Bob Carver Black Magic 20 Stereo Amplifier

To say Bob Carver is a legendary amplifier designer would be a major understatement.  Without going into historical detail, suffice it to say he has produced a few gems in his day.  And now it’s back to the future, with Carver again producing amps under his own name.  The Cherry 180 (reviewed HERE) and the Black Beauty 305 monoblock amplifiers have both received universal praise from reviewers and happy customers alike, for their build-quality, stylish good looks and plenty of power on tap.  But with the $2,100 Black Magic, Carver takes a different direction.

This small amplifier, model designation VTA20S, is finished in black with a “silver-fleck” chassis and brushed-silver trim.  It is outfitted with 12AX7B tubes for the input stage, and a quartet of EL84Ms for the output stage.  According to Carver, the “M” variant of the EL84 was selected because it has a higher plate-voltage rating, allowing for maximum power output within safe operating conditions.

Setting up the Black Magic is amazingly simple.  There is no need to bias the tubes, which is done automatically with one set of speaker binding posts, optimized for a 4-ohm load.  There is, quite interestingly, a volume pot at the top-front area of the chassis.  (More on that a bit later.)  I drive the Black Magic with a Rogue Ninety-Nine preamplifier for the bulk of my listening sessions, and in turn drive my Thiel CS2.4 speakers.

After giving the Black Magic ample warm-up time, I’m rewarded with startling clarity, a liquid-smooth midrange and, most impressively, floor-shaking bass.  Carver says that the amp is “conservatively” rated at 20 watts per channel—it definitely sounds more powerful than its published rating suggests.  For my review, I go directly from my Audio Research VS55 amplifier (rated at 50 watts per channel) to the Carver with no immediately discernible decline in dynamic performance, power output or bass quality.

The Black Magic’s imaging specificity is impressive, with little of the “tube haze” surrounding the vintage sound of the EL84 tubes.  The Black Magic easily handles music of any scale, including orchestral crescendos.  The Direct-Stream Digital SACD of Semyon Bychkov conducting Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is simply ravishing in the tone colors of the strings and woodwinds, and the full impact of the orchestra’s power is there in all its glory.  I am continually stunned at just how much of a wide dynamic swing this little amplifier can muster.

The sublime SACD pressing of the Moody Blues classic album, In Search of the Lost Chord, plays to all the strengths of the Black Magic.  The melancholy melodies and vintage arrangements on such tracks as “The Actor,” “Visions Of Paradise” and the album’s centerpiece, “Legend Of A Mind,” are breathtaking in their majesty.  Lead vocalist Justin Hayward’s voice is a holographic presence in my listening room, and the amp delivers more than enough resolution to hear long-buried recorded details—just the thing you call on a tube amplifier to perform.

Staying with the vintage vibe, the Carver brings sparkle and life to the iconic ’60s recordings by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, from the well-mastered compilation, The Definitive Collection.  The Black Magic commands attention on such classic tracks as “Going To A Go-Go,” “The Tears Of A Clown” and “Mickey’s Monkey.”  The rhythmic incisiveness is top notch, with a keen ability to get a track moving.  This inner detail and delicacy is always a key factor with an amplifier based on the EL84 tubes, and the Carver has the best balance of new- and old- school sound that I’ve experienced in this genre.

Moving on to modern times, U2’s “Electrical Storm,” from The Best of 1980–2000 collection, simply rocks when playing through the Carver, which highlights the shimmering acoustic guitars, jagged electric lead lines, throbbing bass line and, of course, Bono’s passionate lead vocals.  On this track, all of the separate elements of the recording are made into an organic whole, providing some rare goose-bump moments.  The remix of “Gone,” from U2’s Pop album, is another standout track providing such moments.

An now, more about the amp’s volume pot I mentioned earlier:  Connecting the Marantz SA-11S3 SACD player/DAC directly to the Black Magic and adjusting the volume level directly from the amp provides additional transparency to the source and bass articulation.  The volume control has an excellent range of attenuation, never going past the 12 o’clock position.  Most modern line sources, like a CD player or DAC, output 2 volts, which is more than enough to power an amplifier with sufficient gain.  For those only utilizing a DAC and multiple digital sources, I suggest eliminating the linestage altogether—the Carver is that good.  However, for those using a linestage/preamplifier, I would leave the volume control at full, effectively taking it out of the circuit.

With the Black Magic, Bob Carver has done it again.  In addition to all of its positive sonic attributes, the Black Magic ships with a seven-year warranty on parts and labor, along with a generous one-year warranty on the tubes.  (Most manufacturers only offer 90 days.)  It is made entirely with point-to-point wiring in Carver’s Kentucky facility.  You can read more about Carver’s manufacturing process HERE.

While 20 watts per channel isn’t the solution for every system, a modestly sized room matched with sensitive speakers will deliver a rocking performance using this modern EL84 marvel.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Blowing the dust off of my Dynaco SCA-35 integrated amp reveals just how far Bob Carver’s classic design has come.  The vintage Dynaco is a pleasant listen, but switching to the Black Magic, even with vintage speakers like the JBL L26s, is a revelation.  Where the vintage amplifier has loose, flappable bass, the Carver is taut.  An equal paradigm shift is experienced in the upper registers—the HF roll-off that I’ve almost come to expect with this tube doesn’t happen, which is a testament to the quality Carver’s circuit and transformer design.

The only speakers in my arsenal that prove a challenge for this amp with heavier music are the Dynaudios, which have a somewhat low 84-dB sensitivity rating.  Thanks to a single-order 6-dB/octave crossover network, the speakers work well with the Black Magic, as long as not asked to play extremely loud—you can always pick up a second one, if need be.

Much like when listening to a top-notch mini-monitor, the Carver Black Magic excels at throwing a three-dimensional sound space that feels almost like wearing a gigantic pair of headphones.  It also delivers a tonal balance, falling more on the romantic side of the scale.  The Carver is certainly not vintage, but it does embellish slightly—for those using primarily digital source material, this should be a very good thing.

Lastly, to probe the absolute limit of the Black Magic, I insert it in my main reference system while finishing the review of the $120,000 Sonus faber Aida speakers (92-dB sensitivity).  This makes for a great showing, as the little amp is able to control these gigantic speakers incredibly well.

Andre and I agree:  If you’ve been wanting to try tubes, this is the perfect place to start your journey!

Bob Carver Black Magic 20 (VTA20S) stereo amplifier

MSRP: $2,100


Analog source,”Rega RP6 turntable    Exact cartridge    Lehmannaudio Black Cube phonostage”

Preamplifiers,”Rogue Audio Ninety-Nine    Conrad-Johnson PV-12″

Digital sources,” Marantz SA-11S3 SACD player/DAC    Logitech Squeezebox Touch    Meridian Sooloos Media Core 200/Rega DAC”

Speakers,”Thiel CS2.4    Dynaudio Confidence C1 II     Definitive Technology SM65    JBL L26    Sonus faber Aida”

Cables,”Darwin Cables Silver interconnects    Transparent Audio Super MM2 interconnects    Transparent Audio Plus MM2 speaker cable”

Power cords/conditioners,”Acoustic Zen Tsunami II power cables    Audience Adept Response power conditioner    Running Springs Audio Haley”