Now there's a name that's a mouthful, and an immodest one at that. Super Amp? Well, "super" can't refer to power output because the AE-25 Super Amp puts out only 15 triode watts per channel. It can't refer to the amp's size because it's small by high-end standards. And it can't refer to the price because the amp costs far less than competing designs. No, "super" here comes from the amp's creator, Dennis Had, the design mind behind AES and, of course, Cary Audio. Super Amp is sort of like Superman, a moniker that heaps respect and hints at special powers, all in one phrase. But can this little amp fly?
The class-A, no-global-feedback Super Amp delivers 15Wpc wired in triode mode, which is how the review sample was configured. For even greater power output, the amp can be wired in ultralinear, which increases power to 25Wpc in stereo; it can also be ordered as a pair of monoblocks, in which case the power output doubles in either triode or ultralinear. The amp measures 7"H x 14 5/8"W x 12 1/2"D and weighs 31 pounds, so you'll have no problems moving it around or placing it on your rack -- as long as you provide ample clearance for cables and ventilation. The AE-25 Super Amp costs $1200 assembled, $1000 in kit form (monoblocks are $2395 assembled and $2000 as kits). XLR inputs are a $100 option, as are a number of parts upgrades that AES offers, but four squishy, sorbothane-like footers come standard.
Although I didn't assemble the amp I received for review, I did look over the directions, and the process doesn't look to be too difficult -- far easier than the pair of Hafler DH-220 amps I built when I was a teenager. On the Super Amp's front panel are a blue LED to indicate the amp is on and two switches: one for main power and one for standby and operate modes. The power cord around back is not hard-wired, so you can experiment with the after-market power cord of your choice. The Super Amp's chassis is all black, as are its transformers, but the tubes are up front, so the amp emits the pleasant glow that tubeheads like me admire in a darkened room.
The Super Amp comes with a matched quad of Chinese KT-88 output tubes but can use a wide array of others, which you can also buy at the time you purchase the amp, using the stock tubes as trade-in value towards others. Matched quads are desirable but, as Dennis Had told me, "not critical" because each tube has its own separate auto-bias circuit, meaning you won't have to make any adjustments to the amp. In addition to stock KT-88s, AES offers 5881s, KT-66s, E34Ls and KT-90s for use with the Super Amp. I discuss briefly the merits of each type of tube later in the review, but the greatest thing about them all is that you can use them in a single amp, changing your sound without having to change your equipment. I liked this about the Mesa Baron amp I reviewed a long while ago, and I still like it. AES also stocks special, and costly, KR-sourced KT-88s that Dennis Had personally recommends; I didn't get to hear these, but their price of $500 per matched quad will increase the cost of the amp significantly. In addition to the output tubes, the Super Amp uses matched pairs of 6922s and 6CG7s, so eight tubes in total.
The Super Amp takes the prize in my body of reviewing work for being used with the most ancillary equipment. Thus I used it to drive Merlin TSM-SE, Silverline Sonata, Kharma Ceramique 1.0 and Soliloquy 6.3 speakers. Preamps were my reference Lamm L1 as well as an older AR Remote Control unit, which can be used as a line-level preamp. I also used a Panasonic SL-S321C portable CD player directly into the Super amp. CD sources were the Mark Levinson No.39 CD player and a Bel Canto DAC1/Pioneer DV-525 DVD player combination, both of which ran directly to the preamp and through an Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor. Interconnects and speaker cables were from Silverline (Audio Conductor), JPS Labs (Superconductor2 and NC Series), and TARA Labs (Air One), with power cords from ESP, API, TARA Labs, JPS Labs and Audio Magic. The Super Amp sat on a Bright Star sand-filled Big Rock base, as did the CD player or transport -- with the addition of a Townsend Seismic Sink and Bright Star Little Rock. A PS Audio Power Plant P300, Richard Gray's Power Company, and ESP The Essence Power Distributor provided juice to everything.
Because of its less-than-stratospheric price, I put the AE-25 Super Amp into my budget reference system, using the headphone output of my portable Panasonic CD player straight into the amp for break-in purposes. But the sound was so impressive, even in this less-than-ideal configuration, that I quickly decided to move the amp into the reference setup to hear what it could really do. I listened initially with the Kharma Ceramique 1.0 speakers, which are over ten times the AE-25's price, then with the Silverline Sonatas and Soliloquy 6.3s, whose price is more in line with that of the Super Amp. All three speakers are tube friendly.
First and foremost, the AE-25 has tube magic in abundance. Its highs are sweet, open and airy at the same time; its midrange is dimensional, voice-enhancing and very present -- it's the money region of the amp. If you love vocals played at medium levels late at night -- from Diana Krall to Johnny Cash to Margo Timmins -- you'll find a lot to love in the little Super Amp. I spent a number of hours just trying to figure out exactly what's so noteworthy about the AE-25 Super Amp and finally settled on calling its sound sophisticated. It's not a matter of just saying there's an abundance of something here or lack of something there. The Super Amp performs at too high a level for this and ultimately draws my attention to the music it helps make like few amps I've heard. In fact, in terms of sheer enjoyment, I can say that the Super Amp equals my Lamm ML2 monoblocks, which do sound better in all the broad and small ways but are also priced out of reach for most audiophiles. Saving money can be very appealing.
More on the treble and midrange. For the last issue of the SoundStage! E-Mag, I reviewed Guy Clark's great Cold Dog Soup [Sugar Hill SUG-CD-1063], and that review was written with the Super Amp in constant use. Clark's voice is chesty and expressive; he never really cuts loose when he sings, making his small gestures mean all the more. The Super Amp is able to capture the nuances of Clark and Emmylou Harris singing on "Fort Worth Blues"; in fact, there's a single-ended nature to the sound, which is both expressive and detailed, even magical. The highs are intensely satisfying -- like well-made pastry, all layered and buttery. The picking on Cold Dog Soup has both a steely twang and seductive purr. And when Clark's husky voice mixes with Harris' more ethereal singing, the Super Amp separates the two easily, helping the duet sound as it should -- more than the sum of two voices. The Super Amp resolves without fanfare, without having you notice it, but then you do what I did -- say "wow" aloud and then try to figure out how this little amp goes about casting its spell on you.
The Super Amp throws a very deep soundstage, something that will turn my head every time. While the plane of the speakers seems to be the frontmost boundary, the back wall melts away with the Super Amp driving any of the floorstanding speakers I had on hand. I've probably helped foster this by pulling the speakers far out from the front wall -- my listening room is 24' long, so there's plenty of space -- but I still haven't heard another amp create depth quite as well. I finally found a copy of Vince Bell's Phoenix [Watermelon CD 1027] on ebay, and with the Super Amp driving the Soliloquy 6.3s, Bell seemingly sat on my equipment racks and sang, five feet from the front of the speakers. And more forward recordings, like Wayne Kramer's rowdy Dangerous Madness [Epitaph 86458-2], sounded this way, so it's not as though the amp is exerting its character on everything that passes through it. Instead, the Super Amp shows that it resolves what's recorded, but never doing so in an aggressive or forward way.
As I mentioned earlier, I experimented with various output tubes: E34Ls, 5881s, KT-66s and KT-90s, in addition to the KT-88s that came with the amp. While each set of tubes displayed its character, the amp was always itself too, never changing so much as to have me think that the output tubes were doing the bulk of the work. Overall, the KT-88s are a good choice in terms of overall balance, keeping some control of the bass but never letting loose of the splendor the amp displays in the treble and midrange. The KT-90s, however, were my favorites because they tightened the bass up a bit and emphasized the leading edge of the notes a little more, adding a welcome touch of assertiveness to the sound. The E34Ls were close to the KT-90s in terms of quality to my ears, although a little more thick-sounding and midrangey but not so much so as to be noticeable on their own. They would be my second choice, and I would probably keep a set around for when I wanted a change, which is a feature of the Super Amp, so why not use it? The KT-66s were akin to the E34Ls, but they showed even more emphasis in the midrange. With some recordings, they were ravishing, but with others, I found them to sound colored. The 5881s were my least favorite tube because the bass was more loosey goosey, seemingly heading right for the corners of the room and then just hanging out there. If you have the coin to order the amp with KT-90s and E34Ls, you'll probably find the choice to be worthwhile. But if you don't, know that you won't be missing anything important by sticking with the stock KT-88s. There's also the NOS route for you tube explorers.
What the AE-25 can't do should be understandable given that it is a low-power tube amp. Large-scale dynamics, the ability to cut loose when the music requires it and provide visceral power, are not this amp's thing. While you don't have to worry about the amp running out of power with appropriate speakers, you won't be blown away by its ability to blow your hair back with the sheer force of the music it makes (although the monoblocks would certainly bring you closer to this to some degree). In fact, you need to push the amp a bit to hear it at its best; I came to avoid low-level, background listening, which is not really a knock given that the AE-25 so easily drew my attention to the music.
Also, in an absolute sense, the Super Amp's bass is a little overly ripe and fuzzy, but this can be ameliorated by your choice of output tube. You will want to try this amp with your speakers before you settle on it. The Super Amp drove the expensive Kharma Ceramique 1.0s very well, producing atmospheric bass that was fine for all of the listening I did. However, the Soliloquy 6.3s and their dual woofers proved to be more of a challenge, forcing me to reposition the speakers several times to get rid of excessive overhang. While it is my job to mention these things so you'll know what you'll hear when you audition the AE-25, they mean nothing to me when it comes to assessing the overall sonic quality and value of this amp. We audiophiles know that tube amps have their limitations, and the AE-25 is no exception.
The $1800 GW Labs 270 amp that Ken Micallef reviewed made a stop here on its way back home. I think I like this amp more than Ken did, but I also hear what he heard in it. It has a warmish tonal balance, but its midrange somehow sounds tonally flat and unadorned, which is incongruous with the amp's overall sound. In comparison to the Super Amp, the 270 has more power and bass drive; it's rated at 70Wpc and so had no problems with even the 86dB-efficient Merlin TSM-SEs. You won't mistake its bass for solid state, but it is not a cause for concern either. The Super Amp is more seductive and engaging to my ears than the 270, having that complexly satisfying treble and midrange along with deep soundstaging. If the Super Amp were a single-ended design, I would attribute the differences between the two amps to this. But because it's not, I can only conclude that because of his access to a myriad of parts and knowledge that comes from designing so many tube products, Dennis Had has come up with an amp whose parts are optimized for their particular application, and this has produced an amp that defies labels.
Is it clear that the AE-25 Super Amp is a gem of a power amp? Although it has its limitations, these are not at all surprising given the amp's power output and tubed design. However, what it does is so engaging and seductive that you'll think Dennis Had could get much more for this amp if he wanted to. The treble is layered and sophisticated, sounding like that of amps that cost many times the Super Amp's price, and the midrange is the same way. While you can guess that 15Wpc won't shake the rafters, the person who will consider this amp won't be buying it for its sheer power; he or she will want the refinement of sound and flexibility -- and be able to appreciate the very reasonable asking price.
What a system this amp would make with some of the equipment I've heard and reviewed. I'd love to hear it driving the Silverline Sonatinas, the Bel Canto DAC1 as source and perhaps the BAT VK-3i as the preamp. This would be an all-Reviewers' Choice system, and one that would come in at under $10k retail -- not cheap, but we all know how much fine audio equipment can cost. Ahhh, life would be sweet.
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