Sugg. Retail: $1999 (CAN)
Distributor: Charisma Audio,
(An AIG Online Exclusive)
According to Wikipedia, qinpu is tablature for music of the guqin, a fretless, seven string Chinese instrument belonging to the zither family. “In the past, music was passed on from teacher to student” continues the Wikipedia entry. “Only recently has tablature been written down, often to preserve music or as a reference book.” And only much more recently has Guang Zhou CHPO Electronic Co. Ltd of China begun producing extremely stylish solid state integrated amplifiers which try very, very hard to look like vintage tube amps.
Whether you think it’s a tube poseur or not, it’s hard to argue against the look of this component. When I saw one at Applause Audio in Toronto I quickly contacted Charisma Audio, the Canadian distributor to arrange a review sample. I was just too curious and had to find out what it sounded like. The fact that it’s also very reasonably priced certainly helped seal the deal. The build quality for the money is incredible, and it simply looks like nothing else on the market right now.
The A-8000 is a 40 pound chunk of striking industrial design. The heatsinks flanking the chassis are beautifully machined bars of polished aluminum. Even the feet are little works of machining art. Another unique touch is the slab of wood framing the ALPS volume pot and source selector. Carved in to the wood are the company’s name, model, as well as input and volume indicators. The four single-ended, gold-plated RCA input jacks are also of very high quality, as are the speaker binding posts.
I think it practically goes without saying that if this amp had been made in North America it could not possibly be this affordably priced. Chinese manufacturing, once derided for poor quality, has come of age with a vengeance in recent years as the country increasingly targets high-end goods in every product sector. In hi-fi circles the success of Shanling’s high end CD and SACD players, also distributed in Canada by Charisma Audio, is an excellent example of the credibility Chinese products are achieving at higher price points.
In keeping with its retro style the Qinpu is a simple and minimalist design, featuring only four inputs, and eschewing both a phono stage and a tape loop. Nor does it feature any line outs, pre ins, subwoofer outs or any other feature extraneous to driving two speakers from up to four line level stereo sources. Oh, and there’s no remote either, but you may have already guessed that by now. A class A/AB design the Qinpu operates at full power for the first 15 watts of its 100 watt capacity (into 8 ohms - 150 watts into 4 Ohms). As a result it runs very warm, making good use all those square inches of aluminum heatsinking. The manufacturer claims a signal to noise ratio of 100 dB and THD of 0.05%.
Modern-Retro-Deco Sound from the Far East
Aside from immediately missing my remote control, when I dropped the Qinpu into my system for some casual listening to get it broken in and warmed up I didn’t immediately miss the sound of my reference gear. This is always a good sign when the equipment you’re auditioning costs less than what it’s replacing. The A-8000 drove my Energy Veritas 1.8 speakers via a tri-wire run of Wireworld Orbit speaker cable and in so doing replaced both my Musical Fidelity A3 CR power amp and preamp. Hours of listening later I still didn’t have any strong urges to switch back, which suggested not only that the Qinpu was committing no serious sonic errors, but that it was quite capable of competing with highly regarded separates costing a total of around $3000 (new).
Further listening over the next month or so solidified the impression that the Qinpu was remarkably neutral. In fact, it drew very little attention to itself, happily making music instead of getting in its way. Operationally it was flawless, never misbehaving in any way. The Veritas had plenty of power to work with too, as they should with 100 honest watts into their nominal 6 ohm load, and I never had any problems getting big, bold sound when called for. Even when listening for long periods, listener fatigue never became an issue either, suggesting that the A-8000 was doing a lot of things right.
What did become obvious, once I had some time for more serious listening, was that the Qinpu was a soundstaging champ. The amp had a real knack for throwing up a huge, round, organic sound field which would float up in front and very wide of the speakers in a truly compelling and believable way. The albums 10,000 Hz Legend and Talkie Walkie by French electronic duo Air are not only extremely well produced but very good at revealing the strengths and weaknesses of any audio system. The electronic soundscapes on these records are complex and often enormous and feature prodigious bottom end. The Quinpu did them justice, my only significant quibble being a little extra edge in the top end compared to my Musical Fidelity gear.
Another album that really shone through the Qinpu was Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele (also extremely well produced). Tori’s big Bosendorfer had excellent weight, crisp attack and good slam when called for. There was also a good sense of musical ebb and flow, a feeling of the music breathing between large and small dynamic contrasts. Perhaps it’s easiest to describe this as naturalness or musicality. Tori’s voice was impressively clean and open too, with perhaps just a hint of chestiness. Regardless, I was completely drawn in and listened to the record from start to finish, a testament to the Qinpu’s capacity for involving the listener.
Substituting my reference gear did seem to smooth the top end a little, and it certainly moved the soundstage back between the speakers instead of in front of them. It also reigned in the soundstage width a little bit and sounded a little bit richer and darker in tone. I appreciated the more refined treble, which eliminated the edge I had heard with the Qinpu (and helped account for the slightly darker tonal character, I think), but missed its big, blooming soundstage. Bottom end control and impact was a little better with the Musical Fidelity gear as well, and its trademark liveliness on transients made itself known again.
And so the Qinpu A-8000 MK II proves itself to be more than just a pretty audiophile bauble. It is, in fact, a very competitive, high-value integrated amp which just happens to have remarkable styling and outstanding build quality. In my own listening lately I’ve been placing greater and greater emphasis on good soundstaging, finding that components that can float huge soundscapes outside my speakers tend to draw me into the music with greater ease. Despite its minor sonic shortcomings the Qinpu did this handily, making for very involving sound. If you’re finding yourself similarly soundstage obsessed, and in the market for an ultra-stylish, minimalist integrated for a dedicated two-channel system, the Qinpu might just be for you.