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REVIEW: nOhr Le Amp Amplifier (SS)

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Model: Le Amp
Category: Amplifier (SS)
Suggested Retail Price: $500pr
Description: 100W/ch monoblocks
Manufacturer URL: Not Available
Manufacturer URL: Not Available

Review by Tyson on November 11, 2001 at 01:19:53
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Below are accounts of 2 different amp "shootouts" I did at a friend's house, here in Denver, CO. They occured about a month apart. All equipment, amps, music, and methodolgy info is included in the reviews themselves. Only thing I can add as a foreward is that the LeAmp from nOrh came originally with a capacitor to block DC (referred to "stock" LeAmp in the text below). The cap can be removed & the amp becomes DC coupled (called modded LeAmp in the reviews below).

In the first shootout we only had access to a stock LeAmp, and it had very few hours on it. In retrospect, it sounded much brighter and more forward in the 1st shootout than the 2nd. By the 2nd shootout, it was much more mellow, laid back, too much so, in fact.

By the time the 2nd shootout rolled around there had been a few changes to the amps in the shootout - I sold my Bryston amps after they did so poorly in the first shootout, so they were not available for the 2nd shootout. The Counterpoint got some new tubes & they were burned in for several weeks before the 2nd shootout started. We decided not to include the Denon in the 2nd shootout, mainly because of time & space constraints & the fact that it wasn't a "top performer" in the first shootout. And, we did not include the nOrh multiamp in the 2nd shootout because it is discontinued & thus not a real valuable comparison, especially when you consider that a big part of the shootout was to see which amps Dennis was going to keep & which get rid of. So, without furter ado, here we go:

1st Shootout -

OK, I finally got a chance to hear LeAmps today. Actually, Dennis and I got together and I did a blind listening session with 6 different amps, while Dennis switched out between the 6 (not telling me which was which). The 6 amps were: Bryston 3B-ST, nOrh multiamp, nOrh LeAmp, a Haffler amp, The amp section of a Denon 5800, and a Counterpoint amp (hybrid tube amp). So, I got a chance to listen to each amp without prejudices or pre-concieved notions, which is a good thing because things did not turn out at all like I thought they would.

I'll start with the best and the worst amps - The best, IMHO, was the multiamp, and not by a small margin. My notes say things like "Very slightly soft highs, but still very detailed", "Very nice mids", "GREAT soundstage", "Strong Bass", "Easily the most organic and real sounding of the bunch". We listened to this amp first & none of the other amps really came that close to it. One thing I have decided is that the multiamp is NOT weak on bass, I am now pretty sure it is my room that simply does not re-inforce bass, in fact it seems to suck out a lot of bass. In Dennis' room, the bass was very strong, and very nicely controlled. Overall this amp just flowed and converged all elements of sound to a degree that other amps did not match.

The worst amp of the bunch (by a large margin) was the Bryston. This think is really a highly regarded amp? Mediocre at best. Sloppy, indistinct bass, WAY too bright and forward, sibilance like crazy, absolutely flat soundstage, no depth. . . Well, you get the idea. Not a good amp. I am going to unload my Bryston amps ASAP.

Ok, there is a step down to get to the 2nd place amp, which turned out to be the Haffler - this amp is really good. Reminded me a LOT of the multiamp, more-so than any other amp here. Nice soundstage, good bass, good tonal balance, only area that it fell down compared to the multiamp is the Haffler had a more "etched" quality, which made it sound more "hi-fi", and less natural/organic than the multiamp. Soundstage also did not have the same depth the multiamp did (SS on the multiamp was HUGE ) Oh yeah, Dennis BUILT the Haffler from a kit over a decade ago. How cool is that?

Ok, the next 3 amps all are clustered around each other, and I would be very hard pressed to choose amongst them: Counterpoint, LeAmp, and the 5800. Each had a few strengths and weaknesses. I'll try to take them one at a time.

I'll start with the Denon, because I thought it was the most consistent of the 3, meaning that it did less "wrong", but also had less outstanding
strengths. Decent soundstage (but nowhere near as good as the MA), decent handling of voice and piano, decent bass, overall a good amp. That pretty much sums it up - not spectacular, but certainly a solid performer.

Next up is LeAmp - It does some things MUCH better than the Denon, somethings about as well, and other things not as well. Overall I would put it on about the same level as the Denon (for music - for HT I think it will be a different matter entirely, in LeAmps favor). Anyway, specifics - LeAmps biggest strength was its re-production of details - it tied with the Counterpoint as the MOST detailed sounding amp of the entire bunch. VERY detailed. Bass was also among the very best - good control of the woofer. But overall presentation was a bit too forward for my tastes WRT music. But tonally it was spot on with both voices and piano. It was more rounded and organic sounding than the Counterpoint, about at the same level as the Denon in this area. Overall a VERY good sounding amp, if a bit too forward for me. BUT, the area that keeps it from trouncing the Denon and the Counterpoint is soundstage. Soundstage was just not impressive. No wider than the speakers, and not much depth either (due to it's forward nature, no doubt). Occasionally cymbals would collapse in to the speakers. So, overall the LeAmp is spectacular in some areas (Bass, details, neutrality), decent in others (forward balance), and mediocre in others (soundstage).

I put the counterpoint last because it, like the LeAmp, had strengths and weaknesses, and is a good amp, IMO, but it just had more weaknesses than either the LeAmps and the Denon, and its strengths did not really make up for its weaknesses. It tied with LeAmp for overall detail retrieval, especially in the mids. Bass was also very good, right up there wit LeAmp. Those were the strenghts, and they were striking. But after that, there was not middle ground, nothing the amp was "decent" at, it went straight to some weaknesses. I thought the highs were a bit rolled off, as sometimes cymbals lacked shimmer, while at the same time the amp was very forwardly balanced. Soundstage was a bit worse than LeAmps, but not nearly as bad as the Bryston. Tonally they were also forward, combined with an emphasis on leading edge transients and overemphasis on sibilants. Just not a pleasing listening experience (and this is with a GREAT recording). Soundstage was very flat and really pushed toward you, "in-your-face". Actually, looking back over my notes, I rated this explicitly as 2nd to last, just above the Bryston. So, I am going to hold to that here. I thought (based on memory, not on my notes from the listening session) that it might have been closer to LeAmps and the Denon, but I guess not. . .

OK, so there you have it. Sorry to be so verbose. Let me know if you think it is too pedantic, but I tried to be as rigorous as possible.

Oh yeah, one last note, the LeAmps only had about 20 hours on them, so there may be some breaking in to do still (assuming break-in actually affects sound, of course), so there may be some improvements in their future. Or maybe not. Tough to say. I do think their somewhat forward sound would be a very good match for a HT, and I also think they would mate extremely well with tubes, with the tube CDP or Preamp providing some synergy where LeAmps not as strong (soundstage mainly, but also get them a bit more laid back sounding). I'm not sure what other people are hearing, but I certainly didn't find LeAmps laid back sounding, or rolled of in the highs AT ALL. I'm glad I got to listen "blind" to all the amps, because otherwise I probably would have let other posts influence what I thought I was hearing.

Also, none of the amps here were muffled or unclear sounding in any way. In that respect, they were all a pretty big step up from most mid fi amps/receivers. I know for a fact that the Bryston is still better than stuff like Acurus, Rotel, Adcom, etc. . ., so even the worst amp in the shootout is still a better amp than what is commonly found in the medium price ranges. . .

All listening was done with nOrh marble 9.0's on white marble stands, using the Denon AVR 5800 as a processor, and a Pioneer Elite DV37 DVDP as a transport, Bolder Cable speaker wire, and some generic interconnects.

2nd Shootout -

(For the 2nd shootout, Dennis and I were joined by another local audiophile, Jason Wong.)

Wow, what a day. Got up at 10:45 am when Jason was knocking (loudly) on my door Took a little time to finish waking up, and put Jason's teak 3.0's and modded LeAmps in my car before we drove over. Stopped to get a bite to eat & ended up at Dennis' a little after noon. After hauling in the LeAmps and introducing Dennis & Jason, Jason got to check out Dennis' really great house. Lots of oohs and aahs (well deserved, I might add).

We go downstairs & get everything hooked up & start to eat while Dennis plays some James Taylor in 5.1 SACD surround w/Jason in the sweet spot. While we are eating we start to discuss what we are going to listen to for music & what our methodology is going to be. Jason is gonna sit in the sweet spot, I am going to sit right behind him & Dennis is gonna be the furthest back & do all the amp switching. Next we start plowing through CD's and SACD's to determine our play list. This takes quite a while & it is a bit after 3pm before we are ready to start to do any amp comparisons.

The artists we pick are (just for your reference): Book of Roses (SACD, I think), Train "Drops of Jupiter" (SACD), Loreena Mckinnet (CD), Women of the World (CD), and the Bangles (SACD).

We had 7 amps to compare, 5 of which were variations on LeAmp, and the other 2 were an Aragon 8008ST and a Counterpoint SA-220 hybrid tube amp. The 5 variations on LeAmp are as follows - 1)Stock LeAmp 2)Jason's modded LeAmps (follow's nOrhs cap bypass instructions) 3) Bolder bypass of the DC cap (1 inch of shielded Kimber Kable wire used under the board) 4)Cap removed entirely & jumpered with shielded Bolder wire, and 5) An extensive "Bolder mod" to the LeAmp, which consist of removing the blocking cap, jumpering w/the shielded Kimber Kable wire, replacing the input RCA's with Cardas input RCA's, replacing the speaker binding posts with Superior Electric binding posts, and rewiring the input and output wiring inside the LeAmp with a couple of Bolder Cable shielded wires. He also raised the gain from x26 to around x29 by changing the feedback resistor to a lower value.

Before I go further, I must say that the mods done to amp #5 are NOT supported by nOrh and are done as a way to "hotrod" the LeAmp. In fact, I don't know if Wayne is gonna offer these mods to the general public. He did the mods as a favor for Dennis w/the understanding that if the amp blew up or something, that Dennis was liable & had probably voided his warranty by having the mod's done. At this point I think Wayne simply did the mod's at Dennis' request & as a personal favor.

On to the methodology - Dennis had level matched all amps before we got started with the comparisons & we decided to listen to 1 song at a time on each of the LeAmps first. After we eliminated a few of the LeAmps we would compare the "winners" to the Counterpoint & Aragon. All listening would be done "blind" by Jason and I.

Since this is dragging on a bit, let me get to the meat of the discussion. I am sure that Jason & Dennis will have somewhat different impressions than I on the 3 "finalist" LeAmps than I (although we all agree which 3 were the finalists - we simply disagree which one was the best of the final 3). We eliminated the stock LeAmp (#1) and Jason's LeAmps (#2) pretty quickly. My notes were always consistent - the Bolder modded LeAmp (#5) was always head and shoulders above the other 2 finalists, a MUCH better sounding amp, IMO. LeAmps #3 & #4 jostled for a distant 2nd place.

When we went to the Aragon & Counterpoint, I honestly expected one or both to clean the clocks of all 3 remaining LeAmps, but it just was not that way. Again, the Bolder modded LeAmp was easily the best of the bunch, with the Aragon and LeAmps #3 and #4 jostling for 2nd place, while the Counterpoint brought up the rear. To my ear, every amp except the bolder modded LeAmp and the stock LeAmp had an "edge" to the sound, similar to having to much edge enhancement on a video display - it highlighted, or etched, instruments and sounds, but in an unnatural way (to my ears). The stock LeAmp simply was veiled sounding in comparison to the others & lost detail & soundstage, but was smooth sounding. Only the Bolder modded LeAmp had all the detail & the best soundstage of them all, but without the "etch". Overall it was a very beguiling, inviting, organic type of presentation, superbly enjoyable.

Also, Dennis has a quite large room & we were running the 9.0's full range w/no help from a sub & I thought we would run out of juice from the various LeAmps when we pushed the volume a bit, but we never (to my ears) hit clipping. In fact, none of the amps strained at all. That was a pleasant suprise.

Anyway, my final ranking of all the amps would end up something like this (from worst to best):

Stock LeAmp
Counterpoint SA-220
Jason's LeAmps (standard mod)
Cap bypassed LeAmp (by bolder)
Aragon 8008ST
Cap removed LeAmp (by Bolder)

Full Bolder modded LeAmp

I put some space between the bolder modded LeAmp and the others, because the others were not close to it in performance, IMO.

The biggest suprise of the shootout to me was that the 8008ST did not do MUCH better than it did. Very shocking. Actually, tonally speaking, it kept up nicely with any of the amps in the face off. The place where the Bolder modded LeAmp seperated itself from the others was in the soundstaging department.

Anyway, I have about 6 pages of notes taken during the shootout, so if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask.

Associated equipment was the Sony XA777ES multichannel SACD player, the Lexicon MC-12 (in analogue bypass mode), the various amps, and the marble 9.0's on marble nOrh stands. Dennis will have to come by & fill in on the cables & wires used.

Product Weakness: see review
Product Strengths: see review

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: see review
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): see review
Sources (CDP/Turntable): see review
Speakers: nOrh mable 9.0
Cables/Interconnects: see review
Music Used (Genre/Selections): see review
Time Period/Length of Audition: 4.5 hours for 1st shootout, 8.5 hours for the 2nd
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: nOhr Le Amp Amplifier (SS) - Tyson 01:19:53 11/11/01 ( 13)