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Adcom GFA-535 ii listening review or: Never meet your heroes

77Bacon

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#1
So, this is is sort of a listening review followed by a couple questions because I’m new to mid-fi gear. If you can help out with the questions I’d appreciate it.

I recently picked up a GFA-535ii off the Bay and did some critical listening for about 4 hours last night. Until last night, I was planning to complete it with a GFP-565 or maybe a GFP-710 but now I don’t think so.

My setup is what for most of you is likely a 2nd or 3rd system. Its in an apartment I live in during the week due to a long-term work assignment away from home. It consists of a Onkyo A-9010 integrated amp, a vintage Sansui TU-717 tuner and a pair of Revel M105 speakers that I’ve been running for about 4 months, so I’m sure they are broken in. Music source is provided by an iPhone and the little Apple D/A converter dongle running on a long RCA patch cord to the RCA inputs on the 9010. Music is all stuff you can listen to in an apartment! Current favorite is vocals and piano stuff.



The Revels are set at ear level and I have found they make a really good sound stage. They sound the best pulled out from the back wall about 2-3 feet and seem to open up more the further out they are. I have a mini DSP that I wanted to incorporate into this setup, so the plan was to take advantage of the processor loops on the vintage Adcom stuff and go that way.

I’ve read all the usual stuff about preamplifiers and how important they are, and the “straight wire with gain”. Well I thought I had that beat to no end, because I just ran the RCA feeds from my iPhone right into the back of the Adcom. No preamplifier at all, literally just a wire. I was expecting something at least as nice as my Onkyo A-9010 but no.

I ran my listening tests with the tone controls bypassed on the 9010. Don’t get me wrong the 535 was dead quiet to my ears and powerful. Sounded good for a stereo. But compared to the 9010, the 535 sound was soft with a much flatter sound stage. There was a sort of radio sound to vocals and piano that removed some of the enchantment. It tended to make most music sound similar and in recordings with a lot of texture, the fine details that bring amazement with ‘how did they think this up or mix this’ impressions were not there. Not a lot of magic happening. Here is some of what I listened to and the differences:

At Last by Etta James. On the 535 it just sounded like an old song on the 9010 you could really get an idea of what made her great like you could listen through and past the age of the recording. Not fun on the 535.

Someone to watch over by Linda Ronstadt. The 535 impressed me as sort of smooth in that details were not pushed hard, but this softness and lack of detail removed the delight in really getting into these vocals. Sexy on the 9010 if not stunning thinking this is a female vocalist from the “old days”

Crazy by Daniela Andrade. This song is magic on the 9010 between the strumming guitar, and when she starts to sing its so close miked and the sounds are so well defined and separated the impression is she’s maybe performing in the room and these are the monitors, like a live performance at a bar. No magic on the 535 just sounds great.

Time to say goodbye by Bocelli. On the 535 it sounds like a cliché on the 9010 all the texture is there and can give you goosebumps.

Wave by Beck. This is the perfect song to shows the loss of texture, space and fine detail on the 535. On the 9010 you can just get lost in this song and wonder how it was put together and what decisions were made and there is none of this fascination with the 535, just good sound.

I hate you, I love you (featuring Olivia Obrien) explicit: Sounds great on the 535, but on the 9010 everything is so distinct and separated it sounds like there are different speakers for the piano, the vocals, and the percussion.

Don’t know why by Norah Jones. Sounds great on the 535 but on the 9010 there’s complete separation of everything and the piano just glows.

Caribbean Blue by Enya. Like Wave by Beck another recording that shows how the 535 just obscures the fine texture that for me on the 9010 captures my attention and makes me look for the source and just wonder how it was put together.

Stay with me by Miki Kuroki. On the 9010 this showcases a production of extremely high quality and you find yourself listening harder to pick up details and delighting when you find them, on the 535 just sounds fine.

I read through the specifications for both amplifiers and don’t see what would drive the great texture and open sound of the 9010 over the 535. I’m mildly amused to find I’ve turned into one of the people that can hear differences between amplifiers. Until I experienced it firsthand it’s just something I read about and wondered if its real or just conceit.

I think the 535 sounds good and that’s it. I have to agree with the Stereophile review by Corey Greenberg, the 535 is a no. Its disappointing because Adcom stuff is something I’ve wanted to try for some time.

So I know this was long but I’ve got 2 questions that hopefully you guys and gals can help me out with:
  • Do you think that me running my RCA feed directly into the back of the 535 with NO preamplifier, somehow degraded the sound? And that it would somehow sound better with a matching Adcom preamplifier due to some reason involving impedances or what the amp was expecting at its inputs? But I can’t imagine how adding a preamp to the 535 would be electronically cleaner than literally a straight wire with no electronics in the path whatsoever.

  • What’s the step up from the Onkyo A-9010, a Marantz? I’d still like to find something with a processor loop so I can play with my MiniDSP, but I’m having second thoughts on that plus no modern amps come with processor loops. Also I’m aware of tubes, tube rolling, tube sound don’t want to get into that yet.
Thanks,

Bacon
 
Last edited:

IowAudio

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#2
I was the same way with the Sony SS-M7A speakers. Wanted a pair since I was a kid. Finally got a set and liked my budget Sony CS5 more.... Kinda the same when I spent $700 on the Emotiva PT-100 preamp and A300 amp. They didn't sound any better than my $100 used Marantz SR4021 and miniDSP HD just more powerful. I got to listen to a Adcom 5400 not to long ago that was for sale buy a local. It did sound good but wasn't going to be an improvement over my Marantz so I passed. Also a lot of Adcom gear is getting pretty old and I'm not interested in repairs. It doesn't surprise me you weren't blown away. Your iphone may not be enough. Try using your misiDSP as a preamp and control gain in Windows. If you decide to keep the Adcom you will need a preamp of some sort. Could also be something wrong with the Adcom.
 

b1daly

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#3
So, this is is sort of a listening review followed by a couple questions because I’m new to mid-fi gear. If you can help out with the questions I’d appreciate it.

I recently picked up a GFA-535ii off the Bay and did some critical listening for about 4 hours last night. Until last night, I was planning to complete it with a GFP-565 or maybe a GFP-710 but now I don’t think so.

My setup is what for most of you is likely a 2nd or 3rd system. Its in an apartment I live in during the week due to a long-term work assignment away from home. It consists of a Onkyo A-9010 integrated amp, a vintage Sansui TU-717 tuner and a pair of Revel M105 speakers that I’ve been running for about 4 months, so I’m sure they are broken in. Music source is provided by an iPhone and the little Apple D/A converter dongle running on a long RCA patch cord to the RCA inputs on the 9010. Music is all stuff you can listen to in an apartment! Current favorite is vocals and piano stuff.



The Revels are set at ear level and I have found they make a really good sound stage. They sound the best pulled out from the back wall about 2-3 feet and seem to open up more the further out they are. I have a mini DSP that I wanted to incorporate into this setup, so the plan was to take advantage of the processor loops on the vintage Adcom stuff and go that way.

I’ve read all the usual stuff about preamplifiers and how important they are, and the “straight wire with gain”. Well I thought I had that beat to no end, because I just ran the RCA feeds from my iPhone right into the back of the Adcom. No preamplifier at all, literally just a wire. I was expecting something at least as nice as my Onkyo A-9010 but no.

I ran my listening tests with the tone controls bypassed on the 9010. Don’t get me wrong the 535 was dead quiet to my ears and powerful. Sounded good for a stereo. But compared to the 9010, the 535 sound was soft with a much flatter sound stage. There was a sort of radio sound to vocals and piano that removed some of the enchantment. It tended to make most music sound similar and in recordings with a lot of texture, the fine details that bring amazement with ‘how did they think this up or mix this’ impressions were not there. Not a lot of magic happening. Here is some of what I listened to and the differences:

At Last by Etta James. On the 535 it just sounded like an old song on the 9010 you could really get an idea of what made her great like you could listen through and past the age of the recording. Not fun on the 535.

Someone to watch over by Linda Ronstadt. The 535 impressed me as sort of smooth in that details were not pushed hard, but this softness and lack of detail removed the delight in really getting into these vocals. Sexy on the 9010 if not stunning thinking this is a female vocalist from the “old days”

Crazy by Daniela Andrade. This song is magic on the 9010 between the strumming guitar, and when she starts to sing its so close miked and the sounds are so well defined and separated the impression is she’s maybe performing in the room and these are the monitors, like a live performance at a bar. No magic on the 535 just sounds great.

Time to say goodbye by Bocelli. On the 535 it sounds like a cliché on the 9010 all the texture is there and can give you goosebumps.

Wave by Beck. This is the perfect song to shows the loss of texture, space and fine detail on the 535. On the 9010 you can just get lost in this song and wonder how it was put together and what decisions were made and there is none of this fascination with the 535, just good sound.

I hate you, I love you (featuring Olivia Obrien) explicit: Sounds great on the 535, but on the 9010 everything is so distinct and separated it sounds like there are different speakers for the piano, the vocals, and the percussion.

Don’t know why by Norah Jones. Sounds great on the 535 but on the 9010 there’s complete separation of everything and the piano just glows.

Caribbean Blue by Enya. Like Wave by Beck another recording that shows how the 535 just obscures the fine texture that for me on the 9010 captures my attention and makes me look for the source and just wonder how it was put together.

Stay with me by Miki Kuroki. On the 9010 this showcases a production of extremely high quality and you find yourself listening harder to pick up details and delighting when you find them, on the 535 just sounds fine.

I read through the specifications for both amplifiers and don’t see what would drive the great texture and open sound of the 9010 over the 535. I’m mildly amused to find I’ve turned into one of the people that can hear differences between amplifiers. Until I experienced it firsthand it’s just something I read about and wondered if its real or just conceit.

I think the 535 sounds good and that’s it. I have to agree with the Stereophile review by Corey Greenberg, the 535 is a no. Its disappointing because Adcom stuff is something I’ve wanted to try for some time.

So I know this was long but I’ve got 2 questions that hopefully you guys and gals can help me out with:
  • Do you think that me running my RCA feed directly into the back of the 535 with NO preamplifier, somehow degraded the sound? And that it would somehow sound better with a matching Adcom preamplifier due to some reason involving impedances or what the amp was expecting at its inputs? But I can’t imagine how adding a preamp to the 535 would be electronically cleaner than literally a straight wire with no electronics in the path whatsoever.

  • What’s the step up from the Onkyo A-9010, a Marantz? I’d still like to find something with a processor loop so I can play with my MiniDSP, but I’m having second thoughts on that plus no modern amps come with processor loops. Also I’m aware of tubes, tube rolling, tube sound don’t want to get into that yet.
Thanks,

Bacon
There are several reasons that could explain your experience:

- the adcom is old and not performing to spec
- sighted testing, no matter how much you think you can be objective, you can't, at the very least you must match level precisely and have a quick way to make the switch to compare sounds, the perceptual difference that various psychological bias can impart is huge (and it doesn't alway go the way you 'expect')
- there might be some kind of signal processing going on in your A-9010 you missed
- you have the left right speakers switched on one amp
- polarity of one speaker switched
- I think it's unlikely running your iphone to the adcom is responsible for any sound degradation, however having a real volume control has a profound impact on subject experience of how an amp sounds, again you must carefully equalize levels to compare

FWIW, it is unlikely you will find an amp that 'sounds better' than your Onkyo. If you are happy with features and power there is no reason to switch.
 

SIY

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#4
There are several reasons that could explain your experience:

- the adcom is old and not performing to spec
- sighted testing, no matter how much you think you can be objective, you can't, at the very least you must match level precisely and have a quick way to make the switch to compare sounds, the perceptual difference that various psychological bias can impart is huge (and it doesn't alway go the way you 'expect')
- there might be some kind of signal processing going on in your A-9010 you missed
- you have the left right speakers switched on one amp
- polarity of one speaker switched
- I think it's unlikely running your iphone to the adcom is responsible for any sound degradation, however having a real volume control has a profound impact on subject experience of how an amp sounds, again you must carefully equalize levels to compare

FWIW, it is unlikely you will find an amp that 'sounds better' than your Onkyo. If you are happy with features and power there is no reason to switch.
This.

One other point, though- if the OP is using the iPhone, he may want to check the file formats. iTunes, for example, seems to use a lossy compression. It's not night and day different than uncompressed, but it's not totally transparent, either.
 
OP
7

77Bacon

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Thread Starter #5
There are several reasons that could explain your experience:

- the adcom is old and not performing to spec
- sighted testing, no matter how much you think you can be objective, you can't, at the very least you must match level precisely and have a quick way to make the switch to compare sounds, the perceptual difference that various psychological bias can impart is huge (and it doesn't alway go the way you 'expect')
- there might be some kind of signal processing going on in your A-9010 you missed
- you have the left right speakers switched on one amp
- polarity of one speaker switched
- I think it's unlikely running your iphone to the adcom is responsible for any sound degradation, however having a real volume control has a profound impact on subject experience of how an amp sounds, again you must carefully equalize levels to compare

FWIW, it is unlikely you will find an amp that 'sounds better' than your Onkyo. If you are happy with features and power there is no reason to switch.
The Adcom may indeed be old and not performing due to that alone. I can omit testing bias and basic connection errors, unless the bias works in reverse too because I was expecting the Adcom to sound at least as good. I also had the 9010 set in bypass mode (tone controls). I thought running with no preamp at all would be ideal in terms of reduction of degradation of the signal, but the Adcom just did not bring any sense of wonder to the program material. What was reduced to me was the execution of fine details and just the sort of smoothness and sense of space to the sound. I mean it was clearly, for a critical listener anyway, a step backwards and it was pretty clear after several songs.

What started me on the sound quality topic wasn't even an amplifier. I was jonesing for a vintage tuner and when I had my two besties in front of me, a Sansui TU-717 and a Yamaha T-2 there was a big difference. The 717 was easily the better of the two, same issues like separation, sense of space, soundstage but at a level where my wife could agree the 717 was better after only some time listening.

I'm also thinking the differences might be the result of the system that is the amp plus the speakers connected. I understand that amps will change their responses based on the connected load and maybe the Adcom does not pair well with the Revels.
 
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OP
7

77Bacon

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Thread Starter #6
This.

One other point, though- if the OP is using the iPhone, he may want to check the file formats. iTunes, for example, seems to use a lossy compression. It's not night and day different than uncompressed, but it's not totally transparent, either.
I'm not familiar with digital formats, but I'm using Amazon HD as the app on the Iphone. On that topic, I've tried to tell the difference between the standard formats and the HD versions and cannot.
 
OP
7

77Bacon

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Thread Starter #7
So as a side bar to this topic I picked up a Proton A-1150 and spent several hours listening to that last night, run directly by the Iphone as before, same favorite recordings and Revel 105. This amp absolutely killed the Adcom in terms of SQ and seemed like a warmer sound than the 9010, its seemed like it was controlling bass better at any volume. It also seemed to have much better channel separation than the 9010 which had me spending all morning looking up crosstalk specifications on both. I am really not sure if there was any difference to the 9010 in terms of the space or soundstage, but in some parts it sounded ever so slightly not smooth, so I ordered a pair of the speaker protection relays and will replace those, their 30 year old contacts might be dirty and adding some distortion. It was definitely a different sound again than the 9010 I have to spend more time listening to it to know if its a keeper. The giant VU meters are a bonus!
 
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