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Positive Feedback ISSUE
as reviewed by John Brazier
The words "Please Note" in large red letters caught my eye as I went through the documents that accompanied the Berendsen IPA-80 integrated amplifier. This was good, since the following paragraphs warned that the speaker leads must be reversed. For reasons unknown, the unit reverses phase, and if I had hooked it up normally, my speakers would have been out of phase. First impression notwithstanding, I continued with the set-up.
Flown in from Germany and distributed by Acoustic Partner in Elizabeth, Colorado, the IPA-80 should make an impression in the audio community. This 80-watt amplifier has a neat CNC'd aluminum faceplate with minimal bells and whistles. There is a window in which volume level is displayed, a handful of buttons that control mode, volume, and tape loop, complimented with a row of LEDs that display the selected mode. All in all, an understated presentation. A user-friendly remote provides all of the controls available on the faceplate.
The IPA-80 made light work of the music I tossed its way. It was so even-handed that it made me forget it was a "only" a $2000 integrated. I am not saying that this is a fantastic amplifier, just that what you can get for $2000 certainly has changed over the years. Without going into much detail, I was in serious accident on September 1, 2004, and only returned home from the hospital on November 12. Since that time, I have been largely homebound, and left with little to do other than listening to music. (To keep my mind from turning to mush, I do not turn on the television until after dinner. Just like when I was a kid) I have plenty of CDs, and went through most of them since returning home, so for better or worse, my CDs have been getting a lot of wear, which, depending on the size of your collection, could be the or "worse" scenario. On the "for better" side, I have been doing a lot of online CD shopping and making some fun discoveries.
Jazz, rock, acoustic, and classical music all faired well with the IPA-80. The music hung between the speakers nicely. On Diane Reeves' live album, In the Moment, she sounded, well, in the moment. The IPA-80 gave her a clear presence in her own space. Her voice was smooth and heartfelt. The backup band was strong, and also in their own spaces. The IPA's handling of the signal was consistent throughout all the recordings I played.
I broke out some Cake, and on "The Distance," from their Fashion Nugget CD, the bass notes rocked the house. As a quick aside, the IPA is meant to be on all the time, but there is a sleep mode activated by the remote or one of the buttons on the faceplate. When you awaken the amp, it goes to 80 on the numerical volume scale, a level that is much too low for ordinary listening. Most of the time, listening volumes were around 125. House rocking began at 145, which is where Cake found its home. I turned it down for neighborly reasons long before the amp was stressed in any way. The IPA handled the punchy notes of Cake less then perfectly. As the amp reached for its bottom end it lost some control and became a bloated. Mind you this is at the very depths at most other levels and octaves the amp did remain in control.
During the first half of my time with the IPA, I was not terribly enthusiastic about the Berendsen. While it does most things well, it reminds me of myself in high school—just doing enough to get by. I never excelled in any subject, and neither did this amplifier. The soundstage is limited, but not constrained. The bass lacked some control, but it falls short of being bloomy. The highs are extended, but go only high enough and finally the dynamics were unremarkable. I felt the CD player urged the amp to greatness and the speakers stood ready to reproduce, but the amp just didn't have it. Left with this feeling, the very timely arrival of the Naim CD2X (the subject of a forthcoming review) turned the tables for the Berendsen.
Once this CDP player was on line the true nature of this amp exposed itself for the first time. It handled all the information the Naim produced and handled it well. The soundstage exploded on to the scene. The bass went much deeper and all the while tighter. It accepted the greatness that was thrust upon it. Like a good reviewer, with too much time on his hands, I went back and re-listened to a larger portion of my collection. Granted I am praising the CDP as much as the amp (which conversely comments of the CDP I had on line previously), but, at this point I lost the feeling that the amp was in the way of great music. Transparency was the word of the day. The amp let it all through with little to no effect. It took me some time to reevaluate the amp and must admit I initially underestimated the strengths and weaknesses of this amp but after the switch I feel the amp truly revealed itself.
To this end, however, I found the Berendsen a bit forward in the mid-to-upper reaches of the spectrum. The female voice tended to be "politely shouty". An oxymoron? Perhaps, but being shouty in an ever so polite way describes the type of forwardness were one wants to avoid any stigma attached to the word "shouty" when articulating the sound of piece of audio gear while pinpointing the character. This forwardness was not overbearing or even consistent. My impression was that is the recording was on the forward side; well then, the IPA was there just to reproduce the information acquired. Again, the word transparency arises.
Another area that I found notable is dynamics. Dynamics are the spice to any given set-up. My favorite dynamic test discs are usually anything from Ani Difranco and her vicious guitar licks. The discs Dilate and Out of Range are arguable her best outings, as well as being two of my favorites and both were in heavy rotation. Amazing Grace, has been covered by so many but the least likely is Ani. The Berendsen misses it a bit on this one by keeping Ani reeled in. Typically there is potency within the track that is now partially lacking. Off Out or Range, there is both an electric and acoustic version of title track. Again, the minor loss in dynamic was a enough to throw me off. Was this a bad thing? Not necessarily.
Being a reviewer has its drawbacks, one of which is the knowledge that in many cases there is better equipment out there (subjectively speaking) than the piece we are currently reviewing. Having a reference amp with spectacular dynamics or not forward at all in the back of your mind can make it difficult to maintain objectivity in reviewing. But doing so is a requirement of the profession. Not to mention that those "other" amps may not be even a close competitor at the price point. My initial impression of the Berendsen was that if fell below the median but for $2000 its shortcomings were dismissible.
In the end, the Berendsen is perhaps one of the most transparent amplifiers I have ever heard. So much so that the quibbles I do have with it could be imbedded in the recording or be the character of my speakers.
For $2000, I expect decent performance. What I did not expect was an amp that got completely out of the way of the music. On the hole, the amp had the tools to create a great musical experience, plenty of power (for my 92dB speakers), solid bass and neatly extended highs. Now there is a big caveat here, and that is the rest of your system better be up to snuff. With the first CDP I had in place the system was banal, with the second CDP everything changed and the amp was able to handle it from the deepest low to the highs. During this review I replaced the stock power cords with the entry-level Acoustic Zen El Nino's, fellow Positive-Feedback reviewer, Jim Grudzien, and I looked at each other in disbelief when the sound smoothed and the background blacked as a result of the switch. So from power cords to CDPs, it all makes a big difference to the IPA-80 and if you treat it right it will treat you right. Highly recommended. John Brazier