The great jazz guitarist Barney Kessel passed away from inoperable brain cancer at 80 years of age while I was working on this review. 83-year old Pacific Northwest jazz guitar legend John La Chapelle loaned me his August issue of Just Jazz Guitar to read when I stopped in for my usual Thursday night jazz guitar lesson. There's a great series of articles about Barney and his life and music in the August issue that are a must-read if you're a Barney fan. While I was aware of Barney's work and had listened to his music, I realized how much I had missed by not paying more attention. To reminisce and wish Barney a posthumous "Godspeed!", I got out my copy of Kessel Plays Standards [Contemporary OJCCD-238-2] and listened to his album play through the Toshiba/Sonic Impact/Omega Super 3 combination three times before coming up for air.

While listening, I found myself thinking only about how much I was enjoying the music and how much I already miss Barney rather than fussing about the usual audiophile obsessions with sonic minutiae. In fact, I couldn't even think about the sound without forcing myself to focus. When I did focus, I thought that the Sonic Impact T-amp presented the music as clean, detailed, a tad warm, with a somewhat rounded character and perhaps a bit weak in the bass impact department, this possibly due to the battery power supply. It resolved enough detail to fairly easily hear even the faint whir of the Amperex tape machine motors running quietly in the background and the light hiss of the master tape sliding over the heads. Pace, rhythm and timing qualities seemed about in the middle of the spectrum - not in the same league as the class leader Naim but not plodding and slow either.

"Oh my gosh, I did it again - I listened to World Without Tears all the way through twice and forgot to pay attention to the sound!" I am hooked on Lucinda Williams' album [Lost Highway 0881703552] for its great musicianship and dark-side-of- the-full-moon lyrics. Feeling depressed? Cue up Tears and give it a listen. I guarantee it will cheer you up just to find out that there's someone even more messed up than you feel. On every system I've listened to the first cut of Tears with, Lucinda's voice on "Fruits of My Labors" is a little edgy and turns strident when she leans into it. The Sonic Impact was no exception. But I love Lucinda's voice and the moody and sweet darkness it evokes, surrounded by the disembodied spirits of distorted guitars on this album, the kick-butt harmonica playing, the expert drumming and the driving bass line. This is passionate music. The T-amp let the emotive aspects of the music come through much in the same way that a single-ended triode amplifier does even if it didn't exactly sound like one. I think its emotive ability is one of the main factors that have made this amplifier so popular with the underground hipsters. It plays music with passion. It sounds good, too. It's dirt-cheap to boot. What more is there?

Big Rig versus T-rex
Well, it turns out there is more - to talk about. It might seem more than a little unfair to put the $39 T-amp into a $30K+ high-performance audio system to see what it can do. The only thing cheaper in my Big Rig of Nirvana wire, Avantgarde Duo loudspeakers, Fi 2A3 mono amplifiers, Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe preamplifier, Audio Logic DAC and Meridian 508.20 used as a transport is the CD spinning in the transport. Absurd you say? Maybe - but what better way to get the full measure of what the little T-rex -- oops, T-amp -- can do? With the big Avantgarde Duos' 103dB sensitivity and full-range response of the powered woofers, the little T-rex could perform at its very best without having to break a sweat with its low power output. You'd probably think it an eminently unfair and hair-brained match - but you wouldn't if you'd heard it.

Audio pals Pete Riggle and Bill Van Winkle stopped by for a visit and listening session. Pete and Bill, like TASmanian devil Stephæn Harrell (and me), are fans of single-ended amplification with horn-loaded loudspeakers. Pete is a heck of a good SET amplifier builder and his 845 SET integrated Guilty Pleasure sounds tremendously good with his Cain & Cain single horns and gorgeous Thorens 124 vintage turntable. Bill is a sightless master piano restorer who lives the absolute sound. Bill's currently working on restoring a beautiful 100-year old walnut grand piano that is so gorgeous as to tempt me into emptying out my life savings to buy it - and I don't even play piano! You know a guy like Bill's got his priorities straight when he has more pianos than he has audio components - and my oh my, the audio components he does have! How about Cain & Cain double horns, Bruce Edgar horns and single-driver Omega Super 3s to whet your appetite?

Now, here's the deal: If I blindfolded you and had you listen to the amps in my collection right now -- the Almarro EL84 SEP stereo integrated with its punchy pace & rhythm and slightly dark & warm but naturally detailed soundstage; the emotive and musical Fi 2A3 SET monoblocks with their open, relaxed, dynamic and detailed sound; and the Yamamoto 45 SET stereo amplifier with its clean, clear, spacious, über-detailed and artfully musical sound -- and if after that, I slipped the T-amp into the mix and asked you to comment on its sound... what do you think you'd say? I guess it'd be close to what Bill said: "Its sonic signature reminds me most of the Yamamoto 45. It is clean-sounding with lots of detail and decent rhythm and pace. Not quite as smooth and musical but very good." When I told Bill and Pete that the T-amp cost a mere $39, they were flabbergasted. After I placed the T-amp into Bill's hands so he could "look" at it, he burst out in a marvelous laughter over its combination of light weight, small size and heavyweight performance.

The T-amp is really a good little amplifier but it's not perfect - nor would I expect it to be at its price or any price for that matter. On Gillian Welch's Soul Journey [Acony Records 0305], I noticed that the T-amp doesn't image quite as well as my single-ended valve amps. The images aren't quite as solid and three-dimensional. The space around and between the instruments isn't quite as black-sounding either - more of a dark grey if you know what I mean. Notes don't bloom and decay with the same sonic naturalness as with single-ended amps - things are a bit truncated, a bit less fragrant. There isn't quite the same nth degree of 'life' that the best SETs imbue. It also doesn't produce their billowing sense of breathing natural space nor is it quite as dynamic in either micro- or macrodynamic terms. But I really like it and think
that it does a tremendously good job on its own terms by not being so far off the performance of the best SETs that it's immediately obvious. The biggest praise I can heap upon the T-amp is that when it's playing music, I forget about it as an audio device and get lost in enjoying the music. That's really the ultimate praise that one could bestow upon any piece of equipment. The fact that this piece is only $39 makes things rather mind-boggling.

The Bottom Line
I'd say Srajan nailed the Tripath signature sound when he described the eVo 2i: "Crystalline transparency; a tube-like midrange purity, naturalness of timbre and monster soundstaging without the bloom of valves; wonderful bass; and very extended yet silky treble that's never grating or dull but just right." Srajan was describing a $3200 integrated but the amazing thing is that those same words also pretty much describe the sound of the Sonic Impact T-amp integrated.

The Almarro, Fi and Yamamoto all play music wonderfully well, sound terrific and are relatively expensive. The Fi costs almost 100 x what you can buy a T-amp for over the Internet. Yet the little T-amp is not put to shame by any of them in its sound quality and ability to play music. I almost hesitate to confess that because I predict that some people will find it hard to swallow. But that's the way it is. The T-amp is not perfect and, with its cheap plastic case and budget Tripath chip implementation, a far cry from the build quality of the Almarro, Fi or Yamamoto. The spring connectors are flimsy and having only a single 1/8th inch stereo jack input is a nuisance for audio nuts.

The proof is in the listening, however. And there the Sonic Impact T-amp is an absolutely brilliant piece of equipment that revolutionizes sound quality performance at a true budget price. Prior to the T-amp, a great-sounding $39 amplifier was unheard of. That makes the Sonic Impact unparalleled. Heck, even for $390, it would be unparalleled - it's simply a really great little amplifier. The li'l Sonic Impact T-rex just took a big bite out of High-End's pudgy fanny.

The Gaincard was perhaps my favorite solid-state amplifier of all time, followed by the now discontinued Pass Aleph 3. Both are/were wildly more expensive than the T-amp and also more powerful. I think the T-amp might sound better than both of them but cut me some slack here since I'm going from memory. The T-amp is more detailed and cleaner sounding than the Pass and a touch warmer and more musical than the Gaincard but without the Gaincard's impressive bass abilities. The T-amp is the answer to the question posed by Herb Reichert when he reviewed the 47 Labs Gaincard in Listener (Volume 5, Number 2): "But I would really like to know how the same nine components and the Humpty would perform if they were jammed into one used tuna can and one small soup can. I am serious. What if the next step in Junji's research were to discover how much musical integrity he could retain while minimizing the costly packaging?"

The T-amp is fun. It smells better than a tuna can. It's cheap. It looks better than a soup can. It sounds great. It plays music with passion. What are you waiting for?
PS/Part 2 Preview:
What if with a few hot-rod tricks, one could improve upon the T-amp's minor -- and I emphasize minor -- shortcomings? What if one could gain a little more bass slam? What would it sound like if one ditched the cheap volume pot, added a beefier power supply, some good RCA inputs and decent binding posts? Would it give it a deeper soundstage and the bloom of valves? What if you added a visually stunning wooden Cain & Cain chassis? Oh Terry, have I got an idea! Stay tuned.

6Moons Reader David Dye Comments on the T-amp

Hello Srajan,
You guys must spend a lot of time lurking on the Asylum and Audio Circles to have picked up on this amazing little amp [Sonic Impact - Ed.]. For what it's worth, I have a couple of suggestions I hope you will pass on to the reviewer to maximize the quality of sound from this little hummer.

First of all, the cheap volume control is the weakest part of this amp which sounds a lot better if you just crank the thing all the way up and use it as a basic amp with a good preamp. I have had good results using a quality passive preamp (inexpensive custom-made by Scott Nixon) and even better results with several tube preamps, especially one without a cathode follower/buffer stage.

While the amp works well on 8 x AA batteries, you can improve the sound by using an inexpensive 12V battery booster as a power supply (I use a $30 one from Target that also happens to be color-coordinated with the amp). Another option is to use a 13.8V/3-5A regulated linear CB radio power supply which will give you an extra watt or two. Tripath's published maximum voltage for this chip is 13.2V but they told me that a tightly regulated 13.8V supply is okay and I have had no problem goosing the amp to that level. Some of the Audio Circle crowd use a $20 Pyramid linear power supply sourced from Parts Express. However, I recommend a higher-quality power supply made by Astron which costs about $10 more. As you can tell, I am a "spare no expense" type of guy. I recommend against using a switching power supply as Tripath chips put out a healthy dose of RF hash which doesn't need to be compounded by its power supply.

Keeping with the theme of amazing bargains, I suggest the reviewer try using a Home Depot 14-gauge outdoor extension cord (the orange and black one) for speaker wire (an Audio Critic recommendation from a couple of issues back). Just twist the bare wire tightly and jam it into the cheapo spring connectors (careful or you will snap the plastic levers if you reef down on them too hard). A $4 Radio Shack stereo mini to RCA converter will allow the use of decent interconnects (Nordost Solar Wind in my case).

I use one of my Sonic Impact amps to good effect with my 93dB Loth-X BS-1 speakers. Sonic Impact markets this amp as 15 watts but it only puts out about six watts into 8 ohms so efficient speakers are a must. However, I have also had good results using two of these suckers in a bi-amped configuration to drive my 83.5db LS3/5As. In that set-up, I use the Astron AC power supply to drive the midrange drivers and the battery booster to drive the tweeters, which cuts down the high frequency system noise.

Obviously, you cannot tweak this amp into Bel Canto eVo territory but a little inexpensive DIY setup can produce remarkable results in a small room system. Hell, I enjoy listening to it in my main system but I am not a head banger or a bass freak. For the ultimate low-cost system, just add a Toshiba 1350 or 1360 DVD player for RedBook playback and you've got a very musical, satisfying el cheapo system. By the way, you can get this amp from Target Online for a mere $19.95. Is this a great country or what?

Thanks for reading these ramblings. I appreciate that you are open-minded enough to review something as offbeat as this amp. It has certainly increased my interest in your web 'zine and I predict it will help broaden your readership."

David Dye
Bethesda, MD

Hello David,
Jeff Day is the Moonie responsible for landing this catch and I forwarded your loaded-with-tips note to him this morning. Thanks very much. This is exactly the kind of "audiophile community" type exchange I enjoy the most. The hobbyist underground element is what created hands-on excitement in the 'olden' days of HiEnd. Arguably, as the mainstream developed, some of that has receded or, at least, lost visibility in the mainstream press. We're just as guilty as everyone else for being ignorant about some of the current trends in DIY and thus really appreciate folks like you working with us by providing tips we otherwise might never come across. Thanks for giving us this opportunity!"

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