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Amp/Preamp Asylum: REVIEW: Parasound HCA 3500 Amplifier (SS) by lucius.morris@verizon.net

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REVIEW: Parasound HCA 3500 Amplifier (SS)

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Model: HCA 3500
Category: Amplifier (SS)
Suggested Retail Price: $2195
Description: Stereo Amplifier
Manufacturer URL: Parasound
Manufacturer URL: Parasound

Review by lucius.morris@verizon.net ( D ) on December 25, 2004 at 10:44:54
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Parasound Mod-HCA 3500 Review

Why review an amplifier that is > 7 years old? Please note that the nomenclature of this amplifier is Mod-HCA 3500, not HCA 3500. And, you might just have an HCA 3500 tucked away on a shelf or in a closet ready to be sent out for a Mod at Empirical Audio by Steve Nugent. Tony at Parasound “technical support department,” refers to the HCA 3500 as the beast. I say amen to that! For Mod-HCA 3500 mod details and JC-1 comparison, see Steve’s web site: http://www.empiricalaudio.com/

My initial impression from my first listening to this amplifier was a startling experience. I first listened with the amp connected to the Von Schweikert Audio VR4-Jr, then the VMPS RM40 (ribbon highbred), and lastly, the Innersound Isis Mk-III (electrostatic highbred). No matter what speaker I tried, my impressions were the same. I was amazed by the sound of all three setups. I had never heard more realistic and robust sound from any other amplifier setup within these speaker systems. Transparency, natural timbre, and sheer musical life, even at loud listening levels, were the best I had heard. Dynamics are superb, and complex music textures are clear. Solo male and female voice and demanding solo instruments (guitar, violins, cello, piano, harpsichord, clarinet, and flute) were as natural as they get. Midrange performance was remarkably neutral. The upper to the low deep bass was earth shaking powerful.

At this point, I had to collect myself from the trance I was in and I began to wonder what was it I was listening to? I began identifying all the system components and they were the same as always with the exception of the Mod-HCA 3500. I was still shocked and in disbelief. How could one component change make such a dramatic difference?

I was hearing deeper into the music than ever before. I was hearing what was on the recording and not the colorations that components add to the sound. I could actually hear clear back into a trumpet and sax the sound of the vibrating reed, the piano hammers striking the keys, the piano’s foot pedal actions, the organ air pumps, the leading edge of percussions being struck, etc. Transparency is the key here. On the down side, you will also hear the effects of bad recordings and front end sources. The top octaves have all the energy, life, air, and detail to make music sound alive – no edge or harshness, no touch of excess or over hang. The Mod-HCA 3500’s freedom from upper-octave coloration means there is no warmth, softness, or euphonically forgiving nature. Listening to well recorded live music is a great joy. You are there in the midst of the action! Sound staging and imaging is outstanding. There is a sense of wall to wall sound with stable demographics of instruments. The 3D effect of the sound stage is very present. Soloist and instruments are out of the speakers and into the room. With your eyes closed, you have a sense of wanting to walk among the performers. The Mod HCA 3500’s superior transparency and resolving power open up and define the sound stage as well as the recording permits. Try some of your Count Basie and Duke Ellington live recordings. Awesome!

In terms of dynamics, power is telling. The beast (Mod-HCA 3500) was a match for the deepest organ and drum recordings I had available. It never ran out of power even at SPL of 117 db on the VMPS STIII/RSE (a 72 inch ribbon and (4) 12” woofers preside). Two stereo amps were used here, the Mod HCA 3500 on the high-end and a second HCA 3500 on the low-end crossed over at 150Hz). I couldn’t resist the urge. For the rest of the review, the Mod-HCA 3500 was used exclusively. The amp generated so much bass energy into the floor, I was prompted to load 87.5 lbs of No. 7 1/5 shot into the Von Schweikert VR4 Jr enclosures. I also readjusted the PR driver in the VMPS RM40s and adjusted the bass level in the Innersound Isis MkIIIs. Bass clarity extended down into the deep bass range. Bass was always tight, vibrant, detailed and deep. Chest pounding! Jazz and blues took on an added touch of realism, and good rock really moved. The dynamics were superb in all areas. Low-level percussion transients leapt out with the speed and definition of the real thing. And complex dynamics of well-recorded solo instruments, close miked, was remarkably lifelike with explosive impact. Listening to Christian Mc Bride “A Family Affair”, Nicholas Payton “Payton’s Place” will push you further back into you seat. Or Houston Person & Ron Carter “Now’s The Time” will lift you out of it.

In terms of nuances, there is no comparison between the non-Mod Parasound HCA 3500 and the Steve Nugent’s Mod HCA 3500 amplifier as how they articulate music. For example: There is a chime percussion instrument in Shirley Horn’s recording with strings “Here’s To Life”, cut 2, that chimes for about 5 seconds. Although the un-mod HCA 3500 lets you here the sound of a chime for the 5 sec duration, the Mod HCA 3500 lets you hear the individual tones of the varying chime lengths. Awesome! The VMPS STIII/RSE speaker system driven by other amplifiers had moved me to the level of “Ecstasy”, but, with two of the Mod HCA 3500s, it will move me to the level of “Nirvana”.

Some comments regarding each speaker’s response to the Mod HCA 3500 follows: The test system components included an Accuphase PD-77 player, Pass Laboratories D1 D/AC (24/96 upgrade), and a X0.2 Pre Amplifier. Analysis Plus Silver Oval and Solo Crystal Oval interconnects were used between the components. Wire World Eclipse III+ (shot gun configuration) bi-wired between the amplifier and the speakers. The 8 AWG Wire World cable was selected for best bass control on all three speaker types. The room size is 18’x 26’x 9’. The VMPS RM40 was the best performer and most of the review was centered on it. The Von Schweikert Audio VR4-Jr was the next best with slightly less transparency and added weight to the music. I couldn’t completely control the large volume of bass this speaker produced. This anomaly affected the low range balance to the rest of the frequency spectrum. The Innersound Electrostatic Isis MkIII sound best when the Innersound ESL 800 mono block amplifiers were connected to it. The ESL 800 delivers 1200 watts into 4 ohms. That’s more than twice the power rating of the Mod HCA 3500. While the Mod HCA 3500 did a great job at low listening levels (below 100db SPL), the Mod JC-1 is a better match because it is rated 1200 watts into a 2 ohm load which is the nominal impedance for electrostatics at high frequencies. The Isis Mk III electrostatic speaker set up with the Innersound ESL 800 mono block amplifiers is one of my reference systems.

In conclusion – I expect that there will be many doubting “Thomas’s” out there regarding the contents of this review. That’s OK! All of us are entitled to our own belief based upon our personal experiences. With my 40 plus years involvement in the high end audio industry, I wrote my new experience as I heard it. But, education is a continuing process and without it we began to lose direction for the future. For those of you who have a Parasound HCA 3500 and want to experience this phenomenal amplifier with Steve Nugent’s Mod, then try it. The results just might make you a believer.

Product Weakness: Not rated for 2 ohm loads
Product Strengths: Power, transparency, dynamics, deep bass

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: HCA 3500 Modified
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Pass Labs X0.2
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Accuphase PD-77 player
Speakers: VMPS RM40
Cables/Interconnects: Wire World, Analysis Plus
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Jazz, Classical
Room Size (LxWxH): 26' x 18' x 9'
Room Comments/Treatments: none
Time Period/Length of Audition: 3 weeks
Type of Audition/Review: Dealer Demo

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Topic - REVIEW: Parasound HCA 3500 Amplifier (SS) - lucius.morris@verizon.net 10:44:54 12/25/04 ( 12)