I thought that I would update on my experiences with the Audio Experience - A2 Balanced Plus.
Why this amp?
To date, not through any particular decision or intention, but rather through ignorance I have been a "solid sate" man.
For the last few years there has been a bit of an itch to scratch with respect to tubes. I have borrowed one or two either tube or hybrid amps over the last couple of years from other extraordinary generous Wammers and always liked the sound.
About 15 years ago I bought a 2nd hand AudioLab 8000a for £110 off fleabay and was very happy with it. I did not really get into HiFi until it broke and that led me into a bought of upgraditis in which I spent (wasted?) a lot of money and made some mistakes. What I didn't realise when the 8000a broke was that I could get it repaired relatively cheaply. Had I done that I would probably have been quite content and that would have been that!
Anyway when the 8000a broke, I thought lets try upgrading to something a bit newer. As I loved the 8000a I stuck with AudioLab and bought an 8200CDQ CD/DAC/Preamp and coupled it with an 8200P power amp. Oops. The CDQ was excellent! Seriously one of the best value pieces of kit ever IMO. If you were starting from scratch with nothing I think this would be a great component to put at the centre of a new system. Excellent CD transport, DAC and both digital and analog pre-amps all in the one box for not that much money. So I was very happy with the 8200CDQ but the 8200P was another matter. There was a distinct noisy hum that came from the torrodial transformer and this drove me nuts! I went on the hunt for a different power amplifier and my key criteria was absolute dead quiet during silent passages. After much research I was drawn to a pair of class D mono blocs and the rather quirky but aesthetically pleasing look of the Maraschino Cherries.
I bought them in an unusual way. Digital Amplifier Company, who make the Maraschino's, did a kickstarter project for a new DAC they wanted to develop. By sponsoring through kickstarter to a certain level you got both the mono blocs and either the tube spec or high spec newly developed DAC at a competitave price. So that is what I did and ended up with the mono blocs but also a rather good DAC that I didn't really need as I had the CDQ. The mono blocs were everything I hoped for - as well as being deadly quiet they looked rather good too in bright red. I knew that I was unlikely to be able to sell the DACDAC for anything like it's true value so sadly decided to move on the CDQ as well as the 8200P. I did slightly prefer the sound of the DACDAC to the internal DAC in the CDQ. But that meant I would need both a CD transport and a pre-amp to replace the other components I was going to lose from the CDQ. I bought a 2nd hand Cyrus CD XT SE off another wammer for the transport and started the hunt for an appropriate pre-amp.
Choosing a pre-amp is really hard! There is just far too much choice and soooo many good possibilities. By the time you throw passives into the mix it gets totally mind boggling. For reasons that I can not fully articulate I decided that I wanted to go for a tube pre-amp to put in front of the Class D monoblocs. Possibly due to the critism of the over analytic and dry sound that solid state and particularly class D receives. Also with the DACDAC being a fully balanced design with only XLR outputs and the Maraschino's only having XLR inputs I reckoned that a single ended design didn't make much sense. This was quite sad as I would have loved to buy a tube amp from David Coe who only lives 15 mins away from me
However Dave's designs are singled ended and were ja bit above my price point.
YS audio in Hong Kong build a balanced tube pre-amp at a extremely competitave price ...
The Balanced A2 +
and I decided that met my criteria at a reasonable price point. My research indicated that other owners of the amp couldn't sing its praises highly enough and despite having never heard it I decided to take the risk and pull the trigger on 15th January this year and ordered the A2 + from the ys-audio website.
Nelson, who designs and builds the amps got back to me immediately to advise that the build time would be 21-28 days and shipping from Hong Kong to the UK would be another 6 days or so.
The amp duly arrived on 23rd February. It was double boxed with bubble wrap and expanded polystyrene foam between the inner box and the outer. I was seriously underwhelmed by the packaging in the inner box. In constrast to both the Maraschino cherries and DACDAC that came from the states and both were completely surrounded by sponge foam that had been cut precisely to size to fit around the components and tightly into the box, the A2 + had no custom packaging and just a few more rather unconvincing pieces of polystyrene foam.
That said the amp itself was well constucted from black painted steel plate with an extraordinary chunky 8mm alloy face plate. The amp came with a simple remote to allow input selection from the four line level inputs and a volume control. This was just as well as the manual input selector on the front of the face appeared not to be working! The manual volume control and left and right gain controls both worked fine. I had read a post from another customer who had received a damaged amp but they reported that Nelson was responsible and helpful with the issue they had so I didn't let this put me off. Having said that it was hugely dissappointing to recieve a product that was not 100%. When I ordered it, I made a bit of an issue about QA stating that this was really important to me as I didn't want to ship a defective product back to HK from the UK. I emailed Nelson about the issue and said that I thought it would be cheaper to repair the amp in the UK rather than ship it back. He was helpful and offerred to ship any parts that might be required.
Before taking to be repaired I decided that I would open the amp up and try and diagnose the problem myself. If any soldering was going to be needed my plan was to engage David Coe and and try and recover the repair costs from Nelson. When I opened the amp up I found the repair was trivial and didn't require soldering and that I could do it fairly easily myself. The selector switch was a digital switch and was mounted on a small board on the other side of the front plate along with the IR receiver for the remote and the input selector LEDs. There were four steel legs that should have been holding the main body of the switch in place but these were not gripping the switch as tightly as they should have been. Very gently I squeezed the legs with some fine nosed pliers so that they had a good mechanical grip on the selector switch. With the amp dissembled I switched it on and tested the repair. Way Hay! The switch was working perfectly. Phew. No 3rd party repair or expensive shipping costs back to HK would be required. All in all to dis-assemble the amp, diagnose the repair, fix it, test it and re-assemble the amp took just over 1.5 hours.
So apart from the initially dodgy selector switch what are my impressions of the amp?
It sounds very very good. Sadly I am not a HiFi buff and don't feel I have the right knowledge or vocabulary to convey the character of the amp to those who are more knowedgable. All I can do is compare to other things I have known and I feel that it is as good as, if not better than, anything I have owned or borrowed previously. This includes the "basic" Croft amp, a hybrid Copland CSA 14, an early prototype of Dave's Satchmo single ended tube amp (I know that Dave has done a lot of improvements to the Satchmo since I borrowed it) and the 8000A and 8200CDQ.
I was offerred the loan of a Research Audio Company LS27 a while back. Sadly for one reason or another that didn't work out logistically as I would be very keen to see how the Balanced A2 + compared to that or some other higher end tube amps (BAT, AudioNote etc).
It must have been 2 or 3 years ago that my original 8000a broke. Prior to that I wasn't much interested in HiFi, I just enjoyed music. I am rather hoping that I can now return to that happy state of affairs. My final system looks like this ...
Project Debut turntable into Angle Audio phono into Balanced A2+
Cyrus CD XT SE into Audio Authority Digital Switch
Sonos Bridge into Audio Authority Digital Switch (Spotify is streamed through Sonos)
PS4 into Audio Authority Digital Switch
Humax Settop box into Audio Authority Digital Switch
Audio Authority Digital Switch via coax digital to DACDAC
DACDAC via XLR to Balanced A2+
Balanced A2+ via XLR to Maraschino cherry mono blocks
Maraschino cherry mono blocks via chunky but cheap speaker cable to Rubicon 2 speakers on unknown but perfectly adequate stands.
This is a picture of the Balanced A2 + in my living room with the DACDAC and Angle Audio phono stage sat on top of it (I know not a good idea!) and the Audio Authority digital switch underneath.