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Positive Feedback ISSUE 71
as reviewed by Adam Goldfine
Let's get two things out of the way right off the bat. First off, in my opinion NewClear Audio is a gimmicky name. Every time someone asks me what amplifier I'm using I cringe a bit and feel compelled to explain how I understand that it's a silly name lest anyone think I like it, or worse, somehow identify with it. Perhaps it's the inexorable linking of brand and identity that probably started with Levi's, was polished by the auto industry and has been all but perfected by Apple Computer. But I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm the kind of person who would drive a Pinto or listen to a NewClear Audio amplifier. I'm more than happy to whip out my iPhone however, preferably while driving a Porsche.
Secondly, if you are looking for an amp anywhere near this price range you should consider this one. It's good, really good, ridiculously good for the price. It beats the crap out of my Music Reference RM-100 preserving all of the wonderful musicality of the tube amp but bringing a solidity, lightning speed and dynamics (micro and macro) that are simply beyond the MR's capabilities. If your speakers can handle it, the enormous reserve of power makes for a startling explosive presentation.
The sound of the NC1000L is effortless and extremely nuanced, allowing the subtle shades of each instrument's timbre to shine through. The effect is very emotional. After nearly four decades of listening to high end audio gear it all boils down to this question; do I enjoy myself while I'm listening? Do I feel moved by the music and the musicians, is life being breathed in to what I'm hearing, and do the hairs stand up on the back of my neck? The answer with the NC1000L is yes, yes, yes and yes.
Until my experience with the Spectron Musician III Mk. 2 amplifier I reviewed in Issue 44, I was not a fan of class D amplifiers. I hadn't heard that many and none in my home, but I "knew" they didn't sound good, everyone said so. The Spectron irrevocably altered that perception, taking its place among the better amps I've heard. Now, the NewClear NC1000L provides some serious competition at a promotional price of $2950.
The NC1000L is a dual mono class D design based on the B&O 1000ASP module. It delivers 500-wpc into 8 Ohms and 1000 into 4. It features a Lundahl input transformer, DH Labs silver plated copper in Teflon internal wiring and balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA inputs. Selected components have been cryogenically treated.
The casework is substantial though fairly plain by today's sculpted standards. The aluminum billet faceplate and weight of the unit lend a reassuring heft to the whole affair. A single blue LED in the middle of an atomic symbol engraved into the faceplate lets you know it's switched on and the power switch is located on the back of the unit, right above the IEC power input. Class D amplifiers are known for their efficiency and in my year with this amplifier I never felt compelled to switch it off once. The case never became warmer than room temperature even when driven hard.
At a tick over 14" wide the unit is narrower than most making the back a bit cramped. The right speaker terminals are sandwiched between the IEC power input and the right XLR input leaving little room for the speaker cables if you use spade connectors, as I do. Banana pins would be a better bet for this particular configuration. The binding posts themselves are those frustratingly fiddly plastic covered 5-way jobs and one of them stripped while finger tightening it. I would pay a little extra for something better in that department. After a bit of configuring I was able to get a good bite on the spades of the right speaker cable and it has held fast with no issues for nearly a year. The left was no problem as I didn't have to contend with the IEC port. All that notwithstanding the amplifier has performed flawlessly.
Lana Del Rey is without a doubt one of my favorite new pop artists in a long time. The title track from her debut album, Born to Die (CD, Polydor B0016425-02) is at the same time soulful and seductive, plaintive and playful. She captures the experience of life, love and heartbreak in a way that is both emotionally truthful and universally appealing.
With the NC1000L driving my Wilson-Benesch A.C.T. loudspeakers, her slightly rough and seductive vocals are clearly distinguished within a complex mix. The album isn't quite as present and real sounding as some of the high end female vocals with which we are all familiar but the music has a raw emotional quality that gets to me every single time. And this is where this amplifier excels. It's exceptionally clean without being analytical, it conveys the nuances of the music with no edge or artificial sharpening that can distract from the natural, organic sound of real music. It neither obscures details nor highlights them.
Turning to some high resolution music, Diana Krall's "Peel Me a Grape", Love Scenes (SACD, Impulse! B0002841-36), was enticing, seductive, clean and articulate with once again, no trace of electronic edge. Fully formed, round tones, floated fully intact from the speakers with little sense that they were being reproduced. The bass was punchy and articulate, tightly controlled but not over damped sounding in any way.
The NC1000L makes a particular good mate to speakers with what I call fast bass; speakers that go deep, stop and start on a dime and have exceptional articulation in the lower registers. The A.C.T. speakers are such an animal and with this amp the visceral growl and purr of bass lines comes through in spades while remaining distinct from, yet of a piece with the rest of the track..
Once again, the track was emotionally engaging, producing goose bumps from a recording I've heard more times than I care to count. The piano, was nicely weighted and harmonically rich, the amplifier able to flesh out the tonal colors in a way I had never heard before the Spectrons. The Spectrons may have a slight advantage in this regard but I would say it's too close to call from memory alone. That being said, I never once felt I was missing out by not having the Spectrons.
Martin Taylor's "Georgia on My Mind" from Linn Selektions (SACD, Linn Records AKP 245), is an exquisitely recorded, well performed solo acoustic guitar piece. It's also a remarkable example of musicianship and manual dexterity. The upper three strings of the guitar are fed into one channel and the lower three into the other allowing Taylor to essentially accompany himself as one might playing the left and right hand parts on the piano. The difference being that (as far as I know) the guitar isn't really designed to be played that way.
Taylor's brilliant playing is literally spine tingling and the measured, deliberate pace allows each note to reach down into you and resonate until it tickles your monkey bone. The recording is spacious and the NC1000L's excellent retrieval of ambient detail works well with what's on the track to create a very distinct sense of the original location. I would have to give a slight edge to the Spectrons in this regard as I found them to be even more specific in recreating spatial cues, BUT that was using two of them in mono block mode and with the NewClear amp in similar configuration, that gap would likely be closer if not eliminated entirely.
I loved the way this amp presented Nils Lofgren's "Keith Don't Go" from Acoustic Live (CD, Vision Music, Inc VMCD 1005). I've heard this track on many a system and it can range from exceptionally holographic to nails on a chalkboard strident. The amp delivered all of the shades of the steely guitar sound on this track, the sharp attack rounded out by the woody harmonics of the guitar body. One of the things I look for in a piece like this is the ability of the gear to preserve the sharpness of the musical attack appropriately balanced with the overtones of the particular instrument. Some gear emphasizes the attack at the expense of the harmonics creating an exciting but fatiguing presentation. Some gear blunts the attack, softening the presentation and while it may lose some of the stridency it also dulls both the image and the musical excitement.
The best gear, in my opinion, accomplishes both, resolving both the hard edges and fleshed out overtones. I have come to think that this is the result of the speed of the gear, being able to start and stop quickly, and being fast enough to track enough inner musical detail to present leading edges and overtones fully and accurately without adding any distortion products to color or blur the signal. The NC1000L acquitted itself admirably in this regard, creating a compelling semblance of the real thing. Even the slight touch of steeliness during the hard strumming towards the end of the song, which as far as I can tell is baked into this track, did nothing to mar the performance. There was never a sense of strain on this very dynamic piece.
Cookie Marenco is easily among the most talented producers and recording engineers working today. She recently sent me the 24K Collector's Edition of The E.S.E. Sessions on CD and I had the opportunity to compare it with the original SACD, (CD, Blue Coast Records BCRGO 1024), (SACD, Blue Coast Records BCRSA 1012b), respectively.
With the NC1000L in the system, the difference between the two versions was quite clear. The 24K version more relaxed and natural sounding; more articulate with less edge, not that I would have characterized the original as edgy. It had seemingly greater micro dynamic resolution, allowing the listener to hear finer gradations of tone and volume. Individual voices within harmonies were easier to distinguish. The twangy metallic ring of the dobro was very distinct and easy to identify for what it is.
If you want to really see what your system is made of, (and potentially damage the woofers of lesser systems), get a copy of The O-Zone Percussion Group, La Bamba (CD, Klavier K 77017) and play "Jazz Variants". This percussion heavy CD has a huge dynamic range and places enormous demands on your system, especially in the deep bass. The only speakers I have heard that can fully reproduce the low bass drum whack on this track with any semblance of reality and authority are the Hansen Audio, The Prince v2s. What those speakers can do with this track is uncanny, articulating what many other, even very expensive loudspeakers, turn into an articulate thud by comparison. (And if you've ever wondered what you get for $40,000 that you don't get for $20,000, there it is folks.)
While the NC1000L didn't put my Wilson-Benesch A.C.T.s into the same category as the Hansens, that bass drum whack sounded more powerful and resolved than I've ever heard it on my system and surprisingly good in absolute terms. The track was alive and dynamic, never sounding compressed or confused. The tympani was authoritative, the vibraphone percussive and clear and the sound stage stable and well focused. It just goes to show what having huge reserves of power on tap can provide.
Amplifiers have become a highly competitive category over the last decade. They have come to sound more alike than different as improvements in technology have somewhat mitigated the impact of design compromises at each price point. That is not to say that the least expensive amps now sound like the most expensive amps, but the gap is closing and you can now get more for less than ever before. I would venture to guess that for many audiophiles the NC1000L is an ideal solution. Yes, I'm not a big fan of the name, but in the end, who really cares. The binding posts are a bit more of a bother but unless you are changing speaker cables regularly that shouldn't be an issue either. And a lot of other amps use the same posts, blech. But the amp runs cool, is highly efficient and most importantly, does an exceptional job of making music come alive in your listening room. Highly recommended. Adam Goldfine
You say Nuclear, I say NewClear. Just keep saying our name!
Thank you for lending your ears and experience to hear the new and clear sound that we offer. Like you, audiophiles and music lovers will find that the NC1000L reveals previously obscured performance from their source/preamp/speakers. Let the music begin!