Review : PS Audio HCA 2 amplifier

This amplifier I awaited with eagerness since it represents a union between the old and the new. The amp uses a digital switch-mode device and a large torrodial transformer to output 150 watts into 8 ohms. The unit upon arrival stayed on for 200 hours with both FM and cd music playing. The rest of the system consisted of a Sony 555es SACD player, Proceed PRE, B&W n805's. Interconnects are XLO er-4, Audioquest viper, and Cardas Cross. Speaker cables are Kimber 4tc, Cardas Neutral Reference, and Transparent music wave 200. Comparisons were done with a Musical Fidelity A3CR amplifier. In rotation is Murray Perahia Back Keyboard Concertos 3, 5, 6, 7 (sony Classical), Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky (CBS Records), Kathleen Battle Grace (Sony Classical), and Avalon Blues a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, and on SACD James Taylor Hour Glass, Copeland conducts Copeland, Dave Brubreck Quartet.
The first impression is one of immediacy and energy but with much upper midrange/ treble grain/ glare. Furthermore, there was a lot of hash in the signal that despite many grounding schemes I was not able to get rid of and I suspect is endemic to the design. I will note that I ran the amp single ended only. But I can hardly expect this to be the culprit as I have never experienced such a problem before. The static is noticeable at the listing position.
Second, all voices sounded dry and nasal in quality, as if the body and chest were missing. Kathleen Battle sounded exactly that way and contrasted through the MF A3CR there is much less bloom and much more glare to the HCA 2's presentation. Strings on both CD and SACD sounded steely and metallic but low level detail seemed to come up in the mix compared to the A3CR. Both units presented a layered and deep soundstage but the HCA 2 reduced the height of the image to below the speaker plane compared to the A3CR. Imaging went to the A3Cr which made it possible to recognize that there is a whole first violin section in the Copeland SACD instead as the HCA 2 made it sound as if there were only three or four players. I much preferred the A3CR in all respects and any music compared to the HCA 2.
Third, cable changes made slight differences, but not major. The Cardas gave a little more bloom, the XLO a more lively presentation, and the AQ viper a more clear sound. However, compared to the MF A3CR there is always a glare to the HCA 2 that is fatiguing in the extreme. For instance, my girlfriend could not listen to the HCA 2 for more than about 5 minutes. Neither of us found any worth in the PS Audio amplifier from a musical point of view.
On a positive note the input jacks and speaker terminals are top flight and the included power cord is almost equal to their micro lab cable in Sonics. Further the lower midrange/ upper bass boost in the HCA 2 did deliver a punchy and dynamic sound and seems like a nice addition for mini monitors especially. Again though, the glare apparent through the HCA 2 is a fault that is not forgivable. I feel that if you have more forgiving speakers the amp may work for you, IF you can get over all of its other problems.
Have a good day.
Besides all that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

(If you like this type of technology try the Bel Canto Evo series - they are acceptable sonically.)
Not my experience at all.

I am currently auditioning this amp and I find the clarity amazing with my Newform Ribbons, which are highly revealing.

Don't have time to post a long review at the moment, but my experience, so far, couldn't be 180 degrees more different than Kchahoc's.

With digital amps especially it seems very important to have clean power, and I did not notice any type of line conditioner in your listed equipment -- please let us know if you used anything. I've heard similar horror stories from Bel Canto dealers/users who didn't use line conditioners initially and noticed a world of difference using something like a Richard Gray, AM Stealth, etc. There is a review of the HCA2 on the Secrets of Home Theater site that is more in line with Warren's experience and found the amp to be almost tube-like, so I'm wondering if this could be power related or maybe even a defective unit. I don't doubt what you're hearing, but something seems amiss. Then again, maybe the amp just doesn't work well in the context of your system.

Wow, sorry to hurt your feelings. I did not have a problem with clarity per se, only that the amp seemed to scream through the speakers instead of play music; Just not my cup of tea. In fact, it broke my tea cup:)
PS What's with the "Mrs. Lincoln" ? Oh, you mean the amplifier is Pres. Lincoln and I'm Booth: Or am I the mystic, mentaly ill wife? Intresting, thst you pick this phrase/insult for use towards a historian.
I believe Ivan was rhetorically asking whether there is a bright side to this review. I don't believe there are any other inferences. BTW, Momus came up with the quote "Tell me Mr.s Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?"
Is not the HCA 2 supposed to come with its own power cleaning outlet, port or whatever? Besides I used it both direct into the wall, and into a PS power plant 600 (amp only, multiwave set to 55 and 60 mostly, with no difference in sound. I love the power plant, by the way.
Sure, as I said the amp is a detail master and delivered a very entergetic and dynamic sound. I think I can see why some would call the amp "tube-like", but in other ways the sound has nothing at all to do with the glowing stuff mid- range wise.
I for one am glad to see a "thorough" evaluation of this amp. Clearly, this amp did not fit Kchahoc's system and/or tastes. But the information he provided is very useful to me, and I hope Fiddler will post his own review of the amp on his ribbons. We all know that "synergy" is far more important than how "good" any particular piece is.

I suspect that with the B&W's (metal dome tweeter, kevlar woofer) the MF with its warmer midrange would result in a more pleasing sound, than the PS or Bel Canto for example. Perhaps it would be more musical if the PS was mated with a tube preamp?

It is also possible that there is something "wrong" with the PS amp? In my experience, first generation production runs from high end companies are sometimes plagued with problems, either due to parts inconsistency or shipping problems, etc. I guess the good news is that PS offers the 30 day return, right? maybe if Kchahoc reported his findings to PS Audio and returned the amp, they might investigate to learn if there is indeed something wrong with that particular specimen, or if it was just a case of system conflict.

All in all, thanks to Kchahoc for reporting his findings in such detail (cable swaps included). Much more useful than some of the other "greatest amp ever" reviews found here and in audio magazines in general. NOTHING works with EVERYTING in my opinion, and I'd rather know what does NOT work together, than read another glowing review which you have to "read between the lines" to really grasp any useful information.
That is why they are for sale at cut rate prices already at dealers.
The amp has a built-in device identical to PS's high current Ultimate Outlet and the manual says that further conditioning is optional.
I have this amp also, and like every other new component I've owned, I had to do a little tweaking to make things work right. This amp is capable of excellent sonics, but you need a high quailty power cord to achieve it. I started with a Mini Lab Cable and then upgraded to a Lab Cable which was a worthwhile improvement. With the stock cord it tended to be harsh, and was particularly revealing of poor quality recordings or close-miked vocals.

Then in my pursuit of greater performance, I purchased an FIM 880 outlet based on all the rave reviews by Audiogon members on these discussion threads. The FIM was HORRIBLE with the HCA-2. Bright, grainy, just awful. It started out almost OK, but as it broke-in it got progressively worse. I finally took it out of the system in favor of a PS Audio Power Port and the harshness vanished on all except the worst recordings. I'm currently waiting for a Jena Labs cryo'd outlet to arrive for further testing, and possible improvement. As was mentioned above, this amp is very sensitive to the quality of the power used.

The HCA-2 is very detailed and revealing, and it revealed a lot of problems on my CD's. Auric Illuminator made a significant difference in removing some of the digital glare, and I'm getting ready to test Mapleshade's Mikro-Smooth. However, female vocals, with the exception of a few close-miked recordings, are a strong suit of this amp. So the results you describe would suggest to me there are other areas in need of improvement. Also, I find the soundstage to be exceptionally deep, though a little narrow running my Wadia CD direct. However, the soundstage widens nicely with a preamp. My soundstage is also slightly above ear level (I believe yours was slightly low), and I believe the speakers could account for this difference as opposed to just the amp.

If you bought an early model HCA-2 (identified with a C or D in the serival number), PS Audio has a free upgrade that makes a subtle, but worthwhile, sonic improvement. It's described on their web site in one of the discussion threads.

As to the other problems you mentioned, I'm not having the same experience, so you really may have something else wrong. As I said, it has taken me a while to get the synergies right with this amp, so you may need to look at the entire set-up, but power.

Finally, our personal reference frame accounts for a lot of the differences in opinion on components on this site. My friend's high quality tube system is very soft on top compared to mine. When I hear it I miss all the inner detail that my sytem has. I used to have an Arcam ss amp that was soft in this area too (albeit very listenable). So where you're coming from can make a difference. I'm willing to bet that all of those guys who raved about the FIM outlet listened to tube amps, because if you had an HCA-2 or a Pass amp, for example, it would just make it too bright.

Out of the box, this amp was harsh, but after a long break-in period and the other tweaks I mentioned (especially the Lab Cable) the results are quite different. It may never be the amp for you, but it should also NOT sound the way you describe it.

My system consists of a Wadia 301 running CD direct into the HCA-2 using AQ Anaconda XLR interconnects. Speakers are Soliloquy 6.5's (which the HCA-2 drives with ease).
Wrong Ligi,

Most of those units are B-Stock units that were used for Beta testing or they are in-store demo's.

Kchahoc, I do think some of the problem could be your preamp and your speakers, neither of which is bad. I just think there is a synergistic mismatch. The B&W's are probably on the bright side of neutral to begin with and you are combining the amp with a SS pre.

I am using a tube pre and the results are simply stunning. I must state right away that I have used a Virtual Dynamics power cord from day one. These cords have made big improvements on all of my components, so this may indeed support Tim's point about digital amps. Bel Canto and Spectron do recommend good power cords.

I just finished listening to Mephisto - Tam o' Shanter, Minnesota Orchestra. The dynamics are room shaking. The tympanis and bass drum are simply amazing. The sense of space is hard to believe. The drums are 20 ft. behind my front wall and the sound is just huge with layers upon layers.

The triangles and xylophone in Resphigi - Solomon's Dream, even when combined with the heavy drum run, sound like they are in the room with me. Just beautiful tones. As the music moves into the string section one can clearly hear the resonant body of the instruments.

In my system there is no upper mid-range glare at all. Very smooth and sweet. The palpability is just jaw dropping. Diana Krall's voice on Love Scenes is so rich and soulful with all of that huskiness that she exhibits. And the details are so evident, it seems nothing is left out. You can easily hear every nuance of her licking her lips, the saliva upon her opening her mouth and even her swallows.

Even a very poorly recorded "Best of James Taylor" sounds very good on some tracks. The imaging, presence and air are all rather remarkable considering the source. The high frequencies are just tipped up, as they often are on many poorly recorded pop albums, to make low-fi systems sound better. This is the only instance where the mid-range has sounded thin, but it is very obviously the result of the recording.

To be honest, I never expected this amp to be this good when I ordered it for an audition. It is an incredibly musical amp with no fatigue factor whatsoever. I am impressed with it more each day as the hours build on it.

The soundstage depth and layering is excellent and the air around instruments and voices truly creates that "you are there" experience. IMHO, this amp is a true bargain. Man, as I sit hear listening, the drum run in the opening minute of Resphigi - War Dance, just blows your hair back.

Sorry, lost my focus here for a minute, but the music is just hard to ignore while I type.

As I was saying, I am thrilled with this amp. It is the first PS Audio product I have owned and I congratulate them on an outstanding product at a real world price.



BTW, I have communicated by email with another HCA-2 owner who said his amp has never bloomed and still sounds constrained. But once again, I think his situation is system dependent, as well. He admitted he has been having some problems with his front end, he's using a SS pre also and he has not tried any other excellent power cords on his amp.

I have experienced no hum, hiss, etc. I have to put my ear to my ribbons just to hear the slightest hiss and I am sure that is tube hiss from my preamp.

Hey, what works for one may not work for all, but I just wanted to balance Kchahoc's lackluster experience with what I have heard from this amp. And I reiterate, I think this amp, as all digital amps do, requires a good power cord and probably a good tube preamp as well, to really strut it's stuff.

Sorry for the brief and hurried review, but I am late already. Will try to post additional info later.
Not wrong! A friend picked up a NIB not B stock for 1100 - it sounds horrible - I couldn't believe how bad it comes across. I was hoping it would be great because I would have bought one for my bedroom system. If you have to upgrade cords, interconnects, speaker cables then it would be better to buy a better amp.
I tried the Mark Levinson 390s direct into the amp with out the Proceed PRE and achieved mostly the same results. I only used the preamp so I could match levels and have a base line, but also to use SACD as a refrence. I've had bright sounding amps around here and the PS Audio amp is not exactly bright, if anything a little rolled off at the extremes. My problem is with the midrange and the buzz. I think too that the amp can work in another system, and after all, this is only one experience. What the buzz reminded me of was horn speakers with not so quiet tubes like my dad used to have.
Have a good day,
What's a better amp, Ljgj ?

An Electrocompaniet 120 ? :)


The sonic description of this amp as he heard it sounds like
what I heard out of the Bel Canto digital amp when comparing it to the HCA-2. I heard one of the first production HCA-2's
myself on both my system and at a friends, and it was FAR from unlistenable or harsh. The Bel-Canto needed a great tube pre-amp in between to bring out proper harmonics, but tthe HCA-2 I heard sounded very well balanced, with no grain, or harshness even right out of my variable analog outs from my cd player. You may have received a unit that had some production problems...see if they can ship you a replacement. I was also able to hear a pre-production sample of the amp, and it did have some noise problems, but the production HCA-2 sounded fine...
Thanks for the comprehensive review. I appreciate your honest and upfront feedback. That's the value of these threads. If you want an "everything sounds good" review, read Sam Tellig's columns.

I had also noticed a lot of them for sale, and some highly discounted. I'm not surprised that Fiddler says they work well with the Newforms, and I believe they probably do. The Newforms were recommended with Spectron amps back when Newform sold them also. I'm sure the HCA2 is similar in design to the Spectron amps, as McGowan of PS Audio and Ulrich of Spectron had a business relationship at one time. If you read the description of these amps and cut through the hyperbole, they seem functionally very similar.

The Newform ribbon is very smooth and warm, and would probably tame the problems you're describing. I own Newform Module 30s as well as Coincident Total Eclipses. The amp I use with the Newforms sounds dry and thin on the Totals. But it sure sounds great with the Newforms. Just goes to demonstrate the need for synergy.