Solid State Power Amp Comparison
McCormack DNA-500 and Claytons, plus Others
First, and most importantly, both our Class 1a featured picks, the McCormack DNA-500 and the Clayton (especially the big 8080) are superb amps, and in our judgement both are far ahead of all other competing solid state power amps.
In particular, it's worth saying that both the McCormack DNA-500 and the Clayton sound much better than the amps from the prestigious solid state big three: Levinson, Krell, and Jeff Rowland. We emphasize this only because the general market perception is that these big three represent the ultimate luxurious desiderata in solid state, a perception reinforced by most published reviews (from reviewers who, incidentally, live by advertising money). These three brands do indeed represent the ultimate in integrity; they are designed, constructed, and sold with great integrity. And they do have some noteworthy technical performance capabilities in a few aspects, such as high power output (Krell amps in particular have awesome high current capabilities, which is useful not only for playing loud music, but also for accurately controlling difficult, low impedance loudspeaker loads).
Unfortunately, the solid state amps from these prestigious big three simply don't sound very good overall, and for most audiophiles sound is what matters most. On sonics alone, we'd rate the Levinson and Krell as Class 3 (average relative to today's state of the art), most of the Jeff Rowland amps as Class 2 (good), with only the very expensive flagship Jeff Rowland Model 9 amp scoring an excellent (Class 1b). The Levinson amps sound smooth and clean, but they limit the music to a pallid, veiled, monochrome grey, omitting the vibrancy, color, and vividness of music that better amps reveal. The Krell amps allow a little more color into the picture, but they still sound veiled, and they persist in introducing a sandy, grainy texture to the music, suggesting some type of distortion. The Jeff Rowland amps sonically perform somewhat better than Levinson and Krell, being less distorted than Krell and less grey than Levinson. But they mostly restrict music to a polite, retiring personality, a different kind of monochromatic coloration that does not aptly suit all music nor all recordings.
The McCormack DNA-500 and Clayton also comfortably surpass past benchmarks of the state of the art, those solid state amps which were great in their day (some of which were highlighted in IAR's previous journal issues). It's reassuring to know that progress, and the untiring efforts of designers such as Clayton's Wilson Shen and Steve McCormack, really do bring you better sounding music, and bring new life to all the music in your library that you love. If you're a fan of solid state power amps, now's the time to upgrade.
Now let's turn to a comparison of the solid state amps recommended here. First, our two featured picks, the McCormack DNA-500 and Clayton (especially the S2000), are both superb, and you'll be deliriously happy with either. Both bring you more of the music on your recordings than any other solid state amps can. There are some sonic differences between these two amps, which we'll describe to you. The sonic differences are mostly personality differences, so you should let your listening preferences be your guide to choosing between these two amazing amps.
As an overall generalization, the sound of the Clayton amp is slightly drier, and is more accurate in reproducing the literal music information contained on your recordings. The sound of the McCormack DNA-500 is slightly more liquid, and is more musically enjoyable in recreating the spirit of the music contained on your recordings. As noted in the bodies of our reviews, the Clayton is an adept chameleon, and can accurately reproduce a sound as hard or as liquid, depending on how it was recorded. The McCormack DNA-500 slightly shifts the tonal quality of all music toward the liquid, in a very euphonic way, and therefore, on the vast majority of music that is recorded too hard (too up close), the DNA-500 helps the recording to sound more musically natural, more like what live music actually sounds like (from a typical listening seat location).
This sonic contrast is similar to the golden glow vs. white light contrast we have discussed in previous IAR Hotlines pertaining to tube amps (see also the synopsis in this issue). If you want an amp that will tell you precisely what each recording in your library actually sounds like, the Clayton is objectively slightly more accurate (especially in the trebles, where its articulation and speed are objectively superior to the DNA-500's slight softening defocus). On the other hand, if you want an amp that brings you closer to the sound of live music you heard at a concert, when playing most of the recordings in your library, then the McCormack DNA-500 would be a slightly better choice.
Your listening preferences and associated audio system components could be factors in your decision. For example, if you are a music lover and want some (but not too much) musically natural liquidity, then if you already have a tube preamp giving your system some golden glow liquidity, the drier Clayton might be better, whereas if you are using a solid state preamp (including McCormack's own excellent RLD-1), the more liquid DNA-500 might be better.
We could simply summarize by saying that the Clayton is slightly more accurate objectively, at revealing exactly what's on each of your recordings, while the McCormack DNA-500 is slightly more musically enjoyable subjectively, especially when you as a music lover just want to kick back and relax and enjoy the music.
Of course, in our work we sometimes need to know, or want to hear, exactly the information that's on a recording, while at other times we simply want to relax and enjoy the music -- so we immensely enjoy both these superb solid state amps. The choice is yours. Or, come to think of it, you could buy both the S2000 and the DNA-500, thus giving yourself exactly the very best solid state amp extant, to suit your mood -- and you'd still be saving money compared to buying a single luxury Levinson or Krell model.
The Class 1b Sim Moon W-5 rates a high recommendation, its overall sonic performance being excellent, but falling below our two Class 1a featured pick amps in a few aspects. Specifically, the W-5 is not quite as superbly transparent as the Claytons and the McCormack DNA-500 in revealing musical information. And the W-5 is objectively not as tonally neutral, having that upper midrange polite recession that puts music at a distance (some of you listeners might subjectively prefer this). And the W-5's bass is not in the same league as the Claytons and DNA-500.
The Class 1b Odyssey Stratos also rates a high recommendation, with points awarded for its bargain $1295 price. With its rich warmth, slightly liquid trebles, and slightly polite midranges, it sounds like a much more expensive solid state amp (indeed, comparable to some Jeff Rowland amps, at many times the price). The Stratos also nearly succeeds at overcoming the usual vices of solid state sound, with only a hint of glare remaining in the sensitive midrange and upper midrange (this remaining glare was the principal cause of sonic demerits awarded).
Other highly recommended Class 1b solid state amps include the Jeff Rowland Model 9 and the Pass X series amps. The Model 9 is the flagship of the Jeff Rowland line, and as such its design, conception, and construction goes even beyond the very high standards employed in the rest of the Jeff Rowland line. The Model 9 sounds more transparent and tonally neutral than the other Jeff Rowland models, but is still a bit polite or reticent. It's a wonderful amplifier if you value luxury in product concept and execution, and if you have a spare $32,000 you want to invest in these values. The only real fault with this wonderful amplifier is that sonically it is bested by the Claytons and the McCormack DNA-500, which are both more transparent and more musically alive, and which cost merely 1/4 to 1/5 of the Model 9's price.
The X series from Pass marks a return to more traditional topology. The previous Aleph series from Pass employed a single ended class A topology, a very unusual concept for solid state power amps. Sonically, the Aleph series had some endearing musicality through the midranges, but in our judgement the trebles were consistently much too soft, fuzzy, and defocussed, with poor individualization and poor intertransient silence. Indeed, the trebles were so strikingly different that we could often tell, when walking into a strange room and hearing a strange audio system, that the power amp was an Aleph -- and that is not a good sign, since a power amp is supposed to sonically disappear, not sonically intrude. The X series from Pass is a whole different animal, and marks a return to push-pull topology, similar to that employed by most other solid state power amps. And the X series is a very good sounding solid state amp. Most notably, the trebles of the X series are sparkling, a complete contrast with the Aleph series, and the X series also sounds very dynamic (whereas the Aleph sounded a bit passive and limp). In sum, the Pass X series brings music to life, allowing it to jump and sparkle.
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