Integrated Amplifier of the Year
joint winner: Jeff Rowland Continuum 2
The Continuum 2 manages to combine Jeff Rowland’s legendary build quality with high performance and very green power credentials. This £8,000 400W per channel integrated amp manages to deliver the goods without turning into some kind of heating element thanks to a set of well-executed Class D amplifier modules. Jeff Rowland was one of the first true audiophile brands to embrace Class D, and those extra years of expertise in working the technology have resulted in outstanding sound quality, with a wonderful sense of ‘holographic’ enveloping soundstages, and a very transparent overall performance. Of course, no discussion of Jeff Rowland is complete without talking about the scalloped aluminium front panel, the rich black side and top plates, and professionally finished rear panel block. This is not only for decoration, as the non-resonant properties of the case are a factor in the Continuum 2’s excellent performance. (Reviewed in Issue 120).
Joint winner: Hegel H160
Hegel’s £2,350 H160 integrated amplifier is a complete one-stop high-end audio shop. With its built in high performance DAC, there are many who use the 150W amp with a laptop and a pair of loudspeakers and that is their entire system. While it might not bristle with balance controls, tone controls, or even many analogue inputs, the secret to Hegel’s fine performance is the amp’s seeming inability to know its place in very fine audio company. It’s the kind of amplifier that is just as happy driving exceptionally ‘difficult’ high-end loudspeakers as it is powering up a pair of mid-priced loudspeakers you might expect to be used with an amplifier in this price. We continue to use the H160 in our reference system, as it’s capable of surprising performance with what some feel might be ‘amp-crushing’ loads, thanks to exceptional grip over a loudspeaker’s bass drivers. (Reviewed in Issue 119).
Line stage of the year
Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
Constellation Audio makes exceptional products at exceptional prices, but unlike many brands that make a claim of ‘trickle down’ technology, Constellation actually lives by that goal. The technologies used in its Reference series helped create the Performance series, which in itself was the design jumping off point for the Inspiration line, like the £9,000 PreAmp 1.0. This is a line level preamplifier in a single box, but uses many of the circuits and components that made the two-box Altair II and Virgo II preamplifiers so well respected, at a fraction of the price. Most importantly though, it also retains a lot of the same sound quality characteristics of almost tube-like sweetness coupled with absolute precision and fantastic imaging. Best used with the matching Stereo 1.0 or Mono 1.0 amps and in fully balanced operation, this is, quite simply, one of the best preamps money can buy (Reviewed in Issue 130).
Power amplifier of the year
GamuT M250i mono power amplifier
The ‘Holy Grail’ of power amplifier design would be amps that combine abundant bandwidth, speed, subtlety, and nuance (properties normally associated with smaller amps), coupled with robust power and current drive capabilities, plus terrific grip and control (properties normally associated with larger amps). Sadly, most amps tend to exhibit one set of properties or the other, but not both at once. Happily, however, GamuT’s M250i monoblocks have proven to be the exception to the rule. Although they are very powerful (250Wpc @8 Ohms to 900Wpc @ 2 Ohms), the M250i’s are blessed with extremely simply, fully balanced circuitry (each amplifier uses just two giant NPN MOSFETs, applied in a very clever topology). Consequently, the big GamuTs exhibit exceptional agility, lightning fast transient speeds, and the sort of delicacy and purity typically associated with small Class A amps. In short, the M250i’s are amps for all seasons. (Reviewed in Issue 128).