Late last year, we reviewed the Schiit Vidar, a reasonably-priced speaker amplifer with some high-end features: a cool outer shell, lots of power, and in balanced monoblock mode. Unfortunately, running a monoblock Vidar setup brought it out of “budget” territory. This week, we’re reviewing a new monoblock-only amplifier from enthusiast favorite Emotiva. It’s simple and – as speaker amps go – cheap. We think it’s a great way to get into a really trick hifi system.
What is a monoblock amplifier setup? Most speaker amplifiers have two channels are more – home theater receivers may have seven or more. This means that one device is dividing its maximum power output among several channels, all speaker wires must converge on a single panel, and designers have to be sure to eliminate crosstalk among the several channels. Monoblocks – single-channel amplifiers – don’t automatically sound better than good multi-channel amplifiers, but they do avoid all those issues, enabling each amplifier to focus on a single, isolated speaker. Monoblock amplifiers can be placed right next to the speaker they’re amplifying, allowing for very short speaker cable runs, reducing the chance of those wires picking up noise. A balanced monoblock amplifier, when paired with a balanced source (in our case, a balanced USB DAC), can take things a step further, eliminating just about all noise from the signal. Of course, this adds expense and some complexity to any speaker setup, so it’s not for everybody. In our case, however, the balanced monoblocks were a godsend – we’ve recently been battling a nasty noise issue with our desktop speaker system, and running a fully balanced signal through the PA-1’s to our speakers eliminated it completely.
The PA-1s are part of Emotiva’s X-Series Stealth line. These components feature an all-black casing with an angular brushed aluminum faceplate that evokes stealth fighter jets. The PA-1s are small (8-1/2” Wx 1-3/4” H x 9” D), weigh just 3 pounds each, and run cool enough to almost not need ventilation. The PA-1s are intended to be paired with Emotiva’s upcoming DC-1 DAC; we saw this DAC at CES 2018, with features rivaling that of the Mytek Brooklyn for a fraction of the price. Each PA-1 features a balanced input (XLR or balanced 1/4-inch TS), a single set of speaker binding posts, an on/off switch, and an “On/Auto” power mode switch that enables auto-shutoff when no signal is detected. Inside the PA-1’s black steel chassis, we find an ICEpower 300ASC amplifier module – these have found their way into many DIY and audiophile applications and for good reason. Class-D amplifiers have largely matured, and for many users will make more sense than power-hungry, hot-running Class-A or Class-AB amplifiers. Some have criticized Emotiva, accusing them of doing little more than repackaging a popular ICEpower board into their branded product, but there is value here. Sure, you could build a similar device from these components, but you’re going to need the skills to solder and drill holes in hobby metal cases and, even if you DIY, the costs of individual components don’t fall that far short of the PA-1, especially with its five-year warranty.
The PA-1’s power output is very respectable for this size and price: 140W RMS into 8ohm, 300W RMS into 4ohm, and 450W RMS into 2.7ohm. Frequency response is claimed at 20Hz to 20kHz. Its distortion specs are slightly pedestrian but the same or better than that of the Schiit Vidar at half the price. We’re impressed that the PA-1 is rated down to 2.7ohm – again, Schiit warned that a load that low would trip the internal protection circuits of the $700 Vidar. The ICEpower modules are a known quantity at this point, and the PA-1’s sound is exactly what we hoped for – transparent and clean, with great dynamics. Whether balanced amplifiers are “necessary” or “worth it” is the subject of much debate on the internet, but one thing is for sure – the benefits of unbalanced connections are on display in the PA-1. Power output from the PA-1 is excellent in that we got more clean gain than the Schiit Vidar at the same volume level from our preamp, for a lower cost. In addition, the balanced connection eliminated nasty GPU noise issue we have been having with our test PC.
Many products in the audiophile world attempt to justify high prices with a fully custom design. Sometimes that makes sense, sometimes it’s unnecessary. The Emotiva PA-1 is a great example of the latter – it uses tried-and-true components and offers excellent performance for a good price. Our complaints about the PA-1 are few – we would have like a slightly less aggressive timer on the auto-off, and high-pass filter would have been nice – but adding any more features would require a change in price that would put the product in another category. Bottom line – a pair of powerful, clean-sounding balance monoblock amplifiers for $600 is hard to beat. We highly recommend the PA-1.
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