What The Hell Is a GaN (Gallium Nitride) Amp and Why Is It Changing the Way Audiophiles Now See Power Amps? 

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There are a lot of things the audiophile world does well. For decades, we presented the coolest new tech at the Consumer Electronics Show. More importantly, the audiophile hobby allows us to bring music into our lives in ways that is often on par with the live or in-studio experience. Where traditional audiophiles sometimes get a little stuck is with change. Too many in the audiophile community simply fight anything and everything new. The audiophile print magazines still can’t stop talking about vinyl when for the cost of one LP a month, an audiophile can have access to every recording basically ever made. 

We called our publication Future Audiophile for a good reason: because selling oligarch-priced gear to septuagenarian audiophiles is   not a sustainable business model. Things need to change for the better in terms of not just buyer demographics but in terms of technology, too. That change is coming. Chi-Fi is changing the value proposition for high-performance gear. Although there are no meaningful new ways to move air with speakers, the levels of refinement of the 75- to 100-year-old technologies that back today’s best audiophile speakers keep getting better and better. Today’s $2,000 floorstanding speakers are simply incredible. The finishes, the build quality, the improvements in drivers, crossovers, and cabinets are vastly improved even in the last say five years. 

AGD Productions makes one of the best examples of GaN amps in the market today
AGD Productions makes one of the best examples of GaN amps in the market today

The world of audiophile amplifiers is having a sea change thanks to GaN technology – a new kind of semiconductor material, ideal for high speed MOSFET used as power device in switching amplifier (better known as Class-D amps). GaN (gallium nitride) amplifiers use very efficient circuits to create a switching amp (often wrongfully described by audiophiles as a “digital amp”)with a host of major improvements that are starting to shake up the way that the amplifier and audiophile world think of things. In Silicon Valley they use the word “disruptive,” which is meant as a purely positive concept just as the word “exploit” is in Hollywood when talking about ways to monetize your entertainment or media platform. 

What Is Special About an Audiophile-grade GaN (Gallium Nitride) Amplifier?

  1. Traditional Class-D switching amps often are erroneously called “digital amps,” but that is a misnomer. The main difference between GaN based and traditional class-D amps is that these new amps operate at a far higher PWM frequency (800 kHz for GaN versus 400 kHz for traditional Class-D), of course needless to say that is basically impossible for humans to hear. The result with GaN amplifier designs (if the design is done correctly with the right components and state of the art layout), is a close-to-perfect square wave at the switching node (before the output filter) that eliminates all the artifacts, oscillations and other toxic effects from the output signal, hence almost performing as an ideal amp that our reviewers think sounds more like SET (single ended tubes) or lower-watt but higher-end Class-A amplifiers like my new Pass Labs XA-25 designed by Nelson Pass.
  2. GaN amps are very efficient in their designs, making them distinctive in an audiophile marketplace that is still refining age-old amplifier designs. Alberto Guerra of GaN pioneering audiophile company AGD Productions talks about how traditional amps utilize designs that include feet of cables when discrete GaN designs, much like a modern MacBook Pro with an M2 chip, have only millimeters of connections. Less is very much more in the world of amp designs. 
  3. GaN amps create very little heat as compared to traditional linear amps. The best Class-A and SET amps also perform with close-to-colorless sound and nearly perfect square wave performance, but they waste tons of energy in heat. Heat is no good for electronics, be it your amp or the other sensitive electronics around it.
  4. GaN amps don’t need to be physically large to deliver big power, even into 2 ohms. This concept is going to start messing with audiophile stereotypes and norms, but stick with me for a second… You can build a high-power GaN amp that doesn’t need as much metal, which brings down the costs to manufacture the components. Additionally, with shipping costs going up, up, up, a lighter amp can ship to a dealer, distributor, or direct to the consumer with far less cost as well as a lower carbon footprint. The next generation of audiophiles value green technologies and GaN is just that.
  5. GaN Amps use less power from the wall than a traditional linear topologies such as a Class-AB. The idea that you need to actually see the impact of your audiophile amp on your power bill every month is very old-school thinking. 
  6. When designed right, GaN amps can power even the most brutal impedance loads. Not every speaker today is a tough load to drive, but for those who have a taste for the planar or electrostatic designs, a GaN amp brings the sound that we love from tube or Class-A designs but with the internal fortitude to drive the hell out of a tough-to-drive speaker. That’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario.

In talking more with Alberto Guerra from AGD Productions about GaN versus other amp designs, he couldn’t emphasize enough the importance of the quality and design of the power supply in any high-performance audiophile amplifier. “The power supply is as important as the chosen amplifier technology,” he opined. One of the big differences beyond the switching frequency: more traditional non-GaN Class-D switching amps of the last 20 years often struggle sonically because of the use of less-than-robust power supplies. Class-D amps like the Pascal chip designs from the likes of Amped Technologies and Jeff Rowland Design Group are a good $5,000 and $30,000 examples of how Class-D amps can be top performers in the modern audiophile world. They clearly are packing serious power supplies. Most, but not all, of today’s GaN amps rock a beefy power supply too. 

Peachtree Audio's GaN amp is one of the more affordable on the market today
Peachtree Audio’s GaN amp is one of the more affordable on the market today

Who’s Using GaN Amplifier Technology Today?

  • The new $5,000 reference Dimension DM80 speakers from Definitive Technology are a creative new use of GaN. The internal amplifiers are many times more powerful than previous models over the past 20 years at a lower build cost and with less heat. 
  • Peachtree Audio has a GaN 1 amp that packs 200 watts at a pretty affordable price. 
  • Orchard Audio’s Starkrimson GaN amps are sold direct. We reviewed a number of them including the Starkrimson Ultra 2.0 which is one of the best. We also reviewed the Orchard Audio Starkrimson Mono Block Amp which is smaller and less expensive.
  • AGD Productions is one of the most expensive options in the GaN market today. We’ve reviewed their $5,700 AGD Productions Tempo di GaN power amp. and it was very good but much more expensive than other options on the makers today.
  • Tube electronics company Atma-sphere now makes a GaN amp but they’ve failed to communicate with us on the topic as we’ve reached out to their founder a few times.

This isn’t a complete list of every GaN product but it shows the undercurrent of enthusiasm that is brewing in the audiophile world for this exciting new technology. 

Orchard Audio is a somewhat new player in the audiophile space complete with a GaN design ready to ship today
Orchard Audio is a somewhat new player in the audiophile space complete with a GaN design ready to ship today

Some Audiophile Questions That GaN Raises…

  1. Can we accept that a small amp that isn’t the size of a Chevy V8 can make more power, drive the hardest loads, use less power, creates less heat, and costs less than traditional, linear amps?
  2. Could a future-minded, discrete amplifier technology possibly be better than a tried-and-tested technology from 100 years ago? (For example… tubes?) On the source-component front, many traditionalist only want to listen to vinyl, which is also a century-old technology with major technical flaws (very low dynamic range and lots of distortion) as compared with, say, a Compact Disc
  3. Is using less electricity important in your audiophile system? Many of us never turn our amps off, thus thumbing our nose at the DWP. We use technologies that waste energy wildly in ways that aren’t found anywhere else in consumer electronics. Does ending practice appeal to the hobby? 

I’ve heard GaN amplifiers and I am quite compelled by their sound as well as their potential. The FutureAudiophile.com staff is asking more and more about how they can get GaN into their review systems, which is fun to see and encouraging in terms of moving the hobby forward. 

Have you heard any GaN technology? Are you inclined to look into it? Are you willing to put some age-old stereotypes from the audiophile hobby to rest in ways that we haven’t been able to with other technologies? Please comment below as we love to hear from you.


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Trevor Bartram

I believe Hypex Electronics Chief Engineer Bruno Putzeys has stated that the very best MOSFETs are compatible with his most recent designs and a lot less expensive than GaN. I believe Putzeys is considered to be the greatest designer working in Class D amplification. He is now turning his attention to power supply design. Though that field has been pretty thoroughly researched already?

Ron

As numerous “focus group” panels have shown, at least anecdotally, there are those that prefer a sound with some second harmonic distortion…those that prefer third harmonic….and those that prefer as close to zero as possible. The ultimate may be when one of the GAN guys provides an amp where the distortion profile can be dialed in by the owner….one day a “tubey” sound…the next day a distortion free sound.

Until then, people will continue to argue why their amp sounds the best…or why they own multiple amps so they can tweak the sound to their liking with just a simple amp change.

Steven

Why would you (or anyone) care about distortion, measured or otherwise, if it remains inaudible or unidentifiable?
For an industry considered to be science driven, maybe(?) hi-fi/high-end audio would be better served if more blind tests and reviews were conducted–the standard modus operandi within the scientific method.
I would not consider myself a Luddite, however sometimes “technology for the sake of technology” serves as little more than pseudo-intellectual masturbation.

Steven

That is encouraging to learn you do blind tests.
I look forward to reading more about the outcomes.
It could prove interesting, too, to learn the results of blind tests using various electronics driving low distortion loudspeakers–where 2nd through 5th harmonics are -40 dB (1% THD) or more below the signal (fundamental) throughout the spec’d frequency response.
I would be surprised (not unpleasantly) if listeners could identify the difference between electronics with distortion figures much below that of the speakers, or for that matter the recorded material.
Granted, controlling variables in such a test could present a few challenges. . .

Michael Zisserson

Hi Ron,

The ear-brain system is extremely complex, and not as well understood as we’d like to think. I believe this is where it holds ground that yes, there are preferences to how a system sound, and no, there is no “right” way to do it. The right way for everyone is what works for them. Weather that involves 2nd order distortion or not. Its not my full cup of tea, but my friend’s system with 13 watt Audionote amps and Divore Fidelity Loudspeakers has provided many hours of enjoyment when visiting him!

I’d like to offer an alternative perspective: You can have a sonic signature that is warm, but still has resolution One that is sweet to the ears, but does not miss sharp dynamics… Even “neutral” is its own signature regardless of weather one can put a machinist’s level on a response line or not.

In short: When dealing with a sound like the AGD amps have, it provides the BENIFITS of what makes people love 2nd order distortion, without the detractions of 2nd order distortion such as roundness on the edges of the notes and apparent rolling-off of the top end.

This is my definition of “sophistication.” It all ties together neatly in that to my knowledge, a sophisticated sound was at MUCH higher price points as little as five years ago. While not cheap, these qualities are becoming available at prices that are beginning to become attainable for most. GaN such as AGD and good class-D such as Amped is making this possible – and THAT is what I am excited about!

Martin Bell

JAVA Hi-Fi is another brand to add to the list of GaN amp manufacturers. JAVA has two models of integrated amplifier and two models of power amplifier, all employing GaN FET technology. You van view the full range in the link below (Disclaimer: I am the founder and CEO of JAVA).

EricN

Atma-Sphere now makes a GaN Class D to join its previously all tube lineup. The new amps are mono block 100wpc into 8Ohms and are fantastic. They have been voiced to sound like the Tube OTL’s in their lineup.

Monrow

Yes

jeff kalina

It is apparent that class D has now come out of the closet and is working to shed its “dry” reputation.
Aavik, Mola Mola, Bel Canto have higher end Class D products that rival anything out there.
The world of amp makers is going to Class D. I expect it to get even better in short order.

Last edited 8 months ago by jeff kalina
Iwan

Other than a potential higher switching frequency, all the advantages attributed to GaN’s in this article are equally true for FET Class D amps. GaN amps are expensive but with little advantages over a well executed FET design.

Case(s) in point: Hypex’ NCOREx, Purifi’s Eigentakt. These FET designs offer many advantages over just about all of the available GaN designs: No varying frequency response with impedance; high damping factor, THD+N on the edge of what can be measured with only very few costly measurement devices, even at very low power levels.

Amps using these technologies can be widely found. As usual it’s all about execution. Merely as an example, the relative mainstream brand NAD has 2 poweramps based on Purifi in its line-up: the C298 and the considerable more expensive M23. Same output modules but the latter definitely a better performer than its less expensive sibling.

GaN for the sake of GaN doesn’t make a good amplifier, it’s the entire design around it that ultimately decides the end result.

I would have expected a more balanced view of Future Audiophile on the subject, I’m sorry to say…

Bob Bean

Haniwa Audio will be debuting its new GaN amp and 1 ohm single driver speakers with super subwoofer at Capital Audio Fest Nov 10-12 2023. https://www.capitalaudiofest.com. Come and listen!

Leo A.

Orchard Audio will be debuting two new products at the 2024 Florida International Audio Expo. Once of them will be a new GaN monoblock amplifier. Please stop by for a listen.

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