Like most audiophiles, I salivate over the latest Jurassic, second-mortgage-inducing power amplifier. Whether it's about the music itself, or simply "my amp is bigger than your amp" one-upmanship, we all know that those who risk a hernia in pursuit of the ultimate in sound invariably come out winners.
The auteur theory of the cinema, first described in the 1950s by François Truffaut, states that a great movie represents the artistic vision of one person, usually the director. Moviemaking may involve collaboration, but it cannot be done successfully by a committee. There has to be a single individual in charge, one whose sensitivity and world view is reflected in the movie. In the same sense that the author of a novel is telling a story through the medium of print, the director of a movie is telling a story through the medium of film.
Several issues back, I mentioned a major "new wave" of power amplifiers coming along: the Adcom 555, the New York Audio Labs transistor-tube hybrids, and the latest Krells, for example. They demonstrate that major audible improvements are still possible in something as well-explored as the power amplifier. Not only that, some of these products demonstrate that superior performance can be combined with relatively low price.
I remember having a conversation with an audiophile some time ago about the thorny subject of choosing an amplifier. He was convinced, on the basis of an article he had read in Stereo Review, that all amplifiers of a given power rating sound pretty much the same. Although he was sufficiently well off to buy just about anything on the market, he didn't want to waste his money. He chose the amplifier for his system by going through the Audio Annual Directory Issue, calculating the price:watt ratio for each amplifier that was listed, and then bought the amplifier with the lowest price/watt figure that had enough power to drive his speakers. He didn't do any comparative listening and didn't consider buying anything that cost more for the same power, because he knew already that it wouldn't sound any different.
In the fall of 1982, I had just become the Editor of the English magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review. Hi-fi was in a state of flux. The Compact Disc had just made its debut in Japan, but the British and American launches were six months and a year away, respectively. The Linn orthodoxy prevailed about the role of the source in system performance, but there was no agreement about what was and was not important when it came to enhancing the musical experience. "Objectivists" insisted that amplifiers and even loudspeakers had pretty much reached a design plateau where no further improvement was necessary or even desirable, while "subjectivists" were fragmented. All I was aware of was that my system, based on Celestion SL6 loudspeakers, needed more of an undefinable something.
This is something we don't see too often: an entirely new approach to power amplifier design. As Quad points out in its literature for the 405, class-A operation of transistors provides the lowest distortion, but drastically limits the amount of power an output transistor can deliver without overheating. (Most transistor amps use class-AB output operation, in which each of a pair of power transistors handles part of each signal cycle and shuts down during the other part. Imperfect synchronism between the two halves causes the familiar "crossover distortion," which accounts for most solid-state sound. In class-A operation, each output transistor draws current though the entirety of each signal cycle, eliminating the crossover transition but doubling the amount of time current is drawn, and thus tending to cause the transistor to heat up more.)
I must admit, right from the outset, that I find reviewing electronic components harder than reviewing loudspeakers; the faults are less immediately obvious. No preamplifier, for example, suffers from the frequency-response problems endemic to even good loudspeakers. And power amplifiers? If you were to believe the older generation of engineers—which includes some quite young people!—then we reached a plateau of perfection in amplifier design some time after the Scopes Monkey Trial but well before embarking on the rich and exciting lifestyles afforded us by Reaganomics. (In the UK, it is generally felt by these people that the date coincided with the introduction of Quad's first current-dumping amplifier, the 405, in 1976.)
I must admit that even before I connected up this amplifier I was put off by the accompanying literature. B&K makes some persuasive points about the validity (or rather the lack thereof) of some traditional amplifier tests, but the literature was so loaded with flagrant grammaticides, syntactical ineptitudes, and outright errors that I could not help but wonder if the same lack of concern had gone into the product itself (eg, the term "infrasonic" is used throughout to mean "ultrasonic"). Good copy editors aren't that hard to find; B&K should have found one.
For many audiophiles, choosing a power amplifier is a vexing problem. Just how much must one spend to get true high-end sound and a solid build quality? How much power is really needed? And what amplifiers are suitable for driving low-impedance loudspeakers?
I am reluctant to call any given transistor power amplifier a "best buy" or "breakthrough." From my talks with designers and other audiophiles, it is clear that the state of the art in power amplifiers is about to change. From where I stand, the Adcom GFA-555 is the first sample of this new wave. It is so clearly superior to past amplifiers in the low- to mid-priced range—not to mention most amplifiers two to three times its pric—that I can unhesitatingly recommend it for even the most demanding high end system.
"My car is supercharged, not turbocharged, so you see there's no throttle lag," explained Yves-Bernard André as he reversed at what seemed like 80mph up a narrow cobbled Paris street. "D'accord," I mumbled, afraid to loosen the white-knuckled grip I had on the passenger grab handles. Yves-Bernard's car may have been pointing the right way down the one-way street, but it was not actually traveling in that direction. Okay, so it was 2am and the good residents of the Dix-septième Arrondissement were busy stacking Zs (en français, "emplier les ronflements"). But I still didn't think we would've been able to explain the logic of the situation to the gendarmes (les flics, en français).