channel islands audio
D-200 MkII Amplifiers
as reviewed by Greg Weaver
Dusty Vawter, the force behind Channel Islands Audio, first came to my attention back in the twilight days of Mark Schifter's stoopidly successful Audio Alchemy line of products, circa 1997. That, coincidentally, was the very year that saw the founding of Channel Islands Audio in Port Hueneme, California, some 60 odd miles west/north west of LA. Back during Audio Alchemy's hay days, when they were making everyone re-think the idea of using a one-box CD player, Dusty was AA's service manager. By '97, he was off on his own, doing some great things with mods to the already exemplary AA DACs, re-clocking devices, and power supplies. You can see my first take on Dusty's work, his mods to the very well received DDE v3.0, from that era.
Since that time, Channel Islands Audio has grown immensely; not so much in the sense of outright size, as much as in the burgeoning significance of CIAudio's contribution of highly musical and remarkably affordable products to the world of fine audio. This growth has seen the company move steadily and inevitably forward, from offering remarkable mods and rebuilds of other companies established gear, to building over-achieving budget gear, and on to building world-class products. That's right. No, I didn't misspeak, I said world-class gear. Enter one of his latest entrants, a reworking of the award winning D-200 Class D amplifier sensation, the D-200 MkII.
If you thought that the original D-200 was a great product, and it was, wait ‘til you get an ear-full of the MkII version. When asked how he accomplished such sweeping improvements over the original, award winning, Class D, UcD based, D-200, Dusty explained it in his matter-of-fact manner. In essence, the D-200 was an award winning D-100, stretched to practical limits, to make a superb 200Wpc mono block amp. However, once he had successfully achieved the D-500 (500Wpc monos), the D-200 MkII essentially packed everything he learned making the D-500 into that 200Wpc package. And I'm here to tell you it is an exhilarating triumph!
I think it makes sense to make direct comparisons to their predecessors, which were my reference Class-D monoblocks for several years. The originals were housed in downright miniscule chassis, ones that were at that time virtually identical in size to CIAudio's stunning sounding, and now sadly discontinued, VMB-1 gain-clone amps, measuring 6.25" wide by 5.5" high and just 8.0" deep and weighed in at 15 pounds apiece. The MkII's now inhabit the same chassis as the D-500 MkIIs, a beautifully machined aluminum chassis that uses a heavy steel frame plate to support the massive power transformer. Everything is mounted using non-magnetic stainless steel hardware in this slightly larger, but still diminutive, 8.5" wide by 4" tall by 13.5" deep chassis, and now tipping the scales at a whopping 28 pounds each.
The smallish back panel is quite busy. With switch selectable XLR (true balanced) or RCA (single-ended) input, a vertical set of 5-way binding posts, an IEC power socket, and a pair of remote trigger ports for remote power cycling of the amps when connected to the CIAudio PLC-1 MkII, or similarly equipped preamplifier, it is all very close. Even so, it is eminently workable and quite understandable, given the limited real estate available.
As great as they sound with their included power cables, not surprisingly, they sounded better with my favorite amplifier power cables. They were initially alternately powered with either the $1500 Acoustic Zen Gargantua II or the very overachieving $650 Audience powerChord-e. Ultimately, inner detail and mid-bass bloom were best served by the Gargantua II's, which remained in place for the rest of this review.
Bass from the original D-200 was stunning; tight, fast, and extended. Yet the MkII offers more – both in quantity (extension and impact) and quality (bloom and pitch definition). With this iteration, the lowest octaves are utterly controlled and cavernously deep. Yes, like its predecessor, the bottom octaves are extremely tight, but Dusty's revisit has this follow up sounding even faster, offering noticeably more focus, affording more clarity in the rendering of temporal information and pitch definition, and extending its supernatural control deep into subterranean depths. They offer as much control, depth, punch, and visceral impact as ANY amps I've ever had in house…period. And, that is even more impressive in light of the fact they arrived right after my time (and love affair) with the $56,000 WAVAC Audio Labs MD-805 MkII sirens.
As captivating and valve-like as the original D-200s were through the all-involving midrange, most listeners who have made a pilgrimage to my room since they have taken up residency (yes, they are my new reference monos), just assumed on initial listen that they were tube amps. Mids are even more magical now; where they were very good, they are now more airy, full of breath, and texturally more replete. Pianos, vocals, strings, and all things midrange are so palpable, so full of harmonic texture and tonal color, so alive within their own space, and that of the soundstage, that you may find yourself wondering why you'd want to fuss with the maintenance of (and the constant obsessing of rolling) toobs!
If you have dreams of extended, not etched, detailed, not bright, delicate, not muted, and articulate, not harsh, high frequency performance, these amps will make that dream come true, and then some. I was so very taken with the way they are able reconstruct delicate treble detail, yet render it with such engaging finesse as well as spatial and textural authority. As an example, listen to the subtle flavorings of the struck triangle in Steely Dan's "Aja" from the same album [MFSL 1-033]. This instruments delicate and celestial characteristics, often slightly overwhelmed and concealed by the complexity of the rest of this intricate arrangement by even the very best of amplifiers, were extricated from the meticulously woven fabric of its complexly constructed jazz-influenced composition. The D-200 MkII's give it a life and space of its own, just outside and behind the left speaker: crisp attack, distinct vibrancy, and delicate decay. Highs simply shimmer with luminescence, with never a hint of graining or disparity, something I cannot say of ALL Class-D designs.
As most of my readers will know, I put a great deal of stock in a components ability to accurately recreate the spatial information captured on recordings. I am decidedly critical of both the size and the location of the voices of instruments within that resultant three-dimensional envelope. In this regard, the D-200 MkII is easily on par with the best of its valve-based brethren. Regenerated space is wide, deep, and TALL, recording permitting! With such records, the recorded soundscape recreated is larger than my actual listening space, and sublimely accurate in regard to the size of an instruments voice as well as its physical interrelationships with other instruments throughout the soundstage.
As endearing as all the above attributes make these monos, one of their most engaging qualities, most likely a synergy of all the improvements that Dusty has effected, is that of an incontrovertible, enchanting, wholly organic ease of presentation. The entire sonic picture, tonally and harmonically, is extemporaneously woven together, markedly congruent, into one whole aural image. Though this attribute was clearly apparent in the original editions, it has ever so slightly, nevertheless inescapably and undeniably, been improved upon, giving the D-200 MkIIs an even more organic and natural presentation.
And talk about balls; these are some beefy little mo' fo's! Musical passages simply get louder or quieter as you run the preamp gain up or down, with no compression, congestion, or fluctuation of the overall musical scale. And I've yet to encounter any distortion limit; they simply don't get glassy at high volume levels. They manage macro dynamics with all the slam of the Fantastic Four's Thing at "Clobberin' Time," and present micro dynamic nuance and shadings with the poise and finesse of a master Swiss watchmaker.
As I said when concluding of my original D-200 review, if you are foolish enough to dismiss an amplifier that weighs in at just 28 pounds and displaces less than one third of a cubic foot per channel as not worth your time, then the joke is on you! I say here again that these UNRIVALED Class-D monos are unchallenged superstars, and a downright musical steal at $3500. They easily best any number of very well reviewed and highly regarded amplifiers that I've heard and auditioned over the past decade. Give them a listen and you'll understand why mine aren't going anywhere anytime soon! Greg Weaver
D-200 MkII Amplifiers