[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
March 1998

A Ten

OK, this month I can only help ten SoundStage! readers. Sorry, but the rest of you will just have to wait. The ten I can help are looking for a new amp, have $2,195 (or more!) to spend on amplification and would rather have sound quality than a pretty amp. Because this amp is not pretty—like Yogi says..."Why do I care if something in my system is ugly? I turn off the lights when I listen to music." The sound is pretty. In fact, the sound is stupefying. Regardless of what "Maximum dB" looks like this month, this isn’t really a review. What reviewer would be goofy enough to write a review of an amp that is going to have a production run of ten? Not me. So I’ll just tell you that the sound of this amplifier knocks me out. It is as good as anything I’ve heard. It doesn’t sound quite like tube or solid state. It treads new high-ground in between those two mutually exclusive audiophile lands. This amp is quiet as all get out, even quieter than typical solid-state amps. It is faster than maybe anything you have ever heard, tube or solid state. Yet it is so musically pure that you’ll find yourself thinking about all kinds of exotic triodes, both single-ended and push-pull types. That "something magical" that tube-heads keep mumbling about is definitely present in the sound of this amp.

Bass quality is excitingly good. Power, tonality, pace, slam, rhythm, detail—whatever is in the recording, you get right back. Play some soothing chamber music and you get suave, smooth, enveloping, beautiful sound. Play something kickin’ and this amp gets up and kicks hard, so hard that it’s the only amp I’ve had here that will hit you with a pressure wave off a snare drum. Yes the snare is being hit quite hard (Sergio Mendes’ Brasiliero). If you were listening to a live unamplified snare being hit that hard, you’d feel the pressure wave hit you—in fact you may have experienced this. Other amps do a fine job of reproducing the loud peak, but there’s no pressure wave accompanying the whack—this amp is doing something special.

How about performance in the time and phase domains? This amp has some of the best time/phase performance I have ever encountered. Spatial things are rendered with frightening precision. Many components with excellent reputations will fail to correctly reproduce Q-Sound recordings because the Q-Sound process relies on small and precise manipulations of two-channel sound in the time, phase and amplitude domains to achieve three-dimensional sound effects. For a piece to be played back as intended by the Q-Sound engineers, you really need to use a system that is fully time and phase correct. When used with time and phase correct speakers, wires, and associated components, this amp facilitates the widest soundfield from a Q-Sound recording I’ve ever heard. Other systems tend to reproduce Q-Sound recordings with a 120-degree to 180-degree soundfield in the front half of the listening room with some amazingly distant-sounding effects. In a system with excellent time and phase performance, you can get a 359-degree soundfield, and this amp will permit that kind of soundfield to develop. I used Roger Waters’ Amused to Death to confirm this and for the first time got stable images behind my head. This kind of time and phase performance on Q-Sound recordings translates to superlative spatial characteristics when reproducing normal stereo recordings.

You can probably tell that I am all wound up about this amp. It has really gotten its hooks into me in a big way. Everybody deserves sound this good—unfortunately it is rare to get this kind of performance in any amp. And that’s the biggest problem here. How to get people to understand that this $2,195 product is a super amp and able to play with the big boys without excuses or allowances. Audiophiles figure out some kind of hierarchy for great components in their own minds based on their preferences for tubes or solid state, accuracy or musicality, neutrality or lushness. Whatever your top category is, no matter what kind of equipment inhabits your top category, this amp deserves to be in there too—really. This amp threads through all the best qualities you could want in an amplifier and then does things even better than other amps (like that snare-drum pressure wave thing). Tubes aren’t good enough to keep up with this amp. Solid state isn’t good enough to keep up with this amp. You have something new here, something better.

"Listen Max! You’ve been talking about this amp for a while now. Will you please get to the details? I’m gonna come over there and slam a heat sink up y.... Well, you know what I mean. And you better tell the whole story. Ain’t no $2,195 amp that’s the best in the world."

Uh, OK. You got me there. This amp isn’t going to be "the best" for long. The reason there are only ten of these is because they are being built in the last of the old cases. The heat sinks are 4" or 5" long and stick out the back. The RCAs and speaker-cable binding posts are recessed in between the heat sinks, which makes working with fat interconnects or speaker cables a bit problematic. It has handles on the front, but they are pretty basic. Everything is black except for the lettering (white). It’s a pretty normal size for a roughly $2,000 amp. The long heat sinks result in a shorter-than-normal box though—keeping the overall length similar to other $2K amps. It isn’t exactly ugly, but it certainly isn’t pretty to look at.

"Look you sh#$!#head, I told you to get to the point and quit messin’ with the readers. You’d better do it… NOW!"

Touchy, touchy, touchy. OK, OK. There are better amps...on the drawing board. The manufacturer is planning the next generation and I have heard what the future will bring and it is even better. However, the price of admission to the new world order is going to go up significantly. The new amps are going to start in the $3,500 to $4,000 range and go up to over $10,000. And this is what makes these last ten amps so impressive. They contain about 80% of what the new amps will have. The remaining changes just plain will not fit inside the old box that the $2,195 amps are limited to. In addition, the new amps are going to look like real high-end amps. But if your amp budget is tight and you can live with the appearance and limitations of the old case, this amp is an incredible sonic bargain. But there will really only be ten of them. That’s all of the old cases that are left and there aren’t going to be any more. So if you want one and you are the 11th caller, don’t beg and whine and plead. There won’t be any more, period.

"This is it. I am really pissed now. I’ve been nice. I’ve given you two chances to quit messin’ with us and tell us what this amp is, but you keep stringing us along. Do you understand what it feels like to have an interconnect inserted in one ear and pulled out the other? You have five seconds to come clean with the whole story or I’m going to permanently damage your hearing."

Warner Imaging, OK? 200Wpc. Solid state. No global feedback and 3.5dB of feedback in one local stage only. Power transformer manufactured by Warner Imaging because nobody in the world would build a transformer to the same precision and performance. I don’t even know what to call it because the old model number is wrong; this is a limited special edition. For only ten amps, expecting a separate model number or name is maybe too much. Let’s make up a name. Why don’t we call it the "Endangered Species" model since there are only ten left? Why only ten? Warner Imaging is a small specialty manufacturer. They are only making amps and they aren’t making them by the thousands. Every one is done by hand, from assembling and winding the transformers to stuffing the circuit boards to testing the final product. The ten remaining amps are a way to use the old parts productively and avoid scrap losses. The buyer benefits by getting most of the performance improvements that the new generation of amplifiers will have at a price $1,300 to $1,800 less than the price of the new 200Wpc amp.

If you’re inclined to spend $2,195 on my say so, well, I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, you’re nuts! Who the heck am I to be advising people on how to spend their money? On the other hand, I’ve heard this freakin’ amazing amp and know how smart you would be to mail a check today. You figure out what you want to do about this. It makes my head hurt to think about it anymore.

"Aren’t you forgettin’ something? There’s gotta be a catch? Nothing this good and this cheap is perfect."

Well, no, I think I mentioned the drawbacks. I wouldn’t drive 2-ohm speakers with this amp. It would work, but come on. For a 2-ohm load you really want a "specialty" amp. Hey, I know it won’t sound as good, but you picked the 2-ohm speakers. I probably wouldn’t drive speakers that are more than 92dB/w/m efficient with this amp. You’d probably have too much gain. It isn’t a pretty amp, but you knew that already. Working with big, fat, or wide speaker cables can be a bit challenging because of the heat-sink arrangement. But that’s about all. The Endangered Species likes isolation and damping bases. It likes good feet even with isolation and damping. It likes a good power cord and a power conditioner. It also loves having the heat sinks damped—do this no matter what other setup optimization you do. Adding all of those extras gilds the lily so well that you’ll burn a hole in your pants when the stogie falls out of your slack jaw.

"Well, so far it really doesn’t sound like there’s anything too special about this amp to make it sound so great."

Well, there are quite a few things actually, but to find out what they were, I had to agree to non-disclosure. So I can’t really tell you what Warner Imaging is doing that makes the amp different. I can tell you that the vanishingly low amount of feedback is part of the secret. Parts selection is another. The design of the power supply has a couple interesting twists. The handmade transformers have performance characteristics that are at least an order of magnitude better than any commercial transformer manufacturer was willing to provide. You just have to trust me on this one—there are numerous reasons this amp sounds they way it does. Non-disclosure is not a trick. If I told you what I know about the amp, other manufacturers could read it and possibly duplicate the performance of the amp. These were Warner Imaging’s ideas and they deserve to reap the benefits from their years of work on this circuit. Which brings me to an interesting point. Warner Imaging is not a new company. Generation 1 Warner Imaging amps were first built eight years ago. The new amps will be the fourth generation of the original circuit. You could call the $2,195 Endangered Species amp Generation 3.8. So, Warner Imaging has had the right ideas about an amplifier circuit from the beginning. But the sonic difference between Gen. 3 and Gen. 4 is...well...radical. I would have called the Gen. 3 amp an OK amp. It sounded different than other amps near its price, but it didn’t have the ability to make you sit up and notice those qualities. The Gen. 4 (and Gen. 3.8) amps have pulled way out from there sonically. It’s hard to express in words without it sounding like salesman’s hyperbole.

I guess the only other thing I can tell you about Warner Imaging and the amazing Endangered Species amp is how to get one. Warner Imaging normally sells through dealers, but to close out the last ten of the Endangered Species amps, you need to contact them directly at (410) 247-6631, which is in Baltimore, MD (east coast of the U.S.). Talk directly to Emil (Ay-mil) Rotar, the designer, to place your order. That’s a Hungarian accent Emil has, but don’t let that throw you. He’s been in the U.S. for over 30 years and speaks English perfectly well. To keep things simple, phone contact is the only way to take advantage of this special deal. No email, no fax.

OK, boys and girls, that’s it for this month’s "Maximum dB." I hope you enjoyed the trip even if you weren’t allowed to get off the bus. I struggled for two months over writing anything for SoundStage! about the remaining ten Endangered Species amps, but I was listening to one of them again last night. It was too good not to write about. Besides, there will be reviews on SoundStage! of the new fourth-generation Warner Imaging amps, so now you’ll know a little bit about Warner Imaging before those reviews appear.

...Doug Blackburn

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