The McIntosh MC1.2KW Power Amplifiers

McIntosh made a big splash a while back with its six-box, 2,000-watt MC2KW power amplifiers. They are very cool, play incredibly loud (if you have enough juice in your power line to let them wind out all the way) and command an impressive presence.

Many lovers of the McIntosh brand see them as the Holy Grail. For those who don’t have the space or the budget but ­still dig those gigantic level meters, there’s a more reasonable alternative: the MC1.2KW. The more manageable MC1.2KW monoblocks tip the scale at only 147 pounds each. They’re still not budget components, but the $25k price tag will leave you with enough money left over from not buying the $70,000 MC2KW’s to assemble a formidable system.

Sporting metered faceplates the same size as the MC 2KW, the MC1.2KWs are attention getters. While many audiophiles love “deep-listening” sessions, nothing says “party on” like the gigantic blue meters, and this is a big part of their charm. Their blue glow floods your listening room like a couple of gigantic lava lamps. You can turn them off. But why?

A direct descendent of the MC1201’s, the MC1.2KW’s have significant electrical and cosmetic upgrades. According to Ron Cornelius, McIntosh product manager, the MC1.2KW “Actually produces closer to 1,600 watts per channel on a test bench, so you have to be careful with this much power on tap!”


Unless you are a super hero, getting at least one person to help you unpack the MC1.2KWs is a good idea. And be certain that your equipment rack can support at least 150 pounds per shelf.

Thanks to the large lip on the back, they are surprisingly easy to grasp and move around. I wish more manufacturers would provide rear panel handles on amplifiers this heavy.

While not the latest word in aesthetics, a pair of piano dollies come in handy shuttling the MC1.2KW’s between my reference amplifiers, along with the other gigantic amplifiers we had in for review this issue. They’ve since taken up permanent residence on a pair of Finite Elemente amplifier platforms and look very stylish; they beg to be displayed prominently.

Your next concern will be power. These big beasts need a lot of juice to do their thing. You can run a pair on a single 15-amp circuit, but they won’t reach full power. A dedicated 20-amp line

is better, but if you want an effortless 1,200-watt-per-channel experience, you’ll need a pair of 15-amp dedicated lines. McIntosh tech-support head Chuck Hinton recommends, “Each amp needs its own 15-amp line for maximum performance.” While McIntosh lists the maximum current draw at 13 amps, there’s no point in scrimping if you’re getting dedicated power lines run. Go for 20 amp lines and make sure to have it done by a qualified electrician. Ron Cornelius adds a few more tips, stressing the idea of having your wiring in top shape. Double check your power panel’s grounding and make sure all the connections to the panel and outlets are tight. It’s the nature of solid-core copper wire to wiggle loose with time. “If you don’t have solid power going to your system, your line level components will suffer as well.”

Extended listening with a dedicated 15-amp circuit, a dedicated 20-amp circuit, and dedicated 20-amp circuits for each monoblock reveals that power is your friend. While the amps worked with the single 15-amp line, the circuit breaker blew repeatedly at high volume.

The rest is easy. MC1.2KWs have balanced XLR inputs on the back panel along with RCA inputs and a 12-volt trigger, so it will integrate into any system handily. Due to the use of the legendary McIntosh Autoformers in the output stage, featuring 2-ohm, 4-ohm and 8-ohm taps to connect your speakers. Mc suggests starting with the nominal impedance of your speakers, but a bit of experimentation will yield the best results – sometimes the best match that transfers the most music might be a different tap. My only complaint with the MC1.2KWs, and for that matter all of the McIntosh solid state amplifiers are the dreadful speaker binding posts – they are too small and too close together.

The Sound

The MC1.2KWs immediately take charge. After a few hours warm up with nondescript background music, dropping Joe Harley’s recording of Mighty Sam McClain’s Give it up to Love threw a massive soundstage between my speakers. This record was recorded live to two-track analog tape and when you crank this one up and dim the lights, it sounds like mighty Sam is right there in your listening room (singing in front of a pair of gigantic McIntosh amplifiers in this case…).

With this kind of power at your disposal, big dynamic range helps to create a live feel on recordings with a big dynamic swing and the big Macs never disappointed, whether listening to a full symphony orchestra or Rammstein. You don’t realize just how wimpy your 100-watt per channel amplifier is until you have 1,200 per channel at your disposal. Trust me, you might never want to go back.

Friends listening to my system with the MC1.2KW’s always made the same comment: “Wow, I can’t believe how often those meters jump up around 300-600 watts and we’re not listening that loud.” All the arguments about “tube watts” vs. “transistor watts” vs. “whatever other watts you got” go away, and quickly. It’s big power vs. little power, baby, and if there was ever an argument for size mattering, the MC 1.2KWs settle the score handily.

People often forget that the need for power goes up exponentially as sound pressure level doubles; so that 100-watt-per-channel amp sounds great when you are listening in the one-to-10 watt range because you still have 100 watts or so in reserve, but when you get fast and furious with the volume control, compression sets in quickly and, if you’re not careful, clipping. Still, proceed with care when rocking out because even though it’s tougher to burn out a tweeter with all that clean power, you can run the risk of toasting a crossover when you are pushing the MC1.2KW’s near their limits. That’s when bad things happen to good people.

Power and Control

Next up, some Prince from the Diamonds and Pearls album. The beginning of the track, “Insatiable,” features deep synth bass lines with grunt that usually come across loose and sloppy. The extra power and control of the MC1.2KWs grabs those notes, holds the sustain and stops cleanly. I usually need the help of the JL Audio Gotham in my system to achieve that experience. No longer.

The other aspect of a high-powered amplifier that becomes instantly apparent is the ability to play complex music at relatively high volume levels without the soundstage collapsing. Try this with your favorite piece of densely packed music, whether it is a full symphony or driving rock. This is where the difference between 100 watts per channel and 1,200 per channel is instantly apparent. Though both play fairly loud, when you start to crank the 100-watt amp, everything gets muddy and you lose focus.

If you become the happy owner of a pair of MC1.2KWs, this will be a thing of the past and you might even discover that some of those discs that you thought were compressed just had their peaks rounded off.

During the course of this review, I had the opportunity to use the MC1.2KW’s with about a dozen different loudspeakers, from the Martin-Logan CLX electrostatics to the YG Acoustics Anat II Studios, both of which have low impedance dips and can be problematic to drive. Nothing in my speaker arsenal requires more power than my Magnepan 1.6’s Should you be a Magnepan owner looking for the Holy Grail, nothing lights up a pair of Maggies like the MC1.2KWs. Where the 1.6’s always feel somewhat bass shy in my 16 x 24 foot room, with the Mac amps they sounded like I had added a subwoofer to the system.

The dynamics were amazing and again, all who listened were surprised how easy it was to use up 1,000 watts per channel. It’s worth mentioning that no matter how hard I pushed these amplifiers, even when driving the Magnepans very loud, the MC1.2KW’s never got more than slightly warm to the touch.

Having just spent time with the MC252 amplifier that we reviewed very favorably, the MC1.2KW’s are in a completely different league. The MC252 is an excellent amplifier and a great value, but it does not have the delicacy and clarity that the MC1.2KW has. No matter what the listening level, these are some pretty special amplifiers with the slightest bit of warmth and body to the overall presentation. I doubt that anyone will ever refer to these amplifiers as “sterile solid-state.”

Big Power, Big Meters, Big Fun

At $25,000 a pair, this is not an idle purchase, even for the well-heeled. But if you want a pair of amplifiers that will never run out of juice or require you to buy a futures contract on output tubes, the MC1.2KW could be your Holy Grail. So dim the lights, put your favorite disc on and let em’ rip.

The McIntosh MC1.2KW Monoblocks


PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium Power Amplifier

Seriously, the only thing I don’t like about PrimaLuna gear is lifting it. Recent hours at the gym notwithstanding, PrimaLuna amps keep getting heavier. Continuously improving the breed, the Dutch company keeps improving the quality of it parts, which results in bigger capacitors and beefier transformers. The DiaLogue Premium power amplifier now tips the scale just over 70 pounds. Yikes! But listening to Miles Davis’ classic album Bitches Brew float between the Focal Maestro Utopias (also reviewed in this issue), I’m not worrying about moving these amplifiers anymore. The relaxed yet resolving presentation the DiaLogue Premium amplifiers provide is sufficiently soothing to take my mind off of the manual labor.

For those of you who are unaware, my journey as an audio writer began with PrimaLuna. My review of the ProLogue One integrated amplifier was featured in The Absolute Sound just over 10 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun. I bought that little integrated that could, and a decade later (on only its second set of power tubes), it still can. It’s been passed on to my niece, and she’s still rocking out with it after all these years—a testament to the build quality and longevity of PrimaLuna products. Best of all, the company is building the stuff even better than when I bought that review sample, so your chances of a field failure are slim to none—a great feeling when you’re shelling out close to $10,000 for a preamplifier and a pair of monoblocks. The DiaLogue Premium amplifiers are $3,199 each, and the preamplifier will also set you back $3,199.

They’re not quite the budget components that they were in 2003, but in comparison to your favorites from ARC, CJ, McIntosh and VAC, they’re still an incredible bargain for the price asked. Those nervous about PrimaLuna being a new company back in 2003 can breathe a sigh of relief. There is now no question that the company has been making all the right moves in terms of building an empire.

The DiaLogue Premium amplifiers are especially cool, because you can start with just one and run it in stereo. Should you want or need more power, add a second amplifier, flip the stereo/mono switch on the back panel and you’re rocking. A single amplifier produces 42 watts per channel in ultralinear mode and 25 per channel in triode mode. Switching to monoblocks doubles that, making this amp a nice option for budgeting future system upgrades.

The Magic of the EL34

The enchanting midrange of that first PrimaLuna amplifier always gave me pause, thanks to the EL34 output tubes, but 30 watts per channel isn’t always enough to take care of business. Fortunately, the DiaLogure Premiums give you a choice of 82 watts per channel in ultralinear mode or 50 watts per channel in triode mode, configured as monoblocks.  And there’s just something so scrumptious about using these amplifiers thusly. I suspect you may just seek out slightly more sensitive speakers so that you can always do so.

While 50 watts per channel is enough to adequately drive my 90-dB KEF Blades, the additional 3 dB of sensitivity provided by the Focal Maestro Utopias is just enough to really give the DiaLogue Premiums in mono mode that extra push over the cliff and make them that much more compelling. In the context of a system consisting of a dCS Vivaldi stack, Audio Research REF SE linestage and phonostage, along with a pair of AVID Acutus Reference SP turntables, the DiaLogues are in some pretty exclusive company. And they fit right in.

The delicate acoustic guitar at the beginning of the Verve Pipe’s “Colorful” is projected well beyond the speaker boundaries, but when the driving bass line kicks in, these amplifiers take impressive hold of the Maestros’ woofers. All this from a pair of EL34-powered monoblocks is indeed impressive.

A quick switch back to ultralinear mode delivers tighter bass, but at the expense of less midrange delicacy; the ultimate choice will be yours, but I know what I love and it’s all about the midrange with these amplifiers. Whatever your reason for going ultralinear, should you decide that is your path, go all the way and replace the EL34s with a set of KT120s. Even though the power rating is no higher, a simple flip of the switch on the right side of the amplifier resets the Adaptive Auto Bias to the correct range for this tube, eliminating potential midrange distortion. The KT120 tube has a more authoritative feel, with a deeper, tighter bass response. Overall, the amplifier has more drive and slam, feeling more like an Audio Research REF amp. Running the EL34s in triode mode makes the DiaLogue sound more like an AirTight amplifier.

Listeners who find tube amplifiers too relaxed in their presentation may think these amplifiers in triode mode are even slightly more relaxed. But this sonic characteristic works wonders when listening to recordings that are less than perfect—like my favorite records from the Monkees. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is pretty much rubbish, but the extra sweetness that the DiaLogue Premium brings to the dance really improves recordings like this (especially in digital form), making a much larger percentage of your music collection not only listenable but enjoyable. There’s no such thing as listener fatigue with these amplifiers.

Changes Under the Hood

PrimaLuna has always paid meticulous attention to detail when building its amplifiers, which are reminiscent in quality of the great Marantz and McIntosh tube amplifiers from the 1960s. The point-to-point wiring used throughout is so neatly done that you’d swear robots did it, but this is not the case. The solder joints are all perfection and there is not a hint of untidiness anywhere. These amplifiers are as beautiful underneath their hand-finished chassis as they are above.

In addition to bigger, beefier, more robust power and output transformers, the “premium” designation comes from careful refinement of the circuit, which was executed with top-quality parts—parts you’d expect to see in amplifiers with five-figure price tags. All of the critical wiring is done with Swiss-made silver-clad oxygen-free-copper wire, the input and output connectors are first rate, and there is a plethora of premium capacitors and resistors. No corners have been cut anywhere.

And what fun would a vacuum-tube amplifier be without at least considering a bit of tube rolling? This is a bit tougher with power tubes these days, as vintage EL34s can be difficult to find, and expensive when you do find them. It’s not uncommon to spend $400 to almost $1,000 on an awesome set of NOS output tubes. Rolling in a set of Siemens and GE 6CA7s (a suitable substitution) proves sweet, eliminating grain from the presentation of the upper registers in a way that today’s modern tubes just can’t.

Fortunately, the DiaLogue Premium runs the output tubes very conservatively, and thanks to PrimaLuna’s patented Adaptive Auto Bias, adjusting tube bias is a thing of the past. The benefits are multiple: Tube life is extended, distortion is reduced, and the need for a matched quartet of output tubes is eliminated. It’s as painless as it gets for a vacuum-tube amplifier. There is even a Bad Tube Indicator, a red LED that lights up, should an output tube fail.

However, if you aren’t feeling that adventuresome but still want to get in on the action, consider swapping the small signal input tubes. Past PrimaLuna designs used at least one pair of 12AX7 tubes, which are now becoming scarcer, and consequently more expensive. A single pair of primo vintage 12AX7s can set you back $300 to $400, but this amplifier uses six 12AU7s. And these tubes are reasonable, with cool vintage examples available for $30 to $50. But remember, standard new-edition 12AU7s are only about $20 each. Either I’m getting lazy in my old age, or Kevin Deal is supplying these amplifiers with even better tubes than he was 10 years ago. In any event, I just don’t feel the need to screw around with the tubes here.

True to the PrimaLuna party line, the Adaptive Auto Bias will let you run different tube types in the various output tube sockets, but having lived with PrimaLuna amplifiers for a long time, I know that they just don’t eat tubes, so you’ll probably never need to take advantage of this feature. Sure, it does work, but if you have a tube amplifier of any kind, it’s not a bad idea to have at least a pair of output tubes of the same type on the shelf, just in case something bad does happen.

Once hefted into place and tubes installed, the DiaLogue Premium amplifiers immediately settle into reproducing music. The harp in Lloyd Cole’s “Music in a Foreign Language” floats easily behind the plane of the speakers, sounding almost like it’s in another room, well separated from Cole’s voice and acoustic guitar. Even in the 15 minutes it takes for these amplifiers to warm up, the magic is there. Unlike a few megabuck tube amplifiers we’ve used that take hundreds of hours to sound their best, we only noticed a modest change in sound character after about 50 hours. And had we not had a pair of these, so that one could run for 50 hours while the other one just sat there, we’d never know—the difference is pretty minimal. Bottom line, unbox these beauties and enjoy them.

Grab a Pair

If there’s been a better success story than PrimaLuna in the high-end audio market over the last decade, I haven’t heard it. The Dutch company continues to make top-notch products, while refining its brand and expanding its current offerings.

If you’ve ever felt intimidated by using a vacuum-tube power amplifier, PrimaLuna takes all the hassle and guesswork out of the process. The more adventurous hobbyists can tube roll to their hearts content, and the rest of you can just use the supplied tubes and dig the music.

We are happy to award the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium amplifier our Product of the Year award in the tube-amplifier category. A most excellent amplifier—and I suggest you get two while you are at it.

DiaLogue Premium amplifier

MSRP: $3,199 each (factory) (U.S. distributor)


Speakers KEF LS-50    KEF Blades    Focal Maestro Utopia
Analog source AVID Volvere SP turntable    SME 309 tonearm    Lyra Kleos cartridge
Digital source OPPO 105    dCS Vivaldi stack
Preamplifier PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium    Robert Koda K-10    Audio Research REF 5SE
Phonostage Simaudio MOON 610LP
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Cardas Clear    Running Springs Dmitri

Plinius SA-Reference Power Amplifier

Located in New Zealand, Plinius has been making great components for years, and the brand has a loyal customer base that sings the Plinius praises on most of the audio forums. And with good reason. Every Plinius product we’ve had the privilege to audition at TONEAudio has always exceeded expectation.

The company’s top-of-the-line power amplifier, the SA-Reference, is no different. Plinius has always stood for great value and high performance, but this amplifier is in an entirely different league. Tipping the scale at 125 pounds and costing $20,900—both reasonable figures compared to some of its competitors—this is truly a destination product. Every SA-Ref is hand built and tested in the New Zealand factory. These massive amplifiers are available in a finish that Plinius refers to as “linishing,” and is offered in a black or silver anodized color as the one you see here. With large and conveniently placed handles on both the front and rear of the amp make it easy enough for those who aren’t Olympic deadlifters to move the amp into place.

Flanked with distinctive heat sinks on both sides, this Class-A masterpiece lives up to its nature by producing a lot of heat. But, in comparison to my reference Pass Xs 300 monoblocks, the heat is manageable. For those feeling a bit greener, there is a switch on the front panel that allows the amplifier to be run in Class-AB mode, which drops the idle power consumption down from 1,100 watts to 184 watts. During the course of this review, I leave the amplifier on in AB mode all the time, switching to Class A at the beginning of the day. This shortens the time to thermal stabilization and dramatically cuts power consumption. Operated thusly, the SA-Ref takes about 30 minutes to come out of the fog and do its thing.

At first blush, the difference in sound quality going from A to AB doesn’t seem as great, but extended listening validates burning the extra electricity. Again drawing the comparison to the Pass amplifiers, the SA-Ref goes from great to sublime in Class-A mode. I say drive a few less miles or keep the lights low if you’re feeling guilty about the power consumption. Your ears will thank you.

Major Microdynamics

Even with a musical selection that is relatively lacking in dynamics, like the Zombies’ “Tell Her No,” the wealth of texture that the SA-Ref provides will have you immediately under its spell. A similar effect is achieved with Neil Young’s classic bootleg Time Fades Away. This recording has lackluster quality at best, yet when delivered via an amplifier that can extract so much musical detail, the music feels closer than ever without sounding etched. On the title track, the piano in the background is usually almost indecipherable, but the combination of the SA-Ref and the $85,000-per-pair Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers gives this flat recording some depth, helping those small, fun details rise to the surface.

Let’s face it—we all have records in our collection that we love, even though they might live up to audiophile standards. The SA-Ref goes a long way towards making a wider range of your music collection more enjoyable—and that’s a great thing.

Going upscale with source material reaps even bigger rewards. Tracking through a 24-bit/192-kHz version of Neil Young’s Harvest reveals precious levels of detail and ambience, which bring new life and renewed clarity to this brilliant recording. The grungy, distorted guitar at the beginning of “Alabama” blasts off the walls of my listening room. I can almost hear the grill cloth on Young’s guitar amplifier move—fantastic. It’s this wealth of nuance that makes the SA-Ref a world-class component.

Admittedly, this reviewer is a huge fan of Class-A solid-state amplifiers; the additional tonal warmth (over most Class-AB amps), combined with the tremendous bass grip of properly designed amps, makes you wonder if the glass bottles are really necessary. The SA-Ref is one of these rare amplifiers indeed.

Plenty of Punch

The SACD of the Art of Noise’s Daft features a lot of trippy, spatial effects, with organic and synthesizer sounds floating around all three axis of the soundstage via the dCS Vivaldi digital player. The track “Who’s Afraid (of the Art of Noise)” is perhaps the biggest sounding of the bunch, with playful female vocals thrown in the mix far left and far right, with plenty of giggling and heavy breathing punctuated by the occasional “boo, boo” added for good measure. No, this amp won’t necessarily reveal the tonality of a Stradivarius violin, but it is big fun—and through an amplifier that can’t throw a massive soundstage, this recording sounds incredibly dead. The SA-Ref passes this test easily, with the big Dynaudios disappearing in the listening room like a pair of minimonitors.

On Elvis Costello’s duet with Burt Bacharach, “What’s Her Name Today?” the piano floats slightly in front of the imaginary line between the tweeters, with the strings just behind Costello’s voice, which takes on a height that makes it feel like he’s standing in the room singing. Every breath of his delicate falsetto, which grows to a major bellow at the end, is reproduced with just the right amount of dynamics and effort, again suggesting the real thing.
When I switch the program to heavy rock, the SA-Ref delivers the goods. And what better way to prove it than with the Audio Fidelity 24 Karat Gold CD of Judas Priest’s Hell Bent For Leather? Cranking the ARC REF 5SE preamplifier up to 70 (forget about 11) drives the KEF Blades, which are now back in the system at bone-crushing levels. While I find myself looking for a lighter to hold up, the SA-Ref motors through.

After about an hour of listening at levels well beyond reasonable and prudent, sifting through Black Sabbath, the Black Keys and Black Country Communion, I turn down the volume to reflect. My ears have given up, but the SA-Ref simply cannot be pushed to clipping when driving a pair of speakers with 88 dB or 90 dB sensitivity ratings. And so—while they are unsuitable matches for an amplifier of this quality—I bring out the power-hungry Magnepan 1.7s, just to probe how far the SA-Ref can be pushed.

Should you manage to push this amplifier to clipping, it does so softly and gently, with only a slight reduction in the overall soundfield. Fortunately, if you require this much power, the SA-Ref can be converted to mono operation with the flip of a switch on the rear panel. It is now capable of delivering 1,000 watts into an 8-ohm load and 1,800 watts into 4 ohms. The SA-Ref is a model of simplicity, allowing balanced XLR or standard RCA inputs, and it proves compatible with all of the preamplifiers at my disposal, from Audio Research, Burmester, Conrad-Johnson, Nagra, Robert Koda and Simaudio.

The Art of Relaxation

As days roll by with the SA-Ref in the system, it is clear that this is one of the few solid-state amplifiers that combines a freedom from distortion with effortless dynamics, and that it can just get out of the way of the music and quickly get you into the relaxation zone. And isn’t that the ultimate pleasure a premium hi-fi system should provide?

Pressurizing the sound room can be captivating for many listeners, but those subscribing to the “first watt” philosophy of sound will not be disappointed either. Even at low volume, the SA-Ref has plenty of finesse and acquits itself like a low-parts-count, low-power amplifier, providing a richness of tonal contrast that will make you want to pop the top to see if there really aren’t some tubes lurking inside. I briefly return to the Black Keys and discover that the guitar on the gentle intro of “Lies” just floats between the speakers while dripping with echo and decay.

Easing back into the couch with Arnold Bax’s Symphony No. 4 is even more soothing. That extra power on tap, combined with a very neutral tonality, makes this amplifier a delight when delivering large-scale orchestral pieces. It paints a big soundscape with both width and depth, and it is able to keep the smallest details rendered while easily and adequately capturing the scale of even the loudest passages.

A Little Comparison Shopping

How does the SA-Ref stack up to some of its similarily priced competitors? Quite well, in fact. The Pass Xs300s are a bit unfair, as they break the bank at $84,000—and, in all honesty, when I switch back and forth, the Pass amps take the lead in terms of resolution and a more dreamy, more realistic presentation. The SA-Ref sounds slightly etched and small in this unfair comparison.

However, when I go back to a couple of comparably priced competitors—the Burmester 911 MK3 ($29,900), the D’Agostino Momentum Stereo ($29,000) and the Audio Research REF 250s ($25,000 per pair)—the SA-Ref holds its own to the point of simply differing from these other amps. It would be like comparing the Audi S4, BMW M3 and Mercedez AMG C Class, which are all high-performance machines, to be sure, but each has its own take on how said performance should be delivered.

When paired with all the speakers at my disposal—KEF Blade, GamuT S9, Dynaudio Platinum and Focal Maestro Utopia, which are all reference speakers in their own right—the SA-Ref provides a sound slightly warmer than the tubed ARC monos can, yet not quite as warm as that of the Burmester. The D’Agostino is probably the most neutral of the four, but these are very, very fine hairs we are splitting here. Considering that the SA-Ref will set you back a comparatively less expansive $22,000, it really is a bargain for the sticker price.

In the End…

…We’re all dead, but while you’re still living and possessing decent hearing and cash flow, I highly suggest considering the Plinius SA-Ref amplifier. If you want a destination amplifier that can convert to monoblock (should you need more power at some point) and if you love the concept of a Class-A solid-state amplifier that will never need tubes replaced, this just might be your baby.

SA-Reference Power Amplifier

MSRP: $20,900


Analog Source AVID Acutus REF SP turntable    Lyra Atlas cartridge    TriPlanar tonearm
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifiers Audio Research REF 5 SE    Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10
Speakers GamuT S9    Dynaudio Evidence Platinum    KEF Blade
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek

First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

The First Watt J2 is an absolute honey of an amp. Hooked up to my Zu Essence speakers, the sound isn’t merely spectacular; it regularly keeps me up long after I should have gone to bed. The J2 is sublime, but I don’t think this point can be made often enough: when a reviewer says an amp is “great,” what he’s really saying is that it’s great with the speaker (or speakers) he’s auditioned it with. The same logic could be applied to speaker reviews because you can’t listen to speakers without listening through an amp. So it’s really the combination of the two – speaker and amp – that we hear. Sure, the rest of the system, namely the preamp, sources and cables, all play their parts. But the interactions between amp and speakers can make or break the sound – and with the high efficiency Zu’s it’s a winner.

The First Watt J2 and Zu Essence are both made in the United States. Zu is a new wave, youthful audiophile company. First Watt is a Nelson Pass enterprise, and he’s the founder and CEO of Pass Laboratories. In the 1970s, his first venture, Threshold, broke new ground in solid-state designs, and he’s still advancing the state-of-the-art. First Watt exists because Pass wants to explore a variety of amplifier-design strategies in what he thinks of as “neglected areas:” amplifiers that might not fit into the mainstream and are probably not appropriate for Pass Labs.

The J2 is a stereo power amplifier rated at 25 watts per channel into 8 ohms, and 13 watts into 4 ohms. The clean, compact design measures 17 by 5.5 by 16 inches, and it weighs about 25 pounds. It has a two-stage circuit and operates in pure single-ended Class A mode, with signal JFET devices forming the input stage and power JFET devices for the output stage. What’s that, a JFET output stage? That’s special. Every solid-state amp you or I have ever heard used bipolar or MOSFET transistors in the output stage. The J2 sports JFETs, and that’s way cool.

Yes, I recall that Sony and Yamaha made JFET amps ages ago, but then power JFETs were MIA. Now they’re back. Pass heard that SemiSouth Corporation of Missouri had started making new power JFET transistors with high voltage, current and power capabilities – as high as 1,200 volts, 30 amps, and 273 watts. These new JFETs were designed for very fast switching in solar-power and electric-car applications. Pass bought a few of these JFETs and found they had a very low distortion characteristic. Compared with MOSFET-type power transistors, JFETs can achieve 10 to 20 dB improvements in distortion performance. So a JFET doesn’t need as much feedback to keep distortion low. It’s low from the get go.

Pass aims to design what he calls “simple circuits” because, as he once so eloquently put it, “Complexity tends to be the nemesis of musicality…” As he refines a design, he listens to how individual parts – capacitors, resistors, semiconductors, etc – change not only what he can measure but how they put their “signatures” on the sound.

Low-power, singled-ended tube amps have been popular with some audiophiles, especially those with highly efficient speakers, so you might assume Pass was trying to build a solid-state amp that would appeal to that crowd. But that’s not the J2’s mission. It doesn’t sound like tubes; it’s not warm, mellow, romantic or lush.

The J2 is all about purity and exceptional transparency. It’s a colorless device. Low-level resolution of recording-room sound or added reverberation are reproduced with startling fidelity. If you want romance, look elsewhere. Play a nasty-sounding recording, such as  Arcade Fire’s recent The Suburbs CD, and it will sound hard, grainy  and ferociously compressed. Gorgeous recordings, such as Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass’ Sophisticated Lady CD, will be a feast for the ears. Ella’s voice, from a whisper to a full-on wail, takes center stage, and Pass’ fleet-fingered fretwork is not too shabby! The feel of the sound is tangibly live, and the anything-can-happen excitement of the 1983 Tokyo concert was perfectly resurrected by the amp and speaker. Sophisticated is my favorite Fitzgerald album, precisely because it gets me closer to the live event than anything else.

The J2/Essence combination is dynamically consistent from bass to treble, so the sound feels right. There is a definite tunefullness, a toe-tapping, engaging quality that brings music to life. Bass is quick and nimble, but it won’t bowl you over with room-shaking, pants-flapping low-end. If you want that, get a subwoofer.

After an hour or so, the J2’s heat sinks and the entire chassis get pretty warm, so you wouldn’t want to rest your hand on it for more than a few seconds. The power switch is on the amp’s rear panel, which might be a tad inconvenient if you want to put the J2 in a rack or cabinet. Then again, considering how much heat this amp generates, proper ventilation is a must. I put the J2 out on the floor between the Essences, so it was easy to reach around to the power switch. The warranty runs three years, but Pass claims that in more than eleven years, he’s never had a single First Watt product returned for a warranty claim.

Comparing the J2 with my Pass Labs XA100.5 100-watt monoblocks was a study in contrast. The big amps’ power advantage was obvious, and that manifested itself in sheer gravitas and a richer, fleshier tonal balance. The XA100.5 soundstage was deeper and broader, but the J2 was just as transparent. Low-level resolution and transient speed were on par the XA100.5. And the big amp is four times as expensive as the J2.

The little amp’s 25 watts uncorked the full measure of Booker T & the MGs prodigious funk. Healthy doses of the band’s Time Is Tight three-box CD set proved the amp has what it takes. Duck Dunn’s supple bass lines made all the right moves, and Steve Cropper’s tasty guitar tricks were finger-lickin’ good. Then again, Booker T’s Hammond-organ grooves are the music’s bedrock, and he was always adding just the right flavor to the mix.

The live tracks from Cream’s Goodbye LP may not have had the same sort of unstoppable mojo as the Booker T sides, but played at a satisfyingly loud level, Jack Bruce’s fat bass riffing off Eric Clapton’s stinging guitar leads were beautifully rendered. Ginger Baker’s heavyweight drumming had tremendous impact, so any concern that the little amp’s 25 watts per would inhibit my style were soon forgotten.

The Cream record isn’t by any stretch an audiophile recording, but I loved the way the J2 decoded the texture of Bruce’s bass and Baker’s drum kit. They were more dimensionally present than I ever recall hearing from the Mobile Fidelity Goodbye gold CD. Same could be said about Still Life, a live Rolling Stones LP from their 1981 tour. I’ve never really liked this LP, but it clicked over the J2, and it made me think about how much better the Stones were when bassist Bill Wyman was still in the band. “Start Me Up” was a highlight; the band still had a bit of their youthful power, but that was almost 30 years ago!

I also put the J2 through its paces with Anthony Gallo Acoustics’ new and improved Reference 3.5 speakers. It’s not a super-efficient design (only a moderate 88 dB/1 watt), but the impedance stays around 8 ohms before it drops like a stone around 20 kHz. I really love this new Gallo for its remarkably open quality and its transient speed. Soundstage depth and low-level resolution are superb, and the J2 handily exploited all of those strengths. But power was an issue, so if you like to listen loud, the J2/Reference 3.5 combo won’t float your boat.

The Hifiman HE-6 planar-magnetic headphones (similar operating principal as Magnepan speakers) can be hooked directly to any power amp, so I couldn’t help but try the headphones with the J2. Wow, the sound was oh-so transparent, definitely on par with Stax electrostatic headphones. But the J2/HE-6 combination was vastly more dynamic and the bass kicked harder than any ‘stat phones I’ve ever tried. The HE-6 is one of the most open-sounding headphones around, and the J2 only seemed to enhance that quality. Soundstage width and depth on Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea CD were truly expansive. My only reservation was the bass. Other amps generated gutsier drive and more low-end oomph than the J2 did with the HE-6.

The J2 doesn’t sound like a tube amp, but its musicality with my Essence speakers was spectacular. So if you have a Zu, horn or any high-efficiency speaker, the J2 could do the same for you.

Additional Listening:

More Power!

By Jeff Dorgay

Should the J2 not be quite enough juice for your speakers, consider the First Watt M2.  Rated at an equivalent 25 watts per channel, the

M2 is a push-pull design whereas the J2 is single-ended Class A. The M2 produces 40 watts per channel into a 4 ohm load, where the J2 produces only 13 watts per channel.

Bottom line, the M2 amplifier should be able to drive most speakers to adequate sound-pressure levels.  I’ve been a fan of Nelson’s Class A designs all the way back to the Threshold 4000A, but everything that Steve has described in the J2 is available with slightly more power in the M2 model. The M2 is slightly less expensive, at $3,600.

Removing the $60,000 pair of Burmester 911 mk. 3 monoblocks in my reference system, the M2 held its own, with even slightly more inner detail than the German monster amps.  This amplifier was able to take hold of the GamuT S9’s with enough control that a few casual visitors didn’t even know the Burmester amplifiers were no longer in the system!

Watch for a full review shortly when I have time to peel the smile off of my face.  Nelson Pass has done it again.

First Watt J2 Power Amplifier

MSRP: $4,000


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition Blu-ray player
Electronics Parasound JC 1 preamp    JC 2 power amp    Pass Labs XA100.5 amp   First Watt J2 power amp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp
Speakers Zu Essence    Zu Soul Superfly    Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan MG 3.6/R
Headphones Hifiman HE-6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    Audioquest Sky interconnect    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    XLO Signature-3 power cords

Burmester 909 MK5 power amplifier

Just as mega sports cars all offer different approaches to performance, giving the Aston Martin driver a completely different experience than the Ferrari, Porsche or Corvette driver, so do mega power amplifiers.  I’ve spent a lot of time these last few months with some of the world’s top amplifiers and it’s amazing how different from one another they sound.  But each amp, in its own way, defines state-of-the-art audio performance.

Burmester’s smaller 911 MK3 has been a reference amplifier here for almost four years.  Surviving a fall from the FedEx truck in the middle of a busy intersection, the 911 has played nonstop for the duration, rarely being powered down, always providing fantastic performance.

But even considering the 911’s prowess as an amplifier, more power changes the game.  Beyond the obvious ability of bigger amplifiers to achieve higher sound-pressure levels, they also offer more control at all power levels.  Most, if not all, speakers present a treacherous load to an amplifier’s output terminals, changing impedance with frequency and generating back EMF—some speakers are even highly capacitive to boot.  The dynamic load a speaker presents does not adversely affect a massive amplifier like the 909 MK5, with substantial power reserves and a high-damping factor, in the same way it does a small amplifier.  The end result?  A spacious sound, free of fatigue.

Big Power, Big Price Tag

Merely swapping out the 911 for the 909 provides an immediately noticeable and revelatory improvement—which it should for $73,495.  The German Physiks speakers I’ve been auditioning for the last month appear to grow in stature, feeling like someone snuck in overnight and moved them about 4 feet farther apart; the effect is not at all subtle.  And that’s starting with the amazing Burmester 911 as a baseline!  The instant Alex Van Halen’s drum stick hits the opening cymbal in “You’re No Good,” there’s more decay, more weight and more meat on the bone.  Right from the first power cord, the guitar has a much fatter sound, feeling more like a wall of amplifiers at a live performance, with a feeling of unlimited power.

The bass line underneath Radiohead’s “In Limbo” not only has more texture, but there’s also more space between everything—said bass line, the ethereal guitars, keyboards and dreamy, over-processed vocals.  This tune can sound compressed, as if the musicians are too close together and crowded, but the 909 opens it right up, giving the music room to breathe and keeping the pace of the rhythm section solidly anchored while everything else floats around the room.

Burmester’s 911 MK3 produces 350 watts per channel into 4 ohms; the 909 MK5 pumps out 600 watts per channel.  With 20 precision-matched outputs per channel and an enormous 3.5-kV power transformer, the 909 doesn’t have much empty space inside its mammoth enclosure, which measures 19 by 19 by 20 inches and weighs in at 170 pounds.  Fortunately, it comes in a padded road case with wheels—another sign of the care that goes into its production.  It’s worth noting that all Burmester power amplifiers are burned in at full power for seven days continuously before they are released to customers.  Though Burmester suggests that the 909 sounds its best after 200 hours, it’s damn good straight out of the (aluminum) box.  Those with tough to drive speakers take note: the 909 mk.5 will produce 1250 watts per channel into a 1 ohm load – indefinitely.  I needed one of these back when I had Apogee Scintillas!

The Loud and Quiet of it All

Playing Rachel Macfarlane’s Hayley Sings through the 909 MK5 provides a perfect example of the silky smoothness that the amp presents.  It’s not all about brute force.  Backed by a Sinatra-esque big band, her lead vocals deliver a strong timbre that the 909 effortlessly renders.  As her voice goes quickly from loud to soft, it never gets lost in the blaze of horns accompanying her.  Equally delicate is the opening bass line in Rage Against the Machine’s “Calm Like a Bomb.”  The 909 captures every bit of texture, until the song goes full tilt, with distorted guitars bombarding the listener from every angle. Again, this monster amplifier handles it all in perfect stride.

Switching speakers to the GamuT S9s and giving the volume control a twist towards the maximum, on Fear’s “New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones,” sheds new light on this classic punk cut.  The 909 provides an otherworldly, out-of-body experience, transporting me right back to when I followed the band in 1981.  It’s as if the 909 reproduces the sound and the sweat.  There’s an extra dimension at work here.

With the volume up to brain-damage levels, it just wouldn’t be a proper Burmester review without a few Scorpions tracks, so out comes the 45-rpm maxi singles.  Tracking through “Rock You Like a Hurricane” has those present for the audition reaching for lighters and brings the police to our front door—the ultimate testament to the 909’s brute force.

Those of you in the audience who are more proper audiophiles will be pleased to know that the 909 MK5 does a smashing job on your favorite acoustic tracks, female vocal pieces and, of course, large-scale orchestral recordings.  The cannon shots at the end of 1812 Overture really come to life with this much power on tap, and if that’s not enough, you can bridge the 909 to produce a monoblock capable of 1,930 watts per channel.  You’ll probably need an electrical-supply upgrade to a pair of 20-amp dedicated lines; Burmester makes note that your power must be up to the task in order to achieve this high output.  Bridging can be done via external adaptors, as with the 911, or your 909s can be ordered directly from the factory this way.


While it’s just so much fun to explore an amplifier that has no real dynamic limits (at least in the context of my room and system), the true magic of Burmester’s power amplifier is twofold:  It has an almost silky sonic texture that is unique, nestled right between the “just-the-facts” sonic signature of the Boulder 3050 or the Simaudio MOON 880M, as well as the slightly warm and inviting, almost tube-like sound of the Pass XA200.5.  Heavily biased, but not fully Class A, the 909 generates precious little heat, even after a long listening session.

Anyone attending Burmester’s after-hours party at last year’s New York Hi-Fi Show witnessed a pair of these mighty amplifiers playing to a crowded room that was easily the size of a small club with a 30-foot ceiling.  By the end of the night, the 909s remained barely warm to the touch, and were not damaged by the DJ plugging and unplugging things with the volume turned up, making a hateful sound through the enormous Burmester speakers in the process.

Exquisite Build

This brute force is packaged in a stunning box.  From the extrusions on its heat sinks, to its subtle bits of chrome plating, to the Burmester logo machined in script on its top cover, the 909 goes to show that no one produces better casework than Burmester.  I spend a lot of time removing the last few dust specs in post-production and can’t help but be blown away with the quality work of Burmester’s machine shop.  Even with the images blown up 1000 percent on screen, there are no machining, engraving or plating flaws to be seen anywhere.

This is truly a luxury product that delivers the goods sonically and is also a joy to look at, even when turned off.  The 909 MK5 is built to a standard that should allow you to leave it for the next generation—a true value in a society where so many products are easily discarded.

The back panel has two large carrying handles, and the speaker binding posts have large winged knobs, making it easy to attach any type of speaker cable you might be considering.  Even though there are banana plugs in these gigantic twist terminals, Dieter Burmester himself suggests spade-lug termination on your speaker cables for the best connection and transference of such high power.

The only problem with the Burmester 909 MK5 is that once you have the experience, it’s tough to go back.  As we spend more time with this remarkable amplifier, we will do a proper head-to-head comparison between it and the 911 MK3 with a wide range of program material, and will report back in the Comparo section of our website, so please check back shortly.

For now, suffice it to say the Burmester 909 MK5 will handle any challenge.

The Burmester 909 MK5 power amplifier

MSRP:  $73,495 (factory) (North American Distributor)


Analog source AVID Acutus Reference SP Turntable    TriPlanar arm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital Source Light Harmonic DAC    Meridian Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifier Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10    ARC REF 5 SE
Speakers GamuT S9    German Physiks Unlimited MK II
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek

Audio Research REF 150 Power Amplifier

Audiophiles have a habit of prematurely discarding things. In the 70s, a proliferation of low-efficiency box speakers and transistors convinced many enthusiasts to abandon vacuum tubes for high-powered solid-state amplifiers. Listeners were on a quest for “perfect measurements,” only to wonder if they’d made the wrong choice after the fact.

History repeated itself again in the 80s with the compact disc, as many of the same devotees ditched vinyl in favor of “perfect sound forever” and the digital medium’s superior measurements. Fortunately, technology always seems to come full circle and often reaches its development pinnacle years after introduction. The ARC REF 150 power amplifier exemplifies this trend.


The $12,995 REF 150 builds on the success of the previous $10,995 REF 110, the consummate one-box solution for audiophiles that don’t require the power of the larger REF 250 and 750 monoblocks. ARC executive Dave Gordon notes: “The REF 110 is a great amplifier. Yet the extra output of the REF 150 is perfect for our customers wanting the REF sound, but don’t want to commit to the space a pair of monoblocks required.” One chassis also has an advantage in that the REF 150 only requires replacing eight power tubes (approximately every 5000 hours) and, subsequently, produces less heat. Tubes are cooled by a pair of back-panel fans that only make themselves faintly known when the music is off. And even then, one must listen intently to hear them.

Looking virtually identical to its predecessor, the REF 150 sports major internal changes. There’s a much bigger power supply, with double the storage capacity of the REF 110, and redesigned output transformers to maximize the capacity of the KT120 output tubes. Past ARC power amplifiers use the 6550. However, the increased dissipation of the new KT120 tube allows for a substantial power increase. Proprietary capacitor technology utilized in the 40th Anniversary Reference Preamplifier significantly contributes to the new amplifier’s improved transparency. Currently, there’s no upgrade option for REF 110 owners. Still, Gordon mentions that the KT120 tube can be a drop-in replacement for the 6550 in the REF 110 and “provides a bump in power output, close to 20 watts per channel.” Not a bad upgrade for about $600.

Having owned numerous ARC power amplifiers during the past 30 years, I love that the company prefers a path of measured evolution rather than ricochet from one design to the next. This approach keeps high both demand and resale value for vintage ARC gear. Some older models are now worth more used than they were when new. The current hybrid design, featuring low noise JFETs in the first input stage, began back in the late 80s with the Classic 120 and Classic 150 monoblocks. The latter models ran eight 6550 tubes in each channel in triode mode. By comparison, the REF150 utilizes ARC’s patented “cross cathode coupled” output stage, delivering more power from half as many tubes—and providing better overall sound.

Listeners that find the last generation REF 110 amplifier slightly forward in tonal balance and requiring more juice to push will likely feel that the improvements made to the REF 150 a welcome change. ARC diehards, take note: The change in overall sound is almost identical to the improvement between the REF 3 preamplifier and REF 5.  Audio Research achieves a delicate balance of delivering extra, almost-indefinable tonal tube richness while avoiding the common trap of masking resolution with warmth—or speed with an overblown soundstage. In other words, the REF 110 goes to 9.3 and the REF 150 goes to 11.


The REF 150 features a single pair of balanced XLR connections for the input and three output taps (4, 8, and 16 ohm) for speaker outputs. Thankfully, ARC employs quality copper binding posts instead of the awful, plastic-coated connectors used on too many of today’s power amplifiers. Solid connections are important, and these do the job. A 20-amp IEC socket is used for power transfer, as is a heavy-duty power cord.

Integrating the REF 150 into both of my reference systems—one featuring ARC’s REF Phono 2 phonostage and REF 5 preamplifier,  the other comprised of the Burmester 011 preamplifier and Vitus Audio MP-P201 phonostage—proves seamless. Note: the design of the REF series power amplifiers is such that they will not work with single ended (RCA outputs only) preamplifiers.  A balanced preamplifier must be used, or distortion will rise dramatically, accompanied by a substantial decrease in power.  This is due to the omission of the phase inverter stage – a small price to pay for signal purity.  Excellent synergy is also achieved running it direct from the dCS Paganini stack, in effect making the ARC an all-digital control center. No matter your front end, the REF 150 will deliver.

The REF 150 is equally versatile with a wide range of loudspeakers. While it can’t push my power-hungry Magnepan 1.7s to ear-busting levels, it plays them at coherent levels with all but heavy-rock tracks—a major feat for most amplifiers, and an incredible achievement for a tube amplifier. The new MartinLogan Montis speakers make for a fabulous combination with the REF 150, a match previously problematic due to the speakers’ low impedance (.56 ohms at 20kHz), The Montis’ slightly higher impedance combines with the REF 150’s superior drive to play extreme music at any level desired, with no loss of high-frequency information. It all reminds me of the synergy achieved years ago with ARC’s legendary D-79 power amplifier and MartinLogan’s CLS speakers.

Outstanding Impressions

I’m instantly struck by two characteristics: The REF 150 sounds more lifelike right out of the box than recent ARC components, and it possesses colossal bass grip. Those of the opinion that vacuum tube amplifiers can’t produce prodigious amounts of bass weight or control are in for a major paradigm shift. In these respects, the REF 150 amazes.

The Chemical Brothers “Galvanize,” from Push The Button, reveals wet and loose beats that challenge amplifiers to capture their gravitas. The REF 150 aces the test. Sampling everything from Pink Floyd to Stanley Clark shows the amplifier claims immense power and control over lower registers. Regardless of the speakers, the REF 150 goes deep, and yet, stops on a dime with bass transients. No, I don’t believe “tube watts” sound more powerful than “transistor watts.” But there’s no substitute for a well-designed power supply with ample reserve capacity. The REF 150 sounds much bigger and more dynamic than its power rating suggests.

Texture is treated in equal measure, leading me to an old audiophile favorite, The Three, a JVC direct-to-disc LP featuring Shelly Manne on drums, Joe Sample on piano, and Ray Brown on bass. Listening to Brown’s playing on “Satin Doll” is sublime, with every up-and-down movement of his fingers smartly distinguishable.

But man cannot live by bass alone, and the REF 150 excels with practically every other aspect of music reproduction. The amplifier’s ability to hold its poise when pushed very, very hard leaves me stunned. Warner Bros.’ analog remaster of Van Halen’s Van Halen II is no audiophile masterpiece, and the third track, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” often collapses into a one-dimensional experience. Yet, even at close-to-concert decibel levels, Eddie Van Halen and Michael Anthony’s background vocals retain distinct separation rather than just sounding like a single vocal.

Imagined or not, electric guitars reproduced through tube amplification represent the proverbial equivalent of an extra push over the cliff. The REF 150’s resolution is particularly tasty when listening to bands featuring multiple lead guitar players; think Judas Priest, Slayer, or Metallica. The title cut to Judas Priest’s Ram it Down personifies the increased power such tracks exert when you can easily discern multiple guitarists in the mix.

For those preferring to twirl rather than bang their head, look no further than Mobile Fidelity’s recent remaster of the Grateful Dead’s Live Dead. Filled with layer upon layer of guitar and keyboard tracks, the LP takes on new life via the ARC, revealing previously obscured tidbits. Consider: Jerry Garcia’s guitar begins as a whisper on “Saint Stephen,” yet when he ramps up the volume, the organ way off in the background doesn’t lose its integrity.

Power and Delicacy

The REF 150 never stumbles, handling the power of a guitar solo or delicacy of a flute passage with ease. Without question, this amplifier roars when required. But thanks to its wide dynamic range and bandwidth, it retains a full-bodied sound at low playback levels. Those subscribing to the “first watt” theory (i.e., if the first watt isn’t great, the rest won’t be either) can rest assured the REF 150 is up to the task.

Rounding out my evaluation with wide range of vocal standards confirms initial impressions. The REF 150 is a very natural-sounding amplifier—never forward, bright, or harsh. Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volume 8 comes off with the depth of a stereo record.

At first listen with any component, dynamics usually woo you into further listening sessions. However, tonal accuracy and overall natural sound are the sonic sauces that keep you on the couch for hours, seeking out “just one more record.” Sure, many Internet pundits complain that recorded music sounds nothing like the real thing. Pish. If your speakers and source components are up to task, the REF 150 will produce such sensations with the best recordings—and amply seduce you the rest of the time. Cream’s “Sleepy Time, Time” from its 1995 performance at Royal Albert Hall splendidly reproduces the venue’s ambience. I feel as if I’m sitting in the center of the 15th row in this famous concert hall—no surround speakers needed!

If you’re seeking classic tube-amplifier sound that is larger than life and full of romance, the REF 150 isn’t your bag. However, if you desire a modern amplifier possessing musical integrity, timbral accuracy, and wideband frequency response—yet still boasting the three-dimensionality, air, and tonal saturation hallmarks of mighty vacuum tubes—the REF 150 offers emotional engagement few amplifiers at any price can match.

Audio Research REF 150 Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $12,995


Preamplifier ARC REF 5     Burmester 011
Phono Preampflifier ARC REF Phono 2    Vitus Audio MP-P201
Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Sumiko Palo Santos
Digital Source dCS Paganini    Sooloos Control 15
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri    Maxim power conditioners
Accessorie Furutech DeMag, Loricraft PRC-4    SRA Scuttle Rack

Croft Micro 25 Preamplifier and Model 7 Power Amplifier

For those of you that have been waiting for the next series of Croft amplification products, they are back with their Micro 25 preamplifier and Series 7 power amplifier. In case you aren’t familiar, don’t feel out of touch, Croft has always been one of the smallest of British hifi manufacturers, but worth seeking out if you are interested in high performance at a very reasonable price. The two components you see here are only $1,395 each.

When you pick them up, you might be surprised at the relatively light weight; there are no massive power transformers or CNC machined chassis here, but that’s not the Croft design ethos. There are seven components in the Croft lineup; three preamplifiers, three power amplifiers and a phono stage. They all share the same enclosure to save cost. The two top line products fill the enclosure and the two lower models have progressively less under the hood, ultimately keeping the cost down on all models.

Value inside

Where past Croft owners might smirk ever so slightly upon reading this, as they know what lurks inside, the more traditional audiophile might be somewhat tense, worried that they aren’t receiving enough for their money. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you look more closely, you will notice that there are no printed circuit boards inside either of these two components. They are completely wired point to point, with a density and precision that would make a watchmaker proud.

Croft has always been about simplicity, and these two components are the essence of minimalism. The Micro 25 preamplifier is a full tube design and uses three 12AX7 (ECC 83) tubes, one for the linestage and two for the phono stage. The series 7 power amplifier is a hybrid design, again using the 12AX7 for the input stage with a Mosfet output stage, producing 45 watts per channel.

In the 60’s Dynaco was the benchmark for great sound at a very reasonable price, and in the 80’s the early Hafler gear offered more of the same, with their DH-101 preamplifier and DH-200 power amplifier. Though a bit more expensive (it is 2011 after all), these two pieces from Croft offer a level of musicality that are truly unmatched at this price level, at least in my experience – though you need to define your priorities.

Like the Dynaco and Hafler products before, the Micro 25 preamplifier is a no frills design. There are two high level inputs and the phono input. No remote is offered and there isn’t even a balance control. All the effort has been put into sound quality and that’s great news for audiophiles on a budget. The Series 7 amplifier has a pair of RCA input jacks, a simple pair of output binding posts and a power switch. Nothing more.

Instantly impressive

These two pieces of gear will surprise you as soon as you power them up. As I was just completing the review of the $45,000 pair of Estelon speakers for the December issue, I started here to see just what the Croft combination was capable of. Running a pair of RCA cables from the dCS Paganini to one of the line level inputs, I was amazed at just how musical these two were right off the bat. At moderate levels, it was very easy to get fooled into thinking this amplifier and preamplifier were worth at least double their asking price when judged on sound quality alone. The pace was excellent and the Series 7 amplifier did a great job of controlling the Estelons and my reference GamuT S9’s as well. I started with one of my favorite totally 80’s test tracks, Thomas Dolby’s “Hot Sauce,” that features a killer opening bass riff. The Series 7 had no problem controlling the might Estelons, and that hooked me instantly on the sound. Next up, Dave Stewart’s “Kinky Sweetheart” from his Greetings From the Gutter CD. This track is very ethereal, with a lot of electronic and synth effects that float around the soundstage and will fall flat with a lesser preamp. The Croft combo through a soundstage that was impressively wide and deep. Going back to something I’ve heard a million times for an acoustic reference, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus was the next choice and again I came away astonished at how natural instruments felt, with just the right of space and decay.

Of course this is playing way out of the league of these two components, but the point is that they still turned in an outstanding performance, even with state of the art speakers and digital source. Moving on to a more “budget appropriate” system, I used a few more reasonably priced speakers with the Croft combination and still came with a big smile on my face. The Series 7 amplifier even passed the torture test of driving my Magnepan 1.6 speakers at a modest level, something most budget amplifiers (even those with higher power ratings) can’t do. The rest of my listening was done with my freshly restored JBL L-100’s, the new Blackstone speakers from Polk Audio and the B&W 805D’s.

Great phono

As the Micro 25 only possesses a MM phono stage, the freshly restored Dual 1219/Grado Black and Rega RP1/Ortofon OM40 tables were used to spin records, making for a very nice system. Both tables turned in excellent performance, but the synergy between the Dual/Grado was unbelievably good, offering a very rich tonal quality to whatever I played. If you are an analog lover that is on a tight budget or just doesn’t want to spend the time (and money) to seek out mega pressings, The Micro 25 could be your little slice of heaven. Some of my 70’s classic rock favorites sounded way better than they had a right to.

I love to compare audio components to automobiles and while this may annoy some of you that are less automotively inclined, the Micro 25 and Series 7 remind me of one of my favorite cars of all time, the Series one VW GTI. While the current GTI is an excellent car in its own right and offers a healthy does of Audi – level luxury, they now retail for about $30k and are out of the range many of the enthusiasts the car was originally aimed at.

But that original GTI was only $7,000 dollars and between 25 and 90 mph, provided a level of driver involvement that few cars at any price could match. This is exactly what the Croft pair offers up. They do such a great job at what they do well; you won’t notice their limitations. Even when used with a pair of $40k speakers, they sound so inviting connected to your favorite pair of $500-$1,500 speakers, you’ll be blown away with how much you can enjoy your music collection, analog or digital.

Only complaint is that the phono stage could be a little bit quieter. There is a bit of tube rush at modest levels when getting relatively close to the speakers, though you won’t hear it from your listening position. It does make a fairly harsh click when shutting off the preamplifier, so be sure to turn the amplifier off first.

Croft all the way, or…

These two Croft components have an obvious, one-manufacturer synergy when using them separately with other components but the preamplifier is the over achiever of the two. You’ll be hard pressed to find a vacuum tube based phono preamplifier this good for $1,395, much less one that includes a great linestage. Going a bit further upscale and plugging the Micro 25 into my recently rebuilt Conrad Johnson MV-50 power amplifier, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much more music was lurking inside this little preamplifier.

Where the Model 7 really shines is the amount of inner detail and musicality that it reveals. This is a quality vs. quantity piece all the way. You can buy other amplifiers for about $1,500 that have more power, but I defy you to find one this musically satisfying. Just like the preamplifier, mate the Model 7 with the right pair of speakers, preferably ones with a sensitivity of about 90db, and you may never go any further down the audio path. The other preamplifier I found great synergy with was my vintage Naim NAC 52, so anyone thinking of using one a Micro 25 with a vintage Naim preamplifier (also well known for an excellent on board phono stage) will not be disappointed, though you will need the appropriate interconnects.

Regardless of where you are on the audiophile path, if you are building a high performance, yet reasonably priced system I can’t suggest the Croft Micro 25 preamplifier and Model 7 power amplifier highly enough, especially if you can live without a remote control.

Both of these pieces perform far enough out of their respective price point that even if the audio bug bites you hard, you should be able to go through a few rounds of source and speaker upgrades before you tire of the Croft pieces. Even if you do decide to move further up the ladder, I’d suggest keeping these two forever – they are destined to become classics. I bought the review pair and plan to do just that. We are proud to award the pair one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.

The Croft Micro 25 Preamplifier and Model 7 power amplifier

MSRP: $1,395 each

Manufacturers Information: (factory) (North American distributor)