The PA300 is a fully balanced dual-mono stereo power amplifier with twin 300-watt toroidal power transformers and no single-ended inputs, from a company that now operates out of Quincy, Massachusetts but originally hails from Europe where its principals designed and built high-power pro gear for more than a decade before which they were in the regulation and service business of nuclear reactors. Can you say "playing with fire"? The amp's most vital specs include output power of 110/170wpc into 8/4ohms, bandwidth of 1.2Hz to 450kHz, channel separation and S/N ratio of 105dB, input sensitivity of 1 volt, net weight of 31 lbs and dimensions of 17.5" x 3.5" x 14.25' WxHxD. It retails for $1,690 and carries a 5-year warranty. Does this abrupt opening sound a mite business-like? That's in character. There is the amp's stolidly functional, no-bigger-than-necessary packaging with its comprehensively pro-arena features: Balanced inputs, balanced outputs for bi-amping or daisy-chaining, rear-mounted attenuators to optimally exploit preamp gain, manual/remote switch and con jack to use for sync'd power-up with the firm's P1 preamp, twin pairs of speaker terminals for discrete biwiring, front-facing peak and protect indicators for each channel. There's the equally no-nonsense nomenclature and square front panel lights. All spell getting down to business with a minimum of fuss, glitz or other extraneous and potentially expensive distractions. The company's online mission statement confirms this focus on the unvarnished essentials. Tell it as it is, for a fair price. One detects a faint undercurrent of disdain, for Hi-End's fascination with steep tariffs tied to personalized interpretations of aural truth. This back-to-basics raison d'..tre also manifests in the way the PA300 handles music - exceedingly competent and matter-of-fact honest. One intuits that its particular design brief views the harmonically ripe image density of tubes as distortion. Accounting for this perspective, I banished my valve amps from sight and -- hopefully -- memory. I needed to assess the 300's performance on its own merits. My Bel Canto eVo 200.4 in 120-watt non-bridged mode would serve as my resident solid-state reference. But first, a quick appeal to the visual sense, by taking the amp's physical measure front, aft and inside. The central square power indictor upfront is a pale shade of yellow- green, with the slightly beveled faceplate painted a matte silver to offset against the black silkscreen logo, nomenclature and indicator labels. The bent black sheet metal cover encloses the heatsinks with matching vents. The business end sports the XLR i/o ports, a white rocker switch for manual/remote power-on (the latter available only with the matching preamp), another -- fused -- rocker mains switch with IEC inlet, the 1/4" communications port for BVaudio's P1, the two continuously variable trim pots above the line-level inputs and the four pairs of 5-way speaker terminals. A look at the dual-mono guts reveals partitions that shield the toroids from the two vertical quad-fused motherboards that parallel the heatsinks to which are affixed four transistor output devices per channel. All flying leads hookup wires are neatly routed and tied off, mirroring the clean but not overdressed business attire of the exterior. Comprehensive on-board safety includes activation delay, soft start, DC output protection and auto-disconnect during malfunctions, short- circuits or overheating - further indicators that the design team at BVaudio has worked in the professional sector where such low- maintenance features are de rigeur and High-end-typical fussiness ends up in a roadside dumpster. This no-nonsense attitude even extends to power-up - the internal relays which confirm ready-to-rock status click on within just over one second. The red protect pilots extinguish and green for go lights up in the center. Vroom vroom. What aural neighborhood should my first serious stint take me into once a few weeks of cooking in the guest bedroom had paid proper obeisance to the break-in lords? While the case on performance was still open, I did a quick pseudo Van Gogh on the trannies meaning no knife - the head followed. No hum whatever. The proverbial tombstone. I absolutely despise transformer hum which, as amps and power supplies get larger and more expensive, often ends up growing more obnoxious rather than fainter or non-existent altogether. Apparently I'm not the only one with little patience for lame excuses in this regard - from a noise perspective, the PA300 lives in a deep vacuum. Bravo. Time to grab the steering wheel in earnest. The system context? My usual Cairn Fog 24/192 player, with a PartsConnexion modded-to-the-hilt Shanling T-100 (benefiting, among other upgrades, from four single Burr-Brown OPA627 op-amps and Western Electric NOS tubes) remaining in standby unless the resident doc should diagnose for a precisely administered dose of valve distortion; the Bel Canto PRe1 whose XLR outputs would feed either the PA300 or eVo 200.4 via HMS Grand Finale's balanced interconnect (all Top Box impedance controls bypassed); discrete bi-wire runs of Gran Finale to my Avantgarde DUOs, with all HMS Energia power cords plugged into our next Blue Moon date, Lloyd Walker's honey of a passive but hot'n'heavy line conditioner, the Walker Audio Velocitor. All other recent review arrivals that had temporarily snuck into the rig to satisfy short-term curiosity were yanked out. That included the stunning Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkII 16/44 DAC and Artistic Audio's brand-new Vacuum Reference silver/gold interconnects. With my ears recalibrated to what goes for normal 'round here, I grabbed an audiophile-delight custom compilation of Norwegian vocalists, chief amongst them goosebump ladies Kari Bremmes and Lynni Treekrem Right outta the gate, the PA300 proved to be a highly capable performer suffering no obvious shortcomings, colorations or imbalances that would create instant targets for any experienced listener. In fact, no recognizable voicing at all. While the word 'neutrality' reads far more reasonable on paper than it translates into gripping aural encounters, it did suggest itself, albeit without the dreaded subtext of 'accurate but uninvolving'. Engaging in lengthy A/Bs with the eVo, I slowly penetrated into deeper layers of performance whereby some mild individuality eventually did surface. This took some joyless critical digging though. It wasn't at all obvious at first. This qualifier injects an important lightness into the following descriptions of rather mild differences requiring analytical obnoxiousness to tease out. The PA's unwavering image focus had a bit more pop than the eVo's slightly more distanced elegance. The 300's subtly pronounced directness wasn't forward but merely a mite drier than the Tripath whose surface textures, while not as radiantly outward-extending as valves, do exhibit a fair amount of Kirlian aura. The PA's boundaries between sounds and silence were more acutely defined. This was most notable on piano when the lifted damper pedal allowed extended cross-fades between tones. It's an arena of performance I've felt compelled to investigate at some length ever since the glorious Zanden DAC arrived. I've delved deeply and nocturnally into the "zone" to identify how the heck it manages to sound distinctly softer than other digital while simultaneously maintaining superior resolution, dynamics and involvement. Verdict? All digital sources I'm familiar with end decay trails prematurely by comparison - digital 'clipping'. This translates into varying degrees of starkness. Blunt edges cross other blunt edges as in a duel, rather than tones blending with other tones while receding in "slower" motion back into nothingness. To the casual listener, such starkness at first suggests a superior noise floor. Hombre, dig all that negative black between the notes. Caramba! But a live performance -- unless boringly formal -- isn't a black'n'white affair. There's a large subliminal no-man's land between the nations of sound and silence. It's a zone of finer energies not distinctly tone anymore but not yet complete absence of tone either. To illustrate the effect of annexing this guajira terrain (a literal "lost" zone of land between Colombia and Venezuela - see photo), imagine that you were manipulating a digital image with Photoshop's lightness level controls. Move the white and black cursors inwards. What was dark gray becomes black. What were very pale shades of color turn neutral white. With this reduction of bandwidth, contrasts increase. Apparent sharpness becomes more acute. Simultaneously, the finer and finer half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth and-so-on tones of minute color gradations diminish. In the extreme, this turns Andy Warhol Pop art. Did I mention how the P300 popped just a smidgen harder? Clearly, the silver-faced amp's minor dryness did not close down this gray zone as some affordable solid-state tends to. It merely moved its cursors inwards a bit farther than the eVo whose bandwidth between sound/silence was somewhat broader. An area where the P300 clearly excelled? Risetimes. Whenever Kari or Lynni upped the ante on vocal intensity, the BVaudio amp tracked these changes in amplitude with extreme responsiveness, rendering it a very dynamic little engine that was easily the Tripath's equal. Coupled to its minor dryness, therein hid a potential Achilles heel. Whenever the ladies raised vocal intensities, a solitary storm-cloud or two gathered, not to any objectionable extent, merely a temporary whiff of coldness that suggested a hint of glare or brittleness. The Bel Canto's upper midrange and lower treble remained more refined under duress and exhibited a mite more bloom, as on the effervescent halo with its mist of overtones hovering around the dreamy sitar-guitar on Kari's "Madonna". Shifting from audiophile-grade recordings to Pop productions, Greek superstar Anna Vissi's new X [Columbia 510092-2] showcased this potential liability of the PA300's low-distortion honesty further. Like a bloodhound fixedly hunting down its quarry, the amp's call-it-as-it-is take on fidelity didn't mitigate the inherent hardness of the recording one iota. To be clear, it didn't exasperate it either, but you clearly needed to watch your programme material. I just know how BVaudio's designers would thereby find their GIGO philosophy of "garbage in, garbage out" completely validated. While I fundamentally disagree with this approach -- there's a difference between ideals and the real world -- it's nonetheless very valid. To ascertain what so- called harmonic distortion would do, I now called the Shanling into duty and hitched up its tube and solid-state outputs to the PRe1, making sure to use two identical pairs of Analysis Plus Solo Crystal (I only had one HMS unbalanced interconnect). Sure enough, the Western Electric-powered thermionic outputs shaved off some of the edge and weighted harmonic density versus the non-tube feed, not to the comprehensive extent of my AUDIOPAX amps or the Zanden DAC, but enough to make the recording more palatable and enjoyable, both for Anna's operatically-trained voice and her somewhat schmaltzy duet with Yannis Parios, one of my all-time favorite emotive singers. My point? If I lost 2/3 of my audio library to higher fidelity, I'd be one very grouchy, belligerent, irascible and unsocial camper. This leaves a rhetorical question: If the BVaudio tells the truth, am I just a shmuck sucker for pretty lies? Or do there exist different kinds of truths? Back on track, quickly, lest somebody hand me the cuppa Hemlock before my time. On the nOrh SM6.9, an inherently warmer, less resolved speaker than the 18- times as dear DUOs, the P300 neutrality was an absolutely wonderful match and simple reminder that -- as with anything audio in general -- a careful match between components is tantamount to enduring satisfaction. That the P300, barely getting out of first gear, acquitted itself as well as it did on my hornspeakers (traditionally not too fond of most solid-state), speaks volumes indeed. Moving into a more ideal range of its power band by pushing the 87dB nOrhs was not only financially more liberating but also electronically a better match. But then, a reviewer must always use his most familiar laboratory first. The pronounced rise times in the bass generated what to my ears remained better-than-real incisiveness on the DUOs. However, tube detractors would immediately berate what I fancy as somewhat more realistic -- warmer, slightly fuzzier and more rotund attacks in the low frequencies -- as less precise, less well defined. Point well taken. Hence this comment must be considered in the context of zero feedback valves to which I've subscribed as a matter of personal preference, not some universal value system of rights or wrongs. SETs, no doubt about it, handle bass quite differently. As many would state, not as well as good transistors. By never crossing the line into chiseled Krell suprabass territory, the BVaudio champ merely made its point. Its rendering of bass lines naturally exhibited higher damping and sock-'em crispness than even state-of-the-art triodes with copacetic speakers manage. Most people I know would call that a very good thing indeed. The way the feisty Thai two-ways responded, I would agree. Low-level resolution and hence the ability to delve deeply into the musical fabric were exemplary, the physical depth perspective the equal of the eVo which, due to being somewhat softer 'round the edges, placed a stage of equal proportions seemingly a bit further behind the speakers. Now remember that in order to quantify these difference in words, I had to quite magnify them. In actual listening, we're talking a few lone percentage points. Due to their rather negligible nature, it makes the affordable pricing of the BVaudio contender all the more surprising and mightily attractive. The BVaudio P300 fulfills its stated design goal of fidelity to neutrality to a 'T'. While not quite as suave as the eVo, its upper mid/lower treble band proved exceedingly well behaved, just a bit less tolerant of bright recordings. Compared to the recently reviewed, comparably priced 47Lab Shigaraki integrated, the PA300 didn't exhibit its harmonically dense wetness but was far more powerful and physically rather more imposing. If I was allowed just one simile, I'd call this amp the equivalent of distilled water - crystalline pellucidness, all trace elements of individuality purged. I'd mate it to slightly fulsome speakers like Vandersteens, Meadowlarks or my nOrhs. Its potent dynamics and taut, rhythmic bottom end would be appropriate assets. Its main drawback is really just balanced-only operation. While not an issue when partnered with the matching BVaudio pre, it's of likely concern to prospective owners who, by shopping this +/- $1,500 amplifier market, may well only have coaxial preamplifer outputs on hand. Add the extended warranty, worry-free protection circuitry and sane emphasis on the essentials (sound, safety, price). Recall that the P300 wasn't at all embarrassed being compared to a class leader like the Bel Canto eVo. It all adds up to a sober reality check. The front line of diminishing returns keeps resolutely pressing south. Unless you insisted on a gussied-up exterior à la Musical Fidelity, why would you spend more? Personally, I wouldn't.
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