Finding The Best Medium Class Stereo Amplifier

Apologies for the utter audio-gadget-geekiness of this post, but figured I have to share my notes. A Google search for “naim primare densen heed comparison” returned very little useful & recent material when I embarked on a search for a stereo amp recently. I hope the below somehow helps the next person trying.

Setting

For reasons beyond my control I was stuck at home for a few weeks in a state that allowed for little talk or work, but the more for light reading and writing and most of all – listening to music. While at it, I came to a conclusion that I’ve outgrown my good old Arcam AVR200, one of the most “musical” AV receivers in its class and at its time about 10 years ago. It’s the usual story of being too busy to sit down and just listen, and the limits of sleeping kids in the house set to the volume you used to operate on in college. My current setup has been quite fine for the quiet loungy backdrops for when you have some guests over, but just a bit too… bland when you really focus on it.

To make things even more complicated, my upgrade needs are somewhat “temporary” (as in those things that usually end up becoming permanent). After my awe over the sound of the Estelon speakers late last year (disclosure: followed by an investment into the company) it is only a question of time when I’ll make that upgrade step too, just not sure to which model yet. So for now I needed something to match my “temporary” Audes Maestro 145 floorstanders – a good price-performance bet any time, with capacity to fill the room (especially at the lower end), but definitely not the easiest to drive.

As a source I’ve effectively moved away from CD-s (played via Arcam DV88+ or even plain Sony BDP-S383) to Sonos ZP90 streaming either MP3 or ALAC files locally or live from Spotify or Rdio (when available). Everything is increasingly digital, with all the benefits and problems coming with it.

In this context, I set myself on quest to buy a good, musical stereo amp between 1000-2000 EUR, available in Estonia immediately for home audition or purchase.

Search

The second half of my artificial constraint effectively cuts off a number of brands that are just not stocked over here and all the thrills of shopping around places like eBay or PinkFishMedia. I felt it would be great to support the local HiFi enthusiasts scene a bit with a local purchase from a local shop. (Am thinking about sharing what I learned about the scene too in a separate post, if anyone sees any use of it). I intentionally didn’t limit myself to brand new gear only, quietly hoping that this set range could get me an even pre-power amp combo that way.

This is how the process worked:

  • I decided to leave the tube amps out of this search even if I stumbled upon any that would work cost-wise. I am afraid they would prove a bit impractical in everyday family use in a normal living room even though I very much do like how some of them sound with analogue and digital sources alike. Peculiar designs, half-an-hour warm-up times, maintenance of tubes, hot parts that kids could find inappropriately interesting are some examples of issues that I decided not to tackle.
  • I filtered out a number of mass producers from my selection: Denon, Onkyo, Marantz, Pioneer, Sony before I started and Harman-Kardon, NAD and Cambridge Audio as I read and thought  more. This is for a a few reasons:
    • You can logically expect more positive surprises from the lower end models of a generally high-end manufacturer than from the few isolated high-end models of a manufacturer 90% of whose effort goes into producing the cheapest multichannel receivers sold in supermarkets en masse. Audio equipment is a bit like musical instruments, smaller quantities, less automation and more expert engineer’s time and personal attention spent on each piece results in that little magic that make one violin sound better than the other.
    • Japanese electronics giants are leading the competition race of adding more and more adjacent features (digital enhancement and processing, more inputs of different kinds, etc), rather than iterating crazily on the core experience – amplification of music. As a result, they tend to end up sounding a bit dry, electric and sterile. I know this sort of generalization is unfair to some specific great-sounding models they produce, but these generally tend to be above my set price bracket.
  • On the remaining subset of the market I did quite a number of hours of reading forum threads, magazine reviews and comparative tests, copying links and cut-outs to Evernote. You can’t and shouldn’t buy audio gear without listening, but having a general context of a market segment helps and particular reviews could point out benefits or concerns you might want to look to confirm when auditioning later. These are the sources I tend to pass through when doing basic research:
    • What HiFi – UK magazine with a structured database of lighter gear reviews, mostly from more mainstream-consumer end. Don’t rely on their 5-star ratings system blindly, but you can get some generic calibration done.
    • Stereophile – US magazine with very thorough reviews of a well-picked, mostly high-end equipment. With Forums.
    • SixMoons – thorough reviews of more obscure and higher-end gear hidden behind one of the most outdated and obscure user interfaces that made it over the 21st century line on the world wide web.
    • AVForums and AVSForum (talk about confusingly close brand names!) are usually too bottomless and varied in conversation quality to read thread-by-thread, but you will find popping up among google search results very often with valuable nuggets.
    • AudioReviews – a generic consumer review site with slightly structured user generated content. Quite randomly gives you good insight into comparison shopping and equipment matching.
  • I emerged with a shortlist of amplifiers that fit my criteria and thus I wanted to hear:
  • I sent out emails to 5-6 local HiFi vendors asking for audition availability of the above or their likely recommendations of something similar. Sat back.

Auditions

As I was not up for a caravan of first-round home auditions, I then had to drop by a few studios and knowingly leave some differences up to their cabling, room configuration and transports. I could listen to almost all of the amps driving Audes Credo Blues floorstanders at least, probably one of my most favourite speakers of all time that I have owned to date. They are easier to drive than my current Maestros, but I roughly know how much so.

And of course you just have to bring your own CDs with a few regular test tracks you know very well.

Naim

There is a healthy subculture (not to say a religion) of devoted Naim people out there. They cherish the unique PRaT (“Pace, Rythm and Timing”) characteristic of their gear and happily close an eye on some of the quirks of the series, such as their stubborn use of proprietary DIN connectors (mostly duplicated by more common RCAs) for chaining audio components and their upgrade options. These peculiarities and overall design aesthetics seem to convey the subtle message that you’d be best off with a Naim setup from playback device to speakers. Probably true both qualitatively for you and commercially for them.

However, based on my audition, a stand-alone Naim amp in an otherwise non-Naim setup would be a great addition to almost any sytem in this price range. Even the entry level, sub-1000EUR Nait 5i was able to reveal forgotten sounds from the familiar discs, keep the drums’ punching, mid-bass where it should be and not getting a single high note mudded into it. You could call the soundstage a bit narrow, but still make out the virtual positions of instruments in the air between speakers.

Where the 5i seriously lacks is sheer power. Driving the Blues speakers it started to really live only after cranked up at 80% of the volume – with Maestros that would be even worse.

  • Verdict: If I had a pair of nice bookself speakers in a 15 sq. m. room to feed, I would have walked home with a Nait right then for the sound of it. Unfortunately it’s next bigger and but more powerful brother, Nait XS was sold out for the moment and thus I moved on.
    • (A friend invited me to a home listening of his Supernait (basically Nait XS with built in DAC, priced well higher as a result) and there is an XS coming in very soon, so I might come back and revise the opinion here.)

Densen

Theoretically the country of origin should not influence audio engineering that much, but it does. If not for the sound (and there are different schools), then definitely the minimalist looks and user interface of this Danish  manufacturer are as Scandinavian as pickled herring or cross-country skiing. The only thing neater than a box with a single button is a box with no buttons, right?

Sound-wise I was hoping to hear more of a difference from the only pre-power amp combo among the integrated amps auditioned. There was nothing really to complain about with vocals and acoustic guitars, but when you take the Densen B200 & B300 brothers to electronica they just act as if they have been recruited to military. Their answers are reserved, clear and accurate, but without spark, enthusiasm or excitement about what’s ahead. Plus, sheer power-wise these separates were in as much trouble feeding the Blues as the lowest end Nait… The preciseness of bass was there, but the presence not.

An experimental switch to an alternative power amp (Advance Acoustic MAA 406) improved things a bit, but not by an order of magnitude.

  • Verdict: Precise, clear and detailed (maybe “nordic” as intended?) but notably less musical and inviting than Naim.

Primare

There is something interesting going on with this other Scandinavian’s integrated amps. I30 has been very highly regarded in its class for years, but it is just old. Components, technologies and competition move at their own pace and so Primare decided to go for a bigger revamp with I32. As a result, you get quite a few people discussing around the forums how it has become more digital, more compressed and controlled by sound – not necessarily all good things, despite of the added flair of onboard DAC upgrades and digital inputs.

I was lucky to find an “old” I30 still stocked and went in for the listen. Unfortunately this particular place had it paired with only Monitor Audio lineups of speakers – fine, but incomparable with my experience. Presuming Monitor Audios to be relatively neutral and transparent of speakers — hard for me to imagine how the I32 could go even more unpretentious than the I30 was. Easy listening but not much to remember and share.

As the guy running the place was more interested in pushing the sale and talking pricing rather than listening for a second about my setup and interest in comparative auditions, I just left.

  • Verdict: Meh. Quite a “light Densen” based on the limited listen.

Accuphase

Next to the Naim and Densens there was an Accuphase E-213 hooked up – out of the set price constraint, but I decided to benchmark nevertheless. And glad I did, as this maker has a totally different approach to sound characteristics than the others in the bunch. The soundstage presented was much wider and more layered, pinpointing nuances (both subtle instruments as well as potential recording mistakes). There was enough power to go around for the Blues, and enough detail in both the bass drum and hithat.

Everything positive said, the overall sensation I was left with resembled listening to a live act in an open air concert through low fog of a summer night. You’re close, the music is there all right, but somehow you don’t get quite immersed to it.

  • Verdict: out of the 2k EUR cap of this test, but worth a listen to calibrate what you really like.

Heed Audio

And finally on to a surprise. One of the emails I sent out came back saying: “haven’t got what you asked for, but you should listen to this before you decide”. And so I did: Heed Audio Obelisk Si + Obelisk X2 Power Supply.

It is basically a tiny (half-size) super minimalistic integrated amp, which optionally comes with another shoebox of a power supply you can plug in to separately feed the power amp stage. Two buttons, numbered inputs and a few LEDs, that’s it. And it is made by fellow Fenno-Ugric Hungarians improving upon an original British design.

What is not small or minimalistic is its sound. It has plenty of that infamous PRaT that, as it comes out, isn’t a Naim exclusive afterall. And at the same time, it somehow feels more open and intelligent, less obsessed with being “pratty”, but rather taking the time for every note to sound to it’s full length. It is fast and affirmative enough for a house track while letting me know for the first time how the nuances differ depending if a musician pushes or pulls his arm on a violin in Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel. Frankly, I did not expect to get into this territory of audioholism in the harsh envelope I set myself.

There is a very well written full review of this pair you should read for more technical detail.

  • Verdict: Imagine if a Nait had a baby with a tube amp. The resulting Obelisk sits in my audio rack as I write this and I don’t think it is going back to the studio.

Learnings

This post is not intended to sell you a piece of equipment, as usual, the hifi (and even mid-fi as this more realistically is) world is one of music, personal tastes, informed and emotional choices, matching pieces of electronic musical equipment with each other and to your listening environment. Yada-yada-yada. It is important to have fun in the process and I hope some of the thoughts and pointers above just expand your options.

As we recently discussed with a friend, the most fun part about buying audio gear is learning new things for yourself. My new takeaways from this few days session are:

  • Audition with someone you get along with. Doesn’t matter if you actually know what you want to do – the owner of gear needs to come along with it. One manufacturer basically dropped from this selection for a salesman who was on a completely different wavelength.
  • Set yourself hard price limits to stay sane. Agree with yourself what you can or want to spend and stick to it – auditions will become so much easier. There is always something a few hundred or thousand euros more that you can honestly say you understand and like even better – but it doesn’t matter.
  • Watts really, really don’t matter. I knew that before of course, but hadn’t seen displayed so explicitly in the comparision of a 120W per channel Densen being easily outperformed by nominally 80W Heed when driving large 4Ohm speakers.
  • Trying to characterize sound with words is hard, but fun. It is like describing the taste of wine. I’ve read many reviews, but never tried to write one – so here we go: check.

Thank you: HiFi Klubi, Hertsius, HiFi Studio, Henrik, Elite Audio, Alfred.


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  • Totally agree. Had the same dilemma. Nait seemed to be a winner, until I heard Heed Audio. Not integrated in my case, but their monoblocks. With Eclipse TD508mk3 hey sound exceptional. Plus, the sound is so sweet, I could afford adding Nordost Red Dawn (usually on the zingy side) without any trouble, thus enhancing speed and detail even further.

    • Thanks for sharing further matching component tips, alastr!
      Nordost cables seem to be super-sensitive indeed, I’ve struggled with their lack of / subpar shielding when they need to run in a cabinet next to power cables.

  • vnndr

    Thank you for this good review of our local market! I am also looking for the Blues+Heed integrated combination. What do you think about it now, after a year of usage? Does it have enough of sheer power to drive Blues properly at low volume level?

  • Raptor Jesus

    I have the Heed with the outboard power supply. VERY musical. Like tube gear but with zero hassles and it always sounds the same (no change with warm up because it’s always on).