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Positive Feedback ISSUE
as reviewed by Danny Kaey
What, you haven't heard of Nomad Audio? Tsk, tsk, tsk… where have you been pal? Truth is, I hadn't either until I spent some time researching a batch of Hypex & ICE powered amplifiers for these fine pages. My sources were the usual suspects: something called the "internet", where I found pages such as www.audiocircle.com, www.audioasylum.com, etc—boy, I think this internet thing may be up to something cool, I can't wait to see where that will go.
A few friendly email exchanges later, with proprietor and owner of the company Paul Hilgeman, and I received the Niagara amplifier.
My main interest in reviewing Hypex and ICE powered amplifiers was rather selfish and self-absorbed. Lest you think I was looking out for the benefit of our readers, I was curious to get my hands on the latest and greatest to power the awe-inspiring Zu Definition Pro's 8 x 10" subwoofer array. Ha! Take that with three corns of salt and half a shot of Tequila: the truth is far more sinister—not.
The Nomad Audio Niagara amplifier is housed in a rather slick looking aluminum case with looks clearly inspired by something from say Classe or Plinius, though not quite as exquisitely manufactured. Apart from the usual nicks, dings and scratches from past heavy use, my sample looked quite dazzling—the emperor's clothes were indeed a nice fit as some would say. The "box" itself really looks rather unassuming as a whole—the front panel has a single switch (on/off) which also acts as the power indicator via a blue circular light. The rear contains all the necessary in/out connectors, including a set of balanced inputs. Unlike a few amplifiers I have recently had, the layout is rather nicely arranged; aerobatic maneuvers are not required in connecting your various cables. A nice touch is that you can specify with the manufacturer (prior to building your amplifier) where you want each of the terminals located—say for custom install reasons. Opening up the unit to take a quick peek, revealed two massive 625VA transformers which pretty much occupy a good 3/4 of the chassis. Build quality inside is nice and neat—though if you are looking for "audio jewelry" look elsewhere. Then again, with a very consumer friendly real world price of $2000, I doubt Paul is chasing that segment of the market anyway.
Having heard a handful of Class D type amplifiers which didn't really phase me one way or another, I was enthused about the prospects of what a Hypex powered amplifier could do: particularly in ultimate woofer and driver control. In my experience, ICE powered amplifiers, whilst offering perfectly decent quality overall, appear to have issues with the lowest of octaves, say anything below 30Hz at full output. The Niagara is rated at a healthy 200-watts into 8 ohms, doubling the power output to 400-watts into 4 ohms with a rated power band of 10-50kHz +0/-3dB. Nifty! Spec wise, the amp certainly looked the part.
With the Zu speakers standing by to receive all this glorious power (remember, they are rated at 101dB efficiency, so with close to half a kilowatt driving force behind them, they will play LOUD), I proceeded to play my first set of tracks with the Niagara driving the front array of the Definitions. Glory, Goodie and Holy Gustav! This thing is great! The sound was immediately welcoming, extended and smooth, without any glare or other noise masking the signal—not too shabby for a $2000 switch mode amplifier. My usual quick guide test of playing back some Sinatra or Mean Dartin to check for male vocals proved spot on: vocals sounded warm, liquid and natural, with just the right amount of texture and definition. The only thing missing was perhaps that last bit of resolution, which shows itself in vocals sounding somewhat less there and real compared to say my reference original Quad IIs. Otherwise, the presentation was pretty much spot on. Sure, the aforementioned Quads just ooze with suaveness and palpable "touch me" images, but I also think that's not the norm. At least I haven't heard many amplifiers offer that sort of real "reach out and touch" sound quality—regardless of price!
Moving on to female vocals, I played my dose of Billie Holiday's Songs for Distingue Lovers, off the Classic 45rpm reissue. Cazonga! Karamba! My all time fab-five track, "Day In, Day Out", sounded pretty damned good! Billie's voice appeared firmly planted in the middle of the room with the Zu Definitions sporting a massively wide soundstage (which, if the material provides it, are true Kings in that realm). A few clicks into the song is a thumping kick drum. With the Niagara it sounded massive, tout and "real" being located just leftfield of Billie. The Hypex modules are fast, faster, fastest! You could almost see the thwack of the kick drum in super slow-mo; the resolving power in the bottom frequencies is definitely where the Niagara shines in many ways being superior to most other solid-state amps I have had in my system. Power output? There's just no end in sight! Even though it is nominally rated at 200-watts 8 ohms, the Niagara sure sound like about twice that—4 real!
Checking for further signs of dimensional guts and glory, I cued up an old friend, that monster of a performance, that behemoth of a recording, Vareses's "Ionization" on Decca double CD. A musical circus really, "Ionization" ought to be the first cut on anyone's demo disc when they check for spatiality and dynamics. Aji Karamba! The Definitions provided a good heapin' dose of power being absolute masters with this sort of "music". The piece begins with a percussion arrangement that's oh, about half a mile into the next town. Faint and quaint at first, it soon enough develops into a massive rollercoaster of a spectacle. Dimensionality, focus, and resolution are really top notch with the Niagara—as noted earlier, bass output and dynamic resolution are definitive strong points of this amplifier. Sure, my Quad IIs or the mighty fine Brinkmann integrated offer a bit more midrange resolution and top end air in relative terms, but neither are a match for the sheer power the Niagara is capable of.
Now onto the real purpose of my audition of this amplifier—driving the Zu definition woofers! I switched the speaker cables on the Niagara so that it was now driving the massive woofer array of the Definitions: some eight 10" woofers in all via the Rane PEQ55 set to below 60 cycles to equalize the output with regards to the room's characteristics. Having had prior issues with ICE powered amps I was pleasantly surprised to find the Niagara humming along like it should. Bass output was prodigious, dynamic, and fast. No hint of distortion or other nasty excesses, some of which I vividly remember hearing through previous ICE modules. Cueing up a fabulous demo bass disc, Duboi's Leseptparoleduchrist, I was prepared to turn the volume down at a moment's notice (in case of bass distortion and overload). Mind you, my actively eq'd Defs are measuring down to about 16Hz. With my reference gear, bass output at that level is such that when I play track 2 of that particular disc my audio room literally starts pulsating. Vibrations are felt inside our bedroom on the other side of the house (we live on the 2nd story of a 1927 Spanish Villa)—whenever I demo this track, friends, Romans and countrymen get a major kick out of it because it's almost laughable at what the Zu Defs can do. We are moving serious air here. As it turns out, I was needlessly worried about the Niagara pooping out before the party begins. Utter disbelief set in as the Hypex powered Nomad amp kept running and running much like the Energizer Bunny. Bass output was equal to my reference gear; peak volume levels broaching a few clicks north of 110dB at my listening chair. Now that's saying something about Paul's parts and build quality!
Whatever else I cued up in the bass department, say your typical Yello, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Peace Orchestra, Tosca or Crystal Method, nothing appeared to phase the Niagara one bit. Thumping along as it were, dynamic resolution and sheer fun factor were set to maximum level. The greatness of the Definitions were on clear display: timing, pace, and speed of the front array being not the least affected by what was happening south of the cabinet.
The Niagara is a definite must audition, if not must buy—at $2000 it's downright inexpensive for what it offers. Come to think of it, I don't know of any solid-state amp capable of driving the Defs to the level and quality as the Nomad did - at or near that price point. No way Jose! Lest you think this recommendation only applies to the amp as a bass amp, you will be pleasantly surprised when you hear its output on your main speakers. Sweet, resolving, extended, and dynamic, the Niagara is quite the amplifier. I'd buy one in a heartbeat if it weren't for the boys at Zu cooking up something very, very special this fall. Either way you shouldn't miss this one—it's a kickin' killer! Danny Kaey