GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published February 15, 2008

 

Tangent Audio Amp-50 Integrated Amplifier

GOODSOUND! GREAT BUY

My first encounter with Tangent Audio was in April 2007, when I attended the Festival Son & Image electronics show in Montreal. I was writing a show report for GoodSound! and had been assigned to find anything new and promising in affordable audio. Other than several inexpensive tube amplifiers from China, my biggest discovery was the Tangent Audio display. I’d never heard of Tangent, and was attracted to the sea of colorful Evo speakers they were exhibiting. Eventually, my gaze fell on a small stereo system that included the Amp-50 integrated amplifier and CDP-50 CD player. When I was told that each retailed for $299 USD, I asked about reviewing them.

Several months later, when the Amp-50 and CDP-50 finally arrived at my home, each came bearing a new price tag: $259. I hadn’t expected a $40 price drop for something that was already so inexpensive, and was now even more eager to hear them in my own system.

Description

Tangent Audio began designing loudspeakers in 1996, and has since expanded its product line to include a complete suite of electronics. Owned by Danish company Eltax, Tangent now designs and engineers everything in Denmark, while production is completed in China.

The Amp-50 is part of Tangent’s Hi-Fi 50 system, which also includes the CDP-50 CD player and DAB-50 tuner. Each component can be purchased separately, but the Hi-Fi 50 is the entry-level offering for anyone who wants a complete Tangent system. The next step up in quality and price is the Hi-Fi 100 system.

When I unpacked the Amp-50, I was surprised to note some nice details that I haven’t seen from other companies. First, the box has a handle on one side that allows it to be carried like a briefcase. Inside, the Amp-50 was tucked neatly away inside a gray cloth bag printed with the company’s name and obviously intended to prevent scratches during shipping. The instruction manual is comprehensive, with many diagrams and enough text to fully explain the Amp-50’s operation. While such small details in no way affect a product’s performance, they indicated that Tangent wants its customers to enjoy the experience of owning and using their products. Some companies selling far more expensive gear don’t put this much thought into presentation and packaging, so kudos to Tangent for doing it at a bargain-basement price.

The Amp-50 measures 17"W x 2.75"H x 11.25"D and tips the scales at just under 12 pounds. As I noted in my Son & Image show report, Tangent seems to have taken a page from Cambridge Audio’s style book -- not only does it share Cambridge’s sleek faceplates of brushed aluminum, but their blue-backlit displays as well. Although hardly audio jewelry, the Amp-50 looks pretty sharp, and should fit almost as easily into a bedroom as a living room.

Around the back are five line-level inputs and a phono input. Yes, you read that correctly: the Amp-50 has a moving-magnet phono stage. If you’re thinking (as I am) of climbing on the bandwagon of the vinyl resurgence, this has got to be one of the most economical ways to do it. I don’t yet own a turntable, so I couldn’t test the phono stage, but if it’s of the same quality as the rest of the package, then the value of this integrated may rise even higher.

The Amp-50’s tone controls provide 14dB of bass and treble adjustment. As you fine-tune the sound, you can monitor the settings via the front-panel display. Speaking of which, as much as I liked the appearance of the display, I had difficulty reading it from my listening chair (about 8’ from the speakers). It’s not a big deal, but a larger display would have paid huge dividends in my enjoyment in using the Amp-50. There’s also a headphone jack on the front -- another nice feature. It all adds up to a surprisingly flexible package for a very modest investment.

The Amp-50 is rated at 40Wpc into 8 ohms or 50Wpc into 4 ohms -- in short, a relatively low power output, which isn’t surprising given the low price. I’d be suspicious if Tangent claimed much more. The Amp-50 could hold its own at reasonable volume levels in my room, but I don’t recommend it for large rooms if you listen to your music really loud.

The Amp-50’s remote control is made of cheap plastic, but it worked flawlessly during the review period, and will also control all functions of the CDP-50 CD player and DAB-50 tuner.

I used the Amp-50 in a system comprising an NAD C542 CD player, PSB Platinum M2 speakers, Blue Circle BC6000 power-line conditioner, AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cables, and Kimber Kable Tonik interconnects.

Off on a Tangent

The aspect of the Amp-50’s sound that most surprised me was its low noise floor -- I was impressed by the detail the Tangent was able to retrieve from the quiet recesses of some of my favorite discs. It’s not that I hadn’t heard these details before; I just didn’t expect to hear them from something priced almost low enough to be sold at Wal-Mart. But once the Tangent was in my system, I found myself playing a lot of choral and other church-recorded music.

My most recent CD purchase was a disc of Christmas music, Yuletide Fires, by Chor Leoni, a male choir based in Vancouver [CD, Cypress Choral Recordings CCR0601]. The selection of works varies widely, ranging from Gregorian Chant and traditional cantiques to Canadian and British carols. The beauty of the singing is sublime, and matched by the excellent quality of the recording. The Amp-50 did a very good job of conveying the expansiveness of the various churches in which these songs were recorded. The sense of depth in the choir was most notable, with good center fill between the speakers. On "Letabundus," the singers’ voices filled the rear left and right corners of the stage, rather than simply occupying the center rear. As a church bell chimed in the distance, I imagined myself sitting in a monastery witnessing this profound act of rejoicing. Then I began thinking how remarkably involving this budget integrated amp sounded.

I then played another seasonal album, Loreena McKennitt’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away [CD, Quinlan Road QRCD102]. Recorded in churches in Ireland and Canada, the soundscapes permeating these songs are vast and empty, a perfect aural metaphor for winter’s cold and desolation. (As I write this, the temperature outside is 10F and a winter storm watch predicts more than a foot of snow.) The Amp-50’s low noise floor was able to extract plenty of detail from "In Praise of Christmas," including creaks and cracks that could be heard throughout the church’s acoustic. However, when I turned up the volume, McKennitt’s voice became a touch bright in its upper registers, so I backed off the volume a bit. I might have reached the Amp-50’s limits there -- at more comfortable listening levels, McKennitt’s voice had an immediacy through the Amp-50 that drew my full attention. I listened to the entire disc.

Having been impressed with how the Tangent acquitted itself on these albums, I wasn’t too surprised by how much I enjoyed a collection of the music of Hildegard of Bingen, A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns, recorded by Gothic Voices in 1981 [CD, Hyperion CDA66039]. The Amp-50 did a very good job of reproducing this 12th-century vocal music, creating a big soundstage with a good sense of height. As I’d noticed with the McKennitt disc, however, soprano Emily van Evera’s voice on "O Euchari, in leta via" was a bit closer than I’m accustomed to, and sounded a bit strident at high volumes.

I then popped Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall 1971 [CD, Reprise CDW27] in the CD player and hit Play. If you’re a fan of Neil Young, particularly of this period in his career, you must hear this album. This legendary concert is like a snapshot of an artist who, at age 25, captivates an audience with songs that will establish him as one of the most important folk artists of his time. Furthermore, the sound quality is exceptionally good, and the package includes a DVD of the concert, as well as some home video taken at Young’s ranch. Through the Amp-50, I was reminded that the concert took place during the cold Canadian winter by the sheer number of audience members who coughed between songs. I don’t mean to suggest that the ability to hear people suffering from colds in a convincing manner is an attribute of good hi-fi; however, creating a tangible sense of acoustic space is critical if one’s goal is to realistically reproduce a piece of music. I didn’t expect that quality from an integrated amplifier costing a fraction of what some audiophiles spend on speaker cables, but that’s exactly what I got from the Tangent Amp-50.

The Amp-50 wasn’t without shortcomings, one of which I’ve already mentioned: its inability to sound composed at loud volumes. This wasn’t all that surprising, given its power rating; in their advertising, Tangent even states that their Hi-Fi 50 system is intended for consumers who "aren’t impressed by booms and bangs, but enjoy a quiet evening listening to your favorite music." I don’t think they meant that the Amp-50 shouldn’t be played loudly, but I thought it sounded best at normal listening levels. For the most part, I wasn’t conscious of its limited headroom, but found that I could push the Amp-50’s limits for only short periods of time before it began to sound unpleasant.

In the bass, the Amp-50 lacked the speed, tightness, and sheer impact of some of the integrated amps from NAD and Bryston with which I’m familiar, and which are much more expensive and more powerful. Radiohead’s newest album, In Rainbows, available only as a download at the time of writing, features several songs with deep bass whose impact can really be felt if your system is up to the task. With the Tangent, I could feel the bass energize the room, but the lowest octaves sounded congested and out of focus. The clarity and tightness I’m used to hearing weren’t there. I heard the same thing when listening to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops’ Hi-Fi Fiedler [CD, RCA Living Stereo 67895-2]. While the soundstage was wide and each section of the orchestra was easy to distinguish, I thought the percussion lacked depth and control. Granted, the foundation was still solid, but the Amp-50 didn’t have the vise-like grip on my speakers of other, admittedly far more expensive, integrated amplifiers I’ve heard.

Comparison

I compared the Tangent Amp-50 to the NAD C372 ($899), which is rated at 150Wpc. The C372 is an excellent reference for performance at what can still be considered a reasonable asking price. No one should expect the Amp-50 to perform to this level, but such a comparison can illustrate just how much of the NAD’s performance the Amp-50 offers for less than a third of the price.

In terms of transparency, the Tangent fared extremely well against the NAD at normal listening levels. The C372’s warmer sound actually made it a bit less transparent than the Amp-50 -- for late-night listening, I’d be just as happy with the Amp-50. However, I much preferred the C372 at higher SPLs, when its 150Wpc were more easily able to handle wide dynamic shifts in the music.

Not surprisingly, given its much higher power output, the NAD’s bass performance bettered the Tangent’s, giving me a better-defined low end with more slam and extension -- and I could play my speakers as loudly as I wanted. Nor was the Amp-50 quite able to compete with the NAD in soundstaging; despite its warmer sound, the C372 conveyed more of a sense of space. The Tangent’s soundstage was more compressed, more confined to the space between the speakers. Still, I was impressed with the Amp-50’s refinement and resolution, particularly for the price.

Conclusion

For several years now, I’ve had a dilemma: How do I explain to someone assembling a first hi-fi system that he or she should expect to spend $400 on the integrated amplifier alone? The integrated amp in question is always NAD’s C320BEE ($399), and while I know there are other integrated amps that compete with the C320BEE in the same price bracket, the NAD is the one I’m familiar with. I normally recommend it because I consider it worth owning if you’re serious about good sound. Most people I know consider $400 a lot of money to spend on a stereo component (shocking, I know). But I just hadn’t found a less expensive alternative that I wouldn’t feel guilty about suggesting in the NAD’s place.

Until Tangent Audio’s Amp-50 came along. The Amp-50 is a ridiculously good value -- although not without shortcomings, it has plenty of strengths: good build quality, a rich feature set complete with phono stage, and good overall sound quality with levels of transparency and resolution that I hadn’t expected for $259. I know of no other integrated amplifier at the price that can match it in these areas -- the Amp-50 occupies a class of its own.

If you’re thinking of building a first stereo system -- or even a second system -- and don’t want to spend a lot of cash, you’d be silly not to give the Amp-50 an audition. Pair it with some appropriately priced, well-engineered speakers (the PSB Alpha B1s I reviewed last February come to mind), and you’ll likely be surprised by how much more there is to hear in your music collection. With the Tangent Amp-50, the price of entry to good sound just got a little lower. Definitely a GoodSound! Great Buy! -- and then some.

...Philip Beaudette

Price of equipment reviewed


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