Berning EA-230 Power Amplifier
Stereophile magazine, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 11
An all-tube dual-30-watt power amplifier. Dimensions: 19 in. W (standard rack mount) by 5-1/4 in. H by 8-1/2 in. D. Power consumption: 60 to 160 watts. Frequency response: 5Hz to 60kHz, +0, -3dB. Output impedances: Strap-selected 4, 8, or 16 ohms. Main-loop feedback: 6dB. Price: $990 list. Manufacturer: The David Berning Company, 9429 Tobin Circle, Potomac, MD 20854
Rated at a modest 30 watts per channel, the EA-230 shares with many other tubed amplifiers the ability to put out what sounds like far more than its rated power -- a result, quite simply, of the gracefulness with which most tubed output stages approach overload. If higher output is required, the amplifier is easily strapped to provide 60 watts, but the output impedance then drops to half of its nominal value, which means the amp cannot be properly matched to a 16-ohm load (of which there are very few these days).
Sonically, there is little to characterize the EA-230. It has truly awesome detail, a low end with the kind of punch and tautness that we rarely encounter from tubed amplifiers, and a high end that is both very, very quick and yet open, airy and exquisitely sweet. On a dynamic speaker system, this high-end delicacy translates into softness which sounds rather dull and closed-down. But on good electrostatics (and there are some around which aren't), the high end from this amplifier must be heard to be believed!
As we have pointed out many times, most audiophiles demand more high-frequency response from their system than one normally hears in live music. The reason for this is really quite simple: Most speaker systems are deficient in transient response, tending to round-off the steep wavefronts produced by hard percussion instruments like castanets, triangle and tambourine. A tipped-up high end improves apparent transient response, but it also exaggerates the overtone content of other instruments, yielding the kind of super-hyped steeliness that musically oriented listeners think of as "audiophile-type sound."
The mark of a truly fine high end is warmth and softness from blown and bowed instruments, combined with razor-sharp attacks from instruments which produce hard transients. To hear both from one system is a rare experience.
The EA-230 and an electrostatic like the Acoustat Four will produce that kind of high end.
Before we received the EA-230s for testing, we had written a report on the Acoustat Four in which we observed that it (1) did not seem to reproduce depth very well, (2) tended towards a marked midbass heaviness, and (3) never quite made anything sound convincingly real. We were obliged to reconsider those judgments. This particular combination of speaker and power amps (strapped) has been giving us the most realistic reproduction of good recordings that we have ever had in our listening room. Some tapes that JGH made several years ago sound so palpably alive that they raise goosebumps. In other words, this is a combination of components which just takes off and flies! And having just gotten back from the Las Vegas CES as this is being written, we should add that there was only one exhibit at the Jockey Club that could approach in honest-to-God realism the sound we got routinely from the EA-230s and Acoustat Fours (with a Berning TF-10, live tapes, and several cartridges including the much-maligned (not by us) Shure V-15-IVG). That JC exhibit, by the way, was the Spectral Acoustics room, which had a pair of the new Quad ESL-63 speakers fired up.
Like Berning's TF-10 preamp, the EA-230 is almost perfectly neutral in perspective, having neither the forwardness of typical tubed equipment nor the slightly laid-back character of good solid-state amplifiers. Because of this, it avoids one of our major criticisms of most audiophile-type audio systems: Their tendency to sound recessed and more distant than most recordings are supposed to sound (in view of their miking). That same characteristic of reticence (audiophile call it richness) is also often accompanied by a certain darkness or heaviness -- a common criticism of the Acoustat Fours and many other large electrostatic systems.
In other words, this is THE amplifier of choice for driving electrostatics. Without strapping, the EA-230 delivers just the right amount of output to drive the original Quads to full output without danger of overload damage. Strapped, it will allow the Acoustats (or Audio Labs or Trans-Statics) to fill a large room cleanly at very respectable (up to around 97dB levels) levels. And a single EA-230 provides the best driving amplifier we have ever encountered for us with the Rogers LS-3/5A speakers.
Finally, parenthetically, we should add that, despite its much lower power capability, the EA-230 has finally unseated our long-time favorite power-amp: The Infinity HCA. We feel almost disloyal about having to say that, for the HCA has been a joy to listen to for a number of years. But times change and technology does sometimes move ahead, so it had to happen eventually. We just never expected the massive, 80-pound HCA to be outperformed by a pair of relatively-diminutive 28-pounders.
The David Berning Company