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Amp/Preamp Asylum: REVIEW: PS Audio HCA-2 Amplifier (SS) by Nietzsche

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REVIEW: PS Audio HCA-2 Amplifier (SS)

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Model: HCA-2
Category: Amplifier (SS)
Suggested Retail Price: $1695
Description: Hybrid Class A
Manufacturer URL: PS Audio
Model Picture: View

Review by Nietzsche ( A ) on April 02, 2003 at 11:53:48
IP Address: 128.172.68.24
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I wasn’t sure where to post a shootout type of review for the Musical Fidelity A3cr (MF), Bel Canto Evo200.2 (BC) and PS Audio HCA-2 (PSA), each of which I have had in home for extended auditioning, so figured I would post this it a few places so it’s found by those who may be interested in any of these amps. This is a fairly lengthy appraisal and mostly is a compilation of scattered notes, but I think I’ve put to paper my experiences as fully and honestly as possible. I’ve gone through many other amps as well recently that I choose not to refer to due to the already imposing length of this review, most of which where more expensive anyways, and the focus of my investigation, for myself, was based on well regarded amps available for around a grand on the used market (I buy everything used!). I gave a bias in review length to the HCA-2; I am also biased towards its sound.

PS Audio HCA-2:

It took me a long time to figure out what I was hearing from the PS Audio HCA-2 exactly, due in part level matching, partly from its highly resolving nature that exposed weakness elsewhere in the chain like no other amps has, but also because of the fire-hose disguised as a power cord that I’ve been using with it. Here starts the short novel:

On the plus side, first things that struck me when I installed the HCA-2 with the PS Audio Lab II cable were the amounts of detail I was hearing that was missing with the Odyssey I had been recently playing with just before, something I wasn’t expecting, as it was detail I’ve not heard from any other amp, even in different systems. The small things stood out; like previously unheard slight crackles and distinct inflections in a voice, newly heard faint breaths or amount of moisture on lips between passages, along with better defined but not etched images, with more reverberant cues to indicate hall sizes and ambient information that were most distinctive between this amp and any other I’ve had at home. This was shockingly different, really, which took time to adjust to. It wasn’t the type of detail you get from a tipped up top end, a hot tweeter, brightness or simply a twist of a treble tone control knob, as the sound was uncannily smooth, full and crisp, but more importantly, it was also natural and believable. I’ve heard similar improvements to a lesser degree with a good external DAC over lesser dacs. This change can leave one on the edge of their listening chair at first listen, but the ears/brain will calm down and the sound produced will amaze, so be patient with this one and don’t skimp on upstream components!

Other impressive sonic aspects inherent in the HCA-2 were its sound stage depth, along with its sheer power and control. Again, in those regards it is among the best I’ve heard in its mid powered 125-200wpc class, price not being a factor. The HCA-2 easily outclassed the MF and BC in bass weight, speed and extension, making the competition sound lethargic and hollow. Though the MF amp is fast relative to most of what’s out there, the speed of the HCA-2 was just unreal, lively and rhythmic, engaging and toe tapping, very musical. The HCA-2 produced chest pounding bass that both I and my neighbors :-) have not had before in my very large living room. This was due to the amazingly fast attack and Peta Wilson’s rock hard bottom type of tightness, with not a hint of overhang or boom, though not over-dampened either! The woofers just came alive with impressive power and control, which made my big and heavy woofer integrate more seamlessly with the other drivers. Again, wasn’t expecting that much of a difference and didn’t know that the big and hard to drive woofers could respond so quickly either, especially with so little power.

From the reviews, I was expecting the huge soundstage, and though huge it wasn’t as big as I had imagined, and as with each amp, I did take the time to reposition the speakers for optimal performance, which did make a nice improvement in each instance. The presentation was about a foot forward from any other amp but never did the vocalist resided far in front of the speakers as I had imagined, only right at the front (when appropriate), but the room and speaker adjustments made differences just as substantial when re-optimizing. There was a lot more air around performers and depth was impressive, maybe 10ft behind the front of the speakers on some tracks, such as the faint, distant signaling trumpet in beginning of the Gladiator battle scene, which put it solidly outside of the room into the street!

After listening for a few days I was compelled to swap out the fire hose for my cheap DIY Belden power cord that are popular with many ($25 cord). Much of the detail was lost, and while still very detailed and no less silky smooth, some subtle cues found before where missing, bass appeared rolled by ~40hz, the soundstage became 2D, the lower midrange was light, images where fuzzy and a slight hiss was also present if you came within 4 inches of the tweeters. With the 5-pound sewer pipe cable in the mix with any amp their performance was slightly closer to the HCA-2 in terms of detail retrieval and bass speed, but the HCA-2 had a clear and very substantial edge in both regards, still among the best I’ve ever heard.

Not terribly unlike the Bel Canto, the PSA amp is delightfully harmonically rich (especially with the MSB Nelson dac, which was tending towards excessive for my tastes), one might say somewhat “tube like” in the midrange, and was just a lot of fun to listen to; a very exciting, intense, realistic, high energy presentation that always leaves you captivated and grooving to the music. I can’t mention that enough!

Alas, as good as the PS Audio was in terms of resolution, bass quality and sound-staging, it wasn’t perfect, there where a couple of tradeoffs. The HCA 2 does slightly come off as a "hi fi" sounding amp with the wrong upstream components, which was the majority of the ones I tried! I found component matching with this ruthlessly revealing and resolving amp difficult, if I didn’t have 3 systems worth of components cluttering up my living room I could have a wealth of negative comments regarding this amps sonic signature, but alas it would have been wrongly placed criticism, the faults where not in the amp but revealed in other components. I don’t think it was HCA’s resolution that could kill the transparency with the majority of sources I paired it with, more so my psychological response to hearing a vastly different sound then what I’ve expected to hear in home. There is a slight leanness to the lower midrange, and I heard this clearly in my huge 25x18x10 carpeted room with brick walls, but when I moved my system into a room 22x15x11 with wood floors and less furniture this area filled in a little. Another negative, the transformer “buzzes like a fridge,” to borrow lyrics from Thom Yorke of Radiohead. It very rarely made a peep in my old home, but now in a 100yr old apartment above a blues bar you can hear it humming its own song if within 4ft of it. Lifting the ground doesn’t help, nor does power conditioning. I will be running a dedicated line for it soon, but am doubtful as to if that will be the cure either….

With the Bel Canto the speakers completely disappear, offering rightness to the sound that I find hypnotizing and soothing; you completely forget about the amp and other gear, forget you’re listening to a recording and become fully drawn into the live performance taking place in your room--which is probably the highest praise I could offer to an amplifier. With the HCA-2, although the presentation is most impressive stereophonically, it wasn’t always as natural, somewhat surreal with the wrong components (such as the Nelson Dac or with lesser PCs); it can make you continually aware of its presence, mainly from its glories but also in its slight lack of transparency. Frustratingly, the HCA-2 could at times match the transparency of the BC or it could not stay in the same room with very small component or wire changes. The PSA could be a Salvador Dali or a Kindade, depending on the associated gear and the room. The HCA-2 always made for more realistic sound throughout the spectrum, with tympani and bass drums having startlingly real presence, bells and horns where solidly in my room, pure and clear. The HCA-2 amp, to use subjective and anthropomorphic language, seemed to be trying to impress at times, doing a very good job at it, yet still seemingly trying. This amp can’t compete with my personal reference, the Parasound JC-1’s, but, even with the synergy frustrations inherent, I wouldn’t buy anything else under $5K.

Bel Canto EVo200.2:

I’m sorry to say, I think Kal Rubinson pretty much nailed his review of this amp, especially as it relates to the PSA. I’m sorry to admit that because it leaves me with little to have experienced, and now to comment about myself! Anyways, the character of this amp and the PSA where strikingly similar at first, casual listen, but it didn’t take long to make a few clear distinctions in the context of my system. The BC literally put me to sleep each and every night. It has a cool, laid back and romantic sort of quality that makes all music soothing, which on some tracks is phenomenal for but I don't find it appropriate for most albums, at least as I had come to expect to hear them. I can see why tube fans would like this amp, however. The bass on this amp is not lacking next to the A3 but is clearly outclassed when compared to the PS Audio amp. The BC couldn’t compete with low level and ambient detail retrieval. The soundstage is much flatter then heard with the other amps, but then again most every amp on the planet will come up lacking next to the PSA in those regards! The digital amps are near equivocal in presence and imaging, both impressive, the midrange of the BC was slightly more rounded, the PSA more bouncy in the same area. The HCA-2 was much more fun to listen to, with superior speed and dynamics, just more engaging, while the BC was more soothing, at ease and less intense. With very HF sounds the BC was slightly rough, but everywhere else impeccably smooth. Both are fine amps but the PS Audio definitely fits my tastes and system better. The BC wasn’t nearly as fussy about associated gear, so may prove the better match for many in its less revealing nature.

One last gripe about the BC was its volume sensitivity. This amp only sounded right, or in the zone, perhaps, when in a very small range on my preamp dial, which was about 95dB in my room. Less or more and the sound was much less detailed, compressed, somewhat incoherent, pretty much a different amp altogether! My friend who loaned me this amp had the exact same issue, for what that’s worth.

MF A3cr:

This amp excelled in top end air and extension, having bass weight and on par with the Bel Canto, but not as relaxed. In my system it offered a trace of apparent warmth and liquidity over the other amps, it was fairly easy going, but overall a bit too polite for my tastes and never settled down to where I could forget about its being in my system. Its main fault was lack of power; its rated output may be quite optimistic. In my system this amp clipped very easily, and it is actually the only amp that has ever clipped audibly in my system, which may have biased my opinion of it for the worse. At high levels the sound compressed and became harsh. Overall the bass was hollow, although deep and articulate it was lacking weight or slam next to the PSA or other esteemed “bass amps” from Krell, Parasound and the Big Classe’s, etc.. Again, extension in both extremes was very good; the very highest frequencies could get grainy, more so then heard from the BC which was rough on very few tracks. On the plus side it is the quietest amp I’ve ever heard and it offered a huge soundstage with impressive depth and, just as importantly, solidarity to that the depth the eclipsed the BC with ease and made further off sounds more real. The bel canto and HCA-2 where more harmonically rich, offering more solid presence, while the A3 and Evo offered a pleasantly rounded midrange.

I tend to think that this amp would likely be a better match to bookshelf speakers playing music with limited dynamics, such as light jazz and classical, which I don’t play much of at all. Easy to listen to but I bored with it quickly.

Build Quality:

Also worth mention is build quality. The casing on the A3cr is rather cheap, the transformers inside are only a hair bigger then those in their preamp (which, along with the MF A3 24 dac, I liked much better then the amp), which surprised me. The feet on the MF amp are absolute mass market junk, the digital amps has feet with slightly higher utility. The binding posts on the MF are stupidly large and a pita for most wires, the posts on the HCA-2 are a joy to use, very high quality WBT’s. The connection layout on the back of the BC sucked, the binding post, though of good quality, where too close together. Overall the A3cr still is well above average on build quality for its price, but I’m not too sure about the digital amps internally.

Most disappointing was the HCA-2 with the hood popped. Open it up and you realize it was probably assembled in a sweatshop; you see why there is only a 3-year warranty on the product, which is insulting to owners, I personally think. A 3yr warranty might be ok on a CD or DVD player, but an amp? Come on! The soldering was very poorly done, and the internal copper wire was exposed and already oxidized heavily at the joints. The circuit boards are thin and flimsy. Amazingly for the sound it produces, there is very little capacitance, only about 32K uf total! I think my dacs and CD transports have more capacitance! The Bel Canto offered 45Kuf/channel but of lesser quality parts. I’m not questioning the designers here, mind you, just an observation that struck me. Anyways, looking inside the HCA-2 and Bel Canto you really wonder what justifies the price tag and the warranty period, there is nothing to them, and they have dozens of parts in common. Any which way you look at these digital amps you see maybe $300 worth of parts that where assembled in a community college by blind students, especially placed next to the MF, which has more impressive components. Ok, so the HCA-2 isn’t quite as bad as I describe, yet I still have to question why an amp only has a 3-year warranty period, especially a $1700 amp. Spectron also has a 3yr warranty, Bel Canto also only offer 5yr warranties on their digital amps, which makes me wonder.

I hope that some of this proves useful. I started out with a short novel but cut to the chase, at that, there is much more I could say with specific difference within musical passages as is popular with some but didn’t, mainly because I don’t much enjoy listening to audiophile approved music that most would relate to, and though I listen to classical and jazz to demo gear I hate listening to it through any stereo. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to hundreds of live jazz and classical performance throughout the US and enjoy the genera’s very much, just don’t like jazz and classical too often at home. For reference my system and music tastes are as follows:

Full range Von Schweikert VR3’s with Vibrapods underneath (VR4SE’s or VR4JR’s to come)

PS Audio HCA-2 amp

Musical Fidelity A3cr preamp

Marantz SA-14 SACD/CD player (filter set to “Custom”)

Musical Fidelity A3 24 dac

DIY Silver cables and IC’s w/WBT connectors

PS Audio and Belden PCs

Marsh/Monster HTS-2500 power conditioner

CDs/SACDs used to demo:

Too many to mention! Here’s a short list of artists.

Portishead, Radiohead, Goldfrapp, Massive Attack, Alpha, Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man, Gorillaz, Bizet, Orf, Gladiator Soundtrack, Gershwin, Diana Krall, Sanatra, Beck, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Pearl Jam, Sneaker Pimps, Red Hot Chili Peppers, a dozen operas and handful of audiophile approved classical discs, mostly from Telarc. I use at least 50 albums to in home demo gear with.

I fully welcome any questions so please don’t hesitate to email me or write here. I would also really like to hear others appraisals of these amps as well, especially if you’ve had a couple in your system for evaluation or others to compare them to.

Cheers,

Michael


Product Weakness: above
Product Strengths: above


Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: above
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): above
Sources (CDP/Turntable): above
Speakers: above
Cables/Interconnects: above
Music Used (Genre/Selections): above
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): above
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner




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Topic - REVIEW: PS Audio HCA-2 Amplifier (SS) - Nietzsche 11:53:48 04/2/03 ( 23)