AOM Logo September 1998


Silicon Savvy
The Audio Research D130 Solid-State Power Amplifier


Andrew Chasin

While Minnesota's Audio Research Corporation has had a long history of designing and building tube-based audio products of sonic distinction (the glorious SP-9 and SP-14 preamplifiers spring readily to mind), few can deny this company's rather spotty record when it comes to solid-state amplification. With few exceptions, notably the splendid LS-3 preamplifier, ARC's occasional forays into the world of the transistor have met with limited success.

Audio Research D130 Power Amplifier

The D130 power amplifier is ARC's most recent attempt at building an affordable, solid-state device worthy of the company's High Definition moniker. As if to distinguish the D130 from the plethora of other solid-state contenders in the 100 Watt/channel weight class, ARC has endowed the amplifier with 130 Watts of class A/B power into 8 Ohms (not quite doubling its output to 200 Watts into 4 Ohms), sufficient to drive all but the most daunting of loads. In typical ARC fashion, the D130 is undistinguished visually, sporting a simple, satin-black faceplate (silver is also available), inhabited by nothing more than a rocker-style power switch, two LEDs to indicate power status (standby and operate), and the company's signature rack-mount handles. Generous, side-mounted heatsinks run the depth of the compact chassis, providing adequate ventilation for the rather warm-running amplifier. The D130 provides for both balanced and unbalanced hookup, with shorting pins being provided to disable the unused inputs (all auditioning of the D130 was done in its unbalanced configuration). Finally, two pairs of high-quality, hex-head binding posts, a fuse holder, and a captive AC power cord (tweakers be damned!) occupy their respective positions on the D130's rear panel.

I must admit that I was rather skeptical as to my possible success with the D130, as several of ARC's most celebrated offerings have proven less than captivating in the context of my reference system (the VT-100 power amplifier, in particular, was most disappointing, very likely the result of an especially poor synergy between it and the Audible Illusions Modulus 3A preamplifier.) To my surprise, the D130 proved quite engaging, if rather unlike any other solid-state power amplifier I've auditioned thus far, shouting "tubes" more than it screamed "transistors". In fact, the sound of the D130 was more akin to that of a classic tube design than most modern amplifiers of glass persuasion.

Associated Components

Analogue: VPI Aries turntable, Audioquest tonearm, Benz-Micro MC Gold moving coil cartridge, Black Diamond Racing "Round Things" record clamp
Digital: Theta Data Basic II transport, Theta DS Pro Progeny DAC
Preamplifier: Audible Illusions Modulus 3A with John Curl designed gold MC phono board
Power Amplifiers: SimAudio Celeste Moon W-3, SimAudio Celeste Moon W-5.
Loudspeakers: Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Solo.
Cables: D Lin Audio Silver Bullets 4.0 interconnects, Transparent Audio MusicWave Plus loudspeaker, D Lin Audio Silver Symphony 48 loudspeaker, Cardas Hex 5C phono interconnect, XLO Type 4 digital.
Accessories: Echo Busters room treatment products, Lead(less) Balloon turntable stand with Air Head isolation base, Target equipment stands, Black Diamond Racing Mk.III and Mk.IV Pyramid Cones, Nitty Gritty 2.5Fi Mk.II record cleaning machine, Nitty Gritty Pure-2 cleaning fluid, Stylast stylus treatment, 15A dedicated AC outlets.

The D130's tube-like demeanor resulted in a midrange that was liquid-smooth, transmitting the soothing tone and breathy delivery of Diana Krall's croonings on Love Scenes (Impulse! IMPSD 234) with great fidelity. In similar fashion, the sound of Chick Corea's piano on Trio Music in Europe (ECM 1310 LP), a superb record showcasing the percussive artistry of the seemingly-ageless Roy Haynes, was possessed of a rich and natural sonority throughout its range, whether thunderous chordal fortissimos or delicately shaded pianissimos. Unfortunately, the D130's tube leanings also resulted in rather disappointing reproduction of the lower octaves, having neither the extension nor the power for which many solid-state devices are known and loved. In comparison, the similarly-priced SimAudio Celeste Moon W-3 (the lower powered, and lower priced, sibling of the over-achieving Moon W-5 power amplifier reviewed previously) had superior low-end impact and solidity, demonstrating far greater control over the Gallo Nucleus Solos' 6 ½" Dynaudio woofer

The D130's portrayal of dynamics on a macro scale was another area in which it fell somewhat short of the Moon W-3 (and other similarly-priced competitors). In contrast to the Moon, the D130 left me firmly earthbound, draining some of the life and excitement from Roy Haynes' explosive solo on Hittin' It from Trio Music in Europe, and diminishing the scale of many grand orchestral works of which I'm fond. In contrast, the amplifier's faithful treatment of subtle micro-dynamic shifts, such as those in the strikingly beautiful Prélude a la nuit from Ravel's Rapsodie Éspagnole (Monteaux/LSO, Decca SXL2312), was splendid, highlighting the vast compositional skills of Fauré's most celebrated protégé.

Despite its faults, most of which were subtractive rather than additive, the D130 infused music with a compelling beauty, resulting in many long and pleasurable listening sessions. While the audiophile and eternal critic in me heard the D130's shortcomings, and its inevitable divergence from the sound of the live musical experience, my music-loving alter ego couldn't help but embrace the amplifier's natural beauty throughout the middle frequencies, its pleasing, if somewhat soft, tonal balance, and its indefinable, yet abundant, overall musicality. No, the upper frequencies weren't as vibrant or detailed as that of several competing devices, resulting in a slight de-burring of Wayne Shorter's jagged tone on Bimini from The Michele Petrucciani Trio's Power of Three (Blue Note BTC 8513 LP), nor was the soundstage rendered by the D130 the last word in transparency or three-dimensionality. What the D130 possessed by the dollop, however, was a sense of ease, naturalness and utter refinement in its presentation that often caused such notions as image specificity and soundstage dimensionality to drift slowly into the back of my consciousness, in favor of a deeper musical awareness. While listening to Strunz and Farah's Mysterioso (Water Lily WLA-CS-08 LP, alas long out of print), I was drawn into the mesmerizing, and oft-times hypnotic, performance by this hybrid Middle-Eastern/Latin American guitar duo to a degree I've experienced only on the rarest of occasions. Although the D130 did not provide the same degree of instrumental separation as some of its competition (the two instrumentalists side-stepping towards center stage rather than occupying their more usual stage left and right positions), there was little denying this amplifier's ability to paint a sonic picture full of authentic colors and textures. Although lacking in spatial separation, the Pedro Maldonado cutaway flamenco guitars employed by the duo were rendered with their lush voices faithfully preserved.

Enya's Watermark (WEA 24 38751 LP), a beautiful, if synth-laden, recording, was also served well by the D130's refined midrange textures, the electronically-enhanced aura surrounding the Irish New Age diva expanding to fill the confines of the listening room in dramatic fashion. Alas, the subterranean bass notes captured on this disc, requiring something akin to a seismometer to measure, were rather sloppy and ill-defined via the D130, a trait which would persist throughout the review period, regardless of loudspeaker cable employed. The lower range of the upright acoustic bass fared little better, the rhythmic foundation supporting such jazz classics as Sonny Rollins' The Bridge (Classic Records SP 2527 LP), Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia PC8163 LP), and John Coltrane's Crescent (Impulse! IMP 200 LP), becoming rather insecure. Moving into the mid and upper bass, the D130 became considerably more assured, resulting in a fairly tight and articulate presentation of this portion of the frequency spectrum.

Although lacking in ultimate extension and transparency at the upper frequencies, the D130 had a way with cymbals, tambourines, bell trees and the like, that became increasingly irresistible as time passed. I was riveted to the genuine sizzle and shimmer of Terry Clarke's ride as heard on C.T.A. from The Ed Bickert Quartet's I Wished on the Moon (Concorde Jazz, CJ-284 LP), a fine record that makes one wonder why Bickert remains relatively unknown outside his native Canada. Roy Haynes' expansive array of metallic percussive objects heard on the aforementioned Hittin' It, ranging from small "splash" cymbals to large gong-like instruments, was beautifully rendered with its wide range of tonal color intact, causing me to risk irreparable groove damage in order to indulge in repeated playings.

I have recently become aware of some discussions relating to the D130's supposed treble brightness. As I've alluded to above, my auditioning turned up no such aberration in the amplifier's upper octave response. On the contrary, I found the D130 to be rather forgiving in the top octaves, lending a sense of tranquillity to recordings of less-than-perfect stock. While I don't subscribe to the "two sonic wrongs make a right" school of component matching, the harsh realities of the world in which we live often dictate the pairing of a bright component with one possessing the inverse coloration. Given my experience, the Audio Research D130 would seem to be a shining example of the latter.

Conclusion
A fellow Audiophilia contributor summed up the Audio Research D130 power amplifier this way: "it would make a great second amplifier." Damnation by faint praise, perhaps, although methinks a rather fair assessment. While I enjoyed the sound of the D130 on several emotional planes and felt great admiration for its tube-like beauty throughout the midrange, and its faithful treatment of micro-dynamics, its colorations at the top and bottom of the frequency spectrum, coupled with its diminution of macro-dynamics, lead me to conclude that the D130, in its current form, must be considered a work-in-progress. Knowing Audio Research's past history, and the design brilliance of its engineers, I anxiously await this amplifier's next incarnation, perhaps in Mk.II status.

D130 Solid-State Power Amplifier
Manufactured by Audio Research Corporation
5740 Green Circle Drive, Minnetonka, Minnesota, USA, 55343-4424
phone: (612) 939-0600, fax: (612) 939-0604
web: http:/www.audioresearch.com
Price: US$1995.00
Source of review sample: Extended Dealer Loan
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