The Whammerdyne DGA Amplifier

Stopping by Pat Hickman’s place to drop off a pair of vintage McIntosh amplifiers for his special level of detail and restoration is always a treat. There’s always something super fun on his test bench, either about to be restored, or just finished, ready to go to a customer.

Today, he was going to put my McIntosh MC30 monoblocks on the bench to be returned to their original glory. As always, our discussion goes to his Whammerdyne 2A3 Truth amplifiers – the flagship got our product of the year award a couple of years ago and it is incredible. Not everyone can afford them, but his new DGA (Damn Good Amplifier) takes a lot of what he learned via the design of the Truth amplifier, but in a more affordable package.

This is a direct coupled (i.e. no caps or resistors in the signal path) single ended, class A stereo amplifier that uses a pair of 2A3 power tubes. Most people can barely coax 2 watts per channel out of a 2A3, but meticulous engineering and implementation makes for 4.3 watts per channel. And at this level, every few tenths of a watt counts. You can read more here:

We step in to his listening room and Hickman plays a few tracks on his Pure Audio Project Quintet 15s, which makes for a stunning combination with the DGA (Damn Good Amplifier).I have the Trio 15s back at the studio, so am very familiar with the sonics. We cruise through a few polite but breathy and luscious female vocal tracks, and as lovely as it is, at the back of my head I’m thinking “but will it rock?”

Can you work with 4 watts per channel?

The toughest part of an engineering journey is the difference between building to a standard and building to a price point. The flagship Whammer amp was built to be an all-out assault on SET topology, using the best parts available. The result is nothing like you’ve ever heard from an SET. Every bit of magic that tube aficionados wax poetic is there, but with all the refinement you’d expect from the world’s top modern tube amplifiers.

There’s only one catch – the Whammers only make four watts per channel. Forget it if you’ve got a pair of Magnepans, or something equally power hungry. Hickman thinks 94db/1watt sensitivity or lower is pushing it, but the new Focal Stella Utopia Em’s (94db/1watt exactly) have been blowing me out of the room with a few watts, so why not ask?

Fortunately, today is the day that there’s a DGA on the bench that isn’t spoken for. Hickman warns me, “It takes about 45 minutes to come out of the fog.” He wasn’t kidding. Driving like an old man, taking great care not to jostle the unboxed amp on the way home, it is instantly put front and center in my living room system, built around the Focal Stella Utopia Em’s.

About that burrito

He is right. The amp sounds nice,on initial power up,but not as good as I knew it could. Burrito time. Taking the long way to grab a quick bite from my local taco stand has me back in a little over an hour. Three minutes into the DGAs initial power up, the title track from Steely Dan’s Aja gave me a place to start. Like I said, nice. Revisiting the track an hour later is a revelation, and there is some hidden musical treasure in this overplayed classic that instantly surfaces. Layer upon layer is rendered and all the spatial cues from the meticulous studio production melts the listening room walls away. The illusion of musical reality is vivid and convincing.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that pairing a $3,000 amplifier with a pair of $120,000 speakers might be madness. And it might with a lot of $3,000 amplifiers. Maybe even $30,000 amplifiers, yet the DGA delivers one of the most musically involving performances I’ve ever heard from the Stellas.

The DGA takes a few minutes to come fully up to operating temperature, and you’ll see the bias current going up during the process. Hickman suggests that both tubes bias be set as close as possible to each other. He makes it easy for even the uninitiated, with a digital readout on the top panel. All you need is a jewelers screwdriver and a steady hand. Once the amplifier has been powered up for an hour, check the readout and make sure both tubes read 60. A breeze.

The big difference

While most SET amplifiers deliver brilliant midrange, they fall short (sometimes dramatically short) when called upon to play complex or overly dynamic music. Great for Jacintha, not so much for Slayer. Some of them really hum, due to inferior design and parts quality. The DGA is so quiet, it takes full advantage of every bit of power delivered. As the music emerges from such a silent background it appears louder. Remember what you perceive as volume is the delta between loud and quiet. No background hum or noise, feels a lot louder than having the music dithered by noise.

I never wanted my playlist of Kraftwerk, Neu! and Aphex Twin tracks to end. The DGA has massive bass grip and texture, making this kind of music come truly alive. When was the last time you heard deep, defined, growly bass that made your pants flap via an SET? Via a tube amplifier for that matter? An equal amount of fun was had with a pair of even more sensitive Klipsch La Scalas, resulting in a long set of classic rock causing a few neighbors to give me the evil eye. Oh well.

The result derived from the LaScalas, Pure Audio Project Trios and the mighty Focals, though expressed differently, retain the core musicality that the DGH delivers. It has a level control for those wanting the ultimate simplicity, but I preferred the more fleshed out rendition when the Nagra Classic preamplifier (with outboard power supply) delivered.

The Whammer delivers pristine examples of all the audiophile descriptors that are so easily tossed about in reference to far lesser products. It’s reproduction of fine detail combined with such a clean distortion free and coloration free tonality will redefine what you think reproduced music is capable of. This amplifier reveals so much tonal contrast and saturation, hours will fly by as you track through your favorites. Where some of today’s best audio products can only offer a short amount of engagement, with fatigue or boredom creeping in after a few tracks, the Whammerdyne DGA is a cure for audiophile ADD.

It totally rocks

An exceptional value award really isn’t enough. If the Whammerdyne DGA had a Wavac or Gold Note badge on it, you’d be looking at a $100,000 price tag. And you’d pay it happily. Your audiophile friends would visit your audio den from the far reaches of the globe and get down on their knees and pray to it and tell you what incredible insight you have.

But this baby only costs $3,000. Add another few hundred bucks for having upgraded output transformers (which my review sample does not have) and a little more for a pair of NOS 2A3 output tubes (which my review sample does have).

I could neither have written this review, nor fully appreciated just what the Whammerdyne DGA delivers when I began this magazine. But I can assuredly say that after almost 1000 product reviews, this is as good as it gets. If you have sufficiently sensitive speakers, one of the Whammerdyne amplifiers will take you straight to audio heaven – on the express elevator. That Whammerdyne can build one of the world’s finest SET amplifiers for $20k is amazing. That they can give you the essence of their flagship for $3,000 is a sheer miracle.

Best of all, it’s not out of reach of any music lover. With a wider palette of high efficiency speakers available these days, you might want to revisit just what a few of the right watts per channel can do. This is the best of the best.

The Whammerdyne DGA 1

MSRP:  $3,000

Analog Source Grand Prix Audio Parabolica /TriPlanar arm/Koetsu Jade Platinum

Digital Source dCS Vivaldi ONE

Preamplifier Nagra Classic w/Nagra VPS power supply

Speakers Focal Stella Utopia EM

Cable Cardas Clear

Pass Labs INT-60 Amplifier

There used to be a restaurant nearby that offered small portions fantastic deserts. You could have a large shot glass full of whatever deserts were on the main menu for a couple of bucks. It wasn’t about saving on the bill; there are times you really crave desert but don’t need a giant helping of chocolate mousse. The INT-60 from Pass Labs is kind of like that.

Their XS level components are some of the world’s finest. Ask nearly anyone that’s owned or reviewed them. Many of us with that level of appreciation for musical excellence don’t necessarily have the budget, or perhaps have a smaller room, or very sensitive speakers. At that point, a full XS system isn’t a fit. Introducing the INT-60.

Many readers have asked about the difference between their new XA25, which we reviewed here, and the new INT-60. On one level, they are different beasts, because the XA25 is only a power amplifier – yet the XA25 offers some nuances that even the mighty XS300s or my current reference, the XA200.8s don’t, due to a simpler circuit topology. Mr. Pass often praises the simple approach and the XA25 is incredible in that respect. But you still need a preamplifier, so by the time you find a worthy preamplifier and purchase the necessary cables, you’ll still most likely exceed the $9,000 price tag of the INT-60.

For those that need it, the INT-60 does allow separate inputs and outputs, that will let you use the power or preamplifier sections by themselves. Just in case you decide to bi-amp, or who knows?

Heavy metal

Don’t let the lower power figure fool you. Though the INT-60 is only rated at 60 watts per channel, where the larger INT-250 is rated 250 per, this amplifier stays biased in class-A mode longer, all the way to 30 watts per channel. At 93 pounds, it’s only about 15 pounds lighter than the INT-250 as well. The INT-60 is still fairly dense for a single chassis box.

Utilizing a smaller, yet stylistically similar blue meter to the one in the big Pass amps, the INT-60 features a similar visual architecture to all of the other Pass products. While this may seem like a minor point, it’s very thoughtful of the creative braintrust at Pass to allow the INT-60 to work with the same remote as their other preamplifiers. A small, but helpful feature. The rest of the INT-60s physical layout is also identical to the rest of the lineup, so if you are building a second system around your INT-60, or trading up from something else in the family, you will feel right at home.

The INT-60 is highly versatile, offering four line-level inputs, with one of them a balanced XLR input, while the other three are single ended RCA inputs. A pair of big Furutech speaker output terminals, much like the ones on all the other Pass amplifiers make it easy to connect any type of speaker cable. Bonus points here for being able to use the INT-60 as a preamplifier or power amplifier separately, so in case you decide to upgrade to a bigger amplifier, use a multiple amp setup, or just want to try something else for a while, balanced XLR and single ended RCA inputs and outputs are available, making the INT-60 incredibly flexible.

An equal measure of sound and simplicity

Like every other Pass amplifier I’ve used, the INT-60 needs a few solid days of play to break in, but not really any more – 100 hours will do the trick. Equally so for warmup, if you turn it off at the end of the day – expect about 1 full hour for the slight fog to clear when you power it up. Considering the INT-60 isn’t a full – blown class-A amplifier and it draws about 375 watts, it’s up to you whether you’ll just be leaving it on all the time.

Using the INT-60 with a handful of fairly efficient loudspeakers from Focal and Pure Audio Project, I doubt it ever ran hard enough to escape from class-A mode. Only when I connected the vintage Magnepan Tympani IVs, was I able to budge the meter from its center position, revealing that the amplifier is moving out of class A operation. It’s worth mentioning what a splendid job this amplifier did driving these speakers, that are normally thought of as needing tons of power to drive.

Bouncing between the XSPre/XA200.8 combination and the INT-60 at modest volume levels, it is clear just how much of the top range Pass performance is captured here. Of course, the flagship models resolve more information at all volume levels, but the core sonic picture that all Pass amplifiers portray is present in the INT-60. This amplifier is voiced a few small clicks to the warmer, more tonally saturated side of neutral. That’s how Mr. Pass likes his amplifiers to sound, and I agree. As he’s fond of saying, “it’s the tube sound without the hassle.”

If you’ve ever been a tube lover that is tired of the tube game, the INT-60 is your ticket to paradise. Leave it on all day, and never worry about scrounging for NOS tubes again. Sure the best tube gear might reveal a few more molecules of music here or there, but most won’t. And most won’t offer the level of quiet, dynamics and bass grip that the INT-60 does.

A high level of tonal and timbral accuracy also makes the INT-60 tough to ignore. Pianos, violins, and other acoustic instruments sound incredibly right, and with a pair of speakers in the 87-90db/1-watt sensitivity range, you will have to push the INT-60 very hard to get it to clip.

Rounding out the picture, the INT-60 paints a very engaging, three-dimensional musical landscape, with rock-solid pace. Listening to the Stones’ “Low Down” (from Bridges to Babylon), the INT-60 keeps Charlie Watts drumming solidly anchored through the melody, while Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood sneak up behind Jagger’s lead vocals, going “woo, woo” during the chorus, as if they were up on stage together. Pure acoustic performances delight, and the level that this amplifier unfolds densely packed music is truly world class.

100% fun, zero fatigue

A bottom end that will put you back in the listening chair when the music warrants it, and smooth, yet defined and delicate rendition of the mids and highs, makes for an amplifier you can listen to all day long.

As many music lovers gravitate more towards simpler setups in the home, a high quality integrated amplifier makes perfect sense. If your sensibilities call for this approach, we suggest the Pass Labs INT-60 very highly. This is a fantastic amplifier.

The Pass Labs INT-60

MSRP:  $9,000