Reference 220 Mono Amplifiers
In the macho world of audiophiles,
nothing qualifies you as a "he-man" hi-fi nut like owning separates. And among
people who own separates, the manliest of men own monoblocks. That's right, two separate
power amps -- unless, of course, you want to really pile heavy metal on metal and bi- or
tri-amp with four or even six monoblocks. This is why some audiophiles have more amps
stacked in their listening rooms than Hendrix had on stage at the Meriwether Post
Pavillion when I saw him back in '69.
In case you're wondering, there is a good reason for the
popularity of monoblock amplifiers among discerning audiophiles -- beyond testosterone
overload, that is.
Monoblocks actually offer superior performance compared to
most stereo amplifiers -- I'm qualifying that statement because a few high-end
manufacturers build stereo amplifiers that are essentially two monoblocks sharing only a
chassis. That said, most stereo amplifiers share circuit elements between the channels. As
a result, there's a small amount of leakage from one channel to the other. This is called
crosstalk. Even when it is practically unmeasurable, it prevents the pure signal from each
channel from being reproduced with perfect clarity. Low-level detail is obscured.
Soundstaging, as a result, seems truncated. Images are neither as sharp nor as deep as
they are when the channels are completely separated.
In addition, when the two channels share a power supply, it
limits the amount of current that can be delivered to both channels upon demand. With
monoblocks, each channel has its own power supply and can draw as much current from it as
it can deliver.
There are obvious drawbacks to this approach, of course.
Monoblocks require twice the chassis, twice the parts count, and take up twice the space.
They cost more. They have to.
But dedicated audiophiles in search of ever-increasing
amounts of resolution are more than willing to put up with these "minor"
inconveniences and, frequently, the performance of their systems is its own best argument.
But I wonder if B&K hasn't made a misstep in its 250W
Reference 220. Oh, it has the requisite butch mass and heft of your high-end monoblock.
And it has high-quality parts. What it lacks is a stratospheric price tag. At $1298 per
channel, a pair of 220s costs about the same as many high-end stereo amps. Do
audiophiles have the perspective to appreciate a pair of monoblocks that almost anybody
Her body is homogeneal and proportional
The 220 certainly looks like the high-priced
monoblocks. It's large (17"W x 15.5"D x 5.75" H) and is as solid as a
brick. It has massive toroidal transformers, capable of delivering heavy doses of current.
It utilizes 1% metal-film resistors and "computer grade" capacitors. It employs
discrete circuits, with a class A pre-driver and a class AB MOSFET output stage.
Its front panel is essentially featureless, sporting only a
discrete power button and a red LED power indicator. The rear panel, by contrast, seems
packed with options. The 220 will accept either balanced XLR or single-ended RCA inputs --
actually, there are two RCA inputs (the one labeled channel 3 is used for normal
operation!) -- and there is an input selector switch. The unit can be turned on and off
with a 12V trigger, and it has both input and output 3.5mm mini-jack connectors for daisy
chaining components to the control trigger. There's a switch that activates the amp's
sensitivity to the trigger. When it's engaged, you can't turn the amp on or off with the
front panel power button -- as I discovered to my discomfiture when setting up the system.
There are also two sets of speaker
binding posts on the rear. Once again, the one labeled "Channel 3" is for normal
operation, although the manual notes you can use the one labeled "Channel 1" to
operate another speaker in parallel. (There is no "Channel 2" connection.)
Other than the cryptic "Channel 3" connections,
there's nothing unusual about setting up and operating the 220 -- as long as you
properly set both the RCA/XLR and trigger selectors on the rear panel. Forget about
these switches at your own peril. Let my frustration save you a step.
There is music wherever there is a harmony, order or
When you consider that the last couple of amps that have
graced my system have been the Krell FPB-300c and the Niro Power Engine ST (and briefly
the Ayre V5), it almost seems unfair to the 220 to place it into the same system for
audition. Be that as it may, the B&Ks weren't too embarrassed by the competition.
There were differences aplenty amongst them all, but the B&Ks delivered genuine,
full-range, refined high-end performance.
In fact, I've just rearranged my listening room so that my
sweet spot is no longer in the near-field, but is now about twice as far away from the
speakers as it used to be. This has changed the way I play the hi-fi, of course. Before, I
merely needed to energize my near-field position, now I tend to energize the room -- a
task the Dynaudio Evidence Temptations are more than up to, if properly driven.
And properly driven they are, when powered by the 200Ms.
Looking for blood, I pulled out my standby trance fave, A Touch of Cloth [Tritone
T001] by Fila Brazillia. This disc features some of the most subterranean synthesized bass
I've ever experienced (heard isn't quite the word), so I reckoned it would test the
220's current reserves, especially when played at stupid-loud levels.
The room shuddered and flexed like a crystal goblet when
you run your thumb around the rim. I cued up "Trivia." WHHHHMMMMRRRROOARRR,
CDs leapt off my shelves, stacks of books fell over, the
cat hid in the closet. I giggled with glee -- and racked my brain for some more woofer
busters. Dafös. Check. Also Sprach Zarathustra. Check. The Phantom of
the Opera -- hey wait a minute! I have my limits, even in the throes of deep-bass
Let's just say that, when it comes to reproducing
astonishingly deep bass -- even in congested recordings -- the B&K 220 can clearly
play with the big boys.
But the 220s aren't heavy-handed or otherwise colored.
Having just received The Penguin Café Orchestra's four-CD A History [Virgin
PCOBOX1], I've become fascinated by the whimsy and wit behind Simon Jeffes' music. These
remastered discs have impeccable sound. The instruments have an audio verité
naturalness that's the perfect analog to the honest, self-deprecating nature of the music.
I am most familiar with the PCO's first recording, which
was made on a budget of Ł870 for Brian Eno's Obscure label back in 1975, so I was quite
unprepared for the sheer breadth of Jeffes' musical interests, not to mention how
accomplished the band became in the years following that introductory performance. Of
course, that album's "Giles Farnaby's Dream" -- which melded a motif by the
Elizabethan virginalist to a shuffling Venezuelan dance (with the lead played on strummed
Quattro, no less) -- should have prepared me for almost anything.
But Jeffes wrote lovely salon music, stately waltzes,
passionate tangos, a piece for dial tone and rubber band, a John Cage memorial which set a
canon based on the notes C-A-G-E over a piano playing D-E-A-D, and -- my personal favorite
-- a snappy little melody played by drops of water falling into glasses filled to
That's an incredible range of sounds and music, and the
B&K 220s were capable of reproducing every microtone and microdynamic. And they placed
the sounds within a soundstage with phenomenal precision. The theory proved correct in
this case. These monoblocks are soundstaging wonders.
They don't sacrifice pace for brawn either. Playing the
Persuasions' Street Corner Symphony [Collectibles Col-5235], the system not only
put the band between the Dynaudios, it had them jammin'. The high point of the
album, as far as I'm concerned, is "Tempt's Jam," a medley of "Don't Look
Back," "Runaway Child, Running Wild," and "Cloud Nine." As Jerry
Lawson wails over Jimmy Hayes' hyperarticulate bass singing, the other Persuasions tease
and chase, call and respond with the lead tenor. It's a vocal tour de force and
about as passionate and compelling as music gets. In other words, it rocks.
And the B&Ks neither thickened it nor smoothed it out.
They delivered it raw -- and real.
How sour music is, when time is broke, and no proportion
The natural question is, if the B&K is all that good,
does it put the Krell to shame? In a word, no.
The Krell FPB-300c remained completely unflappable no
matter what sort of ridiculous demands I put upon it. Chanticleer's new recording of John
Tavener's Lamentations and Praises [Tedec Classics 0927-41342-2] is a phenomenal
recording -- one that places unexpected demands upon an amplifier. Essentially a series of
vignettes based on the concept of a sequence of ikons depicting the events of the
resurrection, the recording utilizes different-sounding spaces to convey the different
You can hear deep into this recording, and this revealed
the first difference between the Krell and the B&K. While no one would call the
B&K noisy, it has a level of steady-state noise deep, deep down that the Krell just
simply doesn't have. This was audible if I played recordings at stupid-loud volumes on the
hyper-revealing Dynaudio Evidence Temptations. However, it made itself evident at lower
volumes through the Krell's increased sense of inner detail and definition. I just
couldn't get the same level of detail from the B&Ks.
Preamplifiers: Ayre K1x, Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS, Krell KCT
CD players/transports: Krell KPS-28c, Sony CDP CX-400, Musical
D/A converters: Bel Canto DAC1; Perpetual Technologies P-3A
Power amplifiers: Krell FPB-300c
Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Evidence Temptation
Cables: AudioTruth Midnight, DiMarzio M-Path interconnect,
AudioQuest Dragon, DiMarzio M-Path, DiMarzio Super M-Path speaker cable, Illuminations
Orchid digital cable, Kimber KCAG
Accessories: Osar Selway Audio Racks, AudioQuest Big Feet
and Little Feet, Vibrapods, Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra 116
Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps, Slim Jims, Bass Traps
In addition, during the section called
"Golgotha: The Descent From the Cross," there's the sound of some sort of
metallophone being struck. It's not a chime or a tubular bell or anything like that -- it
sounds like a piece of plate steel being sharply struck with a sledge. It's a meaty thwack!
drenched in overtones that, when I listened at extreme loudness, totally discombobulated
the B&K's power supply. I couldn't repeat this with the Krell at any level that didn't
put the Dynaudio woofers at severe risk.
Now that requires a few disclaimers. First, I discovered
this when listening to the Tavener at an extremely high volume -- one I would never
normally consider rational, although there are many people who listen at volumes I
can't believe. And, of course, the Krell, at 300Wpc, is rated at 50 watts more than the
B&K's 250 watts.
But, in truth, there were other sonic differences as
well. String sound, like that of the violins in the Penguin Café Orchestra, was lighter
and brighter on the Krell. The B&K didn't sound dark or thick, but it ever-so-slightly
blended the string attack with the overtone. This "micro-smear" was not a huge
deal, but it was observable.
The alteration of motion is ever proportional to the
motive force impressed
Would you care, assuming you never A/B'ed the two? How can
I judge for you? The $10,000 amplifier doesn't sound the same as the $2600 monoblock pair.
Some audiophiles can't stand knowing that somewhere out there there's a product better
than the one they own. They'd buy the Krell in a heartbeat and who am I to say they're
wrong? That kind of obsessive drive is what produces landmark products like the Krells in
the first place.
But not all of us have the money to indulge that level of
connoisseurship. And some audiophiles have the money, but look for other values in their
audio gear. Who's to say they're wrong?
The B&K 220 monoblock offers true high-end, extremely
musical performance at a price that makes it accessible to hordes of audiophiles who
couldn't even begin to consider the most rarified reference products. The fact that you
can get better performance if you're willing to pay for it in no way diminishes what
B&K has accomplished here. In fact, it puts it into perspective.
And you know what they say. Perspective is everything.
B&K Reference 220 Mono Amplifiers
Price: $1298 USD each
Warranty: Five years parts and labor
B&K Components, Ltd.
2100 Old Union Road
Buffalo, NY 14227
Phone: (800) 543-5252 or (716) 656-0026