Saturday, 24 May 2014

Changing Allegiance on British Amps

I've always been a big fan of the Arcam Delta 290 (A) Integrated and Power Amps (P), and have since 1996 or so a growing stack of 290Ps until recently biamping left, centre and right, and single amping my rears for music and movies.

There has always been a great British Amplifier tradition amplifiers included and around that time there were three or four in particular which were talked about for somewhere around £500 for the integrated and then powers on top to biamp.

The Audiolab 8000 series, What HiFi raved about these, and ran a stack of 4 mono 8000Ms as their reference system, tonally a bit drier than the Arcams which a lot of people liked, and (IMO) pre the 1998 takeover by TAG Maclaren produced some really fine kit before loosing their way a bit after.

Then there was the Arcam Delta serious, bigger, more space in the boxes, warmer at the bottom and sweeter at the top, though not quite as taught.   I thought it was great, better than the Arcam 8 and 9 that followed (though the 9 is based upon the 290) and that's what I bought into.  Technically you could bridge the 290s for powerful monoblocks, but that wasn't the way they worked best, buying a 290A and then horizontally biamping with a 290P produced a really fine sound and you could argue about which one should power the tweeters and which the woofers all day (to my mind the 290P).

I never got to grips with any of the Mission/Cyrus gear.  Mainly because the shop didn't get on with the rep or the company that well, you had to run the speakers because of the awards at What HiFi but they always made it such hard work compared to the Arcam and Meridian which we were doing a lot of.  But I'd always been intrigued.

All this kit is available at extremely reasonable prices now.  You can pick up a 290A/8000A for £150-180 (watch out for the input selector on the 290As), powers for about the same, Cyrus 3 Amplifiers and Powers in good condition a bit more.  More like £180-220.  Any of these will make extremely fine noises if looked after, whilst processing, DACs have moved on hugely, good amplifiers with decent numbers of the right connections are still flexible and sounding excellent.  You just need the space to stack them up.  So something like this I had on test recently after getting each part reconditioned, really sounded beautiful,

So through April I took a plunge and replaced my set of 4 Arcam Delta 290P Amplifiers with a set of 4 Cyrus 3 Power Amplifiers.   Why?

Mainly space.  4 Cyrus (3) Powers occupy the same space as only 2 Arcam 290Ps, and I want to get everything away and in one rack and when scratching my head with how to do that, they came with a lot of additional stuff.  Flexibility to be biamp or bridged, upgradabale with a PSX-R to have two power suppliers one running the control and audio, one the main power stage which also upped the power from 50 to 70Ws, and also offering Balanced connections.

I've got balanced outputs on my Meridian pre-amps and similarly back when I was selling hifi we had one or two XLR compatibles in the shop, but never really ran an end to end balanced demo system, or had enough of the right cables to do be able to do a detailed back to back.  RCA dominated.   So I was eager to get to grips with Balanced.  Most of the DSD dacs also sport balanced, and if I upgraded I wanted to be able to go balanced end to end.

So initially purchasing 2, then another 2, what did I learn about the Cyrus 3 Power Amplifer?  Well there was quite a lot to learn, so here is a collection of useful things if anyone is thinking about them

Firstly they came with either very annoying 3mm banana plugs of slightly less annoying, but not as nice as 4mm normal banana BFA plugs (the hollow stackable type).  This was because of electrocution concerns over on the continent with 4mm bananas going into plug sockets too sweetly leading to lots of EU grumbling abouts.   There are no binding posts so you have to have the right connectors, I've ended up with an amplification pair of each type.

Moorgate Acoustics sell the best 3mm banana plugs I could find
You used to be able to get nice bananas just like the 4mm usual ones, and one seller included 2 of them reminding me, but now you only seem to be able to get 3mm bananas is nasty nickel finishes, so these moorgate ones are pricey at £27.50 but good quality.  If anyone out there has any classic gold plated 3mm bananas (socket and screw) I would be interested in buying them! So if buying a 3mm one make sure you factoring into any connectors into the purchase price.  The quality of the connection on the 3mms seems more solid and satisfying than the BFA ones, and some BFA plugs aren't very nice to solder to.  One of my amps the centre pin in the BFAs seems worn as well.   So I'd recommend if you have the choice go for the 3mm ones and plan ahead.  Some forums say you can squeeze down one of the stackable BFAs from 4mm to 3mm carefully with a crimping or pliers.  Whilst you can get something to "work" like this, the connection was highly unsatisfactory and it made a mess - I would leave well alone.  You can also try and remove the 3mm sockets and replace with 4mm, but it's an arkward place in the amp, and the de-soldering risks breaking plastic bits if you aren't precise. Again I'd leave off and buy the Moorgate plugs or similar.

Next up is that (very simple but internal) modifications are needed to use with a PSX-R so depending on how the seller has been using it may just sit and flash the diagnostic lights at you if not compatible with what you are trying to use it for.  The modification is to change around the order of 4 main coloured cables with connector clips on internally.  Taking the case apart and making the swaps is easy, however I haven't got a good guide to post with pictures.   As I had one that worked and one that didn't I changed the one that didn't to have the same order of wires to the one that did....

This was the only picture I took, a little blurry unfortunately, but you can see the 4 pins, near the transformer at the front, which run Yellow, Blue, Grey, and Brown/Red.

You also need to turn the amps off to change between states mono/stereo and balanced/unbalanced which doesn't make very quick back to back comparisons as easy as they could be, though to protect the amps it's understandable.  I have to say the self diagnosis and protection is very good.  Despite shorting on the case trying to sort speaker connections, and plugging them in in wrong modes, no blown fuses, and accurate flashing lights when reading the manual.

They also run a lot hotter than the 290Ps, not painful to the touch hot or enough to trip the protection (even after sustained loud for long), but quite enough that if you have a front on your hifi rack you notice it's getting plenty warm inside.   The classic Cyrus Hark stands with their flush open edges to the cooling fins clearly weren't shaped like that incidentally.  If putting in a closed unit worth considering.  They also seem to idle in standby a lot warmer.  Being noticably warm if not switched off at the back.

So if you press through a surprising amount of setup learning, what do they sound like?

Against the 290s.  Clearly in the same class, but slightly better.  Taughter and bigger at the bottom, not as sweet at the top, but with more overall detail, and more expansive.  Generally very nice.  I think the tone of the 290s I still preferred, but with the space saving and potential upgrade space, I was happy to trade some slight tone for the resolution and scale.

They are also really compact, although that does encourage you to get a large number of the boxes, you could have 8 just for 2 speakers (4 mono powers and 4 PSX-Rs) if you really wanted.

So all in all a worthwhile change, and at the same time I moved from horizontal biamping (one driving the tweeters left and right, and one driving woofers left and right) with the the 290s to vertical biamping (one driving left tweeter, left woofer, one driving right tweeter, right woofer).  I can't say I can notice any difference in sound quality, however that compact footprint lends itself to being place physically nearer the speaker it drives, and seems to lend itself to a vertical stance allowing shorter speaker cables.


  1. Sorry to be a pain...but I have used a Delta 290A for a good while,and love it! I have just sourced a "mint" 290P,with the intention of bi-amping/bi-wiring...many have told me that I will notice nothing nor gainb anything by doing so.This is completely opposite to what Arcam state in the handbook "substantial improvements" is the phrase they use...I think you are the first person I have come across who has actually done it,and listened to the results....what should I expect from the exercise?
    Very best regards, Steve H

    1. No problem at all, nice to hear it! So I think it's a good solid upgrade path and one i went happily down and through the other side of a couple of years later removing the integrated and getting more powers. You are still limited by the pre-amp in the 290A so you don't get a revolution in clarity or detail - fundamentally it still sounds like a 290, which is either nice (I am a big fan), or 'not a big enough difference' if you weren't a big fan of the 290 sound in the first place. How big a difference is very much dependent on your speakers, anything that is designed well for bi-amping and benefits from the extra power will give you a really decent difference using both in biamp. Just switching the 290A to be a preamp and using the 290p as power is not worth the hassle for the difference. Also have a play about with which one drives your tweeters or woofers. I think I decided having the power amp driving the tweeters and the integrated driving the woofers, whilst it felt wrong plugging in sounded slightly better.

  2. Many thanks for that! I still feel the manual is not clear..if you have the time,how do I set them up "both to be pre-amps"? Apologies if I come over a bit dim!

    1. Aim is to use a as pre/PWR with p as pwr so bi-ampung. 290a pre outs are always on so: Just use a decent short RCA interconnect pair between "External - Preamp Out" on 290a and "PWR amp in" on 290p. Remove bi-wire links on speakers. Wire with speaker cable tweeters to p and woofers to a then use the a in exactly the same way as normal. make sure the spk1/2 buttons turned on at the front it's very easy to brush them off when reaching round the back.

      They had a combined handbook at one point here is a link to an electronic version

  3. Many thanks..crystal clear! Should arrive tomorrow...have a matched pair of Chord speaker cables and a pair of Chord RCA'S hanging around in expectation....will report back:)
    Thank you again for all your help, Steve H.