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.
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?
- 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 (learn about the limits of human hearing here). 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Who’s Using GaN Amplifier Technology Today?
- The new $5,000 reference Dymension 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 (learn more at Amazon) that packs 200 watts at a pretty affordable price.
- Orchard Audio for under $3,000 has a direct-to-consumer GaN amp called the Starkrimson that we have in for review. It offers a lot of promise and has won many recent audiophile awards.
- AGD Productions is, as mentioned above, one of the foremost companies specializing in GaN amplifiers designed for the high-end world. We have their $5,500 amp in for review now with Michael Zisserson, who also reviewed the game-changing, $5,000 Amped 2400 (review pending) using the aforementioned non-GaN Pascal chip. ADG delivers their GaN technology in a tube-like, glass module that not only gives audiophile traditionalist a bit less anxiety about the future but allows the ability to someday swap things out for different-sounding GaN modules. AGD also provides their products shipped in flight cases, which is pretty slick.
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.
Some Audiophile Questions That GaN Raises…
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.