There is a sea change going on in the audiophile hobby coming from the world of electronics – specifically via a whole crop of new-school, Class-D amplifiers. These amps are designed around any number of somewhat modern semiconductors and offer tremendous value, as well as world-class performance, all on one small, light, energy-efficient chassis. They are smaller, lighter and quite affordable, but that is only the start of the argument for using these new power amps in your audiophile system.
Some of the companies embracing these new technologies are mainstream, ranging from Marantz to NAD to even as high as Jeff Rowland Design Group, but the main group of disruptive companies are much smaller and more organic in their approach. Peachtree Audio, Orchard Audio, AMPED America, Buckeye Amps are just a few of the new names that are mucking it up in the new-school, Class-D amp space today. Despite the boom in audiophile gear sales during the COVID-19 lockdown, many of the more established audiophile electronics brands have lost market share recently. McIntoshhas their relationship with Best Buy that gets them into well over 200 Magnolia stores, the only way to get truly national distribution. They have also added many of the best custom installers, as well as a good number of the top hybrid AV dealers in the United States. Other brands that are more audiophile household names, such as Classe, Krell and Mark Levinson, have seen setbacks in their distribution channels in recent years. Audio Research is under new ownership again after some pretty messy bank maneuvering that left the last buyer on the outside, looking in. The new owner is well-heeled; the direction of the company isn’t fully realized at this stage of their progress but they too are part of the audiophile electronics establishment.
Above the audiophile electronics establishment is another group of electronics companies in the Luxe Audio or Oligarch Audio category, where components like stereo preamps and DACs, as well as power amplifiers, can cost $25,000, $50,000, $100,000 or more. Some of these players are new companies and others are just new to this COVID-friendly, cost-no-object client. CH Precision, Nagra, T+A, Solution, D’Agostino, Gryphon, Linn, dCS, Wadax and more and a dozen others that sell in that 1/1000 of One-Percenter range. Are these products that much better than the establishment products or these Class-D upstarts? That depends on your taste and budget, but they definitely appeal to those in Asia who eat up all things American (or Western European, in some cases), no matter what the price. The point is that there are new players sandwiching the establishment audiophile electronics companies from the top as well as from the bottom, which never used to be the case in this hobby.
Do These New Class-D Audiophile Amps Sound That Good?
In a word – yes. They are also a bit of a mind-f**k, in that they are so small, so light, and so different-looking that they couldn’t possibly be as good as a traditional Class-AB amp, could they? With these new designs, gone are the big heat sinks. Gone are the two-man lifting requirements for a 120-pound-plus stereo amp. Gone is the need for the constant maintenance that tubes require. Gone is the heat that you get from tubes and Class-A designs. This is a brave new world for audiophile amplification indeed.
Recently, I got a chance to do The Pepsi Challenge with a comparably-priced, somewhat higher-end GaN (Gallium Nitride) amp, versus my $5,150 reference Pass Labs XA-25 Class-A amp. The Pass Labs amp is considered to be one of Nelson Pass’ best designs. It is low gain. It is unbalanced by design, and it runs like Buster Poindexter, thus hot-hot-hot. Sonically, when comparing the two amps, it was a close match. The GaN amp had what little “sound” that the Pass Labs has (I don’t think it has much of a sound at all – perhaps slightly on the warm side, but not much). The GaN amp had every bit as much power. The GaN amp was balanced, and it could be bridged to get to 400 watts per channel. The GaN amp was physically small and thankfully ran super-cool, as compared to the Class-A amp, which is a total space heater. The prices were comparable, and the sound was comparable. I chose to stick with the Pass Labs amp, but my time with the GaN amp has got me thinking as the heat issue is a major problem in my side-by-side, eight-foot-tall Middle Atlantic Racks. I’ve got Panasonic in-ceiling “fart fans” on temperature controls to pull excess hot air into attic. The tops of both of my Middle Atlantic Racks have a drone-like array of small fans also designed to pull heat out of the rack and to the top of my converted coat closet (aka: mechanical room).
Beyond GaN How Good Are These Other Class-D Amp Technologies?
Thankfully, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get into a Gallium Nitride (GaN) design these days. We’ve got a Peachtree Audio product that runs from a simple, variable output source for just over $1,000. We’ve got lower-end GaN amps also in for review from Orchard Audio that are monoblocks and really good, also for not much more than $1,000, and they can power just about anything.
But GaN isn’t the only game in town. Jeff Rowland uses a Pascal chipset in his $35,000 implementation of an uber-high-end Class-D amp. AMPED America has a $5,000 amp with 400 watts of power that is a lot of what Rowland offers (no fancy metal work) for about $5,000. We are seeing and reviewing more products using the Hypex chipset. The recently Marantz Model 30 is an integrated amp with the Hypex chipset. NAD has some Hypex options there, too. We are about to publish a review of the Buckeye Amp Hypex amp, which is also quite powerful (even compared with GaN), and has simply excellent measurements without the size, weight, heat or cost issues of amps from the recent past.
What is the Real Benefit of These Class-D Amps for Audiophiles Worldwide?
We can talk about the benefits of size and weight, and that’s a good place to start. We’ve covered the heat and lack of maintenance issue also, which is relevant. For many modern audiophiles, having an amp that is efficient when it comes to power use is important, too. Many of these Class-D amps are 95-plus-percent efficient, meaning that they barely need any power from the wall to power up even your most demanding modern audiophile loudspeakers. Compare that to a tube amp, and you see the tube amp wasting 80 percent of its power on physical heat. Modern audiophiles don’t want to waste money or energy the way that their father’s audiophile system has always done. The problem is: can we as a hobby let go of some of the physical stereotypes for an amp, meaning that they need to be big, heavy, and rocking expensive heat sinks in order to sound their best? The truth is that we don’t need these hang-ups anymore, as technology has moved on.
The true benefit of the new group of Class-D amps is that today’s audiophile can get an amp that can perform with other, more traditional amps that cost five to 10 times the price a mere two years ago. Basically, the money that you need to get colorless, high-power, low-heat, high-output power is a lot lower, thanks to new technology.
Why Are These New Class-D Switching Amps Better Than the Ones That Came Out 20 Years Ago?
B&O’s Ice Chip sounded like its name “Icey” but for the right application, like in-wall speakers, these high-output amps were close to perfect. However, in audiophile applications, these amps were often just not quite refined enough. So, what changed? These modern chipsets are different today, and far improved, but the place where all audiophile products benefit is the power supply. Today’s Class-D switching amps (don’t call them “digital amps,” as that is a misnomer) almost always come with a beefy power supply to support these bleeding-edge new amplifier chipsets. Combining these new chip technologies with the time-tested fact that a badass power supply makes any audio component perform better is like mixing peanut butter with chocolate, as they both go well together.
Will Traditionalist Audiophiles Fight Modern Change in the Amplifier Category?
The audiophile hobby isn’t much about embracing the future over its two generations in existence. The print magazines that have shaped the hobby for 50 years and counting put a big premium on a high price, exotic technologies, and exclusivity. These new Class-D amps are better than that, thus they represent the type of Silicon Valley “disruptive” change in technology that points many traditionalists to vinyl and tubes over more modern, more efficient audiophile electronics options.
The next-generation audiophile is seeking performance and value, as every other enthusiast has in his or her journey over the years. The fastest way to get to an increasingly high-performance stereo system is to embrace, engage or at least understand what is possible with these types of new technologies. Do you have to own a Gallium Nitride, Pascal or Hypex chipped amp to be a new-school audiophile? Of course not, but you should know about them as they represent the types of technological advances that really can improve performance of real-world, high-end audiophile systems, while saving power and delivering excellent value.