Few industries have a wider range in terms of the sizes of companies creating products for public consumption than does the audiophile market. Some companies, such as Harman and Sony, are multi-billion-dollar conglomerates. Others, such as like Orchard Audio, are one-man shops. Instead of making many different products, Orchard concentrates only on a few and that laser focus results in very good products for those who are in-the-know. In FutureAudiophile’s recent article about GAN-based Class D power amplification, Jerry Del Colliano outlined the theoretical advantages of Class D power amplifier designs. The Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 is a real-world realization of those theoretical advantages. Not only is it priced far below any Class A or AB amplifier that can produce a similar power output level, but it also burns through far less energy producing those watts as compared to non-GaN amp options. If you’re ready to spend less and get a lot more for your audio dollars, read on.
What Makes the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 Power Amplifier Special?
- The Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 produces a lot of unfettered power. Unlike many power amplifiers, which are limited when connected to a 4-ohm load, the Starkrimson produces 125 watts into 16 ohms, 250 watts into 8 ohms, and 500 watts into a 4-ohm load. It will supposedly even drive 2-ohm loudspeakers successfully.
- The Ultra 2.0 uses a different power supply module than the first-generation version. Replacing the Hypex SMSP1200A100 with the Micro Audio SMPS1K2-SKU lowered the amplifier’s overall noise levels quite a bit. I had the previous version in my system briefly, and it produced some hiss from my Spatial Audio X-2 speakers, but the 2.0 version is absolutely silent.
- The new power supply is not only quieter than the previous version, but it will also handle greater output capacitance. This will allow the amplifier to mate successfully with more difficult speakers’ impedance loads.
- If you are handy with a soldering iron, you can buy the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 as a kit and assemble one yourself. Orchard Audio also has individual power amplifier and RCA to XLR input modules for sale.
- The Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 never gets hot or even warm to the touch. The amp also uses miniscule amounts of power when idling, so you can leave it on 24/7 without running up your electric bill at any noticeable level. Even when being driven hard, the Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 uses far less electric power to achieve the same output levels as a Class A or AB power amplifier because is more efficient and generates much less heat. The Starkrimson makes a great summer power amplifier.
- Unlike conventional Class AB or Class A power amplifiers, which are often big and heavy, the Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 weighs slightly under 15 pounds. This is a high-power amplifier that anyone can lift.
Why Should You Care About the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 Power Amplifier?
While there are plenty of lower-power Class D amplifiers, finding a Class D power amplifier that uses audiophile GAN technology and is priced under $3,000 is not quite as easy to find. Most Class D power amplifiers are in the 150 watts into 8 ohms range while the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra can deliver 250 watts into such a load. This higher output makes the Starkrimson Ultra a more versatile power amplifier capable of driving a wider array of loudspeakers successfully. Those who care about saving energy will also rejoice at having such a high-power amp use the power from the wall so effectively. Tube amps that draw, say, 100 watts from the wall convert roughly 80 watts of that power to heat (not sound). GaN amps measure above 90 percent efficient and output a nearly perfect output signal. Class A amps boast similar linearity but drink power from the wall by design.
Some Things You Might Not Like About the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 Power Amplifier
- The Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 has only balanced XLR inputs. If you need unbalanced RCA connections, Orchard has a convertor module to allow RCA single-ended inputs but it is not a stock option.
- The Ultra 2.0 does not have a half-inch-thick faceplate or circa-1988 Threshold-looking heatsinks (it doesn’t need them). You can, however, get a rackmount option and even a custom color option if you desire a bit more flash.
- You can’t bridge the amp’s two channels to make a more powerful monoblock amplifier as some other GaN amps allow. Not to worry; Orchard has a monoblock version of the Ultra 2.0 if you are looking to get the amps closer to the speaker as the monoblocks don’t provide any more power than the stereo, single chassis version.
- There is a short return policy of 14 days. As compared to other online retailers like SVS who offer 45 days, your audition period is pretty short but there are no questions asked here. Just return the unit in excellent, resalable condition and you get your money back if you aren’t satisfied. I have a feeling this rarely happens.
Listening to the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 Power Amplifier …
San Francisco-based Front Country features a fine female lead vocalist, Melody Walker, along with a Grammy-winning mandolinist, Adam Roszkiewics, who form the center of a band that’s been together since 2011. Their latest album, Impossible World (buy at Amazon), was released in 2022. The Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 preserves the natural timbre of Ms. Walker’s vocals quite well. The opening cut of the album, “Miracle,” is fairly dense mix, with multiple guitar, mandolin, keyboard, and background vocals, but through the Ultra 2.0 it’s easy to hear deep into the mix and easily follow any part. Also, the amp has wonderful sense of ease and lack of extraneous or distracting noise.
Michael Cleveland is a natural wonder. He may even be a space alien. He’s short, blind, and doesn’t exactly follow the Nashville movie-star-looks musician mold, but he is a spectacularly good fiddler, guitarist, mandolin player, and singer. On his latest album, Loving of the Game (buy at Amazon), Cleveland is joined by his band Flamekeeper, who if judged by their ability to play blazingly fast and ridiculously clean, are one of the finest bluegrass bands currently in existence. “Thousand Dollar Holler” opens with the sound of Cleveland’s fiddle filling the air with a big double stop and blasts off from there. Once more, the Starkrimson never produced any signs of distress or aural confusion. The upper frequencies of Cleveland’s fiddle never sounded harsh or ragged-edged, even when he was leaning hard into the strings. Like a good Class A or triode power amplifier, the Starkrimson rendered upper frequencies without adding additional astringency to the sound.
Does the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 Power Amplifier Have Any Resale Value?
By all means, this Gallium Nitride amp should have solid resale value. Given its attractive price, a used Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 could be a great option for budget-limited audiophiles. But given its excellent performance, I suspect used samples will be pretty damn hard to find. Current owners have no reason to jettison their Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 until a version 3.0 with even better performance comes around. So don’t hold your breath waiting on a used sample. If you want one, you’re probably going to have to break down and buy a new one.
Who Is the Competition for the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 Power Amplifier?
The Benchmark ABH2 ($3,499) claims to be “The quietest, cleanest audio amplifier on the planet,” but the Orchard achieves almost the same level of quiet in my room (both have absolutely no sound coming from the tweeters when idling) with a far simpler design that doesn’t require extensive feed-forward and THX circuitry. As a past owner of the lovely Benchmark ABH2, I found the Starkrimson to be a bit more involving. I also found it much easier to listen deep into music’s inner details through the Starkrimson. The PS Audio Stellar S300 power amplifier ($1,999) (buy at Amazon) is also a Class D switching design, but it uses a Class A MOSFET front end combined with an ICE power output module instead of GaN FETs. The PS Audio S300 that Bob Barrett reviewed for FutureAudiophile.com a few months back is not as powerful as the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra at only 300 watts into four ohms instead of 500 watts. It is also light, weighing only 13 pounds, and only draws 13 watts while idling. Like Orchard Audio, PS Audio sells their products directly to users, so trying before you buy will be difficult. The Parasound A 21+ ($3,599), reviewed here by Michael Zisserson, delivers as much power as the Orchard Audio Starkrimson but features a more traditional Class A/B operation, albeit with a high bias. Given its less-efficient design, it is much larger and heavier than the Starkrimson, with a net weight of 71 pounds. It also draws substantially more power from the wall at 160 watts at idle and maximum draw of 1,400 watts.
The best apples-to-apples comparison for the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 is the AGD Productions Tempo GaN amp. Hand-made in Southern California, this $5,700 Gallium Nitride amp prompted Michael Zisserson to put his long-time reference Parasound A21+ up for sale. While not offering as much power, this amp highlights the gross benefits of GaN technology and how a beefy power supply can make such a small, efficient switching amp take on the likes of a $13,000 Class A operation Classé Delta Stereo Amp (review pending) or one of Nelson Pass’ most compelling Class A designs in the Pass Labs XA25 at $5,150 and give them both a run for the money. The AGD is close to twice the price of the Orchard Audio GaN amp, but it is currently one of the best comparables on the market. Peachtree Audio also has a GaN amp priced more like the Orchard Audio, but we haven’t received a review sample, yet.
Final Thoughts on the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 Power Amplifier
Class D switching amplifiers (don’t call them “digital”) used to be only good enough for use as a subwoofer’s power plant, but times have changed. Improvements in output devices and power supplies have elevated Class D designs to a level that directly competes sonically with Class A and Class AB solid state amplifiers and even challenges tube-based designs in terms of sonic purity and midrange clarity. The Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 delivers a level of sonic quality, power output, and energy efficiency that eclipses previous power amplifier technology at an eminently affordable price. If you need a powerful power amplifier that doesn’t gobble up a kilowatt of wasted energy from the wall, stays cool regardless of the speaker’s impedance load, and is quiet enough to connect to reasonably efficient loudspeakers, there’s an exceedingly short list of candidates, and the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 is right at the top of mine.