Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Rotel RCD-971 CD player, Sony SCD-XE670 SACD player, both modified with IEC jacks to replace captive AC cords
Preamp/Integrated: Bryston B60 integrated, Audio Zone AMP-1, Manley Labs Stingray [in for review], Underwood HiFi Level-2 Music Hall Mambo [in for review]
Amp: Amps? Who needs separates with such good sounding integrateds!
Speakers: Meadowlark Kestrel 2, Angstrom Omega 5
Cables: DH Labs Q10 loudspeaker cables, DH Labs Revelation and Air Matrix interconnects, DH Labs Power Plus power cords, GutWire Power Clef SE & C Clef power cables [in for review]
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand.
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow, GutWire MaxCon AC line conditioner [in for review]
Sundry accessories: Caig Pro Gold contact enhancer, Walker Audio Vivid CD treatment, Black Diamond Racing Cones Mk3, GutWire Notepads, AudioPrism Isobearings, dedicated AC line with Hubbell outlets.
Room size: 13' x17' x 8', long-wall setup.
Review Component Retail: $1,200
One of the most competitive product categories in two-channel audio is the affordable integrated amplifier. This is especially true in the Far East and Europe where such components tend to be more popular than in North America. US audiophiles generally sniff in disdain at such diminutive enclosures. To be any good, it has to be big, expensive and extend over several enclosures. Right? Balloon juice, sez I. While possibly lacking in audiophile fireworks, I have found many small integrated amps to offer a more coherent and emotionally involving musical experience than their more expensive, separate brethren - in some cases even from the same manufacturer. Bryston's BP-25/3B ST pre/power combo provides exceptional sound quality in a traditional audiophile sense, but their B60 integrated is, to my ears, more musically coherent. Perhaps shorter signal paths, fewer power transistors and the single star ground have something to do with my perceived improved musicality?
For a small manufacturer to take on the paragons of affordable integrateds such as Arcam, Creek and Rega requires serious chops and not a little ingenuity. Part of the problem about offering a new product in such a highly contested category is that retailers are generally reluctant to carry unknown brands with little or no press behind them. It's the old "If it ain't in Stereophile, we ain't carrying it" syndrome. If a dealer does elect to carry the brand, there is a real possibility the unknown product may not be displayed prominently or demonstrated to full effect. What exasperates the situation is that audio magazines can be just as leery of equipment that isn't widely available. This indeed becomes a vicious Catch-22 that must be frustrating to new companies struggling to break into the audiophile marketplace: No reviews = no dealers; no dealers = no reviews. What's a manufacturer to do?
The folks behind today's review subject, the Vasant_K (pronounced WAH-san-Kay) GA-120S Final Edition integrated amplifier, have boldly decided to bypass the traditional dealer network and offer their wares Internet-direct. With a generous in-home audition policy, a far greater market is thus made available, insuring direct contact between maker and every potential customer and vice versa. By eliminating the retail network, dealer/rep markups can be avoided, the savings passed to the consumer. Don't believe me?
How many $1200 integrated amplifiers can you name that are completely hand-built with solid silver internal wiring; are packaged with your choice of component feet; include an audiophile quality power cable, Cardas EMI/RFI caps, Cardas TC-2 contact cleaner and even a Hubbell hospital grade wall outlet wherein to plug the fancy power cable? These accessories alone are worth several hundreds of dollars. I don't know of any other integrated that comes with such comprehensive audiophile goodies. The generous 30-day money back period ensures happy symbiosis with your system, something you should ascertain with any piece of equipment before buying it, regardless of how many positive reviews a product has received. Right?
If you live in the Toronto area or are willing to make the trip, the North American distributor Song Kim of Song Audio will be more than happy to demonstrate this amp as well as Song Audio's SET amps and loudspeakers in his home. Song Audio is also the Canadian distributor for the Argent RoomLens and Loth-X loudspeakers and you will be hard pressed to find a more congenial and enthusiastic ambassador of audio than Mr. Kim.
|The Vasant_K GA-120S Final Edition is designed and manufactured by Vasant Kittayanurak of Classic Sound Research in Thailand and in association with Canada's Song Audio Ltd. The GA-120S is a 50wpc dual-mono Class AB line level amplifier with 20dB of negative feedback. There is no active preamp section - the GA-120S is essentially a power amplifier with a passive volume control. According to their website, the GA-120S Final Edition is "an entry-level 'purist' solid-state line-level integrated amplifier with minimalist features and flexibility (no remote control, preamp out, biwiring binding posts, or signal-degrading DC protection for the loudspeakers). It was 'built for sound' for expert users. It takes the spartan approach of using the minimum parts necessary to take the source signal and establish the most direct connection to the loudspeakers.|
Most of the tweaking involves hand-selection of parts and experimentation with non-electrical (mechanical) methods of tweaking (such as material structure, mass, shape, and coupling of mass and decoupling or dampening of resonance)". The only protection for the amplifier is a 3amp slow blow fuse. The designers believe that any further protection would compromise sonic performance.
At a lower cost, the GA-120S is also available with a single transformer in GA-120S 0.1 guise. I've heard this version alongside the GA-120S and can tell you unequivocally that the double-tranny model eats the GA-120S 0.1 for breakfast. Bass was more extended and delineated, the midrange warmer and more defined. So significant is the difference that Song Audio only offers the smaller version upon direct request. Though the GA-120S 0.1 sells for $200 less, the sonic improvement of the dual-transformer version is definitely worth the small upcharge.
Power consumption: 400 watts maximum
Power output (both channels 20Hz - 20KHz): 50 wpc/8 Ohms, 100 wpc/4 ohms
Input impedance: 25 kOhms
Input sensitivity (passive): 400 mVrms
Frequency response: 20 Hz to 20 KHz (-/+ 3 dB)
THD/IM distortion: 0.1% at 1 KHz
Signal-to-noise ratio (A-weighted): -80 dB
Dimensions: 16.9" x 5.9" x 11.8" WxHxD
Net weight: 22 lb
Vasant_K provides a non-transferable limited 10-year parts & labor guarantee/warranty to the original owner of the product.
|The amp is completely hand-assembled, with an aluminum upper and steel lower clamshell capturing the aluminum front plate. On either side of the centrally mounted blue power LED are aluminum knobs for source selection (left) and volume (right). The far right metal toggle is the power on/off mains. On the rear are two pairs of heavy duty gold-plated binding posts, an IEC power inlet, five line level inputs including a separate record input that bypasses the source selector and its associated circuitry for the most direct link to the amp. For optimum sonics, Mr. Kim recommends to use this input for the primary source. There is no phono section, remote control, headphone jack, balance control, pre-out or processor loop. Indeed, the GA-120S is a bona fide purist's hair-shirt amplifier. I like it! External build quality, while not quite up to the standards set by my Bryston B60, is perfectly fine for the price. My only quibbles were the skull-piercingly bright LED and the somewhat rough finish and feel of the knobs. For $1200, there are bound to be certain trade-offs. However, the interior layout and build was superior to other amps I've seen at this price - my old Arcam Delta 290 wasn't as well put together as this Vasant_K.
As can be seen in the photos, the internal layout is neat and tidy. The right side is dominated by a pair of 200VA toroidal transformers. Transistors are Sanken bipolar devices. Resistors and filter caps (with a total 27,200 uF) are Resista and Marcon respectively. All internal signal wiring is 98% solid silver.
As mentioned earlier, the GA-120S ships with a considerable goody bag of extras. No ubiquitous Belden power cable here as the GA-120S is equipped with a handsome audiophile quality cord, a 1.5m affair constructed of 98% solid silver, clothed in a dark green fabric sleeve and terminated with Wattgate 320 IEC and Marinco 8215T hospital grade connectors. It is essentially identical to the cord packaged with the Song Audio SA-34 SB SET amp I reviewed a few months ago. If the power cable surprises you, how does a Hubbell HBL 8300HI 20 amp hospital grade wall outlet strike you? There's more: Cardas caps for EMI/RFI shielding of unused inputs; two 3ml bottles of Cardas TC-2 electrical contact cleaner/enhancer; and last but not least, your choice of equipment supports - either 18K gold plated bronze cones (for floor placement) or Vibrapod feet. The choice must be made at time of purchase as switching footers involves removing the motherboard. Whew!
Initially, I used the GA-120S with the bronze cones installed. Unlike other footers, these sport a much longer shank and are specifically designed for floor placement, a boon to those who do not have a proper stand. However, I thought performance went up a notch or two when I swapped the cones for Vibrapods and placed the amp on my rack. This is the configuration used for most of my listening. With the softer feet, I obtained a wee bit tighter and more developed bass, a slightly wider and deeper soundstage and a darker, quieter background. All these add-ons and the relatively low price would be for naught if the GA-120S didn't perform. This was a short-lived concern as this amp proved to be more than acceptable for the price. While my review sample was fully burned in, I gave it another 100-hour stint in my TV system before sitting down for a few weeks of critical and background listening.