Stereo Amplifiers Awards – Q1 2013 (Part 1)

3/18/2013 9:15:55 AM

If you’re truly into music, you can’t beat a two-channel amplifier to do your justice. Each of these five winners sets the example to follow…

Product of the year

Best stereo amp up to $600

Rotel RA-10: $525

What! No Marantz? You’d have been forgiven; following the Award for its excellent PM6004 last year, for thinking that was the precursor to a couple of years of dominance. The Rotel RA-10 has upset that expectation.

Rotel RA-10, the best stereo amp up to $600

Rotel RA-10, the best stereo amp up to $600

Would we classify this as a major upset? Yes and no. it’s not as if Rotel doesn’t have a history of making good budget amps. We simply haven’t been able to attach the title ‘class-leading’ to one of them for a while. By the same token, it still has well-established and talented rivals to contend with, the PM6004 and Yamaha’s A-S500 to name but two. That it has jumped to the top of the class is a sure sign of this amp’s special talent.

Nicely build, and well specified

The RA-10 feels solid, while the streamlined design adds to the aesthetic draw. On the whole, it’s well-specified too, with a headphone socket, moving magnet phono stage and twin speaker outputs all included. The only thing missing is a remote control. Getting up to adjust the volume manually is a small price to pay when an amplifier sounds so good.

Performance is very much in the classic Rotel mould but taken to a level we haven’t heard from the company at this price. Dynamics are impressively punchy, with a level of control and poise above and beyond what we expect at the money. It’s an engaging, entertaining amp, bristling with excitement. Rhythms are firmly grasped and portrayed. Emotion in vocals is beautifully expressed. Hook it up to speakers such as Q Acoustics’ 2050is and they’ll thrive on the energy and authority oozing from the RA-10.

Rotel has been a little overshadowed by rival brands in recent years. Now it’s time for it to bask in the limelight ant the glory of not only a Best Buy Award, but a Product of the Year gong as well.

Best stereo amp $600-$900

Rega Brio-R: $720

The Brio-R had its first taste of one of our Awards in 2011. And now Rega’s talented stereo amp is back for seconds.

Simple is best: the Brio-R is refreshingly old-school in its features. The nearest it gets to a modern concession is a remote handset

Simple is best: the Brio-R is refreshingly old-school in its features. The nearest it gets to a modern concession is a remote handset

Few amplifiers will impress straight out of the box, but from the second you dial in the volume, the Brio-R garbs makes a hugely impressive sonic statement. It’s one that similarly priced rivals struggle to match.

This is a veritable musical maestro. It majors on rhythm and agility, but is equally deft at communicating emotion

A small, stocky powerhouse

The amp takes the form of a compact half-width unit, which uses an impressively robust casework.

Rega takes a simplicity-first approach to hi-fi design, and this is reflected in the relatively basic feature set. You’ll find just four line-level inputs and a remote control handset (which is where the ‘R’ in the model name comes in) and that’s just about it. If you want a headphone socket, tone control, built-in DAC, or other niceties, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The Brio-R does have a fantastic moving magnet phono stage, however. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Rega’s reputation for creating high-quality turntables. It sounds sensational and we’ve found it to be the perfect medium through which to use Rega’s similarly brilliant RP3/Elys 2.

Switch to the line-level inputs and the Rega continues to impress. This is a veritable musical maestro, majoring on rhythm and agility, but it’s also equally deft at communicating emotion and subtleties hidden within a track. With a relatively modest 50W per channel into 8ohms, the Rega doesn’t produce the weightiest of sounds but it’s still good enough to drive a huge range of speakers. We’d suggest partnering the Brio-R with Tannoy’s DC6 Standmounters as a starting point. For a suitable CD spinner, the Rega would work well with machines from Marantz’s budget CD6004 all the way up to the lofty Roksan Caspian M2. Alternatively, you could even go for Rega’s matching DAC ($750).

Safe to say, though, that whichever path you tread, though, the Brio-R’s Award-winning talent will shine through.

Best stereo amp $900-$1,500

Cyrus 6a: $1,050

We’ve been surprised, yet delighted to see Cyrus adopt an aggressive pricing policy for its latest generation amps: the entry-level 6a delivers sensational value for money. It’s a considerable $300 cheaper than last year’s equivalent model, but still manages to retain the same Cyrus hallmarks, one of which happens to include sound quality to die for. It’s difficult to argue with this kind of value.

The Cyrus upgrade path: Cyrus owners always have the option to upgrade, via the addition of power units or off-board DACs

The Cyrus upgrade path: Cyrus owners always have the option to upgrade, via the addition of power units or off-board DACs

Cyrus half-width aluminum chassis will be familiar to many. On the front panel are buttons for input selection, a customizable setup menu and a volume dial.

Connections round the back amount to six analogue inputs, twin speaker outputs for bi-wiring, and a headphone socket. The amplifier delivers 40W per channel and shares core technology with the $1800 8a.

Sonically, the 6a doesn’t stray from the traditional Cyrus sound. This means there’s a speedy delivery, excellent levels of detail, and a breathtaking level of clarity across a wide variety of musical genres. Spin Paloma Faith’s 30 Minute Love Affair and her vocal sounds open and expressive as the Cyrus presents it in a spacious soundstage. Dynamic bursts are wonderfully controlled and the Cyrus can keep pace with even the most frenzied and complicated of beats.

It’s a speedy delivery, with excellent levels of detail and a breathtaking level of clarity across a wide variety of music

An authoritative sound

Compared with previous Cyrus amps at this level there’s more authority to low frequencies, which is an added bonus given the reduced price. Another bonus is the Cyrus upgrade path. This includes the possible addition of the standard DAC or the upgrade Qx and/or one of its power amp solutions.

Rivals such as the Roksan Kandy K2 boast more power and fuller sound, can’t match the Cyrus for precision and agility unrivalled at this money.

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