High Resolution Incarnate: Technical Brain Electronics

Solid-state power amplifiers
High Resolution Incarnate: Technical Brain Electronics

I've been putting off writing about these products for two reasons, neither of which has to do with the incredible sound they are capable of delivering when fully functional. First, at the moment Japanese-made Technical Brain is not distributed in the U.S. This may change—I'll certainly let you know if it does. Second, I've had a succession of problems with Technical Brain's electronics; indeed, almost everyone who has used the monoblocks (at least here in the States) has had one or both of them fail on him at some point (Alon Wolf, who showed with them at CES 2010, is an exception). The trouble appears to be that spiky U.S. current tends to trigger the amp's (intentionally) rudimentary protection circuit, which instead of shutting down breaks down, blowing a resistor, rather in the same way an ARC 610T blows a resistor when a tube goes south. Unfortunately, minus U.S, distribution and support, the blown part means the amp has to go back to Japan for inspection and repair—or its author Naoto Kurosawa has to come to the States to fix it.

Unless and until this little problem is rectified, I cannot in good conscience recommend the Technical Brain monoblock amps (I've had no problem with the preamp), even though they are exceptionally neutral and realistic in overall balance and simply phenomenal in their resolution of inner detail and reproduction of dynamic contrasts. In fact, I’d have to say that the TBP Zero v2s and TBC Zero preamp are the highest resolution audio electronics I've yet heard.

Usually, in the upper reaches of high-end audio, components are rather closely matched in most key respects, and differences tend to be ones of nuance or balance or power delivery (particularly in the bass octaves). For instance, although they don't sound much alike, my reference Soulution 700 monoblocks and BAabo BP-1 Mk-II stereo amp are roughly equivalent in resolution. Not so the Technical Brain TBP Zero v2. It isn't just a little higher in resolution than these two previous standard-setters; it is an order of magnitude higher. Which is to say, you do not have to strain to hear the differences between it and them. It is obvious to anyone with ears that more detail of every kind is being reproduced more clearly by the Technical Brain. The audible difference is roughly equivalent to the visual difference between watching a movie on a well-mastered DVD and then switching to the same movie on a well-mastered Blu-ray disc. I know this is hard to believe--it was hard for me to believe that such a thing was possible given the already incredibly high resolution of the Soulution gear in particular. Nonetheless, it is the case.

Let me give you an example—one that I mentioned in my Nola Baby Grand Reference loudspeaker blog. Over the last couple of years, I've listened to the Hungaroton LP of Attila Bozay's “Improvisations for Zither” through every speaker and every piece of electronics I've had in my home, or heard abroad, or listened to at a trade show. It is a supremely good test of midband transient response, timbre, and decay because of the bravura way that Bozay plays the instrument—strumming it, plucking it, striking it, scratching it, playing every note at every dynamic level (from extremely soft to extremely loud) and at every duration (from lingering sostenutos to quickly damped pizzicatos) that the instrument is capable of sounding.

Now, the modern zither comprises a sound box and thirty or forty gut or metal strings, five of which (the melody strings) are tuned a’, d’, g’, g , and c, while the accompanying unstopped strings are tuned in cycles of fifths (C, G, D, A, E, etc.). With most hi-fi electronics—even superb electronics—these accompanying strings tend to blend together when they are strummed, just the way that the individual strings of a guitar blend together when they are strummed quickly. You don’t hear the individual strings so much as you do their chord-like mixture.

However, if you listen to these strummed accompanying string through the Technical Brain TBP Zero v2 amps and TBC Zero preamp (and the Nola Baby Grand Reference loudspeakers), you’ll not only hear the chord-like blend, you will also hear, clearly and unmistakably, each and every individual string being distinctly sounded before its pitch and timbre get added to the blend, even when the strings are strummed relatively quickly. It is a PHENOMENAL difference in resolution, which has an equally phenomenal effect on your appreciation of how Bozay is playing the instrument and how the instrument itself makes the musical sounds it makes.

What makes this trick even more special is that it doesn’t just apply to timbre. You hear this same incredible increase in resolution with dynamics, particularly in passages where an instrument gradually shifts from a softer to a louder dynamic (or vice versa). Where these low-level changes in intensity are customarily “flattened out” by even the best hi-fi electronics, so that you hear the change but not the process whereby the change is wrought—rather as if dynamic changes occurred in a series of discrete steps rather than along a continuum—with the Technical Brain, those steps—once again, clearly and unmistakably—become a continuum. The amp is simply passing through more information, filling in tiny dots of time, tone, intensity, and texture that we didn’t know were missing or even there.

How the Technical Brain amp does this amazing feat is rather a deep, dark secret, although the elegance and simplicity of its circuit—in which signal paths and components are kept to absolute minims, emitter resistors used to bias power transistors are eliminated, no mechanical contacts or relays or line fuses (!) or servos are used, and the conventional toroidal power transformer is replaced by a huge flat-coil EI transformer—are clearly keys (all of these things being rather the opposite of the Soulution and BAlabo design philosophies). 

Now some of you may have reservations about the overall balance of the Technical Brain gear, which is pleasantly sunny but fundamentally neutral in timbre. I love its presentation because to me it consistently sounds like an uneditorialized version of the real thing. This said, the “sounds good to me” and perhaps even some of the “absolute sound” contingent may feel it leans a bit too much toward the lean or austere side. There are certainly richer, more beautiful-sounding amplifiers to be found (the Soulution and BAlabo high among them), and amplifiers with more bloom (the ARC 610T, par excellence, although the Technical Brain actually sounds more like ARC in overall balance—minus the ARC tube amp’s juicy layer of fat on the bottom and plush layer of velvet on top—than any other solid-state amp I’ve auditioned). But when it comes to resolution and dynamic contrasts…well, I just haven’t heard one that equals Technical Brain.

Sonically, the TBP Zero v2 is surely a work of genius, and so is the TBC Zero preamp. Their creator, Naoto Kurosawa, is a genuine master. Now if he can only bring his great talent to bear on the problem of reliability with U.S. current—and then if someone over here can find the guts and taste to take on the Technical Brain line—then we very well may have a new reference standard in electronics—at least for a good number of “fidelity to mastertapes” and “absolute sound” fans. However, these are both big hurdles, and until they are completely overcome, I’ll think of the Technical Brain amp and preamp as tantalizing but ultimately frustrating dreams of what is possible in high fidelity but has not yet fully come to pass.