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RE: Nakamichi PA5 and PA7, opinions

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I used to sell the full Nakamichi line during my 12-year tenure as a HiFi salesman. Our brands also included McIntosh, a/d/s/, B&W, B&O, and DENON.

My opinions about sound are based on long experience and deep inner conviction, with no commercial incentive. I have been off the retail sales floor since 1996, and have never had any financial connection with any audio manufacturer.

My life experience is that most people listen to badly clipped music from digital sources most of the time. There are several reasons:

1. People have been listening to overdriven amplified music all their lives -- for 3 or 4 generations.

2. Live, unamplified acoustic music is becoming ever more rare.

3. Digital sources (generally used to) have a higher peak-to-average ratio than analog sources (until the CD-mastering loudness wars of the last decade or more brought average pop-music levels up to less than -10 dBFS in some cases).

4. An amplifier that can drive real speakers to realistic levels in real rooms (say for pop music or large orchestral works) without ANY peak clipping costs far more than most people are aware or are prepared to commit to.

I used a reductionistic technique to sell amplifiers:

I would play a musically-demanding recording on a CD player (such as a good pop tune by Bonnie Raitt or The Dirty Dozen Brass Band featuring a sousaphone or a tuba), use a medium-sized pair of high-grade speakers of typical "efficiency" or "sensitivity" (around 89 dB @ 1 meter with 2.8V of pink noise) and turn it up until the music started to distort noticeably.

I would then turn it down until it was truly clean, showing the customer repeatedly where the "knee" of the distortion curve was on the volume control. "If it sounds better when you turn it down, it was too loud before."

On nearly all Asian-based brands of audio gear, the volume knob could never get beyond the 9:00 to 9:30 position without excessive distortion (using typical CD recordings and CD player output levels).

The customer would ask why you couldn't use the great majority of the volume control range. I said it was to make the unit seem powerful on the sales shelf. ("We barely cracked the volume knob, and that sucker really honked on! It must be some powerful unit!")

After establishing the "maximum musical delivery" of the amplifier in this context, I would point out that it wasn't loud enough to enjoy the music properly. Especially with wide-range symphonic material, you couldn't even hear the sobbing solo violin after turning the fortissimo crescendo down to within the limit.

Leaving each amplifier set to its "maximum usable volume," I would leave the music playing while switching from one amplifier to the next.

Using this test, even expensive amplifiers would fall flat next to my favorites, the McIntosh amplifiers.

The entire non-cassette deck Nakamichi lineup around 1990, from the OMS-1A, OMS-2A, and OMS-3A CD players, the ST-7A tuner, through the CA-5A and CA-7A preamps and the PA-5A and PA-7A power amps, was beautifully-built, vastly-overpriced, thin and crispy-sounding equipment.

I couldn't sell a Nak CD player when we had a Denon in the same store. The ST-7A tuner had nearly as raw a high end as the OMS-1A (truly a nasty-sounding CD player if ever there was one). I'm convinced that the poor sonics of this lineup was the demise of Nakamichi. If they couldn't figure out how to make their fancy stuff sound right, they weren't going to make it in the audiophile market.

They finally did manage some acceptable-sounding CD players with the MusicBank line, which introduced the now-ubiquitous "internal cartridge" CD changer concept. These were reliable as well, and, along with their later receivers, helped Nakamichi hang on for a while longer.

The McIntosh MAC4275 receiver (rated at 75W RMS/ch @ 8 ohms) would walk all over the Nakamichi PA-7A, rated at 200W RMS/ch. It also cost less, had a truly wonderful AM-FM stereo tuner, and featured the incredibly-valuable (and patented) McIntosh Power Guard circuit that prevents clipping and blown speakers. This was the most budget-oriented model McIntosh produced during this era! Any of the bigger McIntosh models, particulary the amplifiers with the output autotransformers, are simply in a class by themselves (in my experience).

The Denon POA-1500 and POA-1500II didn't do any better than the Nakamichi power amplifiers against the McIntosh models, but at least they were reasonably priced.

Nakamichi tried to recover with the PA-5AII and the PA-7AII, but they still sucked and Nak couldn't sell these gutless wonders any more than their predecessors. Nelson Pass's "Stasis" design apparently lost something in translation.

Why the PA-5 and PA-7 still attract attention on the Web mystifies me. I guess they really weren't any worse sounding than many other competing products. It's just that when you find something that works for you (in my case, one pair of floor-standing full-range dynamic speakers with soft-dome tweeters, driven by solid-state McIntosh power), everything else pales by comparison. Lovers of horn speakers driven by single-ended triodes have a similar passion.

Quixotically, after the lackluster reception of the SR-2A, SR-3A, and SR-4A series of receivers, the California-based designers in the Nakamichi receiver division saw the need for bottom-line, bread and butter on the table. They cranked out several series of receivers that had the most awesome bang-for-the-buck musical delivery of anything I knew of, all through the first half of the 90's.

The TA-1A, TA-2A, TA-3A, and the incredible TA-4A, the Receiver1, Receiver2, and Receiver3, and so on were the greatest things you could get to run an affordable music-lover's system. I would show the 80-watt Nakamichi receiver blowing away the 200-watt Denon separate preamp and power amp, for half the price.

The problem with the Nakamichi receivers was that their thermal design was not up to the same standards as their audio design. Several of the models had inadequate internal ventilation and suffered from internal "hot spots" that contributed to a less-than-ideal repair record.

People either loved me or hated me, because I had no regard for their misconceptions. Here was the proof! I would refuse to sell to them unless they fixed their speaker placement. The ones who wanted real music became loyal fans and good friends. Just about everybody now in my life came along via my involvement in the stereo business.

Over the years, I had the chance to try a number of amps in the store. The Perreaux solid-state amps of 1989 were heinous -- gritty sounding, ran hotter than a pistol, were wispy-wimpy as all get out, and had a reputation for blowing up (this despite their hand construction and gold-plated circuit boards). I have no idea if they have improved.

I liked the Quad solid-state amps of 1989 very much, but the spectrum-tilt tone controls on the excellent preamp were really intended for the Quad ESL series of electrostatic speakers. We got to try the ESL-63 speakers with the Quad electronics. It was a very credible combination. The ESL-63s were cool -- lightning fast, and with amazing imaging. The bass was fast but lean, which can be OK, but the upper midrange was too harsh.

Playing the Original Master Recordings gold Ultradisc CD of David Grisman's "Hot Dawg" on the ESL-63s, the violin was clearly too shrill. Using the Bang & Olufsen Beosystem 5000, the self-powered Beolab Penta II speakers produced a much more natural overall presentation than the Quad-ESL-63 system. The violin just sounded more real on the B&O speakers (not to mention their better dispersion, more solid bass, and freedom from placement hassles). The Beolab Penta II speakers were actually really great, albeit awfully spendy. They could kick out a "Wasted Union Blues" from the CD remaster of "It's A Beautiful Day" like very few things I have heard. B&O's groundbreaking visual designs of that period have now been widely aped, and ripoffs are easily seen from Sharper Image to Target.

I never got to spend any quality time with Mark Levinson or Krell equipment, and I would like to have done so. These brands were even more expensive than McIntosh, and did not appear to me to hold their resale value nearly as well or to have as stellar a reputation for longevity.

One brand I would still really like to check out is Bryston. Thier attitude seems to be more sincere and genuine than almost any company's, and both the product and warranty more solid, than any of the well-established specialty manufacturers.

Please forgive me for this lengthy, immpassioned, and somewhat peripheral diatribe. I hope my answer to the question is clear -- I was unimpressed with the Nakamichi PA-7A, especially for its price (altough many competing products delivered less and cost even more).

I think that a McIntosh MAC4100 later receiver, an MA6200 or later integrated amplifier, or an MC7270 or later power amplifier with a McIntosh solid-state preamp is the way to go. Unfortunately, you have to have McIntosh preamplification to make a beefy enough signal to drive a McIntosh power amplifier. Most Asian and other preamps haven't a high enough output voltage or a low enough output impedance to drive a McIntosh amplifier. That's why people who haven't matched them correctly think the Mac amps sound shrill -- they're amplifying their clipped preamp signal!

The ReVox B750 integrated amplifier I had before I got McIntosh gear was truly a great unit. I had the chance to compare it at home with a pair of the famous 60W Luxman mono tube amps. The Lux amps had a nice liquid midrange, but the power section of the ReVox was quieter, faster, more transparent, and had more solid bass. The high end of the ReVox power section was more extended and detailed than that of the Luxman monoblocks, and every bit as smooth (in my opinion). I think the B750's 40 mighty Teutonic Watts RMS per channel kick ass on anything up to 75W of McIntosh power, which kicks ass on virtually anything I know of under 300W. The B750's preamp stage is a smooth-sounding and quiet winner, too, even featuring fully-buffered record outputs (a rare and good thing, based on Studer ReVox's studio heritage).

I'd take a ReVox B750 over a Nakamichi CA-7A / PA-7A in a heartbeat, after living around both combinations for extended periods.


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