high-end vs. ultra high-end amplifiers

It is quite frustrating to know that some amplifiers (Boulder, FM Acoustics, Accuphase) are sounding better than even very expensive ones from the big boys (Mark Levinson, Krell, Bryston, Spectral). I wonder why there is such a difference. Madrigal, Krell, Bryston, Spectral, they all belong to the high-end sector of audio industry and they are claiming they are making the best amplifiers. But I know that this is not true: I've heard amplifiers from Boulder and FM Acoustics and they sound just better than the Madrigals, Krells and so on. Is it because Boulder and FM Acoustics have more know how about amplifier design (I suppose not) or do they use more expensive parts and better circuit topologies? Do they have brighter technicians and designers? There must be an explanation for this phenomenon. It isn't magic! Maybe someone from the audio industry can reply to this thread.
This oughtta' be good.

Nice topic Dazzdax.
This should be interesting, and while I do not know any of these companies in depth enough to make any statements I will say this. New companies usually go into business because they think either:
1. I can do it better than the other guy
2. I can do it cheaper than the other guy
So for a new company to be successful, it has to provide something better or less expensive than it's competition to be successful in the marketplace (okay we know this isn't an absolute--but in general it should be true).
Then again there was PT Barnum who said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, and that's good enough."
What I wanna know is, can you really hear the differences in these amps or is it all in your head? :^) If you really want to get to the bottom of things, you'll have to blindfold yourself, and everyone within 3 blocks and put earmuffs on, and twirl around 3 times while chanting, "I do believe in science, I do believe in science......". :^)

Now, really, what makes you think that the "big boys" you mention actually ever made anything close to the best amps, ever? Perhaps now you are just finding out what you didn't realize before.

My guess is that the smaller and newer manufacturers must make a product that is head-and-shoulders better than the mass market high-end that dominates the magazines, to even get noticed.
There really isn't enough information given to respond acurately. What speakers were being driven and what were the other components? Were the differences noted in the same system with just the amps replaced? Was this noticed in the same room? I'm not trying to defend the big boys of the industry but with a blanket comdemnation of such revered names I am suspicious that you may be fishing for controversy. Don't take me wrong, just tell us more and we'll respond. Some of the lesser names in audio do a great job.
I agree with Lugnut. Also, what you may chose as "sounding better", may be the opposite to someone else. (That is not to say that one amp can not be clearly better than the other.)

Also, one manufacturer may incorporate things into the amp that doesn't necessarily add to it's sonic performance, yet is costly to add, such as extensive protection. Consider the support you get with a product also, these things add up.

I am not sure of the prices of all these, but are the prices really that far apart? I never thought of Accuphase amps as being "inexpensive".
Interesting observation, but I think you've drawn the wrong conclusion. It's my opinion that once you get into truly high end amplifiers (say $5,000+), then personal preferences begin to dominate what people consider better or best. As such, it's highly unlikely that any group of audiophile will ever agree on what is the best amplifier. As an example, I have the original Quad ESL, you have the $80,000 Wilsons. The amp that works best for me won't work all that well for you.
Having been through this situation personally, I agree with Daz. The reason is: that everything is built to a price point, & typically you get what you pay for. Not always, but mostly. I have tried out any number of famous-names equipment & was never really satisfied until I got my Accuphase; that is when I finally stopped trading & actually began listening to real music.
Like Onhwy says, personal preference remains a large factor at this level as well as system synergy, but I think that Daz basically has the right idea. YMMV of course...
About two years ago I managed to compare about a dozen amps in the $10k to $30K (new). They all sounded good. They all sounded different, some very different.

Fortunately, my wife, who is as golden an ear as I've met and very picky about the sonic signatures of our equipment, and I preferred the same amp. Some of our friends preferred other amps. That's life in high end audio.
Dazzdax = A very interesting and controversial post. Can you elaborate and edify us what comparisons you did with what gear? How did you come to your conclusions? In what specific areas did you feel certain amps bettered others? Were you listening in similar rooms/speakers/systems or different rooms and systems at different times?
May I approach this from another angle -- it is no secret that the price of a piece of equipment can be perceived by us in the hobby as directly related to performance (and maybe status). Could it be that some of these expensive pieces are designed above and beyond sonics, i.e., appearance, fit, finish and feel that can drive up these ancillary costs considerably? Not to mention the nameplate factor proudly displayed for all to see. Porsche does now, after all, offer a tiptronic (automatic) transmission. When I purchased my (then) SOTA Levinson 20.6's, I will admit that the black faceplate with the white lettering was more of a factor than I'd like to admit. But I still have yet to hear a finer sounding SS amp in my system and room.

So it does not come as a surprise that small outfits (George Wright comes to mind) can provide a superb product at significantly lower prices which can make us look at our priorities a little differently.
I think some amps appeal to your own ears and others don't. But I also read a review recently of the Aleph 30 amplifier in which they noted that some designers design for specs while others design for music (musicality?). This could be the case.
I am just taking a stab at this, but I think Boulder et al. targets a different (sub)market than the big boys, which affects their respective product goals. Similar to what has already been said, the big boys cater more to the casual enthusiast, etc. while the smaller outfits are more prestigious for and respected by people further in to the hobby.
Positioning and cost are significant factors. Larger companies (ML, Krell, etc) cater to a large part of our small hi-end market and have to sell a minimum volume in order to break-even. Their positioning is "hi-end" but they have to keep market-share in order to survive. So, some compromises must be made in order to price their products within the boundaries of their target market.

FM Acoustics, for example, keeps a small production capacity, sports prices that START where others stop, and, being a small-scale producer doesn't need to support large sales. So they take less head of design&production cost; whatever the asking price, they expect that their small sales volume target will be met whatever happens. Sales at their level, they believe, are inelastic. Their positioning is "top end".

More importantly, these so called "ultra" products, can only be justified as a purchase by a small part of the market: those that have the ancilliary equip to fully enjoy differences in sonic performance (such as these differences may be). Again, Krell etc, must play for market share, so sales volume and marketing are prime considerations, they have to cater to many who, a) can afford the asking price and b) will be aware of a "difference" by using this product with their GEAR -- what Krell etc expect that gear to be (upper-mid level hi-end, usually).

As to design: there is nothing to support (IM knowledge) that bigger Cos cannot design... rather, they target the best sonic result within given retail price constraints. The effort goes there.
I'm willing to bet, ( this would be a great test/demonstration) that my integrated (YBA Passion) if it was AB'd with the very very top amps, in a BLIND FOLD test, would hold it's own. Not only mine, but many other killer $5000 amps, as well. Nobody in the reviewing industry, wants to mess with blind tests. There's huge visual, psychological, placebic, and a host of other factors in this audio kingdom, as there are in many other fields. The human factor is limitless in its' possibilities/perceptions. Remember, genius has its limitations, but ignorance is limitless.
again and again... the sounds you get from an amp, being SS or tube is often distinguished by its capability, components and application. Its a known fact that some to many tube amps sound so lush and detailed to the point I said while listening "this is the smooothest sound I have ever heard" The combo were reference VAC amps with Pipedream speakers. However, someone took that 10:00PM jazz off and put something on with smack.. I said while listening " Sounds weak and no slamm or punch...again..it really needs to be a fit.. Bryston for example have one of the LOWEST noisefloor level I ever heard.

Levinson sound which I have had for a few years till recently are often catagorized as clinical and very very focused.. the Reference #33s are so excellent when matched with the proper speaker and componment..Recently my dealer told me that he is moving away from ML and going to Spectral. both oozzing high end hand made quality.. play a track from a CD then insert a amp at half the price of those 2..at first you will hear a difference that is perhaps neglegable.. over time..it will become more and more clearer of what certain hign amps are capable of doing..To quote bundus above (I think) ya get what ya pay for ..most of the time.. At the end, if 10% better performance is worth the extra 50% cost(and to many, many,many it is)and you get the sound hat ya want.. Your ML/Spectral is a great investment.


Nice to know you are not falling prey to market segmenting, to science, to bang-for-the-buck, to dinking-by-the-label, to the great pastime of record book thinking, to one-upmanship, to attempting to isolate one component in a chain and declaring it superior in every way to all others of its type, to negative bias against larger established companies, to positive bias in favour of small cottage industry builders, to audio jewellery, to equating everything that goes into a product with mo' better sound, to assuming everyone will just go along with your premise, to soliciting answers from the horses mouth (they should tell you they are smarter, more honest, have better hearing and more taste than any other builder, that they alone can defy physics and that they have arcane knowledge not possessed by other manufacturers and that you are in good hands with Allstate) and to being so earnest in wanting to know what in the physical world they do to make the sound so good. This question basically will have the folks lining up on either side of the great divide we have all come to know and love: magic vs. science, objective vs. subjective, you know. Look, if you think, hear and feel in your heart that any product, be it a power amp, preamp, source, cable or speaker, or any tweak, be it bubblegum, bubble pack, cones, spheres, etc, sound better, don't ask any further questions. You have found IT, and once you have found IT, everything else becomes irrelevant, especially explanations having to do with the physical world. I second the posters who have basically asked that you go ever your premise first. And thank TWL for, yet again, proving that the mental sampling rate of non-believers in the GREAT SUBJECTIVE AUDIOPHILE THING is too low. A couple of questions before I go: how high can prices go? How many times can the word "ULTRA" be added as a prefix to a newly established market segment in order to pick the pockets of the insecure?
How do you measure 10% better sound? I do know what you're saying, but it's just not quantifiable. Can't it be, 10% better sound at 5 to 10 times the cost? That's more like what we're talking about here.
I believe Dazzdax to be very perceptive in his observations. Although I may or may not agree with his list. But the list could certainly be expanded to include other brand names.

I also believe Dazzdax was accurate when he limited his observation only to amplifiers. If, in fact, that was his intention.

An amplifier must do so much so right. This is why I believe the amplifier, good or bad, is the key to any system. And this is why I believe a good amplifier can compensate to a good extent for a bad pair of speakers. But a good pair of speakers can never compensate for a bad amplifier.

To answer Dazzdax' question I could only guess that it may have to do with marketing/advertising dollars or commercialism in general, manufacturer's listening preferences, or design flaws with over-compensation, or perhaps even irresponsible jouralism.

There are some recent reviews from Stereophile and TAS on the Halcro amplifiers being the best amplifiers out there. One reviewer thinks perhaps a new Class A+ category should be created for it. Whether these are the best or not I do not know.

But the waxing of accolades and enthusiasm over the sonics and measurements of the Halcro's by these reviewers should be the norm for every one of the amp's on Dazzdax's list and more, rather than the exception. Especially for what some of these manufacturers are charging or overcharging.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is the point that Dazzdax is trying to make.

And yes, in the audio world so much is so subjective. But still, that is no excuse for relativism to win out over reality.

You call Mark Levinson,Krell,Spectral, and Bryston the big boys. Well Boulder,FM Acoustics,and Accuphase are not little and by no means cheap!
I think Stehno joins my thinking...
Philefreak: no, the companies you mention (bar Accuphase) ARE little -- probably becaue they choose to be so.
Warrenh... give your excellent (IMO) machine & its manufacturer a break. Bernard-Andre did NOT produce it to kill others -- just to play music well, in an APPROPRIATE surrounding (i.e. driving the right load).

Pbb's mental sampling rate, as portayed in the latest post, is too high for me to understand the accompanying argumentation.

Surely, not all higher priced equipment is a scam; and anyway, we're not obliged to purchase it even if the price draws our attention to it. Cheers
Buy a Rogue Magnum or Atma Sphere MK-60II.
Both are killer amps and stand up well to products at 2/3 times the price.
A certin dealer in Toronto would not carry the Rogue. It would have killed his 10k+ amp business. Those where his exact words.
I alluded to what Philefreak said in my earlier message, I don't see the amps he listed as "inexpensive" amps! I don't know anything about FM Acoustics and little about Accuphase and Boulder, other than they have very expensive amps just as the others; therefore I am confussed on the "supposed" price disparity.

As for one brand sounding better than the other, this has been well covered as subjective.

Gregm mentions that the smaller companies "probably" want to stay that way (small), in other words, "I am speculating and have no idea". (Not looking for an argument here Greg, the statement just reminded me of some of the campaign ads currently running.)

I don't know why the poster finds what he perceives to be "frustrating", if he doesn't like certain brands, don't buy.
Gregm, reading over my message, it certainly comes across harsher than my intentions! I should of stated that you may (or may not) be right. Please don't take it to personal.
I'm with Twl, just check out the Berning zh270 for a real world example of how good it can get for less.
Brian, thanks for your kind message. In fact, I just didn't want to sound adamant & use the word "obviously". Cheers!
Dazzdax, do you really believe that music reproduction with the chaotic variables concerned is directly related to the price of the high end products? I have come to the conclusion that these are loosely related at best. Are you also convinced that the higher end manufacturers you mentioned, justify the price their products because they know that theirs play better than the others? Thanks
For the most part, I believe you get what you pay for. However, I certainly will concede that most likely you will pay more for a brand name than a no-name of near or same quality.

Name implies quality, support and resale value more so than no-names (most of the time.)

I think it's important to consider resale when you buy. Should you not like your purchase or want to move up into a higher line, you will re-sell a brand name quicker than a no-name.

Also, the newer into high-end one is the more reliance should be given to brand name. Unless you are omniscient audiophile, I believe you should stick to brand names.

Only my opinion.....
Hi Kirian,

While the so called high-end amplifiers are sounding quite nice, I think the most natural sound comes from the very expensive ones (from the ultra high-end companies like Boulder, FM Acoustics and Accuphase). I know that these amplifiers might be too expensive, but it is difficult to specify a price for such devices, which are capable of giving a very realistic impression of sound as in real life.
I just wonder if the top high-end manufacturers like Krell and Mark Levinson are able to make their amplifiers sound as beautiful as those from Boulder. Maybe, maybe not.