Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
Several months ago, I was working one evening and paused to check my e-mail. I was saddened to read an article, sent to me by fellow SoundStage! Network writer Roger Kanno, announcing that Brian Russell, Bryston’s president, had suddenly died. I’d met Russell only once, but that encounter had had a profound impact on my interest in high-end audio.
It was March 2006, and I’d just completed an MSc at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario, Bryston’s home for more than 35 years. A school friend knew Brian Russell from a local committee they sat on together, and when he learned how excited I was that they knew each other, he spoke with Russell, who agreed to meet me.
It was bitterly cold the morning I traveled by bus to Bryston’s factory, in a remote industrial area of town into which I’d never before had any reason to venture. When I arrived, Russell warmly greeted me, then proceeded to give me a tour of the factory, walking me through the process of assembling one of their legendary amplifiers. After that we sat in his office for a few minutes; I asked him some questions, he gave me a Bryston coffee mug and several brochures, and then I left to catch the bus home. I couldn’t believe that the president of Bryston had been willing to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to a young guy in no financial position to buy anything his company manufactured.
I’ve often heard that the culture of a company represents the values of those at the top, and this is true of Bryston. Whether it’s their 20-year warranty, or the fact that CEO James Tanner replies to customer e-mails so quickly you’d think he never puts his phone down, Bryston’s reputation for customer service is as solid as their amplifiers. Their commitment to their customers has undoubtedly helped them establish a following of loyal consumers—this gives you confidence that the company will be there should you encounter any problems post-purchase. I feel fortunate to have met Brian Russell. I appreciate not only what he and everyone else at Bryston have developed and manufactured, but who they are as a company.
The subject of this review is the newest version of what is now Bryston’s sole model of integrated amplifier, the B1353 ($6695, all prices USD). It was preceded by the B135 SST2 and, before that, the B100 SST, both of which I reviewed for SoundStage!.
Bryston has always valued function over form, and the B1353 is no exception. It looks much like its predecessors, except that the Bryston logo is now engraved at the center of the faceplate. The round buttons introduced in the SST2 are still there, and their layout, along with that of the volume knob, balance control, and power button, remain the same. The B1353’s utilitarian looks are nice enough, but won’t turn as many heads as, say, an integrated amplifier from McIntosh Laboratory.
Not until you pick it up and run your hands across the black steel case and thick aluminum faceplate does Bryston’s reputation for building bombproof electronics begin to reveal itself. Weighing 27 pounds and measuring 17″ or 19″W (depending on the faceplate chosen) x 4.5″H x 15″D, the B1353 is solidly constructed. Just lifting it out of its shipping carton made clear to me it is not a mass-market product. My review sample had a silver faceplate; black is available. The tone of the silver faceplates of Bryston’s Cubed models is lighter than that of the Squared series, and looks less metallic.
The B1353 combines Bryston’s BP-17 preamplifier (discontinued; $3895 when available) and 2.5B3 power amplifier ($4295) on a single chassis, all in one case. Bryston claims that there’s no difference in sound quality between the B1353 and the BP-17 plus 2.5B3. The preamp section includes six stereo pairs of single-ended line-level inputs, and one tape loop. The B1353 has no provision for balanced connection.
The buyer can opt to add an onboard moving-magnet phono stage and/or digital-to-analog converter ($750 each). With both options installed, the price of a fully loaded B1353 is $8195. With the DAC installed, two of the line-level inputs are converted to digital S/PDIF (RCA coaxial) inputs and a pair of S/PDIF optical inputs (TosLink) is added; the resulting B1353-DA can accommodate a total of four digital inputs. The DAC accepts PCM signals of resolutions up to and including 24-bit/192kHz, but can’t decode DSD or MQA signals. My review sample lacked both options. However, the B100 SST I previously owned did include the DAC and phono options, and while both of these modules have since been updated, each sounded excellent, and together they made the B100 SST a truly integrated one-box solution.
What makes the B1353 “Cubed” has everything to do with its power-amplifier section. This newest generation of Bryston amps features a patented input stage developed by the late Dr. Ioan Alexandru Salomie. Employing an array of 12 active devices for the first 6dB of gain, it acts as a highly linear input buffer that removes audio and radio-frequency noise, especially from the power line. Bryston claims that this reduces distortion to less than 0.001%, the lowest of any product they’ve made.
The B1353 is a class-AB dual-mono amplifier. This means that, other than a shared power cord, the two channels operate entirely independently of each other. Like its predecessor, its specified power output is 135Wpc into 8 ohms or 180Wpc into 4 ohms. But these official specs are conservative. Each amplifier Bryston makes is tested before shipping; its actual levels of power output and distortion are measured, and those figures are included with that unit. Each channel of my review sample actually produced 163Wpc into 8 ohms—20% more than specified. Bryston gear has always impressed me in this regard—I wonder how many of their competitors consistently make products that perform far above spec.
Even more impressive is that each amp is broken in for 100 hours before shipping, cycling between full power and idle every 30 minutes to thermally stress the components, and thus help identify faulty units before they leave the factory. This partly explains why Bryston can offer a transferable warranty of 20 years on their amplifiers (the DAC is warranted for five years), which far exceeds the industry standard of three to five years.
On the rear panel is an RS-232 port for receiving software updates. An auxiliary infrared input is included—if the IR sensor on the faceplate is blocked, an auxiliary IR sensor can be connected to control the B1353 with an IR remote. There are two 12V trigger outputs, for automatic power-up of any connected components. The B1353 also includes a home-theater bypass, for when it’s used to power two channels (typically, the main or front left and right channels) of a surround-sound system and the volume is controlled through an audio/video processor or receiver.
One handy feature are two switches on the rear panel that allow the B1353’s preamp and amp sections to be used separately. If you like the sound of the B1353 but need more power, you can disconnect the amp section, add a more powerful amp instead, and send it signals via the Bryston’s preamp outputs. Or you can experiment with different components to hear how they pair with the amplifier or preamplifier section.
Additionally, the B1353 has a headphone jack and—a first for a Bryston integrated—a full-function remote control handset as standard kit. You can still use Bryston’s BR-2 aluminum-brick remote ($375), with touch- and light-sensitive backlighting, but the B1353 is shipped with the BR-4 remote, which was introduced with the BR-20 preamplifier-DAC-network streamer. Unlike the BR-2, the BR-4 isn’t carved from a block of aluminum. It will fully control the B1353 as well as every component of an all-Bryston system, and it doesn’t cost extra.
The B1353 replaced a Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier in my system. I connected it to a pair of KEF R11 floorstanding speakers with AudioQuest Comet cables. Digital content was supplied by an NAD C 565BEE CD player connected to a Bryston BDA-2 DAC with an i2Digital X-60 digital coaxial interconnect. I used the Audirvana software to send CD-resolution music files from Tidal to a Bluesound Node 2i network streamer connected to the BDA-2 with a generic optical (TosLink) interconnect. The BDA-2 fed the B1353 via Kimber Kable Tonik interconnects (RCA). Finally, all electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner-regenerator.
I recently read a review of a Bryston 4B3 power amplifier whose writer claimed that the amp didn’t sound good out of the box. He then spent four to five months fully breaking it in, and waited a total of six months before doing any critical listening. I can’t imagine that this was necessary with products made by a company that runs their amps in for 100 hours before they leave the factory. I, too, like to give audio products some time to warm up before sitting down to make listening notes, but unless you just don’t like how they sound, a six-month break-in period is too much. If you buy a Bryston amp and it doesn’t sound right within the first week or two, I strongly advise that you contact your dealer or Bryston—something is probably wrong. And that goes for every other solid-state amplifier I’ve reviewed.
The first time I picked up my pen to make some notes, I was listening to Pérotin’s Beata viscera Mariae Virginis, sung by the Sistine Chapel Choir directed by Massimo Palombella, on their Veni Domine: Advent & Christmas at the Sistine Chapel (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Deutsche Grammophon/Tidal). It sounded stunning through the Bryston B1353, which effortlessly conveyed this recording’s outstanding sound quality. Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is featured on this track, and her performance was mesmerizing—the B1353’s exceptional clarity and smooth, extended treble revealed her delicacy and nuance. Part of what makes this recording so captivating is that it conveys the spaciousness of the Sistine Chapel—it’s easy to hear Bartoli’s higher notes resonate against the walls and what is arguably the most famous ceiling of Western culture.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of space in this music—it communicates an incredible amount, both sonic and emotional. When the boys’ voices enter, the acoustic fills out even more, expanding even farther the size of the stage, which again expands when the men enter. Sound this extraordinary can only be the result of exemplary skills in recording, and Deutsche Grammophon’s engineers deserve praise for it. However, the fidelity of the playback system is also crucial, if the listener is to hear what the producer and engineers have set out to achieve—and this is where praise is due the Bryston B1353.
The B1353 is the most transparent Bryston amplifier I’ve heard. If you’re unfamiliar with Bryston’s “house sound,” it has a reputation for being dead quiet, for allowing the music to emerge from a “black” background. However, as good as those other Bryston amplifiers have sounded and still sound, I consistently found myself thinking that I was hearing a fluidity and an ease with the B1353 that I’d never heard from a Bryston integrated. With an album such as Veni Domine, I could close my eyes and imagine what it was like to be present at the Vatican when this music was recorded.
I found the B1353 characteristic of Bryston amplification in that turning up the volume rewarded me with the illusion of an even larger acoustic space, as music effortlessly filled what seemed a larger room. However, this was not accompanied by the increasingly higher noise floor I hear from lesser integrateds, as if I’m turning up the distortion as well. If you’ve never experienced this before, you owe it to yourself to hear a high-end integrated amplifier such as the Bryston B1353—you might be surprised by the effortlessness of its sound. Turning up the volume just gave me more of everything I wanted to hear, with nothing else added.
However, it would be misleading to attribute everything I’m describing to the Bryston alone. The sound I was hearing was the sum total of several components, not the least of which were, of course, my KEF R11 speakers. I could say that the B1353 had almost no audible character of its own—that what I heard was more a product of the source components, the recordings, and the speakers. KEF speakers are known for producing a precise, coherent soundstage, due at least in part to their coaxial midrange and tweeter drivers, which serve as an effective point source for much of the audioband. In this sense, the B1353 was more a conduit through which the R11s could showcase their talents—a neutral platform on which they could strut their stuff.
Listening to Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele (CD, EastWest A2 82862), it was easy to follow the decays of the notes she plays on concert grand in “Horses”—they faded realistically, rather than being prematurely truncated by the amp’s noise floor. As always in her recordings, Amos’s voice is the focal point, and through the Bryston-KEF combo it was beautifully detailed and holographic, coming as close as I’ve heard it to sounding as if she sat at the keyboard only a short distance in front of me. Though to a far lesser degree than with Veni Domine, the B1353 still conveyed an authentic illusion of space around her voice.
The Bryston’s transparency also meant that, in “Father Lucifer,” the sound of her repeated pumping of her piano’s sustain pedal was clearly audible. This same aspect of the B1353’s sound—or lack thereof—also revealed the powerful dynamic contrasts in “Caught a Lite Sneeze.” The percussion in this track isn’t overpowering but does have some clout, and that was clearly resolved and evenly balanced as its rhythm propelled the track.
Listening to the Finale: Presto of Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op.76 No.5, performed by the Engegård Quartet (SACD/CD, 2L Sampler 2009, 2L), offered a better example of the ease and clarity with which the B1353 handled dynamic shifts. Granted, these weren’t the grand, chest-thumping, jolt-you-from-your-chair explosive dynamic swings of an orchestral piece such as the War Dance from Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba: Suite, with Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (CD, Reference RR95CD)—which, incidentally, the Bryston also handled with aplomb—rather, these were microdynamic changes. Resolving them so cleanly revealed a genuineness to the sound of violin bows as they coaxed notes from the strings; likewise, the rich, woody resonances that emerged from the body of the cello. I was left with the feeling that I was hearing more of the music, and less of the electronic editorializing unavoidable in playing a recording through a system rather than attending a live concert. While the sound one hears at home through a stereo will always result from a combination of the recording, the playback system, and the listening room, for its price the B1353 was as good as any integrated amplifier I’ve heard, and better than most, at getting out of the way to let me enjoy the music rather than be distracted by my system.
Through the Bryston, Bob Dylan’s wonderful “My Own Version of You,” from his Rough and Rowdy Ways (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia/Tidal), had a broad soundstage, pleasingly warm bass, and palpable depth, the last emphasized by the focus on Dylan’s voice at the front. His gravelly, rough tone, like his enunciation, was crystal clear. This dark song, about building another human being of parts collected from the corpses of others, as he explains in detail that he wants to create “something that feels that way I feel,” makes for an engaging listen. The B1353 reproduced with superb precision the cool rhythm, the subtle colors of the guitar, and the clarity of Matt Chamberlain’s drums behind him.
In “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” the music has even greater presence, the drums more forward in the mix and Dylan’s less coarse (I won’t say sweet) singing portrayed with an even brighter spotlight shining on it. By now it was clear to me that the B1353 had no sound of its own; with a pair of neutral speakers—that is, speakers that could reproduce a wide bandwidth of frequencies with generally flat response—the character of the recording and the intentions of its mix engineer were readily revealed. This makes it a great tool for reviewing audio gear: It showcases what a component does and doesn’t do. This is not an indirect way of saying that the B1353 sounded “analytical”; on the contrary, its chameleon character was always musical—it made me want to revisit many albums I know well.
After Rough and Rowdy Ways, and still in the mood for hard-worn voices, I reached for Tom Waits’s Mule Variations (CD, Anti-/Epitaph 86547-2). “Hold On” features a similar soundstage to Dylan’s “My Own Version of You” in terms of the way the band is positioned across the front of the room. However, in “Hold On” the sound extended farther past the speaker’s outer side panels, and the guitars and bass, like Waits’s voice, are upfront. Again, the Bryston-KEF combination acquitted itself well, sounding incredibly clean and open while revealing enormous amounts of detail. Many Waits albums are well recorded, and this extends to his voice. The resonance of his vocal cords as he sings in his lowest register in “Take It With Me” was about as clear as I’ve heard—another testament to the quality of the B1353 and its synergy with the KEFs.
The big question: How did Bryston’s newest integrated amplifier compare with its immediate predecessor, the B135 SST2? The two models have the same power output and virtually identical feature sets. The biggest differences are the B1353’s patented input stage and the prices: at $4695, the B135 SST2 was a good bit cheaper than its replacement, which costs half again as much.
As quiet as the B135 SST2 is—it’s still one of the quietest integrateds I’ve heard—the B1353 seemed quieter still. The difference was subtle, but with “Get Behind the Mule,” from Waits’s Mule Variations, it was as though the head of the drum was stretched more tightly across the frame, sounding a bit more taut. The sound of a foot tapping out the beat was also more readily resolved through the B1353. Similarly, with Tori Amos’s “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” I thought the stage was even better resolved through the newer Bryston, with even greater fluidity in the rhythm of the music.
These aren’t the kinds of differences that will make B135 SST2 owners run out and sell their amps—the gap in performance was no gulf. However, if I had the choice of buying one or the other and sound was the only factor, I’d opt for the B1353. As I switched back and forth between them, it was sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what difference I was hearing—yet I consistently heard an overall smoothness to the sound of the B1353 that was incredibly easy on my ears. When I reviewed my listening notes, I found the nouns ease and easiness sprinkled throughout. Evidently, that was the consistent impression I was left with.
Although I was curious to hear the B1353 as soon as Bryston introduced it, I never asked to review it. I thought I generally knew what to expect—after all, I’ve owned several Bryston products—and figured I’d pass on this one. It wasn’t until a reader had asked me to review it, and then asked publisher Doug Schneider to get me to review it, that a sample was sent my way. That reader very much wanted my opinion—he knew I’d not only spent time with and reviewed the B1353’s predecessors, but had owned both of them.
I’m glad he persisted, because the B1353 surprised me. It represents a bigger leap in price over the B135 SST2 than that model did over the B100 SST. But I think it offers a bigger leap in sound quality. While I would never dismiss the quality of those earlier Brystons, the B1353 is the best integrated amplifier yet from the venerable Canadian firm. Its sound was even more musical than that of the B135 SST2, with levels of ease and smoothness not only new to Bryston, but rare among solid-state amplification I’ve heard from anyone at any price. It isn’t cheap, but its price is not outlandish for high-end audio. And it’s further set apart from the competition by Bryston’s 20-year warranty and standard-setting customer service. The late Brian Russell, his brother Chris, and the whole Bryston team should be enormously proud of what, together, they have built.
. . . Philip Beaudette
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: KEF R11
- Integrated amplifier: Bryston B135 SST2
- Analog source: Thorens TD 160 HD turntable, Rega Research RB250 tonearm, Sumiko Songbird low-output MC cartridge, Lehmannaudio Black Cube phono stage
- Digital sources: Bryston BDA-2 DAC, NAD C 565BEE CD player, Bluesound Node 2i network streamer
- Interconnects: i2Digital X-60 digital (coaxial, RCA), Kimber Kable Tonik (RCA)
- Speaker cables: AudioQuest Comet
- Power conditioner: ExactPower EP15A
Bryston B1353 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $6695 USD.
Warranty: 20 years parts and labor.
677 Neal Drive
Peterborough, Ontario K9J 6X7
Phone: (800) 632-8217, (705) 742-5325
Fax: (705) 742-0882