Dusty Vawter, President of Channel Islands Audio, has a refreshingly different slant on audio design. Like any serious high-end manufacturer, he is passionate about sound quality, but more than many he believes components should offer solid build-quality and reliable, trouble-free performance at sensible prices. Amen to that.
CIAudio’s small, cube-shaped 200-watt D-200 monoblocks sell for $2299, and are based on Philips/Hypex UcD (Universal Class D) modules. A user can order D-200s with either 26 or 32dB of gain (the latter for use with passive preamplifiers), and with single-ended or balanced inputs.
At Vawter’s suggestion, I gave the D-200s about 100 hours of burn-in, and observed gradual improvements in their sound. Once I began critical listening, what struck me about the D-200s was the sweetness and delicacy of their midrange, the warmth and quickness of their midbass, and an overall presentation that, paradoxically, sounded at once detailed yet smooth—almost to the point of sonic politeness.
To zoom in: The D-200’s midrange sweetness is the sort that makes both male and female voices sound graceful, rich, and articulate, though with rough edges sometimes slightly smoothed over. A good example is Dave Alvin’s “California Snow” from Blackjack David [MFSL, SACD], where Alvin’s rich, storyteller’s voice is presented vividly, but with its gritty, gravelly textures toned down a bit. Similarly, the D-200’s midrange makes strings in general and solo violins in particular sound achingly beautiful, though with high harmonics and inner details diffused just a little.
The D-200s’ handling of high-frequency details left me with mixed reactions. Compared to many good Class AB amplifiers, the D-200s reproduce low-level details extremely well, but as high-frequency details become progressively more subtle the D-200s eventually allow fine textures to melt into soft diffuseness—the sonic equivalent of a cinematic dissolve to white. As a result, perceived transparency and soundstage focus are diminished, at least to some degree. The good news is that the D-200s are never guilty of the sort of unnatural, overwrought transients that drive many of us nuts. But the tradeoff is that the D-200s fall just short of the breathtaking transparency and three-dimensionality that amplifiers such as the NuForce Reference 9s and Audio Research 300.2 can provide.
The D-200s’ midbass is pleasingly warm and weighty, with a good measure of transient snap that makes basses (acoustic, electric, and human) sound articulate and evocative. Listeners will appreciate these qualities on recordings such as bassist Charlie Haden’s Nocturnes [Verve], where the ever-tasteful Haden makes musical points not through flashy pyrotechnics, but through delicate variations in attack, sustain, and voicing. The D-200s midbass clarity is comparable to, if not better than, that of many contemporary Class AB amplifiers, though today’s best Class D amplifiers (all costing more than the D-200) offer even better low bass and greater low-frequency control.
Finally, the D-200s sound unfailingly smooth and self-assured, even on complicated, densely layered material such as Respighi’s Pina di Roma [Deutsche Grammophon, LP]. Grace under pressure is one of the D-200’s most appealing characteristics, though it comes at the price of a tendency toward sonic “politeness” that very slightly dampens the vividness of the overall sound. But don’t get me wrong; on the whole, the D-200s sound quite expressive. It’s just that there is an elusive layer of dynamic accuracy and expressiveness that the D-200s can’t quite reach. After playing reference recordings on the D-200s, the first word that comes to mind might be “smooth.” After hearing the same recording through the NuForces or ARC 300.2, the one-word description might change to “alive.”
The Channel Islands Audio D-200s are solidly built amplifiers that exhibit no operational quirks whatsoever, which is more than you can say for some high-end products. The CIAudios also earn high marks sonically, in most respects equaling (or surpassing) the sound of more costly Class AB amplifiers. But the D-200s’ most direct competition comes from the NuForce Reference 9s, and a comparison forces listeners to assess their sonic priorities. For those seeking warmth, clarity, and detail— all tempered by overarching smoothness, the D-200s will be ideal. But for greater overall transparency, three-dimensionality, and more lifelike dynamics, the NuForce Reference 9s (or the more expensive Audio Research 300.2) would get my nod.
I liked the D-200 primarily for its pint-size, generally good sonics. It does everything well through the middle range of the frequency spectrum but falls off dynamically as music reaches its extremes. Its treble still sounds a bit peaky and thin—a cello’s upper register being a prime example—and the D-200 is not able to resolve a piano’s textural complexity or convey its soundboard and reverberations in the bass. Its imaging and soundstaging were only average, and it lacked the deep-water silences that enable top-level amps like the Rowland or Spectron to recover low-level minutiae. The CI is very pleasurable for the money and exudes solid build-quality, but it lacks the kind of octave-to-octave dynamism and transparency of this survey’s leaders.