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Can you hear the differences between car amplifiers?

In the 1950's, I'd take the family television's vacuum tubes down to Willow Grove Radio and TV Repair, check them with the giant tester machine, buy new replacement tubes, and reassemble the repaired television, so my mom and dad could enjoy their precious, respectively, Dean Martin and Red Skelton shows. In the 1960's, I studied radio and electronics at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. After college, in the early 70's, I joined a rock 'n roll band as the soundman, learning how to operate the electronics that make music sound good. Then, I worked in a music store in Austin manufacturing, installing, repairing, and operating sound systems and components for recording studios, nightclubs, and touring bands. I moved back to Charlottesville permanently in 1984 and opened a little demo recording studio. I also attempted to put to practical use the creative writing degree I had picked up along the way. In 2006, I finally came to my senses and got this job at Crutchfield where they actually pay me to ramble on, rant, and explain the things I love about music, electronics, and getting good sound.

More from Buck Pomerantz

Amplifiers all sound alike, right? No they don't. Many amps just make your music loud enough to overcome road noise. Other amplifiers handle music more carefully to promote higher fidelity. Small technological differences between brands often make for large differences in sound. A recent test in our training room proved it to everyone who took part.

Jeff, a car product merchandiser here at Crutchfield, set up an A/B test so we could all hear the differences between equal-powered amplifiers of different cost and quality. We would listen to the same music through the same speakers and switch between two amplifiers. Normally, such tests would involve listening to a selection of music and then stopping it to change the connections of the speakers to a different amp, and then starting the music up again. Such a delay makes comparisons very difficult. Fortunately, Jeff had an electronic switch that quickly switched between two amplifiers while leaving everything else the same. We could hear the differences between the amplifiers alone, even within the same musical phrase.

Jeff put on some music and let us work the switch and hear for ourselves. The test was between a popular and very inexpensive amp and a name brand amp that costs about $150 more, or over twice as much on a per watt basis.

I didn't know which amp I was hearing at first. The music was full, spread out evenly in front of me, and sounded pretty good. When the switch was made, the sound stage narrowed vertically and moved to the left, the high end got thin, and the bass cloudy. I could understand why the off brand amp sounded thinner and more muddled - cheap electronic components just don't produce the same quality sound as more expensive parts do. But why had the balance moved to the left? The explanation for that is that the internal wiring of the two amps differ so much that even the symmetry of the parts on the circuit board makes an audible difference. A company that uses better components and a smarter circuit design will produce a better-sounding amp, which is well worth the extra cost if you care about sound quality.

Charlie, a Crutchfield web editor, put it this way, "The less expensive amp sounded fine, the bass was full, the balance good. I couldn't imagine what could possibly change. When we switched to the other amp, the sound stage widened to about five feet beyond the speakers, the bass improved dramatically, and the high end came alive."

Everybody in the room heard the difference - it was not a subtle effect. And it brought home the old adage about getting what you pay for.

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