The biggest change for the tweaking audiophile hobby is Apple's widely successful iPod and the easy download of digital music, right? Wrong. The most exciting news for tweaking audiophiles attempting to recreate live music in the intimacy of their own homes is the appearance of amazingly good sounding, "new class T" digital amps at surprisingly low prices [Note: True, electrolytic aging of wine portends a happy listening future with instantly great-tasting, low cost wine, but beverages are an adjunct to the enjoyment experience, not a system component! (link)]. And yes, they are often made in China. Consider the Sonic Impact Technologies' $40 Class T amp (reviewed here). This Lilliputian chip amplifier has no trouble driving the big ole horns of my bargain basement system, not only to some quite respectable levels, but with startlingly good quality in all but the most demanding situations. The charming amplifier is fairly transparent, exhibits midrange purity and naturalness of timbre, with treble that is neither dull, nor bright.
Yet the plastic marvel has its shortcomings. Its weaknesses are the same as zippy, little pocket-rockets like the Dodge Neon SRT. You are asking a small, cheap car to perform like a serious, big-buck muscle car. The Sonic 5066 almost does - and for a whole lot less dough - but it is still not quite the same thrilling ride as my publisher's red Ferrari. So now companies like Sonic Impact, JVC, Red Wine Audio and Trends Audio offer more robust, audiophile versions of these promising amplifiers; albeit at prices approaching the cost of typical off-the-shelf solid-state amplifiers. Reviewers like me drool over these amplifiers, comparing them quite favorably to far more expensive units.
Trends Audio is a leading supplier of Chinese DVD players. The case of their revised TA-10.1 Mini Class-T Stereo Amplifier is gray aluminum, with gold-plated sockets. The amplifier uses a switching mode power supply unit so it can use any 12V DC power supply. The TA-10 is built in Guangzhou, China, near Hong Kong. This latest ".1" version of the TA-10 upgrades the circuit board with bigger input and power capacitors to improve bass, dynamics, channel separation and soundstage. There is no formal break-in period to warm up the TA-10, but David Ho, Marketing Director and employee for 11 years, says around 100 hours should do it.
Some Low And High End Truths
Some of these claims are true. One is not.
The TA-10 uses the same TA2024 chip as my Sonic Impact 5066 digital amplifier. In other words, it provides about 5 to 6 usable watts in the 'fairly clean' range. Distortion and noise of the TA-10 stays below an acceptable .03 percent at just over 5 watts. In real world applications, this means the TA-10 cleanly drives my big ole horns to loud music levels of 95dB! Not much louder than though, so large rooms, the loudest rock music and less than average sensitive speakers (like many audiophile brands) are out of the question. Better start thinking about bi and tri-amp'ing these units if you are in those situations. (Jumpers inside the TA-10 can be set so it operates as a stereo or mono power amplifier. I would love to hear a waist-high stack of four-dozen TA-10s power each driver in a Nearfield Pipedream line array. Trends Audio does have a pre-amplifier and electronic crossover listed on their homepage, but no details yet. "We plan, Ho says, to release the crossover, "in year 2008.")
Ho says although tweaking audiophiles always want to use electrical service as large as possible; the TA-10 actually uses only 1 to 2 Amperes of current. "The provided 3A Power Supply Unit is already sufficient for even the instant large current need." Use of 20-Ampere electrical service may not really improve the sound. The TA-10, he says are "no problem" with 4 to 16-ohm loads. Ho does not recommend strapping two amplifiers together to provide more power. He says Trends will release a more powerful T-amp at end of this year (25-watts or higher). Trends Audio does have a retail showroom. In Hong Kong! It is open to the public. Orders take 7 to 14 working days.
If you wander the halls of the Enjoy the Music.com site for any time now, you will see that I wallow in the low-end of this hobby. I deprecate the gifts from Mount Olympus, while at the same time extolling the virtues of head turning bargains like the ASL Wave 8 tube amplifiers and the charming $279 Axiom M3Ti bookshelf loudspeakers.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise I decided delicate flea-powered tubes are the absolute best possible mid and high-range amplification for my big ole horns. Yet, the tiny TA-10 challenges that assumption. First impression is of a smooth and powerful amplifier belying not only its diminutive stature, but also its price. Although only 15-watts, and therefore not able to push my cones as loud, this unit clearly gives high value integrated tube amplifiers, such as the Cayin A-50t and the ASL AQ1003DT a serious run for the money, for high-efficiency speakers. At ten times the price, the ASL and Cayin amplifiers have a high fence to jump for the subtle things that the TA-10 does not do well.
Yet, on cone loudspeakers of average efficiency, the TA-10 is not nearly loud or dynamic enough to be emotionally satisfying. Playing music and movies was almost always with the volume knob at the noon position. There is some icing missing from its otherwise delicious cake. The feast of music is not complete.
Not so with big ole horns. On my classic Klipsch corner horns, the petite TA-10 revved and rumbled as loudly as a Vette. Like most pre-amplifiers, except the delightful Juicy Music Merlin, the problem for normal listening was finding the spot between 7 and 8 on the dial where the music was neither inaudible, nor too loud. Twelve o'clock on the big ole horns was way too loud for most of my smooth jazz listening.
There are more things right with this unit than wrong. That doesn't mean that is quite as capable as the ASL or Cayin. That doesn't mean that the TA-10 is in the same league as the imminently listenable Delta 6s33s either. Of course, neither should it be. The Delta is whopping 45 times more expensive than the TA-10! At that ratio, in order to be competitive in my meager budget, the Delta should not only sound superb, it should also make toast…with jam.
Tweaking audiophiles are right to expect "nothing special" from an amplifier for $119 and when it plays at all, they are astonished. So, if the TA-10 cost as much as the ASL AQ1003DT, would I be just as impressed? I think so. On big ole horns. On my cone loudspeakers, the TA-10 is also a very smooth and capable performer. Not as quite as slick sounding as the silver tongue fox, the Roksan Caspian perhaps, but just as capable in the mid-range. Except. Except the treble, which on cones, has some of the solid-state edge to it, but that's just me. The high end can be bit grainy at times, with a slight hardness or glare. This may simply be hard clipping as the unit hits demanding passages. Of course, the TA-10 runs out of gas on very loud, very demanding or extremely high peaks.
Otherwise, the Internet buzz about the TA-10, on big ole horns, is accurate. Vocals are very good, just not as three dimensional as tube amplifiers can make them. Piano and percussive instruments are also very good. Horns have some blat and blare. It seems like a well-balanced sonic presentation. It is not as quick as tube amplifiers can be; acoustic guitars and vocals can seem compressed (but then this could be said for most solid-state equipment).
Mid-range of the TA-10 is clear. Drums, cymbals, brushes and voice sound natural and realistic on big ole horns. You can tell the amplifier is not working hard. Even though the TA-10 does so much so well, a fresh listening to my Paramours revealed subtle differences. Although perhaps not nearly as accurate or as refined sounding, the Paramours added the icing back on the cake. They are airy, bright, sparkling, clear, tone rich, natural and full of life.
Driving Miss Woofer
Compared to TA-10, the Red Wine Clari T is better – not three times better sound (just three times the price). It has slightly better definition overall, better bass control, but less treble sparkle. Compared to the recently reviewed Cayin A-50T, the Trends clearly has better mid and deep bass authority and good high end sparkle, just not the warm tube mid-range and imaging. Yet, the TA-10 encourages music listening in a way that the A-50T never did.
I found that on big ole horns, the TA-10 does achieve what their web site promise; "the sound quality of high-end HiFi but in a very affordable price." It does perform "like Class-AB amplifiers with high fidelity," if not the warm tube sound. Yes, it is "just like Class-D amplifiers." Even though the TA-10 is powerful enough "to push even the floor-stand speakers with sufficient and good control of bass sound," I think many people with have some problems with "normal home use."
Horns Love Tubes
On big ole horns and TA-10 however, the combination lacked the attack, the sweetness and the emotion of the "gee, that almost sounds live!" Leave the explanations for the engineers, but for tweaking audiophiles, the TA-10 -- as superb as it is for the price --- it is not the end-all, the cat's meow, for creating the 3D sonic holograph illusion of music. For all the rest of you, I am sure it is an excellent value. Five Blue Notes for Value. I can't imagine a much better amplifier for less money.
Tubes have a mystical reputation among many audiophiles, part well-deserved, part superstition. It's true that, in general, tube amplifiers tend to have simpler circuits than solid-state ones.For me, angry as a young man at the garish kitsch of modest audio offerings, horns and tubes are still the wine of choice for my musical appetite. Like the difference between acoustic and electric guitars, both can sound good. In my humble abode, up close and personal, I want the warm acoustics of tubes.
Some tube-lovers may say the TA-10 is anti-septic, clinically excellent and statistically accurate – all appellations that solid-state lovers appreciate. Oh, please! You want to enjoy great music and movies forever? You spend the big bucks and get a super-human amplifier like the Pass X250. Or, you dive into the peculiar world of tubes, shore up the bottom with powerful sub-woofers and explore bi-amplification on hypersensitive loudspeakers like big ole horns.
Blue Note Score
In my own personal category, Enjoyment, the TA-10 easily scores four Blue Notes. No, it does not have the lush tube mid-range that sends big ole horns into the outer orbit of ecstasy. But it does so many things well, for so little dough, that Trends Audio's TA-10 amplifier is an excellent value in the right situations.
Input: Stereo pair RCA