Plinius integrateds have a long-standing reputation for good sound and value. While Neil Gader of TAS has used Plinius integrateds in his system for as long as I have been reading that magazine, a look back at published reviews of transistor integrateds, as a category, uncovers a trail of lukewarm praise. The 9200 is Plinius’s top integrated, rated at 200wpc, and includes a mc/mm phono stage.
The Plinius 9200 is a simple silver box with round edges. There are three knobs, roughly the same size and shape as those on my old ARC SP6. From left to right- record input selector, source selector and volume. The main power switch is a rocker on the rear. When not playing music, the source selector is set to standby.
On the inside you will find a nicely finished blue subchassis and circuit boards packed with high quality caps and resistors. The top board is dedicated primarily to preamp functions, while the bottom holds the power supply and amplifier bits. Elite Audio and Video’s Scot Markwell informed me that the amp runs in high bias class A/B, in a way that is unique to Plinius and is designed to preserve as much of the Plinius class A sound as possible Connectors on the back include one set of balanced inputs which I did not use. The amp weighs 30lbs, within the realm of what I can lift without assistance.
I expect solid state amplifiers to be dead quiet. I expect them to be terrific in the bass, lean and clinical in the mids and extended on top. I expect a less real sound than what I hear from good tube gear. I confess, as you will see, I am a "tube guy". At $4200, I expect refinement, delicacy and all the good stuff. For the most part, this is what I got from the Plinius.
Listening at home
I hooked up the Plinius to my Martin Logan Requests. For those of you without an encyclopediac knowledge of all things hifi, these were the largest speakers Martin Logan made in 2001 short of the multi-column Statements. Standing over 6ft tall and 18 inches wide, each contains a 12 inch dynamic woofers and 4ft curved electrostatic panel. They are rated at 89db sensitivity and have an impedance curve that drops to near zero in the high treble. The panels act as a dipole line source, and handle everything over 250Hz. The woofers are in sealed boxes and radiate forward, becoming non-directional as frequencies decrease.
I turned off the sub and let the amp play satellite radio to settle in before my first listen. The Plinius stayed in and out of my system for the next four weeks. I didn’t notice changes in the sound over this time, perhaps because I kept switching back to my reference equipment at some point in each session.
With no signal in the CD input, there was low level noise and hum coming from the speakers- a big surprise from an expensive transistor amp. The phono input was worst, with wideband noise at a fair level with the gain control at 9 o’ clock. Changing the jumpers to low gain improved the phono noise situation a bit (changing the jumpers requires removal of 13 screws that hold the top cover, identifying the small jumpers on the top circuit board and changing the position- OK for someone familiar with sticking their hands in computers or stereo equipment, otherwise best left for the dealer).
The good news is that the noise isn’t audible when music is playing. Also, a 10:00 position on the volume control resulted in very high SPLs. The noise from the Plinius’ phono section was still lower than that from my tubed preamp, though quieter examples exist in both tube and solid state. I judged the noise a non-issue.
Switching from my very "unintegrated" reference gear to the Plinius, I was struck with an increase in attack and definition.
My listening notes start with Chris Isaak’s “Baby did a bad bad thing” and “Wicked World.” Minus the sub, I didn’t hear the very bottom of the bass line, but that’s the speaker’s fault, not the amp. This is why I have a sub in the first place - the 12inch woofers in the Logans, like most “full range” speakers, don’t go much lower than the mid 30s. The Plinius exibited about as much slam as the panels would supply. Very good control of the woofers. Happily, detail in the top end was not overwhelming - the drum kit and cymbals sounded good. I was not as happy with Chris Isaak’s vocal. I’ve heard him live in a good venue, and I’ve heard this track on lots of stereos. Through the Plinius, there was more throat and less chest than I consider realistic.
Next up was “In a Hurry” from Chris McBride’s Gettin to It CD. This is a terrific big band recording featuring McBride on stand up bass, bowed and plucked. My notes say excellent dynamics. Sax has more breath, less body. Cymbals very good, a little extra detail without harshness or grain. Trumpet solo more about attack than bloom.
Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” (from The Dance) provided fine detail on the high percussion. Bass was surprisingly deep without the sub (here I set the ML woofers to flat, instead of their normal –3db). The resulting bass was well damped, but a little overcooked. Stevie Nicks sounded about 10yrs younger through the Plinius than through my tubes- I bet she’d like that.
On Heather Nova’s “Winter Blue”, the MLs went pretty low. Then my younger daughter confirmed that the bass level was waaay too high, so I set the woofer controls back to -3db, which gave better balance but left the lowest notes missing in action.
Continued with Heather Nova and “Paper Cup.” This song became my family’s favorite waltz ever since it turned up in a critical Dawson’s Creek episode. Sound was good, but the Plinius’ sonic footprint was clear, especially in the sound of the bowed saw (!). Again, the vocal was too much throat and not enough body. Wither the rest of Heather?
On Sam McClain’s “Too Proud” (from the Audioquest Blues Sampler), I’m missing the sub badly. Again, not the fault of the amp, but you need something on the order of Wilson Maxxes to get this right without a good sub. Sam sounded good, but predictably at this point, not as gravelly as he should. Dynamics were good, but maybe not as good as my reference.
Follow with Eva Cassidy Live at Blues Alley. Despite this recording’s status as an audiophile warhorse, Eva’s vocals can get screechy, and this was apparent through the Plinius. The amp really got the kick drum and bass right. However, the drum kit was not as in the room as with the reference gear, especially when things got busy.
A bit of classical with Bernstein’s Candide on Reference Recordings. Tremendous bass drum whacks, nice string tone and great dynamics: Recordings like this demand BIG speakers. Super sounding percussion.
On to Vinyl
I love the first Hot Tuna album. The Plinius gave a good account of this record, with excellent definition of the leading edge of Jack Cassady’s Fender bass. Here, the extra attack and detail were welcome, making the record sound more like a terrific CD than 30+ year old black plastic.
Went back through my racks for Déjà vu. This record can sound muddy, with everyone playing and singing together, not much space between the notes. The Plinius put each note in its place. The Hammond B3 and guitar solos cut cleanly through on “Carry On.” The sonic footprint was still noticeable, as David Crosby’s voice on “Almost cut my hair” lacked the body I usually hear. Time to put the tubes back
On Patricia Barber’s “Touch of Class” her voice is so much more in the room. The cymbals are still there, but sound more like real metal. The trumpet is “you are there” real, and the bass is perfectly balanced by adjusting the level on the EQ, allowing the kick drum and acoustic bass to be heard separately. There is more bloom and much more body. On Alison Krauss’ “Forget About It”, the delicacy of the guitar returned.
A Night at Bob’s
I can’t exactly describe what Bob does in real life (which most people I know also say about me), but in our little universe, Bob qualifies as an audionut who isn’t afraid to wield a soldering iron. Bob has terrific home-made dynamic speakers based on a Madisound floorstander kit, using two Scanspeak woofers and a Scanspeak tweeter in a D’appolito array. Bob is slightly less dis-integrated than I am, and uses a tube preamp/ss amp to drive them. In his new room, he usually leaves the REL sub turned off.
We started out with Cassandra Wilson’s “Old Devil Moon”, first on Bob’s gear, then on the Plinius. Not much difference, with the Plinius finding all of the high frequency detail and decay in that track. Moved onto Patricia Barber’s Mythologies and the Plinius provided a slightly larger soundstage and more detail on top. Dynamics were equal or better than Bob’s McCormack.
Kristy McCall’s “In These Shoes” and Dick Hyman on Reference Recordings got our feet tapping. There is no shortage of rhythm and timing with the big 9200.
Then I put on Anna Moffo from 1959 on RCA Living Stereo (CD layer). The string tone was thin and Anna’s voice was disembodied - all throat, no chest. The string tone was also thin on Dvorak’s Symphony 8. Switching back to Bob’s reference gear returned Ms. Moffo’s body to her head, along with the woodiness of the orchestral instruments.
When we tried vinyl, the Plinius had it all over Bob’s stuff - to the point where he’ll be on the phone to figure out how to improve his phono section (turned out a NOS rectifier tube not spec’d by the manufacturer was to blame). The Plinius had terrific bass and dynamics with Michaeal Hedges Strings of Steel. Jaco Pastorius was ever so much clearer on the Plinius in Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote.” We played selections from Oregon and agreed that the Plinius had one fine phono section.
Is it fair to compare the compact Plinius with two racks of stuff at my house? In pure performance terms, I belIeve my mostly tubed gear does a better job of reproducing music than the Plinius It does have a great phono section, and if vinyl were my only source, the Plinius would be more attractive - even to this tube guy.
System matching is everything. The last thing the Plinius needs is to be tied to speakers with a an ultra-detailed, bright top end. I’d look to match this amp with darker or fuller sounding speakers, something like a Quad or a Vandy 3. The extra detail could put more life into speakers that are a bit reticent, and the power available from the Plinius is adequate for any load.
The Plinius 9200 is priced mid-way between the lower powered British boxes and the Levinson or Moon integrateds. The Krell KAV400xi, priced at $2500, also offers 200wpc and balanced input, but lacks a phono section.
James L. Darby
I was able to spend several weeks with the Plinius in the large room in my home. Unlike Andrew and Bob, I am not a dyed-in-the-wool “tube guy”. I like those glowing bottles to be sure, but like most things in life, there are trade offs to be considered. To achieve 200 watts per channel via tubes, you’re going to have to spend major bucks, and I don’t know of too many, if any, tube integrated amps that will give you that kind of power. You are most likely to end up with separate pre and power amps, maybe not a phono section as most top tier preamps allow you to choose your own phono preamp. You might not get remote control, either. What you will get is the extra expense of several different boxes and what most people don’t know is that casework can be very expensive, especially to the extent of the Plinius here with two chassis in one box. You would also have the added expense and possible frustration of providing extra interconnects which an integrated like the 9200 eliminates. Of course, if your room is space challenged or your wife gives you fits over “all those ugly boxes”, separates are just not an option. In addition, a tube amp that would produce hundreds of watts would also product copious amounts of heat. If you happen to live in Florida or Arizona or the like, the last thing you want is an enormous space heater in your room. No, tubes are not for everyone.
As always, we do our best to get answers about important questions such as “What was the design goal for this product?” from the designer. At Plinius, there is no one man responsible for overall design, it is done by a team. We had to be a bit persistent, but we did get some basic answers as follows:
Hi Bias Class A/B circuitry was chosen for this amp on the basis of listening tests. Due to the high bias, the amp uses 800mA current in standby, which translates to roughly 100 watts at 120V. Circuits for the preamp are isolated on the top circuit board, including separate regulated power supplies for the preamp functions. Jumpers for the phono gain are admittedly hard to get to. Plinius believes that most integrated owners do not change cartridges frequently, and the change from high to low gain can be done by the dealer. They include the instructions in the manual for those owners who choose to do this at home.
Plinius does not use audiophile boutique resistors or capacitors for the 9200. In a product built to a price point, they felt that consistent high quality and close tolerances are most critical.
The low level background hiss noted in the review is a byproduct of Plinius’ circuit design. When the noise was eliminated during the design period, the engineers heard a loss of detail. This was a key design goal - retrieval of detail is Mission One for the 9200.
Like we said, there are always tradeoffs, whether tube vs, solid state or when building an amp that is less that a cost-no-object statement piece, there are always decisions to make about where to cut costs. The decision to concentrate on “consistent high quality and close tolerances” rather than fill the chassis with more costly “boutique resistors or capacitors” is an interesting one – and an honest one.
Their opinion that “Detail is Job One” is also significant. Let’s see how all of this actually sounds, shall we?
Plentious of Power
The first thing noticed about the sound of the Plinius is that there is a lot of it. 200 watts per channel is serious power and with the three pairs of speakers I ran it through, I never came close to reaching the top. Even my Halcro power amp at 400 wpc will theoretically only provide 3db of extra volume. (The Halcro separate power amp cost $5000 by itself).
One caveat - I have been told that the Plinius draws humongous amounts of current from the wall. Running this through a power cleaner might be a mistake, and even if you don't have a lot of current at your AC outlet, the Plinius may not be happy.
While I did not hear a lot of noise from the Plinius sitting 10’ away from the speakers, the Halcro was significantly quieter in terms of soundstage with the music emerging from a very quiet background. However, the Plinius’ level of detail was greater with instruments popping out in greater relief. While the Halcro is a tad on the coolish side (it’s a Class D), the 9200 was a bit further into the “light blue” section of the color spectrum. No one could accuse the integrated of being plush, lush, overly warm or romantic. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a matter of personal preference. I certainly know many people who value liveliness and excitement over prettiness and sumptuousness. Personally, I’d rather have something like the Plinius than something else that is too laid back, ripe and dark. Besides, it is much easier to tone a presentation down a bit (and still retain a high level of detail) than to pump a flabby, reticent sound up.
I had the new Gershman Sonograms in house with the Plinius. The Sonograms of the epitome of elegance and beauty without being overly ripe. There is a lot of detail with not a trace of harshness or etchiness, but it is on the less aggressive side. Linda LOVES the Gershman's. The Plinius lit them up like a lovely Christmas tree – a good match. Using an amp with a big, warm sound would not be so. Building a high-end audio system is all about synergy and component matching.
The look and feel of the 9200 oozes quality and a high level of craftsmanship. The buttons and knobs feel like switchcraft in a Lexus. The double chassis is there to reduce resonance and vibration which add noise and smearing. I think it is very effective at limiting resonance because when I sat it in my beloved Stillpoints rack, the level of improvement was less than the usual “Oh yeah!” I usually experience. Better on the Stillpoints, yes. HUGE improvement, no. That speaks very well of the Plinius design.
I did get to spend a good deal of time with the phono section. It is an overachiever, but once again, cartridge selection is key. The ZYX Airy lost some of its airiness in the avalanche of detail while my warmer Benz was a much better mate. Stick with Grado's and the like and the phono section will give your years of enjoyment.
The best comparison is with the LSA Standard integrated I reviewed a while back. At $3,000, it boasts 150 wpc, balanced circuits, a MM only phono section and a remote. At twice the size and weight (77 lbs), it is a beast, even the Plinius beats it by those 50 wpc. The big design difference is that the LSA features two 6922 tubes in the preamp section which makes it a hybrid. The LSA is a bit more neutral for my tastes, but its level of detail is significantly less. One would need to go to the LSA Signature model at $6,000 to match that of the 9200.
I do have to pass on a bit of good-natured ridicule of the 9200’s remote control. When I unpacked it, the first word that came to mind was “bludgeon”. This thing is weapon. At nearly 11” long by an inch-and-a-half thick and weighing one pound, it would seem more at home as something our Olympic track athletes would use to pass in lieu of a baton in the 4x100 race. When it only has 3 buttons, volume up and down plus mute, why does it have to be so big? If it fell off the side table, it would decapitate one of our Shelties. Did they have some heavy aluminum left over from forming the amp’s chassis that they didn’t know what to do with? Whew.
One of my favorite reviewers in all of reviewerdom is John Marks of Stereophile. John has written about his affection for the Plinius and it was he who told me I should review it if I get a chance. John likes the Plinius when matched up with Shahinian loudspeakers. Shahinians are "polydirectional" according to Dick Shahinian. They produce a rather diffuse soundfield which some people swear by and others swear at. No one would call them bright sounding or overly detailed. Again, John is probably right on the, uh, mark with this matchup.
If you are looking for an integrated amp, or even separates, with gobs of power and have around $4000 to spend and don’t want the bother of separates and don’t want the maintenance or heat of tubes, or if you listen to a lot of records and own suitable speakers, the Plinius 9200 will fill all your needs, put the missing sparkle back in your ears and never run out of steam. The Plinius 9200 is one of the brighter sounding integrateds we have tested, even for a solid state model. If your system sounds dull and lifeless to you, perhaps you should check this out. However, if your system already is on the bright, etched side, you may find this Plinius too over the top, topwise. If a burglar breaks in to try to steal it, you can use the remote control to fend him off, too!
Empirical Audio modded Sony DVP-S7700 CD player (transport)
ART Dio DAC (modded)
VPI HW19 MK III/Morch DP6/Dynavector DV20 XH
Hagerman Coronet 2 phono stage (modded)
Audio Prism Mantissa Preamp
McCormack DNA 0.5 amp (Rev A modded)
2 way D’Appolito type floor standers with Scanspeak drivers and custom crossover.
Interconnects, speaker wire, power conditioner, racks and room treatment by Bob.
VPI Scout, Grado Reference Sonata
Sony NS775V SACD player (transport); Theta Pro Gen II DAC
Van Alstine T8 preamp w/phono stage
Behringer 8024 DSP EQ and level (250Hz down)
McAlister PP150 amplifier (electrostatic panels):
Bryston 4B amplifier (woofers)
Martin Logan ReQuest speakers
M&K MX150 subwoofer
Accessories: Audioquest cables, Kimber and Wireworld speaker wires, Zu and MAD power cables, QS&D racks, Echobusters, wooden diffusers
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