The Marsh Sound Design p2000b Preamplifier and A400s Amplifier

The Marsh Sound Design p2000b Preamplifier and A400s Amplifier

Making Musical Magic With A Song and a Dance

Greg Weaver

3 January 2003


Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz, +/- 0.1 dB
THD + noise at 2 Vrms, 20-20,000 Hz: <0.025%
Input Impedance: 50 k Ohms
Maximum Gain: 20 dB
Signal to Noise ratio, A weighted: 98 dB
Maximum Output at 1 kHz: 6 Vrms
Cross talk at 1 kHz: -92 dB
Price: $1495

Power: 200 Wpc/8 ohm/1 kHz
Frequency response: 20-20000 Hz +0/- 0.2 dB/ -1 dB at 80 kHz
THD+ Noise at maximum output: <0.02% from 20 Hz to 20 kHz/0.01% at 1 kHz
Slew rate: 40 V/µS
S/N ratio, A-weighted (ref. 200W): > 110 dB
Input Impedance: 56 k Ohms/Unbalanced, 4 k Ohms/Balanced
Power consumption: 900 W Max.
Size: 19″ W × 7 ” H × 18 ¼” D
Weight: Net 45 lbs (20 kg), Shipping 54 lbs (23.8 kg)
Price: $2295

Marsh Sound Design
2609 Discovery Dr., Building 105
Raleigh, NC 27616
Telephone: 919-876-7554
Fax: 919-510-2992

Beyond the Marsh

I suspect that if you haven’t heard the name Richard Marsh, you either haven’t been in this hobby long or you haven’t been paying attention. Richard’s history is long and storied, beginning with some 20 years at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I first really became aware of the name with the introduction of the remarkable MIT Z-Box line conditioner in the early ’90’s. As good as the original device was, I was stunned during an invitational visit to Monster Cable in San Francisco back in May of 1999. Richard had been hired to fill out Noel Lee’s “Dream Team,” and I witnessed his new $300 Monster Cable branded conditioning device easily best the original device which had sold for more than four times as much. 

One of his other more well-known contributions to our hobby was his study of the sonic effects of capacitors on audio equipment. Suffice it to say that he will be inducted into the High End Audio Hall of Fame, when such an institution comes to be.

The Heart of the Matter

I think of a preamplifier as the heart of a system. Where the sources are reminiscent of the mind, the amplifier the musculature and the speakers the limbs or body, the preamp has the ability to help or hinder the performance of every other component, both before and after it.

That said, this line stage is very simple looking; unpretentious might be more correct. Though build quality is obviously solid with much attention paid to fit and finish, absent are such frills as inch thick panels or excess engraving to drive up the cost or to put on airs. I would use the adjective Spartan if it didn’t have a slightly negative connotation. No, this device is built extremely well, but it isn’t pretentious in doing so.

To the left of center on the silver colored face are the volume and balance control knobs. Just below dead center is window for the infrared remote receiver, and just above that is the distinctive Native American petroglyph and the name Marsh. To the right of center is the source selection knob, the tape monitor switch to its right, followed by the power switch and its blue indicator lamp. All knobs are motor driven, and the plain black plastic remote, though much more utilitarian in appearance than the preamp, provides all the necessary functions; volume, balance and source selection, as well as enabling the tape monitor loop, engaging the mute and powering on and off. The back offers, from left to right, an IEC socket, Marsh remote cable control connections, balanced outputs, single ended outputs, the record loop, 6 pairs of single ended inputs and one set of balanced inputs. All this for $1495? Some body pinch me, I think I’m dreaming.

As this is one of three Marsh Model 2000 preamplifiers, including the $1195 single ended only p2000 and the identically priced tubed p2000t, I took advantage of the balanced operation, first with my Spectron Musician II and then the Marsh A400s.

Upon first listening I was sure that the $1495 price was a misprint. I’ve had very highly thought of preamps retailing for $3,000 to $4,000 that were nowhere as clean, detailed and involving as this little upstart! And remote controlled no less. A quick double-check at the website confirmed the price. Now I was intrigued!

This preamp was quite, every bit as quite as any passive device to come through my listening room. This is almost certainly attributable to the balanced operation. Its level of transparency, in my experience, has only been bested by a handful of passive volume controls. Soundstaging was precise, with nice illumination to the rear sides of the presentation. Image specificity was very real, both in terms of size, never bloated or miniaturized, and location. Timbre was remarkable, with just the slightest inclination toward the darker side of neutral. Dynamics were it’s strong suit, with crushing power on macrodynamic events and the subtlest of shadings offered on intimate and low level occurrences. 

Everything I fed it sounded GREAT, be it 12-inch vinyl or 5-inch aluminum! Small, intimate jazz recordings reeked of cigarette smoke. Large orchestral music loomed before me in its full venue. Singer/songwriters sat on a bar stool just between my speakers. Blues players took their cues from one another along the front wall of my listening room. If not for its slight veiling, in terms of ultimate transparency, and just the slightest tinge of a cooler than natural disposition, this could be a giant killer. Even so, it is certainly the best value in preamplification I can think of. I dare you to find a more open, articulate and evenhanded performer for less.

Marshing On

As surprised as I was by the degree of excellence exhibited by the p2000b, I should have been more prepared for what the A400s was about to deliver. I know Richard Marsh is gifted, but you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I hitched this big, unassuming and similarly appointed amplifier to my rig. 

With a faceplate corresponding to that of the p2000b, the unit has only a round power switch, about the diameter of a US dime, the company logo and name as well as its pilot lamp vertically aligned at the center of the front panel. The back offers two sets of 5-way binding posts per side, albeit with plastic knobs, placed one set above the other, near the outside left and right edge of the back panel, allowing for an exceptional ease of biwiring, especially given two sets of cables with spade terminations. Side by side single-ended and balanced inputs reside horizontally, and are mounted as a mirror-imaged pair across the top center, with the bat-handled toggle switch for choosing between them directly below the RCA input on each side. The panel-mounted fuse holder and the IEC socket are aligned vertically near the bottom center. A Marsh remote control cable input resides below the right channel speaker output posts.

Bass performance is full-bodied and remarkably robust, yet clearly defined in both rise and decay. No over accentuation or pitch slurring was apparent, even down to the 16 Hz my VSA VR-4 SEs offer in my room. Midbass retained a wonderful definition, even during massed double bass or cello passages with classical or blistering bass guitar runs with classic rock, blues or jazz. 

Mids were handled magically, almost tube-like in their palpability. Struck piano and plucked or bowed violin strings had an incredible balance between their fundamental frequency and harmonic overtones that was simply enchanting in its authenticity. Female vocals were so vivid in their expression and individuality that I found myself listening way past my bedtime on more than one occasion.

The treble was delightful as well, with a degree of clarity and extension that forced me to question why all solid-state amplifiers couldn’t sound this good. The purity here is remarkable for a silicon-driven device of this price point. None of the oft-cited “granularity” many have come to attribute to the high frequency performance of affordable solid state devices apparent with this beastie. The clarity here, to my way of thinking, contributes to the remarkable balance exhibited by the midrange. It allows for the fully natural development of the upper overtones of strings, vocals, pianos, et al, lending to their remarkable cohesive character. Damn fine job here.

While most of my listening was done with VSA VR-4 Gen III SEs, I did toss in some other speakers, including the roughest load I had on hand. My trusty ol’ modified Acoustat 2+2 Medallions. These electrostatic panels present any amplifier with a real headache in the form of a highly capacitive load! This little guy didn’t even blink. Many other amplifiers duck and run for cover when the see me bringing out these eight foot tall beauties. I only mention this as I’ve had many otherwise good amplifiers stumble and fall when trying to make music through these giant capacitors. Hitched to the large ESLs, the A400s acted as if it were just another day at the office, and continued to make its own brand of musical magic. A significant achievement, to say the least.

With power aplenty at its rated 200 Wpc, this amp was never overtaxed in my application. I admit that 80-85 dB is about as loud as it ever gets at Chez Weaver, with an occasional late night, cognac-inspired 92-93 dB spike, but this amp never seemed even close to running out of steam and clipping. Even the largest scale dynamics were handled with ease; and little things were attentively recreated as well. There was just the slightest tendency to enlarge the envelope of the soundstage, and to slightly fatten images into a somewhat larger-than-life scale, but they were few and very slight occurrences.

Dolce Vita

Are these high performing yet surprisingly affordable Marsh products right for you? Let me try to answer it this way. What this dynamic duo offers you is the best of both worlds, glass and silicon. If you insist on the bass and treble extension and control offered by silicon driven devices, as I do, but want to get into the neighborhood of that tangible midrange that glass heads fixate on, this is certainly your combo.

The remarkably high level of balance and incomparable execution each component offers in their own right takes on new meaning when the pair is used in tandem. There is no way that this symbiotic relationship should be both so magical and affordable at the same time. If not for my recent auto accident, and the resultant medical and legal bills, I would keep both products. Even given my current fiscal hindrance, the p2000b won’t be leaving my system anytime in the near future – and I may yet find a way to keep the A400s as well. Time will tell. Mr. Marsh, my hat is off to you. I hope you will let me buy you a drink by way of thanks the next time we meet.

I guess all of this should have come as no surprise to me. After all, these are the brainchildren of the man who first postulated that all capacitors have their own sound and that the only way to exorcise that sound was to eliminate their inclusion in the signal path. Yet I am nonetheless forced to admit that this degree of performance from gear at this price point was both unthinkable and impossible just years ago. I cannot shake the thought that without the remarkable talents of one Richard Marsh, that still may be the case. You owe it to yourself to give these remarkable products a listen, even if your budget is twice that of their asking price. Marsh Magic may just make you a believer!

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