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The AudioSource AMP Two Amplifier

Psychiatrist Gordana Finally Shrinks Francis 's head

Francis Vale

One of the great things about the high end is that it often makes no sense. There is a built-in contradiction, after all, in this crazy notion of reproducing live people playing real instruments in your living room via glue, domes, wires, cabinetry, and etched circuit boards. It's no wonder that many audiophiles find themselves unwittingly cast in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, as they attempt to coax this recalcitrant assemblage of cold, hard parts into vibrant musical life. But as the kibitzer mathematician in Jurassic Park liked to acidly note, the minute you try to bring something to life, a complex system which nature never intended to be, chaos theory holds that sooner or later you will get a big, and usually nasty, surprise. In the high end scheme of things, this means you often end up with some bank account devouring gear that makes T Rex look like a vegetarian. However, chaos theory can cut both ways. The story doesn't always have to end with an expensive monster component running amok in your home.

Case in point, the diminutive, 80 watt per channel, Audio Source AMP Two amplifier. Were it not for Francis coming across it in his PC multimedia speaker review this innocuous looking $499 device ($299, street price) might have stayed hidden away in the high end's Jurassic undergrowth. The predecessor to the AMP Two, the AMP One (no surprise there), was known for its solid craftsmanship, and no fuss, bullet-proof operation. AudioSource does have a rather surprising policy towards its customers, though-- it goes out of its way to make it easy to deal with. For example, the two year warranty on all its electronics (five years on speakers) is readily transferable. The company also offers a toll free, 800 number into a dedicated support line should you happen to find yourself experiencing some problems. Bear in mind, we are talking about audio gear that only costs a few hundred bucks. How many kilobuck components have you seen lately with easily transferable warranties, and dedicated, toll free support lines?

And now for the biggest surprise of all: The small, low ball, AMP Two is a giant killer! This sweet thing is highly musical, and vamps about not at all like a cheap little transistor job. Talk about chaos working for you for a change! This theory of systems complexity also held true in another key regard: How this particular review came to be was totally unexpected.

As you may recall from that PC multimedia review, Francis and Gordana were using the AMP Two to drive the LFT-11's, Eminent Technologies' terrific midget planars. That dynamic duo was one happy component collaboration. But to try using the beer budget AMP Two for driving a true high end system, like the $6,000 Impulse Ta'us loudspeakers? Nah. It just didn't make any sense to Francis , especially as his performance expectation levels were still reeling from a totally awesome audio experience. The Ta'us speakers had just got through being fatly fed by the Mama Mia! Graaf 200 watt OTL tube amplifier and 13.5b tube line stage. (The joint price tag of these two Italian exotics comes out to $18,000, $17,700 more than the AMP Two.) The Ta'us are completely candid speakers which rival even the Quads for sonic transparency. All in all, he figured that pairing the ruthless Ta'us with the AMP Two would be like putting Hannibal Lecter together with an unsuspecting prison guard: The AMP Two would be lunch, perhaps with a nice Chianti.

But then--and this is what happens when you are married to a psychiatrist--Francis had a dream (for real!) in which it occurred to him he really should try using the price-tag challenged AMP Two with the all-devouring Ta'us. Gordana already knew her husband was completely audio-crazy, and his wacko dream only served to confirm her suspicions. But Francis was never one to heed such professional advice, so into the system went the AMP Two. Moreover, it was going out into the high end world naked and alone, driven straight off the CD player. No potentially reality shielding preamp was going to be used.

First, the amp was carefully sited on top of three of "Those Things" vibration isolation doodads from Black Diamond Racing. Next, the top of the Nordost line SPM cables and interconnects were hooked up. And finally, the unit's power cord was plugged in, and the unit switched on. The AMP Two's two little glowing power meters abruptly lit up like a startled child's eyes. Francis then popped a disc into the $3,000 Meridian 508.20 CD player, and nervously waited for the audible cannibalism that was sure to come.

Mirabile dictu! The Ta'us just licked their chops, and got down to feasting on some seriously good jazz. Zoot Sim's luscious tenor Sax was rendered round, fat, and full by the AMP Two. Even more miraculous, Kenny Drew's piano sounded like a real piano, and not some cheap transistorized toy. Pedersen's bass playing also came through in all its properly plucked, jelly jammin' glory. [Mobile Fidelity, "Zoot Sims in Copenhagen," and the Kenny Drew Trio, UDCD 694]. Francis anxiously looked down at the AMP Two, all the while wondering, How could this be? He suddenly had chilling cause to give some credence to his wife's lunatic opinion of him. Well, there was nothing left for it, except for Francis , with great foreboding, to call in Dr. Gordana, and ask her what she heard.

There is a unique kind of look that comes over people's faces at certain special moments. Like when a UFO finally lands on the White House Lawn, or you find out the truth about who really shot JFK. It's the look of this can't-be-true-but-ohmigod-there-it-is-staring-me-right-in-the-face. Gordana's jaw dropped, and Francis 's spirits rose. He wouldn't have to go on Prozac after all. The AMP Two was really, truly, making wonderful music, successfully seducing the critically aloof Ta'us into a loving partner.

But hey, let's not get too carried away. Maybe the AMP Two's incredibly competent playing of this excellent MoFi recording was a fluke. So, on went "Pomp and Pipes, Powerful Music for Organ, Winds, Brass, & Percussion," [Frederick Fennel, Dallas Wind Symphony, Reference Recordings, RR-58CD.] Now let's see how well this little fella stands up against the massive Lay Family Concert Organ, with Paul Riedo at the keyboard! Featured on this mighty CD's opening track was composer Sigfried Karg-Elert's soul stirring, "Praise the Lord." And that's exactly what Francis and Gordana did when they heard it played. The deep, powerful bass coming from the 94dB sensitive, floor standing Ta'us shook their neighbors into frightened submission. This 80 watt/channel, 300 hundred smacker, AMP Two had pulled out all the big Lay's stops. Aye-aye-aye! This can't be happening!

OK, tough guy, time to trot out the man-eating, love-hungry Juanita Hall, a too often overlooked, great blues singer. Unfortunately pigeonholed as the character "Bloody Mary" from the musical "South Pacific," Juanita could belt it out with the best of them, as evidenced by the great DCC reissue of a 1957 recording, "Juanita Hall Sings the Blues" [DCC DJZ-623, with the Claude Hopkins All Stars]. Well, it wasn't time to sing the blues about the AMP Two just yet, but it did show that on female vocals it could get a touch transistor strident. Interestingly though, instrumental upper octave energy wasn't seared in semiconductor grease; for example, delicate, brush strokes against a high hat came through exceptionally well. Still, if you are looking for palpable presence and tube liquidity, well, the AMP Two isn't completely in the miracle worker category. (Sorry. You'll have to spring for that big $10,000 SE job after all.)

Any other AMP Two failings? Well, the soundstage was not a multidimensional, multi-layered affair. And the soundstage would go back just so far, and then stop short. But hey, kids, we are talking about a $299 device here, not some kilobuck killer amp. Regardless, the failings of the AMP Two are surprisingly few, and its virtues surpassingly many. Apparently, this little guy was never told he was just a high end runt. What this amp may lose around the high end edges, it more than makes up for with an oversupply of snap your fingers, rhythmic musicality that just wont quit. Like the look down your nose character in a Disney animated movie, the AMP Two wins your heart over with its gutsy, never say die spirit.

And if it does win you over after an audition--which is quite likely--bear in mind that the AMP Two has two line level controls, so you can easily adjust volume, and also set channel balance. Moreover, the AMP Two has a second line level input, so you can hook up two devices (but there is no input source selector.) So, if your CD player can put out the .8V input voltage required to drive the AMP Two to its full rated power, you can do without a budget eating preamp. Obviously, not needing a preamp means you can spend more money on better speakers. Or maybe buy two pairs, as the AMP Two sports two sets of speaker connections. An A/B switch located on the unit's front does speaker selection duties. Another panel switch activates a peak limiter which uses special circuitry in the amp designed to minimize possible damage or distortion to speakers at high output levels. (This unit's solid 80 watts are probably more than most $99 bargain basement speakers are used to contending with.) There is also a switch that causes the sensitivity of the illuminated left and right channel power meters to increase by a factor of ten, useful for when monitoring the output at lower volume levels. Topping off the front's panel's panoply of useful doodads is a 1/4" stereo headphone jack.

On the unit's back, a switch lets you easily bridge the AMP Two, and turn it into a 200 watt monoblock. Also at the rear, a second stereo set of line out/thru jacks allows you to daisy chain together multiple amplifiers. Finally, the unit's power switch has both manual and auto on/off modes. If you choose the "auto" setting, the AMP Two will automatically turn on and off, depending on whether or not it senses an input signal. Taken all together, the AMP Two offers great sonics, and control flexibility to boot.

Sure, sure, despite its can-you-believe-all-this-for-only-300-bucks features, the AMP Two is not going to give Krell or Audio Note any sleepless nights. However, it's another bedtime story entirely for vendors of $1,000 to $1,500 integrated amps. For them, the overachiever AMP Two could well turn out to be a marketing nightmare. But for all you folks looking for a great budget amp, the AMP Two is a dream come true.

Good thing Francis "dreamed" this one up!


AMP Two Specifications

Price: Retail, $499.00; Street, $299.00

Manufacturer: AudioSource (tel 415-348-8114)

Amplifier Power Output: 80 Watts per channel, both channels driven
(200 watts Mono; bridged mode)

Total Harmonic Distortion: 0.04%

Intermodulation Distortion: 0.04%

Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20K Hz, plus/minus 0.5dB

Signal to Noise Ratio: 110 dB

Input sensitivity: 0.8 V (line)

Input Impedance 30K ohms (line)

Headroom: 2 dB

Dimensions: 16 1/2"W x 2 3/8"H x 11 5/8"D

Weight: 14 lbs., 5 oz.


Associated Review Gear:

Speakers
Impulse Ta'us, horn loaded, full range loud speaker

Amp:
Graaf GM 200, 200 watt, OTL tube amplifier

Preamp
Graaf GM13.5B line stage (tube)

Tuner:
Rotel RH10 'Michi'

Digital:
Meridian 508.20 CD player

Analog:
All Wilson Benesch, including turntable, ACT Two carbon fiber arm, Carbon cartridge, and Stage One Phono Preamp

Cables and interconnects:
Nordost SPM speaker wires & interconnects

Equipment stand:
Base rack, and Base Isolation equipment platforms

Tweaks:
Black Diamond Racing: The Shelf, The Source, Cones Mk 3 & 4, and Those Things; Shakti Stones

Copyright 1998, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

This article appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of 21st

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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