September 2007

The Current State of Solid State

Back in second grade, I was hopelessly seduced by a magazine ad for what seemed to be a miracle: a fully functional radio in a package not much larger than two packs of my dad’s filterless Camels. Before then, a radio was a large thing, possibly in a wooden case, powered by small vacuum tubes.

So how did this unknown Japanese company, probably named Sony, manage to cram an entire radio into such a compact box? Well, it used these then newfangled things called transistors instead of bulky, fragile glass tubes to make the thing work.

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Rotel RC-1082
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Classe Audio CAP-2100
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Outlaw RR2150 Stereo Receiver

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Soon thereafter, everything seemed to be transistorized and somehow, the future seemed more secure, more fascinating and more optimistic. The space age had begun, and we would no longer have to lug our aging tubes down to the tube tester at the grocery store to find out which had blown and which were still viable. The ’60s began on an up-note: transistors, Swanson TV dinners and automatic transmissions would make life so much easier.

But unknown to most, the transistor was not a perfect audio device. Yeah, it worked OK, and could offer seemingly limitless power in a relatively small amplifier chassis, but for a number of reasons, early solid state just didn’t sound right, at least for those who took the time to notice such things … folks like audiophiles.

My first true high-end amp, circa 1972, was powerfully loud—400 watts—and powerfully nonmusical, though I didn’t know why at the time. I got rid of it within a year. Since then, solid-state and other non-tube amplifier technologies have come a long way, overcoming many of the attributes certainly unwelcome in a musical environment such as grittiness, harshness and a nasty overall grunge, especially in the mids and highs—unnoticed by most listeners.

Modern designers employ better parts, including the transistors themselves, employ improved power supplies, and pay more attention to vibration control, so that today’s so-called solid-state amps are light years ahead of those of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Interestingly, today many amp manufacturers are not afraid of saying their solid-state products sound as good as tubes, or at least sport some of the qualities of a good tube amp.

Briefly, in the typical solid-state amp, transistors are paired so that one of the two handles the up portion of the musical waveform and the other handles the downward sweep; while one works, the other rests and cools. But the awkward part of this arrangement, usually referred to as Class B operation, is that the swap from one transistor to the other can create some of that aforementioned distortion. To abate this, some designers use Class A operation that employs only one transistor to handle the complete audio wave and avoids the noisy handoff of that wave from one device to another. Problem is, this transistor has to work full-time and never has that 50-percent downtime the Class B transistor enjoys, so the amp gets very hot and requires some massive heat dissipation components, called heat sinks, which can add dozens of pounds to the weight of the amp.

At some point, designers came up with a nifty solution combining Class A and Class B: Class A/B. For those critical first few watts, where most of the action is to begin with (typically, at normal levels you may only be using a few watts at most), the amp runs in Class A. When the music demands drums, heavy bass, massive orchestral work and so on, the amp switches to Class B operation, which allows for more oomph while generating less heat, so the amp can be constructed more compactly—no need for all those bulky iron fins to drain off the heat. These days, most amps utilize some form of Class A/B operation.

The other category of modern solid-state amps is the Class D amp, which utilizes so-called digital switching to achieve signal amplification. The advantage is very high efficiency ratings, meaning there is little heat produced since there is little wasted energy … most of the energy that enters the amp exits as music and isn’t thrown off as heat. So the amps can be very, very small and operate at only slightly above room temperature, making them great for multi-channel systems and enclosed subs. They are finally making inroads into the high-end arena, mostly via Bang & Olufsen’s ICEpower amplifier modules used by more and more manufacturers, including Bel Canto, Jeff Rowland, Rotel and B&W.

Speaking of Rotel (rotel.com), its incorporation of the ICEpower units began a few years ago, and is now fully entrenched in Rotel’s always intriguing product line with amps ranging from 100 watts to 500 watts per channel. The RB-1072 ($899) is the entry-level Rotel Class D amp, though calling it entry level is a tad misleading. The amp simply rocks and rolls with grace and 100 potent watts, all from a diminutive little box just barely two inches high. It is a power amp only, so to keep things in the family, we auditioned it with the equally classy RC-1082 preamp ($1,199). Together they constitute an excellent, modestly priced entry point into the world of high-end audio, especially if teamed with Rotel’s companion CD player that we listened to last issue. The preamp is a very flexible beauty that includes a very quiet phono section compatible with just about any cartridge you can throw at it, and though it doesn’t have a USB input to allow direct connection to a computer, it does offer a front panel media-player input for MP3 players. Both units sport Rotel’s usual beefy build quality and handsome, though not flashy, industrial design.

The sound? Like other ICEpower amps, the Rotel packs plenty of punch and authority without exhibiting any signs of stress, at least with the various speakers I employed for this review. Bass was always plentiful and the amp kept a firm grip on the speakers, resulting in very tight, musical lows, never tubby, never slow. In that all-important midrange, the Rotel sailed smoothly and effortlessly, projecting female vocals, a critical test of just about any component, with a natural quality usually found in tube gear, while high frequencies never exhibited a trace of glare or harshness.

I recently picked up some limited-edition Anthony Braxton sides, 20 Standards (Quartet) 2003 (Leo), and though these live recordings are not technically the best, with the Rotel, I felt as though I was in a prime seat in the theater—the band came across with all the dynamics and details of live music. Braxton’s alto squeaked only when he wanted it to; otherwise, the tone was definitively Braxton. Having heard him live several times, I can attest to the veracity of the reproduction.

If the Rotel fits into your budget, it is certainly worth considering for a very tasty plate of true high-end musical performance. The inclusion of phono capabilities makes this package all the more attractive. In Texas, Rotel means “hot tomatoes” and the RC-1082/RB-1072 pair certainly merits that accolade!

Last issue we also examined Classé Audio’s (classeaudio.com) extremely strong entry into the stand-alone CD player field, the CDP-102, and found it to be built like a tank with a performance level to match. Classé’s CAP-2100 integrated amp ($4,900) is also a member of the Delta series; it is, in fact, the CA-2100 amp and CP-500 preamp ingeniously melded into one convenient chassis. And like all members of Classé’s Delta family, that’s quite a chassis: The faceplate is three-quarters of an inch of solid, extruded aluminum, and the total package tips the scale at over 50 pounds! This is literally no lightweight.

Electronically speaking, Classé was very careful to keep all the various circuits isolated from one another so that the power amp juice does not interfere with the low-powered preamp signals and so forth. The result is better-sounding music with less noise. It possesses an overall silkiness: not coloration, mind you, but a silky, seductive sound with plenty of muscle and heft. The internal construction and component makeup are nothing short of extraordinary. No shortcuts, and every care was taken to ensure the best musical reproduction possible. Classé is a class act, for sure. Like the CDP-102, this amp employs a touch screen control center for all functions and can be tailored to fit the needs of your system. And though it doesn’t include a phono section, there is an optional card available to add this feature to the amp.

The best part is, the CAP-2100 sounds as good as it looks. Once again, there is a Vise-Grip hold on the speakers, and for bass, control is the name of the game. Classé scores big points in this category; in fact, it’s safe to award this amp a 10 for bass reproduction since it rarely gets better than this. And though I didn’t have a hard-to-power speaker to prove this point, the very high levels of current provided by this amp make it the perfect match for relatively difficult-to-drive loads such as Magneplanar speakers which are notorious for gobbling up current like so many bags of M&Ms. Maggie owners, do check out this amp.

On a Paolo Conte import, simply entitled Paolo Conte (RCA), all the wonderful instrumental lines came through clearly and distinctly, and if you know this man’s music, you know how complex those can be. But more importantly, his voice was portrayed in a lifelike fashion, indicating the Classé’s legendary knack for believable, right-on mids. Again, near the top of the heap. The Classé can open up new vistas for any jazz listener, even within an existing music collection.

OK, so you can’t or won’t shell out for the Classé or even the Rotel. Do you miss out on all the potential goodness your music library has to offer? Not really, especially if you opt for the new receiver from Outlaw Audio (outlaw.com), the RR2150 ($649), “RR” standing for “Retro Receiver.” But don’t look for this in your local dealer’s showroom since Outlaw sells exclusively through its Web site, a fact that enables consumers to save the middleman markup and walk away with some pretty nifty bargains.

Outlaw set out to design an affordable “statement” two-channel receiver, one of the last of a dying breed, and it should know since the company’s bread and butter comes from an award-winning line of multi-channel amps and receivers for home theater. Since the product harkens back to an earlier time, the company chose external styling to match. It’s retro in feel, more art deco than ’50s but nonetheless good-looking. In addition, Outlaw did not scrimp on features. The 2150 is loaded to the gills: 100 watts of stereo power; sophisticated bass management to enable an optional subwoofer; likewise sophisticated tone controls (audiophiles hate these things, but they can come in handy at times); a tape-monitoring circuit; a very sensitive AM/FM tuner with 32 presets; front panel headphone jack with separate level control; a programmable, very useful remote; and tons of inputs, including a front panel jack for your iPod, a DAC-equipped USB jack to directly connect your computer’s music library to the receiver and, on the other end of the technology spectrum, phono inputs with a selector for optimizing the input for moving magnet or moving coil cartridges. Not sure what else one could want, other than a ’60s-era Italian espresso machine built in.

Since I used CD as the source for the other amps, I chose to check out the Outlaw’s phono circuitry. I’m glad I did. First thing my wife said when the initial disc finished was, “Records do sound better, don’t they?” A Mobile Fidelity reissue of Coleman Hawkins’ The Hawk Flies High lived up to its title: The music soared over the CD version, possessing a hard-to-define rightness digital just can’t claim. Yeah, the MF pressing is pristine 180-gram vinyl, but even on more mundane discs, the music comes alive, and is simply easier to listen to. And the Outlaw receiver handled the output of the Marantz turntable I had on hand perfectly. Retro? Maybe superficially, but the sound was perfectly modern, balanced from top to bottom with those all-important mids perfectly reproduced: Hawk’s tenor was detailed, big, rich and full, just as I imagine it was on stage. The Outlaw brought the entire band to life in my living room, with plenty of sizzle from Jo Jones’ cymbals and gutsy bass from Oscar Pettiford.

Switching gears completely, I bathed for an hour or so in the delightful sounds of Pentangle from the Sweet Child LP (Reprise). This British folk-jazz outfit was largely ignored in the U.S., but created quite a stir in its homeland during the ’60s and ’70s. Its version of Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat” was as compelling as I’ve ever heard it, the all-important bass holding down the action while two lithe guitars carried the tune. And the Outlaw never quivered, never said, “I give up,” but instead delivered the song with aplomb. I couldn’t believe I was listening to a $649 receiver.

Auditioning the USB input, I was impressed by the quality of the music coming from some low-res music files from my iTunes library while the hi-res cuts were, though not equal to the vinyl reproduction, quite acceptable. It was very insightful of Outlaw to include such a divergent set of inputs on this receiver, especially considering how many music fans are now building LP collections right next to their iPod docking stations. I can highly recommend this Outlaw for anyone in search of high performance on a budget, or for someone who might want a second sound system for an office, bedroom, etc. It simply makes good music, and for not much money—truly an arresting bargain!

Other amps worthy of consideration come from Arcam, Bel Canto Design, Creek, Naim, Jeff Rowland Design Group, PS Audio, NAD, Esoteric, Ayre and many, many others. Will you find a 500-watt amp that fits into a pack of Lucky Strikes? Not yet, but that day is surely coming, and without doubt, the sound will be astonishing.

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