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First Take: The Bakoon International AMP-41 Amplifier

04-11-2018 | By Dean Seislove | Issue 96

Just about ten years ago, when I first started writing the Neoteric Listener column for Positive Feedback, editors Dave and Carol Clark invited me to their home. At the time, the heart of their system featured the substantial Clayton Audio mono blocks and the well-regarded Reimer speakers. Reflecting on my then modest Arcam and Tannoy system at home, I commented aloud, "Now that's the way a high-end system should sound." Dave Clark sagely responded, "Well, it's one way."

Truth is, high-end audio is an ongoing journey, and no amp or speaker (or cable, DAC, audio codec, whatever!) is indisputably the best way to "really" listen to music. I resist the siren call of others to follow them to yellowed pages of Listener magazine because "everything sounds like crap nowadays." I'm sympathetic, as I'm more than a little enticed by the vintage audio quicksand promising a return to the days when Altec Lansing dinosaurs roamed the earth. Fortunately for me, my audio betters compel me to seek innovative products to write about and share with readers. 

I mention all this as a preface to discussing the Bakoon International AMP-41 amplifier. In style and sound, the AMP-41 is unabashedly current. There's nothing nostalgic about the AMP-41. There are no glowing tubes ensconced in beveled heartwood, lovingly sanded, and expertly stained to match the fireplace hearth in Dickens's private study. Nope, none of that audiophile treacle. Instead, the AMP-41 boast a jet black, meticulously finished casework, perfectly suited for a stylishly modern decor. The stunning expanse of the AMP 41's black fascia is punctuated by rows of striking LEDs, the product name, and the Bakoon International logo—all done in the color of Halloween orange.

The AMP-41 sits on three stout circular columns, said to provide exceptional stability. In operation, the LEDs indicate volume and input selected. The LEDs will also blink repeatedly should the amp enter protection mode. At first, I wasn't sure how to read the LEDs to discern volume, but Bakoon International cleared things up for me: "The upper five rows represent the gain steps in 10s, the lower rows in 1s. For example, if two LEDs on top is lit, it is 20 and the led '5' is lit on the bottom, it becomes 25." Not surprisingly, Bakoon International is proud of the AMP-41's excellent stepped attenuator. The attenuator can be set in 50 steps to establish channel balance and signal purity, and such minute precision in setting gain levels is necessary to appreciate the amp's exceptional linearity. Unfortunately, due to my nearsightedness, what should have been a finely wrought LED light show was reduced to a blurry orange haze from my listening seat eight feet away. Oh, Magoo, you've done it again! I'm not obsessed with checking and rechecking visual data during listening; however, I learned to quickly recognize patterns to figure out what's what. Ascertaining the particulars during daily operation was easily accomplished. 

Bakoon International AMP-41 Amplifier

Fortunately, my ears work a good deal better than my eyes. Be forewarned, though, your first listen to the AMP-41 may put you in unfamiliar territory. It certainly did for me. Once I allowed the amp to complete its startup sequence of checking the incoming AC voltage, temperature, and calibration of the output stage's bias, it's crystal clear that this amp sounds, well, crystal clear. I wasn't sure how to delineate what I was hearing. By comparison, my trusty Peachtree Audio iNova is a fine budget amp, voiced to be eminently pleasant and capable of showing most speakers pretty well. What's more, the other amps I've reviewed may offer more sparkle, richness, or immediacy of the Peachtree, but it's the proverbial Darwinian difference of degree, and not of kind. The AMP-41, however, doesn't really sound like any of the other amps I've reviewed. To say it sounds "open" is not quite right; "translucent" would be nearer to the mark. It's hard for me to describe what the AMP-41 is doing, other than thinking that it has less audio dark matter than other amps I've heard. Probably not very helpful, I know, but there's no doubt that I heard details, tone, and localization in music in a way quite unlike from what I've I've heard from other amps, in a very good way. 

At this point, I should confess that I thought the AMP-41 was likewise an integrated amp. I was quickly corrected by Bakoon International that, "All of our amplifiers are not technically traditional 'integrated' amplifiers as they are actually power amplifiers with zero loss variable gain circuits (this is the core of the SATRI Circuit), thus eliminating need of preamplifiers. Since we offer multiple inputs, one can use our amplifiers like the traditional integrated amplifiers." I should add that the AMP-41 stands apart from other products in another essential way:  The unrestrained conveyance of music. The experience of listening to music with the AMP-41 was always rewarding and, given the right source, exceptionally so. The Prism Callia DAC I wrote about recently is an exacting source for playing music files. The AMP-41 gave the Prism Callia full license to mercilessly expose the sound quality of poorly recorded music. Neither the Callia nor the AMP-41 were to blame, and the honesty of the presentation was exemplary. Given the right recording, the AMP-41 and Callia pairing provided sensational results. Connecting a Schiit Bifrost DAC, the AMP-41 accurately communicated the punch and color (and occasional bite) of this excellent budget DAC. The sound of the AMP-41 revealed minute differences in cables, speaker placement, and, obviously, recordings. I found the lack of artifice and extraneous audio seasoning to be extremely satisfying (and this is from someone who loves the highly colored and overblown sound that so annoys the truth-to-source crowd). Obviously, the AMP-41 can tell you much about your system; thus, providing a caveat as well as a great upside. 

Bakoon International AMP-41 Amplifier

So, what makes the AMP-41 work as it does? Maurice Jefferies's fine review of the Bakoon International DAC-21 (HERE) mentions the SATRI circuitry. Soo In Chae, Managing Director of Bakoon International, provides this further explanation: "The SATRI Circuit is originally invented by Akira Nagai of Bakoon Products, and Bakoon International aims to improve its possibilities further with modern and advanced technologies for our mutual success in global markets. For this, Bakoon International operates in three different countries—R&D in Japan, design and marketing in the U.S., and production in Korea." From my research, I learned that the SATRI circuit, unlike most traditional amps that amplify by voltage, amplifies current, thus eliminating all negative feedback. Krell amps did something similar years ago. The lesson learned from that experiment is the need to secure the advantages of reduced distortion, while avoiding the pitfalls of an etched or strident sound that some feel characterized Krell amps of that design. The design layout of the SATRI circuit running a Class AB configuration must have necessitated painstaking trial and error, because the AMP-41 is all about linearity, speed, and bandwidth. In short, it is an amp with no "voice" at all. Bakoon International offers this helpful summary of the SATRI circuit: "It is not just a current amplifying circuit, but rather a circuit operating in current domain, unlike traditional voltage amplifiers. It's also a full discrete and zero negative feedback design by nature which holds various advantages over those 'old textbook' designs." Based on my listening, I'd say that the SATRI circuitry is a success. There's certainly nothing edgy about the sound of the AMP-41. In fact, listening to music produced by the Bakoon International made me feel that I was hardly hearing an amp's "sound" at all. Really, the immediacy and transparency of this amp when playing music is startling... and addictive. 

In the next installment, I'll be writing about the pairing of the AMP-41 and the Bakoon International DAC-21 expertly reviewed by Maurice Jefferies. In the meantime, I'll close by stating that listening to the Bakoon International AMP-41 is remarkable experience by an innovative product. A welcome addition to the quest for audio enjoyment!

Bakoon International AMP-41 Amplifier

Retail: $9000