The current popularity of the integrated amplifier is unquestioned. This component category has risen in the esteem of audiophiles over the last decade and more, even as it has grown in complexity. On average, integrated amps can now do more than ever before. In fact, if a 2018 integrated doesn’t have at least a built-in digital-to-analog converter, it breaks with current convention. Streaming options, onboard storage for music files, wireless connectivity -- these and more appear on the lists of features of many of today’s integrateds.
T+A Elektroakustik’s mighty PA 3100 HV, a beautifully built assault on the state of the art of integrated amplifiers ($23,500 USD), doesn’t include such features. In terms of connectivity, it could be thought of as more similar to audio separates than the average DAC-integrated-streamer-whatever -- it eschews functions that T+A feels are better handled by other boxes in your system. The PA 3100 HV focuses on preamplifying and amplifying, period.
T+A is a German powerhouse of a company that seems able to engineer any type of audio product imaginable, from all-in-ones to speakers to high-end separates. T+A -- the letters stand for Theory and Application -- is based in Herford, Germany, and relies on in-house engineering for their wide range of products. In fact, on their website T+A proudly states that they are scientists, and that their collaboration with universities and technical colleges is part of the design process for their products. T+A doesn’t seem to shy away from technically complex products. This is proven by the fact that they actually manufacture the disc transport of their PDP 3000 HV SACD/CD player with DSD/PCM DAC -- a feat few high-end companies have accomplished.
T+A’s mission statement discusses quality, not low cost, of manufacturing, making it clear that the company’s goal is to produce the best products an audiophile can buy, not design to a specific price. Their product offerings comprise several lines of different price ranges, the HV series being top dog. I figured that was a great place for me to dive in.
The PA 3100 HV is neatly tucked into a largish (18.1”W x 6.7”H x 18.1”D) case -- its 84-pound weight makes it a substantial chunk of a component, to say the least. Available in finishes of Silver or Titanium, the PA 3100 HV is dominated by the large sheet of glass inset into its massive, 40mm-thick front panel, which is milled from solid aluminum. The power “button” -- T+A calls it a zero-wear sensor -- appears to be projected onto the glass panel from behind. Part of the vacuum-fluorescent display, it powers up the unit with direct contact from your finger -- a slick, um, touch. The screen displays all sorts of information, including the chosen input, volume level, and, at the bottom, the power output on two illuminated meters. The meters’ needles indicate wattage from 0.1W to 1000W, and decibels from -10dB to 30dB.
Two large knobs flank the glass panel, the right controlling volume, the left source. These knobs are attached to “precision incremental encoders running in needle roller bearings,” according to T+A, and were a joy to use, with subtle but satisfying feedback when turned. The control of volume is accomplished with discrete precision resistors and gold-contact relays, to ensure accuracy. Another zero-wear sensor on the right, opposite the power sensor, lets you enter the menu system to adjust various settings.
On the rear panel, four pairs of inputs on single-ended RCA jacks are repeated on pairs of balanced XLR jacks, plus two more pairs of RCAs without corresponding XLRs, one pair labeled Phono and assignable to an optional MM or MC phono stage ($1600). Input 4 can be configured as a surround-sound pass-through. Also included are Recorder in and out jacks, and one pair each of RCA and XLR preamplifier outputs. T+A offers optional room-correction and tone controls via their Audio Processing Module, or APM ($2900) -- the room correction, I’m told, is a proprietary T+A design, but my sample was not outfitted with it. Along the bottom of the rear panel, at left and right, are two sets of five-way binding posts with plastic wingnuts, for Speakers A and B; there’s also a LAN connector for home-automation systems. There are two Ethernet jacks, one labeled LAN, the other labeled HLink. There are also a Trigger In jack, a Power Link, a ground post, and the IEC power inlet.
Heatsinks run from front to back on each side, their ends concealed by the overlapping front and rear panels, to create a nice, clean look. The top panel has an inset circular glass panel that lets you peer in at the circuitry. Trust me -- many manufacturers would not want you to look inside their products, but T+A is rightly proud of the incredibly neat, precise layout of their circuit boards, which are almost entirely devoid of wiring.
The front panel’s power-output meters barely moved during my listening, perhaps attributable to the fact that the PA 3100 HV is anchored by a massive 1000VA toroidal transformer backed by 120,000µF of filter capacitance. The PA 3100 HV is specified to deliver 300Wpc into 8 ohms or 500Wpc into 4 ohms, with respective peak power ratings of 380Wpc or 700Wpc. The optional PS 3000 HV power supply ($13,500) has an 1800W transformer for even better control of difficult-to-drive speakers, and its size and weight are identical to the integrated’s. The PA 3100 HV is remotely controlled with T+A’s all-metal F3001 infrared handset.
The build quality is quite something. T+A obviously has their manufacturing and quality control down to, as they would say, a science: I could find no flaws in the finish or assembly of the PA 3100 HV. Its polish and sophistication are in direct opposition to the usual boutique nature of high-end audio.
My system was set up perfectly for the insertion of an integrated amplifier: the T+A PA 3100 HV arrived hot on the heels of the McIntosh Laboratory MA9000 integrated-DAC. Just for kicks, T+A had also sent along their DAC 8 DSD digital-to-analog converter, but I followed good reviewer protocol: I began my listening with the PA 3100 HV paired with Hegel Music Systems’ HD30 -- a superfine-sounding DAC I’d been listening to for several months -- so that I could fully familiarize myself with the T+A’s sound before inserting another variable in my system. Speakers were Raidho Acoustics’ XT-5s, which also spent time with the McIntosh, and all was wired up with the Siltech Explorer-series interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords I’ve been using for years. The PA 3100 HV sat firmly on a granite slab smack-dab between the speakers in my listening room, the Music Vault. There were no setup problems of any kind, and once I’d installed batteries (not included) in the T+A’s chunky remote, I was ready to roll.
The first quality I heard in the sound of the PA 3100 HV was solidity. The midbass was particularly taut and punchy. Coming directly from the McIntosh MA9000 -- an amplifier whose bass and midbass are, by comparison, rounder and more flowing -- this was an unexpected result. In my review of the MA9000, I’d written that its bass was “firm and athletic.” But the T+A’s bass was firmer still -- it hit harder, started and stopped quicker, sounded more controlled, and gave the impression of holding the Raidhos’ woofers in a super-tight-fisted grip.
The Imagine Dragons + Khalid’s single “Thunder/Young Dumb & Broke” (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, KidinaKorner/Interscope/Tidal) begins with taut-sounding bass beats. The PA 3100 HV made these thumping beats more physically imposing than I’m used to, and my room felt more energized by the bass energy. Listening to the T+A gave an impression of power -- the PA 3100 HV sounded strong. The more I listened to bass-heavy music, the more I realized that the T+A sounded more like a superb power amplifier well-matched to a superb preamp than like an integrated amplifier. The substantial nature of its power delivery, punctuated by the absolute control it exerted over the Raidhos’ woofers, gave me the impression that the T+A could easily deliver its specified peak power rating of 380Wpc, plus some.
The more I listened to the PA 3100 HV, the more I realized that it was delivering sound unlike anything I’d ever heard from an integrated amplifier. There was an overall tonal density, with more vivid images on the soundstage, than I heard from the original Devialet D-Premier ($15,995, discontinued), for instance. That French integrated sounded wispier and airier -- holographic, even -- whereas the T+A produced sound that was more like something you could physically reach out and grab: as I said at the beginning, its strongest suit was solidity. Voices sprang from solid images of singers’ faces on the soundstage, as opposed to notes floating out of nowhere. The sparse-sounding “I’ll Still Sing Your Praises,” from Hannah Read’s Way Out I’ll Wander (16/44.1 FLAC, Hudson/Tidal), sounded truthful and forthright, which supported a performance that I would describe the same way. I could hear deep into Read’s singing -- she “appeared” just to right of center and half a foot behind the plane described by the speakers’ baffles. It was easy to hear her inhalations and her slightly strained, fragile delivery of the high notes. The T+A was easily capable of delivering the low-level details present in this recording, but was also adept at painting a nicely landscaped soundstage, and reproducing palpable images within it. Again, the word that kept coming to mind was solid.
“I Walk the Line,” from the Bad Plus’s It’s Hard (16/44.1 FLAC, Okeh/Tidal), sounded particularly rhythmic, the percussion’s finer points reproduced without blurring. Ethan Iverson’s piano notes were tonally dense -- particularly the left-hand notes -- while the subtle dynamic shifts of his playing were tracked beautifully by the T+A, and thus more easily heard. The PA 3100 HV didn’t miss the forest for the trees -- all of the finer details were reproduced with no loss of perspective on the biggest parts of the music. I don’t think you’d hear the T+A and think resolution monster, as some might describe a Devialet amp, but there was no veiling of any of the details I know to be present on the recordings I listened to. Nor was there any artificiality in the T+A’s reproduction of music: Whatever I played, I felt I was hearing, first and foremost, the body of the recording intact. This made music sound real, not reproduced.
Hans Zimmer’s Live in Prague (16/44.1 FLAC, Eagle Rock Entertainment/Tidal) produced some fine performances, none more touching than “Aurora,” from his music for The Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films, which includes a spoken introduction by Zimmer, in large part about director Christopher Nolan. Through the T+A, Zimmer’s voice sounded tangibly real in front of me, even as it was surrounded by the atmospheric sounds of the instruments. I could sense the acoustic space in the Music Vault expand as the track continued, especially when the percussion becomes the focal point at 5:20 in. The decay of the drums rolled from front to back through my room, finally fading out somewhere behind me in a beautifully rendered decay. At this point, the soundstage was as deep and as complete as any I’ve heard in the Music Vault.
This is purely subjective on my part, but here’s who I think this product is ideal for. The guy or gal who buys a PA 3100 HV has decided to go the integrated-amp route, but doesn’t want everything integrated into that one box. Perhaps he or she has a DAC and/or phono stage, and/or maybe a music server, or maybe just wants to leave the door open for future experiments with various source components. The PA 3100 HV buyer wants the feel -- big, simple to use, analog -- of separates, along with some of the compactness of an integrated. Last, the owner of this beast doesn’t want to compromise on sound quality one bit. If that sounds like you, the PA 3100 HV could be your ticket.
The T+A Elektroakustik PA 3100 HV is an integrated amplifier that entails none of the compromises usually associated with integrateds. First, the price is no compromise. At $23,500, the PA 3100 HV is one of the most expensive integrated amplifiers I’ve ever had in my system. Unless you’re coming from some really expensive separates, it’s not going to save you any cash -- you could easily get a superb preamplifier and stereo power amplifier for the same money. You’re also going to need a separate DAC -- unlike so many integrateds these days, the T+A doesn’t come with one. It’s also pretty big and heavy -- owning one won’t save you much space.
But that’s kind of the point of the PA 3100 HV. It doesn’t pretend to be an all-in-one integrated amp designed for those of you who are downsizing to small. In fact, many owners of separates will be upsizing by buying a PA 3100 HV. Nor does it sound compromised. You’ll get the solidity of sound and impressive power delivery of good separates, all in a package that exudes German engineering quality: properly sorted features, slick ergonomics, stunning build quality.
Not only did I really enjoy my time with the PA 3100 HV -- I could easily envision my no-compromise self living with one long term. I bet you’d feel the same way.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Raidho Acoustics XT-5
- DAC-integrated amplifiers -- Devialet D-Premier, McIntosh Laboratory MA9000
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Sierra 10.12.6, Roon, Tidal streaming; Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player
- Cables -- Siltech Explorer interconnects, speaker cables, power cords
T+A Elektroakustik PA 3100 HV Integrated Amplifier
Price: $23,500 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
T+A Elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG
Phone: +49 (0) 5221-7676-0
Fax: +49 (0) 5221-7676-76