Bryston B-60R integrated amplifier Sam Tellig October 1998
J'ai eu un coup de foudre, as some French hi-fi critics like to say. "I had a thunderclap."
This time it was literally true.
Early last summer, lightning struck the transformer on the street outside our house and the lights went out with a terrible bang. Fortunately, I had disconnected the two hi-fi systems but not our home theater setup—Marina's seestem, in which I'd installed the Bryston B-60 integrated amplifier that I wrote about in May 1997 (Vol.20 No.5). I had also neglected to disconnect the phone line to my computer modem.
Four hours later—around 3am—the power company brought our electricity back on line. I quickly surveyed the damage.
When power came back on to the Bryston B-60, so did the smell of burning silicon. Phew! I quickly flipped the Off switch and heard a horrendous bang through the speakers. Encore un coup de foudre. Yet another thunderclap! Mon dieu! I ran upstairs to test my computer.
It was alive—thank goodness—but my modem wouldn't respond.
No sleep now. I phoned Micron Electronics. After taking me through some diagnostic tests, their tech-support guy shrugged his shoulders (I could hear him shrugging over the phone) and said, "Well, I guess your modem got fried."
"Okay. What to do now?"
"No problem," he said. "You're still under warranty. We'll ship you a new modem tomorrow, UPS Blue."
Now that's customer service. Would I have the same luck with Bryston?
Next day, after catching up on some Zs, I phoned Bryston, got a return authorization number, and shipped the electrocuted B-60 to their service center in Vermont.
Under warranty? Not really. But Bryston fixed the amplifier anyway. I suspect they'd do the same for you, in a similar situation.
I installed the Musical Fidelity X-A1 in Marina's seestem as a stopgap. When the Bryston returned, I decided to try it out again in the living room—with several speakers from B&W, including the CDM1 Special Edition.
Lightning must be good for the amp. For whatever reason, it sounded better than ever. I suspect Marina's steady diet of TV and Russian pop music had more to do with it.
But the lightning had subjected the Bryston to the ultimate burn-in. The sound was now richer, fuller than I remembered—with more body, more bloom in the midrange, and even more sweetly extended highs. Resolution was remarkable. I say "was"—Marina didn't let me hold onto her amp for long.
Not such a hot idea
It's probably not such a hot idea to leave equipment on all the time. While you're home, it's okay to leave your system on overnight when you know you'll be listening again first thing in the morning. But leave home and leave the system on? Uh-uh. In summer, I not only turn all systems off, I pull their plugs.
Besides, many amps don't need to be left on all the time to sound their best. (CD players and digital processors are another matter, alas.) The Bryston B-60 requires only an hour or so of warm-up to sound its best.
Once it's broken in, that is. Like a lot of gear, the Bryston seems to need several months of break-in.
That's tough on reviewers, because we may never get to hear how good a piece of equipment actually is. We've already sent it back and are listening to the next product.
Lonnie Brownell best described the B-60 in the July '98 issue when he called it "stealth high-end." As in Stealth Bomber. As he noted, you won't impress your friends. The amp's not big enough—only 2½" high, it's almost invisible. Nor does it cost enough to cause pain: $1795 with remote, $1495 without. Call me hair-shirt (or harebrained), but I think the remoteless version is more attuned to the B-60's spirit of frugality. (Lonnie disagrees.)
What really riles me are these so-called "experts" who pop up now and then in places like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal to advise the public that one needs to spend at least $10k for a good stereo system. The public, perhaps quite wisely, opts out.
Truth is, you could build a splendid stereo system around the B-60 for under $5k, maybe under $4k. Put a Rega Planet CD player in your solar system and add a well-chosen pair of loudspeakers, like the Meadowlark Kestrel or B&W CDM 1 Special Edition. Out of this world!
Can you do better than the Bryston B-60?
You can do different.
The Conrad-Johnson CAV50, which I'll get to in a moment, sure sounds different. The new C-J integrated has the virtues of a classic piece of tubed gear vs the Bryston's classic solid-state virtues.
Other solid-state integrateds may sound different too. But what of it? Please don't forget that, as critics, we writers are always describing differences. That's good, but sometimes the differences get overblown.
The LFD Mistral that I wrote about in September and the Plinius 2100i that I will be writing about seem to have more light and life. I find they have a somewhat more airy, more open, more immediate sound. But the differences are subtle. Maybe the Bryston is a little less insistent and, over the long term, easier to listen to.
I'm big on the Bryston B-60 not because of any one thing, but because of its combination of attributes. Build quality. Twenty-year warranty from a company that will likely be around for at least another...oh, 50 years. Resolution—hard to beat at any price. Small size. Absence of frivolous features. Most of all, the Bryston represents inconspicuous consumption.
When I'd auditioned the Bryston earlier, I'd had little time to listen to its line amp except through headphones, where it acquitted itself very well indeed. This time I ran a pair of Kimber Silver Streak interconnects from the B-60's preamp out, bypassed the power-amp section, and used the B-60 as a line stage to drive a pair of Cary 2A3 Signature monoblocks.
As you know, I'm not so keen on most active preamps—or line stages, as phonoless preamps are now usually called. The solid-state models tend to give the sound an electronic glare, while tubed units often muddy the sound and muffle the bass. Generally speaking, I think you need to spend around $2000 or more to get a good active line stage. It's enough to make even an active guy like me go passive.
But what's this?
The remoteless Bryston B-60 costs $1495 and is as good as any $2000 solid-state line stage I've heard. No electronic glare. No murky sound. No muddy bass. Clean, quick transients. Superb clarity.
This, of course, is why the B-60 is such a killer with cans. (That's British [it's also US pro talk] for headphones.) 'Phones are driven directly off the line stage: there's enough output, and the power-amp section doesn't come into play. Simpler is better. The result is sonic purity and headphone amplification that are as good as any I've heard from solid-state. (I'm using the Sennheiser HD600 and Grado RS-1 'phones as references—very revealing.)
Even if you listen with headphones once in a while—late at night, for instance—you should put the Bryston at the top of your list for auditioning. Many otherwise fine integrated amps lack a jack for phones.
As for the sound quality, ask Marina.
"I want my Bryston back," she said.
The bi-amping route is available to Bryston B-60 users, by the way; I'd buy a Bryston 2B amp for the bottom end. We're talking big bang for little bucks. Bi-amping is not a panacea, though. When you add an extra amp, you are dis-integrating. The sound may not seem quite as seamless as with an integrated alone. Sorry.
Both the Bryston B-60 and the Conrad-Johnson CAV50 are superb integrateds, but in different ways. I won't make up your mind for you. In typical Tellig fashion, I could live quite happily with either.
So, I suspect, could you.