“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We’re given this important advice at a young age, but most of us end up preaching it more than we practice it. Audiophiles confidently plead immunity to visual biases, but decades of double-blind listening tests demonstrate otherwise. I won’t try to deceive you about my own fallibility. Covering an audio show, for example, has little to do with critical listening, and everything to do with appearances and a tedious amount of fact checking. Unless something looks exceptional, costs a surprisingly modest amount, or has some interesting feature or specification, the odds are it won’t light a fire under me. I have a Cro-Magnon-like attraction to cheap and/or shiny things, to the exclusion of everything else.
In the T+A Elektroakustik room at the 2015 High End show, in Munich, I passed judgment early and often. The German company was premiering its R-Series line of products, which now includes the MP 2000 R DAC-network client ($8500 USD), the G 2000 R turntable ($6500-$8500, depending on configuration), the full-size PA 2500 R integrated amplifier ($10,500), and the subject of this review: the half-as-tall PA 2000 R integrated ($8500). Each is a clean, handsome, aluminum box that sports the usual inputs and outputs. But the PA 2000 R, in particular, struck me as fairly pedestrian: a 100Wpc class-AB design with no digital inputs and a fairly high price. The word unenthusiastic comes to mind. Less than a year later, review samples of the PA 2000 R and the matching MP 2000 R arrived at my door for a more thorough evaluation.
Good intentions: Theory Plus Application
Just about every visitor to my house who saw the T+A logo on the front of the PA 2000 R made the obvious adolescent wisecrack. But “T+A” stands for Theory Plus Application. It’s a serious name, and T+A takes a rigorous, mysticism-free approach to electronic design. Based in Herford, Germany, about halfway between Hanover and Dortmund, T+A Elektroakustik employs 112 people, including 12 full-time engineers, and has a complete electronics lab and a large anechoic chamber.
The PA 2000 R’s class-AB amplifier circuitry is identical to that of its more muscular brother, the PA 2500 R. Moreover, this circuitry differs only “slightly” from that of the amplifiers in T+A’s flagship HV series, which cost far, far more. The input stage is in a mechanically isolated, dual-mono arrangement, and has a cascode-configured differential amplifier with hand-selected J-FET transistors and no op-amps. The volume control uses a discrete resistor ladder that makes a satisfying click-click-click whenever the volume is adjusted. The voltage amplifier is a highly linear, differential design of very wide bandwidth, followed by a single-ended class-A signal stage. The output stage comprises MOSFET drivers and bipolar output transistors.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the PA 2000 R’s design is its high-voltage switching power supply. Many ultra-high-end brands, such as Soulution of Switzerland, now use sophisticated switching designs in their finest amplifiers. Still, many of these include off-the-shelf components; T+A designs and builds their own. The primary benefit of the new switching power supply over T+A’s older, linear, toroidal designs is that the former generate far more current -- T+A is confident that the PA 2000 R can ably manage even the most challenging speakers. Another benefit of this high-voltage design is the sonic payoff. T+A’s research into what makes tubed amplifiers sound so good has less to do with pleasant-sounding, second-order harmonic distortion than it does with the high voltages that tubes require. The PA 2000 R uses one of these switching power-supply modules; the larger PA 2500 R has two.
The PA 2000 R measures 18.1”W x 3.2”H x 15.8”D and weighs 23 pounds. The all-aluminum anodized case, available in black or silver, is of very high quality, with two small mounting bolts on either side panel, and four more bolts on top, for a clean, sleek look. The brushed finish is subtle, the only flourish being a circular glass window with the T+A logo embossed underneath. The volume knob, also of aluminum, doubles as a pushbutton, and its detents permit precise adjustment of level. The usual front-panel controls are present, with buttons for Power, Muting, Pre, Inputs 1-6, Tone, Menu, and Flat, each surrounded by an illuminated white ring. There are also a 1/8” headphone jack and a small display screen. The menu system lets the user set the names of source components, as well as adjust settings for tone controls, display behavior, clipping protection, and energy conservation.
Out back are three pairs each of unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs. One RCA input can be retrofitted with T+A’s optional moving-magnet or moving-coil phono stage (add $750). Also on board are a grounding point; preamplifier outputs; a LAN connection; two proprietary, Ethernet-style R2Link ports; and five-way speaker binding posts. The LAN connection allows the PA 2000 R to connect to a home-automation system, while the R2Link port can be used to connect the amp to other T+A components for system integration and triggering.
The PA 2000 R’s interior is cramped but elegant, and divided into two sections by a long heatsink: on the right are the input, amplifier, and volume stages; on the left, the power supply and output stage. Also included is a fully featured remote control with an aluminum face and buttons aplenty.
The PA 2000 R’s specifications are impressive. It produces 100, 200, or 300Wpc into, respectively, 8, 4, or 2 ohms. The 200Wpc figure is impressive because the amp clearly has enough current to double its output into 4 ohms -- always a good sign. The 2-ohm spec is perhaps even more admirable, demonstrating that this slim integrated can handle the difficult impedance swings of high-maintenance speakers. The preamplifier stage boasts a signal/noise ratio of 109dB (A-weighted), and THD/IMD specs of less than 0.001%. There are also the output stage’s ultrawide frequency response of 1Hz-150kHz, +0/-3dB; the damping factor of more than 65; and the total harmonic distortion of less than 0.02%. Finally, the switching power supply has a 60,000µF capacitor bank.
As mentioned, T+A sent me a matching MP 2000 R DAC-network client for review. The PA 2000 R integrated spent the entirety of its stay hooked up to its sister component via Nordost Blue Heaven XLR cables and an included R2Link cable, the latter with built-in trigger connectivity. I also hardwired the PA 2000 R to my network via the LAN connection. Speaker cables were DH Labs Q-10 Signatures and Dynamique Audio Caparos, while power cords for the T+As were Nordost Blue Heavens, both of which wound their ways back to an Emotiva CMX-2 power conditioner. The PA 2000 R played with my reference Monitor Audio Silver 10 speakers, as well as Sonus Faber’s Venere Ses and Magico’s S1 Mk.IIs, both latter models in for review. My old MacBook Pro laptop music server was wired to the MP 2000 R via Nordost’s Blue Heaven USB cable. I played local content from an external hard drive and streamed music from Tidal.
While I mostly used the PA 2000 R with its own remote control, I also tried T+A’s Control iOS app on my iPhone 6. The app is comprehensive, providing significant control over input selection, volume, muting, and even some media management for UPnP and Internet Radio (via the matching MP 2000 R). It doesn’t have the most elegant interface, but it worked flawlessly, with zero lag or hiccupping. The PA 2000 R’s included headphone input is no mere afterthought: My NAD Viso HP50 headphones sounded superb through it -- better than through the little Oppo HA-2 DAC-headphone amp ($299) that I use daily.
It’s been my experience that I don’t need hundreds of hours of listening and acclimatizing to an electronic component -- a good product will reveal its talents in seconds or minutes. And when I fired up T+A’s unassuming PA 2000 R integrated for the first time, it proceeded to do just that. I didn’t expect it to sound as clean, concise, and honest as my reference integrated, the Hegel Music Systems H360 -- so it came as a bit of a surprise when the T+A sounded, in some respects, even better. Remember what I said about books and their covers?
What first impressed me was the PA 2000 R’s noise floor: It was extremely low -- almost as low as that of Devialet’s 120 integrated amplifier-DAC and Benchmark Media Systems’ AHB2 amplifier, which are the quietest electronic components I’ve ever heard. I had to put my ear practically on the tweeter of any speaker I connected to the T+A to hear what was a very small amount of white noise. This thing was quiet. That usually means excellent circuit design, isolation of internal components, and a high-quality power supply. Superior dynamic contrast should be present in spades, then.
With Samuel Barber’s School for Scandal overture, for instance, as performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Zinman (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Argo), the digital VU meters flitted wildly about during the cacophonous opening seconds, registering peaks of almost 100W when partnered with my fairly efficient Monitor Audio Silver 10 speakers. The stage was broad and ultraclean, the triangle resounding from the rear left of the orchestra, and a phalanx of violins arrayed farther forward. The word clean can be used to describe a dry or clinical sound, but the PA 2000 R was neither. Its sound was smooth and effortless. The sound of orchestral brass can often teeter on the edge of brash or edgy, depending on associated equipment, but the BSO’s brass sounded effortlessly extended. So did the oboe, which is prominently featured in this work and sounded characteristically reedy and hollow. This lack of apparent effort extended to the T+A’s handling of Barber’s passages of thunderous drums. I was shocked as this thin, lightweight amp gripped the Monitors’ 8” woofers with authority, reproducing drumstrokes with profound control and vigor. The PA 2000 R did dynamics in a big way.
When I turned to the monster single “Rehab,” from the late Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black (16/44.1 AIFF, Universal Republic), the good news continued. I’ve found that class-AB integrated amps, despite their many other talents, often struggle to reproduce the dimensionality and body that class-A and tubed designs can muster from recordings of the human voice. While the T+A didn’t quite break the mold in that regard, it came far closer than any other class-AB amp I’ve heard, including my reference Hegel H360. Winehouse’s rough, raw voice was fabulously vivacious, and her weathered, wearied delivery of this track is characteristically rough around the edges -- but I delighted in hearing such a dense, rich facsimile of her sound. The PA 2000 R’s linearity also shone through with “Rehab,” which has a far different tonal balance and sound from Barber’s School for Scandal. This suggests that the PA 2000 R’s sonic personality is that of a chameleon. Recording in, recording out: how’s that for German efficiency?
Neutral, quiet, and clean don’t necessarily lend themselves to stirring the emotional cauldron, so I turned to a favorite soundtrack recording of mine, for the heavy ammunition I needed to hear if the T+A was as engaging as it was accurate. Senna is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, a tragic powerhouse about Ayrton Senna, one of motorsport’s greatest personalities. “A Morte,” from the original score by Antonio Pinto (16/44.1 ALAC, Decca), is a haunting, sweeping, strings-dominated piece that echoes the powerful images of the Brazilian Formula One driver dying on the track. When I saw and heard this scene in the theater, I teared up as others around me openly wept. Nor did the T+A let me down -- I repeatedly got goosebumps over the course of this short interlude. The PA 2000 R has a soul.
With Magico’s S1 Mk.IIs -- a reference-level two-way speaker -- I discovered that the PA 2000 R was hugely resolving, in terms of both micro- and macrolevel detail. I was struck by the detailed yet smooth delivery of Mark Knopfler’s Gibson Les Paul electric guitar in the title track of Dire Straits’ remastered Brothers in Arms (16/44.1 ALAC, Warner Bros.). Imaging was outstanding with the Magicos in play; Knopfler’s voice was reproduced with exacting precision. He almost mumbles his lines, but I could easily make out the delicate lyrics: “These mist-covered mountains / Are a home now for me.” Moreover, I was struck by the dramatic change in character of Knopfler’s delivery, depending on which speakers I was using. Through my reference Monitor Audio Silver 10s, he sounded bigger and more amorphous, but also fuller and richer. The Magicos presented him far more concisely, but also in starker relief to the song’s dark tonal palette, with a thinner, sharper sound. The soundstage was also far more broad and deep, owing in part to the more revealing and transparent Magicos’ slightly prominent treble. The PA 2000 R is likely to tell you far more about your speakers than about itself -- a quality I heartily endorse.
For the past four years, my reference integrated amplifier-DAC has been a Hegel. The first three years were spent with the H300 ($5500), at the time the company’s flagship model. In 2015, the H300 made way for the H360 ($5700), whose output specs of 250 or 420Wpc into 8 or 4 ohms were almost identical to its predecessor’s. However, the H360 has considerably upgraded components, including the addition of a dedicated power supply for the line stage, better amplification circuits, and a new AKM DAC chipset. The H360 sounds similar to the H300, but better in almost every parameter. In addition to its bold, dynamic, forward sound, it has a lower noise floor, less of a sonic signature, and is more transparent to recordings. For $5700, as a pure integrated amplifier it was hard to top.
The T+A Elektroakustik PA 2000 R didn’t manhandle the Hegel, as I thought it might. In fact, they seemed cut from the same sonic cloth. On fine margins, however, the T+A demonstrated its many virtues.
With Barber’s School for Scandal, I heard all of the low-level detail through the H360 that I’d been able to make out with the PA 2000 R, with slight differences: The Hegel sounded more lively and vibrant, especially through the upper midrange and treble, with greater spaciousness and an almost glassy sheen laid over musical instruments. The H360 still sounded exceedingly neutral -- I have yet to hear from it any sort of midrange coloration or high-frequency brightness -- but every Hegel product I’ve heard seems to share a house sound that’s uncommonly smooth for solid-state, but inherently exciting and engaging, regardless of the recording. That was the primary point of contrast to the PA 2000 R. Whereas the Hegel has a mildly Technicolor sound, the T+A’s was as odorless and tasteless as iocane; in other words, dead neutral.
Delving deeper, I never would have described my reference amp as sounding anything other than quiet and unobtrusive. Once again, though, the T+A honed the margins with greater acuity. Mark Knopfler’s muttered opening lines in “Brothers in Arms” weren’t spotlit against quite as “black” a background with the Hegel in play. In fact, I could hear white noise from the tweeter of one of my Monitor Audio Silver 10s from a couple inches away -- something I could never do with the T+A. Is that white noise still audible from 8’ or 10’ away? Hard to say. The Hegel is a top-flight integrated, due in no small part to its highly competent built-in DAC section. The PA 2000 R was, overall, a bit better: just as transparent but offering greater dynamic contrast, a voicing more true to the source, and an overall build quality that puts to shame the folded-aluminum case of my H360. You get what you pay for -- and as the PA 2000 R could push an insensitive loudspeaker like the two-way Magico S1 Mk.II to its breaking point, it’s something of a brute, too.
Don’t let its unassuming appearance mislead you. T+A Elektroakustik’s PA 2000 R is a first-rate integrated amplifier whose modest power rating should be taken with a grain of salt. It proved to be an unflappable partner for challenging both two-way and big, efficient three-way speakers. It’s also as neutral as they come. Its most alluring talents, however, are its three-dimensional midrange and its butter-smooth treble extension. From top to bottom of the audioband, it is a complete integrated amplifier, whose sound quality is matched by its impressively solid aluminum build. For a reviewer prone to cast a skeptical eye on everything that comes through his listening room, I’m at a loss. This thing is faultless.
. . . Hans Wetzel
T+A Elektroakustik PA 2000 R Integrated Amplifier
Price: $8500 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
T+A Elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG
Phone: +49 (0)52-21 / 76-76-0
Fax: +49 (0)52-21 / 76-76-76
North American distributors:
Rutherford Audio Inc.
11420 Blacksmith Place
Richmond, British Columbia V7A 4X1
Rutherford Audio Inc.
12649 E. Caley Avenue #116
Centennial, CO 80111
Phone: (303) 872-6285