December 2002BVaudio A300S Integrated Amplifier
by Aaron Weiss
Walk into a cocktail party for audiophiles and drop the terms "accuracy" and "neutrality" and especially "the absolute sound," and youre sure to generate a buzz. These are hot-button issues among the gearhead set as surely as "homemaker," "glass ceiling," and "Title IX" are to readers of Ms. Magazine.
Why all the fuss? An orthodox core of audiophiles has long sought their holy grail: a perfectly accurate reproduction of the original sound. These purists have looked askance at the twiddly knobs and buttons that mainstream manufacturers have long offered, undoubtedly encouraging the know-nothings to distort and butcher their audio well beyond recognition.
But the relativists entered the picture and muddied up the whole scene. The practical ones argued that every link in the reproduction chain colors the sound in some way, and even accused the orthodoxy of simply choosing equipment that colored the sound to their liking and labeling the result as "accurate." Philosophical relativists dug an even deeper intellectual ditch, wondering if we can ever know an absolute sound at all. Considering the variations in acoustic properties across even a few feet, say these mental muckrakers, from which molecular pinpoint can we claim any perspective to be absolute?
BVaudio is definitely trying to attract the interest of the orthodoxy, those believers in an absolute sound. Describing their amplifier designs as "[an] exact and true reproduction of every sound with all of its details, including possible faults and artists mistakes as in real life," BVaudio is intent on sending the message that they hold back nothing from the truth.
BVaudio is a European company with eclectic interests. Prior to their introduction of pro audio amplifiers for studios and musicians in 1990, the members of BVaudio designed controls and regulators for nuclear power plants. While there would seem on the surface to be little overlap between audiophile-grade amplifiers and Three Mile Island, BVaudio claims that the precision and discipline required for engineering power plant controls has been carried through into their amplifier designs. Further adding to the BVaudio mystique, the company also advertises its talents in industrial designs ranging from "pins and perfume bottles to cars."
The A300S is BVaudios sole integrated amplifier. The company also produces the P1 preamp and PA300 power amplifier. The A300S is rated to deliver 110Wpc into 8 ohms and 170Wpc into 4 ohms, which is a good deal of power for an integrated amplifier priced at $1790 USD. The A300S accepts five inputs via gold-plated RCA connectors, and provides one tape output and one set of preamplifier outputs. An IEC power-cord receptacle is also included.
Two sets of gold-plated, five-way binding posts per channel lend the A300S to biwire applications. The dual sets of binding posts are close together, which can make for a tight fit with spade lugs. The plastic nuts are large but difficult to grip with enough torque to feel confident in achieving a truly tight clamp. Note that the contact area of these terminals is quite small, and large spades may require extra attention to be sure they are in optimal contact with the terminal.
The unit measures 17 1/2"W x 3 1/2"H x 14 "1/4D, and weighs a hefty 31 pounds. It has a heavy-gauge black metal body with a brushed silver faceplate. A green LCD screen serves as the operating interface and displays the currently selected input and volume level. A series of small rubberized buttons can be used to adjust volume, balance, and input sources, all of which can also be controlled using the supplied remote. Each input source can be configured with a custom name for display (such as "CD" or "My Rega") and a sensitivity level independent of the other inputs. While the bulk of the A300S is designed with a sturdy, heavy-duty feel, the faceplate inputs and remote control have a rougher-hewn quality about them, lacking perhaps some of the sleekness in look and feel seen in other "sculptural" components. In particular, the volume-down button on the faceplate had a tendency to stick on the review unit, preventing it from honoring commands from the remote control until the button was wiggled free.
Inside, the A300S features a fully balanced dual-mono design with two 300W toroidal transformers (one per channel), plus two independent power supplies to handle the preamplifier stage and microcontroller. BVaudio relies on name-brand internal components, including digital controls from Burr-Brown, Analogue Devices, and National Semiconductor, which the company claims is vital to achieving their primary goal of sonic accuracy at the A300S's price point.
The BVaudio A300S was setup in a system quite accustomed to integrated amplifiers. A pair of ProAc Response 2S speakers were the primary reference, typically driven by a Primare A20 70Wpc integrated amplifier. A Bel Canto eVo2i, also on the rack for review and retailing for nearly twice the price of the A300S, was pressed into duty. Keep in mind that aside from price, the eVo2i also differs significantly in technology, as it comprises a digital amplifier paired with a line-level preamplifier.
Canare 4S8 speaker cables terminated with large spades feed the loudspeakers, and DH Labs BL-1 interconnects chain together a Marantz CC65SE CD player, Audio Harmony TWO harmonic filter, and the integrated amplifier du jour. For a brief period, the A300S was also paired with American Acoustic Development 2001 loudspeakers. Both biwire and single-wire configurations have been used in this system, although in general, single-wire configurations have actually delivered stronger bass to the ProAcs.
On the listening block
BVaudio describes the A300S as both accurate and neutral -- indeed, these are the two qualities by which the company defines its engineering goals. But these traits are not synonymous. Accuracy in audio is in some respects mired in a philosophical debate between absolutists and relativists. Consider, for example, that videophiles also tout accuracy in visual reproduction, yet spend a great deal of money on projection technologies that render human heads four feet high. Ultimately what we subjectively like and what is true may not always meet.
Accuracy in audio is difficult to prove with certainty, neutrality less so. System of a Down brought everything to bear on Toxicity [Sony CK62240], a wild circus of dynamics in the shape of Armenian-American "new metal." The A300S never flinches from Serj Tankians authoritative vocal delivery that shifts from staccato chant to melodic spirals within mere measures. Both "Chop Suey" and the title cut "Toxicity" alternately stomp, snort, and serenade with a gusto that the A300S translates without the detachment heard on other discs. Sarah Harmer may be no Serj Tankian, but her cuts on You Were Here [Universal 0121596452] rely just as much on vocal prowess. And once again, the A300S seems to get it on this disc, relaying Harmer's strength of voice. Theres a touch of tonal darkness here, hinted at more subtly on other amplifiers, that seems to be the result of the production. The dynamics that open "Around the Corner" are treated much less coolly by the A300S than on more heavily processed works. Vocal details on "Capsized" are intimate and vital, although a hollowness in the production comes through prominently on the A300S.
Throughout these discs, several identifiable characteristics of the A300S become evident. The A300S presents a strong bottom end and an overall sound that leans slightly in that direction. It is unflinching in its resolution, which is to say that it glosses over nothing and never rounds off the edges. At the same time, it could be said to have a detachment from the material that sounds most natural with vibrant, dynamic recordings that have a live feel to them, unlike records that are more heavily processed and synthesized.
The A300Ss character is consistent across a varied range of recordings. Bernd Steidls Psycho Acoustic Overture [Shrapnel SH-1054] is an exercise in acoustic-guitar detail. Steidl is something of a fretboard fanatic, tapping out breakneck arpeggios at a pace so frenetic that his playing threatens to spill over from virtuoso to novelty act. The backing tracks to the acoustic-guitar work exhibit a new-age, synthetic feel thats recorded quite flatly. Here the A300S is true to the flat accompaniment, giving focus to the closely miked guitar. On "Cobra Negra," Steidls frenzied fretwork never loses the distinctness between each tap and pluck despite the breathless pace. On "La Campanella," I can almost feel via the A300S the taut strings snapping with authority and detail. Imaging on these tracks is extremely precise, and Steidls position can be located quite specifically with each cut.
Details continue to shine on Adele V. Anthonys performance of Recitato in Scherzo For Solo Violin on Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01]. I again heard fast, staccato playing with edges so defined that some might say they flirt with a hint of grain. For those who suggest that this best represents the true nature of the violin, we start to see support for BVaudio's claim toward unflinching accuracy. And once again, the image and depth captured on these high-quality recordings is reproduced with razor sharpness on the A300S. The double bass that annotates "Little Dogs Day" is richly deep and not apologetic for a couple of pounds of flab it may be carrying at its bottom end. At the same time, Kim Cattralls spoken-word vocals are crystalline pure but a touch thin, overwhelmed at times by the low bass.
A sense of bottom heaviness with the A300S continues through the more full-range cuts on Yess Fragile [Atlantic 82667]. "South Side of the Sky" prominently features Chris Squires articulate electric bass and, as with Mark Levinsons acoustic double bass, the bottom end is full of detail and weight. Plenty of harmonics emanate from Squires bass, and they dont feel attenuated with the A300S. John Andersons soft, upper-register voice seems more laid back in comparison, with a neutral quality that lacks the pop of the low end.
Fragile does not enjoy the worlds most fabulous production quality, however, and even the vastly improved remastered issue tears at the edges harshly at times. The A300S is not an amplifier that glosses over these kinds of imperfections, and is not in the business of shining a flattering light. The A300S does not add emotion to the mix, and prides itself on its distance -- a rare find or a word of caution depending on your tastes. The same sense of distance from the material reigns in Scott Walkers "Farmer in the City" Tilt [Drag City DC134CD]. With its cross between otherworldly ghostliness and a show-tune sensibility, this material demands a larger-than-life treatment, and the A300S resists, insistent on its policy against overplaying the bits on the disc.
At its retail price, the BVaudio A300S compares closely to the Primare A20, which has sold for approximately $1400, that permanently drives the ProAcs in my reference system. Given the Primares 70Wpc into 8 ohms, the BVaudio integrated supplies a good deal more power, which should lead it to match well with a wider variety of loudspeakers, especially as sensitivity decreases. At 87dB sensitivity, the Response 2Ses did not exhibit a noticeable difference in dynamic handling when driven by either integrated amplifier.
The Primare exhibits a slightly dry quality in comparison to a warm, lush integrated amplifier, while the BVaudio -- with its noted neutrality -- could be said to be drier still. Soundstaging and imaging are strong with both amplifiers, but the A300S exhibits a razor sharpness in sonic placement, and the Primare can sometimes be a touch ambiguous. The BVaudio is certainly less flattering than the Primare to varying sources, which is the most significant difference between these integrateds. The BVaudio's detached neutrality stands out in this regard. Physically, note that the Primare does not offer dual sets of loudspeaker connectors for biwiring, although some might say its overall design is a touch sleeker and less boxy than the A300S's.
Without having been to the recording sessions for any of the test discs I mention, I would be foolhardy to declare the A300S as absolutely accurate. But neutral? Yes, pretty much. Here BVaudio attains its stated goal of an integrated amplifier that brings as little of its own color to the reproduction as price would allow. The company demonstrates insight in not assuming that every audiophile shares this goal, as even the company's own marketing literature describes this amplifiers neutrality in the language of a warning. As a neutral integrated amplifier, the BVaudio A300S is as it claims to be, and perhaps unusually so for the asking price.
Whether you are seeking outright neutrality or are curious as to what the oft-described trait may actually sound like, the A300S is worth an audition. It may prove to be the integrated amplifier of your dreams or demonstrate that neutrality is not really what youre after at all. Either way, the audition will be valuable and enlightening.
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