Grace Notes: Sonic Impact T:Amp (gadget review)
One problem with keeping a vaguely political blog is that it's far too easy to slip into a vortex of despair. No doubt, there is too much wrong with the world and we should each do some part to address the world's macro-issues. Global warming, peak oil, the decline of informed democracy, the evils of the Happy Meal, and a growing resemblance between everyday life and a Microsoft Operating System where our media player keeps growing, but we are more and more subject to viruses, terrorists attacks, pop up ads, recurring shutdowns, memory leaks, and constant talk of security holes, aren't going to change any time soon despite our efforts. At the micro-level, anger and frustration must be balanced with some measure of laughter and joy. Music remains one of the most direct paths to joy.
If you ask me what's actually improved in the last century, there are a handful of things that I'm sure about. Along with the quality of bread in California grocery stores, recorded music has virtually unqualifiedly qualitatively improved our lives. Television, telephones, and the internet may all be mixed blessings, but it's hard for me to see the downside of the invention of recorded music in the last century. I can actually hear Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, maybe not in full fidelity or due to the limitations of pre-lP recordings not in segments longer than 3 minutes, but it's hard for me to imagine a world where great musicians had their music as they played it die with them. I even once heard a recording of Brahms and Debussy playing the piano. About the worse thing I can think of about recorded music is that the US apparently tried to use Christina Aguilera to torture prisoners at Guantanamo. Well, there is the whole business of William Shatner and Brent Spiner singing. There's also the question of whether recorded music has discouraged regular people from making their own music or at least attending live concerts. Still, it's hard to calculate the joy that's been made possible by recorded music.
For most of my adult life, I've collected and listened to recorded music, a habit that led me into the bewildering audiophile wilderness where the mystical battles on a daily basis with the scientific usually at high retail prices. When music is reproduced with greater fidelity, more of the pleasures trapped inside the recording come out. For decades, many audiophiles have insisted that audio technology has taken a step backwards when it comes to fidelity. Records were better than disks, tubes were better than transistors, and horn loaded speakers sounded better than bass reflex or acoustic suspension counterparts. In other words, to care about sound often made you a kind of technological Trent Lott, extolling the beauties of some lost order of things which wasn't either all that orderly or idyllic.
Recently, via the internet, I came across a battery powered amplifier called the Sonic-Impact T-amp based on something called the tripath chip.
link to T-amp review
Bottom line, it sells for 19.99, though at that price the suppliers are always out of the things, and it actually sounds good enough for me not to wonder how much more joy is trapped inside my CD's and Mp3s. The average boom box makes me think that someone is torturing my old Blue Notes by playing Christina Aguilera into them so they sound compressed and lifeless. As the audiophiles will tell you, real music breathes. The T-amp isn't perfect, but it manages to breathe. Music, like good bread has texture, the T-amp seems to be made from good dough. Last night I found myself listening at loud volume to Bach Orchestral Suites, Steely Dan, Michelle Shocked, Kenny Drew, and Lee Konitz through the T-amp, a concert that would have been impossible in real time. Maybe it won't fix the hole in the ozone layer, but it's progress. Of course, now someone's going to tell me that the chip dies are made from some toxic substance and that the cases are made with slave labor in some South Asian country where workers aren't allowed to listen to music on the job or are limited to the Backstreet Boys.
I've noticed that I get a lot visitors here who are probably looking for more conventional reviews of the T-Amp. Some of my "audiophile" thoughts follow. No one pretends that this amp has much power. You will need either high-efficiency speakers or a very high output source. For some reason, my Dell Axim 5, maybe because the output has to feed a small speaker, mates very well with the T-Amp. If you don't have a high output source, I strongly recommend a pre-amp. If you have a high output source or pre-amp, reasonably efficient speakers 89 db will sound fine. I use a pair of SEAS 5" two ways, home brew speakers most of the time. The overall result is better than my SWANS M200s at my office, but after you figure in speakers, the T-amp+speakers is actually more expensive.
I've had an 800B tubed amp. The T-amp sounds nothing like low powered tubes. It does however share a kind of presence or immediacy in the midrange with them as well as a slightly rolled off quality at the frequency extremes. At the same time, it's not as "rounded" sounding as a tubed amp. One reviewer mentions that the T-amp is very appealing, but maybe ever so slightly artificial and suggested that it had something to do with the frequency filter in the chip. I'm inclined to agree, but we're talking about a $20 amplifier and to be honest the 800B tube is on the warm side of natural as well(something most of us like)
Power, I've used 8 nimh aa batteries, a separate 12 volt batterry and a regulated 1 amp power supply from Fry's. The 12 volt battery sounds best, but it's not a huge difference. A set of nimh 1800 mah batteries runs for something like 15 hours at moderate volumes. I'm wondering if the tripath chip might be great for an amplified speaker that doesn't need AC. Being 12 volt single-ended, it's even well suited for cars or RVs.