Bryston 9B Home Theater Power Amplifier

      Date posted: June 11, 1998

Brsyton 9b ST Power Amplifier
Sugg. Retail: $4595 ($3695 U.S.)
Manufacturer: Bryston limited,
P.O. Box 2170, 677 Neal Ave., Peterborough, Ont. K9J 7Y4
(705) 742-5325 FAX 742-0882

(Reprinted from the Summer 1998 Audio Ideas Guide)

      Until now, this Canadian company has relied on its several stereo models, its 4-channel (8B/$3500), and 3-channel (5B/$3050) amplifiers to feed the growing home theatre market. But with the powered subwoofer now a fixture, and discrete 5-channel surround sound coming on fast, Bryston decided it had to provide a matching power amplifier. You might think that they’d offer a multichannel surround preamplifier first, but that will come, come fall, and the 9B has preceded it by a season.

      The company has flirted with amplifier modularity in a couple of ways over the years, first with the 2B, a 60 wpc stereo amplifier that has removable circuit boards that flank its central dual-mono power supplies. These boards can be ordered with or without level controls, and the amplifier has been very popular in the pro market. More recently Bryston introduced its half-2B and -3B Powerpac modules (see the review in this issue), which can be used in situations where mono amps are required in 60- and 120-watt configurations. One of the most common pro uses is screwed onto the rear of professional monitor speakers in studios.

      In looking at the multichannel amplifier yet again, Stuart Taylor (Mr. ST) decided to return to this approach for several reasons. In developing the various ST products, he discovered the holy grails of very short signal paths and channel isolation, both of which result in vastly reduced distortion and much lower noise. These have been seen in the most recent designs, each amplifier supplied with a complete measured spec sheet, that for the 9B review sample shown. The salient numbers are S/N ratios approaching or reaching 115 dB, and .00 distortion across the board at all frequencies and power up to rated power. All channels manage 150 watts or better, beating their spec by a comfortable 30 watts (the output of a quite decent little integrated amp). No other amplifier maker I know of hangs out its laundry like this with every piece shipped, though I’m sure there must be others as rigorous and confident about their products.

      I refer readers who do not fully appreciate the significance of the noise figures alone to re-visit my original review of the 3B ST (Smr 95). A further observation would be that such an S/N figure puts us into the 24-bit digital realm in terms of freedom from noise and resolution. And, forgive me for quoting myself (the reviewer’s form of self-cannibalization), but in that review I noted that “the kind of noise and distortion (and at these low levels they are almost the same, the main difference being that noise obscures low-level detail while distortion rides on it dynamically) [that] we expect in electronic music reproduction is absent to an astonishingly greater degree than found in other amplifiers.” In sum, then, we are talking as much about audio resolution as we are about the absence of noise.

      Returning to the 9B, let’s look at its essential features and physical characteristics. Looking very typical of this company, austere and business-like with rack handles on the front panel, the amplifier has a more unusual rear panel. There are the typical balanced and unbalanced inputs, switched by a 3-position toggle whose centre position allows an additional 6 dB of gain for preamplifiers with less than typical output levels. The high gain position feeds both balanced and unbalanced inputs. The balanced connector continues to also allow use of 1/4″ stereo balanced plugs (used in some pro applications, where they are often called “tip, ring and sleeve”). The THX certified version of the amplifier adds a facility for remote controlled power on/off.

      The channel modules are removable after the removal of several screws, and each one contains a complete 120-watt amplifier, the main chassis doing nothing but capture AC with its heavy IEC cord, and feed it into the 5 amplifiers. From the toroidal power transformer at front to the input and output connectors (these latter typical plastic and gold types) at rear, these are amps that could be run independently, and probably will be in the next generation of Powerpacs, and future multichannel amps. No one at Bryston has said as much, but to my occasionally logical and inquiring mind, it seems inevitable.

      And turning to the inquiring, what does the 9B ST sound like? Well, sorry to disappoint those wanting new revelations, but it sounds like every other Bryston amplifier since 1994 or so and the introduction of the 8B, which quickly became the 8B ST when the company realized how different it was from the previous NRB models.

      That sound is clearly identifiable as utterly neutral, with powerful, well defined, harmonically accurate bass that goes down to DC, an incredibly open mid-band that allows precise delineation of soundstage and ambient space, as well as remarkable definition of instruments and their locations. The upper octaves are never splashy or shrill, always delivering what the source offers. A friend of mine recently complained that his 3B ST clipped too easily with his quite efficient speakers; my experience suggests he’s listening way too loud, and should worry about his hearing.

      I won’t get into quoting my 14″ page of listening notes (having already cannibalized myself prose-wise), but just as an example, our movement from the Maazel Mahler 4th on our new compilation CD-R for component evaluation had a soundstage you could literally walk into…it was sweet, detailed, deep, and wide.

      There was plenty of power for our speakers, the Energy Veritas v1.8 with their low impedance (yes, I treated both this amp and all others as an audiophile amplifier, since it has to be such to be worth anything for home theatre), and the 9B ST, and I felt its sound was identical to that of the 3B ST in every respect. Though I don’t want you to think I’ve joined everything-sounds-the-same school of reviewing, to me every current Bryston amplifier I’ve heard sounds identical, the only differences being power and number of channels (though I did feel that the Powerpac 120 had a bit of a problem with imaging, but, then, I had only one to review).

      There are other excellent home theatre amplifiers, including our resident Sunfire Cinema Grand, which offers somewhat more power than the 9B, and still sounds awfully good to my ears, sharing the Bryston’s neutrality, but providing a bit more kick with soundtracks, and there’s the Celeste reviewed below as another Canadian offering. Maybe I’m a little too confortable with the Bryston sound, having lived with various generations over the years (and been glad to pay for each improvement), but I refuse to apologize for respecting accuracy, incredible technical performance, and ergonomic excellence. The 9B ST continues this considerable legacy.

Andrew Marshall

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