Cayin A-50T integrated amplifier

Late in 2006, I was watching John Atkinson set up a pair of DPA cardioid microphones in front of the stage of New York City's Otto's Shrunken Head to record a performance of my jazz quartet, Attention Screen (footnote 1). Before the first set, Wes Phillips approached me. "Bob, I found a piece of equipment you must review—the Cayin A-50T integrated amp. It's only 1300 bucks and you'll love it!"

In the two decades I've known Wes, I've learned to trust his hearing acuity and taste in equipment, but I've also learned that he rarely raves openly about a piece of gear, let alone an affordable one. So I gave Cayin importer Steve Leung, of VAS Industries, a call.

The Cayin A-50T ($1295) is an integrated amplifier with two push-pull pairs of Mullard EL34 tubes that can be operated in 35Wpc Ultralinear or 16Wpc Triode, the modes switchable via the included remote control. The A-50T features point-to-point wiring, a toroidal power transformer, and two EI audio output transformers, all specially manufactured for Cayin in an attempt to achieve low magnetic leakage, wide frequency response, and low impedance. The amp also has two 12AX7EH and two 12AU7EH tubes (the EH stands for Electro Harmonix), four line-level inputs, and 8 and 4 ohm output taps. Its snap-on tube cage is easily removable.

Normally, I wouldn't expect an affordable, Chinese-made integrated powered by tubes to be the last word in rugged construction or sexy cosmetics. The Cayin A-50T proved me wrong in both regards. The ruggedness of the Cayin's parts and construction is something I usually associate with multi-kilobuck electronics made in the US, and the amp is visually stunning. The curves of the chassis, faceplate, and removable tube cage suggest fine jewelry, not audio gear. Finally, the amp comes with generous warranties on parts and labor (three years), though only 90 days on the tubes.

I listened to the A-50T through Monitor Audio Silver RS6 loudspeakers, along with my usual analog and digital front ends, and did most of my listening in the amp's 35Wpc Ultralinear mode.

I was hoping to hear from the Cayin A-50T a richly holographic soundstage and an uncolored midrange, and it did not disappoint. Singer-songwriter Ashley Mounts' eponymous debut CD (private recording) revealed her angelic, holographically recorded soprano as she wove her elliptical melodies through an extensive vocal range against a somewhat minimal piano backdrop. On the male side, Tom Waits's voice, on his Mule Variations (LP, Anti- 8 65470 1), was appropriately rough, growly, and rich.

The Cayin's midrange reproduction was that of an amplifier able to resolve an extraordinary amount of inner detail for the price. On Tord Gustavsen's The Ground (CD, ECM 1892), every subtle low-level dynamic articulation and rich, resonant tone of Gustavsen's sparse, airy piano style was transparent and easy to follow, even in the softest passages of the recording. Fans of jazz woodwinds should be pleased with the Cayin's low coloration and linear and organic articulation of low-level midrange dynamics. I listened to Maria Schneider's big-band jazz recording, Allegresse (CD, Enja 9393-2), and noted: "Silky blend of saxophones with burnished blatty brass float on a bed of air."

The A-50T's high-frequency performance and transient articulation impressed me even more than its midrange. With every recording I played, the highs were pure, extended, airy, and delicate, with no trace of coloration. And unlike other low-powered tube amplifiers I've heard, the A-50T's transients were lightning-fast, but with no hint of artificial hardness or edge. Attention Screen's drummer, Mark Flynn, visited me while I had the Cayin hooked up; he'd never heard our Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2) on a good sound system, so I cranked up "Blizzard Limbs." In the opening drum passage, the A-50T's reproduction of the dynamic articulation of the bass drum and Mark's rich, resonant, tuneful snare technique was a startlingly accurate facsimile of what his drums sounded like onstage that evening. A broad, toothy grin spread across Mark's face.

Lately I've been listening quite a bit to iconoclastic guitar genius Derek Bailey. Playing his Solo Guitar, Volume 1 (CD, Incus CD10), the Cayin reproduced the high-frequency transients and overtones of Bailey's unorthodox plucking technique with shimmering, extended, airy harmonics—just as they've sounded when I've sat 10' from Bailey at concerts. Dutch composer Louis Andriessen makes equal use of open space and bombastic percussion in many of his works. On De Tijd (CD, EMI 9 79291 2), frenetic and cacophonous massed percussion seemed to pop out of thin air via the A-50T, high frequencies shimmering against the backdrop of a blooming orchestra.

The Cayin was particularly kind to electronic works. The Buchla synthesizer on Morton Subotnick's A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (LP, Nonesuch 78001) is capable of much faster transients than are humanly possible on acoustic instruments. Through the Cayin, this work was dramatic, inviting, and accessible, but the transients were so startling that I found it difficult to listen to this music in the background; the sound kept drawing me into the performance.

I didn't expect to be wowed by the bass performance of a low-powered tube amplifier, especially when playing a full-range speaker such as the Monitor Silver RS6 at loud levels. Again, the Cayin A-50T proved me wrong. Even at high volumes, the bass sounded uncolored, extended, and forceful—aside from a slight warmth on bass guitars and synthesizers on some rock recordings, such as Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic EK 53178) and Mighty Sam McClain's Give It Up to Love (CD, JVC JVCXR–0012-3). The bass drums on all recordings had the requisite punch. Although the organ-pedal notes in Timothy Seelig and the Turtle Creek Chorale's performance of John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR-57CD) didn't quite shake the room, they sounded natural, deep, and involving.

Orchestral recordings seemed to best reveal the Cayin's strengths. The timpani were incredibly lifelike in the opening percussive bombast of David Chesky's Violin Concerto (SACD, Chesky SACD288, CD layer), and every subtle dynamic inflection of violinist Tom Chiu's bowing technique was revealed. On my favorite John Atkinson recording, of Tomiko Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul, from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2), I was struck by soprano Kendra Colton's shimmering, chilling opening solo passage. I reveled in the hall sound, inner detail, and low-level dynamic reproduction, and wrote in my notes: "This is what airy tubes are all about. Incredible!" Finally, I cranked up the volume and listened to the most frenetic portions of Antal Dorati and the London Symphony's recording of Stravinsky's The Firebird (CD, Mercury Living Presence SR90226). The bass-drum blasts were deep, with no significant overhang, and the reproduction of the soundstage was wide and deep (footnote 2).

I compared the Cayin A-50T with two other integrated amps: my Creek 5350SE ($1500, 85Wpc, now renamed the Classic) and the Creek Destiny ($2495, 100Wpc). The Classic reproduced less ambience and midrange detail than the Cayin, but more extended bass and a greater sense of high-level dynamic slam. High frequencies seemed purer through the Cayin, however. The Destiny's inner detail and ambience were comparable to the Cayin's in the midrange, its highs were even more delicate and extended, and the Destiny's bass was the cleanest, most articulate, and most extended of the three. But all in all, the Cayin fared very well against these far more powerful and more expensive competitors.

The Cayin A-50T changed my mind about tube integrated amplifiers and quashed some biases I didn't know I had. Although I'm basically a tube guy, in the past I've tended to favor tube electronics only as separates, and when the power amplifier is driving full-range speakers with at least 100W. For lower-powered and lower-cost systems, I've preferred the solid-state integrateds made by such companies as Creek, Musical Fidelity, and Arcam. Before hearing the A-50T, I hadn't been impressed by any low-powered integrated tube amp I'd heard driving real-world speakers.

But the Cayin A-50T is competitive with many higher-powered, more expensive integrateds, both tube and solid-state, and its strengths rival those of many far more expensive tube separates I've heard. Finally, the 35Wpc A-50T behaves like an amplifier that puts out twice its rated power—or more. I strongly recommend that anyone considering spending up to $2000 on an integrated amplifier listen to the magic that the Cayin A-50T can produce.

Footnote 1: Otto's Shrunken Head is a tiki bar known more for surf-music festivals than free jazz. The recording came out spectacularly well, partly due to JA's expertise and partly due to the club's excellent acoustic, which was assisted by the damping material applied to the walls: an excessively decorative motif of Hawaiian straw.

Footnote 2: VAS Audio also sent along Cayin's tubed CD-50T CD player ($950), which is designed to be placed under the A-50T. I was impressed by the perfect match of the two components' cosmetics, and spent some time listening to them working together. They seemed cut from the same sonic cloth: I heard a tremendous amount of midrange detail and almost no coloration from the CD player, but found its bass not as tight and its highs not quite as extended as the almost-three-times-as-expensive Creek Destiny CD player ($2500).

Zhuhai Spark Electronic Equipment Co.
US distributor: VAS Industries
1 Bethany Road, Building 1, Suite 16
Hazlet, NJ 07730
(732) 888-3288