James L. Darby
With the Great Digital Amp Shootout 2007, Stereomojo accomplished something never before done or even attempted, as far as we know – a shootout of 14 different amplifiers in a blind contest before a panel of multiple reviewers.
That’s pretty significant in itself, but these were not just any amplifiers; they were all “emerging technologies” amps that fall into either Class T, Class D or even Gaincard categories.
We divided them up between integrated amps and straight power amps. Prices ranged from $139 to $5,000.
The winner of the integrated shootout? The Trends Audio TA-10.1. The $139.00 contestant – a Class T amp.
Comments from the reviewers who had no clue what amp they were listening to went like this:
“More lifelike vocals than the other; good delineation of lower registers (piano); all percussive instruments sound excellent, tympani especially; horns sound more 'blatty' than other; handled orchestral complexity better; well balanced; analog-like; good separation and staging; very 3-dimensional; very smooth and full-bodied with good resolution and air”
“Low end detail and accuracy; more balanced and analog; overall musicality and 3-dimensional image; just overall better in all areas; would be better for vocals but you give up some dynamics”.
“Brass sounds better; better trailing edge to notes; no noticeable sibilance; nice big soundstage; very clean sounding but not edgy; coherent and detailed; 3D soundstage; great bass response; good resonance; good vocals and detail; excellent imaging.”
“Clean and detailed; vocals excellent; good soundstage and imaging; contrast; flow of the music; resolution; this is the most articulate of all the amps; sweet sounding; good resonance, very natural sounding; very little sibilance, if any; nice deep bass, open highs without being screechy; sounded very good on Vienna Teng; clean with good detail”.
Pretty good stuff, huh. The kicker is that the publisher (that would be me) purposely did not attend the shootout so that my sensibilities would not be colored by the comparisons. Therefore I can do a straightforward, thorough review of the Trends and other participants.
In the meantime, Sasha Obad of Obad Imports, the same guy who distributes the Trends, called me up and said he had another amp that was even better than the Trends and would I care to review it as well. The amp to which he was referring was the Kingrex T-20, also a Class T which comes with a separate matching chassis that contains the power supply. It, however, sells for $399.00. Both are based on Tripath chips, but the Kingrex has a different chip that is a little more powerful. Considering that the Trends amp is only 10 watts at 8 Ohms, that does not take much. Rated at 13 watts, the Kingrex doesn't’t give much more. That is a 33.3 increase over the Trends, though. That equates to about 1 decibel, the smallest increment of sound difference the ear can hear. Theoretically.
But, as we all know, there’s more to sound quality than just the number of watts. Or even the number of watts versus price.
I know of a mono amp that puts out ONE watt and sells for $25,000. And you need two of ‘em for stereo.
These two low output amps arrived at a great time as I had just received a pair of Cain & Cain Single Horn Bens. These are very large speakers that use a single Fostex driver with a little help way up top from a Fostex horn super tweeter. These are very efficient speakers
Their high efficiency would allow both amps to easily drive them at stadium rock volume levels. The Cains are also very revealing and very choosey about what amps are pushing them. The were designed to be used with 300B Single-Ended Triode amps or “SET’s”.
Now, a single 300B tube can cost more than both of these amps combined. So, the question that hangs in the air is, should I evaluate these cheapie Class T amps compared to just each other, I should I compare them both to amps costing much more?
What do you think I did?
The web is full of people claiming the Trends amp is a giant killer – a superhero that is able to leap tall Krells in a single bound. Proliferate stories testify that new owners have sold their much more costly amps because the Trends has brought them to audio nirvana for $139.
So why not see if the Trends as well as the rival Kingrex are really all that?
But first, lets look at them "mano a mano". Gentlemen, start your engines.
ALIKE BUT DIFFERENT
Here's a shocking statement for you:
“There are factors other than sound quality and price that determine real value”.
What?! Heresy!! If an amp has all the high-end sound goodies and it’s under $400, what more would you need? Well, let’s ask ourselves some questions.
First and most obvious, how efficient are your speakers and how big is your room?
At about 10 wpc, if you have speakers that are only 86dB efficient in a big room, neither of these amps will work for you. Especially if you like to listen loud. If your speakers are hard to drive (think Maggies) you’d be sorry if you bought these.
Second, how many sources do you have?
If you have more than one, the value quotient takes a dive because both of these amps have only one input. Got a CD player and a turntable or tape machine or Ipod or – anything else? Then you will find yourself changing leads all the time and trust me, as small as these amps are and as close together as the connections are, that’s something you do not want to be doing. By the way, if your speaker cables are not terminated in bananas, you are out of luck with the Kingrex because that’s all it takes. And, if your cables are a bit heavy, they are likely to pull either of these lightweights right off your rack. You will also note that both of the tiny power toggles are on the backside, so you’d better have access to reach behind a lot.
Third, how important is a remote control to you? Do you change volume settings frequently or are you a set it and forget type? Neither of these amps comes with or has a remote as an option. That could be a deal breaker.
Lastly. do you ever listen via headphones? Neither amp has a headphone jack, though the Trends does offer and accessory USB unit with a jack for $99. With the combined price though, there are better choices for a dedicated headphone amp.
So. How many of us have been eliminated so far?
The good news is that other than those limitations and the unbelievably laser beam brightness of their LED's, everything else is pretty darn good. The build quality is not bad, though the fake WBT speaker posts on the Trends are not all that substantial, but at least they will accept just about any kind of termination.
The interior work on both of them is neat, tidy and good quality. Neither amp had any problems during this review.
SOUND ON SOUND
Comparing the sound of the two amps was rather easy; they sound much more alike than different. Both have many of attendant audiophile qualities that were described in the panelist's comments, but they are different. The Kingrex takes all the qualities of the Trends and adds to it. Even though its power output is negligible on paper, in reality it significant. It definitely does sound more powerful, particularly in low frequencies. It exhibits more grunt and control down south than the Trends, an area that really needs it with the Bens. Neither of the two amps did a very good job with those speakers. Bass was vague and not well defined, rather loose and sloppy. But that is not unusual. Again, the Bens were designed to be driven by SETs and a 300B tube in particular. They responded to a Jolida 300B integrated that put the Tripaths to shame, but the Jolida also put every other conventional and digital amp to shame as well, including the Cary, the Halcros, the Lyngdorf , tube amps from Audio Electronics, Audiospace and Nightingale as well - none of which were 300B based. As stated earlier, the Single Horn speakers are very finicky.
Switching to a more conventional speaker and a smaller room, the excellent Mark & Daniel Maximus Monitor, whose average efficiency is a low 85 dB, told a more reasonable story. Here the Kingrex was able to strut its extra, more beefy power supply to drive the M&D's to more robust levels and overall sound.
Driving the M&D's with the Trends at full output being fed by a DVD-A at 24/192 (Eagles Hotel California) through a Benchmark DAC, the Trends faltered and cut out at times. It sounded like the Benchmark was having trouble with the sampling task, but that was not the case. Dropping the volume allowed the heavy audio load to be played with no dropouts.it should be noted that the Trends played flawlessly at full output in the blind shootout playing redbook CDs into a more efficient but larger speaker; the prototype AV123 LS6's. Driving the Mark & Daniel with an ultra high resolution source was a much more severe test.
However, the Kingrex played with no dropouts at full output. And that output was louder than the Trends. It was like listening to the Trends on steroids. More punch and dynamics while retaining all of the Trend's other qualities. Sometimes, even in the audio universe, paying more gets you more.
So, the question is, is the price difference worth it?
The difference is $399 minus $149 (current Trends price) or $250. Well, I have heard much less improvement for much more money between other products. The law of diminishing returns can be harsh. We will address this at the end with our "Stereomojo Specific Recommendations".
ANOTHER T ENTERS THE FRAY
I happen to own a Super T Amp by Sonic Impact that cost about the same as the Trends. It was part of the Great Digital Amp Shootout, too. It barely lost to the Nuforce IA7 ($2,000) by a vote of 4 to 3 with 2 panelists saying it was a hard choice to make.
In the next round which pitted it head-to-head with the Trends, the result was this:
"Trends is preferred by a vote of 3 to 2. 1 reviewer noted difficulty in deciding due to close performance."
So, within the context of a blind shootout and having to make very fast decisions over a short time period, the results were fairly even. Having now listened to all three in my own rooms over a much longer period of time with very familiar music selections, I would place the three in this order with the best first:
The Super T and Trends were really more of a toss up sonically, but the Super T being a bit larger is just easier to work with in a physical sense. I think it looks better, too.
BRING OUT THE BIG DOGS
I have already mentioned several Class D (Cary, Lyngdorf and Halcro) and tube amps by Jolida, Nightingale and others that were used as comparisons in this review.
Other than the Halcro, which has been review here, all of the others are still in various phases of the review process as of this writing, so we won't tip our hands just yet with individual comparisons. Suffice it to say that all of them sounded significantly different than these two amps and, of course, from each other. It is also safe to say that they bettered both the Kingrex and the Trends in most critical areas. Boiling down the main dissemblances, the main characteristics that the others possessed were greater power (of course) which translates into greater dynamic contrasts and headroom. The lower powered Tripaths sounded anemic on both the low and high efficiency speakers. They actually sounded better on the Mark & Daniel than they did on the Cain & Cain's which was a big surprise. The Ben's did not like them at all. Yes, the Cains played very loud with the skimpy output of the T amps, but the sonic picture they painted was not pretty, and that is a shame. Perhaps other high efficiency horns by Omega or others might sound better. We will see in future reviews.
While the Trends and Kingrex sound very clean and clear compared to some midfi products or even entry level high-end models, they sound a bit hazy compared to real high-end amps. The others just flesh out instruments and voices much better. More three-dimensional and rounded out. But they had better a many times the price, right?
Several of the larger canines presented an even more expansive and far reaching soundstage, though the two T amps do a very credible job for the money.
Both of them sound better and more musical, though less powerful, than my $2,500 Denon home theater receiver (which is completely separate from the other two 2-channel only systems). That says a lot, don't you think?
What we have determined here, so far, is that these two amps are not very compatible with either the Cain & Cain's or the M&D's.
THE BONUS ROUND
It would not be right to leave things there, would it? As usual, Stereomojo leaves no stone unturned and goes the extra mile to get to the real bottom line.
Enter my B&W DM601 Series II and the Insignia bookshelves.Now we're talking inexpensive but pretty good sounding speakers that are easy to drive. Here these two amps come into their own. While still not the equivalent of the higher priced spreads, they sound much happier and at home. We did a shootout of the Insignia vs. three other speakers here, so I won't rehash that, but both of these amps were able to fill both the large and small listening rooms with an abundance of sound that was very listeneable and engaging. They even sounded a little more "fleshy" that with the other two speakers. This was a much fairer fight.
Here again though, the Kingrex made both brands sing a little better with increased bottom end punch and control. The midrange is a bit sweeter as well. Now the soundstage reveals more roundness and detail with the Kingrex, especially with the Insignias which excel at that quality because of their pointsource design.
There is one more factor about which you need to know. The Trends is capable of being used as a straight power amp (bypassing the volume pot) OR, and this is really the most significant fact, it can be paired up with another Trends to form a bi-amplification configuration with each Trends dedicated to just one speaker. Double the power. Increase channel separation. Sasha did not send me two Trends amps, so I did not get to try this out, but it is worth a hot if you are so inclined. The Kingrex remains a mystery in this regard. Sasha has asked the Taiwanese maker about biamping but has not as yet received an answer that he can translate sufficiently.
Now I think we have had a thorough review.
At $149, the Trends TA-10.1 is recommended for anyone who only needs one input and no remote control or headphone jack for a system that includes inexpensive and nominally efficient speakers in the range of 88 dB or greater in a small to medium sized room. Further, we suggest that the system not be one where critical listening by a true audiophile is paramount. The Trends would be a wonderful choice for an office or bedroom system, for example. It would also be an excellent choice as a gift or purchase for the college student who pairs it with and Ipod or output from their computer, again using speakers that are easy to drive. Also, if it gets ripped off which happens at colleges, the loss is minimal. Even providing soft music in a baby's room would be good. Start raising them to appreciate music and good sound!
At $399, the Kingrex offers more real power and audiophile qualities and could be the basis for a very entry level high-end system. Still, there is only one input and no remote or headphone accommodation. Within those limitations and married to a medium price/quality efficient speaker, the owner would be able to listen to a more musical, satisfying presentation than with the Trends.
There are alternatives to both of these amps. For example, the same distributor of these two amps also has amp called the Little Dot T which sells for the same price as the Kingrex, the difference being that it produces 60 watts of Tripath power and has a tube buffer. I have not heard it but it may be worth a look.