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4B SST amplifier
as reviewed by John Brazier
I was very excited at the prospect of reviewing the updated Bryston 4B SST amp when I heard one was available. It was, after all, the Bryston 3B ST that opened the proverbial window for me and exposed the difference an amplifier can really make in one's system performance. Before that time, I stood firm in the "amps don't make much of a difference" camp. I cannot recall the exact circumstances in which I came to own the 3B ST, I suspect, however, that I had come into some extra money and may have just discovered AudiogoN and realized I could venture deeper into the world of hi-fi at a reduced expense.
At the time I had a pair of Sonus Faber Concertos, an REL Storm subwoofer, Rega Planet CDP, and I think I was using a Luxman receiver as a preamp. I was so bowled over by the improvement the 3B ST did for my system I went to my local salon and ordered a Bryston BP-25 preamp sans audition. Which is not recommended, but in that case it worked out very well.
As is true for many "experienced" audiophiles, we recall one system that performed so much better than anything we have heard since (without consideration to it being true or not). I am willing to concede that for me, it is perhaps only a romantic memory and if it were here with me today next to my reference rig, it would not be as wonderful as I recalled. Nonetheless, reviewing the Bryston would give me an opportunity to at least glimpse into my audio memory.
Not much has changed in the last 10 years with styling at Bryston, it is still the masculine and sturdy chassis it was when I received my 3B ST. Mine was black, but the silvered review sample looked a bit more contemporary and the handles connoted a rugged, tough, and solid piece of equipment. Given the unparalleled 20-year fully transferable warranty Bryston gives with each of its amps, it's no wonder the housing appears to be over-engineered.
This review amp is the 4B SST, rated at 300-watts or about 175 more then my 3B-ST. Furthermore, Bryston did a bit of tuning up and reorganizing to the innards which garnered the SST designation. If memory serves, when Bryston went to the ST designation for its amps, it was to give credit to their electrical engineer/designer, Stuart Taylor, who was primarily responsible for what turned out to be a very successful and well received series of amplifiers. What the extra "S" stands for, I can only speculate…."Super Stuart Taylor" perhaps.
The amplifier arrived with no "burn-in" time on it whatsoever. At first it did have a muddled or bloated upper-bass and lower midrange, but after a week or so it was freed from such signatures and over the next few weeks, it settled into what is its true sonic thumb print. That being a well spoken, take no prisoners, make no apologies solid-state amp.
All too often a solid-state amp is, for better or worse, guilty of trying to be "tube-like" or trying to achieve a "tube-ish midrange". Very few seem to be proud of their solid-state-ness in their own right. Certainly, if being tube-like was the design goal of the engineers, then perhaps "a job well done" is in order. Tubes are generally recognized as offering a preferred silkiness to the midrange, so it is not surprising that many solid-state engineers seek to capture certain aspects of the tube sound, while keeping other solid-state aspects all within the same design.
I can attest that this Bryston is all solid-state; proud of it, and it makes no apologies for being such. I was indoctrinated into the hobby by solid-state, having only dabbled in tubes now and again. Yes, the midrange of most tube amps are silky smooth, but the obsession of tubes and tube rolling is lost on me. With amps like the Bryston 4B SST in the world, who needs tubes? (Loaded question, I know).
After about 100 hours, I started to ease my way into my listening position. The improvement from the out-of-the-box sound was vast and I felt sufficient break-in had taken place. Over the next three weeks or so I listened. I tend to "review" in nearly the same way most people listen. I play discs that I want to hear; not ones that do certain audiophile tricks. That's not to say I don't drop in some of key, long term reference recordings that I had used long before I started reviewing, such as Stacy Kent's The Tender Trap, 'cause I do. But other then that, I simply listen, a lot, then take some notes, and after two, three, or even four weeks I write.
With the Bryston, the four weeks could have easily turned into five, six, or more before I even considered writing. I found listening to music through the Bryston to be enjoyable and distraction free. I consider my reference amp, the NuForce Reference 9 SE V2, to be state of the art, and when I have another amp in for review (or any other piece of gear for that matter) there is almost always some shortcoming or other aberration to deal with and weigh out in the compromise game. Not so much with the Bryston, the presentation was solid and even handed in its own solid-state way.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing characteristics of my reference system is the black hole that sucks in every bit of nonessential information that dares to linger between the notes. Never, ever before have I experienced such a blackness, no matter the volume's digital read out on the Pass Labs X.1. I have never heard an extraneous noise, hiss, or tick. This is rarely duplicated with the addition of some piece of review gear, especially amplifiers. With the Bryston however, it was nearly identical as with that of the NuForce. And that is something in and of itself. With this emptiness, nearly every other aspect of the amplifier's performance is better for it: dynamics, ambiance, and soundstage, to name just a few.
I recalled that when I inserted the 3B ST into my mid-90's set up, I had to reset my subwoofer's settings as there was much more bass information and output and it knocked the balance of the system off and into the next room. I was very impressed and with the 4B SST and I was anxious to hear what would happen in the nether regions. I was not hiding the fact that I was wishing for similar results but, try as I might, I did not seem to be able to capture the amount of bass I knew was there, or could be, with my speaker's set-up.
It was not to be. Compared to my reference, the NuForce edged out the Bryston on terms of bottom end punch and growl. This is not much of a knock against the Bryston though, because, the bass slam on the NuForce is truly remarkable. When I say the Bryston was "edged" out what I am really saying is that in this setting, the Bryston's bass performance was outstanding in both depth and punch, it just wasn't as good as the Nuforce's. With that said, the Bryston's output was in near perfect balance within this spectrum and was tuneful to boot.
If I recall anything clearly from my 3B ST experience it's that with the Kimber Cable Silver Streaks interconnects I had at the time the upper ranges were a bit screechy and even became fatiguing at times. I did enjoy the high pitched, yet authentic, sound of Ani Difranco's fingers sliding stridently along the strings of her guitar. Back then, I was content to categorize it as desired "detail."
Fast forward to today. I still have silver core interconnects, as well as speaker wire and power cords, however, the engineering in the Crystal Cables Reference Connects has completely done away with any silver sourced glare coming though the speakers. Mated with the subject Bryston, the higher end is effortlessly and convincingly reproduced.
If the solid-state amplifier has a common characteristic with most of its brethren, it is arguably the way it reproduces the midrange, and for specificity of the review, we will agree that we are speaking of the reproduction of the female voice. So, it's not surprising that it's considered a success when a solid-state amp can sound much like a tube amp when reproducing the female voice, as it is nearly universally agreed that the silky smoothness of a well executed tube amp design is sublime. However, it is not a disaster if a solid state amp reproduces the female voice and not have it sound "tube-y." Case in point: the Bryston 4B SST.
There is nothing about the 4B SST's midrange that I would call tube sounding, and when you listen to it, I suspect, no one would think it any other than being reproduced by a solid state amp. Now, I found the midrange, i.e. the female voice, to be every bit as compelling and satisfying as if it were sent through a beautiful set of tubes. Beth Orton's vocal prowess has many different characteristics; her voice can have a decidedly romantic feel to it on one track and be devoid of the same on the next. Regardless, I found the 4B SST to deliver the mid-range performance as it was intended to be and with all the various cues required to connect deeply with the music.
I must, however, give credit were credit is due, and that is with the Crystal Cables. When I reviewed these sometime ago I was, and still am, completely taken aback with their ability to synergize the system's individual parts into one meaningful whole. At the same time I do not want to take anything away from the Bryston. It is hard to get the female voice right, especially for a solid state amplifier. In each of the recordings that I have played over the last month ( Dianne Reeves, Ani Difranco, Stacy Kent, Rosanne Cash, Annie Lennox, and so many more) not once did I feel like some important piece of the vocal pie had been cut out. The Bryston sold it; lock stock and barrel, and all the while not sounding like a tube amplifier.
If there was anything that I really missed in the absence of my reference, I would have to say it was dynamics. This is because I longed for what I had become accustomed to. The Bryston's dynamics were present and fairly convincing. The amp was able to deliver the musical swings and all the dramatic episodes that were asked of it, but it fell short of what I would have expected given the other performance parameters of the amp. Case in point, this amp could be pushed like no other. The X.1's volume knob digitally reads out from 1 to 31 and there are times where I am comfortable listening at 25. The 4B SST didn't show even the slightest hint of strain or distortion. It was absolutely mind-boggling how enjoyable the listening session was at both a reasonable 13 and an outrageous 25 on the volume knob. I would have thought that this Herculean display of control would translate into the world of dynamics, micro and macro, and it did to an extent. It really only fell short given my expectations and relevant comparisons. In the end, this issue could best be categorized as a quibble.
Soundstage was full and wide. My set up has the speakers just a bit further away from my listening position than I would really prefer. However, in the larger scheme of things, I have to live with them were they are. The only downside, that I have noticed, is when evaluating the system's soundstage, and more specifically the focus of the soundstage, I am handicapped and have to stop short of full praise. I will say that what is there, in terms the soundstage, was every bit as good as my reference.
It has been some time since I have reviewed a solid-state amp, much less one of this price and power rating. Nonetheless, I think a comparison to the NuForce Ref 9 SE V2 is warranted. I have seen several postings on the various forums in which folks are asking for comparisons of the NuForce to more popular amps, all in the name of getting a handle on just how good the NuForce amps are in the world of high end audio. So, let me make some comparisons. I must say that while my Ref 9 SE V2 is one fine amplifier it was not until the V2 board was developed and circulated that I was convinced of this.
Now, where does that leave the Bryston? In very good company. For the V2's wonderfully proportioned and smooth mid range, it is extremely close between the two of them. As mentioned above, the bass of the V2 has a touch more slam, depth, and overall tunefulness. The Bryston is every bit as good, there is just less of it. In the end, it is the dynamics of the V2 where the two amps diverge. I have to admit that I have never pushed the V2 to 25 before and I suspect it has been for good reason. Regardless, it is the dynamic nuances that win the day for the V2 as it can explode when it needs to and swing with the breeze when it wants to. Not that the Bryston is any slouch, but between the two, the tip of the hat goes to the V2.
The NuForce Ref 9 SE V2 is $5500, compared to $4095 for the Bryston, however, their respective performance would suggest they are priced much closer together and that both cost much more then they actually do. Each are fine amplifiers, each I could live with and enjoy. I suspect I will miss the unabashed control of the Bryston which allowed it to be pushed while filling my whole house, if not the whole neighborhood, with high quality and wonderfully reproduced music. Alas, I heard and fell for the NuForces some time ago and, truth be told I have no intention of letting them go. As they share so much of the sonic signature, I recommend that you audition the Bryston and if you end up purchasing it, be confident that you too will be happy for a long time to come. John Brazier
4B SST amplifier