Many people prefer solid state over tube amplification because of its solid,
tight bass and neutral midrange (as opposed to fat, lush, or rich). If those
are your primary concerns, the GCA-250 may make you very happy.
My initial concern with any solid state amplification is that it may sound
overly harsh or bright. Not an issue with this amp. There is no way that
anyone will accuse the GCA of having one-dimensional bright or brittle
sound. I found the amp eminently listenable, and neutral to a fault.
Let me elucidate. In the lower range, the GCA-250 packs a mighty punch. Bass
is tight and well defined.
Of equal import, bass is beautifully detailed. On my frequently auditioned
Reference Recordings disc of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, I was
able to clearly differentiate layers of bass instruments, from percussion,
double basses and tubas, up to cellos and violas. There was absolutely no
smudging of instrumental line. I was greatly impressed by the amp's ability
to clearly communicate these lines, and to do so with great speed.
The GCA-250's healthy midrange, frequently illusive if not absent entirely
from lower priced solid state components, was equally admirable. Every
instrument had realistic body and depth, with undertones quite prominent.
I cannot pretend that the air surrounding instruments and voices was the
same as with my reference tube amplification. Yet, with soundstages of equal
width and height, the presentation was certainly credible.
Where the GCA also stood out, and not always to my preference, was in its
absence of top end brilliance. On Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances,
for example, the triangle certainly rang, but its vibration in space seemed
damped. I could hear the initial hit, for sure, but the sound seemed thin.
With reverberation in space diminished, it also seemed of less consequence.
For me, this is a major issue. Orchestral composers use triangles sparingly,
summoning forth their brilliance as a writer might employ an exclamation
point. Without that brilliance, whatever statement the composer wishes to
make is truncated.
Also on the Rachmaninoff, winds lacked the richness I've come to treasure,
and horns their cutting edge brilliance. The overall presentation was rather
flat. As I said, it was neutral to a fault, characteristic of good
transistor electronics. This may be exactly the sound PS Audio is after, and
a sound that many who prefer solid state search for. But it does not make me
want to stand up and shout. I like the lush midrange that tubes are famous
for, a lushness resulting from even-ordered harmonics.
It is no secret that vocal music is my first love. One night, we were
watching a VAI DVD of Master Classes taught by the great soprano
Lotte Lehmann when she was around 73 years old. Mostly talking, occasionally
singing an octave lower than she would have in her prime, Lehmann
demonstrated subtleties of interpretation.
On one Schubert song, "Die liebe Farbe" from Die Schöne Müllerin, Lehmann's
pinpointing of syllables and words seemed quite exaggerated. Wondering if
she actually sang the song this way during her career, I turned to the only
recording she made of the song, set down 20 years earlier. I was stunned to
find the interpretation far more choppy than I had remembered it from the
last time I had listened. For the first time, Lehmann at times seemed more
concerned with enunciation than singing, interrupting the flow of Schubert's
line time after time as she underscored the meaning of words.
What is going on here, I asked? This is not the Lehmann I have grown to love
after 40 years (yes, 40) of listening to her singing.
Playing the same recording using my reference tube amp, I heard the Lehmann
of old. Yes, the words were unusually clear, consonants and syllables voiced
with great concern for meaning. But there was also a beautiful singing flow
to the performance, a ring to her aging but still incomparable voice that
marked a rendition of consummate musicality.
I also noticed many slight gradations of volume and vocal shading, all of
which riveted my attention. At one point, Lehmann strove to sing softly
where soft tones were no longer easily achieved, the voice taking on an
extra edge that spoke volumes. The performance was riveting.
Returning to the PS Audio, I noted that while these details were still
audible, they meant far less to me in the context of an overall presentation
devoid of treble brilliance. The judicious use of shading and nuance that
defines one aspect of interpreted greatness went for less with an amp whose
sound was more notable for grayness than brilliance. Again, it is the tube
sound reproduction that is responsible here. Neutrality is not revered by
System Synergy is the Key
A month later, Theta recalled its greatly appreciated long-term loan Carmen
II transport. (John Baloff, you deserve a Gold Star on the Audiophile Walk
of Fame.) Returning to my former reference transport, a Sony professional
model heavily modified by APL, I noted less emphasis and fullness in the
lower midrange and on bottom, and a corresponding diminution of brilliance
on top. The sound on top did not seem any less extended, but it lacked the
natural sheen of a live, resonant space. Clearly the Carmen II sounds as
good as it does because its upper frequency brilliance is balanced by a
strong midrange and bottom. The APL transport is leaner and less
attention-getting by comparison, but no less musical.
Returning to the Lehmann performance, I found that while the differences
between GCA and reference tube amplification remained significant, the APL
transport's less Technicolor presentation lessened the ultimate musical
consequence of the difference between amps.
This leads me to reflect that choice of source components will have a lot to
do with how much you like this amp. The GCA will probably sound best with a
CD player and/or preamplifier that tend to be bright. You could also pair it
with a tube preamplifier to get some of that midrange lushness, but not have
too much (for some consumers) lushness that you might have with an all tube
Using the Sony/APL transport, I also listened to the startling new recording
of Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre (DG), featuring the incredible soprano Dawn
Upshaw supported by The Andalucian Dogs on acoustic instruments and laptop
(CD review forthcoming). Anyone who loves classical, world, South American,
Sephardic, or new music owes it to themselves to hear this fabulous
On track 3, where electronics play a strong part, I found the sound less
vibrant than I would have wished. This was also true of Track 11. It was as
though I was listening through a gray window that needed to be scrubbed
clean. Highs lacked shine, and I found myself less intrigued than usual by
the sinewy excursions of Dawn Upshaw's amazing voice.
To compensate, bass was ample and solid, the soundstage full, and there was
a nice amount of air around voice and instruments. Regardless, I cannot say
I was fully engaged by the performance.
Putting Matters in Perspective
I recently attended a Bay Area Audiophile Society (BAAS) audition of a new
member's system. The system was located in a relatively narrow living room
where nearfield listening was the only option.
Despite owning an integrated tube amp from a company whose preamp I consider
one of the finest I've reviewed, I found the system absolutely flat
sounding, harsh to point of irritation, bass shy, and lacking the midrange
warmth one would expect from tube amplification. A few important changes –
removing a stock power cable and placing the Marigo Signature 3-D Mat atop
CDs – tamed highs, dramatically improved midrange and bass, and introduced
some much-needed air and depth. Everyone present heard the changes; the host
readily agreed that my suggestions had made a major difference.
Nonetheless, I can hardly say that I enjoyed my time with the system. I
spent the last 20 minutes of our hour-long audition variously eating food in
the next room while listening through an archway, and talking in the kitchen
with a wife of a just-arrived member who said she could never sit in the
same room as any supposed high-end system she had yet encountered because
the sound was too bright. I'm sure this system did not change her opinion.
I imagine that the GCA-250 would have provided near ideal amplification for
this setup. Its tonal balance is exactly what the system needed.
At Ashkenaz, a well-known club in Berkeley that recently hosted kora master
Mamadou Diabate - where with the GCA-250 playing Diabate's beautiful disc
Behmanka (World Village) in the review system at home, I can hear the
treble delicacy of the kora's strings - I instead heard a monstrously
overblown midrange and an unnaturally amplified bass "thwah" from thumbs on
strings overwhelm the leading treble edge of the tone. I thought I had
encountered the kora from hell. The sound was awful.
I finally approached the soundperson way in the back of the room, where bass
resonance was dramatically truncated, to ask if he had any idea what it
sounded like upfront where the audience was seated. It turned out that he
didn't have a clue. I left the concert in intermission, lamenting that those
in the audience had next to no idea how beautiful the kora can sound when
I have discovered that most people raised on poorly amplified sound as
opposed to acoustic performance in live venues have lost their reference for
what music can and should really sound like. As a result, many systems are
way out in left or right field, producing highly distorted, overblown,
one-dimensional sound. Depending upon what you're used to hearing, and how
your system is tuned, the tonal balance of the PS Audio GCA-250 may be
exactly what you need.
Paul has told me that the amp takes a very long time to break in and said
that he had burned it in before sending, "but as soon as it's unplugged and
sits for a while, you have to start over. This happens to be more sensitive
than just about any piece of gear I've ever designed."
This is not mentioned on the website or in the instruction manual, so you
should take it into account when using the product.
The GCA-250 has much going for it: excellent, tight bass, beautifully
controlled; well-nuanced lower midrange with pitches very well defined; a
midrange of enviable neutrality; a large soundstage in which instruments are
clearly placed and conveyed with excellent focus and detail; a credible
amount of air; and silent, relatively cool operation that consumes low
energy at idle.
As with any amplifier, satisfaction depends upon careful component matching.
In my particular case, front-end components that were already highly tuned
to each other and relatively neutral in tonal balance did not prove the best
match for an amp that tends to favor bass and midrange over highs. In a far
brighter system I recently auditioned, I'm convinced the GCA-250 would have
proven near ideal. If your system sounds like it would benefit from the
GCA-250, you can try it free for 30 days.
- Jason Victor Serinus -
Digital Front End
Theta Gen VIII DAC/Preamp
Theta Carmen II transport (on loan from Theta)
Jadis DA-7 Luxe with GE 5751 Jan and Jan Philips 5814A tubes
Talon Khorus X speakers MK. II (with latest modifications and Bybee filters on
woofers and tweeters)
Rocket UFW-10 subwoofer
Nordost Valhalla single-ended and balanced interconnects
Nordost Valhalla balanced digital interconnects
Nordost Valhalla bi-wired speaker cable
Nordost Silver Shadow digital interconnect for DVD-V
Nordost Valhalla Power Cables
Elrod EPS-2 Signature
AudioPrism SuperNatural S2
Also on hand and sometimes used:
Interconnects: WireWorld Gold Eclipse 5 and Gold Starlight 5 digital, Harmonic
Tech Magic One, Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II balanced, and Nirvana
Power cables: Elrod EPS Signature 2 and 3 plus EPS 1, 2, and 3; WireWorld
Silver Electra 5, PS Audio X-treme Statement, Harmonic Tech.
PS Audio P600 Power Plant power synthesizer with MultiWave II
ExactPower EP15A (for subwoofer)
PS Audio Ultimate Outlet; PS Audio Power Ports
Ganymede ball bearing supports under all components and speakers
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack, Basic Racks and Corner Tunes
Shakti stones on amp, Theta, and transport
Stillpoints ERS EMI/RFI sheets on most components
Bedini Dual Beam Ultraclarifier, Audioprism CD Stoplight,
Marigo Signature Mat for use atop CDs, Ayre demagnetizing CD and the original
Sheffield/XLO demagnetizing and break-in CD.
25.5' deep, 37' wide opposite the speakers, 21.5' wide in the listening area.
Ceilings are 9'2" high with heavy wooden cross-beams. Floors hardwood and
carpet. Walls are a combination of plaster and wood. There is a large archway
opening next to the right speaker.