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Published May 1, 2007

 

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Trends Audio TA-10.1 Integrated Amplifier

Class-T amplifiers are based on audio-amplification integrated circuits (ICs) made by Tripath Technology Inc. While some of the lower-powered and, presumably, less expensive versions of these ICs are specified for use with flat-panel TVs and powered multimedia speakers, they first came to my attention as implemented in Bel Canto’s eVo amplifiers and some models from Audio Research Corporation -- excellent-sounding amplifiers built to extremely high standards, with very large power supplies and associated high-quality components, and costing thousands of dollars.

But some specialty audio manufacturers make inexpensive yet high-quality class-T amps with these chips, and the Hong Kong-based Trends Audio is one of them. Trends introduced their TA-10 class-T integrated amplifier last year, and have already replaced it with the TA-10.1. The new version is said to have higher-quality power filtering and larger input coupling capacitors. The original version retailed for a remarkable $99 USD; the TA-10.1 costs a still very reasonable $129.95.

Description

Class-T amplifiers operate in switch mode, meaning that their output devices can be switched to either the on or off position. This differs from more traditional linear amplifiers such as class-A and -A/B designs, in which the output devices are always on, or a complementary pair of output devices is biased so that both are never off at the same time. Because of this, class-T amplifiers are much more efficient than class-A and -A/B designs. Class-T amplifiers are actually very similar to class-D designs, which also operate in switch mode but generally have poor linearity. Tripath claims that class-T amps are much more linear, like class-A and -A/B amps, due to their proprietary Digital Power Processing (DPP).

The TA-10.1 is small and light, looking more like a headphone amplifier than an integrated amp. Granted, it’s rated at a maximum power output of only 15Wpc into 4 ohms, indicating use with only very efficient speakers; still, I was impressed by its sturdy aluminum case and surprisingly solid gold-plated RCA connectors and speaker binding posts. Not so surprisingly, the TA-10.1 has only one set of inputs. Even so, its rear panel is pretty cramped -- speaker cables with large spades will be cumbersome to use. I recommend banana plugs or bare wire. There’s also a small toggle switch for AC power, and a socket for the feed from the TA-10.1’s 12V power supply. Around front are a volume knob and a blue power-indicator LED. There are internal jumpers that can be configured to bypass the volume control so that TA-10.1 can be used as a power amplifier, though I didn’t use it in this configuration.

The external power supply is similar to one you’d use with a laptop computer. Because the power supply is external and class-T operation is so efficient, the TA-10.1 is small enough -- 1.9"W x 1.3"H x 4.5"D and weighing only 11ounces -- to literally fit in the palm of the hand, and runs cool enough that, without the LED, you’d never know it was powered up.

Listening

One evening, I set up the TA-10.1 in my office with an NAD 502 CD player, Athena Technologies Audition AS-B1 bookshelf speakers, generic interconnects, and zip cord for speaker wire. Although the speakers sat off to one side of the room, I was continually drawn into the music, and didn’t get much work done that evening. There was just something very "right" about the TA-10.1’s sound.

Robbie Robertson’s primarily instrumental Music for the Native Americans [CD, Capitol 724382829522] sounded remarkably clear and uncongested. The soundstage of "The Vanishing Breed" was wide, with a robust sound. The pipes floated just inside the left speaker and didn’t waver, while the drums were remarkably deep and tight. I was able to easily follow the melody of the opening piano bars on "Straighten Up and Fly Right," from Diana Krall’s first album, Stepping Out [CD, Justin Time 068944005024]. Although Krall’s piano is recorded at a fairly low level, each note was well defined, with excellent pitch. Her voice had a solid center image and a palpable feel on "Frim Fram Sauce" and "Body and Soul." I couldn’t stop listening, and found myself pulling out all of the CDs I had at the office to listen to my favorite tracks.

After listening to the TA-10.1 in my office system for a few days and being suitably impressed, I brought it home and set it up with the same Athena AS-B1 speakers, this time with the overachieving DV-970HD DVD-Audio/SACD player from Oppo Digital. I also used some of my favorite real-world wire: Audio Magic Xstream interconnects, Analysis Plus Clear Oval speaker cables, and Shunyata Research Venom AC cords. Each of these cables costs almost as much as or more than the TA-10.1 itself.

What I’d heard at the office was further reinforced in my main listening room. For such a diminutive amp, the TA-10.1 had a surprisingly big, bold sound, throwing up a huge soundstage that made me think I was listening to a much more powerful, much more expensive amplifier. Sure, it couldn’t play incredibly loud, but at normal listening levels it was an absolute joy to listen to. Neil Young’s latest, Live at Massey Hall [CD, Reprise 093624332725], is a bleak but beautifully intimate recording. The 24-bit/96kHz two-channel PCM track on the Special Edition CD sounded especially good. The gentle piano playing that accompanies Young’s hushed singing on "Heart of Gold" flowed smoothly and naturally. At times the pitches Young sings are almost inaudible, but the TA-10.1 conveyed all of the feeling in his voice, which is often barely above a whisper. On "Old Man," Young sounded more piercing but never harsh, and the powerful sound of his piano on "See the Sky About to Rain" was handled with ease by the TA-10.1.

More heavily produced albums, such as Seal’s Best 1991-2004 [DVD-A, Warner Bros. 0936248776-91], sounded equally good. The bass on "Killer" was tight and controlled. The TA-10.1 was able to eke out every last bit of low-frequency information that the Athena speakers were capable of reproducing. If I closed my eyes, I would have sworn I was listening to a more powerful amplifier with larger, floorstanding speakers. On "Don’t Cry," the piano, guitar, and Seal’s voice were all distinct and sounded wonderfully clean and clear.

For the TA-10.1’s final test, I pulled out Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around [CD, American 0440077083-09]. The acoustic guitar on the title track had plenty of bite, and Cash’s voice was rightfully raspy, and placed precisely between the speakers. As "Hurt" built to its massive climax in the final verse, the TA-10.1 was able to hold it all together with very little distortion. Although this is an acoustic album, all of the instruments and vocals are very closely miked. This makes it extremely difficult to play back at realistic levels, but the TA-10.1 did an admirable job.

Images, such as Cash’s voice, were extremely sharp but sometimes slightly two-dimensional, lacking in depth. They also seemed a bit too distinct and cutout-like, which took away from the ambience of some recordings. Aside from that, and the fact that it could not play extremely loud, I couldn’t trip up the little TA-10.1 no matter what I played. Sure, there were a few minor quibbles, but I’d expect as much from an amplifier costing many times the price of the TA-10.1. At $129.95, its level of performance was astounding.

The TA-10.1 matched well with a variety of speakers. The new PSB Alpha B1s ($279/pair) sounded similar to the Athena AS-B1s ($149.95/pair, discontinued), but were slightly laid-back. The PSBs were a little more neutral, but the Athenas’ more forward sound gave music added jump. The Mirage Omni 260s ($1000/pair, discontinued) were an intoxicating combination with the TA-10.1. The Mirages’ smooth, Omnipolar sound further enhanced the TA-10.1’s huge soundstage: they didn’t image as sharply as the other speakers, but the sound was more coherent overall. Vocals weren’t placed as precisely between the speakers, but the TA-10.1’s big, rich sound gave instruments substantial weight. Seal’s Best 1991-2004 sounded even more solid, with driving bass lines and a soundstage that extended well outside of the speakers.

Comparison

My Bel Canto eVo6 multichannel power amplifier ($4900, discontinued), also a class-T design, weighs -- and costs -- about 40 times as much as the Trends Audio TA-10.1. I won’t be replacing the eVo6 with a TA-10.1 any time soon, but it some ways the little Trends amp reminded me of the larger, more expensive Bel Canto. Each had a natural way of presenting music that was not overly analytical, and neither editorialized on the sound to any great degree. When mated to a preamplifier of commensurate quality, the eVo6 was clearly superior, but considering the difference in price, the TA-10.1 was remarkably capable.

I had no other integrated amplifiers to compare directly to the TA-10.1, but I did have Cambridge Audio’s top-of-the-line Azur 640R surround receiver ($1399), which sounds excellent in two-channel mode. It exerted a tighter grip on American IV: The Man Comes Around, with a better sense of the guitar’s body and more twang to each strum. The piano also sounded bigger and more robust with the Cambridge, but individual notes seemed to flow more effortlessly through the Trends. Not only was the piano more expressive through the TA-10.1, it was easier to unravel the interplay of Fiona Apple and Johnny Cash’s voices with the organ and strings on "Bridge Over Troubled Water." I wouldn’t hesitate to use the Azur 640R in a high-quality A/V system for both music and movies, but I kept coming back to the TA-10.1 for its natural, graceful way with stereo recordings.

Conclusion

I can’t think of another audio component I’ve had more fun with in recent years than the Trends Audio TA-10.1. It provided me with more than just a taste of the high end, and at a ridiculously low price. If you can live with its single input and relatively low output of 15Wpc, you’ll be rewarded with a quality of sound that isn’t just good for the price, it’s just plain good, period. I’ll keep the TA-10.1 in my family room, where I’ll use it for more than just watching TV or background music. Now that I have this little gem of an amp, I plan to listen to much more music away from my main system.

...Roger Kanno

Price of equipment reviewed


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