The Teeny Tiny Amps That Can Power A Tower!

Here’s a bantam-weight bi-ampable combo that punches well above its station, and is a big hit for the hands-on hi-fi hobbyist with aspirations towards audiophile sound quality.

Yes, I am serious. Hi-fi friends haven’t given them a second look, but when these amplifiers are driving my floorstanding speakers, they listen to the music.

In my reviewing, I’ve chosen to mostly focus on great bang-for-your buck artisan audio products. Maybe it’s my Yorkshire upbringing, but frugal hi-fi has innate appeal. And that doesn’t mean cheap in the sense of poor quality, rather it’s about getting best performance within a small budget and just plain value for money. I’ve found some innovative and some clever, often simple products that deliver big time but don’t cost a lot.

Trends Audio have an extensive range of products that seem to fit my criteria, and having already tried out a single valve headphone amplifier and pre-amplifier unit, it made sense to see what the matching power amplifier could do. With its low power output and just 114 mm x 76 mm x 46 mm dimensions and 500g weight, would the Trends Audio TA-10.2P only be good for desktop, portable, and nearfield use?

If John McEnroe was a hi-fi reviewer (he may be for all I know), he would most definitely say “you cannot be serious” if I served up this pair up as legitimate hi-fi. But after listening for some time, I would have to say they are and I am. This diminutive package does the business, and then some.

I already knew the PA-10.1D pre-amp from a previous review, as it is also a headphone amp and I had pitted it against some other low-cost options. It won the comparison, hence my continued interest. At this price, is the manufacturer’s claim that this is serious desktop hi-fi believable, and how would it perform with large floorstanding loudspeakers, especially as my own regular system is very clean and very fast, so very revealing of detail and dynamics in recordings, or lack thereof?

This unit is a dual output tube headphone amplifier and pre-amplifier intended for standalone use or in the Trends Audio BA-10 Bi-amp system. Its packaging is obviously following the established Trends Audio form to match the amplifier and DAC. In its aluminium case just 114 x 76 x 46 mm and weighing only 380g, it has a somewhat utilitarian ‘engineered’ (and durable) yet elegantly minimalist feel, and is offered to audiophiles who like to try different valves.

One of the PA-10 family, this is a pure Class A amplifier with audiophile-grade components and using a single bi-triode 6N11 valve from China (6DJ8/6922 series) for voltage amplification, and twin MOSFETs as output driver. This is a new version of the PA-10 reviewed by TNT-Audio in February 2009, the differences being the dual output, the valve, and the facility to change settings for alternative valves. It’s also available in SE and GE editions with Russian 6H23n and US-made GE 12AU7 valve respectively. Trends Audio suggests the differing trying the differening sound characteristics of these options to suit musical tastes, and that the 12AU7 is especially good for warmer midrange and particularly with female vocals, and I did prefer this.

On paper, the performance specifications suggest that this unit is superior to many headphone amplifiers (15Hz-100kHz – 1 dB, 0.05% at 10k Ohm, for example). The recommended connection is source to line input on the amplifier, with a PC/iPod or CD/DAC connected, so the unit is a pass-through pre-amp and headphone amplifier.

Following the instructions in the Trends Audio User Guide for re-tuning the DC bias voltage, I swapped out the supplied valve for a Mullard ECC88/01 fitted with a No-Ring Ring from Design Build Listen to dampen glass envelope vibration. The result of this change was to instantly elevate this to the position of preferred performer. It truly is surprising just how lush and present the music sounds through this amplifier. I ended up driving my Sachem monoblocks and large Audio Pro Avanti 100 DC towers with this preamp, and most satisfying it was, too. The Avantis have three drivers including an ‘ace-bass’ powered woofer.

The TA-10 in matching case is a Class-T stereo amplifier that’s also available without a volume control as a power amplifier (TA-10.2P), which is the version I am trying out with the PA-10 pre-amplifier. They are built using Tripath’s Digital Power ProcessingTM technology which provides in this model 10W per channel into an 8 ohm load. Trends Audio state that the unit performs very like a Class AB amplifier with audiophile sound quality and with the power efficiency of Class D capable of driving floorstanding speakers. The circuit has over-current and over-temperature protection. The DC bias between speaker terminals can be offset by adjusting factory pre-set potentiometers on the circuitboard. This is supposed to increase ‘sound purity’ and suppress the on/off “pop”. Fine-tuning using a multimeter after a run-in period is recommended.

There is just one pre-amp input switchable for sources with different levels, such as PC/iPod/iPad/iPhone and CD/DAC. The two outputs enable bi-amping, which allows the running of two power amps in various configurations to drive speakers.

Both units are built with high grade components and are run from an external power supply adaptor to minimise electrical interference, and can also be run from a lead-acid battery. There’s also a linear power supply available for this combo (Trends PW-10 PSU), but I didn’t get to audition with it on this occasion, so I don’t know how and how much it might improve the performance.

I paired the pre-amplifier with the power amplifier as intended by the designers, and hooked up my Audio Pro speakers. The size difference is really comical to behold!

It feels totally cliched to say that this is a small product producing a big image of the soundstage, but that’s what it is. This amplifier combo gives a truly surprising presentation that is highly satisfying. When using this as my main system in my decent-sized listening room, I had no problem with volume and the sound quality was very good and highly listenable. Music is presented realistically with full-bodied soundstage, dynamics and nuance, and the soft warmth of the tube comes through with no hint of discomforting distortion, if somewhat less crisp and bright, and less refined in the midrange than I am accustomed to, and with less rock-solid deep bass. It would be, of course, unreasonable to compare this setup with my precision preamplifier and powerful monoblocks. In saying that, these units seemed quite happy driving my large speakers at sometimes unusually high levels.

This is a fine product package that continues the Trends Audio tradition of packing a lot of value into smart small separates. It’s clearly a strong contender for entry into low-power compact systems, portable even, audiophile listening in several versions, with tweaking and upgrade options and a certain character that some will find appealing. Even John McEnroe might ask us to be “quiet, please” when these gems are in play!

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