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Integrated amplifier + anti-vibration rack

 

Bakoon Products
AMP-12R + RCK11

Manufacturer: Bakoon Products International
Price (in Poland): 25 900 zł (with rack and separate power supply)

Contact:
B1 1022-4 Unjung-dong | Bundang-gu, Seongnam-si Gyeonggi-do | 463-440 Korea
tel.: +82-70-8677-5513 | fax: +82-31-706-5513
e-mail: info@bakoonproducts.com

Country of origin: South Korea
www.bakoonproducts.com


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ittle over a year ago Wojtek started his review of Bakoon's AMP-11R with a quote form manufacturer's website, that read: "The design goal of the AMP-11R is to be a world best high-end compact amplifier." A year passed and I received a new model AMP-12R that replaced AMP-11R in Bakoons range. Does it mean that this bold declaration in the quote above was false, or lost its meaning? Absolutely not. It means that Bakoon's designers created the best product they could a year ago, the product was highly acclaimed but these guys worked hard to make it even better. A drive towards perfection is one of the best attitudes audio (and not only audio) designer could have. A „perfection” in this case should be understood as a sound reproduction as close to original performance as only possible, Yes, it will never be perfect, that can't be done, but people driven but an urge to achieve it will never stop looking for the way of improving their designs, and that's an obvious benefit for us – users of their devices and music lovers. Such an attitude seems to be even more important when it comes to a small/medium size company usually run by truly passionate, driven guys who don't have to create designs that fit into predetermined „cost scheme”, which is a case in most large companies. These guys, if they feel that using a particular element improves sound, they simply use it and reflect that in final price. And when they come up with certain number of improvements to previous design they decide to release a new version, or new model that simply sound better than a previous one.


Bakoon doesn't really share any information on improvements implemented in AMP-12R, and by looking at the device or parameters you won't really find any. For me it was even more difficult as I had no chance to listen to nor even to see AMP-11R. So what I can do is to focus on how this device looks like and how it sounds (a little explanation – I finally sent an email to Bakoon asking for information and I received an answer but almost just before sending ready text to my editor, so I added my questions and answers but as a separate part of this text). And it looks great! During last few years more and more Korean companies have been proving that they really know how to make a great looking, perfectly finished casing of aluminum. Examples? Sure, let's bring up Eximus DP1, Stello U3, or Calyx 24/192. When looking at the last two (of those three) and also at Bakoon products you can see some inspiration in Apple products, like miniMAC for example. Is it a bad thing? Not in my book – if you look for inspiration look up to the best, a after you do make sure that you can also do it right, and all these companies really can.
AMP-12R comes in fact as two separate devices, or one device in two casings – power amp makes one and power supply makes second. Both casings look much alike, with the same size, build and finish. Both are carved from solid aluminum blocks, both finished either in silver of black (-ish). Basing on my first hand experience with this device but also with a silver HPA-21, I had a great pleasure to review recently, I know I would definitely go with black (-ish). But that's just me - de gustibus non est disputandum – so some of you prefer silver version. What's important is that there is a choice. I received reviewed unit together with a two-level rack, exactly the same as the one Wojtek reviewed AMP-11R with. This anti-vibration rack is made mostly of aluminum, does its job very well and offers a bonus – a way AMP-12R with its power supply look when placed in it. It's a simple, but well thought out solution that does it's primary job and allows Bakoon devices to occupy a relatively small footprint (as you could build it up, adding more levels for other, future Bakoon products), plus a place to „breathe”, or radiate heat (surely that's more accurate), as there is a lot to radiate. Amplifier that gets quite hot occupies upper level while power supply sits on the lower. They are connected with a short, aggressively red power cable (why the hell red?!). Again – it looks damn good, and weights, surprise, surprise, a lot. Rack sits on solid, large and sharp spikes, so I decided to put them on Franc Accessories Ceramic Discs to avoid have deep holes in my own rack after the test. I was too lazy (and too scared for a well being of my rack) to try whether is sounded better with or without Ceramic Discs, but these had never failed me before whether I had placed them under electronics or speakers, so why would they now?

What hasn't changed for sure (apart from casing), comparing to AMP-11R, is the SATRI circuit, developed years ago by Mr Akira Nagai. It has been already described in details by Srajan and Wojtek in their reviews so I will not go into it again. If you want to know details please refer to one of these two reviews, if you don't need details all you really need to know is that all amplifiers deal with voltage signal while SATRI deals with current signal (even voltage input signal is converted to current one). Another thing that hasn't change is a minimalistic set of inputs and outputs. There are two inputs – one a regular, voltage one (a pair of RCA sockets you can use to connect any source you like), and a second called SATRI-link – a pair of BNC current inputs to be used only with other Bakoon devices (today there is a phonostage, in the near future there should be also a DAC and preamplifier). As for outputs at th back you will find two pairs of solid speakers posts, and on the side of the amplifier there is a headphone output. Long story short – unless you have a Bakoon phonostage for the moment you'll have only one usable input. I know a lot of music lovers that have a single source systems so that wouldn't be a problem for them. As for the rest of us – we need to get used to plugging and unplugging our different sources, and keep hoping for a Bakoon preamplifier :). I guess that limited number of input at least partially came from a small size of this amp (see below, what Mr Soo In Chae has to say about that). Another sign of minimalistic approach of Bakoon designers is a lack of input selector, or should I rather say: lack of a selector we are used to. Of course you can chose which input should be active and you do it using a simple, small toggle switch placed on the back of the device. A volume control wheel is placed horizontally and composed into the casing in the upper, right corner so you might even miss it when checking AMP-12R for the first time. It fits right in there, sports the same color as casing so really not easy to spot. The on/off switch sits on the left side panel, next to the headphone output. It is also a small toggle switch. Power supply is always on, unless you pull plug off from receptacle – but as I already mentioned it's the amp that gets real hot not power supply, so I guess it doesn't really show on electricity bill. Both devices sport a single, yellow LED the lits when they are on. That's it – simple, but good looking piece of equipment. Let's see how it sounds...

Recording used during test (a selection)

  • Beethoven, Symphonie No. 9, Deutsche Grammophon DG 445 503-2, CD/FLAC.
  • Albeniz, Suita Espanola, KIJC 9144, LP.
  • AC/DC, Live, EPIC E2 90553, LP.
  • Patricia Barber, Companion, Premonition/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-45003, 180 g LP.
  • U2, Joshua Tree, UNIVERSAL UNILP75094, 180g, LP.
  • The Ray Brown Trio, Summer Wind, Concord Jazz CCD-4426, CD/FLAC.
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11, EMI Music Poland 5651702, CD/FLAC.
  • Marcus Miller, A night in Monte Carlo, Concord Records B004DURSBC, CD/FLAC.
  • Kermit Ruffins, Livin' a Treme life, Basin Street B001T46TVU, CD/FLAC.
  • Pavarotti, The 50 greatest tracks, Decca 478 5944, CD/FLAC.
  • Wycliff Gordon, Dreams of New Orleans, Chesky B0090PX4U4, CD/FLAC.
  • Leontyne Price, The complete collection of operatic recital albums, RCA Red Seal, 88697940512, CD/FLAC.
  • Arne Domnerus, Jazz at the Pawnshop, Proprius/First Impression Music 012-013, XRCD.

Looking for any information about differences between AMP-12R and its predecessor on manufacturer's website all I found was just a general note about some improvements implemented in AMP-12R, but no more specific information was to be found. Even parameters of both amplifiers seemed identical. All I could do was to ask, so I send an email to Bakoon as it reads below:

MD: My name is Marek Dyba and currently I'm preparing a review of your AMP 12R amplifier for HighFidelity.pl magazine. Would it be a problem for you to let me know what kind of changes/improvements comparing it too AMP 11R have you introduced? I found no information on the subject on your webpage so your answer would be of great help.

SIC: My name is Soo In Chae and I’m the managing director of Bakoon Products International. Thank you for your email and your effort on AMP-12R review. I hope it is working well with your setup and you are enjoying it. The AMP-12R’s biggest performance upgrade from the previous 11R is due to its completely new bias circuit. The new circuit controls the MOSFET pair simultaneously and achieves far more stability and linearity over the previous circuit, resulting more precision and details in sound.

MD: Another question I have to ask since there are these "current" inputs - how is the work on your DAC coming? These current inputs make sense only if one has also a source with current output. For now using only one input (I mean the regular RCA one) can simply be not enough for many people even though your amplifier offers a great performance.

SIC: For the SATRI-Link (or current input), we currently have the EQA-12R but we do plan to introduce more models, such as DAC and preamplifier (although we cannot guarantee if they would come sooner due to some other new development items). The AMP-12R is actually a “gain controllable” power amplifier, hence the limited numbers of input connectors.

MD: One more question - are you planning a new rack for AMP12R? The one you offered for AMP11R is on your webpage now in the archive section. So will there be a new one, or you decided that it wasn't necessary for AMP12?

SIC: The same rack (RCK-11) comes standard with the AMP-12R. We just removed it from the product list as we won’t offer them as a separate product.


Let's be honest AMP-12R is not a powerful beast that can drive any speakers. What you get is 15W per channel so you need to chose your speakers carefully. I guess that is why a Polish distributor of Bakoon set this amplifier up with Austrian Trenner&Friedl high efficiency speakers (and with fantastic Lumin as a digital source), which worked really well. I listened to it with my Bastianis Matternorn speakers as well as with Amphion Argon 7L. The latter I've been using for the last couple of months and grew to know and love them. A sensitivity of these speakers is quite high at 93 dB, so with it obviously quite speaker friendly impedance curve these nice boxes make good partners even for low power tube amplifiers. That is why I could use them also in my listening sessions of Sugden IA-4 and also Bakoon AMP-12R as an alternative for 100 dB Matterhorns. Well, in fact I liked 7L with Bakoon so much that I used this setup for most of the time. Both setups looked bit... curious (let's put it that way) as a small, tiny even 20x20x4 cm amplifier drove large floorstanding speakers.... Matterhorns are really huge boxes, and nobody would call Argon 7L small so there was a huge size contrast that changed into totally different story once music started to flow... . But before I get to sound impressions, there was one more thing I was worried about. My trusted LessLoss speaker cables are quite heavy so each time I have to use them with such a small, not so heavy device I need to be extra careful not to let them drag amplifier down of the rack (yeah, that happened once and never again!). So it happened more than once that I had to improvise to keep amp from falling of the rack. This time, as I mentioned before, regardless of small footprint, these two devices placed in heavy rack put enough weight to keep them steadily in place regardless the cables I plugged in. I faced another small problem though while trying to connect my speaker cable with spades. It would have been so much easier if the speakers posts were bit longer to stick out outside back edge of the rack. Use cable terminated with bananas and you won't have any problem, of course, but spades and stiff cables are signs of serious trouble. That is the only thing I might humbly suggest Bakoon's designers to think about – maybe there is something they could do about it. Surely there will be some guys complaining about lack of remote control, but hey – that's for your won good! No remote forces you to move at least once in a while instead of spending several hours in a comfortable chair.

Finally I started to listen. First impression – it got really quiet around. I just made sure I was comfortable enough in my chair (yeah, I like it comfortable too) and a moment later I forgot about the whole world going for my trip to the wonderful music world. Actually I started with one of the latest purchases – a RCA Red Label 10 CD box with recordings of my favorite Leontyne Price. I loved this deep, rich and powerful voice, this time shown quite close to me creating an immediate connection on emotional level. Even though this time I listened via speakers it reminded me a lot what I experienced recently when started an audition of HPA-21, a Bakoon's headphone amplifier perfectly matched with Sennheiser's HD800 (using current output). It was a totally different musical world from almost anything I had known before, which made it quite difficult to assess it using standard categories. What music lover would be able to assess bass, mids or treble while admiring wonderful Leontyne Price as a fiery gypsy in Carmen, or while witnessing how she was able to build an intense drama pointing listeners to the tragedy to come at the end, and all that just with her incredible voice? Would you really want to consider a timbre, or a texture of a voice of unforgettable Luciano Pavarotti while, with a smile on his face, he sings: O sole mio?! Or while you can „see” seriousness, fear and hope on his face when singing Nessun dorma from Turandot? There is no way you could when listening to that presented by Bakoon's AMP-12R. You just sit there trying not to lose any second of this wonderful performance as, on subconscious level, you fear that this is just one time experience. Obviously all you need to do is hit „replay”, but that's reasonable thinking that doesn't really work during first audition. You know what they say – you never forget the first time... (yes, I'm still talking about listening to the music). While listening to the same piece of music for a second or third time you know what to expect so while this is still an amazing experience it is not that intense as during the first time even if now you can probably spot some other elements of the performance that you haven't during first time. So I did the only thing I could think of – I played more and more recordings, acting bit like an adrenalin junky who needs a new rush over and over again. It took me a while to satisfy that rush and when I finally did I could start to try to analyze what I had heard. Vocals, meaning midrange obviously, were impressively rich, detailed, smooth and palpable. There was one more feature of the sound (not just midrange) that really stood out – its clarity and transparency – this might have been the key to the uniqueness of this performance. Bakoon presented both texture and timbre of voices in a very natural, yet detailed way. There was this, as I call it, „human element” in each and every voice – that's something that makes voices sound real, authentic, that creates a bond between vocalist and listener, that makes us believe that we listen to a blood and flesh person. Let me one more time point out to my experience with HPA-21 – my perception of this close contact was similar even though then I listened via headphones and now via speakers. Both devices surprised me as, to be honest, I don't really expect such an intense, emotional experience when auditioning solid-states device, that's something that very good SET amplifiers usually give me. So I have to express my respect for Bakoon designers as they achieved that with SATRI circuit and MOSFET transistors. That's one of the things I love about audio world – it always has some surprises for me hidden up its sleeve.


In above mentioned recordings of Leontyne Price and Luciano Pavarotti they were, of course, accompanied by orchestras These might have played in the background but still played an important role. Bakoon, with both pairs of quite efficient speakers, was fully capable of delivering, in some scale of course, dynamics of an orchestra, even sudden changes of it, moving from a full scale forte to sudden piano and so on. What was very important was how detailed the sound still was even at the low levels. In an operatic music orchestra isn't really laid out in the space very well, but when I switched to Beethoven's IX, conducted by Boehm it all changed. Now there were rows, group of instruments nicely placed in both width and depth of the soundstage. Clarity of the sound and a very good resolution and selectivity Bakoon delivered allowed me to follow any chosen group of instruments, investigate timbre of strings or brass whenever I liked.

Important thing was a very fluid, harmonic combined presentation of all instruments that allowed to perceive the orchestra as a one, huge instrument playing wonderful music in sync. It sounded truly mighty when needed at forte, but quite gently when it came to pianissimo. This particular recording of the IX symphony is conducted in a quite a fast pace and it's very dynamic, which made me like it so much but also made it a good testing material for amplifiers and speakers. AMP-12R passed this test smoothly which was kind of surprise considering its limited output power.

After my initial experience with Bakoon presenting vocals I already knew it would deal with acoustic music with similar grace and class. It's mostly about midrange so if you hear amplifier playing vocals very nicely it will (almost always) play acoustic guitar, violin, or saxophone equally well. One of the recordings I used during Sugden IA-4 review was famous Jazz at the Pawnshop, so while having this experience freshly in my memory I decided to play the same record again. It was already clear for me that while I truly like both amps very much, AMP-12R and IA-4 offered different sonic characteristics. The former delivered very even frequency characteristic, without much ups or downs, the latter based on a powerful, deep bass and a very dense midrange that combined created an impression of slightly darker sound. So I wondered how would Bakoon make vibes sound, as I truly enjoyed the very rich, dense but still vibrant sound that British integrated delivered. Just as expected this time it sounded bit different, not that dense, but with slightly faster and more powerful attack and it ... well, for the lack of better word, it shined, glittered more. Wycliffe Gordon's trombone had a life-like „body”, a deep, powerful tone with a proper tad of harshness a brass should have. Kermit Ruffin's trumpet sounded in a similar, yet „lighter” way – very lively, sometimes smooth as silk that in a split of second turned into a razor almost hurting my ears. No matter how big the band, as long as recording allowed, Bakoon precisely placed each instrument in a particular place on stage, nicely defining which ones are closer, and which further away from listener. The only thing I might still wish for it to do was to add that amazing holographic imaging of each sound source that only best SET amplifiers are capable of. Bakoon left no space for doubts about which instrument stands where, what size is it of. It showed it as a 3D image but not as precisely shaped as, for example, Kondo Souga was capable of delivering. But hey! That's where our imagination come in – just close your eyes, and let your brain work. With that much information delivered our own personal computer will produce a very nice, precise image of the whole band.
While I didn't want to give up acoustic music just yet, I also wanted to hear more fire, more energy, than most such recordings provide. There is probably no better way of doing that than just playing some acoustic heavy metal, as Rodrigo u Gabriela call their music themselves. Yup, there was a fire, there were tones of energy, and amazing dynamics just for two acoustic guitars. Bakoon delivered a proper mixture of strings and wood and spiced it up with proper speed and explosive dynamics. And while AMP-12R does not offer such a heavy, rich bass as Sugden does, pace & rhythm are still it's clear assets. And it worked not only in acoustic music. Australian veterans from AC/DC who followed Mexican duet, overflowed me with their incredible, never ending supply of energy, crazy pace, fantastic guitar playing and so on. Oh, I had a lot of fun delivered by 15W amp! What made a difference between those two amplifiers was not really bass extension, as it was very good in both cases, but how rich, how „heavy” the lowest notes were. Sugden simply placed more weight even to the lowest bass, while Bakoon focused rather on mid- and upper-bass. To be clear – when listening to the music that didn't bother me at all. Not even when listening to Ray Brown's or Isao Suzuki's double basses – there was very nice timbre, there was wood, dynamics, details on macro and micro scale – everything I expected was there even if this very, very low bass notes in Aquamarine were only heard and not felt.


As I reviewed fantastic HPA-21 headamp shortly before AMP-12R I didn't really spend much time this time using headphone output. I simply loved HPA-21 with Sennheiser HD800 – that was a perfect match, but also with my Audeze LCD3 it was a very, very good setup (although I felt there was no such a ideal synergy as with HD800). As first of all AMP12-R was primarily an amplifier for speakers, and secondly I did not have HD800 anymore (which I expected also here to be the best match) I gave a headphone output only a short try, to find out it again sounded very good with LCD3. But if you have Audeze cans don't let me stop you for trying them with Bakoon amps – many people love such setup, and also these two companies (together with wonderful Klutz headphone stand) offer their products as a system, so no doubts that is a nicely matched setup. It delivers a rich, detail, rhythmically involving sound, with low, punchy bass, dense, smooth, colorful midrange, and quite impressive spacing. The only thing that stopped me from calling this setup a perfect one was lack of something that for example Schiit Mjolnir, or Sugden HA-4 did, as these two amps shed some light into the upper end of frequency range. I tired to explain that when reviewing Mjolnir – it is not about amp being bright in the upper end, not about making cans sound brighter. I compared it with photography – the more light you shed on the object the more details come out of shadows, to more you see, but it doesn't blind you, as simple brightness could. And it seems that both Bakoons lack this one thing for me to called them a perfect match for Audeze cans, at least from my perspective. After this short listening session with LCD3 I think it is safe to say, that headphone output of AMP-12R is: 1. a very good one; 2. similar in sonic characteristic to HPA-21; 3. not so far behind HPA-21 in terms of performance. And you need to remember that what you buy is an amplifier for your speakers and a great headphone output is just a welcomed bonus. Most of AMP-12R will never look for a separate head-amplifier.

Summary

Listening to various recordings I tried to catch Bakoon red-handed, so to speak, trying to color the sound I knew very well, change it in any way, but I failed. That was my impression from the very beginning – an amazing clarity and purity of the sound, playing exactly what comes from input, at least as far as the amp was capable of providing (vide lowest bass). This means that AMP-12R also differentiates recording very well, showing upsides and downsides of each of them. It is not highly analytical, doesn't point out those downsides of particular recording for you, but it doesn't hide them either. So even if it come to listening to some poorer recording it might still be acceptable as long as music itself is likable and involving letting you forget about „technicalities”. When it comes to high quality recordings it's your choice whether you want to study it in tiniest details, or just let the music flow take you away with it. And let me tell you that it is easy to let Bakoon charm you with the beauty of the music it plays, with palpability of the presentation, with real emotional connection with musicians and vocalists. It's an amazing performer – all you have to do it let it do its job by setting it up with some efficient speakers.

AMP-12R, as Mr Soo In Chae explained, is not really an integrated amplifier, not in common understanding anyway. It is a power amp with gain control. It seems to look exactly like its predecessor, AMP-11R. It sports an external power supply, and is delivered together with a two-shelf, anti-vibration rack. Power supply sits on the lower shelf, while amp sits on the upper one. Power from one to the other is transferred with a red cable with solid multi-pin plugs. Twin casings for amp and power supply were both carved from aluminum blocks and both sport a metal bottom fixed with screws. A volume control is a horizontally placed, metal wheel, sitting in the upper right front corner of the device. A space for it was carved in the aluminum body of the casing so that it is not so easy to spot, as the wheel fits right in it. It would be nice if there was some scale next to the wheel making it easier to set required volume. It could be placed in the top, next to the wheel, maybe in a yellow color (like company's logo placed on the front) – that should look nice, and be useful. Fronts of both, amp and power supply, apart from already mentioned logo, sport one yellow LED. As the power supply is always on (unless you pull out the plug) also the LED is permanently on. As for amp, LED is on when amp is turned on. A tiny on/off switch sits on the side of the amplifier, next to the headphone output (for 6,3mm jack). On the back there are solid speakers posts from Cardas, one „regular” (meaning voltage) input (RCA) and one SATRI-link ( current input with BNC sockets). Between them there is another tiny switch operating as simple input selector. SATRI-link might be used only to connect another Bakoon device with proper output. For now there is a EQA-12R phonostage, but in the near future company is going to offer also a D/A converter and preamplifier with current outputs. Inside looks quite similar to the one of AMP-11R reviewed by Wojtek – a very similar circuit with a large main PCB with smaller ones with SATRI circuit and impressive, separate power supply. What what I learned from Bakoon the main difference is a new bias circuit. The new circuit controls the MOSFET pair simultaneously and achieves far more stability and linearity over the previous circuit, resulting more precision and details in sound.

Technical specification (according to manufacturer):

Maximum power output: 15 W (8 Ω, 1 kHz)
Gain: 20 dB (max)
Frequency response: 10 Hz - 1 MHz (gain at + 10 dB) Inputs: 1 x SATRI-LINK (BNC, current input) + 1 x RCA (voltage input) Input impedance: 3,68 Ω (SATRI-LINK) | 100 kΩ (RCA)
Outputs: 5 way Cardas binding post | 6,35 mm headphone output
Signal/Noise ratio < 50 μV (gain at + 0 dB)
DC Offset: < 1 mV
Power consumption: 20 W (idle) | 50 W (max)
Dimensions: 195 mm (W) x 195 mm (D) x 40,5 mm (H)
Weight: 6,4 kg

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