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General Asylum: REVIEW: ME Sound ME14 and ME550-II Amplifier (SS) by Mal P

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REVIEW: ME Sound ME14 and ME550-II Amplifier (SS)

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Model: ME14 and ME550-II
Category: Amplifier (SS)
Suggested Retail Price: $AU3600
Description: The ME14 is a stereo pre-amp, and the ME550-II is a stereo power-amp, both high quality units and made in Australia
Manufacturer URL: ME Sound
Model Picture: View

Review by Mal P ( A ) on September 23, 2002 at 16:26:44
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I just thought you'd like to hear about my experiences with the Australian made ME14 pre-amp and ME550-II power-amp. This isn't a professional review, but just something that conveys how the ME equipment sounded to my ears. The gear was kindly made available from Trevor Wilson of Rage Audio as well as Rick Staedelmeir of Equinox Audio.

Before I begin, some background... my goal is to put together a high quality (but most likely not megabucks) two channel setup, as I listen to CDs pretty much every day and I am an avid music fan, with my tastes (like a lot of people) ranging from classical, to vocal, to hard rock etc. The thing is, should I be aiming to accurately reproduce what is recorded on the source? Or should I be aiming towards reproducing what I feel the music should sound like from a "live" perspective? How do I know what is accurate, if I've never been to the original performance, and don't know what went into the recording? I compromised by making sure that the sound from my system sounds balanced, when using good quality CDs. That the highs, mids and bass isn't disproportionate from one another, that there is separation between instruments, that the instruments sound like what I recall in real life, that the sound is something I can enjoy. Perhaps basing it on good quality sources may not have been the best idea, considering how rare 'quality recordings' are to be found with an eclectic music taste, but you have to start somewhere.

While I had heard my fair share of high-end systems, at the time, I had a low to mid-fi setup, consisting of a failed start in the audio game due to several reasons, mostly because I only graduated Uni last year. I had mistakenly "dipped my toes" in Home Theatre, had been sucked in by the explosions and whizzing sounds, only to find that I don't really watch that many DVDs, and that in the end, music reproduction was rather lacking. I had a Pioneer 533K DVD player, a Sony 50ES DD/DTS receiver, and a pair of VAF DC-Xs. Did it sound better than a K-Mart mini-system? Certainly, but there were significant compromises with that setup which I couldn't live with, at least in the long run. The best gear there was probably the VAFs which are bright speakers to begin with, and with a character that added grittyness to vocals. The bass was clean, but on the lean side. Still, at the kit price point, I doubt there are few *floorstanders* out there which overall betters them - exceptional imaging, and a very dynamic, energetic sound are a few positive characteristics. The VAF Signature I-66s I bought recently are superior in every regard, not particularly bright, no grain in the mid-range, tight deep and rich bass, with soundstaging that takes the walls away.

Anyway, the Sony wasn't getting anything out of the speakers, as it too ingrained it's own harsh and lifeless character to the sound. The first step was logical, considering I wanted to maximise stereo performance. To add an external power-amp to drive the mains using the pre-outs of the Sony. There were many, many amp options available, from Rotel to Arcam to Rega to all sorts of valve based equipment, however it seemed a lot of people were happy with the ME range of amplifiers. I contacted Trevor Wilson who offered to send me a 550-II unit and that I could return it right back if I didn't like it. Fair enough. Figured might as well start there, perhaps bringing in a few other amps to do side by side comparisons and keep the one I liked.

So, the 550-II arrives. First things first is the looks. I've seen picture of it at ME's website ( www.me-au.com ) and I thought it looked functional at best. Those impressions were swayed by the actual unit sitting in my equipment rack. It did look better, it's actually a nice, semi-glossy black with gold nuts holding it together. The handles on the front grilles aren't particularly attractive though. This amp is rated for 100 watts, and features all sorts of (mostly internal) features that try to eliminate the much-derided "SS" sound from the final sound quality. Some of the features involve eschewing the use of Global Negative Feedback, a large power transformer and plenty of filter capacitance (66,000 uF standard, although an upgrade is available to take it to 160,000 uF) so that it can drive any reasonable speaker quite easily. I've tried this non high-cap version with a pair of VAF I-93s that have a 3 ohm load, and it cruised along. Enough about the features, you can read the specs at MEs website ( www.me-au.com ).

For those who are considering using an external 2ch power-amp to drive their mains in a Home Theatre, perhaps it's best if I discuss the 550-IIs use in this regard first. I plugged the L/R outputs from my Sony receiver into the "AC" input on the back of the unit (you need to use the AC input if you're hooking upto cheap surround sound gear like the Sony, I've tried using the higher quality "DC" input with the Sony, and the sound was unbearably harsh, the DC input is designed only for high quality pre- amps). Hooked up the DC-Xs to the very nice binding posts at the rear (I wish they made all binding posts like this, large and easy to screw in, and doesn't come loose!).

Using the internal PCM decoders in the Sony (i.e. feeding it a digital optical signal from my DVD player) popped in U2's "All That You Can Leave Behind" CD. Hmmm. How odd, with the first movements of "Beautiful Day", the sound at first didn't appear to be all that different. That was a little dissapointing, as even using the poor Sony has a pre-amp should have brought about some significant changes. Perhaps listening to it for more than 20 seconds would help :-) As the track went on, differences were picked up, little by little. The most significant one was how much *louder* it was possible to listen at, without your head being taken off. Ahh. Whereas the Sony had previously been unbearable at this level (which mind you, still isn't all that loud... I measured it using my SPL meter at around 75dB with 85dB peaks here and there), with the ME in the chain, the sound was significantly less distorted, and far less harsh on the ears. In fact, so much so that when previously I would be able to listen to a lot of heavier music for only a definite amount of time before my ears became tired and started ringing, with the new amp, I noticed that I could listen for much longer, and the only thing that would stop me from listening was dinner.

Several other areas improved as well. One was the bass response, every beat of say a kick drum seemed to have a little more impact, more "oomph". The imaging performance was improved too, with the vocals more tightly centred at the centre, and the soundstage more spread out. Let's put in some female vocal music. Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" really showcased the improvement the ME made. Her voice was smoother, and not as grating as it once was - those high notes didn't make you cringe as much. One of my all time favourite classical pieces is the prelude to Bach's Cello Concertos, and through the Sony, the Cello tended to sound more like a high-pitched Violin sometimes, which was rather disconcerting. The ME brought it back a bit.

Still, despite these significant improvements the ME550-II made to the sound of music through a receiver, I didn't feel all that satisfied... it is quite possible that the improvements the power-amp made to the quality of such a system is all that is needed to provide many hours of listening pleasure. For me, the performance needed to increase quite a bit for me to be happy with parting so much cash, and of course the next step is to find a good 2ch pre- amp, as the Sony was degrading the sound quality, even though good amps sections like the ME made the sound more palatable. As it turns out, Rick Staedelmeir of Equinox Audio was dropping around at the time so that I could audition one of his speaker models, the Solstice (expect a review of that soon as well - you folk must be getting sick of me ;) He had his ME pre-amp which I asked him to bring along so that I could finally see what the ME550-II was capable of.

The difference the ME14 made to the quality of sound is hard to describe in words. Plugging it in is one of those experiences where it's akin to hearing your first set of good speakers, with the soundstage, and the stereo image. "Whoa" is a good word to use. I used the L/R outputs of my DVD player (what, you think I can afford to buy everything at once? ) connected to the ME14, which is then connected to the ME550-II via the high quality DC inputs. The most immediate thing you notice with the addition of the ME14 is the stunning increase in the soundstage. You literally have instruments popping out of the stage and placed right in front of you in the living room, with other instruments set way back behind the wall. The sound is expansive and fills the room from beyond the left and right of each speaker, providing a very spacious sound that completely envelops you - given the right choice of source material.

The voices of singers (on good quality recordings), especially those of the female type, become very smooth as compared to using dodgy pre-amp stages like a Sony, but with an abundance of detail, every breath and gasp revealed. The afore-mentioned Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" is delivered with a husky and melodic tone that makes listening to the song so enticing. The presentation tilts towards being forward, with the vocals right up in the soundstage. The bass kicks very hard with this pre-amp, with a tremendous amount of power being delivered down loud. The ME pre-amp actually helped the bass along a lot more than even the ME power-amp did! Stringed instruments sound very precise and again the ME equipments revealing nature brings out breathing noises and subtle details from recordings (although perhaps one may not want to hear everything sometimes?). Beethoven's 5th is as exciting as it has ever been, with the brass section clearly delineated from the strings.

I would have to say that the ME14 made an even greater difference to the quality of sound than what the ME550-II did, and brought about what I perceive to be 'high fidelity' to the system. Trevor Wilson added a second pair of outputs to the pre-amp so that I can connect it to mysubwoofer, but that is rarely needed, as the bass performance of this equipment is as good as it likely gets. Integration with the Home Theatre side of things is easy... connect the L/R pre-outputs of your receiver to the tape inputs on the ME14, and whenever you want to watch a DVD, flick the tape switch to on and whola, the receiver's audio cuts in. You need to turn up the volume to the 12 o'clock position though (unity gain).

One problem however, is that with the ME equipment, you are getting an uncompromised presentation, in that while good recordings sound great, bad recordings sound absolutely terrible (warts and all). This may become a problem as so many recordings out there are pretty poor, for example, a couple of my 80s rock titles are unbearably bright, and the ME shows this without mercy. I brought around a CR Developments Carmenta tube pre-amp to compare directly with the ME14, to see if that valve sound did anything to tame poorer recordings. Well, it did make poorer recordings slightly easier to listen to, but it tended to compromise good quality ones! Bass became flabby and disconnected, and the soundstage diminished quite a bt. I'm sure there are better valve gear out there though, but this particular model added little to the sound quality of the system.

For the money, this system provides a very high degree of fidelity, and customer support from the dealer, Trevor Wilson, is superb. While the sound characteristic can be a tad too revealing, the benefits it provides with good recordings are quite stunning. Now, where to find an SET amp to use for poorer recordings ;-)


Product Weakness: Perhaps too high resolution? Bad recordings sound shocking.
Product Strengths: Powerful, dynamic sound, and capable of extremely high resolution. You will hear everything in your recordings. A lot of good listening. Great customer support from Rage Audio.

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: ME550-II
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): ME14
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Pioneer CD player
Speakers: VAF Signature I-66
Cables/Interconnects: NeoTech
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Female vocal, classical, rock n roll, hard rock
Room Size (LxWxH): 12m x 5m x 3m
Room Comments/Treatments: Curtains, rugs, carpet, fabric furniture.
Time Period/Length of Audition: 5 months
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: ME Sound ME14 and ME550-II Amplifier (SS) - Mal P 16:26:44 09/23/02 ( 11)