Spectron Musician III Amplifier

Equipment report
Solid-state power amplifiers
Spectron Musician III
Spectron Musician III Amplifier

John Ulrick, the founder and designer of Spectron, has a wealth of switching amplifier experience that few in the industry can match. In the late 1960s he was a co-founder of Infinity (with Arnie Nudell), and is credited with designing the first Class D amplifier back in 1974. It’s no surprise then that Spectron uses Ulrick’s own in-house-designed power modules rather than sourcing modules from outside vendors.

Tipping the scales at a fighting weight of fifty pounds, the Musician III would be easy to typecast as the brutish, 550Wpc “heavy” in this survey. But it actually plays against type. It carries a hammer but at its sonic heart can be found a character brimming with subtlety and detail. By this I mean the Spectron is an amplifier that seems to find ways to make sense of the deepest complexities of musical textures, micro-dynamics, and harmonics—whether in a flurry of warpspeed piano arpeggios, the placement of a bassoon, the weight of bass viols, or the attack and golden bloom of the brass section in Glinka’s Russian and Ludmilla Overture (Reiner/Chicago [RCA]). Listening to Appalachian Journey [Sony], it’s easy to get lost in the sophisticated interplay of bassist Edgar Meyer and cellist Yo Yo Ma during “1A,” but the Spectron tracks images like a bloodhound. And because it is so unearthly quiet it not only gets timbre right, it expresses how an instrument’s energy is released, launched if you will, towards the audience. There’s the low-level shudder in the hall as a bass drum is lightly struck, the long sustain of a piano chord, or the quiet rattle of a cymbal near the back wall. And just like a live performance, you’re suddenly able to key on unseen images. It’s as if you can almost track pianist Evgeny Kissin’s left and right hand movements over the keys and the rustling of his clothing as he shifts his body on the bench during Pictures At An Exhibition [RCA]. This recording can sound pancake flat, but the Spectron finds the stage and the hall’s dimensions like few others I’ve heard.

But these attributes don’t apply only to the classical repertory. For something completely different try “Why We Thugs,” from seminal rap artist Ice Cube’s latest Laugh Now, Cry Later [Lench Mob]. The song lays down an establishing synth-string vamp, a high-impact kick drum and bass, sophisticated doubletracked vocals, and low-level synthesized sound cues arrayed across an impeccable if electronically manufactured soundspace. The Spectron lives for this sternumcracking challenge, yet even at brain-deadening levels it never coarsens or sacrifices the smallest details.

Gifted with near-pulverizing power reserves (try 1400W into 2 ohms), the Spectron’s bass control is virtually uncompressed and unshakable. There are no flat spots as a bassist runs up and down the fingerboard. This amp also makes me ponder the issue of headroom, particularly for less sensitive speakers like the MBL121 and my reference ATCs. The Spectron enlivened not just the ultimate extension of these power gluttons but restored weight, dynamics, and warmth to the mid and upper bass, an area crucial to conveying music’s scale and majesty. It also reminds me that realizing a speaker’s full potential is not necessarily a given with any so-called “high-power” amp.

Tonally, the Musician III is as neutral as they come—smooth across the octaves, and with top-notch interconnects and a good warm-up, not a whiff of spotlighting in the upper octaves. Treble is pristine and displays none of the whitish grain or transient blur that plagues many amps, Class D or otherwise.

Yet an initial impression still holds. It still sounds slightly muted on top, a bit lacking in the amount of air that liberates a recording—less so than the darker Rowland Model 201, cleaner than the Channel Islands, but not as extended as the Chapter Précis (a Class D integrated design). This issue is only benignly subtractive, however, and it doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for this amp. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to listen to a couple of the more exotic “Ds” in this survey, and I hope I do, I have to admit that regardless of “Class” the Spectron Musician III punched my time clock like few other amps I’ve heard.

Chris Martens comments on the Spectron Musician III

Among the Class D amplifiers I’ve tried, Spectron’s Musician III proved one of the best at reproducing spatial cues in recordings—a quality I think is essential for musical realism. The Spectron did a good job of getting sound to break free from the front surfaces of loudspeakers and to “breathe,” and it also presented soundstages whose reverberant characteristics, and width and depth dimensions were realistically portrayed. Good transient behavior was another of the Spectron’s strengths. What impressed me was the way the Musician III faithfully reproduced fast-rising bursts of energy from brass or percussion instruments, or from pianos, yet without subjecting listeners to the piercing, ice-pick-in-the-eardrums pain of overwrought leading edges.

Like Neil Gader, I thought the Musician III’s tonal balance was neutral over most of the audio spectrum, and that its highs sounded ever so slightly subdued. The latter quality became evident as I listened to Péter Tóth perform Liszt’s Sinistre—Unstern! [Stockfisch, SACD]; through the Spectron, the midrange of Tóth’s piano sounded wonderfully clear, yet its higher overtones did not fully open and bloom as those of a real piano would. Where I differ, albeit slightly, from Neil’s assessment is in the area of the Musician III’s bass. I agree the amplifier offers excellent low-frequency pitch definition and control, but I found its bass a bit lightly balanced relative to many amplifiers (Class D, and otherwise) that I’ve heard.