October 2000Warner Imaging ER-300MSE Mono Amplifiers
by Jeff Fritz
BarriersThe audio world has seen its share of barriers broken -- and in some cases shattered. Sonically speaking, these barriers have been eroded by a continual process of technological refinement, mechanical improvement, and ever-ingenious circuit design. The result is that we can achieve sound that approaches live music in our homes. This has not been a cheap evolution, however. Maybe just as significant to the consumer, as well as the industry, has been the cost of such progress. From a price standpoint, not only have barriers been broken, but they have not been rebuilt, anywhere.
I can vividly remember the early '90s and some of my audio purchases. The price limit for a reference-caliber amplifier (per mono pair) seemed to be around $20,000. The Mark Levinson No.20, the Threshold SA-12e, and the Krell KRS-200 amps spring to mind. I owned the Krells, and I remember thinking that for $18,000 retail, no compromise must have been made in their design and construction. These amps were, in fact, remarkable. Then something happened, or possibly snapped. The Krell KAS was introduced at $28k per pair, and presto -- it seemed even more expensive amps were everywhere. The Levinson No.33, Audio Research Reference 600, and Jeff Rowland Model 9 amps, all over $20,000 per pair. Boulder later followed these at $60k and then more Krells at $130,000! Im sure there are more examples. As you can see, in the eyes of the industry, the price barrier is relevant no more.
All of this brings me to the subject of this review, the Warner Imaging ER-300MSE amplifiers. At $14,995 per pair, they are certainly expensive, especially when you consider that Warner Imaging has produced some well-received products under the $3000 mark. Could one manufacturer build an amplifier that justifies a six-fold price increase over other previous efforts? Warner Imaging thinks so. The ER-300MSE is, in fact, an attempt at producing the best amplifier you can buy. In the big scheme of things, though, can a $15k pair of amps approach the state of the art? Well lets see what that considerable chunk of change buys you, both in terms of sound and build.
The ER-300MSE monoblock pair is rated at 300Wpc into 8 ohms, 600Wpc into 6 ohms, and almost a kilowatt into 2 ohms. The amps are "strong class AB" biased, delivering the first 50 watts in class A. The power supply incorporates a 1.5k-volt transformer with 67,200 microfarads of capacitance. There are six bipolar output devices per channel, each rated at 200 watts. This yields a peak current capability of 90 amps per monoblock. Full-power bandwidth is a claimed 10Hz-100kHz. The review samples were equipped with RCA inputs, although I understand that later production units will offer XLR balanced connection as an option. Two pairs of Cardas binding posts are available for bi-wiring. The Warner Imaging amplifiers weigh in at around 70 pounds each.
The external details include a single side of heat sinks and a Plexiglas "Power Window" that is recessed into the aluminum top panel. This allows you to peer into an array of capacitors and circuit boards. The inside of the chassis is lined with vinyl sheeting to control resonance. The silver front panel sports two blue LEDs for power on, and there's a rear red LED for indicating stand-by mode. One thing that caught my eye was the external build quality -- I'm a stickler for details. Several areas of anodizing were rough to the touch, and chassis-joint tolerances did not appear exact to my eye.
The system used for the review of the Warner ER-300MSE amps has been in evolution. There was one significant barrier in creating a music machine that will transport me to the event -- convincing my wife that over a ton of electronic equipment in our living room is a good thing.
The heart of my rig is the Wilson X-1 Grand SLAMM Series II loudspeakers with the matching XS subwoofer. A multitude of amplifier models, which include the recently auditioned Simaudio Moon W-5 and a Jeff Rowland 8T, have handled my power duties. A Coda 04r preamp controls switching and volume, while the Pioneer 606D DVD player acts as source. Cabling is a mixture of Harmonic Technology and Apature Silver Series. I auditioned the Warner Imaging ER-300MSEs running full range on the X-1s without the subwoofer, to assess the amplifiers low-frequency capabilities. The subwoofer was added back in once I had a handle on this area of the sound.
The Warner amps are packed extremely well in hefty flight cases. Unpacking is a breeze, and installation only requires installing a set of three large gold-plated bronze spikes that serve as feet. I must say that these are very nice, and are substantial enough to support any speaker, not to mention any amplifier. The units operated flawlessly for the entire review period -- no glitches, pops or sputters. JPS Labs Power AC power cords were included in the package. The owners manual was not finished at the time of review.
The sound barrier
As you go through your music collection, you know there are certain discs that are hard for components to reproduce. The Warner ER-300MSE had no problems with anything I threw at them. Full-scale music played at realistic levels was handled easily. There was no dynamic compression or noticeable clipping to be heard. One example of this was Gloria! Music of Praise and Inspiration [Telarc CD-80519] with Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Choruses. I do get carried away with the volume control at times, especially when the emotional content of the music is finding its way to me unimpeded. This was the case with this disc; everything was working in harmony to produce the goods, at whatever level I chose to listen. From a whisper to a shout, the amplifiers tracked the music without a hitch.
Tonally the Warners seemed almost neutral. If anything, they lean toward the warm side of the scale, namely in the midbass area. This was not an unpleasant effect, and served to provide body and richness to thin recordings. The warmth seemed to recede before the midband though, thereby not coloring the vocal presentation of the amplifier. The low bass did not sound overly fat or bloated, but was full and meaty. If you are used to the iron grip that produces an extremely tight, focused bass, this will be different. Although not loose, control is, in fact, very good, although the bass is somewhat rounded. This quality was paired with the fact that the Warner amps possess incredible drive. This is the feeling that the amplifiers are in complete control of the situation, not being taxed at all.
The midrange of the Warner Imaging amps is as neutral as Ive heard. Really there isnt much to report on in this area other than to say that the ER-300MSE amplifiers did their job admirably. The Rebecca Pidgeon Disc Four Marys [Chesky JD 165] showed up toward the end of the review period. The track "The Cruel Mither" is performed a cappella, making it a great system test for midrange clarity. This is due to the fact that you dont have to "sectionalize" the music to focus in on one aspect of the sound. An a cappella recording allows you to simply hear the human voice without accompaniment, which makes a reviewer's job easy when assessing this important area. Female vocals can be difficult for some components as they transition from the midrange to the upper frequencies. The Warner Imaging amps excelled here.
Treble detail is good, but there isnt quite the air around instruments that I have heard from the best available. Listening to the acoustic track "Sweet Euphoria" from Chris Cornells Euphoria Morning [A&M 0694904122] provides a clear example. The acoustic guitar doesnt possess the bite and separation that Ive heard on this recording. The only problem with this observation is that it might be skewed by the warmth I noted earlier. A leaner-sounding amplifier sometimes sounds more detailed, even though there is no more detail offered. In either case, the Warner amps are definitely not bright or fatiguing, which will please some listeners to no end.
The old cliché about a solid-state amplifier that sounds like tubes does have some merit with the Warner Imaging ER-300MSE. With a warm midbass and a potent bottom end, a somewhat lean speaker would benefit from these amps. If you are already battling an acoustic hump in the bass/midbass region, a careful home audition is warranted to ensure that you dont accentuate the problem. The Warners may also help in a situation where you find some excessive brightness in the treble. These amps would mate well with many speakers, especially some of the popular minimonitors -- although the price of the amps may be prohibitive in this case. The one area where the ER-300MEs differ from many tube amps, however, is their great drive and authority, so dont be afraid to push them.
Marc Mickelson reviewed the Simaudio W-5 amplifier in February, and I provided a sidebar. We both agreed that this amplifier was a Reviewers' Choice component based on its high sound-per-dollar performance. Although priced considerably less than the Warners at $4795, the W-5 does compete with much more expensive units. That said, there are some interesting comparisons to be made between the Warner Imaging ER-300MSE and Simaudio W-5.
The Simaudio amplifier excels in two areas specifically. First, its bass control is excellent. The Warner ER-300MSE is not quite as tight in the very low bass, but also doesnt sound at all lean either. This is probably the most noticeable difference between the two units. The Warners just have more body and richness; they're like a tube amp on steroids. Drive capability is a strength that both share. The Simaudio is a very powerful amplifier at 175 watts per channel, but the Warner amps are even more subjectively powerful. Their effortless presentation exudes confidence.
Soundstage presentation is more focused with the Simaudio W-5. It is this area of performance that subjective taste will come into play. The W-5 is laser precise, but it's not as expansive as the Warner Imaging amps. The soundstage size is simply much larger with the Warner amps, the images being rounder and fuller. The Simaudio amp images more precisely, but at the same time it does not have the depth and breadth of the Warner amps. And finally, do you hear the difference in power? Absolutely. The Warner ER-300MSEs are monsters, and this shows up in the listening.
The Warner Imaging ER-300MSE amps don't sound like "nothing at all." They do have a slight sonic signature in the midbass that adds life and body to the music. They are as powerful-sounding as any of the super amps Ive heard recently, just not as ultra-neutral in the one area. Their clarity in other areas is impressive, as is their soundstage size. I do, however, have some slight concerns over build quality in comparison with other products of the amps' type and price. The sound quality, though, does serve the music -- and listener -- well.
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