Making Music “Great” Again” – The AmpsandSound Bigger Ben
Having grown weary of the boob tube, satellite radio, or any medium discussing our current season of political malcontents, discontent, and boisterous claims of making our Republic “great” again, it was with great anticipation that I took delivery of the AmpsandSound Bigger Ben single-ended tube amplifier. At a time in my life when I need a new tube amplifier like I need another robocall from a presidential candidate, the Bigger Ben seemed like the more intelligent use of my money.
Politics 24/7 has worn me out; and those who know me and how much I loved living in Washington D.C. for eight years will be shocked to hear that, but the truth is that music has proven to be a very welcome distraction at the moment. It is my “wall” against the ugliness of the political discourse on both sides that has me reaching for the remote more often than not. Watching my son stare at his hands in the mirror and then check out his private parts was the last straw.
If listening to pundits, and shameless political whales excites you more than relaxing on the sofa with your spouse with Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, Bill Frisell, or R.L. Burnside slicing through the silence that is late night, I’m not sure what to tell you.
Books, movies, music, and the thrice weekly bowl of Pho (which can be art) are the blocks of my wall once my work is done, the kids are asleep, laundry folded, and my wife has finished her last Skype call with clients in Asia.
Audio equipment is a gateway. A lot of it looks the same and that’s okay. There are only so many ways to skin a cat; I’ve been married to a successful industrial designer for many years and even she has issues trying to reinvent the wheel within her segment.
That being said, I’ve always been drawn to those within the audio space who have come at this from an artist’s perspective (the engineering has to be solid but I’m a sucker for something unique).
The Late-Terry Cain was a friend and I’ll probably never own anything as unique as his IM-Ben horn loudspeakers ever again. Don Garber of Fi helped me survive a very difficult divorce with his Fi X and Fi 300B amplifiers. They remain my favorite pieces of audio industrial design; not to mention two of the better amplifiers that I’ve ever heard within their limitations.
So where does that leave someone like Justin Weber from ampsandsound. Justin’s work was introduced to me by a friend who swore on his life that I would love them with the Ryan R610 loudspeakers that have become my daily driver.
Justin Weber has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of vintage audio and horn loudspeakers and it was his love for older McIntosh amplifiers that pushed him to burn the midnight oil (his day job forces him to often work irregular hours) and make a real business out of this. He’s a hobbyist with a lot of passion and genuine understanding of how to make a really good sounding piece of audio equipment.
The Milleninum Falcon of Power Amplifiers
“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
Hmmm…where have I heard that before?
In actuality, the Bigger Ben does stand out in a room with all of its iron, walnut chassis, and the soft glow of its tubes, but it doesn’t wave its hands and make pronouncements about its manhood.
At $1,800, the Bigger Ben does face some stiff competition from the likes of Rogue Audio, PrimaLuna, Bottlehead, Decware, Croft, and more amplifiers on the solid-state side of the fence priced below $2,000.
It’s also very basic. It’s a plain stereo tube amplifier that requires a pre-amplifier or DAC with volume control. There are no fancy knobs, or 2” thick aluminum faceplates (I’ve yet to understand why any piece of audio equipment requires that but whatever). The custom metal binding posts on my unit were a recent upgrade over the original version of the Bigger Ben which featured the plastic variety; something that I genuinely hate on all audio equipment.
The output transformers are custom hand-wound designs made in the U.S. for ampsandsound. The Bigger Ben utilizes am exceedingly large 8 Henry choke and the internal guts are neatly arranged and finished. Parts quality is extremely high for a boutique tube amplifier at this price level. Weber offers the Bigger Ben with a choice of output tubes; EL34s, 6550s, KT88s, 6SL6s, or KT90s. Power output ranges from between 3-8 watts depending on your choice of output tubes and rectifer.
For someone who comes at all of this from the perspective of a hobbyist turned-manufacturer, Justin Weber sounds like a seasoned pro when you talk shop with him on the telephone. He’s not some goofy goober who woke up one morning and decided that he wanted to make audio amplifiers, and loudspeakers. But I am getting ahead of myself just a bit.
The Bigger Ben’s power ratings make it look less than ideal for anything under 90dB in a small to medium-sized room, but unless you’re desperate to get evicted from your apartment with a 2am orgy of Motohead or Kraftwerk, cranked to uncomfortable listening levels, the Bigger Ben is more than capable of driving loudspeakers as low as 87dB (as long as they don’t dip below 4 ohms for the most part) in most rooms to levels that would qualify as loud. The Bigger Ben is configured for ultra linear operation but with a minimal amount of feedback.
When it comes to loudspeakers, listening sessions demonstrated that the Bigger Ben is more than capable of handling large two-way designs such as the aforementioned Ryan Speakers R610s, smaller monitors such as the Dali Zensor 3s, Wharfedale Diamond 10.1s, and floor-standing single-driver loudspeakers from Omega loudspeakers. Based on what I heard, the Bigger Ben would do some genuine damage with a pair of loudspeakers from Spendor, or DeVore Fidelity. Just enough grunt. Ideal tonal balance.
Having owned a brothel of single-ended amplifiers over the past twenty years; including the Wavelength Audio Duetto, Art Audio Diavolo, Blue Circle BC6, Fi X, and Fi 300B, I feel pretty confident placing the Bigger Ben somewhere in the middle of that pile of iron and glowing glass.
What the Bigger Ben gives up in power to the brawny Diavolo and hybrid BC6, it makes up with a level of transparency that rivals the Wavelength Duetto; a rather impressive feat considering the $4,000 price difference between the two amplifiers.
The Bigger Ben does not offer the bloom of the Duetto; certainly not while using 6550s or KT88s versus the Western Electric 300Bs that came standard with the Duetto, but it has the Wavelength amplifier beat on two fronts.
If you’re looking for a tube amplifier that is quiet; remarkably on a level that I would say compares to some of the more expensive solid-state amplifiers I’ve heard over the years, the Bigger Ben is impressive regardless of price. No hum. No noise. Just a dead silent background from which music emerges.
The Bigger Ben’s ability to reproduce a deep and wide soundstage was also on another level compared to the Duetto. I’ve never been all the fixated on that aspect of loudspeaker/amplifier performance, but the Bigger Ben/R610 combination was adept at recreating that illusion.
From a tonal perspective, the Duetto and Blue Circle BC6 are warmer sounding amplifiers. The Duetto is also one of the best amplifiers I’ve ever heard at any price when it comes to reproduction of the human voice, and while it came damn close, the Bigger Ben offers more detail at the expense of some meat on the vocal chords.
Whereas the Fi X and Fi 300B come across as more ethereal in their presentation and tonal balance, the Bigger Ben is slightly rougher sounding like a jazz singer in a smoked-filled club after a few sets. The Bigger Ben will reproduce everything on a recording; and what you ultimately hear depends a lot on the tonal balance of your loudspeaker.
The Bigger Ben was designed with large horn loudspeakers in mind; Weber is a huge fan of the Klipsch Cornwall, and Klipschorn, and all of his designs exhibit a great deal of control in the lower registers. Bass is tight, quick, and meaty depending on the choice of loudspeaker.
When I pushed the Bigger Ben with electronic music from Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, Tangerine Dream, or Brian Eno, the amplifier had no issue keeping up with the pace and unraveled the many layers of music that lesser amplifiers often obscure.
The Bigger Ben is a very confident sounding amplifier that works well with a wide variety of loudspeakers. It is reliable, quiet, well-built, and after almost five months of listening, one of the most engaging amplifiers around. If you don’t live or die on power ratings and have the appropriate loudspeakers, the Bigger Ben succeeds wildly at making music great again.
Recommended for anyone looking for an endgame tube amp with some midrange magic and transient mojo.
AudioExpress RMAF 2016 – ampsandsound coverage Ampsandsound from Southern California (www.ampsandsound.com) teamed up with North California Sonic Studios to show their latest, hand-built hollow-state designs, the $3,600 Agartha and the $1,850 Leeloo combination amps. The former pairs a 6SL7 up front with an overspec’d power supply and 300b triode on output. The latter is both headphone and power amp,using a 12AX7 or equivalent for input (see Photo 8). With a pair of EL-84s out to deliver 2.6 W into an 8 Ω speaker, little Leeloo will also drive a 32 Ω headphone with a dead quiet 1 W of hollow-state […]