The mission of a major domestic audio company: A commitment in producing the most accurate and reliable product available. The mission of a major professional audio company: provide stunningly accurate audio reproduction – without the slightest hint of distortion or artificial colouration common to many competing products.
Given those two missions, and they look similar, you would think that if you heard both amplifiers in your system and I have, they would sound the same or be very similar.
They do not.
Their sound is miles apart. One is bright aggressive and difficult to listen to at a reasonable volume and not for more than 30 minutes. The other amplifier sounds superb.
Now before you accuse me of being biased against companies aiming their amplifiers at the professional community, I should mention that the amplifier I preferred (by miles, truth be told) was from a company that supplies both the professional and domestic consumers. That company is Bryston Audio which is based in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. They are distributed in the UK by PMC Speakers and after a quick conversation with Peter Thomas, company owner and founder, and director Keith Tonge, a BP17-3 preamplifier and a 3B-3 power amplifier were winging their way to George 47 Towers.
Bryston started out making high-tech blood analysers in 1962. In 1976, Chris Russell was working in his father’s company and designed the first of the Bryston amplifiers, the PRO-3. He was asked to be involved in a ‘shoot-out’ at a major recording studio in Toronto against five of the top amplifiers of the day. Bryston won and 10 units were ordered. Bryston was born.
Bryston went on to make amplifiers and audio components for studios and later on the domestic markets. Their amplifiers are all made in Canada by hand. There is no off-shore manufacture. Their amplifiers are all given a 100-hour soak testing to ensure ultimate reliability and unlike other company’s claims on reliability, Bryston back it up with a 20-year guarantee. Yes, 20 years, that is some commitment and as far as I know, it is unique.
When I was in my ‘big amps and speakers’ phase I wanted a pair of Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 6 speakers. But which amplifier should I use to drive them? For me, they needed a big powerful amplifier. At that time most of the big powerful amplifiers were coming from the USA/Canada, so onto my radar came the Brystons. I asked around my trusted friends, dealers and audiophiles and their collective view was they were good, a bit bright and would not really show off the best the Wilsons could offer. I managed to hear a set at a show and to be honest, they did not sound that good. I ended up buying a pair of enormous power amplifiers from a rival USA company.
That was then and this is now.
So, in the two boxes from PMC were a brand new BP17-3 preamplifier and a demo 3B-3 power amplifier.
The BP-17-3 preamplifier is a line-level preamp with 2 XLR and 5 RCA inputs. It uses fully discrete Class-A circuitry. The analogue and digital circuits have independent power supplies. It uses software control for the fixed and variable outputs with a balance control that is becoming rarer these days, which is a shame. It comes in silver or black and the front panel can be the standard 17” or 19” rack mounting, betraying the company’s studio roots.
As is the trend today, it can accept a DAC board and/or a MM phono board as optional extras. To complete the package there is a metal remote control that used to be optional but is now included.
The BP17 cubed is a relatively new model and the latest development for the preamplifier is the patented Salomie circuit that is featured in all Bryston’s Cubed products. This circuit was developed and manufactured by Bryston using a circuit from Romanian-born engineer and physicist Dr Ioan Alexandru Salomie who worked with Bryston’s chief designer Chris Russell to create a new design of amplifier input buffer. This circuit uses 12 active devices for the first 6db of amplification. This circuit has less than 0.001% per cent distortion and has increased the preamp’s immunity to RFI and noise. The BP17-3 has a good headphone amplifier. Weighing a reasonable 5kg there should be no real problems using it in a standard rack. It fitted into my dBase rack without any problems.
The power amplifier is a very solid 16 kg that looks a lot less studio and more home with the new face panel. It is quite a cute thing as it is only half the depth of most other amplifiers. It has an RCA and an XLR input with a studio-orientated input built into the XLR sockets. The amplifier produces a healthy 200w/channel 8 ohms and 300 w/channel into 4 ohms. Enough for most speakers especially my sensitive Audionote E Silver Signatures with a 97 dB/watt efficiency. If you want more power it is possible to use the amplifier in bridged mode and get 500w/channel into 8 ohms which should be sufficient to arc weld! Of course, you would need another 3B3 amplifier.
On the back of the power amplifier are the inputs (RCA and XLR), a switch for selecting RCA/XLR, a 23db or 29db switch and a bridged switch.
The speaker cable inputs are a little unusual in that you have to insert the cable from above and at first, I thought they would not accept the larger spades I have on my Cut Loose silver ribbon cables but there was no problem. There is a standard IEC mains inlet and a mains breaker switch. This is not for turning the amplifier on/off but for protecting your mains. You switch the breaker on and leave it on. If there is a major failure the breaker switch will activate protecting your mains. The amplifier is turned on using a panel switch on the front. The two LEDs initially flash red until everything is checked and then they go green. If there are any problems these LEDs indicate the fault. There is also a remote RS-232 switch for turning the amplifier on and off.
If you flip the lid off the amplifier you will see it is two separate amplifiers in one box with two toroidal transformers and two separate amplifier boards. In fact, the only place the two amplifiers meet is at the mains cable input.
I must mention the fins. They are smooth and do not cut your fingers like certain Krell amplifiers. There is no need for any fans as the amplifier is convection cooled.
OK, enough preliminaries what did it sound like?
I left the amplifiers on for a few days to ensure the preamplifier had got rid of any newness issues and then left the preamp on 24/7. The power amplifier took about 15-30 mins from cold and may have improved afterwards but there was nothing to fuss over.
I played my audio test playlist and the amps showed what they could do. Firstly, these amps have a very even frequency response. They are very neutral. By that, I do not mean boring, dull or slow as some take neutral to mean. In fact, the exact opposite. No part of the frequency response is emphasised. There is no big dominating bass, or a recessed mid-range that gives a super 3D sound or overemphasised high frequencies with added sparkle for the demo room. Just a really balanced rendition of the music. This surprised me as I read that Bryston amplifiers were bright with emphasised bass. This amplifier could not be further away from that type of sound. Playing some big orchestral music, it was easy to hear the right balance of all the orchestral instruments with none of them emphasised unless they were recorded that way. I played some of my Mike Valentine’s recordings where I was present at the recording sessions. At these sessions, I managed to hear the live music, the analogue recording on 15 ips tape and the digital recording on 24/192. Home playback is never going to match the live experiences, but the Bryston combination got close.
Some amplifiers can play music very evenly and come with a flat sound and poor dynamics. Not here. The Valentine recordings of Beethoven's 5th piano concerto had the real tone and dynamics of the piano and the power of the timpani drums. I suspect using a 300 w/channel amplifier (into 6 ohms) with 97 dB efficient speakers helps, but I have heard more powerful amplifiers at home that could not capture those transients. Not the super-sharp transients some amplifiers give by robbing the music of its build-up, or decay. Speaking of which, the Bryston pair is exceptionally low noise, giving excellent decays and a real sense of the recording space. In this instance, the orchestra was recorded in a large church hall. The amplifiers were playing natural music and held my attention for hours. I dialled up Qobuz and went looking for brilliant recordings, some less good and I just got lost in the musical experience.
What about music recorded in a modern studio with added artificial reverberation? Yes, some amplifiers can sound superb playing classical and jazz but fall apart on fast-paced rock. Time to test how the amplifiers coped. Opening with some ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man. This is big powerful music played by a trio of great rock musicians. And of course, I had to play the music at a reasonable volume, in the high 90dBs. The temptation to dance and bop along was irresistible. This was not only great powerful rock but it was sleazy with images from a previous era of fancy over-pimped cars and young women that came flooding back.
On to the live Thin Lizzy album, Live and Dangerous. Audiophile this is not, but what concerts! The Brystons made it easy to imagine being there. Were their overdubs? YES. Was this Brian Robertson’s last album? YES. But listen to it and see why it appears on the lists of one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Playing this album (Deluxe Edition of course) dispelled my worry that the Brystons were all about super sophistication and no b****.
OK back to audio land and some Pink Floyd and Roger Waters. As the Floyd evolved, they played more and more with sound effects and big crashes and bangs. The Brystons captured these super-dynamic effects without losing the music and the integration of the effects into the music. I can’t say I am a great fan of their last few CDs but most of the earlier albums had great themes, developments and superb music. I decided to play a few CDs but not at high volumes to see whether the amplifiers could handle being played at lower volumes. And the answer was they did, easily. They showed a more sophisticated side and allowed the music to show its gentler side.
Onto some well-recorded, smooth jazz. Errr not quite, but some big band jazz. The Brystons showed a really wide tonal range with the various tones of drums and their skin tightness being easily heard. Stand-up bass flowed and it was easy to hear not only the bass strings but all the wooden resonances of the instrument. But when the brass came in it sounded like real brass with a lifelike natural edge. Not sharp or tizzy, but like a live instrument.
OK, any issues? A lot of people are used to hearing bright-sounding amplifiers and speakers. They might assume that is how real music sounds and think the Brystons to be on the tonally warm side. They are not. They are just accurate. Don’t expect a cuddly tube-like sound. The tight bass and top-end sparkle let you know you are listening to full bandwidth courtesy of solid state. Also generating 200 watts/channel from a cool box (in both senses of the word), especially with the 30C temperatures in the UK at the moment, is another advantage of these amplifiers.
If you want super-bling you may need to look elsewhere. If you want an effects box with over-emphasised bass and treble you will have to look elsewhere. If you want real music then you have found it. Whilst these amplifiers are not cheap, their prices provide exceptional value for money. They are guaranteed for 20 years. What more do you want? The price, BP17-3 £4,600 and the 3B-3 power amplifier £5,500...not cheap but they are the best £10K amps I have heard and they saw off some far more expensive items.
BP 17-3 Preamplifier
- 5 Single Ended & 2 Balanced Analog Inputs
- Fully discrete Class A analog circuitry
- The patented Salomie circuit found in all Cubed Series amplifiers
- Standard and configurable XLR outputs
- Fixed and variable level RCA outputs
- Independent power supply for analogue and digital circuits.
- Relay switching on all inputs
- Programmable home theatre bypass
- Software control and balanced action volume control
- Silver or black faceplate
- 17” or 19” faceplate (non-rack mountable), Rack ears available
- Internal DAC - PCM 192kHz / 24 bit 2x Optical, 2x RCA (replaces Input 1)
- Internal MM Phono Stage (replaces Input 2)
- BR2 remote control
3B-3 Power Amplifier
- Balanced XLR and Single-ended RCA input
- 2 Channels each with fully independent power supplies including transformers
- 200W into 8 ohms (and up to 300 into 4 ohms) per channel
- The patented Salomie circuit found in all Cubed Series amplifiers
- Switchable gain (23dB or 29dB)
- Fully convection-cooled means no noisy fans
- Machined and anodized aluminium enclosure and dress panel
- Less than 500mW standby power consumption
- SoftStart microprocessor-controlled startup sequence won't trip circuit breakers
- DC trigger for automated turn on and turn off
- Legendary Bryston 20-Year Warranty
- Silver or black faceplate
- 17” or 19” faceplate (non-rack mountable) 19" comes with front-mounted handles