July 2009

Bryston 4B SSTē Stereo Amplifier

Category: Exceptional Value

Reviewers' Choice LogoThe hallmark of a great audio company is that it doesn’t rest on its laurels. Five years ago, I reviewed the Bryston 4B SST power amplifier and found it to be the most musical, and thereby listenable, Bryston product I’d ever heard. Many of the shortcomings I’d heard in previous Bryston models had been banished completely, and in their place were qualities I’d never associated with the company. So good was its performance and synergy, especially with my then-reference loudspeakers, the Magnepan MG 1.6s, that I bought the review sample. I still find the 4B SST to be one of the most musical power amps, solid-state or tubed, I’ve ever heard, and for five years I could think of few, if any, ways that Bryston could improve it.

But Bryston spent those years improving on what I’d considered near perfection. At the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, they introduced the newly designated SSTē line of power amps. Needless to say, I was interested to review the new 4B SSTē -- I owned the original, and could compare them.

Build and design

The 4B SSTē ($4195 USD) looks very similar to the original 4B SST, with only a few subtle outward changes. First, the logo is now engraved on the front panel with no shading, making it blend more easily into the faceplate. Next, the rack handles are more rounded, in contrast to the sharply squared ones on the earlier model (it’s also available without handles). Below the logo and above the On/Off switch are two LEDs, one for each channel, that glow orange immediately on turn-on, then switch to green for normal operation after the amp has stabilized. If at any point after that they switch back to orange, it’s due to thermal overload -- a sight I never saw during the review period, and never saw once in all my years with the original model. I guess you’d have to push this amp hard -- I mean really hard -- with very inefficient speakers to reach thermal overload. Finally, Bryston has exchanged the old rubberized touchpanel On/Off button with a new in/out pushbutton and updated the soft-start circuitry.

The new model’s rear panel is a perfect replica of its predecessor’s. You get your choice of single-ended or balanced inputs, a Gain switch, the master On/Off power switch (with this switched On, a small amount of current is kept flowing through 4B SSTē so that it doesn’t take long to warm up), the bridging switch, and an IEC socket so that you can try an aftermarket power cord (Bryston includes one of their own). The binding posts accept bare wire, banana plugs, or spades.

With handles, the 4B SSTē measures 19"W x 6.2"H x 17.5"D -- the same width as the old model, but a bit taller and deeper. It weighs a robust but not backbreaking 50 pounds and sits on four hard-rubber feet. No fans are needed to keep this powerhouse cool; computer-designed heatsinks of generous size run down both sides. No matter how hard or long I pushed it, the 4B SSTē never got more than barely warm to the touch.

Inside is where you’ll find the most profound changes to this class-A/B-biased amp. Perhaps the biggest are the upgrades to the input and feedback capacitors, power switch and soft-start circuitry, and the input RF filters. Other important changes are the reduced point-to-point wiring and lower circuit-board count, which should ensure even greater reliability for a famously reliable product. The 4B SSTē is rated to deliver 300Wpc into 8 ohms, or 500Wpc into 4 ohms.


Starting at the front-end, my analog setup included a VPI HW-19 Mk.IV turntable and SME 309 tonearm with a Furutech AG-12 phono cable. Cartridges were Lyra Argo i or Audio-Technica AT33EV moving-coils. Digital sources were an Esoteric SA-10 SACD/CD player, Stello CDA320 CD player/DAC, and Oppo DV-981HD universal player.

Electronics included an Audio Research LS17 line-stage preamp and PH5 phono stage. I used my Toshiba laptop as a rudimentary music server, connected -- via a Blue Circle USB Thingee -- to the Stello’s DAC section with a DH Labs D-75 digital cable. The Bryston 4B SSTē sat on Symposium Roller Block Jrs. on an acrylic amp stand with cones coupling it to the floor. I connected the Bryston to the ARC LS17 via balanced interconnects.

Loudspeakers were my Paradigm Reference Studio 100 v.3s.

All cables and interconnects were from Analysis Plus: Solo Crystal Oval interconnects and Solo Crystal Oval 8 biwire speaker cables. Power cables were Harmonic Technology on everything but the amp, where I used both the supplied cord and a 20A Analysis Plus.

Accessories consisted of two three-shelf Salamander Archetype racks; Furutech deStat; Symposium Roller Blocks Series 2+, Roller Block Jrs., Fat Padz, Pod Points, Ultra Platform, Svelte Shelves, and an Isis Shelf; Gutwire Notepads; Blue Circle BC6000 power conditioner; VPI HW-16.5 vacuum record-cleaning machine; Hunt EDA carbon-fiber record brush; and Zerodust stylus cleaner.


With the introduction of their original SST series, Bryston banished all the sonic gremlins that had kept me respectful, but not enough enamored of, their designs to want to live with one. So what could be improved?

That was the question running through my mind from the first time I saw the new SSTē series at CES 2009, and it nagged at me until I had the 4B SSTē installed in my system. After a good two weeks of constant use to burn it in, I sat down and received my answer: Sometimes, you don’t know a problem exists until it’s no longer there.

The first thing that hit me was the 4B SSTē’s total silence. Music emanated forth overlaid by absolutely nothing. I could hear each note as fully formed, from initial transient through harmonic decay. This allowed me to better understand what each musician was trying to convey with his or her playing, making them sound more realistic in my room. I’m not saying that this new Bryston amp was perfect -- we all know that no audio component is -- but to my ears, the 4B SSTē significantly narrowed the gap between perfection and reality.

There was more of a sense of space and the acoustic venue, together with an even better ability to separate each instrument from the others without ever seeming to spotlight them in any way. Whether it was a jazz quartet or a full orchestra, I could hear each musician as an individual as well as part of a larger whole. When it came to illuminating the musicians, it was like the difference between artificial light and the light of day. Plus, the 4B SSTē’s dynamic range was extraordinary. These qualities went a long way toward making my music appear in my room in a more lifelike manner.

For instance, when I listened to the new SACD/CD of Clifford Curzon’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos.21 and 27 (Decca/Esoteric ESSD 900014), the sound reproduced by the 4B SSTē was magical. The original recording, engineered by the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson, is absolutely fabulous. Playing it though the 4B SSTē, I found that, with my eyes closed, I could almost feel myself at the recording session. The only sounds I heard were those of the piano, the orchestra, and the acoustic of the recording venue. Each section of the orchestra was neatly separated, yet never did I feel they were not performing together. Plus, all the tone colors and timbres were presented neutrally -- my brain didn’t have to work hard to identify which instrument I was hearing, which allowed me to let Curzon’s Mozart flow over me like waves at a beach. I could immerse myself in the sound with little to distract me. The sense of clarity and resolution was outstanding.

I’ve been a fan of Brian Auger since I was a teen. His 1974 album, Closer To It (CD, Fuel 30206 1 5962), was one of the anthems of my youth. I’ve worn out two vinyl copies over the years, and finally bought the CD version, to be able to have it on my iPod. A good listen to it through the Bryston was very revealing. Auger uses both a drummer and a conga player to support his main group of guitar, keyboard, and bass. Through the Bryston 4B SSTē I got an excellent sense of how each instrument sounded and how they interwove with each other to create the music I’ve enjoyed for years. Both the drum kit and the congas were completely separate instruments, each with its own sonic signature. I didn’t exactly hear anything new, but I got a better sense of how Auger and his Oblivion Express used their instruments to make the music I love.

If you listen to "For Heaven’s Sake," from the new 45rpm reissue of Tina Brooks’ Back to the Tracks (Blue Note/Music Matters ST-84052), the front line of Brooks and trumpeter Blue Mitchell switch sides (which I’m guessing is due to different recording dates). On this track, engineer Rudy Van Gelder placed the mike a bit differently in front of Brooks’ tenor sax, and there’s a buzzing noise that’s not audible on any other track. Without good resolution, it would be easy to mistake this sound for a mike or system problem. Through the Bryston 4B SSTē, I could easily tell that it’s Brooks blowing though the reed in his mouthpiece. It’s a little thing like this, brought forth only by top-flight resolution, that make the music sound more realistic.

The 4B SSTē’s excellent clarity, high resolution, and deep silence made percussion instruments seem to pop out of the mix. Listening to the huge, deep, thunderous timpani whacks on James Taylor’s "Gaia," from Hourglass (SACD, Columbia CS 67912), I jumped -- even though I knew they were coming. I could hear deep into those tremendous whacks. This well-recorded drum set sounded real in my room, as if I were in the drummer’s presence.

With so much power held in reserve, music with great dynamic range was especially enjoyable. Any change from soft to loud sounded more realistic through the new 4B SSTē. This is important -- dynamic compression is easily heard, and a dead giveaway that you’re listening to reproduced music. The Bryston suffered no such problems. It never lost its composure, no matter how hard I pushed it -- and I pushed the review sample to ear-splitting levels. There was nary a hiccup, much less any audible problems. And all that power gave the 4B SSTē double-iron-fisted control over the lower frequencies.

Another welcome improvement over the older model was a touch of added warmth and richness. The 4B SSTē was so far removed from what some consider the old Bryston sound that if you haven’t listened to one of the company’s products since the introduction of the SST series, you’d swear the 4B SSTē isn’t a Bryston.

Finally, the transitions from the deepest bass through the midrange, on to the extended top end, were so smooth as to be virtually seamless. No one aspect stood out, but all worked together to create a more realistic and enjoyably musical sound. And given that the 4B SSTē is a solid-state amplifier, its top end was surprisingly open, clean, and sweet, with no touch of hardness -- all of which went a long way toward making my listening time more enjoyable.


Now the tricky part: comparing the 4B SST with the 4B SSTē. I wrote in my review of the 4B SST that it eliminated any sort of mechanical sound that might have overlaid the music. Well, as I said, sometimes you don’t hear a problem until it’s gone. What I thought was a quiet amp is now even more so: The 4B SSTē allowed music to flow though it unimpeded. I had also been impressed by the way the original 4B SST handled the lower frequencies -- with the 4B SSTē, there was an even greater sense of realistic, completely controlled deep-bass sounds emanating from my speakers. But where I’d originally said that the 4B SST was just a tad on the lean side, the 4B SSTē added that little dollop of warmth and richness to make it one of the most neutral solid-state amps I’ve ever heard. Yet despite those additions, the new amp lost none of the old amp’s ability to sort out musical lines with complete clarity.

Would I say that the owner of an original 4B SST should find it necessary to run right out and buy a 4B SSTē? That will depend on the individual, but I don’t think so (though I’m sure Bryston would be happy if you did). Yes, there are sonic improvements, but the changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary. Still, those improvements are real, and demand a listen before you make up your mind.


I think I’m in love. An amplifier I’d already thought great has been improved without sacrificing any of the sonic attributes that made the original so outstanding. Every difference I heard between the 4B SST and 4B SSTē was a change for the better. While some updates can be more detriment than benefit, that’s not the case here. It’s not so much a "Holy cow!" jump in performance as the next step toward perfection: I sat down, spent some time listening, and suddenly found myself enjoying my listening time that much more.

I knew that Bryston has always been one of the stalwarts of the high-end-audio industry, but the improvements embodied in their new SSTē series show that, instead of being complacent about having come up with a great product, they’ll always be on the lookout for ways to make it an even better one. Combine that company philosophy with the backing of their 20-year warranty (yes, that’s right -- a full 20 years) and, should you become as beguiled by the sound of the new 4B SSTē as I have, you’ll know that you’re buying a product that may very well become a family heirloom, passed on from father to daughter or mother to son, so well built and so wonderfully musical is this amplifier. Great audio companies build great products. With the 4B SSTē, Bryston qualifies.

. . . John Crossett

Bryston 4B SSTē Stereo Amplifier
Price: $4195 USD.
Warranty: 20 years parts and labor.

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

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