Hafler Transnova 9500 power amplifier Page 2

The brightness I noted with the WATT/Puppies was nowhere in evidence here. On Behold Man, another selection on this sampler, this time of solo chorus (from Testament, RR-49CD), the overall balance was excellent, with no sense of brightness or leanness but rather compellingly natural warmth and acoustic space. The latter is particularly notable throughout this CD, and the Hafler did an especially good job of reproducing it. Likewise in the portrayal of depth, where the front-to-back layers of the chorus were clearly audible.

Nor did the 9500 shortchange other types of program material. The solo voices on The Fairfield Four (Warner Bros. 26945-2) had just the right degree of body and warmth, the individual voices easily distinguished in the mix. Magazine 60's "Don Quichotte" (Northern Exposure, MCA MCAD-10685) was wide open and clean, with a punchy, tight low end. Inner details were sharply defined, but not overdone. And Robert Lucas's voice on Usin' Man Blues (AudioQuest AQ-CD 1001) was uncolored and very much in-the-room, his guitar crisp and articulate, without the slight, furry edge I've noticed on a number of other amp/loudspeaker combinations.

The tendency to brightness and leanness that I'd noted with the Hafler on the WATT/Puppies was not entirely absent with the Vandersteens as I accumulated more and more listening time with the Vandersteen/Hafler 9500 combination, but it was a rare occurrence and never an irritation. More often than not, the Hafler's strengths—a tight, well-defined low end, an open, lively midrange, and a clean top end free of spit or sizzle—dominated my impressions. I continued to be impressed by the Hafler's reproduction of depth and space and its ease at high levels.

The Aragon comparison
But you might well be wondering—I was—how the 9500 compared with the competition. Glad you asked. Most of my prior listening to the Vandersteens had been with the Aragon 4004 Mk.II—one of the best amplifiers in its price class. Yet the Hafler matched it every step of the way on the Vandersteens, and managed to edge it out in a number of areas. With the Turtle Creek Chorus on Legacy, the Hafler continued to excel with its open, three-dimensional sound, striking sense of depth and ambience, and ability to separate sections of the choir. My minor complaints are of a subtle thickening in the upper midrange with a small loss of transparency there, along with some shortage of air at the very top—which did not seem to limit the realistic portrayal of the performing space. The latter two limitations are, in my judgment, attributable to the Vandersteens.

Switching to the Aragon, the differences were not huge, but the sound was somehow less deep, less three-dimensional. The chorus was more forward—a surprise, since my general impression had been that the Hafler was somewhat forward-sounding—with each section of the choir a bit less well-defined and with a reduced sense of ambient space. With Albeniz's Festival Day in Madrid, the 9500 remained open, dimensional, and above all, clean, with no sense of edge or excess brightness. Congestion as the level increased was minimal. The bass was deep, reasonably tight, and could be felt as well as heard—right up through the seat of my pants. The Aragon was definitely comparable, though was a bit more open at the very top and, at the bottom, fuller yet slightly tighter.

Further listening revealed the Hafler to be a bit brighter in the low treble, the Aragon more subjectively extended, though a bit crisp-sounding, in the upper treble. The top end of the Hafler was a bit more of a piece, though, because of its slightly brighter low treble, not as sweet-sounding overall as the Aragon. There was little to choose between them with respect to bottom-end extension and wallop, though the Aragon appeared just a bit tighter overall.

As I compared the two amplifiers on CD after CD, it became clear that they were running neck and neck, though they did not sound precisely the same. The Hafler continued to excel in the portrayal of depth, space, and ambience, the Aragon in upper-octave air and detailing. They traded places in the bass depending on the characteristics of the program material, the Aragon proving generally weightier but, on some material—especially rock—the Hafler coming out as punchier and tighter overall. Ultimately I felt the Aragon to be perhaps a shade deeper and fuller in the bass, the Hafler somewhat cooler and drier. This was not true on all recordings, however; witness my initial impression on the Albeniz. The Hafler also sounded livelier in the upper midrange and low treble, a characteristic which did not appear unnatural or irritating on the Vandersteens.

Overall, I felt that the Hafler marginally edged out the Aragon on the 2Ces. Changing over briefly to the Spica Angelus speakers, however, gave a different result. Here the Hafler was a bit too forward in the low treble, the slightly more reticent Aragon giving a more relaxed presentation. Actually, I found that the Spicas were at their best with neither amplifier, preferring to receive their sonic nourishment from the Sonic Frontiers SFS-80—though this did reduce the Spica's overall focus and extension at both frequency extremes.

The tube comparison
I also compared the sound of the Hafler against that of the Sonic Frontiers SFS-80 driving the Vandersteen 2Ces. Hafler makes the claim that the 9500 (and the smaller 9300) delivers a "tube amp" sound without the penalties of tubes. Does it? What it does deliver is a degree of liveliness in the upper midrange and lower treble which are characteristic of many—but not all—tube amplifiers, and a slight softening of the extreme top. But it certainly didn't sound like the SFS-80. The Sonic Frontiers was sweet and open through the midrange, with plenty of detail, but there was a definition and immediacy to the sound of the Hafler which I definitely preferred. It did not sound etched or artificial, but very open and detailed. The Hafler also had a sock in the low end which the Sonic Frontiers could not match. The Sonic Frontiers did edge out the Hafler slightly in warmth, fullness, ambience retrieval, and overall depth—but not by much. And not enough on these loudspeakers, in my judgment, to make up for the Hafler's superior grip and overall control.

Ringing the speaker changes
The Hafler was also auditioned through two other pair of loudspeakers—the Vandersteen 3s and the Apogee Stages. The results with the 3s were every bit as effective as with the 2Ces. (I go into the differences more thoroughly in my review of the Vandersteen 2Ces elsewhere in this issue.) With the Stages, I compared the Hafler not only with the Aragon, but with the Krell KSA-250—as I had with the WATT/Puppies.

The Hafler performed exceptionally well through the Stages, with a lively, open, transparent sound. Its bass was tight and controlled rather than warm and full, but with the Stages—which tend toward fullness themselves—that was no handicap at all. Only with close-miked male vocals did I wish for perhaps a trace more body and warmth. The midrange was present without being pushy, the highs detailed and very clean. There was still a trace of excess sparkle in the lower treble, but I never found it to be any sort of problem on anything resembling a decent recording.

The Hafler may look like Little Toot next to the Krell KSA-250, but size can be deceptive. I found the Krell to be warmer and fuller than the Hafler, with a sweeter low treble. The latter was primarily evident in the Krell's softer reproduction of sibilance and slightly less analytical nature. And the Krell had a more robust, though less taut, low bass. But there were recordings on which the Hafler clearly outgunned the Krell, and the Hafler actually ran neck and neck with the KSA-250 in imaging, depth, inner detail, and the feeling of overall power and control it conveyed. I have to say that I went back and forth more than a few times before deciding that, yes, the Krell was the slightly more refined-sounding amplifier overall—but hardly to the degree suggested by the difference in price.

Stacked up against the Aragon, the Hafler, this time, took the honors. Both amplifiers performed very well with the Stages, but the Aragon seemed somewhat laid-back, perhaps in comparison with the Hafler's more forward, immediate sound. Yet the 9500 never seemed pushy; it just seemed to have a more natural weight and body in the midrange. Its soundstage depth extended from just in front of the Apogees to well behind; the Aragon's began just behind the plane of the Stages and did not extend quite as deep as the Hafler's—though the difference here was small and not audible on all recordings. The Hafler also had the more liquid sound, overall, and although the bass of both amplifiers was very good, the Hafler's was just slightly more solid and substantial. None of these differences blew me off my chair, but of all of them, the Hafler's more full-bodied, palpable midrange was definitely the most apparent.

The Hafler 9500 joins that select group of moderately priced amplifiers which make life difficult for manufacturers of higher-ticket electronics. Like all amplifiers, it will "lock-in" better with some loudspeakers than with others, but a good match will not be exceptionally difficult to achieve. And if you find the 9500 appealing but can't quite afford the freight, Hafler has the 9300 THX with slightly lower power (150W instead of 250W into 8 ohms) and a significantly lower price ($650 less, to be precise). ST speaks highly of the latter, though I hasten to add that I haven't had the opportunity to compare the two. But the designs are very similar in concept and execution. Hafler is not the first company—nor, I hope, the last—to prove that superb sound does not require a second mortgage.

Hafler, A Division of Rockford Corporation
546 South Rockford Drive
Tempe, AZ 85281
(602) 967-3565

Anon2's picture

All these walks down memory lane make me think that, perchance, the state of the art in audio has not advanced too much. I get growing hints with these articles that perhaps I should look on eBay and elsewhere for pennies-on-the-dollar bargains (and someone to install new capacitors), instead of paying thousands, if not tens of thousands, more for successor "new gear."

Capacitors can be replaced if one finds a competent technician--and we have them in large metros. Speaker drivers can be replaced.

Are we not being told that only the Nissan 280Z, or post-1984 Corvettes, were classics that merit refurbishment, for a huge bargain, rather than paying thousands more for products that are "newer," but offer not much else on the performance front?

Worse, perhaps these articles tell us that not much has changed at all? Is the 1980s, 1990s CRT TV but still a CRT TV in new trappings in its audio, 2016 equivalent? Meanwhile, we have phones that outshine their Assembler Language counterparts of the Apollo age. We have 50" LED TVs that on a good day cost a fraction at a big-box retailer, and offer multiples of performance of their CRT 110-pound predecessors of 10-15 years ago.

Keep the articles coming. I keep thinking. Based on a recent article a significant musician, interviewed in this publication, has also thought, and opted for keeping 20-year old gear in favor of "mortgaging a house" on the latest and greatest.

jeffdyer's picture

I am sure that you are correct.

Analogue power electronics achieved almost perfect levels of realism in the 1970s, certainly since the end of the 1980s there has been little change in amplifier technology.

I'm sure you could pick up just about any 1980s quality stereo amplifier and plug it straight into your system. However, I doubt it would satisfy the AC power cable upgrade freaks out there.

Now the sources though, that's where the improvements have been made.

Herb Reichert's picture

and I always wanted one of these

Anon2's picture

I am glad that someone shares my views. I do concur that sources is where the action has occurred. It is also the one rare area of audio with a plausible better-performance-at-lower-prices that we see with TVs, computers, phones, etc. Improvement in sources also tend to re-validate the hi-fi hierarchy of old--we don't hear much of that one anymore either. Optimize the source (where the cost savings and big improvements are). Then go to amplification (again, go used and it's a bonus if you have a good technician in your locale to inspect of refurbish). Then optimize your speakers (an area where performance improvements seem spotty while prices march upward, with some exceptions).