Over time I concluded that amplifiers that don’t get the leading edge right may initially sound more dynamic, but they don’t sound as natural, and they reduce the sense of musical involvement. As the number of instruments increase, this effect gets more problematic, so that massed orchestral works can sound slightly confused or congested.
I am describing this in technicalsounding terms because our language for small dynamic events is rather threadbare. Language problems aside, the important thing about the connection between dynamics and transparency is that it helps us to understand why transparency may now come without a tradeoff. In fact, better transparency comes with better spatial presentation and better timbre. The lack of a tradeoff makes the best new amplifiers very significant when measured by their impact on musical involvement.
There are some very fine amplifiers on the market. In this small grouping, none of the amplifiers sounded even remotely bad, in the sense that I can say some receivers sound bad. Even more, each amplifier had attributes that make you sit up and realize that each designer had a mission that was pursued with real passion, making each amp special in a way. The McIntosh is the champion of liquid continuousness. The Audio Research is amazingly dynamic sounding. The Musical Fidelity makes piano and voice sound startlingly real. And the Classé is relaxed. And those are simply examples.
From the perspective of tuning your system, one or another amplifier might prove a good match. But, for some, that won’t be enough. If you are interested in the quest for musical involvement, then I think you’ll want to start by looking for amplifiers that take a step forward in real transparency and continuousness. It might be that such an amp isn’t the ideal match for your existing system, but you’ll hear new aspects of the music and you probably won’t feel punished by the process as you might have been with amplifiers as recently as a few years ago. Moreover, I would suggest that any tuning mismatch is the fault of some flaw in your other equipment, your setup, or your room, and thus additional changes for the better will be required. This is a harder approach than the tuning approach, but probably the better one.
I had originally assumed that different amplifier technologies would be the key to how this step forward in transparency would occur. Now I don’t think that is quite right. Just as the advent of solid-state amps pushed tube amp designers and vice versa, I think we will see Class D and probably true digital amplifiers push more traditional solidstate designs. Certainly from this test and other listening I’ve done recently, the first generations of Class D (and similar) amplifiers show enormous promise. At the same time, I’ve been amazed at the excellence of age-old class A/B amps in delivering transparency without pain. No doubt there will be near-religious battles over which approach is better. But either way, it is real progress.