The Trends Audio TA-10.1 Class T Integrated Amp
|The Trends Audio TA-10.1 Class T Integrated Amp
|Making High Resolution Available to Everyone
Gazing at the recent big, print audio magazines’ “Best of” issues, one might easily construe that one was reading real estate listings, as a system composed of the recommended “Best” High End components would cost as much as a very nice house. While the ideal of a no-holds-barred, price-no-object approach to audio perfection holds some appeal and merit, it is clear that the ultra-priced High End has become merely the equivalent of Rich Man’s Jewelry. It would be different if these mega-priced items offered unalloyed and perfect access into the artistic message of all music, but a good working hypothesis is that the Higher the End and the more Ultra the price, the greater the emphasis on sonic special effects, and the lamer the musical results are likely to be. After all there is no reason to suppose that the plutocrat who can afford theultra-priced gear is in any way a connoisseur of music, or has any particular discriminatory talent in discerning Shinola from its opposite.
Maybe it reflects sheer cussedness on my part, or maybe my tendency to be the Devil’s Advocate, but I’ve long been fascinated by the minima of audio design – the minimum threshold of technical quality (and, one hopes, price) that translates into the psycho-acoustic illusion of music. The hard science of the engineering that underlies our audio systems remains unusually naïve about how our mind creates the perception of music, and is totally in the dark about how the mind forms illusions, and even more importantly, how it manages to be deeply moved and affected by them. Thus I tend to be particularly impressed by an audio component that truly delivers the music at a price the average music-head can afford, as there seems to be an inverse relationship (consistently observed during my past 25-year retail audio career) between one’s discretionary funds and the intensity of one’s love for music. My antennae are always up for exceptionally musical products that are exceptionally affordable.
The Tri-Path TA2024 Class T amplifier chip has shown tantalizing potential for high-quality sound at a rock bottom price. Having extensively auditioned 3 different amplifiers based on this chip (and having reviewed 2 of them,) I found them tantalizingly close, but no cigar. The Trends Audio TA-10.1 integrated amp has changed all that: the potential of the Tri-path Class T chip has been more fully exploited, and we now have a new budget amp champion. The price? $119.95!
Trends Audio is a Hong Kong-based firm dedicated to producing the best T-amp on the market. The TA-10.1 is available by mail order directly from them (or for US customers through 2 affiliates in the USA.) The TA-10.1 is a 1.1 version of their older TA-10 amp, hot-rodded and upgraded by chief engineer Ricky Leung with higher quality input and power supply capacitors, and a few other upgrades. The TA-10.1 is about the size of two packs of cigarettes and fits in the palm of the hand. An outboard power supply, with a detachable AC cord, connects to the amp via an umbilical cord. The rear of the amp sports rugged-looking 5-way speaker binding posts, one set of RCA inputs, the jack for the outboard power supply, and a toggle switch for powering on and off. The front panel contains the volume control and a blue power-on light. A set of interior jumpers allows by-passing the volume control to use the TA-10.1 as a straight power amp. Adjustment of DC offset is also accessible inside the amp.
The TA-10.1 uses the TA 2024 Tri-path Digital Power Processing ™ amplifier chip and thus maintains that chip’s specification: ‘audiophile’ quality power output of 6 Watts into 8 Ohms and 11 watts into a 4-Ohm load. Therefore, like its vacuum-tube brethren, the low-powered SET amps, the TA-10.1 will require higher sensitivity speakers, a small-ish listening space (I used an 18’ by 14’ room) and some attention to sound pressure playback levels if the amp is to reveal its potential. Unlike the SET amps, however, you won’t need to build your system around the limitations of tube amps’ bass quality. I used speakers ranging from 87-90 dB sensitivity, with both bass-reflex and acoustic suspension woofer-loading, and with impedances rated at 4 and 8 ohms.
It was clear from the beginning of my listening sessions that the TA-10.1 is a high-resolution amplifier, possessing an easy clarity that few amplifiers approach. The most immediate impression of the TA-10.1 is its superb depiction of musical timing – tempo, rhythm, pulse, the interplay of instruments, and their accurate connection into the larger musical pattern. Phrasing, parsing, punctuation, and the communication of the music’s structure are all open to perception. The amp sounds fast and controlled across the musical bandwidth, its bass clarity particularly noteworthy. The bass range is taut and controlled: one can follow complicated and subtle bass lines and rhythms with an ease and directness that immediately translates into physical movement. Since many mega-buck amps fail this basic musical task, this mini-amp can only be described as terrific. The TA-10.1 passes the old Linn foot-tapping test with flying colors. Indeed, only the most puritanically repressed will be able to resist the amp’s invitation to dance.
The amp’s depiction of timbre and pitch is also excellent. Acoustic instruments are readily identifiable: subtle differences between the violin/viola and clarinet/oboe/English horn/French horn in orchestral music are clear to the ear. The difference between the sonority of harp, acoustic guitar, lute, mandolin, sitar, and oud are clearly articulated. Vocals, while not as rich and organic sounding as the best tube amps, are, however, unusually clear in articulation of lyrics, consonant and vowel formation, and depiction of pitch. Consequently, melodies and harmonies are clear to the understanding, complicated musical lines easily unraveled. High frequency performance doesn’t draw attention to itself and varies with the quality of source format, level of isolation, cabling, and loudspeaker. The TA-10.1 had no problem with the taxing load of Infinity’s old EMIT planar tweeter, a load which sends many transistor amps crazy.
Although the amp is physically miniscule and essentially weight-less, it does benefit from isolation devices. I got worthwhile improvement by placing the amp and its power supply either on a small tempered-glass cutting board damped with 3M’s inexpensive stick-on damping strips, or on a 1-inch thick hardwood platform: both were then isolated by my stable of isolation devices. At a minimum, I would recommend Vibrapods’ excellent and cheap ($8 each) Cones, though the amp sounded even better with the Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers. The improvements when isolated were a huge increase in low-level detail, wider stereo soundstage, fuller body to all the instruments, and much better inter-transient silence, leading to increased communication of subtle musical nuance, emotional expression on ‘singing’ lines, and depiction of the complicated high frequency transients emanating from plucked strings and percussion. While placing the $120 TA-10.1 on the $1400 state-of-the art Stillpoints Components Stand (supplemented with Stillpoints URD’s on Risers) might seem a sarcastic monetary match, the amp fully responded.
The TA-10.1 was quite transparent to interconnect and speaker cable matching, changing almost like a chameleon in response to my snake’s nest of test cables. While I received very good results with Kimber’s entry level PBJ interconnect (cryogenically treated,) and with Radio Shack’s cheapest Monster speaker cable, the amp sounded much better with more sophisticated speaker cabling, clearly revealing the skin-effect aspect of multi-strand speaker cables, for example. The amp’s light weight and the close proximity of the speaker connections on its back make careful cable routing and dressing critical with the more rigid and unwieldy cables, which can easily lever the mini-amp off its surface. Banana plug speaker termination alleviated much of the difficulty. One faces the irony of using cables that cost far more than the amp: indeed the TA-10.1 is likely to be the least expensive component in any system, and thereby raises the prejudices and assumptions one might have about very inexpensive gear. The best approach with the TA-10.1 is to treat it as if it cost ten or twenty times its $120 price, and install and use it with all the care one musters with more expensive products.
It was obvious that the TA-10.1 amp was of inherently higher resolution than the CD format. While it didn’t unnecessarily spotlight the CD’s limitations and render CD unlistenable, it didn’t mask them in soft-focus either. It depicted the varying sonic and musical qualities of the 4 CD players I used with immediate ease and even elucidated some of the Rega Saturn’s rhythmic sophistication in a manner I had not expected.
Unlike other incarnations of the Tri-path amp chip, the TA-10.1 was fully able to exploit analogue LP’s superior timbre, rhythmic and melodic flow, low-level resolution, and artistic expression. Moreover, it was able to do this with even a budget LP rig: Connoisseur BD2a and the new Rega P2 turntables with the LP Gear Audio Technica AT95E and AT95sa cartridges feeding Graham Slee’s Signature 2SE phono preamp. The amp was also able to differentiate between the various turntables, arms, cartridges, and phono stages I own, revealing clearly their unique sonic signatures. I was somewhat astounded to find that the mini-amp did reasonable justice to my reference LP rig: the Origin Live Aurora Gold/Conqueror fitted with The Cartridge Man MusicMaker Classic feeding the Graham Slee Reflex phono stage. The cost differential here moved beyond the sarcastic to the absurd.
Although former amps’ incorporations of the Tri-Path chip have found favor with low-powered SET amp devotees and their high-sensitivity speakers, the TA-10.1 does not sound like a tube amp, nor does it sound like the typical transistor amp. It lacks the rich harmonic midrange structure and vivid tonal colors of tube amplifiers and the ultimate mesomorphic authority of higher powered transistor amps, yet still manages to present the sonic information that allows the mind to create the Gestalt formations that identify instruments. The amp is refreshingly free of the upper midrange edge that often plagues transistor amps, thus handling vocal sibilance and violin timbre smoothly and fluidly. And unlike with tube amplifiers, one does not have to face the bass anomalies that result from low damping factors and high output impedance.
One of the few benefits of the Home Theater phenomenon has been the pressure on speaker manufacturers to raise sensitivity, increase mid-range intelligibility, and to lower prices. Most new speaker designs aim for at least 90dB sensitivity, up from the 87 dB average of the recent past. While the TA-10.1 is a low-powered amp, I had no problem with attaining adequate sound-pressure levels even with 87 dB sensitive speakers in my 14 foot by 18 foot listening room. Still, one does need to keep an ear on SPL’s to keep the TA-10.1 from clipping. I listened a lot with volumes in the low 80 dB range, loud enough to make most music sound vivid and low enough in volume to prevent hearing damage. The amp doesn’t clip as harshly as the typical solid-state amp, nor as gracefully as a tube design, and while loud organ music and sonic spectaculars might be out of its ken, from 40 Hz on up (which is about the lowest sonic limit in small rooms anyway) the amp has enough power to be musically faithful. Since loud low bass passages are the hungriest for watts, powered subwoofers are a natural complement to the Trends amp if one insists on shaking the walls.
The TA-10.1 is unusually flexible in application. The efficiency of Class T operation makes power demand and current draw miniscule, thus the amp is Green and it places low demand on the capabilities of household wiring. It can be used as a computer adjunct, as the basis of a high quality portable system, as an integrated amp in a serious audio system (its single input will require a switch box to use multiple sources) and as a power amp (volume control internally by-passed) with a standard preamplifier. Its exceptionally low price will also permit bi-amping speakers, an enormous performance upgrade that many audio enthusiasts never try due to the economics of duplicating conventional stereo amps. The amp can be used as the center of a truly cheap but highly musically satisfying system when mated with some of the excellent cheap speakers from the likes of Wharfedale, Celestion, Epos, and others, or included in more ambitious systems comprising preamp, multiple sources, and with speakers costing 40 times the price of the amp.
Readers of my past reviews are probably aware that I hold musical communication and direct access to the music’s artistic message as the central criteria for judging audio components. I recommend a simple formula for evaluation: W+W+W+H=W. All any audio component has to do is tell you WHICH instrument(s) is playing,WHERE it is, WHAT it is playing, and HOW it is playing it. The combination of these (should) lead to the WHY of the artistic intent of the music. The Trends Audio TA-10.1 is unusually adept at communicating the last three elements of that formula – elements that far too many amps flub. The eminently affordable TA-10.1 is an eminently successful communicator of music. Highly recommended.
T-Amp IC: Tripath TA2024
Output Power: 2 x 15W @ 4ohm
2 x 10W @ 8ohm
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR): 98dB
Dynamic Range: 98dB
IHF-IM Distortion: 0.10% @ 1W, 4ohm THD+Noise
0.03% @ 9W, 4ohm
0.1% @ 11W 4ohm
0.1% @ 6W 8ohm
10% @ 15W 4ohm
10% @ 10W 8ohm
81% @ 15W, 4ohm
90% @ 10W, 8ohm
Audio IN RCA (Left/Right) x 1
Power socket (5.5mm/2.1mm) x 1
Output Speaker OUT (Left) x 1 pair (+ / -)
Speaker OUT (Right) x 1 pair (+ / -)
Other Switch & Knob Power ON/OFF switch x 1
Power Indicator (Blue LED) x 1
Volume knob x 1
Power Supply DC 12V~13.2V(max.)
Dimensions (W)76mm x (H)46mm x (D)114mm[case only]/150mm[incl. sockets & knob]
ITOK Media Limited (Trends Audio)
Rm1011-12, 10/F., Tower 1, Millennium City 1,
388 Kwun Tong Road
Kowloon, HONG KONG
Phone: +852 2304 0730 (9am-6pm, HKG Time)
Fax: +852 2566 5740
Online Shop: http://www.buyoyo.com
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