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March 2014
Superior Audio Equipment Review
World Premiere!
Clayton Audio S100 Class A Stereo Amplifier
Smooth organic sound of tubes while having the firm grip of the best solid-state amps.
Review By Rick LaFaver

 

Clayton Audio S100 Class A Stereo Amplifier  Winter storm Hercules and Ion trapped many of us audio enthusiasts indoors for most of the early New Year and hopefully some of you had a new toy under the tree to get to know with the extra time around the house. Luckily after what started out as a bit of a bumpy road (more about that later) I finally was able to sit down and get to know the Clayton Audio S-100 stereo 100 Watt Class A amplifier from Clayton Audio. I had heard a lot about this company manufacturer in my own back yard of St. Louis Missouri but had never actually had the opportunity to sit down with one in my own listening room. What a perfect time for a Class A amplifier with the blustering -10F degree weather outside the amp was able to double as a space heater for my listening room (I kid, but as with most Class A amps the heat sink does get quite warm during operation).

The Clayton Audio S-100 is quite a large amplifier with an ominous blank looking black stare; there are only two lights on the front one to indicate that the power is on and one to indicate when the bias switch is flipped to high. All of the switches are hidden underneath the unit but are easily found by touch (a larger switch for power on and a smaller one to control bias.) There is no gain or volume control on the amp so it is purely a stereo amplifier. For this review, to take any bias out if from integrating a pre amp, which can drastically change the sound, I connected the S-100 directly to my DAC (Eastern Electric Mini Max) and controlled the volume via software. The amp sounds very good in either high or low bias settings with subtle differences with my speakers (Vapor Audio's wonderful Cirrus) although due to the nature of the bias switch I would imagine it would have very different effects on the sound based on the load the crossover is putting on the amplifier, but for the purpose of simplicity I set the amp in the low bias setting for all of my listening impressions.

 

Setup
So... unfortunately the amplifier I received had some issues, this doesn't really speak to the build quality or quality control of Clayton as it was a used unit I had on loan. I sent it off to Clayton through their local audio distributor and was almost immediately contacted by Wilson Shen himself telling me that it was being repaired. Something odd had happened to this unit before it got to me but Clayton Audio's fantastic customer service came through in droves and after a few weeks I had basically a new amplifier. It is rare that I get a unit that requires repair so I am happy to say that Clayton Audio's customer service is world class. Shen told me that he had replaced basically the entire PSB and after giving it some time to break in the real character of the S-100 was able to shine. I am an unapologetic tube lover and often solid state units can sound overly harsh or analytical, the character of the Clayton audio is anything but analytical. It is a very musical amplifier; the presentation is very organic with a hauntingly silent noise floor. Instruments have great tonal balance and the bass is tactile and has detail and presence. The S-100 has great dynamics and the power output is very conservatively rated at 100  Watts into 8 Ohms with the power doubling into a 4 Ohm load it should be capable of driving even the most difficult loads.

 

Impressions
Alt-J – An Awesome Wave - Matilda: To be frank this is probably my second favorite album of 2013, and it doesn't take many listens to find out why. It is very emotional music executed with great skill recorded very well. I don't know much about the band and their videos are the weirdest things I have ever seen but it is very good none –the-less, bordering from indie-pop to house to borderline dubstep music. Very good range and well done.

Ripe & Ruin: for those who enjoy male acappella this is a unique harmony for a modern album and shows the how capable the amplifier is in the male vocal range, very sharp and responsive.

Taro: I find the amp getting out the way and generally letting the track do the talking. This is what I would describe as musical there are certainly subtle strengths and weakness but I think all of this is to design a certain flavor into the amp. This amp is best described as organic sounding nothing has harshness hiss or buzz even the most digital sources can sound almost analog with great dynamics and space. This would amp would be great for a tube aficionado who maybe fell in love with a set of speakers that requires just a bit more juice than their tubes can provide.

Feist – Let it Die – Tout Doucement: The S-100 had an open spacious presentation, with plenty of power in reserve to dig to the very low bass rhythm throughout the song, very low noise floor to easily place the piano at various volume levels to the back of stage right.

Lonely Lonely: This track at its best sounds delicate and musical, this recording can sound very forward and sometimes sibilant on lower quality components at high volumes, there was none of this with the playback being powered by the S-100. Again the sound was very open spacious and organic, awesome affect of the ringing strings of the steel guitar strings present themselves throughout the whole soundstage. Possibly a little recessed in the high end, not the shimmering high end I am used to with the Cirrus on cymbals and tambourines. Hauntingly quiet soundstage.

When I Was A Young Girl: On this track along with many of Feists tracks the bass digs deep, with nice tonality on the bongos and clear separation with the bongos placed slightly right of center and the synth bass and effect dispersed throughout the stage. The S100 present a balance a bit warm of neutral for some, but for those that enjoy the sound of tubes this a fine amp with less to worry about and much higher power output for more demanding speakers and a far quieter soundstage.  The Clayton Audio can produce the great dynamics of this record, almost to the point of making sound like a live show with a good system.

Clayton Audio S100 Class A Stereo AmplifierPortugal The Man – Church Mouth : Church Mouth is some old school Alaskan rock (because everyone has heard Alaskan rockers right?), Pretty reasonably recorded for the genre but a very fun band and just something to rock out to, test the dynamic range, and try and push the S100 to clipping. Listening at the edge of where I really felt comfortable there is really not even a sign of break up or anything getting sloppy or out control. Soundstage was rock solid; bass was tactile and still retained all the details and decay you would hope for in a rock recording. My best tube rig (which only pushes 38 Watts mind you) would have been crushing the dynamic range and running out of power at this point. This was really Clayton Audio's sweet spot, delivering effortless musicality and a "tube like" presentation, without skimping on power (Clayton makes a 300W monaural iteration of the S100 called the M300 that produces, you guessed it 300 Watts per channel into an 8 Ohm load.) Soundstage was still rock solid, bass was tactile and still retained all the details and decay you would hope for in a rock recording.

Bellies Are Full: What a ballad with some wicked southern style lap guitar. The album is recorded in the same style as most White Stripes albums with that sort of sepia filter on the sound making it sound a bit like you would imagine an old-timey photo would sound. The effect is intentional and was executed very well. With rock at these volumes the soundstage sometimes got a little bit forward but never fatiguing, to the edge, just like rock should be.

 

Conclusion
Even after dealing with a broken unit, my opinions of Clayton Audio are not soured in the slightest, their customer service and communications were world class. With the build quality of this unit and other I have had my hand on I don't suspect that these types of technical issues are the norm but should you have such luck you are in good hands, Wilson Shen takes great pride in his brand. Sonically, the Clayton Audio S-100 stereo amplifier is clearly a labor of love, this is not the type of amplifier that was spec'ed out and built and there you have it. There were clearly many auditions and listening sessions with this amp before it ever saw the light of day. The character of this amp is unlike anything I have ever heard in this price range, it emulates the smooth organic sound of tubes while maintaining the firm grip on bass and seemingly infinite power reserves of the best quality solid-state amps. It is an über amp, but with soul, not the brute force pedal-to-the-medal feel that you sometimes get from high-powered solid-state.

 

Associated Equipment
Vapor Audio Cirrus rev 2.0
Blue Jeans RCA interconnects
Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC
Monster Power Conditioner
DIY 6 Gauge speaker cables

 

 

Specifications
Type: Solid-state Class A stereo amplifier
Power Output: 100 Watts per channel Class A @ 8 Ohm load (200 @ 4 Ohm and stable into 2 Ohm)
Inputs: Pair of stereo RCA unbalanced inputs
Outputs: One pair of speaker wire terminal 
Dimensions: 12" x 11.25" x 19.5" (HxWxD)
Weight: 70 lbs.
Price: $8500

 

Company Information
Music For Pleasure
7475 Big Bend Blvd.
Webster Groves, MO 63119

Voice: (314) 961-5747
Fax: (314) 961-7687
E-mail: mfp@musicforpleasure.com
Website: www.MusicForPleasure.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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