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

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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 readargos ( A ) on October 31, 2002 at 19:27:17
IP Address: 66.73.193.55
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October 30, 2002

In part, this review compares the two value-oriented power amplifiers to receive Stereophile’s Class A rating, the PS Audio HCA-2 and the Musical Fidelity A3-CR. As many readers of the magazine will know, the A3-CR was originally priced at $1499 when it received a Class A rating from Sam Tellig. A year later, it’s retail price increased to $1599. It retained its position as a Class A amplifier in three or four Recommended Components issues, though it has been dropped from the latest because of its replacement by the A3.2-CR, which has not been reviewed. For the record, the A3-CR, and not the HCA-2, is the cheapest amplifier ever to receive Stereophile’s Class A rating. The HCA-2 currently retails for $1695. I preface with this information because the A3-CR has been my reference amplifier for nearly a year, and I have preferred its sound to a number of more expensive amps. Some are not necessarily worse, and, to some extent, this becomes a matter of preference and system matching, but I prefer the balance of strengths on the Musical Fidelity. It is not the best available, but it is an outstanding value for listeners who enjoy its strengths because, until now, there was not another amp near this price capable of doing what it does so well.

I picked up an HCA-2 from Chicago’s Music Direct. Like several dealers nationwide, they are running a limited-time special which includes a complementary 6’ run of PS Audio’s $500.00 reference power cable, the Lab 2. For those who are considering the HCA-2, whose budgets allow, and who feel that its strengths mate well with their listening preferences, it is worthwhile to act before this window expires. I have limited experience with aftermarket power cables, but the Lab 2 clearly makes audible improvements in bass response and noise reduction on both the A3-CR and the HCA-2. Though neither have the sense of unlimited dynamic headroom, the HCA-2 does sound somewhat more powerful than the A3-CR per its higher rating into both 8- and 4-Ohm loads.

After proper break-in, the HCA-2 made my Magnepan speakers snap with life and the soundstage more of one piece. Upright bass was full, resonant, and detailed. The HCA-2 gave singers and instruments body; they were dimensional, and better occupied their own acoustic spaces. This is a quality often attributed to tubes, and I think this is what PS Audio means when by describing the HCA-2 as having ‘tube-like warmth’ and ‘midrange bloom’. In the first place, the Maggies are good speakers for adding flesh, as it were, to the body of singers and instruments. When you add enough body, you hear presence. Some think Magnepan midrange presence unbeatable for less money. That is one reason I am enamored of the Magnepan sound, and, powered by the HCA-2, hearing body became a process of rediscovery.

Piano sounded percussive, hammers really striking strings. On some recordings I noticed for the first time that piano strikes never fade into silence on the HCA-2. Previously, I thought the gradual decay was detail, but it’s only detail if the notes actually fade away.

Tones from the HCA-2 were dulcet without being lush. Sweet and dry may be good adjectives. I would not label the A3-CR as slow, but it is not as fast as the HCA-2. The Musical Fidelity is sweet, as well, but slightly lush in comparison. Both have excellent portrayal of timbre, extended, grain-free treble, and midrange warmth. In this respect, their overall sound is similar. Some find the treble on speakers like JM Lab, B&W, and Magnepan tend toward the bright side, but not when driven by amplifiers like these. Factor in sweet and dry with the faster transient response of the HCA-2, and I think we know what Mr. Tellig means when he describes the HCA-2’s ‘bracing, crisply articulated sound’. I’m sure he uses ‘bracing’ to refer to a refreshing or invigorating quality.

Particularly when matched with the Lab 2 power cable, the HCA-2 has bass with solidity. It is the subterranean bass of good solid state amps like Krell; bass that hits the deck. I thought I had reached the limits of my Magnepans’ bass response, but the HCA-2 showed me unquestioningly that they had more to give. New audiophiles buying for the bass response may not understand how special its performance is across the audible frequency band.

The HCA-2’s bass reaffirmed how much information about the acoustic space of a recording is contained in the low notes. This is especially true in large venues, such as cathedrals and concert halls, which have their own low resonance as they load with sound. Lesser systems muddy this if they reveal it at all. It is these qualities on the edge of perception that make good hi-fi so convincing, and that have the potential to increase the emotional connection to music. Beethoven’s Fifth, for example, is unmistakable through a monaural clock radio or a reference rig. However, whether the weight and majesty of a full orchestra or the resonant qualities of its hall, reference gear retrieves more detail, and thereby comes closer to the live experience. Improvements are enticing because every time we discover something new on the recording, we learn how much closer reproduction can take us to the live event. Products are called revolutionary when they succeed in extracting more information from familiar recordings than reviewers thought possible. It’s sometimes surprising to discover how much detail recordings contain.

By conveying more of these details, the HCA-2 brings me closer to the music. Eventually, per the law of diminishing returns, it becomes increasingly expensive to reveal a decreasing amount of detail. First with the A3-CR, and now with the HCA-2, it gets very expensive very quickly to do better on all fronts. Even if its qualities may not be every listener’s cup of tea, it is exciting to discover that the HCA-2 adds so much at this price point.

Speaking of revolutionary, one area where the HCA-2 theoretically beats anything on the market is in transient response. For an amp, transients test both speed and grip. With a product that can start and stop (i.e., switch) 500,000 times per second, you will not get more speed or grip! Indeed, other amps never truly stop, which is why they are less efficient. It is hard to think that conventional amplification can have equally good transient response.

I am amazed that so much technology has been incorporated into the HCA-2 at this price point and that it still sounds so good. The amp has amenities usually seen on statement products from companies like Mark Levinson. It has single-ended and balanced inputs, and WBT five-way binding posts for speaker outputs. The PS bus system makes for nice integration with other PS Audio gear, while a DC trigger facilitates integration with other products. AC input is adjustable for either 120 or 240 volts, and power runs through PS Audio’s own Ultimate Outlet, which is integrated into the design. A 15-second power up apparently checks the circuitry for problems. The front panel informs the user of the power-up Standby mode in yellow. The Operate mode is a blue that matches the glowing PS logo. There is also a red Failure warning and a three-year warranty if things go awry. The fuse is easily accessible from the back panel, and opens with a supplied tool, so users do not have to open the case. This protects the amp as well as its owners. The blue PS logo and Operate lights may be dimmed with the same supplied service tool. PS Audio pushes the boundaries of what’s possible at this price point.

One problem some listeners had with the Musical Fidelity at audioreview.com was its bass response. Personally, I find it hard to fault the A3-CR’s bass, and such criticism is greatly ameliorated on matching the A3 with the right power cord. There are amps with better bass, all for more money, and many without doing everything else so well. It will be easier to buy a good power cord than to find a better amp for the same money. The HCA-2 also depends on a good power cord to sound its considerable best, which is why those having the means will do well acquire it while the Lab 2 is available gratis.

For the record, just how good is the Musical Fidelity A3-CR? Champagne Audio (Champaign, Illinois) encouraged me to bring in the amp while shopping for new speakers. We connected it to the JM Lab Electra 926 in place of a big Krell. The dealership was so impressed with the amp, it picked up the Musical Fidelity line. I believe they are now the only dealership in Illinois to carry the full complement of Musical Fidelity products.

So, how good is the HCA-2? I bet the guys at Champagne Audio would love to hear it. If you’re in the market for a new amp, then you ought to give this one a listen. For my tastes, as with the A3-CR, I would have to spend several times the price of the HCA-2 to get better performance.

--readargos


Product Weakness: Dynamic headroom is not unlimited.
Product Strengths: You won't find better for the money.


Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Musical Fidelity A3-CR
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Musical Fidelity A3-CR
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Denon DCM-340
Speakers: Magnepan MMG
Cables/Interconnects: Audioquest, Monster, Acoustic Research
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Classical, Jazz, Esoteric
Room Size (LxWxH): 20' x 15' x 8'
Room Comments/Treatments: Carpeting, Cloth Wallpaper
Time Period/Length of Audition: One Week
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): Generic
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner




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Topic - REVIEW: PS Audio HCA-2 Amplifier (SS) - readargos 19:27:17 10/31/02 ( 28)