Crown Macro Reference power amplifier
Yeah, you remember Crown from the "old days"—this was a big brand in the 1970s and before. If you lived in the Boston area, you remember the "high-end room" in the back of Tech Hi-Fi. Crown gear. The stuff had a very good reputation for sound and reliability.
Then Crown did a slow fade from the audiophile scene, preferring to do business with professional musicians and those who buy amps for schools, churches, clubs, and the like.
There's something very blue-collar American about the appearance of Crown gear: plain, basic, no-nonsense, meat and potatoes. The stuff is made in Elkhart, Indiana. There's also something very middle-American about the "Crown accessories" you can purchase to show your pride in your amp.
I'm not talking about speaker wires or interconnects or power cords. I'm referring to the "Crown-Style Ambassador Jacket, constructed of durable 75% polyester/25% cotton-chintz finish poplin." Available in S-M-L-XL-XXL. (Wow—XXL. That's me!) "The embroidered 3-color Crown loop is located above the left breast." Touching. Only $44.95 plus shipping. Want one right away? Call toll-free, (800) 535-6289.
The $3500 Crown Macro Reference will not win any beauty contests. First thing that turned me off when I turned it on was the blinking lights, which indicate dynamic range. It's great. When there's a pop or a tick on a record, the lights go crazy and so will you—if you look. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a place to hide this amp, so I covered the lights with black paper.)
Then there's the plastic faceplate with the logo that lights up in green. Ghastly. There's no relief to be had by turning off the lights in the room—not just yet. (On future versions, you'll be able to make the logo go dark.)
On the plus side, remind yourself that you are not paying for bulletproof faceplates and the like. Inside, the Crown Macro Reference appears to be very well, but not extravagantly, constructed. There's no doubt that you're getting your money, parts- and construction-wise.
It's not only the looks you have to get over. The owner's manual is filled with references to "IOC," "ODEP," and "PIP" (Programmable Input Processor). I'll let someone else take you through all that. What I especially like is the dust filter. Yup, the washable dust filter that's built into the plastic faceplate. Just unscrew the faceplate and wash the dust filter in a little warm detergent. (The dust filter is necessary because there's a fan inside the amp. A very quiet fan, I might add, which only goes on when necessary.)
Macro Reference Fever
The New Jersey Audiophile Society fans are anything but quiet.
Dr. Howard Sosna, an oral surgeon and member of the New Jersey Audiophile Society (and who is not "Howie Hyperfy"), tried to infect me with Macro Reference Fever. It was sweeping the NJAS and threatening to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge. Howard very kindly arranged for Crown to send me a unit.
"You can scoop the world on this," said Howard.
Well, not quite. Bascom King beat me to it in the June 1992 issue of Audio.
I laughed when I took the Crown out of the box.
You can laugh too, the way Lars did—but shut up and yust listen.
Cat out of the box
"This amp looks industrious," said Lars.
"Industrial," I replied. "I am industrious for bringing over this amplifier."
Later, after we'd finished our audition, Lars said, "Well, I guess you'll have to let the cat out of the box on this one."
"Bag, Lars. Bag. The expression is 'cat out of the bag'."
"Box, bag, what's the difference?"
Lars was impressed. The Crown amp had done a very credible job of driving his WATT Series II/Puppies. It should. The Crown kicks out an impressive 700Wpc into 8 ohms—even more if it's bridged into mono. And yes, you can hear all that power. The Crown sounds clear, quick, clean (like the Meridian 605s)...and very powerful (unlike the Meridian 605s).
"Going to get a Crown, Lars? Give up your Krells?"
Not so fast.
What impressed me most about the Crown on Lars's speakers was the speed and transparency. This amp is clear, clean, quick. On the other hand, the Crown amp—while no slouch on the bottom end—just does not have the weight and authority of a pair of Krell 300s...what Lars calls "heft."
Lars thought the Crown had an "airy feeling," that it captured the recording environment. And Lars deemed the Crown's tonal qualities "excellent." To all of which I would say "Amen."
What I do miss with the Crown, though, is that flowing, liquid quality I described with the Meridians. And I don't quite get the "palpable presence" I get with great tube gear.
All in all, though, I have to say that the Crown Macro Reference may be the best buy today in a very powerful solid-state amp. (If you're talking pure value, the B&K monos and the Adcom GFA-565s are probably better buys. But the Crown puts out more watts, and there's something exhilarating about all this clean, clear, quick power.)
As of this writing, Lars has not traded in his Krell 300s for a Crown Macro Reference—so perhaps he prefers the Krells. I agree with Lars that the Crown lacks the heft of the Krells, but perhaps the comparison is unfair. Too bad I didn't have a pair of Crowns in bridged mono mode—now that might have given the Krell 300s more of a run for a lot less money.
On the plus side, the Crown does not run hot, thanks in part to the fan. You can leave it on for long periods of time without turning your listening room into a sauna (Scandinavian Lars seems not to mind that) or running up your electric bill to absurd levels.
I'm trying to restrain my own enthusiasm for the Crown—I don't want to be seen losing my marbles. But this is a damned good amp. I still prefer tubes, but that's my personal preference. I do note that at least one of the New Jersey audiophiles is using the Crown Macro Reference with a tubed preamp—the CAT. My own auditioning of the Crown with another tubed preamp, the excellent new Audible Illusions Modulus 3, indicates that a tubed preamp may be a good way to go with the Crown. It can give you some of the liquid quality that is otherwise missing. The Crown itself, like many solid-state amps, seems a little dry. (The Meridian amps sounded smoother, softer—definitely sweeter.)
I'm not crazy about the Crown cosmetics—with or without a switch to turn off the lights. Nor am I crazy about the fact that you can't use RCA plugs straight in—you need to adapt the plugs to RCA phono jacks with a pair of simple Radio Shack adapters. (An "Esoteric" version of the Crown, $3995, will allow you to use standard RCA phono jacks, or XLRs for balanced connection.)
Still, most of my quibbling is just that. This amp gives the big boys—eg, Krell, Threshold, Jeff Rowland Design Group, Mark Levinson—a run for their money. It does this, in part, by dispensing with pricey cosmetics. I highly recommend this amp—especially if you need gobs and gobs of cool-running power to drive ridiculous speakers and don't want to pay for it!—Sam Tellig
After the Crown went back...
I switched to the Krell KSA-150, using this amp for the first time with the Audible Illusions Modulus 3. True, the Crown sounds quicker than the Krell. But even the Krell '150 (never mind the '300s) has Lars's "heft." The Krell gives the midrange more bloom, more body. If the Krell is less fast, it's also less threadbare than the Crown. In fact, the Krell is not threadbare at all. All of which is to say that the Krell is perhaps less likely to induce listener fatigue. As some reviewers like to say, the Krell is a convincing design. And I hasten to remind you that, so far as I know, no amp excels at everything. Also, the Krell KSA-150 was a honey of a combination with the tubed Modulus 3—a statement which I'm sure will give Krell's Dan D'Agostino fits. But there's something to be said for pairing a great tubed preamp with a great solid-state amp. When the combo clicks, you get a combination of sweetness and solidity.