Will An Amplifier Improve The Sound Quality In Your Home Theater?

What's up everyone? Yes, Idealty has risen from the dead and I am back for a series of posts discussing some pressing things on mind. First up, after recently going through the trials of upgrading my home theater system one of the key questions I had was: will buying a "higher quality" amplifier make a noticeable improvement to sound quality? Sounds like a pretty basic and common question but weeks of google searches, forum visits, and scouring the high-fi websites such as Audioholics, SoundAndVision, and Stereophile, it was surprising to me that nobody seemed to have a simple answer to this question. On one hand, there are a group of audiophiles that believe that spending $5000+ for a boutique brand amplifier from the likes of Krell, McIntosh, Classe etc is justified for the impact to the sound quality, particularly when paired with equivalent level equipment (speakers, processor etc). On the other hand, there are those of the mindset that an amplifier should not and does not make any perceptible difference in sound quality. The notion here is based on physics, the role of a amplifier is simply to take a signal and make it stronger. In theory, that should not change the sound only increase it's intensity. That makes sense but now that I have some direct hands on experience with a quality home theater system where everything was constant except the amplifier, I have an answer to that question: a resounding YES.

First a little background. My previous system was a 5.1 home theater system with Paradigm Reference Studio 100s, CC690 center, and ADP 590 all version 4 designs. My processor is the Marantz AV7005 preamp and my 5 channels were powered by an Emotiva XPA-5 (generation 1). Now the Emotiva amps are kind of a hot topic in the home theater world over the last few years. As a internet direct company, they sell very powerful amps for relatively dirt cheap value. The XPA-5 is rated at 200W x5 with all channels driven, weighs about 70lbs, and retailed for only $799 at the time I purchased it. To put that figure into perspective, let's look at a couple of comparisons:

  1. The Denon AVR-X3100, a quality A/V receiver retailing for $999, boasts only 105W with only 2-channels driven  (power drops dramatically when running all channels) and weighs only 23.6 pounds.
  2. A Marantz MM8077 7 channel discrete amplifier (considered mid-tier), retails for $2399, and boasts 150W with 2-channels driven (lower with all 7 channels driven) and weighs only 45lbs
  3. Finally, the Krell Chorus 5200 is a high-fi boutique amplifier retailing for $7599 with 200W x 5 with all 5 channels driven and weighs 85lbs
On paper, the power output and weight puts the $800 Emotiva amp much closer to the expensive Krell Chorus 5200 than the cheaper options which still cost much more than the Emotiva. The weight is important as generating lots of high quality power requires heavy components so heavier units typically mean more powerful and better build quality. It's clear just how much of a concession AV receivers make to the amplifier section in particular (the Denon weighs less than 25 lbs total with a 7-ch amplifier built in).  All this is to say that the Emotiva amps appear to offer tremendous value for the amount of power you get. 

Yet, there is a growing group of Audiophiles that are suggesting that the Emotiva amps can't compete with true high end amplifiers from the likes of Krell or Classe despite it's power output. Implicit in that argument is that great sound quality is more than just the amount of power from an amplifier. The circuit design, build quality, and the amount of current from the amp all contribute to nuances in the signal that contribute to sound quality. Is this really true? I've always been of the mindset that if an amplifier does it's job of just amplifying a signal well, then it wouldn't impact the quality of the sound just the quantity. I thought that those highly expensive boutique companies were just superfluous indulgences that were more for show and brand recognition than meaningful enhancements to sound. However, I continued to hear stories of people who upgraded their Emotiva amps and claimed to have heard a huge difference in the sound quality. I wanted to test this out since I needed an additional amp to upgrade my system from 5.1 to 7.1. My first thought was to just grab the latest 2-ch Emotiva amp and call it a day. But curiosity got the the best of me and I wanted to ensure the highest quality possible for my budget. 

Parasound Halo A21 Amplifier

So I wanted to test out a different amplifier to see if they made a difference. Turns out that is really difficult to do by going to a retailer and listening to their equipment since their system and setup is not equivalent to mine at home. Variables such as speakers, room acoustics, cables, etc all can impact the sound so it really isn't an apples to apples comparison to my setup. So I spoke to a local distributor to "audition" a Parasound Halo A21 2-ch amplifier which is considered one of the best amps for anywhere near its price. I had about a week to run it powering my 2 main speakers (studio 100s) and test music, movies, and games with my setup to set if there really is a difference. The answer really surprised me.

Even before the A21 was broken in, my first thought when I hooked it up and tested some high-res FLAC files i had on my USB HDD was...holy sh**! I must have hooked something up wrong or changed something else because there is no way the amp is making this much of a difference. I have never been as impressed with listening to music in my home as I was at that moment. The sound was really amazing. Everything had an extra amount of weight behind it and deeper detail and clarity. Bass response in particular was much improved and the sense that the sound "floated" off of the speakers was increased dramatically. I really couldn't believe it. I also realized just how much more potential my Paradigm Studio 100s had to deliver high quality sound. I have a new found respect for these speakers now. I recently have listened to 2-ch systems in various retailers costing $30K and more from Focal Utopia lines and B&W Diamond series. While again not an apples to apples comparison, I found that my system compared pretty favorably in overall impression to these systems costing over 4x more than my own. The Focal Utopia system clearly sounded better but it was not 5x better as the price would have indicated. When compared to the B&W setup, I actually thought my system sounded better. Given all the variables at play, I'm not saying that the paradigms sound better than the 802D but just my subjective opinion was that I got a better impression from my setup than the particular one setup in this store. If I had the B&W in my room I could make a fairer comparison but I was largely unimpressed by that demo. I'm not saying that my system is the best sounding thing out there or that there aren't speakers that sound better. But what was more evident from this exercise was just how much of a factor the other components play into the perceived sound quality.

I am greatly enjoying my new Parasound A21 amp and it has brought new life into my system. EVERYTHING sounds better from TV to games to movies. The difference is most noticeable with music however, especially well recorded high resolution music. Does this mean the Emotiva is a waste of money? Absolutely not. But there is a sense that you get what you page for. Typically, home theater equipment should scale together in order to maximize their performance. So a $1000 pair of speakers from a store like Magnolia would work great with an Emotiva amp. But as you go up in price to higher levels of speakers and processors, you need to scale the amp up as well to ensure you're getting the most out of them. My conclusion is that the Emotiva amps work well but are not the best option for higher end speakers. There is room for improvement, even if the higher quality amp has equal or less raw power output. Other factors besides power output do play into the perceived sound quality and that is a home theater lesson that I will never forget.


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