Extracts from The Absolute Sound Golden Ear Awards 2000
by JONATHAN VALIN
Gamut D200, Krell FPB 650Mc, Audio Research Reference 300 amplifiers
Well I simply couldn't decide which one of this trio of superb amplifiers was "worthiest" -ergo, the tie. The funny thing is, none of these three top-contenders sounds similar; each has its own "character," it own set of virtues and its own set of flaws.
Let's begin with the Gamut, far and away the least expensive of the bunch and the best value for the dollar. This $5,000, 200-watt-per-channel, solid-state stereo amplifier from designer Ole Lund Christensen may not look like much, but looks, in this case, are deceiving. If your loudspeakers present a reasonable load and don't demand oodles of juice, this plug-ugly from Denmark will prove hard to beat for the money. Indeed, in some respects, it's hard to beat for any amount of money.
First of all, the Gamut D200 has the best soundstaging I've yet heard from any amp, fully equal to the worldclass, $30,000 Lamm ML-2s that won one of my Golden Ear Awards last year - superb width, depth, focus, and layering that makes other amplifiers, even far more expensive ones, sound as if they are slightly constricting musical space. Second, within its 200-watt power rating the Gamut is extremely dynamic and extremely discerning. You generally get superior clout or superior nuance in amplifiers; this one gives you both equally - dynamic resolution that puts it in a class by itself at its price and power rating. Third, the D200 is an extraordinarily neutral-sounding device, reminiscent of the Burmester 979/980 transport/DAC (for which, see below); until it is pushed near or into clipping, it almost sounds as if it isn't in the circuit, with only a hint of leanness in the way of "character." Fourth, it is one of the most detailed amplifiers I've auditioned. The Lamm ML-2, ARC Ref 300, and Krell FPB650 excepted you simply hear more things more clearly through the Gamut than through any other high-powered amps I've tried.
So where's the downside? Well, at $5,000 there isn't much of one. The thing does become progressively less neutral, brighter and edgier, as you use up its power supply and push it toward clipping (and it seems to reach or get near to clipping quicker than its 200-watt-per-channel rating suggests). Although it has world-class bass definition and air, the D200 doesn't have the mid-bass slam or weight of the Krell or the Audio Research monoblocks (both of which give you more power, more unstintingly; but both cost many multiples of the price of the D200). And while the Gamut isn't thin in tone color, it isn't rich, either. The Krell and the ARC amps will "round out" images a bit more fully (and realistically) than the Danish amp will, both in terms of three dimensional "body" and the fullest articulation of the harmonic series. Finally, the D200 is not, as noted, the amplifier to use with loudspeakers that present "difficult" loads or are unusually power-hungry. With everything else, it is just dandy.
Speaking of difficult loads, for speakers such as the Sound Labs M1s or anything else that thrives on current, the Krell 650Mc monoblock amps are well nigh unbeatable (review this issue). To give you a quick précis: The 650s have seemingly unlimited power; an extraordinarily low noise floor when used with their companion preamp/CD-player, the KPS25sc, in Krell's CAST hook-up; exceptionally good tone color (unusual for a solid-state amp); superb bass and treble extension; and transient speed rivaled only by Ole Christensen's Gamut and Ralph Karsten's Atma-Spheres. They are also very close to being the most detailed amplifier I've heard -just edging out the Gamut and the ARC in this regard - and possibly the most neutral.
Now this question of neutrality, which I address in my review, is a thorny one. The Krells are so extended at either frequency extreme (and so without grain or color of their own from bottom to top) that they may not please everyone.-Some may think them too bright or aggressive (I do not); some may think them too dark (maybe just a little, although it's hard to tell whether they're "dark" or ,just plain quiet - i.e., whether they're just not filling silences and overlaying the soundfield with the usual bright, sandy, thermal grain of pentodes and semiconductors). They certainly seem to fare better with difficult loads like the M1s (a match made in audio heaven) and can't be beat, as HP has noted, as a subwoofer amp (although you may think $24,000 for subwoofer amps a mite excessive). What neither the Gamut nor the Krells will give you is what the ARC Reference 300s provide par excellence: the fullest measure of instrumental bloom. These $26,000 monoblock amplifiers are the best pentode/tetrode designs I've ever heard. They are gorgeous in color (so, too, are the Krells); terrifically and seemingly Inexhaustibly powerful (like the Krells); unusually fast-sounding (especially for tubes); exceptionally good at recovering low-level details than the Krells, which focus the stage and instruments a bit more tightly than the ARCS, but somewhat less good than the Gamut); and just plain unrivalled by any amp when it comes to reproducing what I've called instrumental "action." By this turn of phrase, I mean the way instruments change in presence as the music changes in pitch, duration, and intensity. When, in life, a trumpet plays full-bore, it can knock you on your rear with its power. You "feel" the fortissimo like a blow to the chest, and you hear it as a change in presence. The ARC amps are the best I've heard at capturing the way instruments can "leap" from the background into the foreground when played all-out. That said, the ARCS are not as free of noise and grain as the Krells (about on the par with the Gamut) or as extended and well-defined at the frequency extremes, and are probably not the best amplifiers to use with "difficult-load" loudspeakers (although they too fare well with the Sound Labs). Best to mate them with something like the PipeDreams or the phenomenal Kharma Exquisite Reference 1Bs, assuming, of course, that Pipes and Kharmas are still in your budget after you get done paying for these drop-dead-gorgeous-sounding things. (If not, there is always the Gamut.)
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