Bryston B-60R integrated amplifier Lonnie Brownell July 1998
The Anti-High End.
That's who I felt like with this amplifier and it felt all right. Good, even. Let me 'splain.
You've been to the shows, you've read the 'zines, you've visited your local hi-fi salon—which means that you've seen the BIG SYSTEMS. Big speakers. Big amps. Big turntables even, fer crissakes. You know it's what you want, what you would have if you could. It's enough to give a guy (but probably not a gal, as gals seem to be more sensible about these things) System Envy. Size does matter.
Contrast the big-boxes-and-lots-of-'em picture of audio nirvana with this get-up: CD player/integrated amp/speakers. A minimal setup, to be sure, with each part on the smallish side as well (footnote 1). Not an imposing system; not the kind that makes a statement before you even turn it on. The heart of this modest rig, and easily the most visually unassuming member of the group, was the Bryston B-60R integrated amp. The interior decorator inside me was thrilled, but what about his roommate, the music lover/audiohound? Would he find sonic salvation in such a simple setup? Could the two of them peacefully coexist?
There once was an integrated from Bryston...
As I was saying, the Bryston B-60R presents a tidy little package reminiscent of the classic British integrated amps. The "R" is for Remote, which controls volume and provides muting—unavailable without the remote—and adds $300 to the price. That's a pretty expensive remote, when you consider you can buy an entire surround-sound receiver with multifunction remote for $300. But the B-60R is, in true high-end fashion, a hefty chunk of machined aluminum instead of injection-molded plastic, and the Brystonians tell me that the motor drive for the volume control wasn't cheap, either—after all, it's gotta be good for 20 years. Unless you're a total hair-shirt audiofool, you'll want the remote; remotes are good, even if all they let you change is the volume.
The back panel has rows of left- and right-channel RCA jacks for the four line-level inputs, a tape loop, and pre-out/power-in (a handy feature that allows the B-60R to be used to feed a Dolby Pro-Logic surround-sound processor). The five-way speaker terminals that flank the RCAs are a little different from most. Instead of fitting a nut-driver, there are slots in the head that allow you to tighten it with a coin. That's just what this country needs—a good five-cent binding-post wrench. What's more, the coin-drive method's limited torqueability helps prevent over-tightening. Last but not least on our back-panel tour, there is an IEC jack for power.
Frontside and center are three knobs: Selector, Balance, and Volume. A tape-monitor switch and headphone jack may be found on the left; remote receiver, power LED, and power switch on the right. And that's it.
All the signal circuitry is fully discrete, and takes the dual-mono thing to an unusual level: two separate power supplies, each with its own custom toroidal transformer. If you're familiar with the Bryston family, the B-60R is basically their BP-20 preamp and 2B amp conveniently put together into one handy (and did I say small?) package. As one would expect from a company that offers a 20-year warranty, the build quality is outstanding.
The following is a report on the second B-60R to come my way. The first one, while seemingly fine in all other regards, produced a thump on turn-on; not a major, speaker-threatening BOOM, but a low, muffled thud. I mentioned this to James Tanner at Bryston, who said that shouldn't happen. In short order he sent me a new, thumpless replacement.
Let's listen in, shall we?
Over the past several months, I've been listening mostly—and quite happily—to tubed electronics. Then along came the little B-60R, looking so small, so...puny—especially compared to those hulking, glowing tube amps and preamps. How could that little box, which never even got very warm, ever match up? And what could I expect sonically, since my ears had become conditioned to a steady diet of thermionically treated soundwaves—could I go back to the solid-state farm, after seeing the bright lights of Tube City?
Well, sure I could—at least, that's a big "10-4, good buddy" with the B-60R in the mix. The Bryston provided a clean, detailed, transparent soundscape without stridency—or, put another way, offered the virtues of solid-state without the vices. The bass was a particular treat, both with the not-bass-shy NHT 2.5i's and the small-but-boy-just-how-do-they-make-that-much-bass Joseph Audio RM-7si Signatures. Compared to what I'd been experiencing with both the Anthem AMP-1 and the JoLida SJ-502A integrated, the bass went deeper, tighter, and with more control with the Bryston.
On the Yo-Yo Ma/Edgar Meyer/Mark O'Connor Appalachia Waltz CD (Sony Classical SK 68460), "Druid Fluid" features the bass and cello grinding away together, dropping down now and then to their lower registers. The Bryston brought out the power of those sonorous low notes, which, combined with the richly detailed texture produced by rosin, bow, strings, and wood, put me right there—or did it put them here? My notes say "sweet and detailed"—two words you don't always put together, but wish you could. Even when all three virtuosos were furiously sawing away together, there was no sense of confusion; each line was well delineated. The presentation via the JoLida integrated was similar, but somewhat softened: the bass wasn't quite as powerful or well controlled, the focus all around was slightly softer, and the overall soundstage presentation was less forward.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers' Hot (Mammoth MR 0137-2, CD) has seen a lot of play hereabouts, and their nouveau "le jazz hot" was run through this setup as well. The Bryston offered more bite, more brassy brass tone on the trumpet, and the aforementioned firmer grip on the bass. The soundstaging with both the JoLida and Bryston was good, the main difference here being (again) a matter of perspective: the Bryston gave a more up-front look, while the JoLida was more mid-hall. Reading the above, you'd probably think the Bryston had the edge in rhythmic pace. You'd be right, but it wasn't that big a difference; for my money, both amps did an excellent job of keeping the beat.
Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" (from Transformer, RCA AFL1-4807, LP) is a beautiful happy/sad ballad that is also a fine example of mid-'70s state-of-the-art pop production, with 3-D placement of flat, cut-out singers and instruments floating in a multitracked space. It's also a little dry, which the Bryston played back to perfection, but without edge or glare. The song that follows, "Hangin' Round," is a full-on amphetamine (footnote 2) rush that brings a whole new dimension to the concept of "pace." I'm happy to report that the Bryston got me all twitchy during that cut. And yes, that's a good thing.
I was, I'll readily admit, captivated by the intense detail the Bryston was able to bring forth. On Cannonball Adderley, et al's rendition of "Autumn Leaves" from Somethin' Else (Blue Note ST-46338, reissue LP), I was able to easily follow Hank Jones' comping way back in the mix, behind Art Blakey's and Sam Jones' rhythms and Cannonball's and Miles's solos. But this detail didn't come at the expense of soul or beauty. The vinyl reissue of the Piatigorsky/Munch/BSO reading of the Dvor;aak Cello Concerto (RCA/Classic Records LSC-2490) gave me the Irish Coffee Effect: I was energized by the speed of the bow's attack on the strings, then eased by the cello's warm but mournful tone, echoed by a distant flute. "Gawd, that's beautiful," said my notes. "Well put, notes," I replied. "May I quote you?"
Oh, yes, there is a headphone jack. Plug in, and the speakers are muted. (An indicator LED on the front panel turns red so you'll know for sure.) Using my good ol' Grado SR-60s, the sound from the 'phone jack was very reminiscent of the sound from the speakers—clean and quick, but not strident, with excellent bass.
So what was the downside? you ask. Power? For me, no; for the kind of listening I do, which can get loud but not mind-numbingly so, the Bryston offered plenty of power. Any frequency-spectrum aberrations? No, it was completely clean up and down the scale, as you'd have every right to expect. Harshness? No, not at all, though it was a little forward in perspective—which is neither a good nor a bad thing, it just is, and at most is a matter of taste. And it did offer incredible detail without being unnatural.
So was the Bryston B-60R perfect? There was one very small thing—something you don't often find at this end of the price spectrum. It's that almost indescribable something that the absolute best systems (to my taste) have, something that more often than not comes in glass bottles. No, I don't mean intoxicating beverages, but what pours out of vacuum tubes—the ability to impart a sense of dimension to the instruments and voices that transforms them from flat images to living, breathing entities on the soundstage. The JoLida and Anthem amps gave me some of that—the cut-out figures were well shaded, you might say—while the Bryston offered slightly less. Still, because of the detail the Bryston could produce—its stunning ability to expose every nuance and do so without being in my face—I almost forgot to notice.
So tell me what you want—what you really, really want
It's music, right? The audio system is merely a means to that end, but a necessary means, an important one. Right? Right. That's why you're reading Stereophile, and why you'd consider spending as much on a sound system as you would on your car, maybe more. My system, with the Bryston B-60R integrated amplifier at its center, certainly costs more than some used cars, so it passes that litmus test.
I can tell by the way you're fidgeting that you're still worried about impressing the neighbors. Well, don't—they'll be impressed by the sound you're able conjure out of such a small, unobtrusive rig, whether they're audiophiles or not.
Finally, what about the price? Those pesky neighbors (or significant others) may raise their eyebrows at $1795 for such a small box, but you'll know that you've got a true high-end component—a pair of them, actually—in that diminutive enclosure.
Anti-high end? Not me. But I am into stealth high end, and the Bryston B-60R is all of that. Highly recommended.
Footnote 1: Oh, all right, I had a turntable and phono stage, too, but they were kinda off to the side. Uh, yeah, that's right, there were other amps and whatnot also strewn about for comparison purposes. Okay, okay, so those NHT 2.5i's are pretty big, but the Joseph Audio RM-7si Signatures are muy pequeño, so just give it a rest, wouldya?—Lonnie Brownell
Footnote 2: Or something. That Lou...—Lonnie Brownell