Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player - Video Preview

This is a quick video preview of the Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player.  The review will follow over the weekend.  Apologies for the execrable quality of the production and the video itself.  Hopefully things will improve as I get a bit more experience doing this.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review : Topping TP20 Mark 2 - Audiophile Amplifier for Rs. 4000 / 80 USD

The Topping TP 20 Mark 2 - Front View

The headline sounds about as ambitious and unrealistic as some of the spam that you receive that promises to 'enhance your manhood' in '6 weeks flat.'  Audiophile amplification is meant to cost at the very least tens of thousands of rupees at the 'budget end'.  When a budget minded audiophile sets out to put together a stereo setup he will be led by the 'experts' to look at either a Marantz PM5003,  a Cambridge Audio 350A, an NAD C316BEE, or a Denon PMA510-AE, in the amplifier department.  All these are beautifully built units with in-built linear power supplies, multiple inputs, a remote control, and they all cost in the region of Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000.   
They are all good performers in their own right, providing good sonic value along the traditional parameters.  You would be forgiven if you believed that this is as cheap, and as good as stereo amplification gets.   

This is where the Tripath chip comes in.  Tripath was a company started by inventor-entrepreneur Adya Tripathi in the USA, that manufactured these revolutionary digital amplification chips that provided very high levels of efficiency and performance at a very low cost.  These chips found their way into many consumer electronics products by the big-box brands, but more importantly found a passionate fan following amongst the audiophile community.  Tripath, unfortunately, went out of business, with a large inventory of the chips still lying with them.

This large inventory was snapped up by various people including several Chinese companies, for peanuts.  

Enter Topping.  These guys evidently picked up a whole bunch of tripath chips including the celebrated TA2020 chip, that has found its way into the Topping TP20 amplifier.   The TP20 is available for order on ebay, for roughly 80 USD including a 12v, 5A power supply and shipping to your doorstep anywhere in the world.    

Packaging and Appearance

The amp comes by air mail from Hong Kong, well packed in a cardboard box with foam lining.  The amp itself is very well constructed. It's shockingly tiny. About 5 inches deep, 3 inches wide and an inch and half tall on its four rubber feet. The unit features a well built metal case, machined aluminium faceplate, good looking volume pot and power switch, and gold plated RCAs and binding posts. The binding posts are clear plasic on the outside and are not the easiest things to turn because they're smoooth, a slightly textured and less pretty binding post would have been nicer, but hey, it's a 4000 buck amp,you should be happy they're not spring clips. The binding posts accept banana plugs and bare wire.  

The power supply is a fairly robust looking switching supply rated at 12v, 5A. I held it up to my ear and didn't hear any noise, which was encouraging.


Some size perspective
The Topping TP20 produces a rated 13W maximum per channel into 8 ohms. But since that is with a 10% THD figure, we'll take the 7W per channel figure which is the maximum power into 8 ohms with a THD of 0.01% as the more relevant figure.  It also uses a not very beefy outboard switching PSU.  
What this means is that some care needs to be exercised in pairing these with speakers.  You cannot put something with an 82 dB sensitivity and and a 4 ohm impedance load in front of this amp.  That would be stupidity.  Make sure that the speakers are rated at least at 86 dB sensitivity (the more the better), and a relatively steady impedance load of at least 6 ohms.  Speakers that have worked well with this amp include the Usher S520, the Odyssey Epiphony and the Cambridge Audio S30.  


I won't beat around the bush here.  This is a dazzling amplifier.  Full disclosure here, that I own this baby, but prior to this I was using an NAD C320BEE (the equivalent of which now costs in the region of Rs. 28,000) and I sold off the NAD after hearing this.  Paired with the Odyssey Epiphony (86 dB, 8 ohms) and a fully modded CD63SE, it paints a revealing and involving sonic potrtait. Superb detail, excellent soundstaging and imaging. Excellent transients, nice airy extended highs, tight, tuneful bass, and some seriously liquid midrange.  

The test tracks I used for this review are:

Steely Dan - Aja, Deacon Blues
Dire Straits - Heavy Fuel, Fade to Black
Usher Demo CD - Track 9 (the chinese drums), Track 10 (vocal and cello)
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos - Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Gramophon) 

The Topping is a light and nimble performer.  The dry, detailed Steely Dan sound is reproduced with unnerring accuracy.  The snare hits are crisp and full bodied.  You can hear the beater strike the skins on the kick drum, rather than hearing a glorified thud.  The guitars and vocals are life-like and engaging.  Each instrument in the mix is distinct and well defined, and stereo image and soundstage are convincingly lifelike.   The transient response is rapid and the leading edges of the notes pop with realism.  Do remember here that this is out-and-out a solid-state amp, and while the mid-range is beautiful and detailed there is none of the enhanced 'body' and 'warmth' of a tube amplifier.  So if that is what you seek, you must look elsewhere.  

Note the gold plated RCA's and the smooth binding posts
Testing the amplifier with demanding percussion reveals that this little creature can really dig deep to put out some convincing low-frequencies, while retaining the detail and musicality of the bass notes.  This is something that several more expensive amplifiers try to do and fail.  What is also impressive is the sheer body and depth of the cello notes on the Usher demo CD.  This amplifier is not just for rock and roll, it works beautifully for jazz and small-ensemble classical  music as well.   To do justice to a philharmonic orchestra of course you need equipment costing at least 10 times the cost of this unit, but even so, the Topping manages to create a musical and involving presentation of the Brandenburg Concertos, without of course being able to do full justice to the sheer scale and dynamic swings of the music.  But hey, remember, how much this amplifier costs!

Pros and Cons


- Detailed, airy, dynamic sound
- Superb imaging and soundstaging
- Ridiculous price-to-performance ratio


- Needs sensitive speakers
- No remote
- Only one input


What can you say about an amplifier that costs Rs. 4000 and can do so many things so well? Paired with the right speakers they handily outperform the budget integrateds mentioned earlier, as well amplifiers costing more.  In fact, I can state with some confidence that you'd be hard pressed to find an amplifier that costs less than Rs. 30,000 that can compete sonically with the Topping TP20 provided you exercise some care in choosing the speakers.  Just for a lark I've tested it with speakers costing over Rs. 2 lakhs (the Usher  Mini Dancer) and it's staggering how impressive the performance of this amplifier is.  The detail, imaging and soundstaging are all in place, it's in the low frequency tightness and grip that it loses out.  

Bottomline, if you can live with only one input and no remote control, and you are looking to spend less than Rs. 30,000 on a stereo amplifier, you owe it to yourself to at least consider the Topping TP20 seriously.