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Monday, June 14, 2010


Buying or collecting stereo equipment, like other hobbies such as golf, frivolous litigation, autocrossing, travel or elective surgery requires disposable income.  Given that my peer group (late thirties, early forties) is generally out of the day-care expenditure phase (or close to it- I can think of some folks counting the days), one would think that the people I know who are so inclined would generally have more to spend on stereo gear.  Unfortunately, given the current economic climate and the promise of higher taxes on what little is earned in the very near future, we find ourselves in a position relative to consumer electronics purchases not that different from when we first entered the workforce.  As a newly employed college grad in 1989 or 1990, it was unlikely that you were earning enough to purchase new stereo gear from the likes of Conrad Johnson, Mark Levinson or McIntosh (did all of those companies exist in 89?  I know McIntosh did, and I think CJ started in the late seventies) while at the same time renting that first non-slum apartment, replacing Aunt Edna's 67 Volvo wagon that faithfully got you back and forth to school on only 2 quarts of oil a day, and starting to pay off the student loan debt you incurred (for fun and extra-credit, calculate what each slept-through class cost you, with interest).  

So, many of us turned to less-expensive Japanese brands for gear that was a step-above the once-piece rack system with pressboard sides and wood-vinyl decals that could be purchased at Sears or Service Merchandise (remember them?).  For the most part, many of those brands are still with us today, such as Sony, Pioneer, Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo.  Alas, many others, such as Sansui, Nakamichi, Aiwa, Akai and Kenwood no longer have the market presence in home stereo they once had.  Japan had not yet entered into the "Lost Decade," which began when the period of Japan's post-war miraculous economic growth abruptly ended.  A combination of unreasonably high land valuation and very low interest rates leading to excessive speculation and easy availability of credit created a bubble.  After the bubble burst, economic growth ground to a halt (sound familiar?).  Banks disappeared, the Nikkei crashed, and corporations saddled with debt lost the capabilities of capital investment they had formerly enjoyed.  In reality, Japan has still not recovered, which should be a sobering thought for those in the US who watch helplessly as the Federal government blunders and bloviates its way into a Keynesian non-solution to our own problems.

Prior to the massive loss of investment capital at the start of the Lost Decade, Japanese consumer electronics corporations were free to invest in new technologies and design exercises that advanced the state of the art in stereo.  Many masterpieces of audio gear were created during this time, and for the best overview available on the web, I highly recommend: http://www.thevintageknob.org/ if you enjoy reading this site at all, then a visit to TVK should be considered mandatory.  Those "audiophiles" (yes, that's a disparaging usage) who dismiss Japanese stereo equipment of that era are not acknowledging the fact that the Japanese recognized the demand for their products overseas and aggressively pursued it ( in 1984, consumer electronics outpaced car exports- see: Burton and Saelens, (1987). Japanese Strategies for Serving Overseas Markets: The Case for Electronics. In Management International Review [online] available: http://www.jstor.org/pss/40227856).  Government support was available to further the industry's efforts.  More importantly for the budget-minded consumer, the Japanese consumer electronics industry was consciously pursuing a: "value-added" strategy which allowed many expensive, esoteric and innovative technologies in premium stereo gear to trickle-down to lesser product lines.  Which explains my love of almost everything Sony made for their ES (Elevated Standard) line from 1984 to 1990.  Again, check out TVK to see some great examples of what I mean.

Which brings us to D.'s $40 Denon PMA-720 Integrated Amplifier.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, D. has a killer listening room with an all Wharfedale surround system run by a Pioneer Elite AVR.  We have had many listening sessions in D.'s room and typically the sound is very, very good.  But as you may remember from our May 10, 2010 post, we recently learned that a small NAD C350 Integrated Amp really made D.'s Wharfedale Diamond 9.6 towers sing in ways the Pioneer AVR never could, whether in direct mode or with processing.  The NAD was not as powerful nor did it have the measurement clout that the Pioneer had but the evidence was in the listening (alright, alright, in deferrence to subjective reviews MAYBE I will keep my subscription to the Absolute Sound, but I am so sick of Fremer and Dudley's nonsense, that my sub to Stereophile is toast.  It's a good thing- strangers won't see copies of the magazine on the table and think I listen with my pants off).  That night, D. decided he would get a two channel.  I figured he would spend a great deal of time hunting, but that was not to be.

A short while later, D. scored a Denon PMA-720, circa 1988 (although they made them through 1991, I believe, and I don't have the info on where in the production run this particular example was created).  The PMA-720 is a small, 90 wpc amp that is capable (according to the little I could find on it) of driving difficult speaker impedance loads, and uses an optical circuit to optomize its bias current (the optical circuit invented  by the famous Amercian Amp designer, Nelson Pass- the same Pass who licensed his "Stasis" design to Nakamichi, and was used famously in their entry-level two channel receivers of the same era).  For $40, the thing looks like all it really needs is a decent cleaning of the faceplate. It's in that good a condition,  certainly much better than anything one might find at the local thrift shops.  D. hooked it up to a brand new Onkyo C-S5VL SACD player (I will devote an entire post to that machine when I can) which is a very slick piece of kit in and of itself.

We listened for over an hour,  but I'm only going to refer to one piece of music.  In 1988, I saw Wynton Marsalis play at the Niagara University Gallagher Center, and Marcus Roberts was his pianist at the time.  I had never heard of Roberts, but the very next day I went out and bought his album: "Deep In the Shed." Find it here:


This disc has been at every equipment audition I have been on for 20 years, and in that time I have never purchased a new piece of gear without hearing tracks 1 and 4 on the potential purchase first.  The key is, as you may have read in my April 15 post, it's pretty hard to express music in linguistic terms, but there is no denying when you FEEL something.  At that concert I felt blown away by that ensemble, and by the tracks Roberts played from the album.  To this day, when I listen to the disc, I get a little bit of that night back.  At the same time, when I listen to the album played back on a system that is really dialed in, the experience is that much better.  So that's how it was on the Denon/Onkyo combo.  More than when I had heard any of the album on the Pioneer, I felt excited about the music in the way I had when I heard it live.  The million dollar question of course is:  WHY?

Simply, I don't really know.  I can hazard a guess or two, though.  D. and I both agreed that the Denon must have been built with a totally different purpose in mind than any AVR, and no matter how obvious that sounds, it shouldn't be taken for granted.  Denon meant that for the $500 1989 USD that the PMA-720 cost, it should sound as good at playing back 2-channel sources as possible.  The Pioneer, in contrast, has that mission plus the need to process a bazillion different soundfields, decode numerous audio for video formats PLUS the video, and be THX certified as well, for what that's worth.  All designed to meet a particular price-point in a very highly competitive market.  The Pioneer also has to contend with the possibility that the industry will change as home theater often does, so it has to be able to cope with some of this change in order to be considered a viable purchase (not that that is really possible- just anyone who's tried to recoup any of the purchase price of a non -HDMI equipped AV receiver recently).  There simply isn't the real estate inside the Pioneer AVR to have the audio-grade components that are a luxury in even a cheap integrated like the Denon.  Bottom line is, they're different animals.

The complaints of audio snobs about Japanese "Plastic Black Boxes" (or more disparaging labels)  that can't play music that were not justified in the past may be ringing more true today.  It's hard to say.  But in order to clarify things, one needs to compare apples with apples, and the Denon PMA-720 is a pretty rare beast today in the stable of the Japanese giants.  The Yamaha AS series (highly reviewed, BTW), Pioneer Elite A-35R and Onkyo A-V5L are among the few.  There are some digital two channels as well, such as the Onkyo A-9555, and the Sony STR DA1500ES stereo receiver, but overall the inexpensive Japanese 2 channel market is occupied by tumble weeds.  So, for those in the know (and that's now YOU, dear reader), the used market is the only place to turn, but we can't all be as lucky as D. (a $40 amp and the sex appeal of Antonio Banderas.  Some guys have all of the. . .)

Today, globalization and corporate consolidations (Harman kardon, Denon and Marantz are all under the same ownership, for example) have impacted on the pursuit of a market almost completely integrated with video, in the form of home theater.  Consumers have fewer dollars, so home audio equipment is more and more a compromise between quality playback and a comprehensive set of features that will appeal to buyers and include the latest gadgets.  The results have been less than encouraging, as the DVD-A and SACD, BluRay and HD-DVD format wars have shown.  Technologies come to market that are not optomized for sound quality such as earler versions of HDMI or the early adoption of high-jitter USB for the transfer of computer audio files.  The upside is that many of the gems made in the eighties were built to last, and like my TA-F444ES, with a thorough cleaning and a few judicious upgrades can easily hold their own against any reasonably priced AVR.  So if you're interested in hearing your favorite tunes closer to the way they were meant to be heard, cruise eBay for a cheap integrated or 2-channel receiver.  Drop an e-mail if you're looking for some reccomendations.  Just don't expect to win that Sony Champagne TA-F808ES in mint condition.  I'm prepared to set a maximum bid that will make your eyes water.


  1. Interesting! I have an old PMA-720 that sounds really good. Didn't know it was so special until I googled it and found your story about it. Thanks a lot!!

    Stefan in Sweden

  2. Hello, i have ran into a few sleeper amps/receivers over the last 25 years such as the Denon units,Luxman R-117 receiver ect. What Amplifier would you choose to run a pair ADS L1290/2 and a pair of ADS 1590/2 speakers.
    I am currently using a Adcom Gfa-545 amplifier and i am using the Luxman R-115 receiver as a preamp. Hooked in with these two pieces i am also using my M&K MX-2000 powered subwoofer which adds some decent bottom end to the ADS 1290/2 speakers. These ADS speakers are 8 ohm but handle a whopping 300 watts per channel.I believe to the most out of this 1290's i need more power to open them up!
    The Adcom gfa-545 amp makes the 1290's sound grainy in highs ? Any recommendations for a power amplifier which could be bought for $1000 dollars ? Have you heard any of the Parrasound amplifiers such as the Halo 23 or the older models which are roughly rated at 150/200 watts per channel ? Help needed.

  3. Good to hear. I just dusted off my PMA-720 and I'm gonna pair it with a DAC and a new set of speakers. This will become my 2-channel system as opposed to the home theatre system already located in the TV room. Hope to get some of that accurate and natural hi-fi back into my house after a decade of 5.1ch and mp3.

    Remco from Netherlands

  4. Hey Jack and Remco-

    I have to hunt for the photos, but a pair of well-loved L1290's were in my system for a few years. They were driven at various times by: a Hafler DH-200 and NAD preamp, a Sony TA-N55 ES with no preamp, a B&K Sonata series with the NAD preamp, and a large Denon AVR the model number of which I forget. They were my reference speakers (meaning the ones I judged all comers by) until I bought my first pair of Dynaudios- the Focus 140. ADS (a/d/s/) made an unbelievable speaker, and their electronics were great too. I have a C3 cassette deck to pass on to my brother who has an R1 tuner-amp and L570 speakers. At one point I had gathered info about what became of the company and had contacts for some of the engineers who worked there- I'll have to try to find that stuff. As for recommendations, I had the Hafler updated for a mere $300 so that's a good choice if you find one (although there will be a little transformer noise) for very little money. I always thought the NAD stuff was a good match. When last I heard them, they were being run by a big Emotiva multi-channel that probably wasn't much more than $1,000.

  5. i got a denon pma-300v pre main amplifier what all do i need to run it email me at harofan_85@yahoo.com thanks

  6. I looked your amp up here:


    If I follow the translation okay, it looks to be similar to the Sony TA-F444es that I have, in layout, features and power. What speakers to use depends on your listening tastes. I wouldn't recommend Dynaudios because they are very power hungry and are getting even more expensive. As I mention above, D. is running Wharfedales with a Denon PMA 720, and the sound is very good. I think he found it a little lean, so he switched to Marantz amplification and he definitely has a warmer sound. That being said, there are some good buys on Wharfedales at Music Direct, and other places online. If you are patient I would look at a pair of vintage Klipsch speakers- the KG2, KG4 or the Forte maybe. I can't sepak to their new models, but I owned a pair of KG2s with a 25 watt NAD amp that screamed on Stevie Ray Vaughn. To find a pair in great cosmetic shape that won't cost a fortune to ship will be the trick.

  7. Hi there, looking at purchasing this Denon 720 amp you mention in your post second hand, just wondered about its power outage? Im new to hifi and so not sure if this amp is a good entry point in order to power current speakers? Is there a rule of thumb for power output to speaker output in Watts? Thanks very much.

  8. Hi Mike,

    I believe the amp is rated at 90 watts per channel into an 8 ohm load. I have only ever heard it driving the Wharfedale Diamond towers, and it certainly had no trouble filling a good-sized room with sound. A good amp should be able to double its rated output at 8 ohms into a 4 ohm load, which would be more difficult to drive. Take a quck look at the Wikipedia entry for "speaker output." That being said there is quite a bit of black magic that goes into amplifier power ratings once marketing departments get a hold of the copy. For example, my Yamaha A-S2000 integrated is also rated at 90 watts per channel, and there is simply no comparison between the A-S2000 and the Denon amp. The Yamaha is certainly capable of delivering more current to the speaker, its power supply probably weighs nearly as much as the entire Denon 720! But the Denon can be found at very reasonable prices, and I think you would be unlikely to be disappointed with it. I would also recommend you take a look at the Sony 444 i mention above, as those appear on Ebay from time to time and can be very cheap. They have excellent build quality and I think they have a more interesting look than the Denons of that time period do.

  9. I was recently re-reading this and want to clarify that there are many excellent amplifiers that do not double their output into a four ohm load. Perhaps I should have typed that something more general, such as: "most good amplifiers have no trouble handling a 4 ohm speaker load when played at reasonable volumes" especially since I didn't mention dynamic power capability such as that in NAD or Proton amplifiers. Hope that clarifies a bit-