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Topping PA3: subjective impressions

SEKLEM

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#1
This is a subjective review of the Topping PA3. I’m doing it on my phone so it will be rather brief and not overly breathy. I bought the PA3 on eBay a few weeks ago as a placeholder for another amplifier I was using for a near field, bedside setup. It’s been in use there with a DX3 Pro and Peachtree DS4.5 speakers. Today I compared the PA3 to one of my tried and true B&K amplifiers with Vandersteen 2Ce Signature speakers. I do live in an apartment so I contend with some levels of ambient noise. I do not have any measurement equipment so these are my subjective impressions. I recognize my ears and brain are not reliable implements to give an accurate assessment of performance, so take what I say with large grains of salt.

For those who haven’t seen some of these desktop amplifiers and DACs, they are unbelievably small. Stock photos from the manufacturers don’t make this apparent since they don’t have anything in the pictures for scale.

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The diminutive chassis is half the length of the Onkyo CR-325. The Onkyo is what I would consider to be small, the Topping is tiny! There’s a small catch of course, the external power supply, which is almost the same size as the PA3. For those that are curious, the power supply is 32v 5.5amps.

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The sound. It sounds like it should. It doesn’t seem to impart some erroneous character on the material I listen to with it in the near field setup. It does have an audible hiss at the speakers, but it’s not disruptive with the low efficiency Peachtree DS4.5s.

Today I had time after work to setup my one man control A/B amp switch to do some amplifier comparisons. I level matched as best as possible by ear. In this case turning the gain on the PA3 to max appeared to be matched to the B&K 125.2 amplifier I’ve been using in a setup to run Vandersteen 2Ce Sigs. This is a sighted A/B comparison done with a rather rudimentary setup that consists of a Sima SSW-L4EX speaker/amplifier switch. This unit has impedance matching and output is limited by this unit. I used a Y split pair of single male to dual female to feed each amplifier with equal type and length of shielded RCA cables. I used spare bare wire I have around, the lengths weren’t even, however the lengths between the switch and the two amplifiers used in this evaluation were under 1ft. The runs to the speakers are equal in length at 7ft.

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With the amplifiers switched on and the preamplifier off the B&K noise to speakers was imperceptible to my ear. I attribute that to the relatively low efficiency of the 2Ce Sigs (86dB). Switching to the PA3 I can now hear a hiss, but it is not audible from my seated position with ambient noise. The hiss is very minor for me, but if you have high efficiency speakers and listen near field this may be a point of contention for you.

I’ve been listening to Kimbra’s album Primal Heart lately so I used it primarily for the duration of my tests. Kimbra’s vocals are prominent and present a strong phantom center on the track Everybody Knows. The bass in this track is also heavy and there’s a variety of different tones and patterns. There’s also a nice “space” to this track with the reverb in the vocals. It’s probably not a reference recording, but it’s not wrought with clipping and has some dynamic range.

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Using the A/B switch on the Sima I switched back and forth between the B&K and the PA3 while listening. I don’t have to stop the music or change anything, it instantly switches from one to the other. At my typical levels of output I was unable to discern any notable differences. I did push it a little further momentarily with the PA3 to see if I could get it to distort audibly, but no such luck (or is that a good thing?). The PA3 wasn’t “etched” or dry compared to the B&K, nor the bass lean. It just sounded like it seemed it should to me.

This isn’t very climactic, but I don’t know what to really say. I expected it to wimp out powering these larger, somewhat power hungry speakers. Maybe I just don’t listen loud enough to need the extra power.

Just for yucks I hooked up the Onkyo CR-325 and level matched by ear. Taking it to the same levels I was getting audible clipping. The Onkyo is a class A/B design which the specs state does “28 watts RMS”. Why not 25 watts? Why not 30 watts? Meh. It could be more like the Sony desktop amp Amir tested earlier this week and only capable of mustering 10 watts.

In any case, an amplifier this small and this inexpensive has no business sounding this good.

I’d recommend it if you can live without remote functionality, having only two analog inputs, and don’t have Klipsch horn speakers.

Edit: one small note. There’s something inside the amp that makes a noise when I set the amp down with any force at all. I have to very gently set the amp down in order to avoid this noise occurring, which I can only describe as a spring type sound that dings the chassis.
 
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SEKLEM

SEKLEM

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Thread Starter #2
I’m going to go back and redo some of my evaluation this evening using the DX3 Pro as my preamp instead of my undisclosed preamp, provided I have time. The preamp I used in my assessment is probably the weakest link in my setup from a performance perspective. Eventually I’ll be upgrading to some sort of active parametric EQ to get full control of the frequency response and adjust to my preference.
 

Xulonn

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#3
Agree about the PA3 - it is a superb little amplifier - and I'm guessing that if Amir ever tests one, it will be far superior to the $195 Topping TP60 Tripath TA2022 50wpc mini amplifier he tested not long ago - and could not recommend. (I live in Panama, and power outages, sags and surges - inclugin lightning - are frequent, and I fried my first PA3, and bought a replacement one "Used- Like new" for $65 via Amazon.)

Before Amir bought and tested the TP60 and I received my PA3, I started a thread about the two amps here as ASR - LINK

I use my PA3 with an SMSL Sanskrit 6th DAC and a pair of Paradigm Atom v6 bookshelf speakers. The sound is excellent, and although the speakers have limited LF response, acoustic bass on jazz recordings is clean and clear in my tiny " kitchen/living room.

My "on-the-way" ICEpower 100wpc amp modules will sit in a much bigger and heavier Ghent Audio case, but I expect the "improvement" in sound will be minimal. I really could not justify my pending upgrade based on pure logic and my budget, but after a lifetime of "playing" with budget and mid-priced audio, I couldn't help myself. (And I will find out if I can still solder wires in audio gear properly and neatly!)
 
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SEKLEM

SEKLEM

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Agree about the PA3 - it is a superb little amplifier - and I'm guessing that if Amir ever tests one, it will be far superior to the $195 Topping TP60 Tripath TA2022 50wpc mini amplifier he tested not long ago - and could not recommend. (I live in Panama, and power outages, sags and surges - inclugin lightning - are frequent, and I fried my first PA3, and bought a replacement one "Used- Like new" for $65 via Amazon.)
The measurements Topping provided you seemed to show they were basically neck and neck with a slight power advantage to the TP60 and it's worth noting the unit shut down before it could reach 1% THD with a 4 ohm load. I've been running the little amp on some 6 ohm speakers without any signs of stress, but I don't listen very loud, so it probably doesn't tell us much.

The MX3 uses the same TDA7498E chip as the PA3, however the power supply for the MX3 is 24v 3.75a and the MX3 also has more functionality with a DAC and bluetooth receiver housed in the same chassis. That almost certainly was the limiting factor in measured output on Amir's bench. The PA3's larger power supply (32v 5.5a) explains the results @ 8 ohms that Topping sent to you.
 
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SEKLEM

SEKLEM

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Thread Starter #5
I replaced the preamplifier with a Topping DX3 Pro and the results were essentially the same. If there is an audible difference, it was indiscernible to me.

Again, I live in an apartment and there is some ambient noise. I may not be as discerning as others when it comes to picking out the nano details in a comparison such as this. I’d chance very few of us would given the circumstances.

I’ve done a few A/B comparisons with a similar method and the only amp I’ve compared that has a noted sonic difference that I’ve done is the Sony TA-N9000ES pictured at the top of the thread. I had two of these and each sounded different from the other amplifiers I compared them to.

I did press it a bit harder today. Gradually increasing level I got the readout to -7.0 on the DX3 Pro when I noticed clipping. The output level was much louder than I like to listen 99.99% of the time. Switching back to the B&K at the same output and then some, no audible distortion, just to be sure the clipping was not a fault of the DX3 Pro.

The PA3 continues to impress. However, I’ll probably stop torturing it for now.

For what it’s worth, I recommend this amplifier based on my short period of experience with it. Be aware that Topping has had some reports with reliability with recent products, but I don’t know if it’s worth worrying yourself over.
 
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#6
old PA3 user here, and i say old for a reason.

As far as this amplifier is quite nice given it's price tag, i find that the audible hiss is a main issue, especially on a nearfield/desktop environment.
I don't know the actual price in US, i think it may be floating around 99-119$, but for a little more you can get something better.

at 129$ you can put your hands on an Allo Volt+Double. You still have to buy a PSU for it but even a simple notebook power unit will do the job just fine. This amp is certainly less powerful than the PA3. it's power rating is between 40 and 60W depending on the voltage applied (between 19 and 24V) and accept only one source.
But this amp is clearly better on every sound aspect. it is way more silent than the topping, i had 3 class D chi-fi amplifiers (smsl sa-50, topping pa3 and smsl ad18) and this one is the most quiet, barely udible hiss, you have to slam your ear against your speaker to hear something resembling an hiss.
Also is the most detailed amp ever heard. i never experienced a sound so clear and crispy, way better than the PA3.

In the end the PA3 is not a bad amp but surely is not a diamond in the coal.
 

GGroch

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#7
Seklem, thanks for your thorough and interesting subjective review of the PA3. I would love to see Amir measure both the PA3 and the Allo. I can find no reviews with any measurements on either.

Others have mentioned the soft hiss on the PA3 as being bothersome or not depending on speaker efficiency. It appears to be due to Toppings choice of relatively high amp gain...someone said 29 dB on Xulonn's linked (and recommended) thread I think. The fact you hear clipping with the DX3 Pro still 7dB down seems to confirm that.

The Allo has a high/low gain switch which is nice. But, I see nothing in Texas Instrument's specs of the TPA3118D2 that would make it noticeably more detailed or way better than the TPA7489E in the PA3. The Allo seems to be very similar to TI's evaluation board. I like Allos transparency ;) that lets you see it.

I have never seen a photo of the PA3 board. My guess is that the case must be difficult to open. The ringing you hear when you set it down is probably from air core coils, perhaps hitting the case. The Indeed TPA7489E amp I reference in Zulonn's thread mounts the coils horizontally and uses lots of goop to lessen that, but I do not think it makes a difference in use.
 
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#8
the only measurements you can find about the Volt are on the original Volt+ model, as for the Double they only say that it is a little better because of the dual mono configuration.
i can confirm the 29dB gain on the PA3 and my seller found the hiss too with a random new unit.

as for the qualities of the allo's amp i think it resides in the quality of the build itself that may result in a much cleaner output. maybe just the fact that the board has higher quality components and that everything is not cramped on a little PCB (just the PCB of the allo+double has the size of a PA3 amp) may be the reason of the cleaner sound
 

tktran303

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#9
Also is the most detailed amp ever heard. i never experienced a sound so clear and crispy, way better than the PA3.
Whenever I hear comments like this, ie. extra detail, crispy etc, I wonder what kind of special effects or artifacts the amplifier is exhibiting.
 
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#10
It is simply exhibiting a better output, less distorted with the instrumental separation being represented in a better way.
Do not mistake personal subjective preferences with objective qualitative description.
 

GGroch

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.....Do not mistake personal subjective preferences with objective qualitative description.
HAH! Nicely put....I will have to remember that line the next time someone dares to question my subjective views on anything;)

If the Allo Amps are closely based on TI's Evaluation Boards, (this guy who got one free says they are) then you are right, it is unlikely that what you are hearing is effects or artifacts. The purpose of these boards is to demonstrate the accuracy & power of the chip. So they are, as you say, made with better components and with a well thought out layout.

But, of course the only scientifically objective qualitative listening happens in double blind tests. Seklem has done everything possible in his review to be objective....but he rightly titles the thread subjective, because there is no blind test involved. Two Thumbs Up for that.

I think we can conclude that there is more audible hiss on the PA3 than there is on some other TPA7489E amps (I cannot hear hiss on my Indeed Amp). But, as you said in one of your earlier posts...this is usually a design choice made to make it appear an amp is more powerful in subjective comparisons.

So, I really hope Amirm does further testing of inexpensive amps...and also reviews a typical eBay or other inexpensive retail amp with an amp using or based on the evaluation board of the same chip. I recently built a class D amplifier using amp and power supply boards from 3e Audio based on the TPA3255 evaluation board (because of this article). I also own the cheap retail FX Audio FX502Pro from the same chip family. I hear absolutely no hiss or hum, there is no turn on/off thump, and I have noticed no anomalies on my new amp. Sounds great. But I have not compared the two objectively in a blind test yet.

My proud father photo below :D
Amp4.jpg
 
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Xulonn

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#12
Although they perform well in my system an a very small room with Paradigm Atom v6 monitors, I've had two PA3 amplifiers die on me in the past few months, but haven't finished diagnosis on either one yet. (Need to figuring out how to open the case and look for loose connections, etc. - simply loosening the screws did not work)

Since I live in a remote region of Western Panama where the electric grid is not reliable and thuderstorm are common, I use an AVG (automatic voltage regulator) and good quality surge protection, so surges and sags should not be a problem. My 10-year old Trends Audio Tripath amp - an early example of the modern mini-amp - is in my desktop system, and runs without AVR and has had no problems.

With the excellent reputation for performance of Topping products, I am quite disappointed. I'm back to using my SMSL Q5 Pro for now until I get the rest of the parts to assemble my Ghent/ICEpower balanced amp which will be fed by a Topping DX7s DAC - and I hope that more expensive Topping product has better reliability than the PA3.
 
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SEKLEM

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Thread Starter #13
Although they perform well in my system an a very small room with Paradigm Atom v6 monitors, I've had two PA3 amplifiers die on me in the past few months, but haven't finished diagnosis on either one yet. (Need to figuring out how to open the case and look for loose connections, etc. - simply loosening the screws did not work)

Since I live in a remote region of Western Panama where the electric grid is not reliable and thuderstorm are common, I use an AVG (automatic voltage regulator) and good quality surge protection, so surges and sags should not be a problem. My 10-year old Trends Audio Tripath amp - an early example of the modern mini-amp - is in my desktop system, and runs without AVR and has had no problems.

With the excellent reputation for performance of Topping products, I am quite disappointed. I'm back to using my SMSL Q5 Pro for now until I get the rest of the parts to assemble my Ghent/ICEpower balanced amp which will be fed by a Topping DX7s DAC - and I hope that more expensive Topping product has better reliability than the PA3.
Perhaps the fault is with your AVG? The PA3 I’m using is second hand and I haven’t experienced any problems with mine yet.
 

Xulonn

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Perhaps the fault is with your AVG? The PA3 I’m using is second hand and I haven’t experienced any problems with mine yet.
Not likely - no problems with my other electronics. Just because I had two fail doesn't mean we should expect all of them to fail.

If one lives in the US where shipping is easy, cheap and fast, it's easy to return and otherwise deal with. But it would cost me over $30 to shop to the USA and pay for return forwarding. As I said, my old Trends Audio mini amp has been extremely reliable, and two PA3's have failed.
 
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SEKLEM

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Not likely - no problems with my other electronics. Just because I had two fail doesn't mean we should expect all of them to fail.

If one lives in the US where shipping is easy, cheap and fast, it's easy to return and otherwise deal with. But it would cost me over $30 to shop to the USA and pay for return forwarding. As I said, my old Trends Audio mini amp has been extremely reliable, and two PA3's have failed.
I’ll hold out hope that was a fluke then.
 
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#16
I recently got the DX3Pro, running in my living room setup. I would like to move it to my bedroom, and was looking for a smaller, decently priced amp. Obviously, I was thinking of getting the PA3. Would it be powerful enough to drive e.g. the Monitor Audio Bronze 2? Or do I really need some smaller desktop-like speakers?
 
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SEKLEM

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Thread Starter #17
I recently got the DX3Pro, running in my living room setup. I would like to move it to my bedroom, and was looking for a smaller, decently priced amp. Obviously, I was thinking of getting the PA3. Would it be powerful enough to drive e.g. the Monitor Audio Bronze 2? Or do I really need some smaller desktop-like speakers?
Should be more than adequate, but at 90dB efficiency, you'll hear more hiss than I do.
 
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SEKLEM

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Thanks, I'll have a look at an SMSL SA-50 or SA-98E.
From Amazon

The SMSL SA50 delivers up to 22 Watts into two 4 Ohm stereo speakers at low distortion. It will drive 8 Ohm speakers up to 19 Watts at low distortion. More than that and the amplifier starts clipping which means that distortion shoots up. At 50 Watts the amp produces 10% distortion.
It sounds like the difference in actual power on tap, at least for the SMSL SA-50 will be about 1/4 of the PA3 according to the numbers provided by Topping on Xulonn's thread. The SA-98E appears to be directly competitive with the PA3, in fact they use the same chip I believe, but the power output ratings provided by the manufacturer are at 10-12% THD and no SNR figures are provided, so you could be walking into just as much noise if not more.
 
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