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Positive Feedback ISSUE42
M-300 Class-A amplifiers
as reviewed by John Brazier
All reviewers are guilty of hyperbole at one time of another, I have seen them all do it, even the most respected from the largest magazines, "e" or otherwise. Its a tool used to convey the most impressive aspects of a piece of equipment without having to actually "work" at the discourse. Many readers discount a review ripe with hyperbole as fluff and lacking in meaningful substance. Personally, I just try to cut the chaff and get to the wheat. Whenever I use it, it is because the hyperbole is justified. By now are you thinking this review is going to be chock full of it? Not so fast. I am including this information to explain that I am trying to avoid the use of such a tool, so if you read herein phraseology that sound suspiciously like hyperbole—it is not. It's just my attempt to convey the wonderful and many satisfying qualities of the Clayton M300 Class A mono-block amplifiers.
You gotta love a company that generally stays under the radar but at the same time offers products of outstanding performance. Clayton is not a name that is quick off the tongue when thinking of electronics manufacturers. In fact, I had not heard of the company until the first time I visited Positive Feedback's editor, Dave Clark, who has been using the Claytons amplifiers (from the M-80, to the M-100, to now to the M-200s) for at least as long as I have known him, going on nine years.
Like many of these "low flying" companies, aesthetic appeal of their equipment ranks below the performance standards in the name of controlling costs. I have heard, and read, the stories out there of one brand or another that spends a significantly larger portion of their costs on CNC'ing a block of aluminum, adding LEDs, meters, and other audio regalia, while possibly foregoing fundamental quality aspects. While I have no problem with a nice looking piece of gear and I will be the first to admit that where all other aspects are equal, I would almost always opt for a cooler looking piece over a more utilitarian look. With that said, the Claytons appear as a couple of black boxes with a couple of small red lights on the front panel and cooling fins along the topside. For the technical aspects, as this is a "follow up", you can see the review of Mike Wechsberg here or visit the website for their marketing company, as noted at the bottom of this page.
Notwithstanding the basic looks, the performance of the M-300 sets it apart from the competition. Over the more recent years, my tastes have tended toward "Class A" topology over tubes or any other common design. My experience is that Class A gets you as closer to a "best of both worlds" performance over any of the other designs. I have never really fallen for tubes per se, favoring solid-state and the more common AB designs.
I am lucky to have had these amplifiers for some time now and over the course of the past months I have used them with my recently replaced "reference" front-end, the Naim CDX2 with a XPSII power supply. My CDP reference now is the Cary 306 Professional CD/SACD player, but the biggest change in my audio life has been with the addition of a MacBook and Bel Canto 24/96 USB converter into the DAC of the Cary. All of which will be the subject of a future review. The point is that I have had the opportunity to spread my listening of a few very different windows which has aided greatly in forming my opinions of the Claytons.
The Claytons' short fall is that the dynamics come across as slightly constricted and, at times, the vocal carrying mid band has a tendency to meld into its surrounds. Neither of these is notable and would really only come to your attention in an actual "A/B" comparison when the down time between amps is limited to seconds. Even with that said, the dynamic "constriction" I am referring to is more akin to the amps control with short and "small" bursts of energy. The "snap" of a snare or the bang on a keyboard, I am not referring to dynamics swings, which the M-300s handle fine. Just the micro-dynamics.
Stacey Kent has been a long time favorite of mine and has been played over more speakers and through more systems than I can even begin to count. However, I distinctly recall that she was instrumental in the cancellation of my order for a pair of B&W Nautilus 805s in favor of a pair of Sonus Faber Concertos, which I held onto for a long time before moving on. Somehow I missed the original release of, but now have in heavy rotation, Breakfast on the Morning Tram.
The second track is a warm and wonderful cover of Stevie Nicks', et al, "Landslide". On it her voice is as smooth and as romantic as I have ever heard it. The aforementioned melding of the vocal range was present but not particularly distracting or disappointing. It only meant the lyrics didn't stand out, or above, as much as they could. But for authenticity and realism the amps were spot on. They conveyed all the fundamental information in a seamless and stable manner, notwithstanding their subtlety, the vocals were as satisfying as I could imagine.
Placing the Cary in the loop, both as a CDP and as a DAC, gave the bottom end a real kick in energy. I was surprised at how much more, and how better defined; the bass was over my Naim set up which I lived with happily for years. This, of course, has a lot to do with the bass energy the Claytons' produce—which is a lot. Another major change in my house has been in the "way" I listen to music. With iTunes 8, I almost exclusively use the "Genius" playlist. So, when I start off with a track like Cake's "Never There" the ensuring 50 tracks are of a similar character and punch. The deep and tight bass produced by the Claytons was, at times, rattling. My Verity Audio Parsifal Ovations had never exhibited the depths as they have in the past few months with the Claytons.
To say the soundstage blossomed with presence and energy could be construed as the aforementioned hyperbole. But I just don't know how else to describe the soundscape that fills my 23 x 22 listening room. Top to bottom, left to right, the music poured out and into the room and placed the musicians and vocalist solidly front, center, and all around. It's a performance like this that makes me wonder how much better the sound can get if I were to acoustically treat my room. The Claytons are so good that I am sure "perfection" is within reach. Whereas with most equipment it is not and efforts to obtain it feels like my time and energy could be better spent elsewhere. Not with the Claytons, I am close and I can feel it.
My system has always been super dark between the notes and usually my reviews ask if any noise is added versus a further blackening of the background. The M-300s certainly did not disappoint. Decay into the blackness and the blackness surrounding the music was startling. Several times and over several stretches, I have been backpacking along the Appalachian Trial (which is a foot trail between Springer Mt., Georgia to the top of Mt. Katadin, Maine) and have found myself so deep into the solitude that it was so quiet it hurt the ears. That is the type and scale of silence the Claytons possess.
The top end was detailed without a hint of being bright. Typically, from powering up to being listenable took 20 - 30 minutes and during this time there was some edginess. But give it its time and all will be fine. Listening to Medseki, Marten & Wood's Combustication really allows the amplifiers to show their prowess in subtle high-end detail. Well recorded, the drum kit's cymbals, well placed in the back center, are clear and well extended and balanced.
I could live with the Clayton M-300s for a long time and would consider doing so, however, the timing is not right. Of all the amplifiers I have reviewed, If I had to pick one to live with today, the Claytons would be it, hands down. Compared to my reference NuForce Ref 9 SE V2 , the Claytons drip with an inviting sophistication and refinement. The NuForce are solid performers and in a toe to toe amp-off with the Claytons they would hold their own ground. In the end, the Claytons have a presence that will hold your attention and satisfy your soul. Highly Recommended. John Brazier
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