Review: Plinius 8200 Amplifier
"In Search of the Holy Grail"
Finding the "right" audio components to suit one's ear seems to be a never-ending quest. Being satisfied with my system’s front end, particularly vinyl playback, I have turned my attention to amplification. I don't have the money for high-end separates, so have been auditioning integrated amps that fit my budget.
Because I'm a Brit (but residing in the US), I've had a bit of a bias towards British products (Linn, Naim, NAD, Tannoy, Spendor, ATC, etc.). And until now, it was indeed Linn LP12, NAD C370 integrated, NAD C521i cdp, and Tannoy Mx4. The Tannoys, less than one year old, are now sitting in the basement having been replaced by much superior 15 year old Cabasse. Being happy with the Linn and the Cabasse, I turned my attention to replacing the NAD. In all fairness, I must say that the NAD could have served me well for several years. It is inexpensive and packs a sonic wallop that exceeds its price tag. Nonetheless, it suffers a little in bass and quite a bit in the midrange.
Before finally deciding on an integrated amp, I did try separates (mostly borrowed from a good friend) including tubes (Rogue, Berning, and others), solid state (Audio Analogue, Quad, Naim), hybrid (Blue Circle), and others. Nice as tubes might be, I became overwhelmed by a firestorm of disparate opinions about tube-rolling, tube biasing, etc. I was freaked out and decided to stick with solid state! Rather than justify my ultimate choice, I’d rather give my opinion about its characteristics. I ended up getting a Plinius 8200 MKII.
The Plinius is, physically, a beast. No bigger that any other solid state integrated amp, it is pretty hefty, coming in at almost 14kg. Its features are readily accessible elsewhere (e.g., www.pliniusaudio.com/pro/pro05.htm), so I won’t take up space repeating them here. How it sounds is more relevant.
I listen mostly to classical music and, after acquiring it about a month ago, my initial reaction was that the sound was muddied and inarticulate. Symphonic music in particular was a sonic mess, with little staging and a general cacophony of poorly distinguished instruments. Bass was harsh and treble was dark. I should say that this was a used model, so I assumed it had already been burned in. Wrong! One of my test recordings is Barbara Bonney’s "Fairest Isle," particularly the first track, "Come Again." With the NAD/Cabasse, Bonney's voice was ethereal and light, with each of her inhalations sounding natural and clean. When I tried this disc initially, I was shocked at the darkness of her tone. What did strike me positively were the tight and "honest" bass and the clarity of the midrange.
Yet, I felt disappointed, especially after listening to other classical and rock CDs (e.g., Dylan’s "Love and Theft") and LPs (esp. Brubeck's "Time Out"). In each case, the treble did not seem lacking, rather it was almost sepia-toned rather that Technicolor. In truth, I didn't play much music for over a week, although all the equipment was on 24/7.
Well, all that changed yesterday afternoon and evening. I am recovering from a raging flu and have been forced to sit around a lot (not that it takes much convincing!). I thought, well hell, let’s give some discs a spin.
Before getting into the nitty gritty, here are the reference recordings I listened to (and in this order):
1. Barbara Bonney: "Fairest Isle" (early English songs by Dowland, Purcell, others). Decca 289 46 132-2 (2001)
2. Tierney Sutton: "Unsung Heroes." Telarc Jazz CD-83477 (2000)
3. Angela Gheorghiu: "Verdi Heroines." Decca 289 466 952-2 (2000)
4. Bach: "Toccatas and Fugues." Christopher Herrick, organ. Hyperion CDA 66434 (1990)
5. Rameau: "Cantates Profanes" & "Pieces en Consert." Virgin Veritas 7243 5 61540 (1994)
6. Faure: "Sonatas for Violin and Piano." Isabelle Faust (v) and Florent Boffard (p). Harmonia Mundi HMC 901741 (2002)
7. Mussorgsky: "Pictures From An Exhibition." Mikhail Pletnev (piano). Virgin Classics 0777 759112 6 (1991)
8. Brahms: "Violin Concerto." Hilary Hahn (v), Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Marriner. Sony SK 89649 (2001)
9. Dave Brubeck Qt: "Time Out. LP (original issue).
10. Bob Dylan: "Love and Theft." LP and CD.
I put on the first track of "Fairest Isle" and swept away right from the start! The purity of the voice, the imaging, the presence, were all I had ever dreamed of. There was still something of the darkness that had bothered me initially, but it was so dramatically reduced. I started wondering if I was comparing what might be an artificially bright NAD unit to a Plinius that was more "true." In other words, a hint of darkness around the soprano’s voice might be more natural and the way the music was captured.
To find out, I turned to Tierney Sutton who, in my mind, is one of the finest female vocalists around. The first few bars of "Remember Me" sent chills down my spine. The finesses of her voice and of her ensemble was something I had never heard before. Trey Henry’s bass and Ray Brinker’s drums were simply stunning, not in their skill, but in the presentation. With my eyes closed, I could almost reach out and feel the band. "Joy Spring" and "Con Alma" were particularly revealing and effortless to listen to. The percussive elements were rendered in such clarity and detail that I sat and listened in awe. And Sutton's voice, always a marvel to me, was as clear and natural as if she were in the room. At times, her voice is a little breathy and dark (intentionally so), but it was never unnaturally reproduced, overly dark, or otherwise colored. It is jazz, after all. In short, my initial reaction to Barbara Bonney's voice could be chalked up to the recording (but more on that later).
To get a feel for some heavyweight orchestral and vocal works, I turned to Angela Gheorghiu's "Verdi Heroines." I'm not a big Gheorghiu fan, but this is one hell of a disc, thanks to a crack production crew and Riccardo Chailly's baton. The voice, as with Sutton's was recorded impeccably and some subtleties of breath control and timbre were clear for the first time. And, as this was the first disc with full-blown orchestra, I was delighted to hear a "real" orchestra in "real" space. Every section seemed in its right place. I do have some issues with over-miked classical recordings, and this is one instance. Rather than being "blended" naturally, this newer generation of engineers has a thing for "turning up the volume," so to speak, on whatever section of the orchestra is supposed to be featured. This can lead to some artificially loud passages by cellos or violas, for instance; more so than one would hear live. That's a pet peeve for another time! Back to the music: Gheorghiu's disc was wonderful.
After all that, I still have some treble issues, which I'll come back to later. Having not given the bass a run for its money, out came Christopher Herrick's recording of Bach. This CD includes that all-too-familiar "Toccata and Fugue in D min.," but which nonetheless is a good test of a system's capabilities. Here, the organ was faithfully reproduced, although not as well engineered as I would have hoped for. The foot pedals, in particular, were lacking in depth. However, the more beautiful "Toccata and Fugue in F maj." (an unheralded masterpiece) was so dynamic as to be a shocking contrast. It was all there! The upper registers, the subtle changes as Herrick changed stops, the footwork…just incredibly sweet and deep. The bass vibrated the floor and the highs rattled the crystal. Lest you think I was fooled by "amount," rather than "quality" of sound, let me reassure you! I have listened to live organ music for years, and even took organ lessons as a youth, so I think I know what I was hearing. I couldn't stop listening, and just let the CD play right through. After reading the liner notes, the reason the second Toccata is better is, I think, due to the fact that it was recorded on a different date.
Well, there's more to keyboard than organ. There's harpsichord, clavecin, piano….. I'm a big fan of Christophe Rousset and Sophie Yates, two incredibly talented harpsichordists. However, I turned instead to a recording of Jean-Philippe Rameau with Willem Jansen at the clavecin (along with l'Ensemble Baroque de Limoges). Harpsichord, if not recorded well (e.g., a recent recording of Orlando Gibbons by Linn of all companies!) is really hard to listen to. It can be tinny, strident, piercing, or even dull. Kudos to both Virgin for an exquisite recording and to Plinius for such faithful and crystalline playback. What a revelation! After listening to this recording via NAD, Berning, Quad, Naim, Audio Analogue, and others too numerous to mention, I thought of it as being a nice recording of exquisite music. What I heard last night was an excellent recording of exquisite music.
Rameau put me in the mood for some chamber works, and after only a few seconds of perusing the CD collection, Faure's sonatas jumped out at me. I'm a devotee of chamber music, but only a recent convert to Faure's (love his "Requiem," however). As with other CDs I listened to, the midrange and bass were flawless. The higher registers of both the piano and violin were a little shaded, but again only subtly. The third movement of Faure's Sonata No. 1 (Op. 13) was particularly delightful with respect to musicianship and revealing in terms of the clarity. The violin, in particular showed off its deeper registers wonderfully.
Wanting to hear a little more piano, solo this time, I took out what is, in my opinion, the definitive recording of Mussorgsky’s "Pictures" (written originally for piano, as you know). By the way, I can't stand Ravel’s orchestration nor most other pianists' attempts to plumb the depths of this astonishing work. I have heard Pletnev in recital and Know what his is capable of (in a word, magic). I swear on a stack of bibles and on a stack of my used Kleenex that recorded piano has never sounded so immediate, true, and vibrant. The fading of notes into the distance, the pedaling, the lower registers...these were all conveyed with a sense of truth and musicality.
So, after listening to "Pictures," it was getting late, but I wasn't done yet. Just one more CD, please?! I just had to hear Hilary Hahn's Brahms. Now, here's where things started to get interesting. Sony has done a great deal to make the violin "forward" sounding. This, unfortunately, is not unusual in the classical recording world. The labels want their "stars" to shine, I suppose, but sometimes they are miked so far forward as to be grating. Although I had come to admire this recording (not the best version, to be sure, but what a great young talent), my opinion was mostly based on a seemingly well-balanced and integrated recording of the orchestra. Wrong! Back to pet peeve: if there is any example of over over-miking a soloist and various sections of the orchestra, this is it!
It's back to the old Heifitz, Chicago Symphony, Reiner (RCA) recording and the Joshua Bell version with the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca) from now on! Tasmin Little with the Royal Liverpool Phil. (EMI) is pretty damn good, too. Sorry for that aside.
Now, it must be bedtime. Nah….. How about a little Brubeck or Freddie Hubbard to test out the phono section? OK. Previously, I had been running my Linn through either an EAR 834P or Blue Circle BC-23 into the NAD. I have recently sold the EAR (can’t have everything!) and kept the BC. So, I listened to Brubeck first with the BC plugged into one of the tape inputs (there is no designated AUX on the Plinius). I've been doing this for some weeks, but never have been fully satisfied. However, things again seemed to have improved. Everything about this recording (realizing its vintage, etc.) is "right." Brubeck's pianism, Desmond's sax work, whats-his-names percussion (esp. cymbal work) is beautifully rendered. I then violated one rule of some vinyl-heads by playing side 1 again (I don't care about this overheating the vinyl thing), but this time directly into the Plinius' phono section.
Under-awed is all I can say. It was somewhat muddied. I had hoped that I could streamline my system by concluding that my BC was redundant. No such hope. I'm not sure how to describe it, but vinyl via the Plinius seemed thick and slow. Just to be sure, I put on the vinyl of Bob Dylan's recent "Love and Theft" and had the same reaction. Excellent (but not superb) with the BC, only very good with the Plinius. On the Dylan, the song "Mississippi" is complex, with so much going on. The cymbals, particularly their fading into the distance is clear with the CD version and on the LP with the BC. With the Plinius, there seemed to be details missing. This is most noticeable in the midrange and highs, which was completely unexpected given CD playback and the reputation of Plinius' phono stages (the affordable Jarrah and the unaffordable M14).
Some General Comments:
In re-reading this review (what a frikkin' chore!), I notice that I rarely referred directly to "Plinius." This is, I believe, a consequence of having spent a delightful evening listening to music, not to a playback system. I never fatigued. In fact, I had anticipated listening to selected tracks from various CDs and LPs. Instead, what I did (with the exception of the Verdi arias) was listen straight through. I couldn't get enough. Yeah, OK, I was also bummed by the Green Bay Packers – Atlanta Falcons playoff game and needed a distraction! In truth, the Plinius is an awesome piece of equipment.
Without a doubt, Plinius excels in reproducing mids and bass. I have read other reviews and comments, mostly glowing, about this unit. However, I have also read some criticisms of the bass as being "boomy." I have no such reaction at all. To the contrary, I find the bass to be remarkably clear, well-defined, and deep. I can only attribute this bass issue as being related to either setup or to some other system components of other reviewers.
The soundstaging of the Plinius is also remarkable. Orchestral sections and individual instruments in a jazz band are well-defined, both musically and spatially. And solo instrument are portrayed realistically.
The phono section was a disappointment, but not so much as to be a big issue. If I did not have a separate phono stage with which to compare, I might have reached a different conclusion (no comparisons are definitive!). However, I am going to give it another chance and see if it might be the location of the BC vs. the Plinius in my rack, the Mana wall shelf settling in, or some other factor(s).
My initial reaction about an element of darkness to the female voice has been largely resolved. I say "largely," because I'm still curious about it...it is still there to some extent. Here's one hypothesis, and I would love some feedback from readers of this extended Sunday morning drivel: Even a higher-pitched voice (be it female or male) has some lower register to it, generated simply by harmonics. The same is true with stringed instruments and with piano: plucking, bowing, or hammering a string will set up harmonic tones from other strings and from the body of the instrument itself. Is it possible that other amplifiers (such as my otherwise trusty NAD and others) simply fail to reproduce this faithfully? In other words, is the Plinius picking up all of this and giving (to me) a false impression of dark overtones? Or, am I concocting an excuse to "forgive" the Plinius?!
In a word: OUTSTANDING!
If money were no object, yes I would keep it. I would be tempted by Plinius separates, but I hope I would save the money and buy some wine futures, CDs and LPs!
NAD 521i (cdp)
van den Hul hybrid interconnects
Blue Circle BC-23 phono stage
See my System for details
Audio Analogue Puccini SE