Until recently, I have exclusively reviewed solid-state designs with an A/B output class. So, I felt it was high time I tried a design rated at full Class A operation.
Well, let me tell you not a lot of these are available in an
integrated configuration. However, there are several integrateds rated as
Class A/B that have a moderate to high bias into Class A, the intent being
that for low to moderate listening levels operation would be in the Class A
mode. The previously reviewed Simaudio I-5 was one such model. Long story
short, I came across the Cayin 265Ai, and hence this review.
The tradeoff is much higher power consumption and heat
dissipation (the current in Class A is dissipated as heat when it is not
flowing to the speakers), neither of which bothered me with this review subject. The amp
was placed on the top shelf of my rack and unencumbered on all sides, so the heat sinks were given plenty of circulation. The power consumption was about
200 watts regardless of output (rated output is 40 watts per channel). In contrast, my old Bryston 4B consumed about the
same at idle and went up to over 1900 watts at maximum output. I can actually plug
the Cayin into my P300 Power Plant along with my source components, now that is
worth quite a bit.
Zhuhai Spark Electronic Equipment Co., Ltd. was founded in 1993 to design and
manufacture audio products. It is a subsidiary of China National
Aero-technology Imp. & Exp. Corporation (CATIC), which was founded in 1981.
Their website claims Revenues of nearly USD $1 Billion for 2002. There is a
very elaborate structure of subsidiaries that links Spark to CATIC, the
details of which are completely irrelevant here. The only relevant piece
of information is that Spark seems to be backed by a large and well-established
Chinese conglomerate of high-tech products. That kind of technical
infrastructure and talent pool is bound to pay tangible dividends. Their
products are distributed in more than 20 countries, and claim to have
participated in audio shows in Tokyo, London, Milan, Frankfurt, Copenhagen,
Athens, Hong Kong and Taipei. They also supply OEM audio products to un-named
companies in Japan, Europe, USA, and Taiwan. There are 15 engineers on
staff. A statement from the company emphasizes their background with output
and power transformers. If they have a weakness, it seems to be in the
marketing, web design, and translation skills. As far as I am concerned, I am
only eager to forgive many shortcomings in those areas if the product is
something to behold.
The Cayin was plugged into my PS Audio P300 Power Plant at all times, and
seemed to draw about 200 watts, which sounds right for an amp that delivers 40
wpc in pure Class A. Of course, the power consumption did not change with the
volume level, since the input and output of energy in a Class A amp is always
at the maximum value. The difference is that at higher output, more of the
energy is delivered to the speakers and less is dissipated as heat.
I would have to give this amp very high marks for its stunning looks and clean layout. It is only available in a brushed aluminum finish, and I found it very attractive as such. The front panel has a large volume dial that provided perhaps the best control I have ever experienced, as getting to the desired level took only one try (I hope other manufacturers begin to realize how important this is). The left side has the power switch that brings the unit in and out of standby. Above it, in a recess are two lights; I could not get confirmation on what those lights indicated. My guess is the lower light indicates standby (green), transition (red), and power on (green), and the light above it probably indicated the amp is being over driven, but I was not able to get that to activate for the levels that I tested. On the right side a single button toggles through the various inputs, and the recess above it has six lights to indicate the active input. Done. No other bells, whistles, knobs, switches, meters, dials, sliders, buttons, LEDs, displays, etc. My definition of simplicity would not allow any more than this, and my need for functionality would not allow any less. A perfect balance.
The rear panel features one set of XLR inputs, five sets of RCA inputs, and one set of RCA tape out. My only wish here is that there also was a pre-out. Speaker connectors were via a heavy-duty set of brass five-way binding posts that are well spaced. There also is an AC input for a detachable cord and the main power switch just above it. Again, the rear is simple, clean, and very thoughtfully laid out. The sides brandish the beefy heat sinks, mandatory for this output class.
Fit and finish are outstanding. Sorry, no headphone jack, phono preamp,
balance, mute, mono, fixed level out, or other frill. Frankly, I was glad,
since I have no value for any of these features, and don't care to pay even
the nominal amount they would add to the cost. More importantly, I am glad
they were not included at the cost of cheaper parts elsewhere or needless
degradations to the signal path. I do wish there was a pre-out for a
subwoofer, but am not terribly heartbroken about it.
The manufacturer's website and literature are lacking in detail and very
poorly translated. I had to rely on Mark Levine of Allied TV & Sound (North
American distributor) to supply the technical data. He in turn, had an
engineer on his staff bench test the specs quoted here. Interestingly enough,
the engineer decided to buy a unit immediately after completing his tests.
All tests were done with the previously reviewed Dynaudio Contour 1.3 MkII
Triangle Electroacoustique Titus 202 speakers. I also had the recently reviewed Creek
5350SE integrated amplifier on hand for direct comparison. To disallow bias due to varying volumes,
I measured two levels that registered at 60 dB and 80 dB at my listening spot (on
each speaker and amp), using a -20 dB pink noise test tone. Here are the
detailed highlights of my listening tests.
I slipped in the Cayin, and things moved up to a whole different level. My normal method of critical listening is to listen to about a one-minute segment repeatedly (say 10 to 20 times, allowing my short-term memory to retain as much detail as possible), and then switch in the comparative component and listen for differences. In most cases, I have to listen to the second component several times before I can distinctly pick out differences, and then I have to go back and repeat the process just to make sure I really heard those differences (Whew! I get tired just talking about it).
Well, with the Cayin
three differences were evident immediately. First, there was a large increase
in what is called macro dynamics. Whenever Taj Mahal would bellow out the
extra 10 decibels or so, it would feel like a very effortless and natural
increase. I never felt the Creek had a shortcoming in this respect (or any
other for that matter), until I heard the Cayin right behind it. The dynamic
range was so markedly increased that at times it felt like the volume level
was set much higher, but since I had done my homework on establishing volume
levels I knew that was not the case. Second, the strings on all three
instruments seemed fuller and more lifelike, to the point that I could almost
feel the physical impact of the string being plucked. Lastly, there was a
marked increase in the warmth and richness of the vocals, again making them
seem very natural and lifelike. This comparison was done with the Dynaudio at the
80 dB level.
The Creek sounded noticeably different in the higher frequencies. I switched
back and forth between the amps several times, but could not quite put my
finger on what exactly that difference was. I almost wanted to say that with
the Creek the soundstage and the instruments within seemed a little more
distinct and spread out. Since I could not very clearly pick out the
differences, I picked out a few more tests to see if I could isolate and
distinguish what was going on. This test was done with the Dynaudios at the
60 dB level.
I also tried to follow the hand-drum player, and again it was much easier with the Cayin to be able to point him out with confidence. With the Creek, there were moments when I might have hesitated to try and estimate his location, or there were times when I knew where he should be, but my ears would not confirm that.
There were a couple of interesting things I noted with this test. The liner notes on the CD indicate that in near field listening, you should hear the musicians circle you. I could only perceive them walking in I circle in front of me. I suspect that is more due to my setup not being near field, rather than its resolution. Also, I first listened to this track with the Creek and then the Cayin. With the Cayin I immediately noticed that the circle the musicians were walking was farther out on the right side than the left. I quickly discovered the reason: I had accidentally toed in the right speaker a little less than the left. Now I did notice something askew with the Creek, but it only came to light as soon as I started listening to the Cayin.
Of course, this is not a
scientific conclusion that the Cayin is better. It is entirely possible that
my brain is so slow to recognize a lop-sided soundstage (and my wife would
agree about my being slow). Or, it took a long time to realize the slight
variation, which by then the Cayin just happened to be the amp playing. Maybe
I would have had the realization at the same time even if the Creek was still
playing. Personally, I would give the Cayin at least some credit for
highlighting the problem. I like that possibility, since it diminishes the
accusation of me being a dimwit. This test was done with the Triangles at the
80 dB setting.
On the double bass intro it was easier to delineate the plucks with the Cayin than the Creek. There were several "things" I heard with the Cayin I thought I had never heard before, but when I switched in the Creek they were surely there, but just not as prominent.
When I say "things" I am referring to sounds so subtle and short in duration that I cannot with certainty say what they were; possible examples are a fingernail hitting the body of a guitar, a gasp of air, a slap on a thigh, etc. It is the minutest piece of audible detail, but often too vague or unfamiliar to describe. The more readily I hear these "things", the higher I rate a component for detail.
On this track, there also was a touch more warmth and life in her voice, but
what was really obvious was the dynamic range. It was plainly
obvious to perceive large and small changes in her voice, the transitions were
effortless and immediate. Again, I had never noticed anything lacking with the
Creek, till I heard it through the Cayin.
many and several tracks, the Cayin plainly illustrated how wide the gap between
the tweeters on the Titus and Dynaudio Contour 1.3 MkII really is. While with
the Contour there was an immense amount of detail (perhaps the most I have
ever experienced with any amp), the treble was smooth and natural. In contrast,
the Triangle, while also quite detailed, tended to sound relatively harsh. I
thus have to alter my verdict on the Titus. I still highly recommend it, but
either with amps of moderate resolution or high-resolution amps with rolled
off highs. I suspect high-resolution tube amps may be just the ticket. When the
Triangles were returned to the second system to be mated with a NAD 317
Integrated, I enjoyed them just as ever. I am not sure if the NAD is of lesser
resolution or has the highs rolled off, but I would have to guess at least one
of the two must be true.
The clichė used ad nauseum by many reviewers is "This component (on hand) is better
than those costing several times as much". Well, if everything is better than the
average, then what exactly is average? But, I better get off that soapbox,
before I digress too much. I would not be surprised if the 265Ai indeed is
better than much pricier gear, but I did not have anything that expensive
on-hand to compare to. I did compare it to the slightly pricier Creek 5350SE
($1500) and found that I preferred the Cayin by a wide margin.