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Past to the Future: Audio Note P-2 SE Single-Ended Pentode Power Amplifier

By Dayna B. Reprinted from The Audio Adventure
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What can we learn from the past? Often, we are able to improve upon previous efforts by simple analysis. Take single-ended amplification of an audio signal. While today there is a resurgence of single-ended amplifiers in the market, there was a time when only the occasional audio oddball was using them. Why? Simply because the push-pull amplifier had usurped the single-ended amp as champion. We’re talking a few decades ago, when the push-pull amplifier offered more power and, like anything new, a "better" future for audio.

So what could possibly be the reason for this resurgence of interest in an old technology? After all, single-ended amps are inefficient devices, and the technology is so dated that some designs use tubes built in World War II. The $2,895 Audio Note P-2 SE utililizes two 6L6GC tubes per channel to produce a mere 17wpc. But hey, this is pretty powerful for a single-ended amp! With such a low power output, are you limited in your choice of speakers to match with this amp? Yes, but this is not as bad as you might think. If the impedance of the speaker doesn’t dip and peak wildly, the Audio Note can drive one of average efficiency. It is the stability of the speaker’s impedance rather than its efficiency that will determine the quality of the match.

But to answer that rhetorical why: It has been my experience that, provided the speakers are a good match, many single-ended amps can recapture the musical timbre more accurately than push-pull designs. Single-ended amplifiers also reproduce very subtle shading and variances in loudness during playback. The main characteristic that made the P-2 SE stand out from push-pull amps I have heard was its remarkable ability to produce the "body" of the instruments and voices. Strings and brass were full sounding without unnatural bloating. The instruments and choir in Stavinsky’s Firebrand (Robert Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Telarc CD-80039) were fleshed out and had a convincing sound. The brass section sounded brassy and the strings were silky smooth. Still, when the music called for sharp attacks, the instruments bit hard, with no harsh electronic artifacts. The bass drum was powerful, yet controlled. There was such an ease and naturalness to the music that the playback seemed to lack any "electronic" signature. The tonal richness of all the instruments was quite good. Crescendos were a definite non-problem for this amp, and the orchestra simply blossomed in all its glory. What power and grace this baby is capable of! Images remained rock solid without wander or bloat. The performance was stunning!

And in spite of the great tonal richness, the Audio Note was not left wanting for detail. If you’re lucky enough to find Lily Pons: Waltz Songs (Columbia Masterworks ML 4061), take good care of it. Listening to Pons with the P-2 SE driving my speakers was enlightening. She had such a beautiful pure voice, and her expression of happiness and joy flowed from this record. The recapturing of this great soprano’s art was a musical treat! Almost as amazing was the ability of the P-2 SE to reproduce the subtle details previously lost in the surface noise of this LP.

The Audio Note was also able to reproduce microdynamics and timbral shading with aplomb. The ever-so-subtle nuances that occur when notes are extended or "bent" to the point of almost, but not quite, going sour, when notes go from a whisper to silence, when that silence is disturbed by music once more--these are the elements of audio that embody some of the magic of true hi-fi reproduction. Can this amp hack it? Does a bear--well, you know the saying. Yes, this baby can dish, er, deal it out in spades. When I listened to Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay (Volt Records, VOLT S-419), that soulful voice struck a magical note of emotion. The message of each song came through loud and clear. All the instruments, including percussion, had a very natural timbre. Cymbals, for example, were neither splashy nor washed out. They had just the right amount of energy, sounding immediate, metallic with a touch of woodiness from the drumsticks. The recording sounded so great, I had trouble doing any critical listening.

Obviously by now you can tell I like the P-2 SE. But there’s just one more thing floating about in my head. Can this baby rock? Heh, heh, heh. It’s Def Leppard time! Let’s play Hysteria (Mercury, 830 675-1 Q-1). Def Leppard, that hard-rockin’ band, has a drummer sho can slam a rimshot harder than anyone else. The music has a powerful, driving bass with impact. With the P-2 SE, this bass was clean and well defined, providing great rhythm and pace. The rimshots were exceptionally percussive, with a quick inital snap followed by a sharp decay (ignoring artifically added echo effects). The soundstage was wide, depp and well defined, with a natural sense of air around vocals and instruments. There was no image wander--ever. In fact, image definition was so good I found some previously hidden background info. (No, it didn’t include satanic rituals, but I thought I heard "Buy more LPs.")

I believe single-ended amplifiers (at least some of them) have been given a bad rap. Often they are characterized as having rolled-off upper frequency response and weak or loose bass. Well, let me tell you, this honey has no such problems. The highs are refined without loss of detail and the bass is both powerful and solid. But the greatest single attribute of the Audio Note P-2 SE is its ability to add body to instruments and voices. In fact it comes so close to sounding natural that I may have to rethink what amplifiers are capable of doing.

Down sides? Well, the P-2 SE lacks some of the finesse of the finest. It also lacks versatility in use. Not all speakers are as sensitive (above 90db) and as benign in their impedance as the American Power & Light ALIX Annes I used for this review. But you can’t blame speaker manufacturers for not foreseeing the resurgence of past technology. And $2, 895 for 17wpc doesn’t exactly qualify as the bargain of the century. Though if you take a look at the P-2 SE’s big brother, the fabled Audio Note Ongaku, which puts out 27 single-ended triode watts per channel at $89,200 (that’s right, folks--the comma isn’t in the wrong place!), you know you’re looking at entry level stuff.

So, is the Audio Note P-2 SE worth an audition? Well, I’ve put it on top of my short list of amps to die for. If you’re considering an amp at even twice the price, check the P-2 SE out first. Of course, remember speaker compatability. Oh well, you might just find that you’re willing to get new speakers to match! Or maybe those old horns, down in your basement . . .

This page was updated on: 06 Aug 1998
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