Until a review in this stupid magazine persuaded me to sell it and buy, sight unseen and sound unheard, a Marantz 500—which blew up the moment I plugged it in, before I’d heard a single note of music through it, in fact before I’d even turned the power switch on—Bob Carver’s Phase Linear 400 was my favorite amplifier. I’d gone through my first Audio Research phase, owned D75s, D76s, and D76a’s, but the Phase 400 seemed to me (at least at the time) to have most of what the D76s had plus superior resolution, superior dynamics, superior transient response, superior power, and far superior bass. It was a great amplifier, and I should’ve kept it. Let this be a lesson to you: Never trust a review; only trust your ears.
Of course, there is a silver lining to this old cloud. If I’d kept the Phase 400 I would’ve missed out on the c-j Premier One, the c-j Premier Four, the c-j Premier Five, the ARC D79B, the ARC D600, and the slew of classic Marantz and McIntosh amps I owned and used after Elvis left the building. Who knows? I might not’ve become an audio reviewer if that butterfly wing hadn’t fluttered back in the late 70s. Which, among many other things, means that I would not have had the chance to review Bob Carver’s latest amplifier, the Black Beauty 305.
Ain’t life strange?
I’ll tell you what else is strange. After he spent the better part of the eighties and early nineties trying to make transistor amps sound like then-celebrated tube amps, turns out Carver’s latest effort is a tube amp.
The aptly named (and not just because it’s painted black) Black Beauty 305 is a—surprise!—305W (into 8 ohms) monoblock amplifier that uses three pairs of KT120s in its output stage in a push-pull (Class AB) configuration, with a 12AX7 input stage directly coupled to a 12AT7 pre-driver stage, and a 6AL5 for bias voltage. In addition to the complement of tubes, a volume-control pot (haven’t seen one of these on a power amp in a while) and a toggle switch with the words “Classic” and “Contemporary” are mounted on the top of the chassis. This switch changes the amount of negative feedback from 20dB (a value used by “vintage amplifier designers”) to 11dB (a value representative of many “modern-day” amps). In the excellent user manual, Carver says he prefers the 20dB “Classic” setting, which is one of several hints he drops about the sound of his new amp.
Speaking of which, if you were guessing (as I was) that the Black Beauty 305 would sound like a latter-day Phase 400, guess again. What it sounds like—almost exactly—is a latter-day version of a Marantz 9. Oh, it certainly has better bass (more on this in a moment) and treble (ditto) than a Marantz 9, and it is considerably higher in midband resolution (double ditto) and much tighter and better defined in image focus (triple ditto). But the basic vibe is Old School tube sound—dark, sinfully rich in timbre, liquid, gorgeous. A black beauty in fact as well as in name.
Obviously, this is not the ideal amp for a “transparency to sources” listener like me, in that it makes virtually everything, no matter how recorded, sound some shade of dark and ravishing. And yet...and yet. The Black Beauty has the kind of midrange resolution and presence that make voices and instruments sound not merely beautiful but quite real and quite “there.” On something like Melody Gardot’s Brazilian dreamscape of an album, The Absence [Verve], you get the selfsame plethora of detail—the little cues to the way she is shepherding her breath, using her mouth, nose, throat, and chest to add expressive color and texture to the lyrics—that you get with ultra-high- resolution solid-state amplifiers from Constellation, Soulution, and Technical Brain or high-res contemporary tube amplifiers like ARC’s Reference 250. In others words, you get Gardot, albeit a somewhat richer, darker, more beautified version of her. Ditto for Leonard Cohen’s dusky, world-weary voice on Songs From The Road [Columbia]. To hear the timbral beauty and speed of attack the Black Beauties bring to Cohen's sprechstimme or the loveliness and liquidity with which they reproduce the voices of his backup singers (without, once again, losing a jot of fine, expressive detail) is to hear a presentation that only an ingrate (or an audiophile heavily invested in another brand of amplifier) could complain about.
In the user manual, Carver says unequivocally that dark and gorgeous was precisely the kind of performance he wanted from his Black Beauties. He was looking to provide “a warm, rich sound with a sumptuous soundstage, great front-to-back depth of field, and very tight, pin-point imaging within that larger acoustic,” and in doing this he was looking to please the “serious music lover.”
After several months of listening to the Black Beauties with a variety of speakers, I would have to say that he has succeeded wonderfully in achieving every one of his goals. Like Marantz 9s, these things cast a magical spell, even over a jaded old transparency freak like me. Yes, they are more “forgiving” than the kinds of amps I usually gravitate towards, but they are so incredibly easy to listen to, so satisfyingly musical, and at the same time so finely detailed in timbre and texture throughout the midband that the sense of “realism” we all hunger for is never scanted. Call it "realism enhanced.”
Like the classic tube amps it successfully emulates (and improves upon), the Black Beauty 305 is at its very best in the midrange, where it truly does mate “pinpoint” image focus (anything but a strength of amps like the Marantz 9 or the McIntosh MC 275) with wide, deep soundstaging (although I’ve heard wider and deeper) and a tonal palette to die for. But what about the bass and treble?
Well...the bass is pretty darn good, surprisingly well-resolved and deep- reaching with gorgeous tone color and fine detail on cello, bassoon and contrabassoon, trombone and tuba, doublebass, Fender bass, and bottom-octave piano, with the same three-dimensional solidity and presence the Black Beauty brings to the midband. Tightness of image focus varies a bit depending on pitch and power, with certain bass-range instruments in certain octaves showing a bit more plumminess than you might get from top-flight solid- state or ARC. But this is anything but the wooly, poorly-defined presentation we used to get from tube amps back in the day (or even, sometimes, today). Moreover, the bass mates perfectly with the midband, thanks in large part to the Black Beauties’ lifelike fullness in the so-called power range, where bass transitions to midrange. There is none of the suckout here that can make electronics sound “ultra-transparent” at the price of deracinated tone colors, and thinned-down dynamics. This is a robust amplifier.
To my ear, the Black Beauties’ top octaves are a little soft and sweet and gently rolled- off (as you might expect from an amp with this one’s overall darkish character). But as in the bass, speed, definition, and focus are still pretty darn good. Oh, you may lose a little metallic sting on hard transients like cymbal strikes, but upper-octave strings (including harmonics) or top-register piano have everything you’d expect to hear, including the sense of articulation and touch that brings a performer to life.
There really isn’t much more to say about these Carvers. For most of their range, they are at once beautiful and realistic, and I’ve fallen in love with them. While they may not have much in common with the Phase 400 sonically, they do share one thing with that great amp from the early 70s: They are incredibly good deals. A three-hundred-watt tube amp with this pedigree, build- quality (every component is hand-wired, star-grounded, with no circuit board traces or unpluggable parts), and medley of sonic virtues is a rarity. Which earns the Carver Black Beauty 305s not just my heartfelt recommendation (particularly if you are an “as you like it” or beauty-loving “absolute sound” type of listener) but also one of my upcoming nominations for Amplifier of the Year.
SPECS & PRICING
Line inputs: One RCA
Input impedance: 100k ohms
Input stage: 12AX7
Pre-driver stage: 12AT7
Automatic DC restoration: 6AL5
Output stage: Three complementary sets of KT-120s in a push-pull configuration (6 total)
Nominal voltage gain: 30dB (into 9 ohms)
Rated power: 305W (8 ohms), 330W (4 ohms), 290W (2 ohms)
Noise: <110dB A-weighted into 8 ohms
Frequency response: 2Hz– 85kHz
Power bandwidth: 24Hz–28kHz
Distortion: less than 0.5%
Dimensons: 12" x 7.2" x 14"
Weight: 43 lbs./chassis
BOB CARVER LLC
157 Venture CT, Suite 12
Lexington, KY 40511
JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: Raidho C1.1, Estelon X Diamond, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan 1.7, Magnepan 3.7, Magnepan 20.7
Linestage preamps: Constellation Virgo, Audio Research Reference 5 SE, Technical Brain TBC-Zero EX
Phonostage preamps: Audio Research Corporation Reference Phono 2SE, Technical Brain TEQ-Zero EX/ TMC-Zero
Power amplifiers: Constellation Centaur, Audio Research Reference 250, Lamm ML2.2, Soulution 501, Carver Black Beauty 305, Technical Brain TBP-Zero EX
Analog source: Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk III record player, AMG Viella 12, Da Vinci AAS Gabriel Mk II turntable with DaVinci Master’s Reference Virtu tonearm, Acoustic Signature Ascona with Kuzma 4P tonearm
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Ortofon MC A90, Benz LP S-MR,
Digital source: Mac Mini/ Wavelength Audio Crimson USB DAC, Berkeley Alpha DAC 2 cable and interconnect: Synergistic Research Galileo, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream
Power Cords: synergistic research, shunyata King cobra
Power Conditioner: Synergistic Research Galileo
Accessories: Synergistic ART system, Shakti Hallographs (6), A/V Room Services Metu panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps, Critical Mass MAXXUM equipment and amp stands, Symposium Isis and Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks and Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment and amp stands, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Clearaudio Double Matrix SE record cleaner, HIFI-Tuning silver/gold fuses