Digital Amplifier Company MEGAschino Stereo Amplifier
You're sitting there, quietly listening to a favorite album, when... BAM, something catches your attention by popping out of the recording and sounding absolutely amazing! In this case... I'm listening to the soundtrack to "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", the first of three soundtracks by composer Ennio Morricone that offers very unusual orchestration featuring voices, guitar, Latin percussion instruments, and full orchestra w/ piano, strings, brass, winds, etc. And what's amazing is that, even though I know the sound of this album very well, being a recording producer and engineer, there are little familiar bits like the opening main title which leap out, suddenly, like never before. There is a sudden immediacy, an unrestricted dynamic quality, and hidden elements seem to be revealing themselves within the mix. I'm stunned as I look and listen, out into the soundstage, and marvel at how the instrumental images truly hang in space; like ghosts!
Well, it's easy to begin waxing on about a line of amplifiers that seem to do miraculous work with such a wide variety of speakers and different choices of music, for that matter. I speak of the new MEGAschino stereo amplifier, a proprietary Class D circuit design by Tommy O'Brien, built on work he has been refining for over 30 years. And with this design, his most powerful and transparent sounding, to date; offering upwards of 750 Watts into both channels of succulent, detailed, emotionally and musically dynamic sound quality that certainly could emerge as a contender for a "straight wire with gain" award. But more importantly, the new MEGAschino circuit components allow just about any system to shine in ways you normally have to take out a second mortgage in order to hear.
Since 2006, the Digital Amplifier Co. has produced some amazing "kick-ass" amplifiers, a line of brilliant new Digital-to-Analog converters (HS and TL models) now in there 2nd iteration, and promises ultimately to offer a multi-input digital pre-amp, and even more powerful amplification options; much of which is updateable to current models for a reasonable price. As to why Class-D amplification circuits aren't all the same, please see my exclusive interview with Tommy.
Golden Cherry Monoblock Amplifiers
I started with our house dynamic speaker, the two-way Ologe Model 5, hand-made in Germany and seen, here, as the white pair of speakers. Whether on the floor, mounted to an Ologe stand, or on a wall/ceiling bracket, the speakers came alive when powered by Digital Amp Co.'s products, then and today. Yes, I listened to the Golden Cherry Amps on and off ... for over 18 months, until I returned the review pair. And they simply were my "go to" choice in the areas of:
1) Bullet proof reliability.
2) Spot-on sound quality at all volume levels.
3) Ease of use.
4) Ability to be improved through company upgrades and tweaks, easily, and...
5) Essentially free from distortion, colorless, and quite frankly thrilling sounding with just about any speaker and load.
So when I listened to Talking Heads performing on "More Songs About Buildings And Food" (96kHz/24-bit from HDtracks), Naked (CD or 96kHz/24-bit) or "Stop Making Sense" (Live Film - BD), they Rocked!!! The ensemble was tight, sprawled out horizontally but also descended into the distance, so that members of the band could easily be "seen" to process around the soundstage, sonically; especially in the live concert. And if you are going to rock it, you need to be able to turn it up to 11. I felt in most cases that I was drawing on a nearly limitless reserve of clean pure power and only once, while running the BD of Christopher Nolan's IMAX film Interstellar, was I able to get the protection circuits to engage. But within a few seconds, the amps unmuted and there was no damage nor change in sound quality.
Admittedly, we were running Interstellear (and other test and demo materials) with peaks out at 110dB/SPL or beyond through either Magnepan 1.7i quasi-ribbon speakers, Waterfall Audio Victoria Evo glass speakers, or the newest PureAudioProject Quintet 15 / Horn 5 Dynamic loudspeakers. But regardless of speaker brand, sound quality at both very, very, very loud levels or near a whisper were equally well controlled, natural sounding and without electronic haze or artificiality, and really breathtaking on great sounding recordings; giving me that feeling of hearing well known albums as if for the first time. Because of these qualities, I found myself easily going from album to album, and pretty soon a whole afternoon or evening of fine and memorable listening had taken place.
It's fair to say that compared to most other amps I had on hand, including audiophile favorites like the Crown Macro Reference (1992 / 650 watts Stereo), Carver Black Magic 20 Monoblocks (2013 / Tube 40 Watts), Mesa Boogie Baron (1996 / Tube Stereo Monoblock 160 Watts), McIntosh MC2102 (Stereo 200 watt Tube), McIntosh MC2301 (Monoblock 400 watt tube), Rogers High Fidelity EHF-100 Mk. 2(2016 Tube Stereo 65 Watts), and Mark Levinson No. 53 (150 Watt Quad Balanced Monoblock), the Golden Cherry Amps were as good as the very best parts of any of those very different brands while distinguishing itself for sounding so honest, direct, captivating, and accurate that they were my go to for both audio production work on my audiophile label, Epiphany Recordings Ltd. and simple pure enjoyment. Countless hours of movies, 4k & HD streaming videos, analog records played on high-end tables (including the ELP analog Laser-based turntable), reel-to-reel master tapes, video games, SACDs and CDs, you name it... my first choice for listening became the Golden Cherries!
And Now, The New MEGAschino Stereo Amplifier
1) The amplification circuit is the culmination of 30 years research and development in Class-D amplifiers.
2) Discrete noise free power supplies and chokes are used separately for each channel.
3) Proprietary circuit design featuring several different kinds if internal feedback to correct any signal tracking errors.
4) There is a minimal amount of circuitry that is built onto custom boards.
5) Every effort was made to produce an unrivaled amplification experience with the highest power rating, least distortion, greatest speaker handling capability, and ultimately refined and see-through sound presentation quality.
Dare I say my appetite was whetted? But could all the hyperbole actually result in a product that, despite being Class-D and also from a privately owned company, amplify sound in a way that would (again) set a new benchmark? I opened the heavy but very well insulated box and withdrew what I imagined would be another great opportunity to hear Tommy's fine engineering work. The more typical but still small and lighter amplifier shape emerged, with connections and the power switch on the back. The idea here is to set-up, turn-on and leave the amp alone. It wakes when it senses music, and sleeps in standby mode automatically after being unplayed for 8 minutes. So I attached balanced cables (Cardas, Mogami, Monster, Skogrand, etc.) between my many sources (analog and digital) and the MEGAschino. And here is what I heard (both similar and different from the Golden Cherry Amps):
1) Space And Soundstaging: While the Golden Cherry as well as certain other amps can throw a soundstage of varying size and believability, it usually has some limits; with some speakers, the load can present the output stage of an amp with such a variable impedance that both speaker and amp change the sound of each other. But here, more so than with the Golden Cherry, the palpability of the space is visceral. You can almost "see" with your ears how and where each part of a mix exists separate from the others, and also within the totality of sound being produced. With classical music recorded simply (one stereo microphone, let's say) and played back on the MEGAschino, such as my acapella album "Chants & Carols" performed by The Yale Russian Chorus (Epiphany Recording Ltd. EP9 - 1994), you can close your eyes and identify each of the twenty-two singers, standing in an arc shape around and in front of you; and you can also hear how you all are inside a small stone chapel on the Yale campus. While distinct qualities about each singer's performance was heard clearly on other amps used in this review, the Golden sounding spot-on, I found with the MEGAschino a new level of inner detail that I had only half imagined being there before, except under the very best playback conditions, costing outrageous sums. Here, from a single amplifier, was an apparent pulling away of previously unknown layers of veiling – revealing an unheard of level of texture, nuance, air, and solidity.
2) Timing, Rhythm And Pacing: Often digital is maligned for not getting the soul of music right, especially the CD. Audiophiles who unfairly assign blame to binary code should hear what happens when the amplification just gets out of the way. Let's take the beating of a drum, like the Conga, as heard played by Poncho Sanchez on "Eddie Bauer – Mambo Mambo" – Track 3: Watermelon Man is played with such wonderful enthusiasm that can be heard with each different hand and finger lick. But, here again, there is wonderfully rhythmic shading that is clearly on display when listening through the MEGAschino, in particular. That sense of timing and pace are also easily heard on Track 10 – Para Ti from Sanchez's "Conga Blue" (Concord Jazz SACD). From the double bass at the beginning, calling out the foundation of the tune, and going all the way to the cowbell punctuating the primary beat, both the band's physicality in the space of the studio combined with precision of leading edge transient definition makes this tune sound fantastic played back at any level through the MEGAschino.
3) Detail And Refinement: One thing that we all demand (as well seasoned listeners) is a high degree of audibility of fine details. Anyone can hum along with the radio, but to find the intricate qualities of fine work easily on display in a high end playback system takes finesse. So when I'm listening to Barbra Streisand's "The Broadway Album, and Track 1 – Putting It Together is a wonderful opportunity to drink up the layers and layers of detail built into the superstar's album. Voices come from all different directions but each has an individual and precisely recognizable sound of its own, and occupying it's own space. Adding the orchestra, kit(s), synths, and finally Barbra herself... gives the equivalent of a 3D Stereo sound illusion (over two-channels) where you are inside the production. And you know that the reason this album sounds so fantastic is because only the best sounding work will do for a Streisand production. Here, as heard on and through the MEGAschino, she would be proud that this album reveals such a sublimely intricate journey which sounds it's best because you can hear all the details they worked on so carefully; clearly and without adulteration.
4) Pitch and Timbre: As a musician, being exactly on pitch is critical to playing the music correctly. And our ability to draw enjoyment from listening to music is increased when we can hear an instrument's individuality, especially when heard in a band or orchestra. Those qualities of distinctiveness are on display only when their individual timbres (or the precise balances of each instrument's overtone structure) can be heard precisely and free from distortion. So it was quite a surprise when I spun through my library to find "The Nightfly" with Donald Fagen (48kHz/24-bit HDTracks.com) and how beautifully clear, clean and focused the sound is, revealing wonderfully vivid orchestration and sublime mixing to create a tapestry worthy of close inspection and repeated listening's. The synths in the "B" section really lock into place and have such honesty that they make me feel like I'm in the studio with them. That is a rare level of precision afforded by the exceptionally well considered and voiced circuit designs of 30 years musical experience!
5) Dynamics: While seemingly easy to portray, dynamic changes from loud to soft are often taken for granted in our world of compressed audio. But when it comes to communicating emotions through sound, music makes it's living being dynamic: big changes, small shadings, loud, soft, and everything in between has to be reproduced properly in order to fully communicate the performance of the musicians. MEGAschino may very well be the most dynamic amplifier ever built – outing the Golden as my favorite in this area. While playing exceptionally loud and clean is critical, so is getting the tiny graduations right, as well. Again, when playing highly revealing material or just listening as background, I find that the MEGAschino sounds louder than most amps, even when it is playing quietly. This I attribute to the exceptionally quiet noise floor (120 dB) that allows even the most subtle dynamic information to come through unimpeded --- and it is revelatory when playing great material, such as Sir Adrian Boult conducting his "Concert Favorites" on Chesky Records (CD & CR53), which I remastered from the 1st generation 1/4" Decca/Reader's Digest original master tapes. The MEGAschino revealed the same explosive dynamics I remember when listening directly off the master tape – a previously unparalleled experience, and one I will never forget!
Output Impedance: <0.03 Ohm
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