A Case for Cheap Digital Amps

Digital amps - big sound comes in small packages. Aragon and Topping amps

Digital amps – big sound comes in small packages. Aragon and Topping amps.

I’m an audiophile. I love good sound and I love the gear music is played thru. Sometimes I find myself enjoying the gear more than the music. That’s when I put on different music! Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of owning several amplifiers – some good and some not so good. I’ve owned the three amps pictured above (specifically, I owned the Aragon 2004 mkII (the 4004 is pictured), Topping TP21 and Cary Audio SLA70 mkII). These amplifiers represent excellent values in Hi-End Audio. The Aragon is solid state and cost over $1,200 new. The Topping is digital and cost under $100 new. The Cary is tube and cost nearly $2,000 new. They all have their own sonic signature – but which is best?

SMSL, Dayton and Topping make quality digital amps

SMSL, Dayton and Topping make quality digital amps for under $100

I believe digital amps will change audio because they are inexpensive, small and sound amazing!

SMSL digital amp beside a Cary Audio tube amp

SMSL digital amp beside a Cary Audio tube amp

When the Sonic Impact amp came out sometime in 2004 it impressed audiophiles all over the world. Blind tests were arranged where the little digital wonder sounded better than amps costing over $2,000. Today, there are several manufacturer (predominately in China) churning out these little sonic gems. There’s almost no way to get one that doesn’t sound great.

The original Sonic Impact amp was later replaced by the Dayton DTA-1

The original Sonic Impact amp was later replaced by the Dayton DTA-1

My favorite brands are SMSL, Dayton and Topping. Unfortunately, they all feel a bit cheap compared to my multi-thousand dollar Cary tube gear but certainly acceptable for the price. I love them all!

The SMSL is my favorite. Rated at 50 watts it sounds the most dynamic and gets the loudest. It’s pretty much the best sounding amp I’ve ever heard even with a touch of sibilance (which could be my speakers or source – an iPad streaming iTunes Radio). Bass, midrange and treble are all fantastically detailed and dynamic. It compares very favorably with my Cary gear. This is an amazing amp!

The Topping is a little underpowered and requires more efficient speakers than the SMSL. Otherwise it also sounds great. It might have a bit of a softer, less dynamic sound but that may be due to its 25 watt rating. I think it’s even less (my Cary gear is rated at 30 watts and plays much louder).

The Dayton is also rated at 50 watts and gets plenty loud with any speaker. The sound is just as incredible as the other two digital amps. The only problem I had with it was the left and right channel were not balanced at very low volume. Turn the volume up and everything balances out perfectly.

Digital amps sound better than solid state based amps. They remove the grain, flat imaging and dryness only the best solid state is capable of reproducing. To me, most solid state (regardless of price) share similar shortcomings. Tubes sound great but have their own issues. My Cary gear sounds warm and rich but is plagued by hiss and occasional clicks. The tubes must be changed every three years and during that time you never know when a tube will fail. When that happens it’s difficult to enjoy your music. When everything is just right the Cary’s sound wonderful. With digital, if something goes wrong you throw the amp away and buy a new one. I keep a spare in my closet. The original Sonic Impact (and shortly thereafter Dayton equivalent) kicked off an amazing beginning to a bright future for excellent sounding music. In my opinion, digital bridges the gap between solid state and tube. It captures the best qualities of both older technologies. If I knew that these inexpensive and great sounding amps were coming out around the turn of the century I’d have saved my money. I highly recommend my fellow audiophiles (who may be hesitant) purchase a digital amp and setup another system to enjoy. Put it in the kitchen, the bedroom or the basement. Then, when you have time and feel so inclined, swap out your big amp for the digital. Forget about price, size and weight. Hook up your cables and hear what I’m talking about.

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2 thoughts on “A Case for Cheap Digital Amps

  1. Hello Jeff,
    Great site and thank you for the BiB calc. I enjoyed reading about your journey through audio, and the pics you posted. This journey has also left me with many fun and often frustrating memories. I to, had purchased some drivers from that same audio shop in Freeport and also Big Julies, by the Nassau Coliseum in the late 70’s. I remember meeting Charlie, Julies assistance, who had made some omni-directional cubes which were designed for commercial applications. They sounded pretty good for the intended purpose and used Phillips 4 inch full-range drivers and phenolic hard dome tweeters.I remember walking into that crammed shop one day and seeing a pair of 15 inch woofers from England. They came from Albert Royal Hall. They had huge magnets on them and weighed over 80 lbs.each.They were made with sheep skin. I remember that old glass showcase when you first walked into the store, that was loaded with all kinds of goodies for a young teenager to fantasize over. Julie would be sitting in the corner and had this low gravely voice. He would ask you if you were looking or buying. He wasn’t being rude, just straight to the point, in a N.Y sort of way.Buy something or don’t waste my time! LOL I had a ton of fun, building and listening to many great combinations of drivers over the last 40 years and also conclude that single full range loudspeakers, gets out of the way of the music best. I have a friend who has a pair of tweaked Sachico’s ,that employ a super modified pair of Dayton PS 220 and Fostex CD Tweeters. I am always amazed at the level of detail and bass that they produce. He has an 845 SET Mastersound ,Audio GD DAC with a Gold Note Stibbet Transport , which helps bring it all together, but the connection with the music is the best I have heard. That’s where single ended driver’s shine. Great hobby, Take care,

    Mike

    Like

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