This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
The CA160s spent the bulk of their time tethered to a pair of Anthony Gallo Acoustics' Reference 3 loudspeakers. As a matter of fact, break-in duties largely fell to the Canary amplifiers, insuring that by the time I was ready to take either product seriously, both were ready to roll. The Gallo speakers are rated at 88dB sensitivity, slightly above average but as the Ref3 represents a 4-ohm load, its 10-inch woofer in particular appreciates some current. The CA160s were more than up to this task even if it did seem a little odd mating a pair of $8,750 monos to $3,000 speakers no matter how overachieving the Gallos are.

In use, the CA160s performed flawlessly and without a hitch. There were never any annoying turn-on or turn-off thumps. When connected to the highly efficient 96dB Hørning Perikles, they provided the same degree of noise that Srajan's pair of Canary's CA308 amplifiers did into his 101dB efficient Zu speakers. His amplifiers necessitated a trip back to the factory to have their gain dropped in order that they could be more successfully mated to very high-sensitivity loudspeakers. However, nobody using such efficient speakers will ever purchase a pair of 140-watt tube monos. Into the more expected efficiencies of speakers such as the Reference 3, the CA 160s never uttered more than a whisper that was inaudible at the listening chair. Into the 85.5dB efficient ACI Sapphire XL, the amps were silent. I also noted that the two amps' forests of tubes (sixteen EL34s, 24 tubes in all) didn't produce anywhere near the amount of heat I expected. My first EL34 amplifier used four tubes per channel to provide 90 watts of power. The CA160 uses twice the number of tubes but produces a mere 140 watts. This along with the relatively modest heat output indicates to me that the tubes are not being driven all that hard to bode well for a long tube life.

How did these Californians sound? In a word, terrific. The CA 160s are such solid and balanced performers that I'm having a little trouble telling their story. Where does one start? There were some general characteristics consistent from LP to CD. The Canary amplifiers certainly exuded the robust presence that one would hope for from such powerful amplifiers. As compared to the aforementioned 300B, the EL34 produces a midrange with more meat on its bone but it's not quite as transparent. By comparison, the 300B sounds like a clear glass of water whereas the EL34 really isn't. But what to compare it to? That's the difficult part. It doesn't have nearly the same degree of taste or character of anything that I can think of - certainly nothing that would sound appetizing or appealing. But appealing it is. Hardly the amber hue that some have ascribed to the EL34, the CA160s nevertheless do have a buttery-smooth rich harmonic liquidity that I find endlessly endearing. Does that make them sound thick and slow? Not. Dark or opaque? Wrong again. But they do imbue instruments with authentic harmonic body and weight that with the right speakers can make the 300B sound almost threadbare by comparison. One could describe the sound as warm for sure, just not excessively so and certainly not colored. I'd call it musically natural.

So far the CA160s sounded exactly as I'd expect a well-executed EL34 amp to sound. No surprises. Another non-surprise was the treble performance. The treble was extended and relaxed, detailed but not etched, lithe and agile without sounding starkly clinical. Particularly in conjunction with the Gallos' superior CDT tweeters, the treble seemed to go out forever as it illuminated musically significant detail without ever sounding unnaturally evident. The treble has the same rich body as I've ascribed to the midrange and the Canarys are completely coherent and consistent here. Am I a little surprised by that? Perhaps a touch. This is completely in keeping with what I think of with EL34s but the Canarys bring just a touch more palpability through this region that most EL34 amplifiers I've heard.

What did come as a surprise was the bass authority of the CA160s though I probably shouldn't have been surprised given the fact that these are indeed the most powerful tube amplifiers I've ever used under my own roof. Without a doubt, the CA160s had what it took to take command of the Gallos. As it happened, I also had Gallo's SA subwoofer amplifier with 240 solid-state watts per side. On their own, the Ref3s are rated down to 34Hz and the SA amplifier extends that response down to 22Hz by driving the woofers' second voice coils. However, with the CA160s at the helm I can very honestly say that on 'normal' music, I found the sound of the tube amps completely satisfying and didn't miss the bass amp when it was out of the system. With this type of Canary level amplification, Gallo's bass amp scheme is much more a luxury for pipe-organ aficionados than a necessity for the rest of us.

Consummate music machines, the Canary amps were also surprisingly transparent to the source and everything in between. They really let you know what's going on upstream. In the areas of speed and articulation, the Gallos offer phenomenal performance in their class. In fact, while widely reviewed, I'm not sure that most of them have explored this area of the Gallos' performance in the way that they should have - my editor and publisher very much the exception. Srajan explored it in his review of the Ref3s and I heard it even from the little Gallo A'Diva Ti micro
spheres. Even those offer explosive micro-dynamics because they get the whole timing thing right. So do the Canary CA160s. It's the main reason I've enjoyed having them around. Never having experienced the amps for themselves, readers may assume that by how I've described their weight, density and richness, they might sound lethargic and slow. This is most assuredly not the case. This attribute may not be apparent at first blush because these monos do not sound like the lean, mean speed machines one would expect of amplifiers capable of such speed. But over the course of the last several months I've confirmed that, like the Gallos, the Canary amplifiers are anything but muscle-bound clods. They can boogie with the best of them.

When it comes to the reproduction of top-quality bass, several key performance parameters must first come together. First, there's timing. A system must be able to maintain the chronology of a sonic event by preserving the individual components of that event and maintain the proper order without smear or confusion. In the case of an amplifier, it must be able to control the speaker in such a way that the initial unleashing
of the E string on the acoustic bass is fully heard before the onslaught of the accompanying resonating body of the instrument. If one is to capture the subtle hints such as fret buzz and, on occasion, the slap of the string against a fretless neck, the instrumental balance will have to be maintained to avoid detail obscuration, bloat or overhang. Of course, if one is to be able to hear the difference between an electric and an acoustic bass, the instrument's complete harmonic structure will have to remain clearly intact and in balance. If the amplifier/speaker combo has the power and definition to cleanly and articulately excite the floor and the listening chair -- not in a purring thud but in a way that allows the listener to feel the passing of each cycle on the waveform -- well, what results is going to be a very convincing recreation of the real thing.

The Canary CA160s teamed up with Miles Davis for one stirring recreation of the Kind of Blue sessions [Columbia PC 8163]. Paul Chambers' bass lines met all the criteria and almost stole all of the piece's thunder so to speak. If memory serves, this music was recorded in the spring of 1959 (I was born in the fall of the same year) and what was captured not only in terms of musical genius but also in terms of sonics amazes me. Clearly, the quality of the microphones was way ahead of the speakers of the time. That engineers
of the day were able to capture such fidelity was, without discounting their talents, a large stroke of luck. It's not possible that they were able, via the available recording monitors of the day, to appreciate all they were capturing. Adding to the list of attributes that make this recording so great is the wide, deep and illuminated soundstage. Forget echo and artificially introduced reverb in an effort to simulate the illusion of space. How about hearing each and every note from Coltrane's tenor sax reverberate from the opposite side of the soundstage? Nothing maps out the soundstage like delayed phantom instrumentation placed across and deep on that stage. And all of that was expertly reproduced with life-like clarity by the Canary amps. Soundstage width was tremendous. The individual placement of the instruments varies from track to track but the consistency of those phantom images does not. James Cobb's drums may drive the music but they consistently did so from the rear of the stage and Evan's piano was seldom represented much more forward of the drums. Always vividly forward on the stage were Davis, Adderly and Coltrane. The LP just sounded super.

In the mood for some more horns, DMP's Big Band with Carved In Stone [CD-512] was a natural follow-up to the Davis LP. The Canarys' overall balance and sense of timing served this disc extremely well, too. In terms of rhythm, wasn't Big Band music all about dancing? I suppose it still is so it had better get the beat right. The CA160s sure did in my room. There's a saying in classical music, "the right note at the wrong time is the wrong note". It seems kind of antithetical that as the mathematical precision of a performance increases, so does the resulting music's ability to stir the emotions. As with comedy, timing would seem to be everything. Some amplifiers can (and do) produce the illusion of speed by sounding lean. They sound fast but at the expense of stripping the music of its body and warmth. A threadbare system will certainly sound fast but it'll also irritate rather than soothe. The magic of the Canarys is that they sound both full and fast, warm and agile. The music springs forth with real excitement and, when called for, even outright drama. When it comes to drama, Stan Kenton's arrangement of "Malaguena" does it for me. It's almost as if each section of the orchestra was competing for the right to tell its side of the story - dramatic and a little chaotic and most enjoyable. Of course the CA160s get all the nuts and bolts right but for me, the ability to convey such emotion is why they are ultimately so completely enjoyable and satisfying.

Amps as powerful as the CA160s had better be able to pound out rock, too. They do. From AC/DC to Zeppelin, the Canarys combine impeccable sense of timing and real brute force with the kind of authority and ease that encourages some spirited listening sessions. "Midnight Oil" had the Gallo Ref3s screaming the battle cry, "we don't need no stinking subwoofer!" In fact, a session that began with Earth And Sun And Moon [CK 53793] continued straight on through Diesel And Dust [CK40967]. Could this one really be nineteen years old? Even if you're the type who will eat only one Lays' potato chip, I'll bet you can't listen to these CDs at subdued levels. I can't and I didn't. Not the best of recordings, Hillman's bass lines weren't captured quite as cleanly as Rotsey's guitars or even Hirst's drum kit but they sure did energize the room, the floor, my chair and me. Garrett's vocals sound like... well, Garrett's vocals, just a little better, a little fuller, a little more authoritatively than I remember them. It all emerged from a seemingly impenetrable wall of sound that went wall-to-wall in my room.

There's no question that the Canary CA160 monoblock amplifiers are the most highly capable pair of amplifiers I've ever used. Their power rating ensures that they can drive the vast majority of loudspeakers (and shame on the maker of any speaker incapable of being aptly driven by these amplifiers). For those with little or no experience with tube amp, 140 tube watts is a lot of power, subjectively speaking. Some speaker manufacturers even specify different power requirements for glass and sand amps, with
the former always lower. And unlike with some powerful solid-state amplifiers, there's no sonic penalty for having a little too much power here. While the gain was a little high for my Hørnings, once the music was playing the CA160s did indeed sing like canaries, forgive the unavoidable pun. Equally -- and sadly -- unavoidable too is the hackneyed and often inappropriately used cliché, iron fist in a velvet glove. However, that tired old cliché is indeed most appropriate for the CA160s.

Thankfully, the Canary CA160s' graces transcend their muscle. These are tube amps in the most gracious and modern sense of the genre. As do all great tube amps, they maintain the qualities that tube lovers crave while they simultaneously close the gap between the best of valve and solid-state amplification. Where solid-state amplifiers once reigned supreme in the areas of bass control and perhaps treble extension, today's better tube amps significantly close in on that line in the sand if they don't erase it completely (and having owned Bryston's 500-watt monos, I know whereof I speak). The admittedly lofty price of entry may keep the CA 160s from being an everyman type of product but I can't stress highly enough that every man (and woman) make an effort to at least hear them. If you're wondering how much of the CA160 magic Canary has managed to pack into the much more affordable
CA100 at $4,895, you're not alone. I'm told that the CA100 is the sleeper in the line and an excellent value. That makes two Canary amplifiers well worthy of an audition! For those wondering why no award -- my sonic satisfaction described surely would indicate one -- I have to confess ignorance in this sphere of $8-10K high-power tube amps. I know how good the Canarys are. In fact, I'm keeping them. I simply lack the comparative context to know how great of a value they represent (which, after all, is the second half of the performance equation we're always asked to consider when nominating a product for one of our awards). The CA160s could very well demand an award if I had experience with comparably priced ARC, CJ and VTL amps - which I don't. You should thus walk away from this review suspecting that these amps are bona fide award material and, as usual, come to your own conclusions in an audition. I certainly will conduct comparisons against other high-power tube amps in the future when the opportunity presents itself...
Manufacturer's website