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Equipment Review
October 2004

Bryston 4B SST Stereo Amplifier

by John Crossett



"The Bryston 4B SST amplifier has given me a whole new lease on my musical life."

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Review Summary
Sound "It was what the Bryston amp wasn’t doing that really caught my attention. Gone was any sonic quality even remotely mechanical. Also MIA was any form of compression, the type that signals your brain that you’re listening to reproduced music. Nor could I hear any smearing; the music just seemed to flow freely through my system."
Features "The [300Wpc] 4B SST uses NPN (for the upper half of each stage) and PNP (for the lower half) bipolar transistors. Gain is selectable between 29dB for the balanced inputs and 23dB for the single-ended, which can be set via a switch in the rear." "Bryston backs each product with a 20-year transferable warranty."
Use "Just give it plenty of room for ventilation via the heatsink fins that run the length of both sides and the vented cover and you’ll be A-OK, although I’ll admit that the review sample never got overly warm no matter how hard I drove it."
Value "If you own Magnepan speakers, then you really owe it to yourself to audition them with a Bryston amp…. If you own another brand of speaker, you should still give the 4B SST a listen. I’m willing to bet that, at the very least, you’ll come away impressed, if not a proud new owner."

Synergy is a word thrown around a bit too loosely in audiophile circles, and yet synergy is the holy grail for audiophiles. Reproducing an exact replica of the recorded event in our listening rooms is an impossibility, so what we are attempting to accomplish in building our audio systems is to get each disparate piece of equipment to match with its fellows in as flawless a manner as possible, thereby allowing playback of our recordings in as complete and pure a manner as can be produced. It’s easy to assume that just because two pieces of equipment play music satisfactorily together they represent a good match. And while it’s true that you can gain a fair amount of pleasure from such a pairing, you’ll never know the true ecstasy that occurs when two pieces lock, like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and musical enjoyment hits a level rarely experienced by many a wayward audiophile. But when it happens, the audio gods smiling down on your system, your waking hours will be spent thinking only of your next listening session.

And thus it came to pass upon inserting the $2995 USD Bryston 4B SST amplifier between my Audio Research SP16 preamp and Magnepan 1.6Q/R speakers: serendipity, sonic nirvana, synergy.

Bryston components like the 4B SST, which is the latest iteration of Bryston's long-running "4" amplifier series, are built to last. In fact, so good is their build quality that Bryston backs each product with a 20-year transferable warranty. Go find that kind of commitment from your run-of-the-mill tinkerer! The true dual-mono 4B SST is not a particularly large amplifier, measuring only 19"W x 5 1/4"H x 17 1/4"D and weighing in at a robust (but not unwieldy) 50 pounds, so it should be fairly easy to place. Just give it plenty of room for ventilation via the heatsink fins that run the length of both sides and the vented cover and you’ll be A-OK, although I’ll admit that the review sample never got overly warm no matter how hard I drove it.

I find the look of the Bryston 4B SST amplifier to be of understated elegance in its silver finish (black is also available), the Bryston logo engraved front and center. I do wish the rack handles weren’t quite so squarish, though, as they tend to make the front look a bit clunky. The only other features on the front panel are the power switch, a small square membrane touch panel used to supply power to the soft-start circuitry; and the twin LEDs that glow orange on initial turn on, run green when all is normal, and flash red when the amp reaches clipping. No color means, of course, that the amp is off.

Speaking of clipping, you’ll find that power is not a big concern with the 4B SST. The amp sits back and smiles at the music, knowing it has ample reserves of power to ensure that it never sounds congested, and rarely if ever clips: 300Wpc into 8 ohms, and 500Wpc into 4. Even somewhat insensitive speakers, such as my Maggies, never push this thoroughbred into anything more than a trot. The 4B SST uses NPN (for the upper half of each stage) and PNP (for the lower half) bipolar transistors. Gain is selectable between 29dB for the balanced inputs and 23dB for the single-ended, which can be set via a switch in the rear. Nice, solid, everything-you-need/nothing-you-don’t specs and features.

The rear panel of the 4B SST is far more cluttered than the front. But, when you’re offering the flexibility that Bryston builds into this amp, it has to be. As noted above, you can choose either gold-plated single-ended or gold-pinned balanced inputs, as well as the gain of your choice, and either stereo or bridged monoblock configuration -- the latter, if you really need power, provides 900 watts at 8 ohms. The binding posts might initially look a bit flimsy, at least until you use them. Then you’ll find that they are some of the best gold-plated five-way binding posts around. They accept banana plugs (yeah!), spades (5/16" diameter), or bare wire, and they tighten with fingers, a screwdriver, or a dime. You’ll also find the main power switch on the rear. Turning it on allows the 4B SST to be left in standby mode, ready to use with a press of the front-mounted on/off switch. From the wall, power comes via a supplied, removable power cord and IEC socket, so you can experiment with power cords to your heart's content (my choice will be noted below). You also have the option of local or outboard power-up switching.

The Bryston 4B SST owner's manual is very clearly laid out, with precisely the proper information you need to get up and running, as well as a bundle of graphs for the technically inclined to pore over. Bryston deserves kudos for this, as I’ve seen similarly priced products whose manufacturers must think information can be gained telepathically, so skimpy are their manuals.

System

The Bryston 4B SST took the spot in my system usually held down by my original Sunfire Stereo power amp and, more recently, an Audio Research 150.2. As I've mentioned, the preamp was an Audio Research SP16, and speakers were Magnepan MG1.6Q/Rs. I used a VPI HW19 Mk IV turntable with Super armboard and VPI/Rega VTA adjuster, its stock rubber feet replaced with Michell Tenderfeet. A Butternut Audio-modified Rega RB300 tonearm with VPI heavyweight counterweight, and a Clearaudio Aurum Beta S cartridge rounded out the analog rig. For digital sources I used a Marantz SA-8260 for SACD and Red Book CD playback, and a Panasonic DVD-F65 for DVD-A source material.

Cables and were all from Alpha Core Goertz: TQ2 interconnects and MI2 biwire speaker cables. Power cords varied from the stock cord on the VPI, to LAT AC-2s on the Marantz and Panasonic units (which also use Ice Cube two-pin-to-IEC adapters), to a Harmonic Technology Pro-11 AC on the preamp. After an initial get-to-know period with the stock cord, a Harmonic Technology cord was used with the power amp as well, and all subsequent evaluations were made with this power cord. A Monster Cable HTS1000 supplied electronic hookup for all the components, except the power amp, and filters the power. The power amp was plugged into a Panamax two-socket surge protector, which was plugged directly into the wall.

All components, except the power amp, sat on a Target TT3 rack, each on homemade sandboxes and DH Cones and/or Squares. The amplifier rested on its own sandbox, which in turn sat on a granite slab on top of four Tonecones.

I heard all of the attributes I describe below using the 4B SST with its stock power cord, which is very good. But when I substituted the Harmonic Technology Pro-AC 11, as I did for most of my reviewing time, the amp just opened up. I strongly suggest that if you audition this amp, don’t make up your mind until you’ve listened to it via some alternative power cords. The 4B SST is that revealing.

Accentuating the positives

Right from the start, I was impressed with the way the 4B SST fused sonically with the balance of my system. But there were no "sonic epiphanies," no "rediscovering my music collection" listening sessions, and no "finding new details I’d never heard before" upon inserting the Bryston amp into my system. What I heard instead was a closer connection to my favorite tunes -- I’d just get further lost in the music. And when I’d finally find myself able to rear my consciousness from that of satisfied music lover to rational audio journalist, I discovered that the 4B SST was adding nothing noticeable to what I was hearing. As a matter of fact, it was what the Bryston amp wasn’t doing that really caught my attention. Gone was any sonic quality even remotely mechanical. Also MIA was any form of compression, the type that signals your brain that you’re listening to reproduced music. Nor could I hear any smearing; the music just seemed to flow freely through my system. Each instrument and/or musician was presented as tonally and spatially correct, and that goes a fair distance toward deeper musical enjoyment.

I was also impressed by the way the Bryston 4B SST didn’t highlight one part of the sonic spectrum at the expense of the others. This is another aspect that, if not handled correctly, can instantly tell your brain that the music you are hearing is fake, canned, not real. For instance, Ray Brown’s wonderful Soular Energy [Groove Note GRV 1015-3] has Brown’s bass mixed to the front. But it should never dominate the proceedings -- only lead them. Via the Bryston amp, that is exactly how the music was presented. Brown was the star, his bass deep, woody and resonant. And Gerryck King’s cymbals remained on the same plane as the rest of his drumkit. The 4B SST reminded me, with almost startling clarity, just how happy the fingers of pianist Gene Harris truly are as he ran his hands up and down the keyboard playing his brand of funky, bluesy jazz. Each player, and his instrument, remained right where they should. Notes were re-created as arriving from the same sonic spot, not jumping out from or being hidden by the group.

We’ve all heard that hackneyed old audio saw about an amp demonstrating "iron-fisted control" over the bass frequencies, right? And we also know that such a statement is usually a precursor to finding out that, while the low end is well portrayed, there are problems further up. Well, the 4B SST is no bottom-octave dictator. Though there are absolutely no problems with its bass reproduction, neither are there any across the balance of the musical spectrum. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Bryston amp mated so well with my Maggies. Both are highly coherent-sounding pieces of audio equipment. A favorite album, since I reviewed it here a while back, is the Eric Clapton/B.B. King recording Riding with the King [Reprise 9 47612-9 DVD-A]. This recording gave me my first hint at the coherency of the Bryston amp. This is electric blues, played by two of its masters. And as with electric blues, bass is vitally important -- it's the foundation for the music. Here, the bass growled, purred, and thumped in a just-right manner. And because it did, it allowed the midrange, wherein lie Clapton’s Fender and King’s hollow-body Gibson -- the stars of this recording -- to bloom in its own distinct way. As well, both Clapton's and King's vocals were easily identifiable.

Another strong point of the Bryston 4B SST is its low noise floor. This trait has the double-positive of allowing you to hear further into the music, as well as letting you pick out low-level detail that can be masked by other, more noisy amplifiers. It also lets the soundstage flourish, both in width (which via the 4B SST is exceptional) and depth (which is far better than average). I’ll expand on these traits by making a statement that may seem a bit contradictory -- or downright heretical: I discerned these things while listening to a mono recording. Yeah, yeah, I can hear you now. Mono. Come on, 'fess up. There’s no way mono can give you any ideas about soundstaging, can it? Well, it can, and it did. With the new Classic Records Blue Note reissue of Dizzy Reece’s Star Bright [Classic Records BN-4023], I was struck by how easy the Bryston amp made it to differentiate between the musicians. Each had his own acoustic space to play in, from front to back, yet each was interacting with his fellow musicians, all within the confines of a mono recording. Slipping a well-recorded stereo LP onto the turntable, such as Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's Pictures at an Exhibition [Classic Records/RCA Living Stereo LSC-2201], was a revelation. Width was superbly rendered, and depth was displayed not as "terraces" but as a smoothly flowing mass from front to back. Combine these traits with the 4B SST’s low noise floor and I could get a better sense of each musician as an individual in each orchestral section, playing his or her instrument, and how that particular instrument sounded, both alone and as part of the full orchestra.

As good as the Bryston 4B SST is, it will not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Bad recordings will be exposed for exactly what they are -- still enjoyable as favorite music, though you’ll get a better understanding of why they’re so wretched. But good and excellent recordings will become things of true beauty. One of my favorite albums, the wonderfully well-recorded SACD Tiny Island [Opus 3 CD 19824], was more impressive through the 4B SST than through any other amplifier I’ve had in my system. I suspect that this all-acoustic instrumental album was portrayed with all the sense of space, harmonic completeness and purity of tone that the recording engineer captured, and that’s all anyone can ask for.

Now, with all the positives I’ve lavished on the Bryston 4B SST, you might assume that I’m telling you it's the perfect amplifier. As with any piece of audio equipment, the Bryston 4B SST will not be everything to everybody. While it handles all aspects of the musical frequencies evenly, it does so in an ever-so-slightly lean manner. But that’s the price you pay for the 4B SST being a solid-state amp. If you’re a lover of the bloom and lushness of tubes, the 4B SST won’t be for you. But a tube amp won't control the furthest reaches of either end of the frequency spectrum as well as the 4B SST. Some (I’m thinking of hardcore tube-amp aficionados here) will also consider the Bryston amp to be too bright in the upper frequencies. I am not among that camp. Is the 4B SST brighter-sounding than a tube amp? Sure, because it isn’t rolling the top end off as so many tube amps do. But I don’t consider it bright per se, just accurate, at least to my ears. And I know of no tube amp as quiet as the 4B SST.

But one of the side benefits to the 4B SST’s slight leanness is that it gives the amp an amazing ability to sort out musical lines. This is what I referred to above as the amp's lack of smearing. Sometimes too much richness can get in the way of separating instrumental lines that play close together in frequency. For an example of what I’m talking about, listen to the Dorian CD of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons [Dorian DOR-90317], as played by the group Red Priest. Red Priest is a quartet of flute, violin, cello and harpsichord. The wrong amp will be unable to separate the initial notes and overtones of the flute, violin and harpsichord. Their tones are of similar frequency, and this smears their lines into one large musical lump, not letting you follow them individually. The Bryston amp easily kept them all distinct from their fellows, allowing me to hear the breath being blown through the flute, the bows being raked over the strings of the violin and cello, right straight through to the plucking of the strings of the harpsichord. All were distinct.

Comparison

I compared the Bryston 4B SST to both my reference Sunfire Stereo amp ($2295 when still available) and the Audio Research 150.2 ($2495), which I recently had in for review.

In regard to the Sunfire amp, there was really no comparison. The Bryston emerged as my clear favorite. It offered much better image focus, a clearer soundstage, a purer tonal balance and, surprisingly enough, a lower noise floor. There was only one area in which the Sunfire amp came out on top, and that by a very small margin. Vocal reproduction was handled in a slightly fuller, more three-dimensional manner via the Sunfire amp than the Bryston. Other than that, there were only a few other areas in which the Sunfire amp came in even a close second.

When pitted against the Audio Research 150.2 digital amp, the 4B SST ran into a much more serious competitor. Both station themselves to the slightly lean side of the presentation curve -- a legacy, no doubt, of their non-tube origins. And both add little coloration of their own to the music. The 150.2 seemed to flesh out instruments and voices a bit better than the 4B SST, but it wasn’t by a great margin. Lower-impedance loads -- such as those of my Magnepan speakers -- were handled better by the Bryston amp, but that could be chalked up to the 4B SST simply having twice the power of the 150Wpc 150.2. Control of the frequency extremes, however, was a different matter. Here the Bryston amp emerged as the victor by a fair margin. The Audio Research amp just didn’t allow the bass and treble to bloom fully. With speakers as coherent as the Magnepan MG1.6/QRs, this aspect was important to my musical enjoyment. Via the 4B SST, the music flowed as it does in the concert hall: with an effortlessness that held my attention.

I’ve spent many an hour enjoying music played over the Sunfire/Magnepan combo. I always felt the two products worked well together. But both the Bryston and the ARC amps fused with the Maggies in a much more realistic manner, and made me wonder just what it was I’d been enjoying these past few years. As I’ve said, when synergy happens, you’ll know it. I do -- now.

Summation

The Bryston 4B SST amplifier has given me a whole new lease on my musical life. It presented any music I ran through it with a greater sense of detail, making for a clearer picture of how each instrument sounded, how it was played, and how it interacted with other instruments to form a complete musical whole. There was nothing about the amp that stood up and screamed "Hey, look at me!" Instead, it was the 4B SST’s overall balance that, in the end, won the day.

If you own Magnepan speakers, then you really owe it to yourself to audition them with a Bryston amp. It’s not for nothing that Magnepan has used Bryston amplification for show demos. If you own another brand of speaker, you should still give the 4B SST a listen. I’m willing to bet that, at the very least, you’ll come away impressed, if not a proud new owner.

Bryston says the 4B SST is its best-selling amp. I know why -- synergy. That’s what it’s all about.

...John Crossett
johnc@soundstage.com

Bryston 4B SST Stereo Power Amplifier
Price: $2995 USD.
Warranty: 20 years parts and labor.

Bryston Limited
P.O. Box 2170
677 Neal Drive
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada K9J 7Y4
Phone: (705) 742-5325
Fax: (705) 742-0882

E-mail: jamestanner@bryston.ca
Website: www.bryston.ca

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