Product: Trends Audio TA-10.2P class-T power amplifier.
Manufacturer: TrendsAudio - Hong Kong
Cost: MSRP Price 225US$ (265US$ for the 'SE' version) (YMMV)
Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: October, 2009
It seems like only a little while since the class-T amplifier came upon us, affordable, and good enough to make many a reviewer sit up and sing its praises. Lead by the ultra-cheap and cheerful Sonic Impact T-AMP, and followed by some classy sounding versions such as the DiyParadise Charlize and Trends TA-10.1, class-T offered the budget-conscious audiophile, who could live with the limitations of the low power output, great quality sound for a modest outlay. The thing is with 'affordable' hi-fi is that once it gets a reputation it just keeps on selling, and the Trends TA-10.1 is a good example of that phenomenon. But no manufacturer can afford to sit still in this modern world of ever-changing specifications, and Trends Audio have evolved their micro hi-fi system to include a tiny pre amp, the PA-10, that I reviewed earlier this year. The PA-10 has a volume control, and nobody really wants two pots in the signal path so Trends did the logical thing and brought out the TA-10.2.P power amplifier without a pot.
The appearance of the TA-10.2.P looks quite familiar. It should do as Trends have designed all their products to match one another. Apart from the volume control knob, the TA-10.2.P looks almost identical to the TA-10.1. Even so, I still marvel at the skill of getting an amplifier into such a small case, and providing all the necessary connections. The Trends products are clearly designed for the audiophile who has quite limited space, perhaps somebody living in a smaller apartment, or somebody with just a bedroom in which to set up their whole system. So I set up a Trends system comprising the TA-10.2.P, the PA-10 pre amp, and the UD-10.1 USB DAC, in my smaller listening room. Music source was a small PC but you could equally use a netbook PC and keep the whole system (excluding the speakers) on one small shelf. But first I'll report on the TA-10.2.P as a power amplifier.
I had missed out on hearing the original TA-10, that review being done by our esteemed editor, Mr Caddedu, who obviously liked what he heard. Reading the specifications of the TA-10, and TA-10.2.P reveals that they are identical apart from the volume control, and weight. So I set the TA-10.2.P up in my smaller listening room, with the modified Logitech SB3, Scott Nixon DacKit, the PA-10, and the IPL A2 speakers. As usual, after a very quick listen to make sure that the system was playing correctly, I left the TA-10.2.P to burn in for about 24 hours before returning for a serious audition.
From the outset, I could hear why so many people liked the TA-10. It has been said that the ideal amplifier would be a length of wire with some gain, and while the TA-10.2.P is not the 'ideal' it's clarity did give me the impression that there wasn't much inside that small case to 'pollute' the signal! The imaging is razor sharp which not only places each performer/instrument exactly in its place, but presents a very strong 'image' of it too. There is a wide sound stage with some depth to it too (remember that this is in a small room where it is difficult to achieve much depth to the sound stage). The tonal balance is neutral, neither too warm or too cool. Timing is good and my foot was tapping a lot. I found the bass a little less prominent than with the Charlize or Audiodigit Class-T amps, but not to the extent that I would miss it in that small room. The over all impression was that the TA-10.2.P was a very good amplifier in that it accurately delivered the (amplified) input signal to the speakers, and was very enjoyable to listen to. Yes, it was a slightly different presentation to say the Charlize, and my personal taste was for the slightly warmer balance of the latter. However, I know at least one of my friends would go for the more neutral delivery of the TA-10.2.P!
So it was time for some swapping. The PA-10 gave way to the DiyHiFiSupply EZ linestage that I had recently reviewed. The effect was immediately obvious with more bass, a slightly less thin presentation, and a generally more refined performance. Of course, this is an unfair comparison as regards cost but it did show that the TA-10.2.P is perhaps at a higher level than the PA-10, and is deserving of more costly partners. You can choose which way to take this, either going with the PA-10 for reasons of cost and compactness (the EZL is much larger, taking up half a standard hi-fi shelf), or if it is sound quality that is paramount, you could look for a better pre amp that will improve the sound of the TA-10.2.P. I also tried the Audiodigit Tube-Pre that I also preferred to the PA-10. But this puzzled me somewhat as I had quite liked the PA-10 when I had originally reviewed it. So I took out the TA-10.2.P and EZL, and put in the DiyParadise Charlize with the PA-10. For some reason, the PA-10 seemed to work better with the Charlize than it did with the TA-10.2.P. The sound wasn't so bass-light, perhaps because the Charlize was a bit warmer sounding on its own. Still, it seemed odd that the PA-10 worked to better effect with the Charlize, than the TA-10.2.P which is was presumably voiced to work with! Just to make sure, I tried the Audiodigit class-T amplifier and that also sounded better with the PA-10 than the TA-10.2.P!
Still a bit perplexed by the combination of the PA-10 with the TA-10.2.P, I swapped out the standard valve in the PA-10 for the 6H23n that brings the specification up to 'SE' level. Having re-adjusted the voltages, I inserted the PA-10 in between the UD-10 and the TA-10.2.P. The difference was immediately apparent! The thinner sound that I had been getting on piano was gone, the whole system sounded much better balanced, and generally much closer to when using the EZ Linestage, although not quite as refined. It surprised me a little just how much improvement the change of valve made. In my original review of the PA-10, I hadn't found the 6H23n to make that much difference. It's another reminder of how many variables that we have to contend with when building a good system.
The TA-10.2.P comes in two versions, the standard version and the 'SE', the latter being identical but supplied with a beefier power supply. There is in truth not much difference between the two power supplies with the 'SE' PSU sounding very slightly more refined. But you must take that in the context that in my system(s) the speakers are very easy to drive. With more difficult speaker loads, the bigger PSU may make more of a difference. I also tried a Skynet 8080 SMPS and found that to be so close to the 'SE' that I couldn't honestly say that I heard any difference. I also tried a 12 volt battery and did like the slightly different, perhaps slightly more laid back presentation. Some people swear by batteries for these 12 volt class-T amps and I suspect how much improvement that you get with one will depend much on the quality of your mains power supply. I use a high quality mains conditioner, and there aren't really any problems with the mains to give the battery a big advantage. That said, it is one avenue to explore with this type of amplifier.
It's worth pointing out that amplifiers this small create one or two issues. The connectors are all in close proximity and it's a little fiddly to get all the leads plugged in. Cables, particularly the heavier type will try and pull the minute TA-10.2P off its shelf and it is a good idea to add some means of supporting the cables, perhaps a few hooks on the rear of the equipment rack.
The source for the first audition had been a modified Logitech SB3 with a Scott Nixon DacKit, so I next removed the SB3/DacKit and installed the original UD.10.1 so that it was an 'all Trends' system. Source was the usual old PIII PC running Ubuntu, with Exhaile as the music player. I am still surprised when I set up this sort of system and hear the quality that emerges from the speakers! It wasn't so long ago that if I had heard that level of clarity, I could have been convinced that I was listening to something ultra-expensive! If I was limited to a small room to listen to my hi-fi in, I don't think that I would complain much about the sound quality, more so given the comparatively low prices of these items. That said, as a reviewer I have been privileged to listen to quite a range of alternatives, and will make some observations accordingly.
The UD-10.1 does very well in taking the USB signal from the PC and converting it to audio. The sound is clear and detailed, accurate, and enjoyable. As a DAC (as opposed to just a USB converter feeding a separate DAC) I prefer it to the original UD.10.1 Lite (that is less expensive). Then we have USB DACs like the KingRex UD.01 that although quite a bit more expensive than the UD-10.1, do produce another level of sound quality. As ever, all this has to be considered against the price of each item, and if you are on a tight budget, as many of us are, the Trends UD-10.1 won't disappoint, although I would also suggest looking at the SuperPro 24/192 USB DAC. These other USB DACS were reviewed on TNT earlier this year.
I also took the opportunity to try an all-battery configuration. Well all except the PC although if something like an ITX mini PC was used, that could also be run from a 12 volt battery. I used one 12 volt battery for the TA-10.2.P, two in series for the PA-10, and the small 6 volt battery pack that is available from Trends for the UD-10. This produced a very beguiling sound, with excellent detail retrieval, deep bass, and a black background. With only 2.8 aH batteries, there wasn't a great deal of 'punch, or scale, but in the small listening room it was very enjoyable. I just wish that I could afford to buy a couple of those often recommended RedTop batteries! Some people make a big deal out of the noise that batteries produce but in practice, I find that it is negligible, and if I was unable to cope with a dirty mains supply, I would be quite happy to go with a system of this type powered by batteries.
Moving the TA-10.2 to the main system in the larger listening room, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. It was fed by a modified Logitech SB3, a DiyParadise Monica3 DAC, and the Audiodigit Tube-Pre,and used the 'SE' PSU. With the very efficient Hawthorne Audio Duets, it easily filled the room with sound. Of course, there was a limit to how hard I could push it and it was much more at home with less demanding material rather than trying to 'rock and roll'. The transparency was even more evident, and the overall presentation was very light and airy compared to the Virtue Audio 2 that offered a darker background, and more grunt. But the TA-10.2 wasn't short of bass, even with the Augie woofer amp (Audiodigit MC4-100) turned off, the amount (and quality) of bottom end was impressive from an amplifier with only a 12 volt power supply!
At the risk of sounding repetitive, I would like to make my usual comments on setting this equipment up optimally. For this review, I started off with the Trends equipment resting on its small plastic feet, but after coupling it to the granite platforms, the sound quality was audibly better, mainly clearer and more focussed. Regular readers of my reviews will know that I am very careful in how I mount equipment to get the best out of it. What I have realised is that smaller items like the Trends DAC/pre/amp seem to particularly benefit from the method that I use to remove microphonics from them. I believe that this may be due to their very low mass. In other words, with such low mass, the microphonics have a much greater (detrimental) effect. I fully realise that nobody is likely to buy a Trends system and then go out and buy items like the VertexAQ couplers and equipment platforms so I have produced a DIY article based on what I have learned from using the VertexAQ items.
To sum up, the main subject of this review, the Trends TA-10.2.P power amplifier, gets a strong recommendation. I still prefer the higher powered class-T options such as the Virtue Audio V1/V2 for the extra scale that they bring, but we are then talking about a different price-range. And many audiophiles are running systems that work perfectly well with a 12 volt class-T amplifier; it all depends of course on the speakers used. I would put the TA-10.2.P up with the best of those lower power class-T amplifiers, although it sounds different to the Charlize which is one of my favourites. I just prefer the tonal balance of the Charlize while the TA-10.2.P sounds slightly more transparent. I prefer to use a buffer or pre amp with the class-T's and these will also be a factor in overall sound quality. For the TA-10.2.P I can't recommend the standard PA-10, it just sounds too thin for me (with the TA-10.2P) which is strange as the it so works well with the Charlize/Audiodigit/Gainclones. I strongly recommend the use the PA-10 'SE', or even a different pre amp, a more expensive option like the EZ Linestage isn't wasted on it, and you will hear it at it's best. That isn't to knock the PA-10 ('SE' version), rather to acknowledge the quality and potential of the TA-10.2.P!
© Copyright 2009 Nick Whetstone - www.tnt-audio.com