So, Where Was I?
But now that we are just 18 months shy of the eldest going away to college and six months from the youngest hitting High School, I suddenly have some time. So, when Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin called with a suggestion that I return to the Enjoy the Music.com fold, I jumped at the chance!
Those Ten Years
The system continued to evolve over this time as well, though a bit more slowly than it used to. Multiple DACs have come and gone, and the pre and power setup has changed a couple of times as well. But eventually all the changes evolved into a simplified setup, in part to accommodate teenage boys comfortably using it, and in part to extract maximum musical enjoyment with minimum fuss. And with one son about to start college soon and his brother on his heels, cost benefit also played a significant role in system design as well.
Today's Subject: AVM-A30 Integrated Amp/DAC
The A30 is a beautifully made thing. The brushed aluminum case comes in either black or silver. The review sample was silver, a finish I typically don't like, but on the A30 it looks smashing. Everything, except the two control knobs, is surface mounted, so the power, bass, treble, level and balance buttons fade into the front fascia. The display shows restraint, with a minimal white LED readout only showing the essential details. The remote is similarly sleek, but perhaps a bit too much so, as it isn't doesn't slip comfortably into the hand. The controls on the remote work fine, which is arguably more important than how it feels. The two control knobs in the A30 itself, input and volume, are perfectly weighted and complete the look and feel of a thoughtfully designed and built product.
Around back, AVM's A30 is likewise well designed and made, especially considering the sheer number of things going on back there. There are six RCA line inputs, an XLR input, four digital inputs (Bluetooth, optical, coax and USB), two digital outputs (optical and coax), Line, Sub and Pre outs, two trigger jacks, four hefty binding posts, an IEC power input and the master on/off switch. With that many options, each of the three primary parts of the A30 – preamplifier, power amplifier and DAC – can be used individually, in any combination, or bypassed altogether. Smart, sleek design indeed.
Inside the A30 belies its slim exterior by offering 125 Watts of A/AB power into each channel. The MOSFET power section has dual mono power supplies. The DAC is a 24-bit/96kHz for all digital inputs except for S/PDIF coax, where it is 24-bit/192kHz.
From first listen, the A30 demanded full on attention. I mean that literally. After unboxing, I placed the A30 in the system, told JRiver to play the Platinum SHM-CD version of Dire Straits first album, and went to the next room to work. That was a no go. It was no more than a minute or so and I was back in the listening room, doing my best Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from The Simpsons imitation. This wasn't good sound, this wasn't even great sound, what it was, was real sound. Not perfect sound (I'll get to that soon), but very, very real sound.
How so? Both the attack and the sustain on Mark Knopfler's guitar strings are rendered equally well. Bite on the front end; rich, full harmonics on the back end, with neither part dominating. And coupled to this was a type of clarity that was not merely removing a layer of grunge from a window, but more like removing the window itself. Those three items, attack, harmonics and clarity, combined to give a sense of effortless speed and natural pace as well. So, in a word, real.
Another immediately noticeable trait of the A30, no doubt part and parcel of the aforementioned virtues, was the way it separated each and every musical line. On an album like the Dire Straits I started out with, though a basic rock setting, the ability to switch from shuffling bass line, to stinging if reserved lead, over to equally tasteful drums, opened up the musical windows again. With a sure hand on the rhythms, the A30 placed each player in a tightly controlled, individual space. Again, very real sound.
Given more complex music, such as the Pat Metheny album Tap: John Zorn's Book of Angles, Vol. 20, the A30 again, stood proud. If anything, this Metheny album highlights everything that is good about the AVM integrated. With Antonio Sanchez playing drums, Metheny plays everything else, layering multiple guitar parts (acoustic, baritone, bass and electric), electronics, piano, fluegelhorn, bandoneon and various pieces of percussion, over pulsing Jewish and middle-eastern rhythms. The resulting songs are hard to describe, but wonderful to experience. Ranging from the propulsive, snaky splash of the guitar/electronic 11/8 time freakout opening tune (Mastema), to a near Pat Metheny Group floater on Tharsis, Metheny takes the original Zorn tunes and owns them. And the A30, in turn, owns the album. Individual lines are laid bare, even when the going gets dense. The rhythm is physical, powerful and immediate. The complex harmonies of the overlaid tracks are crystal clear and fleshed out. The drumming has both bite and precision. Again, very real sounds.
Going even more complex, I have a special place in my musical heart for Anton Bruckner's 9th Symphony, with about eight versions in my library. And while I spend time with all of them, lately I've been spending a lot of time with the newly released Riccardo Muti and Chicago Symphony Orchestra version. Bruckner, who died before starting his planned, concluding fourth movement, is, perversely, well served with only three movements as we are left with to ponder ideas on our own.
With typically dense orchestration, in the 9th Bruckner pushed tonality and harmonics to their late 19th and early 20th century limits, hence my multiple versions. And while some orchestras seem better at finding the tonal limits, and some conductors do better controlling the pace, the Muti/CSO version is a near perfect blend of both parts. For example, the third movement, the Adagio, opens with a harmonically rich phrase, that sets an aching tone for the movement. What follows is a complex set of key changes, that must be pitch perfect, while also sustaining forward motion. Through the A30 dense strings had clarity as well as weight, while the pace was a smooth heartbeat, pulling us through the piece.
Looking at the tonal accuracy, at the top the A30 had a smoothness and accuracy that would be the envy of systems costing 10K and more. Through the midrange, the separation, harmonic clarity and accuracy, were, if anything, even better. In the low end, pace was outstanding. Lines, again, were easy to follow. However, in the upper bass/lower mid area there was a slight squashing of harmonics that, while not always noticeable, did show up time to time. Think of a concert venue that lacks that last bit of harmonic openness. It's something that certain notes hit, but in the context of a live show you may notice but not care about. Something that your ears just take as part of the space. That's how the slightly hooded harmonics affected me. In critical mode, I could hear it, in music fan mode, it mattered little.
Still, it as a combination that the A30 really takes flight. As a single unit, for your money you get a pre/power combo that is easily worth the entry price alone. Add in a DAC that may be even better and the price becomes almost too low. To equal it with separates would also require buying two more power cords and two more interconnects.
The sound of the A30 is instantly rewarding, with clarity, pace, harmonic accuracy and richness. The soundstage is solid and stable. Add in an almost uncanny ability to separate our musical lines and the stage becomes an active, rewarding place to focus attention on. The A30 is wonderful piece of music making equipment, fully featured, easy to setup and use, flexible, and flat out fun to listen to. In the end, it hits all my personal buttons... musical, accurate, clear, driven, direct, and a beautiful if simple design. Even better, for a guy with two kids getting ready to go to college soon, the price to enjoyment ratio is such that I could easily justify the A30 as way to relax between tuition payments. Very highly recommended.
Dual-mono power supplies, each with a separate main transformer per channel
United States Distributor