The under $500 used power amp market is pretty stacked with lots of potentially good options. Over the last two months we have compared the Sony TA-N80ES and the DBX BX3. Both of these amplifiers are solid choices in their price range and embarrass a lot of “modern” amps. They will both drive most loudspeakers sufficiently. That being said their are clear differences in their sound.
Let us start with the Sony. The TA-N80ES is world class as far as build quality goes. Any audiophile that may discount this amplifier because it’s a Sony clearly does not know the history of Sony’s high end audio efforts. In the US many associate Sony audio gear with mass produced paperweight receivers at the big box stores. In the 1970’s-early 1990’s Sony was building Some very state of the art equipment for the APM square driver speakers to the TA NR1 class A monoblocks just to name a couple.
I chose the matching TA-E80ES preamp for the Sony. Source components for the comparison included the Denon DCD-3520 CD Player, VPI Prime Turntable with Ortofon 2m cartridge, and a computer based system including lossless music and a Benchmark DAC1. The speakers used for the comparison were the Kef 105/3 Reference, Dynaudio Contour SE, and Yamaha NS-1000. Cables used were Virtue Audio Nirvana.
One thing that stands out from the moment I fired up the Sony was the amazing level of overall clarity and low noise-floor. The Sony produced a very natural sound free of grain and issues common with mid fi amplification. Soundstage depth was not the best I have heard but still impressive. Soundstage width was very good. With the right recordings, I found myself closing my eyes and feeling as though I was listening to live music but still not the complete 3d emersion. The speed, dynamics, immediacy, and clarity allowed the speakers to disappear leaving a neutral representation of the recording. Cymbals shimmer and decay with excellent transparency. The ride cymbal in Simply Reds Song “Sad Old Red” came through with brilliant realism. Vocals came through without harshness and all the nuances in the human voice are heard. Brass instruments come through detailed, yet without harshness. As I tried different types of music I noticed that the Sony had a little trouble pushing the Kef 105/3 with some complex rock music like Tool Lateralus. During the busiest parts of the song the Sony lost a little accuracy in low end. The bass drum of Danny Carey just didn’t sound as convincing as with some other amps at not ridiculously loud levels to boot.
Before listening to the DBX I had my reservations as far as sound goes. Just looking at the BX-3 without knowing the company’s background I would say the build quality is acceptable and robust, but nothing jumps out as being exceptionally well made unlike the Sony which is filled with “build quality”. From the first track I listened to I was more and more excited to listen to different music with the DBX. As I listened to my usual reference music I was very impressed with the BX-3 in soundstage depth. The treble performance was smoother than with the Sony but did not seem to lose detail. Another difference I noticed early on was how well the BX-3 reproduced bass. The bass was authoritive when called for and delicate when called for. Playing Tool Lateralus with the BX-3 was excellent and very enjoyable. I could listen at very low levels and still hear a good representation of the recording. When I wanted to get loud the BX-3 stayed balanced and smooth throughout.
The BX-3 is basically 4 separate amps built into one chassis. Two amps can be bridged on each channel bringing up the RMS power to 400 watts at 8 ohms/2 channels. This is called BTL mode. I did not want to compare the DBX in BTL mode to the Sony because of the large difference in power output between the two amps. I will say that listening to the DBX in BTL mode raises the performance to give the Krell KSA series and Mark Levinson ML series amps a serious run. I had never heard my Dynaudio Contour SE’s be driven with that level of authority. I have listened to at least 30-40 different amps with the Dyns and the DBX wins out in a few areas. When listening in BTL mode the sound becomes more effortless from the quietest whisper to the loudest bass line. What also impressed me was that the noise floor stayed the same when running in BTL mode which I was not expecting. The DBX is something special.
Between the two, I would choose the DBX because I think it sounds better across a wider range of music and at either listening level extreme. The BX-3 has a analog-like subtle sound character that is very attractive and rare among solid state amps. In comparison to the Sony, the DBX is more authoritive in the bass and can play much louder without listening fatigue. The soundstage the DBX produces is a clear winner over the Sony with far more depth. The DBX also is more flexible with its BTL mode feature and extra available power output. Either of these amplifiers will be an improvement over most of the new stuff under $2000 and a massive improvement over a multi-channel receiver. If you are new to high fidelity stereo please research before you go buy the brand new integrated for $1000+. The used market will get you far more for your money in audio.
Sony TA-N80ES Specs:
• Super Legato Linear
• Pure complementary SEPP
• STD power supply
• Dual protection circuits
• Triple p-p discrete output transistors
• G-Chassis• Resin-cast power supply caps
• Fixed/variable inputsContinuous RMS power :
2x 270W (4 Ohm, 20Hz…20Khz, THD 0,006%)
2x 230W (6 Ohm, 20Hz…20Khz, THD 0,005%)
2x 200W (8 Ohm, 20Hz…20Khz, THD 0,004%)
1x 610W (8 Ohm, mono, 20Hz…20Khz, THD 0,004%)
1x 580W (8 Ohm, mono, 20Hz…20Khz, THD 0,004%)
Dynamic power :660W (1 Ohm)800W (2 Ohm)520W (4 Ohm)370W (6 Ohm)300W (8 Ohm)
Power bandwidth :10Hz…100Khz (4 Ohm, THD 0,02%)10Hz…100Khz (8 Ohm, THD 0,02%)
Dynamic headroom :2,8dB (4 Ohm)1,8dB (8 Ohm)
THD :0,004% (10W / 4 Ohm)0,003% (10W / 6 Ohm)0,0018% (10W / 8 Ohm)IMD :0,006% (4 Ohm at rated output)0,005% (6 Ohm at rated output)0,004% (8 Ohm at rated output)
Frequency response :1Hz…200Khz (+0 / -3dB)
Damping factor :100 (8 Ohm / 1Khz)
Slew rate :150V /µsec300V /µsec (inside)
Residual noise :less than 35µV
S/N ratio :120dB (A weighted, ’78 IHF)Inputs :1V / 30kOhm (unbalanced)0,5V / 600 Ohm (balanced)PC :380W (US)510W (EU)950VA (Canada)
Dimensions :47 x 18,5 x 44cm (with wood-sides)Weight :25kg (EU)26,3kg (US)
DBX BX-3 Specs
Power Output 125Wpc/8 ohm, 400Wpc/8 ohm in BTL mode
Total Harmonic distortion .003 at 125W/RMS
Frequency response DC-100kHz (+0,-3dB)
Signal to Noise Ratio 115dB
Channel Separation 90dB