Phase 2: Corporate Culture Envy
In the course of getting ready to do just that—what with setting everything, meeting company reps, and poring over manuals—I learned a few intriguing things about T+A. One is that those letters don’t stand for what you thought they did. (And, by the way, shame on you!) Rather, they stand for Theory + Application. That’s not hype. As its name implies, T+A has always prioritized pure theoretical research over technological ideology, marketing trends, or price points. As a result, the company’s history is impressively replete with innovations that T+A either spawned or was among the first to adopt, including software-based digital filters; multiple speaker advances, like active amplification, transmission-line configuration, and digital room matching; and discrete, switching power supplies.
T+A’s culture also includes a genuine commitment to social consciousness. The Herford, Germany, campus consists entirely of green buildings, and the production line avoids substances that are potentially damaging to the environment or worker health. That means no CFCs or even chlorine-based cleaning agents. Most plastics and PVCs are also shunned. Wherever possible, parts and casings are made of recyclable metals, an approach that serves the dual purposes of screening components from external electrical interference while protecting the atmosphere from electro-magnetic radiation.
As much as I admire these corporate touchstones, the element of T+A’s culture that I most wish other companies would emulate is its dedication to fair pricing. Almost all high-end manufacturers give lip service to this principle, but T+A walks the walk. For example, as you may be aware, over the past two years the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar has undergone a seismic shift in favor of the greenback. This makes European goods sold in the U.S. cheaper—at least in theory. Yet, can you name any European audio company that has reduced its prices accordingly? I didn’t think so. In contrast, when the rates shifted, T+A lowered U.S. prices across its entire lineup. That’s just the kind of company T+A is, and I for one applaud it.
Phase 3: Value Incredulity
As I (finally!) embarked on the listening stage of my time with the HV components, the word “Value” with a capital “V” constantly swirled around my brain. Let me tell you why. As readers will know by now, I am a dedicated fan of what I call the Swiss Sound. At first this school was represented by Goldmund and Spectral; now there is Soulution and CH Precision as well. What makes them arguably the best electronics on earth is that their high-speed circuitry and power supplies deliver fast, virtually unlimited dynamics, well-defined transients, vanishingly low distortion, tremendous timbral detail, and near-perfect linearity in both frequency and time domains. The resulting sound is exciting, engaging, and true.
But these virtues come at a price. Circuitry bandwidth must be much wider than usual, power supplies have to be carefully regulated, and the builder is obliged to include extensive protection mechanisms. None of that is cheap. So the first miracle of the T+A HV-series is that it employs all of these design principles yet delivers them at a fraction of the price of the Swiss alternatives. The second miracle is that—significant price difference notwithstanding—the sonic result is a dead ringer for this school’s more expensive gear.
How close is the sound? Let me start with the PA3000 HV. At $17,000, this 300-watt integrated amp costs about 15 percent of my reference CH Precision C1/2xA1 combo. Yet when I switch between them the most striking thing I hear is their utter similarity. Of course, I tried to find differences. On the Original Master Recording LP of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, I queued up “The Goodbye Look” and carefully compared bass (identical), vocals (identical), the twang of the solo guitar (identical), and the snap of the xylophone (identical). Most importantly, both presentations preserved the percolating rhythm that make this—and many of the album’s other songs—such an enduring pleasure. To be sure, the reference CH equipment creates a wider soundstage, and its tonality is a little more fleshed-out. But I seriously doubt I’d be aware of either of these without a back-to-back comparison.
The biggest difference between the T+A and the CH Precision is at the very top end, where the reference is more refined, though not any more extended. Bear in mind that even this difference, though audible as a touch of roughness, still falls into the subtle category. As evidence, consider that while trying my darndest to ferret out differences like this one, I frequently put down my pen and succumbed to the music. I listened to entire sides of even the most familiar albums. That’s an indication of how little these scant distinctions matter, and how miraculously close the PA3000’s sound and capacity to captivate come to the higher-buck Swiss Sound stalwarts.
As icing on the cake, T+A offers an optional phono module for this amp. I’m sure such an option, were it available from a Swiss brand, would run many thousands of dollars. But T+A’s module costs just $1500. Eminently fair, as always. Naturally, I compared it to my Swiss reference, a Goldmund PH-01. Once again, the similarities vastly outweighed any differences. Speed! Dynamics! Nuance! As before, there were some disparities; however, in this case, they were not all in favor of the reference. For instance, the T+A phonostage is actually more linear and less euphonic than the Goldmund, with purer tonality. On the other hand, the HV’s bass is less meaty. A tradeoff—and a tossup. Without question, if you don’t already have a high-quality phonostage and are investing in a PA3000, the optional phono module is a no-brainer.
While the integrated’s value proposition is based on sonic miracles, the MP3000 HV is attractive partially for the same and partially for different reasons. In the latter category, know that this is one of the most all-encompassing units of its kind you’re likely to find. Let me count the ways in which this thing delivers music. First, naturally, there is the superb built-in CD player (more about that later). But that’s merely the iceberg’s tip. The MP3000 is also a full-fledged DAC that handles USB and SPDIF—the latter via coax, BNC, AES/EBU, and TosLink interfaces. You can also plug a USB hard drive or thumb drive directly into the unit. Then, too, the MP3000 will happily stream music from a NAS, and it will do so through either a wired or a wireless connection. As if all this weren’t enough, the MP will play Internet radio and even pick up good old FM. You may be thinking that managing all these source options—and the content within each—must be a nightmare. The truth is that the remote (or the tablet app) makes it easy.