I have heard a lot of amps in the last 20 years – from $300 economy specials made in China to $30,000 esoteric designs from the U.S. and Europe. Of the premium amps I have heard, I will tell you right up front that I have not heard anything better than the Bryston 14B SST.
Whatever I threw at it musically sounded as close to the real thing as you can get using an amplifier. It may be the perfect amp for mastering, a studio control room or as part of an ensemble for high power multichannel monitoring.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, mastering, reference listening
Key Features: Twin power supply stereo amp, 600 watts per channel at 8 ohms, 800 into 4 ohms; balanced or unbalanced inputs three-way binding posts, voltage control for fixed install, 19-inch rackmount with carrying handles
Contact: Bryston at 626-355-9525, Web Site.
+ Muscle-amp power
+ Tight, controlled bass
+ Excellent soundstage
+ Smooth transients
+ Voltage-control remote operation
– Wimpy front-panel power switch
The Score: The 14B SST just may be the best sounding stereo amp on the market.
Priced at $5,900, the 14B is a massive power amp, putting out 600 watts of Class AB power per channel into 8 ohms and 900 watts at 4 ohms. For those who love specs, the amp puts out about 25 watts in Class A, which means for many applications this amp will never run in Class AB.
Available in black or silver finish, with black being the standard pro finish with 19-inch rackspace-size and rack handles, the 14B SST weighs in at a heavy 80 pounds. (Hint: It is easier to carry out of the box.) Bryston also makes the 7B SST monoblock versions of the 14B, which puts each channel into a separate chassis.
As with most modern power amps, the front panel is minimalist – with two channel status LEDs and the power switch, located behind the “SST” logo. Green LED indicates normal operation, red indicates power up and orange indicates thermal shutdown. At its power rating in Class A/AB operation, thermal protection is critical. An internal heat protection circuitry protects the amp from doing damage to itself.
The rear panel connections, switches and fuse access are easy to reach. The primary circuit breaker switch is rear-mounted, as are connections for remote power up from voltage-controlled sources. The speaker connectors can accommodate most any type of cable with spade, banana plug or strip termination.
Inputs included XLR-balanced, unbalanced RCA and balanced 1/4-inch phone. A three-way input switch selects the unbalanced or balanced input. The middle position, offers 6 dB of additional gain for the balanced connection. Another set of switches selects the remote power-up, voltage-control option. Remote voltage-control is ideal for fixed installations.
The 14B SST’s Class A-A/B design utilizes bipolar transistor output. It is basically two monoblocks with separate power supplies in one chassis. After popping the top, I could see why the 14B SST is almost $6,000. Parts and build-quality is all first rate with glass epoxy boards, discrete components and the two major league toroidal transformers.
Operating in Class A or AB, its power consumption is massive compared to many amps on the market. At idle, with no input, it consumes 215 watts of power, generating 733 BTUs per hour of heat. That ain’t so bad, right? Your Twin Reverb sucks about the same amount of power and gives off more heat.
The maximum power, however, is another story. The factory rated power consumption at the 8 ohm limit of 600 watts nets 1,284 watts of power consumption with 2,333 BTUs of heat per hour. The 4 ohm operation uses almost 2,000 watts of power and dissipates 3,600 BTUs of heat! That is wintertime heat for one room in the house. Luckily, the specially designed heat sinks offer maximum cooling to the point that the sinks are only warm under normal operation.
With such power demands, the pro version Bryston ideally needs a dedicated 20 amp line. (A 15 amp version also is available). However, in my home studio, I was able to power it as loud as I needed on a shared 20 amp line. It may not have made full power without tripping the breaker, but I would never know because I would be deaf after listening to 900 watts.
With its amazing power output, the Bryston’s distortion is listed at less than 0.005% at full power at 8 ohms and 0.007% at 4 ohms. (The certified spec sheet of this particular amp showed actual measurements of 0.001% distortion). Signal-to-noise rating is greater than -110 dB. Slew rate is 60 volts per microsecond, and the damping factor is rated in excess of 300 at 20 Hz referenced 8 ohms. (That accounts for the bass speed.) Input impedance is 50 kohms in the unbalanced mode and 20 kohms balanced.
On power up, Bryston designed a soft start feature that engages each channel power supply separately. You hear two separate short rushes of incoming current over a few seconds and the amp is ready. A 20-minute warmup and the amp is at its peak for listening.
I listened to the 14B SST in variety of set ups, driving it with a Midas Venice mixer and a number of dedicated monitor preamps. The monitor system included the Midas Venice 1624 mixer, a Legacy High Current solid state, balanced output line preamp, Rogue Model 99 unbalanced tube preamp, Audio-by-Van Alstine FET-Valve hybrid unbalanced preamp, Legacy Classic II ribbon monitors, Westlake LC 8.1 speakers. All speaker cables and interconnects (balanced and unbalanced) were Alpha-Core Goertz solid silver or solid copper.
I recorded a number of sample acoustic guitar and electric guitar tracks onto a Fostex DV40 DVD RAM recorder at 24-bit, 192 kHz sampling and played them back via the preamps. I also listened to a number of Tom Jung’s original DSD recordings (as well as other reference material I have collected) via a Sony SCD-777ES DSD player and a Sony C555ES multi-disc player.
To get the most out of CD listening, I connected the SACD player’s PCM output to a new converter that I am currently using, Bel Canto’s DAC-1. The DAC-1 is an upsampling/interpolation 24-bit, 192 kHz D/A converter.
How does the Bryston sound? In a word, phenomenal! It is so accurate and detailed in the high-end and reproduces a tightly focused, smooth midrange that really nails vocals. I have never heard better low-end from a stereo amp. Powered by the 14B SST, the 4 ohm nominal Legacy speakers with twin 10-inch drivers per speaker were so tight and fast that the speakers took on a new dimension.
On my own recordings of a Gibson Les Paul through a Fender Twin and Martin Eric Clapton OOO-28, using the Midas Venice 1624 and a pair of Audix SCX-25 microphones, the clarity and separation came through perfectly. The guitars sounded like they were being played in the room.
For comparison, my Pass X-150 FET Class A amp (150 watts per side) has comparable presence, but the bottom-end is not as fast as the Bryston. My Legacy High Current 200-watt-per-channel amp has very good low-end, but it was no match for the Bryston either.
The bass was even more telling on T.J.’s DSD recordings, including Steve Davis’ “Quality of Silence” and the Robert Hohner Percussion Ensemble “More Drums” with its chest-thumping impact of bass drums. You would not believe how the tightening up on the mid and low bass changes the clarity of a recording.
That bass impression was verified again by On Broadway, a Telarc sampling of DSD-recorded show tunes by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra – with wide dynamic range with bass, percussion and horns. Another DMP recording, the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, showed how smooth the Bryston (and the SACD recording) can be with brass. Not a hint of harshness with trombones or trumpets.
An amp’s ability to relay the mix of a recording, with dimensional channel separation and mix elements in their proper place, is a must in pro-audio monitoring. The 14B SST’s soundstage is as good as any audiophile amp I have heard at 3 – 4 times the price. Subtle background sounds and cymbal reverb were plenty apparent. Piano wood resonance and the tinkle of the keys were live sounding and could be heard easily. Nothing narrow about the stereo imaging of this amp.
In my opinion, the Bryston is part of a new breed of ultra-articulate amps necessary for monitor and playback of high-resolution recordings, such as DSD, 24-bit/192 kHz. You can hear the difference on violins, horns, cymbals and piano with a smoothness and resolution that 16-bit cannot deliver.
But even on older, edgier sounding, 16-bit, recordings sounded about as smooth as possible with the Bryston. When I played back a CD of a synth-based group I mastered a couple of years ago, the hard-edged keyboard was easier to listen to through the Bryston than another bipolar transistor amp I had on hand for comparison.
Okay. So I gushed effusively all over this amp. There were, however, a few quibbles. In the realm of pro audio amps, $5,900 is a lot of money for stereo. I also did not care for the front-panel power switch. It is somewhat touch-screen like and did not feel like a substantial switch. I always had to push it hard, exactly in the middle, to kick on the power. I ended up using the rear-mounted, breaker rocker switch to turn the amp off and on. It is a real switch.
On a scale of 1 to 10 in amplifier performance, the Bryston 14B SST is a 10++. In the world of high-resolution recording, it is hard to find the combination of performance and massive power that the 14B SST offers to professional studios. No, it is not cheap, and it will run up the power bill at full throttle, but I can’t imagine anyone coming up with a better amp.