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2019 High-End Audio Buyer’s Guide: Power Amplifiers $15,000-$20,000

VTL S-200
VTL’s Luke Manley and his team have made the 200Wpc S-200 relatively idiot-proof for listeners who enjoy the sound of vacuum tubes without the need to geek-out or otherwise futz around with them. The VTL Signature range features fully balanced differential circuitry and zero global negative feedback, which not only ensures stability under a wide variety of load conditions but also brings greater musicality to a variety of source material. Beyond its outstanding sound and sonic flexibility in both triode and tetrode modes, this KT88-based stereo amp presents music as a cohesive and engaging whole. 

Triode Corporation TRX-M300
Think of the M300 as a modern version of the Western Electric WE 91A, complete with a 274B rectifier, a pair of 310A receiving pentodes, and a Psvane WE300B. The colossal gain of the original has been reduced to a reasonable sensitivity of 0.8V. The power supply has also increased in sophistication so that the M300 is exceptionally quiet for an SET amplifier. Image solidity, according to DO, can only be described as magical; solid-state amps would kill for it. Bandwidth and transient speed are pretty impressive for an SET. Don’t expect bone-crushing bass slam, but prepare to be surprised by its dynamic prowess and the breathtaking acceleration of an orchestral crescendo from soft to loud. The M300 offers a fitting testament to the potency of the first watt and showcases the beauty and dynamic potential of the much venerated 300B triode. Speakers of 96dB+ sensitivity are advisable. 

AVM Ovation SA8.3
The SA8.2 does have a sonic character—every audio component does. But like some of the best power amplifiers around, that sonic character is exceptionally limited. In fact, almost all of the colorations you’ll hear through this amp will come from the other components. In neutrality and transparency the AVM SA8.2 comes close to delivering the sonic equivalent of the Golden Mean. Its power is rated, with extreme conservatism, at 220 watts into 8 ohms, 450 watts into 4 ohms, and 650 watts into 2 ohms, meaning it can drive any real-world speaker load, including nominal 1-ohm loads. It can also deliver an immense amount of current, delivering up to 60 volts at the speaker terminals, and enough amperage to deal with any current-demanding speaker. An exceptionally neutral and musical product.

Technics SE-R1
Forming the heart of Technics’ superb R1 system is the 150Wpc (300Wpc into 4 ohms) SE-R1 digital stereo amp. Digital amps haven’t taken hold in the high end, but their design inherently confers major advantages to digital sources. In particular, they completely obviate the need for a traditional DAC. Technics has complemented the approach with a gallium-nitride FET drive stage that’s so efficient it eliminates parallel output transistors. In addition, the amp’s LAPC function uses DSP to optimize the amp’s amplitude and phase characteristics for the specific speaker attached. One effect of the feature is to flesh out the three-dimensionality of instrumental images. Along with the single output transistors, LAPC may explain why the SE-R1 is the most tube-like solid-state amp AT has heard. The SE-R1’s sound also exhibits bold dynamics, staggering detail, and a huge volume of musical information. Most importantly, its sound is pure and direct. There are virtually no tonal imbalances, rhythmic lagging, slurred transients, dynamic compression, image flattening, distortion, or strain. The SE-R1 is a technical and sonic tour de force.

Hegel H30 Reference
This Norwegian powerhouse amplifier (375Wpc into 8 ohms) combines the brute-force bass control and dynamic impact of a dreadnought design with a midrange and treble refinement reminiscent of a single-ended triode amplifier. The midrange, in particular, is highly vivid and present without sounding the least bit pushy or forward, infusing the presentation with a palpability and directness of expression previously unheard in any amplifier near the H30’s price. Perhaps the H30’s outstanding sonics and high value can be traced to Hegel’s SoundEngine technology, in which dynamic crossover distortion is greatly reduced through a patented circuit, coupled with a rigorous transistor-matching protocol. The H30 can be operated in bridged mode for 1000W, but some of the midrange magic disappears and resolution slightly diminishes. A great bargain in high-powered amplifiers. 

Zesto Audio Eros 300
This monoblock is the most ambitious offering yet from Zesto Audio. All Zesto products are designed by George Counnas and built in-house. George favors tube technology, and the 300s reflect his current thinking on how to make tubes state-of-the-art today. Besides being stylish and relatively compact, this amplifier delivers the sonic goods. Conservatively rated at 150W into 4 and 8 ohms, the Zesto 300 features pure Class A circuitry and uses six KT88s per monoblock. The amplifiers belie their rated power, and drive low-efficiency loudspeakers with ease. There is no sonic mystery that these are tube amplifiers; tonal colors are rich and full-bodied with a lifelike warmth that never devolves into softness or syrup. If anything, the amplifiers are supremely transparent and reveal an amazing amount of musical detail.

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