November 15, 2009

Trends Audio PA-10 SE Preamplifier and TA-10.2P SE Power Amplifier

Trends Audio, based in Hong Kong, has been around only a few years, but have made a name for themselves with a series of inexpensive but high-quality, ultracompact audio components. I reviewed their Tripath-based TA-10.1 integrated switching amplifier and UD-10.1 USB digital converter, and was thoroughly impressed by both. In fact, I use the UD-10.1 in my reference system to convert the USB output of my laptop computer to S/PDIF, to send digital audio signals to an Anthem D2 audio/video processor. This combination of elements has become my main audio source.

The latest products from Trends are the PA-10 tube headphone preamplifier and TA-10.2P power amplifier. I was sent the upgraded, Special Edition versions: the PA-10 SE ($265 USD) and TA-10.2P SE ($199). The standard PA-10 and TA-10.2P cost $225 and $179, respectively. (Trends also offers the PA-10 GE version of the preamp, also priced at $265 and identical to the PA-10 SE, except for the fact that it comes with a US-made GE 12AU7 tube instead of a Russian 6H23n tube.)


Like other Trends products, the two SE models are housed in small aluminum enclosures; each measures 2.96"W x 1.8"H x 4.4"D, not including knobs or plugs. The finish is a big improvement over the earlier models’ dowdy matte gray: the newbies are coated in attractive black enamel, with silver front and rear plates.

The PA-10 SE uses a single Russian 6H23n tube (the standard PA-10 has a Chinese 6N11 tube) and upgraded EVOX capacitors. On the rear panel are two pairs of RCA inputs with a sliding switch to select between them, one pair of RCA outputs, the power toggle switch, and the DC power input for the external power supply (a wall wart). The front panel has only a volume control and a 1/8" headphone jack. The lightweight plastic volume knob has a less positive feel than I would have liked, but on such an inexpensive product it’s excusable. Power-on status is indicated by the glow of the tube itself, whose top pokes up above the case, as well as a blue LED mounted inside, below the tube.

The TA-10.2P SE is the power-amplifier version of Trends’ TA-10.1 switch-mode integrated amplifier, with a few modifications. It uses the same Tripath TA2024 chip, but has Trends’ new MKP audio input decoupling capacitors and Rubycon MCZ power-filtering caps. The TA-10.2P SE is further differentiated from the standard version by an upgraded power supply rated at 48W and 4 amps (vs. 36W and 3 amps). Trends claims that the SE’s power output is up to 10Wpc into 8 ohms or 15Wpc into 4 ohms. On the rear panel, between the pairs of relatively high-quality speaker binding posts, is a pair of RCA inputs. Still, the binding posts are fairly close together; I recommend high-quality banana plugs or bare wire. On the right are a power toggle switch and a DC power inlet for the external power supply. On the front panel is nothing but a blue power-indicator LED.


I used the PA-10 SE and TA-10.2P SE with pairs of Paradigm Cinema 330 and Athena AS-B1 loudspeakers and an Oppo Digital DV-970HD SACD/CD/DVD player. (This system is usually amplified by the aforementioned Trends TA-10.1 integrated.) Audio Magic Xstream speaker cables and interconnects were used, as was a pair of Sennheiser HD 580 headphones.

Prior to beginning listening, or after changing tubes, Trends strongly recommends that the user adjust the DC bias voltage of each channel of the PA-10 SE, and periodically thereafter -- it can drift. I did this fairly easily with a digital multimeter, and soon was ready to begin listening. I found that the PA-10 SE sounded best after warming up for a few minutes; its aluminum case grew relatively hot during normal use.


I was impressed by the richness of sound produced by the Trends Audio SE duo, especially compared with the sound of my TA-10.1 integrated. There was now more bottom end, and although the TA-10.2P SE power amp has the same power rating as the TA-10.1, the sound was subjectively louder.

The Paradigm Cinema 330 is a slim, midsized speaker primarily designed to be mounted on walls. It has five drivers, but its bass and midrange cones are only 4.5" in diameter, and its cabinet is sealed. Even so, the sound was full-bodied with the Trends combo -- satisfyingly so for a relatively small speaker -- with good depth and an immediacy to voices. Peter Gabriel’s voice on the title track of his Shaking the Tree (SACD/CD, Geffen 606949362829) was sparklingly clear, and Youssou N’Dour’s backing vocal was solid and soulful. Although the bass was a little lightweight, probably primarily due to the Cinema 330’s limited low-end extension, it was tight and well defined. The piano and guitars exhibited good dynamic range that provided a sound that was surprisingly big and powerful. And the bass was exceptionally taut on "Biko," with excellent imaging on a hauntingly wide soundstage.

Neko Case’s slightly diffuse, ethereal voice, on her Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (CD, Anti- 04577867772), was especially alluring, floating between the speakers in "Margaret vs. Pauline." In "The Needle Touched Down," her voice was a bit more precise than on most of the other tracks, as were the guitar, various strings, and snare drum. While the PA-10 SE and TA-10.2P SE didn’t exert the kind of vise-like grip and pinpoint imaging that I’m accustomed to hearing from larger, more expensive amplifiers, the sound was exceptionally pleasing for such inexpensive gear.

After switching to the Athena AS-B1 bookshelf speakers, I definitely heard more bass -- perhaps a bit too much. Actually, it was less that there was too much bass than that what bass there was was a little vague and undefined. The drumbeats that open "Biko" were deep and ominous but slightly overblown. The purer midrange of the Paradigm Cinemas also served the Trends combo well, with wonderful vocals that the Athenas couldn’t match. Overall, the PA-10 SE and TA-10.2P SE still sounded very good through the Athenas, but I preferred them with the more balanced and neutral-sounding Paradigm Cinema 330s, even though there was less bass.

I heard the same bold, luxurious sound when listening to the Sennheiser HD 580s plugged into the PA-10 SE’s headphone jack. Sarah McLachlan’s voice on Surfacing (CD, Nettwerk 067003011624) was breathy and silky-smooth. The exceptional reproduction of instruments on her "Sweet Surrender," along with excellent dynamics and plenty of drive, let me easily follow the flow of the music. More rocking albums also sounded fantastic -- such as Please Please Me, from The Beatles in Mono (CD, Capitol 5099969945120). There was a clean, punchy sound to "I Saw Her Standing There" that precisely delineated the vocals from the guitars, bass, percussion, and handclaps. George Harrison’s bluesy guitar solo sounded especially energetic through the PA-10 SE and the Sennheisers.


The PA-10 SE and TA-10.2P SE pre/power amplifier combo was clearly superior to Trends’ TA-10.1 integrated amplifier ($179) -- only to be expected, considering the $285 difference in price. While the TA-10.1 sounded excellent for such an inexpensive, ultracompact integrated, the SE duo simply sounded more substantial and better fleshed out.

With the Trends SEs, the Paradigm Cinema 330 speakers played louder and were more extended in the bass, and thus sounded more like large bookshelf speakers and less like slim "lifestyle" models. The midrange was smoother and seemed better integrated with the highs and lows, resulting in a deeper, more continuous soundstage in which instruments and voices blended seamlessly. Neko Case’s voice was even more lucid and expressive in her "The Needle Touched Down," and the soundstage was surprisingly wide.

But while the SE pairing had a bolder sound, they didn’t necessarily sound any less neutral than the TA-10.1 -- or any more neutral, as might be expected of two components that, together, represent a 259% increase in retail price. What the SEs did do was play louder with less noticeable distortion and a fuller sound, making the TA-10.1 sound a bit thin in comparison.

But it wasn’t only the tubed PA-10 SE preamplifier that contributed to the superior sound of the SE combo over the TA-10.1 integrated. When compared to the TA-10.1, its internal jumpers configuring to operate as only a power amp, the TA-10.2P SE exhibited better control over the bass and a more balanced sound overall. At times, the TA-10.1 sounded somewhat lean in comparison.

Used by itself as a headphone amp, the PA-10 SE had a richer sound than HeadRoom’s Total BitHead ($159). The BitHead has a pretty good built-in DAC, is able to draw power from the USB output, and includes HeadRoom’s patented Crossfeed circuit for more natural imaging, but it didn’t sound as powerful as the PA-10 SE. Although the PA-10 SE imaged more "inside" the head, as do most headphone amps, everything sounded bigger and less constrained. The lower registers of the piano in "Oh Mary," from Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs (CD, Columbia 82796947782), were powerfully stirring, and Diamond’s smoky voice had more body and palpability. And the PA-10 SE was better able to drive the Sennheisers to higher levels without distortion.

Although I loved the rich, hybrid sound of the PA-10 SE in combination with the TA-10.2P SE, the latter’s low power output will require some care in matching speakers. The SE duo drove both the Paradigm Cinema 330 and Athena AS-B1 speakers to moderate listening levels, but weren’t able to push them to party-approved levels. Companies such as NAD and Cambridge Audio make higher-powered, solid-state integrated amps in this price range that offer the flexibility of more inputs and remote-control operation. If you don’t need this kind of additional power, and can get by with only two inputs and without a remote control, the Trends SEs should give you the sort of thoroughly involving sound that’s seldom heard from such affordable products.


I absolutely enjoyed my time with the tiny Trends Audio PA-10 SE preamplifier and TA-10.2P SE power amplifier. The SEs cost significantly more than the earlier Trends products I’ve heard and admired, and with higher costs come higher expectations of sound quality -- in that regard, these models delivered. Like their predecessors, the new Trends components gave me hours of musical enjoyment and made reviewing them a pleasure.

I don’t think the SEs are quite as incredible a value as the TA-10.1 integrated amplifier, which once retailed for only $129, let alone the original TA-10, which cost a mere $99 -- very few products could. That said, the PA-10 SE and TA-10.2P SE comprise a good-sounding, compact tube-and-solid-state amplification system for $464 -- a price I consider to be still very reasonable.

. . . Roger Kanno

Trends Audio PA-10 SE Preamplifier
Price: $265 USD.
Trends Audio TA-10.2P SE Power Amplifier
Price: $199 USD.
Warranty (both): One year parts and labor.

Trends Audio
ITOK Media Limited
Unit E, 13/F, World Tech Centre
95 How Ming Street
Kwun Tong, Hong Kong
Phone: +852 2304 0730
Fax: +852 2566 5740