a 5kVA transformer, and the sweetness of sound that it seems only class-A amps can deliver. Its Sustained Plateau Bias circuitry kept it from running superhot at all times, and it could drive any speaker ever made. If I could pick up a mint unit for three grand, then put $2000 into refurbishing it, I’d have a $5000 investment in an amp that would probably last another 20 years and -- who knows? -- might be as good as almost anything available from then until now.
The rest . . .
With my price limit on speakers set at $39,900/pair, and the highest-priced amplifier option at $27,000, that leaves the source and cables to round out the total system cost. In my opinion, the source component -- in my case, a DAC with built-in volume control (I use my MacBook Pro for music delivery) -- does not need to cost an arm and a leg. Great digital doesn’t need to be über-expensive, despite what some audiophiles would have you believe. So I’m going to set the upper limit for my digital source component at $10,000, and there’s a good chance it’ll cost less than that. I’ll explore those options next month.
I’m not factoring into the price of my system room acoustics or power conditioning. That’s not to say that those aren’t critical to sound quality -- we all know they are -- but they’ll vary greatly from system to system, and in some cases, like mine, are already factored into an investment in my home. This series of articles considers only the products needed to make sound, not anything extra that you may or may not already own.
The last component in the system will be cables, on which I intend to spend no more than $5000.
So there you have it: $81,900 retail is what I think will buy a system worthy of SoundStage! Ultra, and deliver state-of-the-art sound without getting into trophy hi-fi. After next month’s article on digital sources, I’ll update this series only when I actually buy something -- probably by January 1, 2018.
. . . Jeff Fritz