Power: Good or Bad

Assuming an amp has "enough" power to drive a speaker to satisfying peaks (115db?) do you find that lower-powered amps sound better than their higher power counterparts? That is, do lower power circuits inherently sound better than higher powered ones. I think Sam Tellif for one has made this claim in print. I assume that lower power amplifiers are simpler in design than higher powered, more complex designs with more tubes (or transistors), less wiring, etc. Or, do you feel that whatever price is paid for the additional complexity required to produce more power is a worthwhile trade off in terms of dynamics and "drive". I'm not necessarily thinking 4 watt SETs with super efficient horns, but maybe 30 watts driving 90db loads for example.
Whether a low powered or high powered amp in the same line is "better" depends upon the rest of the system, especially the efficiency of the speakers. The best systems I have heard employ speakers that fully untilze the amplifiers power output; i.e. a high efficiency speaker that is designed to take up to 50 watts works very well with a 50 WRMS amplifier...it is using the full power output of the amp.

I own a Threshold T-200, a Class A amp rated 100W at 8ohms. It was said in the trades that the T-200 was a sweeter amp that the T-400, which put out 150 watts. I listened to the T-200 drive a pair of B&W 801s; and while it did drive the speakers, the T-400 really gripped the speakers and drove them more efficiently. At the same time, the T-200 did sound sweeter with speakers rated at 120 watts or less.

All things equal, lower powered amps with less amplification stages sound way better (in all respects) than their complex counterparts. It really comes out in low level details. I have never heard a big amp retrieve low level detail like a good low powered single ended design.

The only advantage I can think of of a high(ish) output amp is that they can drive demanding speakers. The easy way round that is to buy speaker that are easy to drive.

No doubt an amplifier must provide sufficient juice to provide adequate output, and the most divine 8 watt amp will sound completely inadequate with a low efficiency speakers. But somehow, I suspect (sort of what I am asking)that lower powered designs are some how purer, more natural, as a result of a simpler, less complex approach. I'm not sure this is true, but I lean towards believing this to be true. It seems to me that high power output requires a lot of engineering and overbuilding, and that this affects sound quality negatively with too much complexity - in general. I think it takes great design ingenuity to design high powered amplifiers that sound as good as their low powered bretheren. But yes, you always need sufficient power for the speaker of your choice. I believe power requires some sacrifice in sound quality iwth advantages in sound quantity.
Most SET amp owners will tell you they sound more pure and closer to the music, and SET amps certainly have less parts/engineering.

SET amps aside, however, I don't believe you can assume that low power in a push-pull design translates to more natural or purer sound than a high powered amp of the same design. It really has everything to do with the amplifier/speaker match...not only power/sensitivity, but also impedance match.

Few amplifiers sound more pure and natural than a high power, VAC push-pull amplifier mated with the proper speakers.
again, what does better mean ?

how can you ask this question unless you provide the criteria of "better" and "worse" ?

i realize such standards are subjective. however, only you can decide what is better.

frequently on audiogon forums, a request is made for the names of products which provide "better" sound than what one owns, without specifying what "better" is.

i have often said that better means more pleasing to one's ears. in which case one person's better is another person's worse. thus, the answer to the current question regarding amplifier power is very simple:

a lower powered amp is better if you prefer it in your stereo system to a higher powered amplifier.

it is best not to generalize, as tastes differ and designs differ.
Some people prefer class A ss amps over a/b. I am one.
Also, there is nothing like a well designed SET amp properly integrated into an appropriate room with appropriate speakers imho.

Hard to put "better" into words, but easy to hear. I guess, I mean less mechanical sounding, more organic, more low level detail, a more natural sound to voice and strings. More coherent and better balanced across the frequency spectrum. More real? And in this context I'm generally concerned with voice and acoustic instruments - the criteria might be different for hard rock where other sonic attibutes might come into play. I guess my premise is that less power requires less processing of the source signal and that more information comes through as a result. The need to produce more power creates more challenges for the designer and more complexity. Of course I understand that impedance and sensitivity of the speakers play an important part in this, but I wonder if we lose something in the process of having to drive speakers that are inefficient, have too many x-overs, and have tough impedance curves challenging amplifiers, especially tube amplifiers. I think that amp designers try to make their high power stuff sound as good as their low powered stuff while providing more drive for difficult loads that some speakers present; I think that is one of their biggest design challenges - some suceed better other I expect, but I suspect (this is what I am asking) that lower power is "purer" and closer to the source.
For vocals and acoustic instruments, go with a SET amp and high sensitivity/high impedance loudspeakers. I can't imagine there will be much disagreement with this suggestion.

On the other hand, a good friend recently purchased some George Wright Signature push-pull monoblocks. My friend has owned SET amps, and owns Klipschorns. He says the Wrights are the best amps (clear, musical, pure) that he has ever owned.

You know, just about the time that I thought I had categorized the sound of various amp designs, I would hear another that broke all the rules. There are so many variables that I don't think you can do better than offer rules-of-thumbs about how a certain design will affect the sound. As far as power, it has been my personal experience that more power results in better bass, dynamics, and of course, ultimate loudness. That is about it. I have heard low-powered solid-state amps that were quick and detailed, while other higher-powered amps had the edge in those areas. Same in soundstaging and dimensionality. Of course it depends on your speakers and other electronics, as well as what you deem important. I tried SET amps with my Wilson speakers and just didn't find that sense of dynamics with the types of music that I played. But perhaps on more efficient speakers I would have preferred the low-powered SET's. I always liked Class A amps better than AB amps but recently bought both a class A and an AB amp from the same manufacturer and preferred the AB (maybe because the AB amp has an unusually wide bandwidth of 5+ MHz). So my take is that you have to listen and decide for yourself. Probably not the answer you wanted.
I think a great designer can design a great sounding high power amp. I own CAT JL2s which are 100 Watt, Class Triodes. They are powerful and delicate and among the best sounding amps in the world IMHO. But, the amp to my non-engineering eye is complex, lots of parts and lots of transformer - the amp weighs 180lbs! I think Ken Stevens is a brilliant designer, capable of designing a world class, high powered amp competive with SETs at their own game. But, I suspect he could do something even better if he knew that a speaker could be handle with just 30 Watts. Of course, he would have a much less universally useable amp - the JL2 can drive almost any speaker, and can be sold to many more potential customers.
If you want to hit 115 dB peaks, I hope that you're planning to do some sound treatment work to your listening room! Sometimes, it's the listening room that "poops out" first, and not your audio gear.
+++ I tried SET amps with my Wilson speakers and just didn't find that sense of dynamics ... +++

Wilson's are known to be demanding to drive, and as such not SET friendly. Hardly an meaningful statement.

+++ I think a great designer can design a great sounding high power amp +++

There is no black magic in electronics. Each time the signal goes through a component it deteriorates. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. The larger the amp, the more amplification stages, the longer the signal path, more feedback stages, more coupling caps/trans, more resistors etc. etc.

If you ever bothered to upgrade components, you know the difference even a single high quality coupling cam or signal path resistor makes. The best coupling cap is no coupling cap. The best signal path resistor is no signal path resistor.

All things equal, the small amp smokes a bigger amp ... always.

Pauly, I suspect you are right - more power = more stuff = stuff deteriorates the signal. That is my basic reasoning; although, I do think a great designer can minimize the "damage" and provide adequate power for today's tougher speaker loads and inefficient sensitivities. I started thinking about this because I own Merlin VSMs that are fairly efficient at 89db, and have a very smooth, tube friendly impedance load. I've been using the CAT JL2s, and beleive me I have no complaints, but one - the 22 tubes running Class A act as a heater in my room and in the summer time (I turn the AC off to listen)the heat can be a problem. I started thinking something with less power and less tubes would be a good idea for summer listening. I decided on the 30 Watt Ars Sonum Integrated. I was sceptical that such a low powered integrated could do the trick. Well, I heard it at NYC Stereo Show - it does the trick. It seems that, at least with the easy to drive Merlins, 30 watts of tube power is all the power I need for my tastes and listening levels. And, the idea of fewer tubes, fewer parts, less heat, just seems to appeal to me as a concept. It got me thinking, how much power is enough, and doesn't power inherently corrupt. I'm no longer looking for speakers, but if I were, it would seem to me I would want speakers that are easy to drive with relatively low power because it seems low power has a signficant advantage - IF it can drive the speakers adequately (the amp/speaker interface has to match).

FatParrot, I agree with you about rooms. I threw out that 115db, because I was calculating how load 30 watts could drive my speakers. I listen to 82-87dbs on average so I should be more than fine, but I did not want to "short change" those that need loud and louder.
Hi Pubul57

I think the real Achilles heel for low powered single ended tube amps are (the lack of) appropriate speakers.

Having been active on this BB (an a few others) for a few years now, it is very clear to me that the vast majority of listeners do not have appropriate speakers for their medium to low powered tube amplifiers. Sadly they miss what their amplifiers can deliver. Even more sad (quite shocking actually), are the number of folks that not only listen to sound with a high degree of colorations due to speaker mismatch, but actually consider that to be “tube sound” and actually enjoy it! Clearly they have little experience with what music actually does sound like.

Given the above, a bigger amplifier, be it tube or transistor, will give a much more accurate and natural reproduction on the source material.

To me, the small tube amp (single ended variety with single digit outputs) presents the most accurate and most natural reproduction of music humanly possible. Speaker choice is more than crucial though, although I always listen to moderate levels. I tend to save my ears for the times I get near front row seats for orchestra/opera or jazz ensembles.

Hey, Paul, who appointed you the arbiter of meaningful information here on Audiogon? You completely missed the point and are mistaken about Wilson speakers, of which I have owned many. Wilson speakers are not that hard to drive, particularly the Sophias. My 15 wpc Cary SET amp easily drove them, but as always, there was a tradeoff in sonics from a powerful solid-state amp. The SET amp threw a bigger soundstage, was more warm and full, and had a more ripe bass. The big SS amp had far more bass impact, was more transparent and detailed, and had better dynamics. Which was better? You tell me. I preferred the big SS amp but maybe someone else might have preferred the SET amp presentation. The choice of music also had a lot to do with it. The main point here is that the original poster asked if high powered amps were better or worse than low-powered amps. I think it is patently ridiculous to make generalizations on amplifier power sonics when there are so many variables that cannot possibly be kept constant, not least of which is personal tastes. If it were that easy, only one type of amp would be manufactured. There is a place for all types of amps, and as always, listening is the final judge.
+++ Hey, Paul, who appointed you the arbiter of meaningful information here on Audiogon +++

I did.

+++ The SET amp threw a bigger soundstage, was more warm and full, and had a more ripe bass +++

Yes, you're describing the coloration I mentioned in my previous posts. Ripe bass = distortion.

+++ Which was better? You tell me +++ and +++ I preferred the big SS amp but maybe someone else might have preferred the SET amp presentation +++

Your SS amp is better. (Refer to my prefer post) We both would prefer your SS amp. And yes, there are folks who prefer music with colorations. I distance myself from those folks and their so called “tube sound”; their sound is not tube sound, it is simply distorted sound.

+++ The main point here is that the original poster asked if high powered amps were better or worse than low-powered amps +++

Yes. High powered amps are worse than low power amps. Much worse. However, very few low powered amps are better because they are not deployedcorrectly.

+++ I think it is patently ridiculous to make generalizations on amplifier power sonics when there are so many variables that cannot possibly be kept constant, not least of which is personal tastes +++

That is your opinion and I respect it as such. I do disagree with it.

+++ If it were that easy, only one type of amp would be manufactured. +++ and +++ There is a place for all types of amps, and as always, listening is the final judge.+++

If what was so easy?

1.) Small amps are the very best. That is easy. No black magic in electronics. The more components in the signal path, the less lower level detail. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. That is a fact and it can be measured quite easily.

2.)Deploying small amps to get the best out of them is difficult. Therefore, small amps for the folks that know how, big amps for the folks that don't or couldn't be bothered.

As I said earlier, clearly inefficent speakers or/and those with difficult impedance profiles must have lots of power to sound good, and a low powered amp will not perform well. But, a better way of positioning the issue is to assume that we start with an efficient speaker and one with a benign, easy to drive load (my Merlins for example, which "require" 18 watts); under these circumstances I posit that a 30 watt amp will always sound better than a 100 watt amp of similar design and quality parts for the very reasons Pauly states - to create more power, requires more complexity and this will always create more distortion and/or loss of information. I'm not doctrinaire about this (I could be wrong) but it just seems to me that this position makes sense. But there is no doubt that many speakers sound better, indeed require, lot's of power to sound good, some indeed reuire SS to sound good because their impedance curves are so irregular and dip so low that no tube amplifier can handle them. It raises the question as to why some speaker designers build inefficient, impedance challenged speakers. I'm sure there are good reasons because all designs are a selection of tradeoffs. What I am coming to think however, is that these speakers can never take advantage of the very best amplification (i.e., low power, simple circuits).
I agree that if everything else is held constant, like your speaker example, that a low-powered amp would likely sound better. Especially in the case of speakers with high voltage sensitivity and/or a benign impedance curve. But even this is not always true. For instance, some manufacturers use better quality parts in their more expensive offerings. Also, even in this instance, it is arguable what sounds better. Some listeners may like the improved bass or dynamics that the higher-powered amp produces, while others like the tonal purity of the lower-powered amp. I spent a lot of time with some very efficient Von Schweikert speakers at a dealer trying to decide on which Cary SET tube amp to mate with the speakers, ones that used 211's, ones with 300B's, and ones with 2A3's. Even then, the sound was a tradeoff, and even a push-pull BAT tube amp had its merits. I might buy that your speakers may sound better with lower-powered amplification, but in the real world with varying amp manufacturers, associated electronics, speakers, rooms, musical tastes, and sonic preferences, IMO it is too big a generalization. BTW, one of the reasons speaker manufacturers design speakers with low sensitivities and/or tough impedance curves is bass response and also to get a certain tonal balance. But I have been most impressed with many different types of setups, inefficient speakers with big SS amps and very efficient speakers with low-powered amps. Right now I am in the moderately efficient speakers camp with a very powerful SS amp, which is by far the best amp I have heard.
The SET amp threw a bigger soundstage, was more warm and full, and had a more ripe bass. The big SS amp had far more bass impact, was more transparent and detailed, and had better dynamics. Which was better?
Actually, you answered the question yself: the ss amp was better, in THAT particular APPLICATION.
The amp-spkr interfacing you described indicates this.
As you note, one may or may not prefer the result -- i.e. the chosen compromise -- but that's another story. Cheers
Thank you for your responses. It is really interesting. I'm starting to see more clearly the primary importance of system matching and synergy, and the diffuculty we sometimes get into when we ask "What is the best this or that?", independent of system context - where the amp/speaker interface is so important. The answer is clearly very system dependent. This make answering these types of ("best")questions more difficult, more artful, but that is the nature of the hobby and speaks to the value of a good dealer, trusted audiogon members, etc that are aware that great sound (and tastes may differ) requires more thought and effort then buying the "best" this or the "best" that. A pleasure hearing your thoughts.
Great summation, Pubul57...system synergy is really the key to enjoying music. Personally, I have moved away from high powered amplification now, and cannot tell you how wonderful my little Audion PX25 sounds...producing 8 watts...with Audio Note Lexus speaker cables and an Acrotec interconnect into an old Rotel 965LE with D.I.T.B. as the processor, and Reyanud MK II speakers. The system works together (trial and error) as a unit and produces music...the system is organic, and is not to be viewed as a set of components. Yes, I have components that are rated "Class A", and I am selling them off now, and keeping this little system.
I think the understanding of the relationship between a chosen speaker and the amplfier necessary to make the best of it is the key equipment relationship and the one that a good dealer could be most helpful in educating the customer. There is such a preconcieved prejudice towards thinking that bigger is better, and coincidentally more watts cost more, that we often go down that road without really understanding that you don't need more power than you need, and that lower power is always simpler and purer, and "better" if adequate to drive the speaker. Of course, some speakers won't be satisified with low to medium power, and you then you do need more power, indeed a lower power amp will not satisfy, will not be adequate. I therefore lean towards relatively sensitive speakers, with high and "flat" impedances to work best with tubes, and that can be driven by a wider variety of low (20 watts) to mid (60 watt) amplfiers.
I second the synergy thing. A gainclone amp is about as simple as you can get. But the sound has been described as grainy, harsh in the H-F, and lacking drive. Sometimes the simplest is too simple. IMHO they are a great match with single driver speakers which show their strengths in spades.
The gainclone amp is simplicity itself and sounds great. The 50+ watts per channel into my 6-ohm speakers is more than enough for my listening area. My LM3886TF amp is paired with a tube preamp. Siegfried Linkwitz of Linkwitz-Riley crossover fame uses the National Semiconductor LM3886 IC in his Pluto powered loudspeaker project. If the chip didn't sound good, I don't think he would bother.
Yes 20 watt S.E.T sounds better at 115 db peaks if your Room can handle it and your speakers are efficient enough in my experience, vs. 200 plus watt solid state really flattening out at those power transients... So I believe the higher quality watts which always costs more for less watts is in fact the way to go if you have the speakers capable, otherwise you need the bigger amps. I run 101 db speakers, so reality is this is not the norm to get such dynamic contrast with all lower power Class A S.e.t amps.
Double the power for 3db, if I am not mistaken. You have to ask yourself, how loud is loud enough? 90db for 1 watt, 2 watts for 93, 4 for 96, 8 for 99, 16 for 102, 32 for 105, etc. The efficiency of the speakers, size of listening area, and need for power peaks(usually bass) all come into play. IMHO, no more power than necessary.