Adcom GFA-535 power amplifier

Sometimes products are too cheap for their own good, and people don't take them seriously: the Superphon Revelation Basic Dual Mono preamp, Rega RB300 arm, AR ES-1 turntable, Shure V15-V MR cartridge, and the B&K ST-140 power amp. They can't be any good because they cost so little, right?

Wrong, of course.

Adcom appears to be having the same problem with their $299.95 GFA-535 amp. Credibility.

Now if this amplifier were imported from England and sold for $599.95, then maybe it would be taken seriously. And highly praised, no doubt.

For the baby Adcom is one of the finest solid-state amps I have heard. No, not the best; I'm not sure what is the best. But it's an amplifier that is so good for so little money as to be practically a gift.

Actually, when Rob Ain from Adcom called, I was about as enthusiastic about the GFA-535 as you might have been before reading this piece. But Rob insisted, "You've gotta hear this amp."

He brought it over the next day, along with the GFP-555 preamp ($499.95), and we put both pieces into the rest of the system: a Shure Ultra 500 in a Rega RB300 arm on an AR ES-1 table, with Quad ESL-63 speakers on Arcici stands. Then we chatted for a half hour or so while the electronics warmed up.

And then, simultaneously, the two of us decided to shut up and listen.

"I've never heard the Quad ESL-63 sound better," Rob said. Of course, he was hardly an impartial observer, but the sound was extraordinarily clean, detailed, and musical. If it wasn't the best sound I have ever heard from Quads, it was pretty close.

This humble $300 amplifier was driving a pair of very revealing $3000 speakers and giving a very good account of itself. (We listened first to some Goran Sollscher classical guitar.)

"So how come this product isn't flying off the dealers' shelves?" I asked Rob.

"I don't know. Everyone wants the GFA-555 with 200 watts per channel. Including people who don't need it."

"Does the GFA-555 sound any better?" I asked.

"It's our aim to have all our amps sound pretty much the same. You pay more money, you get more power."

Rob pointed out that while the GFA-535 is rated at 60Wpc, it puts out more like 80. And while I did not do any measurements, my experience with other amps tells me Rob's right. I suppose Adcom doesn't want to steal sales from its GFA-545, rated at 100Wpc and selling for $200 more.

After a couple of hours, Rob left, grinning from ear to ear, and I later sat down to listen alone. True, when I tried certain Telarcs and pushed hard I could get the amplifier to clip—two LEDs quickly light up (very useful). But the Quads were running out of the ability to use the power anyway. My first impressions were confirmed: the GFA-535 is one of the best amplifiers around for driving Quads. Spendor SP-1s, too.

Suddenly, it hit me what this meant. Conventional wisdom had been dealt a severe blow. You know, the old saw that you should never power a good pair of speakers with a cheap amplifier. Here was a cheap amp—one of the cheapest on the market—that sounded good with Quads, Spendors, later Vandersteens. Probably Thiels, too—at least the CS1.2. What it means is you can stretch your speaker budget a bit and get the speakers you really want, then economize by buying an Adcom GFA-535 for $299.95. True, you may be a little power shy, but probably not much. And to say the least, the GFA-535 would make a decent interim amp.

What does the GFA-535 sound like? (You thought I'd forget that part, right?) Well, this is one of the most neutral amps I've heard. While it doesn't sound particularly tubelike, it avoids the typical transistor nasties through the midrange and into the treble. I wouldn't call it sweet—there's no euphonic coloring—but it isn't cold or sterile. What it is, is smooth. And detailed. Far more detailed than I would ever imagine a $300 amplifier could be. The GFA-535 reminds me of the Eagle 2A and PS Audio 200C, amplifiers that sell, respectively, for about three and five times the price. Of course, they have more power. And they are more detailed. The point is, the Adcom comes close. Very close.

The bass, like everything else, is neutral, certainly not fat and overdone. But it's here where you notice that this amp is not a powerhouse. You just don't get the solidity and extension you get with a very powerful (and expensive) solid-state amp. Nor do you get the breadth and depth of soundstage that you often find with a very powerful amp. The Adcom GFA-535 sounds a wee bit small, which it is.

My only criticism, and it's more of a quibble, is that the speaker connectors are nonstandard and unique (so far as I know). You insert bared speaker wire into a hole and twist the connector tight a quarter turn. Most speaker cables will fit, but some will not. Certainly MIT won't. Neither will the best Kimber, the kind with eight clumps of strands. The less costly four-clump Kimber will, and proved an excellent choice. My sample amp was quiet—no hum—and ran cool. There are selectors for two sets of speakers. And the 535 looks nice.

And talk about economy: If you're not into LPs anymore, you could buy a Mod Squad, dbx, or Old Colony line-level switching box—or possibly a B&K Pro 5 preamp, with its switchable line amp section (only $350), or the Adcom SLC-505 passive preamp ($150)—and run it with a CD player. In fact, if you are into CD only (no tape, no tuner, no phono), you could buy a CD player with a variable volume output and run it directly into the Adcom. This amplifier is so good and so cheap that I think any CD owner who buys an integrated amp is nuts.

In its price category, the Adcom GFA-535 is not only an excellent choice; it's the only choice. The real question is whether you should buy one even if $299.95 is much less than you planned to spend for an amp—ie, whether you should put the money into a better CD player or pair of speakers instead.

B&K or Adcom?
The B&K amplifiers, as I have often said, sound tubelike. They work best with speakers that are very extended and very neutral, and particularly well with speakers that tend to be unforgiving in the upper midrange and treble—lean, clean, quick speakers like the Quad ESL-63, Spendor SP-1, Thiel CS2, and Epos ES-14. Adcom amps may be more appropriate with speakers that tend slightly to warmth—the Vandersteen 2C comes to mind.

Mostly, though, it comes down to a matter of personal taste. What kind of sound do you want? I would carefully audition amplifiers from both Adcom and B&K with the speakers I have or intend to buy before coming to a decision. In other words, don't buy one without hearing the other. Of course, if $299.95 is your limit, then your choice is easy: Adcom. I hope the success of the GFA-535 inspires John Beyer, of B&K, to market his own $300 amplifier.

COMPANY INFO
Adcom, LLC
PO Box 2668
Sedona, AZ 86339
(602) 773-1909
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