Topping PA5 is the latest talk around the web, but what is it really and is all that hype really deserved? To put it simply, this is a small and simple integrated amplifier that can bring a lot of music for more than a reasonable amount of money. Keep reading to find out the details and is it a good buy for you and your system.
I’ve noticed that many people call Topping PA5 a power amp, but in my book, if it has a volume control, no matter how simple it is, I consider it to be an integrated amplifier. So moving forward I’ll treat it as such. That said, PA5 is probably one of the most simplistic integrated you’ll encounter on the market. It does have a volume control, but it doesn’t offer remote control. It also has only two analog inputs, both of which are balanced and in a form of TRS jacks. I do prefer to see full-sized XLRs here but in such a small space that was simply not an option. Even speaker cable binding posts are miniature. Those will accept traditional 4mm banana plugs, as well as smaller spades or bare wire that shouldn’t be much thicker than 1.5 mm2 (AWG 16), but I suppose you could fit 2.5 mm2 (AWG 14) if you’re willing to thin out the ends of the wires a bit. To make the amplifier itself this small, Topping decided to put the power supply out of the main unit and inside the fairly big power brick. This approach has both its pros and cons, but that talk would run too deep and technical for the purpose of this write-up.
The front panel is again very simple with two switches and a volume knob. One of the switches is used to turn the unit on and off, while the other one is to select between the two analog inputs. Volume attenuation is done in a very traditional way by using an Alps potentiometer. That’s it, there are no bass or treble controls, digital inputs, subwoofer output, or any other extras. If that’s putting you down, then you should probably look into a different model, but if you’re still here then keep on reading cause there is a positive side to all this.
Power and Gain
If you were to open any of the online stores offering this amp, probably the first power rating you would see is 140 Watts. While not exactly a lie, this is a power that PA5 can give when connected to a 4 Ohm speaker and with a very high distortion of 10%. That kind of power rating can be OK for a cheap micro stack but it’s no way to go for a proper peace of Hi-Fidelity gear. So we’ll stick to the one stating 65 Watts into 8 Ohm with distortion less than 1%. But hey, that’s not bad at all either, it’s actually plenty for most reasonably sensitive speakers. I lived most of my audiophile life with similarly rated amps. Up until recently, I was using a Hegel H90 amplifier that offers 60W per channel.
Another part of the story is gain. I’m not sure if everybody knows this but gain is measured in decibels, and it tells you how much will the amp amplify the signal you feed it with. In the case of Topping PA5, we’re talking about the rather modest number of 19 dB. Now add to that the fact that the rated sensitivity of its analog inputs is 5 Volts (some DACs output 5V but most will provide 4V) and you’ll get to the conclusion that some pairing attention is needed to get the best out of this little guy. But I’ll talk a little bit more about this in the pairing section.
To put it simply, Topping PA5 is a respectable performer. It didn’t take much to notice how capable it is when it comes to detail retrieval. Tiny details in the recording are easily noticeable, for example, a singer taking a breath in front of the microphone, background percussions, etc. This character is equally present throughout the whole frequency spectrum. The bassline is disciplined, striking with intent, and never losing grip over a note. Move to the upper bass and nothing changes, it’s very tidy and texture retrieval is quite admirable too. Midrange simply continues in a similar fashion, offering clear and crisp edges. Instruments sound present and well defined, vocals too. Listening to one of my favorite singers – Leonard Cohen – I could really appreciate the way that amplifier handles his chesty but raspy vocal. At no time did PA5 add excessive lispiness or robbed it of its natural fullness, but it didn’t add any warmth or make it sound euphonic either. This is basically the way that PA5 deals with every tone – informative, present, well-textured – but if you’re looking for any sort of warmth, euphony, or sweetness, better keep looking because you won’t find it here.
Moving away from the tonality and to the soundstage, things are good. Topping PA5 develops a decently spacious and airy soundstage. Instruments are well separated and nicely layered, secured into their positions on the soundstage without ever overlapping and suffocating each other. The depth of the soundstage is very well presented, and if a recording was made inside of some sort of hall or church, you’ll hear those deep echoes quite nicely. While audiophiles with very capable amplifiers might feel that this should be a given, this quality is not that often achieved with gear of this price. Take any traditional, big brand amp of 300-400USD and you’re probably going to hear just a rough idea of the positioning inside of the soundstage, with instruments being hazy and not as nearly well defined and pinpointed. But I’ll talk more about it in the comparison section.
Finally, talking about dynamics and slam, a small PA5 doesn’t disappoint, it’s a fast-paced, lively sounding amp for sure. The bassline is more on the nimble and fast side of things so sheer slam and punch are not the strongest suits of this amp. Truth be told, it’s not that any other amp at this price point is doing much better on this front. Overall energy and dynamics are just fine, and simply in line with what you can expect from a reasonably powered sixty watts amplifier.
All of the above taken into the account, I believe that Topping PA5 will be on its best behavior if paired with slightly fuller and juicier sounding speakers of a decent sensitivity. Wharfdale’s offering comes to mind, for example. Most KEFs from the Q series would be a nice match too. I would however avoid dry-sounding speakers such as Monitor Audio because I believe that would sound too dry and analytical for most listeners.
Finally, talking about the sheer power, I feel there’s enough of it even with low-sensitivity speakers if you don’t expect party-level volumes. For example, using PA5 with KEF LS50 that’s just 85 dB in sensitivity and likes to be driven hard, provided a very decent experience. Most of the time I had all the juice I could wish for normal listening levels in my 4.4 by 7 meters room (15 by 23 feet). But just occasionally I stumbled upon some sort of classical music peace with a very low average recording volume that made me crank the PA5 almost to the max. Bear in mind that I was using a DAC with 4 Volts output, and that’s why I strongly recommend using a DAC with balanced outs. Any sort of single-ended to balanced adapters would leave you with half of the signal and maybe leave you wanted for more gain than this amplifier can provide.
SMSL DA-9 is another dirty cheap but very capable little amplifier. It offers a somewhat warmer and fuller bassline, but with less control and authority. PA5 sounds tidier but a bit drier in that upper bass section. Topping sounds more present and crisp in the midrange too, with somewhat better separation and layering. I do feel that Topping has an edge when it comes to the overall sonic performance but SMSL counters that with more features, so you do get a remote, tone controls, both balanced and single-ended inputs… and all of that at a lower price point. Not an easy choice.
NAD D3020 V2 is slightly more expensive but packs an integrated DAC, phono input, sub out, remote, and bass boost. So speaking about features, NAD takes this fight easily. But when it comes to the sheer sound fidelity, Topping is in a league of its own. Yes, it is definitely much drier sounding and the contrast is even bigger because of the NAD’s overly warm and dark presentation. But tonality aside, PA5 is a much more precise tool that follows rhythm on a dime and digs details that would simply melt and be lost with NAD. PA5 is also capable of such fine layering and pinpointing of every instrument that NAD can’t even come close to arranging such a precise soundstage.
Hegel H90 is a much bigger amplifier with the whole digital section and a streamer of a really high quilty. So here I’ll just focus on its analog amplification section for the sake of putting PA5’s performance into perspective. These two amps are on roughly the same level. Hegel sounds tonally smoother and calmer, with the soundstage laid back behind the speakers. Topping is more forward and aggressive, especially in the midrange. It’s not as smooth and liquid sounding as Hegel but it can sound livelier and as if it can retrieve even more tone texture. I don’t think that either of these is inherently superior. Preferring one or the other tonality would come down to your own preference, as well as matching with the rest of your system.
Topping PA5 is a peculiar product and as such it’s certainly not for everyone. The lack of remote control and single-ended inputs will alienate some people for sure. But if paired with care, this amplifier can provide sonic fidelity that surpasses most of its big brand’s peers at this price point. So if getting the highest possible sound fidelity at the lowest price possible is a priority, and you don’t care much about missing features, Topping PA5 comes highly recommended.
Update: The score was readjusted to lower values due to the SMSL A300 arrival.
|TOPPING PA5 – CHARACTERISTICS|