NIGHTSHADE SS 500
CLASS D STEREO AMPLIFIER
List Price: $1,000
Steel Enclosure: $850.00
Wood trim: $1000.00
Wood enclosure: $1100.00
Niteshade is a small company located in Rome. Ummm, not Rome, Italy, but Rome, New York. Niteshade is All American. According to their website, Niteshade Audio is a branch of Lamphear Electronics, an electronics sales and service business owned by Blair Lamphear. The business was started in 2001 as solely a computer repair center. As their popularity grew, they branched out to the design of high powered PC's and tube audio equipment. "I have been working with electronics since grade school", says Blair. "During my youth I won two First Honor Awards. First, in 5th grade with a triple output DC power supply and later on in 4H with a large 10 amp power supply (that was lighting up the room with car headlamps!). It was time to get serious, so off to college it was. My first two years were at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, NY. I received my Associates there and went on to Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT is the ***best*** college for a formal electronics education! The instructors and students were great. So were the on campus jobs. I worked as a lab technician for the College of Science and later on did my CoOp in the Center for Imaging Science. My job was to create a raster image scanner to be used with the senior students' labs. Later on, I began work with GnNettest repairing laser based communications test equipment while completing my BA degree at SUNY Utica. It was a great job while waiting for an engineering position to open within the company. Unfortunately, that never happened as the company started to fold after the World Trade Center disaster. The economy was a mess back in 2001 and it was time to move on....to make Lamphear Electronics!"
So Niteshade specializes in tube components which is why we contacted them about a review. They make amps that have gotten some good comments from readers and some not so good. Our readers wanted OUR take on them because they know we tell it like it is. So what do we get in the box from Niteshade? A wooden box wrapped around something that resembles something electric, but there's no tubes of any kind anywhere to be found. Say what? It turns out Mr. Lamphear wants to introduce his new "digital" or more correctly "Class D" switching amp. Maybe it's because Stereomojo is recognized as one of the world's leaders in "alternative" types of amplification. Over four years ago we did the very first a still the largest shootout of non-standard amps on the planet. Since then we've published the world's first reviews of many Class D, Class T, Class K and other types of amps, probably more than anyone. So Stereomojo knows Class D.
The Class D amp from Niteshade audio is such an unassuming product most people…no anyone who saw it would wonder what it was; if they saw wires peeking out in back they might think it’s an amp, but I even doubt that. And they'd never guess that the mysterious box puts out 250 watts per channel into 4 ohms and 125 watts into 8 ohm loads from 20 to 20,000hz.The amp they sent is housed in a beautifully made solid Tiger Maples box, no knobs, no lights, simply the box. No one could expect too much from something so simple, could they? However, you can order almost anything you want for the case. They will even use automotive paint for the case if you like.
The SS-500 is a very simple affair, with good connectors on the rear, an IEC socket (more on that later) and the on/off toggle switch. One can assume it’s to be left on all the time as reaching for a switch on the back would be difficult in many set-ups. It consumes very little electricity (the big point about class D is that power is not wasted in heat…no big heat sinks needed!)
But the box is an amp and a very good sounding one at that. Any speaker I connected to it seemed to match up well, one better than all others. So what is its sound? It does exactly what a good amp should do; impart nothing of its own. A straight wire with gain?
Well, we all would like that, or so we think, but we tend to build systems that match our own likes and dislikes concerning sound. I would not connect the Niteshade to a pair of speakers with a "cool" presentation, for instance. While the sound signature is not cold by any stretch it leans toward the cooler side of things.
I liked male vocals better than female vocals, for instance. While the female voice was not distorted or changed in any way; lots of emotion, et al., but I seemed to enjoy the muscular sounds of male voice rather than anything more refined. I played Paul Simon’s LP and on the cut Mother and Child Reunion, I was struck by how easily I could hear Simon’s voice…the tiny inflections he gave to set the mood of the song. He never sounded breathy or soft, his short guy swagger seemed to infuse the music with a bit more power than I’d ever noticed. Heck, maybe it’s the 6’3” guy in me that heard that.
I listened to a lot of LPs while I had the Niteshade SS-500 in house, but I played CDs far more often. For some reason I felt the sound of CDs suited the amp. I do not, in any way, mean to hint that was a bad thing. The looks of the amp are super modern with only a wood box showing where my amp usually sits.
For a large part of my time with it, it was in my office system, a vintage Kenwood KD500 turntable and a whole bunch of speakers. I had the Fritz Carbon 7 speakers hooked up; Michael Green MGD5 speakers, the pair of AR2ax speakers I was in the process of rebuilding and (in the main listening room) the Infinity Preludes.
The Carbon 7s sounded quite good with the Niteshade. They are not cool like the MGD5 speakers and even the MGD5 sounded pretty darned good, but the Carbon 7s are a magical speaker, they sound great with a lot of amps. With the Niteshade amp, big orchestral music sounded far “bigger” than the small Fritz speakers should be able to produce. The Class D is never running out of steam and that could be the reason for that big sound, the Carbon 7s are not demanding by any stretch, but the RCA/Classics LP reissue of Scheherazade is!
I really liked the sound of the Miles Davis’ Bags Groove LP with that combination, so I put on the XRCD of the same recording. I hate to say it, but although my feet were tapping with the LP playing on the Kenwood deck, I was swinging when I played the CD! The vibes rang so clearly, highs extending beautifully!
I know, that’s heresy! I’m becoming more of a digital listener than I ever have before. It’s amazing how good CDs sound in my system with its new Eastern Electric DAC. During this time, I had been experimenting with DIY power cords and speaker cables. I also ordered some Pangea power cords from Audio Advisor. I’m sure Blair could explain to me why a Class D amp did not change very significantly with different loudspeaker cabling and power cords, but I suppose it’s important for me to tell you that you need not go crazy upgrading your wires with this amp. There were, of course, changes, but not significant ones. Subtle at best. Try ‘em if you wish, but the sound of the amp, stock cord sounds fine.
I’ve always been intrigued that it seems bass is diminished when actually; it becomes "better" than it had been. A great test CD is still, Wasserman's Trios, the bass will awe and fascinate you.
Recorded in 1994, this CD is still as much of a stomach rumbler as it was when I first heard it. The imaging is scary, the extension at both extremes is mind boggling and the music is just plain fun. There are times when the sound is so real it scares you. Willie Dixon starts speaking at the beginning of one cut and you'd swear he's in the room. It was late at night and I had just put the CD into the player, but was drifting off. He began talking and it startled me, thinking someone had just walked into the room. This amp delivers a sound that makes male vocals real!
That is not to say female vocals weren’t rendered well. Joni sounded like Joni, Linda sounded as sexy as she always had, Billie tore my heart out with her emotion. I pulled out Joni Mitchell’s Blue, as I hadn’t heard it in quite a long time (and no one should go without hearing that LP for any longer than 12 milliseconds).
The Rhino reissue is revealed as very good but definitely a poseur. With the Niteshade we see the spotlight Rhino has put upon Joni; a sort of brightening effect. Listening to my wife’s first copy, with all of its scratches, there is roundness to Joni’s voice…it sounds more real. I have a later pressing, still with the same label, where that roundness is diminished somewhat, but not brighter; given the choice I’d take the Rhino hands down.
THIS is what the Niteshade can reveal; granted I was listening for it but I had never noticed as big of a difference and I did, when first bought, compare the Rhino to the originals.
One might listen to this amp with speakers that err on the bright side of the street and feel although it is incredibly fast, it has a lightweight character. With certain material, both CDs and LPs, the MGD5 speakers could err with the Niteshade (or the Niteshade erred with the Michael Green’s?). But playing through the darker AR2ax speakers that was revealed as a false assumption. While some friends who heard that combination really liked it, I think the best combination was that which revealed the incredible speed from both the amp and Fritz’s Carbon 7s.
The label I never see mentioned (and that’s probably because I just learned to read as I found it is the number one selling label in Europe!) is Naxos. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Jeno Jando, piano (Naxos 8.554160) has a somewhat distant sound played with most amps in residence. I am always awed by Bach pianists, my fingers can’t move that quickly to scratch my ear. The image of Jando’s piano was not one dimensional, a good bit of air around the instrument. The SS-500 brought me closer to the instrument, to the front part of the room where the other amp’s had me sitting well back into the room, the Niteshade still allowing the room’s lovely sound; a very nice, relaxed sound made a bit livelier with the SS-500. Interestingly, the sound of the box of the piano was diminished a bit. In terms of truth I believe the Monarchy amps took the prize with the SS-500 nipping at their heels. Piano ain’t an easy capture for a sound engineer.
Listening to two very different Frisell recordings, one on CD, the other LP I heard each finger movement, sensing the pressure upon each string. I have always been fascinated when watching accomplished friends play their respective guitars. When I was younger I had incredible dexterity in my fingers, but it was slow and deliberate, a surgeon’s fingers (in my case, aligning cartridges, for instance). Watching the finger movements of a great guitarist is…well, fascinating. The Niteshade gives you more than a glimpse of those fingerings.
Pat Metheny’s lightning for instance, was quite easy to follow, a bit too highlighted however, as if he’d moved forward on stage AND the gain from his pick-up mike was turned up. In some systems this will be a good thing, in mine it was too “in your face, buddy!”
Keb Mo’s self titled CD (EK57863) was quite similar…very different in terms of music and sound, but similar in where I as a listener sat and watched/listened to him play and sing. The SS500 allowed a bit more contact rather than intimacy.
Bill Frisell is slow and deliberate yet incredibly nimble. His sonorous sound in "Gone, Just Like a Train" shows an exact guitarist’s copy of what Jim Keltner plays on his drums, and of course vice versa. There’s much interplay and counterpoint, of course, but it is a well choreographed dance rather than simply a guitar and drum. When Viktor Krauss joins the musical ménage and it becomes a dance for three, we have a view of that interplay that is (since the music is bordering on the bizarre) quite beautiful…we see it as well as hear it.
Listening to that CD with my reference system and with my very wonderful sounding office system, the dance enters shadows…the music becomes a bit darker. Is the lightness or the darkness correct? I really can’t say, I like both presentations but I suspect the Fritz/Niteshade may be more of the truth.
Going from CD to LP, I played the magnificent Bill Frisell/Doug Wamble LP from Direct Grace Records, right now that particular title is out of print but there are other good records there anyway. This LP, as I said, is quite magnificent sounding…very natural. I was astounded when I played the LP for the first time, and the Monarchy amps (and the rest of the system) can reveal an incredible amount of micro-detail from this well recorded LP; the SS-500 will not disappoint in that regard…not in the least.
If you have ever been to an informal concert at a college, you have heard a single guitarist (acoustic) with a small stage amp such as a Fender or Peavy. The room’s sound still dominates even though the amp was needed as much as the fly that keeps landing on your forehead. This is EXACTLY the sound Peter Lederman at Soundsmith captures on this record. Eeerily so.
I have listened to this LP a large number of times and have been impressed by the realness, the truthfulness of the sound. This LP is as real as Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall which is again, another LP I listened to with the various amps and set-ups. The sounds that were the most truthful were NOT my Infinity/Monarchy set-up. The award there goes to the Fritz Carbon 7’s with either the SS-500 or the Audio by Van Alstine driving them.
The Niteshade SS-500 power amp gives you a lot of watts for the dollar. It can be had for as little as $850 in a standard steel case. Prices go up some when you start adding wood decor. The ss-500 does very well with things like percussion and plucked strings, things that require speed. While there is abundant power, you need to watch the impedance curve of your speakers. Class D amps usually don't mate well with speakers that dwell in 2 Ohm land. I’ve tried to hint that the SS-500 can sound a bit thin or lean through the midrange and above with some material. They also sound a bit on the cool side of neutral. There's nothing wrong with that, many people like the sound I've described here. I was comparing the old, tried and true SS designs with a new approach to sound.
One application that would be ideal for the SS-500 would be in a bi-amp configuration with a less-powerful tube amp driving the mids and highs and the Class D powring the harder to drive low end. Many have found that combo very satisfying. If you live in places that tend to have high temperatures, a Class D amp should put out very little heat to compete with your air conditioning and your wallet when it comes to electric bills.
The Class D amp isn’t in it’s infancy by any stretch, but it is an assault on the solid state throne and should be viewed as such. It will be up to you, as it always has been, as to whether you wish to try this amp in your home. As for me, the Monarchy amps, Hoover Dam destroyers that they are, will remain my source of pleasure. Great sound and green? The SS-500 will deliver both.
Some alternatives are the Hephaestas monoblocks we reviewed recently. They cost more at close to 5 grand per pair, but you get 1,000 watts of pure musicality per side. The amps from Virtue audio, notably the Sensation whose review is coming very soon uses the Tripath chip and is very musical as well at a great price.
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