Spec is without competition my favorite class-D amplification. Not only that, let’s just say amplifiers without tubes, that’s how good they are. So when Spec introduce two new models, I dribble at their doorstep. And now they grace Casa Rognlien….
At the same time as they introduce the two models, three of the previous ones leaves the portfolio. Most importantly, my own beloved RSA M3EX is now history, superseded by the all new RSA M99. That leaves three integrated Real Sound Amplifiers (RSA); the new 777EX, the M99 and the top model F33EX. The latter was an ear opener of epic dimensions, my own M3 is also way up there, but still can’t convey the magic from the top model. So the question is how these new models fare, compared to both the ultimate solution, and those who have been left behind…
First I need to address a phenomenon that I guess will put some people off, since the marketing strategy in the house of Spec seems to have taken a rather strange turn somewhere. I’ll quote from their home page:
An amplifier is a musical instrument
At the core of our concepts is the idea that the amplifier is a musical instrument. By supporting the chassis with a combination of woods, RSA-M99 reproduces a beautiful sound like a genuine musical instrument.
Wooden feet of maple with hickory embedded in the center. These foot pieces are designed in such a way that only the hickory located in the center is grounded.
Wooden soundboard with wooden feet vibrate with the audio signal playing a natural sound.
No, Spec, an amplifier is anything but a musical instrument. The listener does not at all want to listen to an interpretation and colored musical piece, played through a different musical instrument than the one on the original recording. An amplifier is supposed to make the music come alive in the listening room, and nothing else. So OK, I may accept that the wood can have some impact on the sound, but then I suggest it removes unwanted resonances, instead of introducing new ones. That said; Spec has of course hit the bulls eye, their amps do not resonate or vibrate in any way, so let’s just pretend the lyrics above is the result of a weird, Japanese sense of humor. Natural sound, however. Me oh my, this is something to write home about, these amplifiers deliver the goods, do not ever doubt just that.
The core of the Spec technology is their way of implementing the class D technology, see illustration:
Although PWM may look like a digitalization, it is not. This is a fully analogue amplifier principle, with short signal path, and a limited number of high quality audio grade components. The RSA 777EX has a switch mode power supply, though, where the M99 utilizes an R-core heavy trafo solution. I’ll return to the sound differences later, here I just want to add that there is more to it than the eye can see, because the M99 is obviously a more muscular “musical instrument” than the little sister, being able to drive even rather difficult speaker loads.
Let’s talk about the Triple7, first. A 2 x 50 Watt design, weighing in at 7 kilos. Simple and small, 3 RCA and one XLR in, plus dedicated headphone amp with 3,5 mm plug on the front (speaker output can be switched off). A challenging unit, this. Also on the predecessor, the 717, I struggled to find suitable speakers, this time I had a slightly different choice of brands, and had a fight to find good partners. What I felt all too strongly on every speaker I tried, was that there was no grunt, no dynamic power at hand, even if I still could hear that the potential was obvious. The sound was smooth and detailed, great timbral qualities, but weak. Every time a crescendo came along, I was left with a feeling of something missing. Also, on piano notes, it was lacking the attack and dynamics from the strings and and hammers. Slightly frustrated I dig deep into my collection, putting my old, simple Klipsch B3 up on the stands And, hallelujah sisters and brothers, salvation was gracing my living room! A few amplifiers in the world blows pure magic into this rather cheap design, making them explode, breathe both fire and ice, conveying life and sprinkle details like snow in a cold winter night. And wow, does the Spec 777 make the B3’s come alive! After my doubts about the power of this amplifier, the result came as a shock. What a combination!
So I touched the bull by the horn immediately, putting “Night walker” by the Danish group Trentemøller in the player. Hah! I’ve played this melody a countless number of times, but still the combination of the lightweight Spec and the oldish and cheapish speaker absolutely blew me away. Fabulous soundscapes, deep and powerful bass notes; shut your eyes and tell me that this is a standmount speaker driven by a 2 x 50 watt amp at 7 kilo match weight. No way, it’s impossible. But still, it is true. There is power at hand, people, just don’t ask me how this happened. This amplifier, that so easily was humbled by other speakers, suddenly had full, brutal control. So I just threw more and more fire and fury at it, forcing it to play enormous musical pieces, and it never failed to deliver. Best described by “Nitro Junkie” by Gothic Storm, and, if you don’t know what I mean by the expression “breathing fire”, have a listen to this. What a demonstration of sheer, ruthless and unbeatable power!
The cool thing is that this amplifier also has several other just as important characteristics, not least timbral qualities, easily audible while playing good jazz recordings. That brings us to the Dutch company STS Recordings and their series of recordings of Dutch Jazz Legends, where Garner – Burke plays the old classic “Misty”. Here, the Spec gives a demonstration of the “chameleon effect”, as the expression is so totally different from previous music example, clearer than anything, this proves that the amp itself is not coloring the result. So laidback, at the same time so present and vibrant. The horns have their character fully laid out, while the piano sounds sparkling and dynamic, but still silently lurks in the background. Lovely.
This behavior is also present through the headphone output, which indeed is a great feature. I have heard good integrated headphone amps from the likes of Naim and McIntosh, but the one in this Spec amplifier really holds its own. Through the very good Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro (the 250 Ohm version, the others are not nearly that good), all recordings really shine. Dio and “Sign of the southern cross” isn’t really such a good recording to say the least, but the Spec know how to handle difficult visitors. The rhythmically strong, but still elegant way of conveying music, carries this rough recording safely through to the listener. Both brutal and smooth at the same time. A genius combination, to put it short.
Given you find the right speaker to match this small Spec RSA 777EX, you never need to look back. An absolutely stunning amplifier, both through speaker output and with good headphones. I suggest speakers from brands as Audio Note, some Tannoy models, some Klipsch models, Kudos and Audivector, to name a few. If it sounds weak and not very dynamic in your system, a different pair of speakers will solve the problems, I promise you. With that out of the way, the Spec RSA 777EX will produce an endless series of great musical experiences on all types of music and all types of recordings. It will shock you, it will touch your emotions, it will convince you, and win you over. A totally surprising and extreme amplifier, as soon as you have found the right partners. What can I say, I am in love with this small thing!
So what happens then, when we jump up the ladder, and engages the way more substantial RSA M99? It may seem hard to believe, but Spec has even a few more tricks up its sleeve. But wait for it, first I like to say a little about the more superficial differences. First, The M99 weighs more than double than the small sibling. Then we have en extra XLR input. An important difference is that the M99 also can be used as power amp, through a small switch on the rear plate. I use this feature rather often on my own amp, as that makes a reasonable remote control much easier, since I have an APL DAC / pre in front. The switch can also remove the slightly sharpish light around the knobs on the facia, for relaxed night listening. I wander if the M99 also uses output transformers, as there’s a closed box near the speaker posts, with a substantial weight.
But let’s jump to the sound, and first talk a little about the differences from the triple7. Most importantly, the M99 is a powerhouse, it comes across w-a-a-a-y bigger than the moderate 2 x 60 Watts indicates. None of the matching challenges so obvious on the little guy, are present here. You can drive even rather difficult loads with ease and gusto, still I normally prefer efficient, easy loads, as I feel they easier conveys an open, rhythmic presence. Further the M99 is a tad more open, especially evident in the midrange, where the mentioned Dio recording becomes even more enjoyable, even if I nearly can’t understand how that it is possible. And, of course I must say a little regarding differences from the predecessor, the RSA M3EX. Not very big, but the M99 feels even more powerful, slightly darker voiced, even more vivid and with higher “foot-tapping” abilities. There’s still a significant step up to the top model, the RSA F33EX, mostly this is about timbral qualities and, again, even greater feeling of sheer, brutal power on the uppermost Spec model. One of the rally important features of the Spec amplifiers is their “omnivorous nature”; they play anything with ease, totally changing from a nice, relaxed performer one moment, to a monster the next. Just like the best of valve amplifiers. It just never pushes its own nature into the expression, it just conveys the musical message. Just like it should.
On classical music, I have had a few experiences of watershed character; when listening to the Spec RSA F33EX kicking the hell out of a pair of Tannoy DC10t playing “Holiday Morning” by Claude Debussy, I was totally flabbergasted. The combination of raw power and extreme refinement was addictive as any known substance I have come across in my life. Can the new M99 copy that? My M3 surely can’t. On the power aspect, the M99 is very close to the F33, no doubt. It is also slightly better than my M3 regarding “being there”, in this case “there” is Cincinnati Orchestral Hall, and, well, it is absolutely an obvious leap closer to the top model. In other words, and astonishing performance, a display of the combination of power and delicacy, that just a very few amplifiers in the world are capable of. Impressive and beautiful at the same time.
Back to jazz, Radka Toneff’s legendary recording “Fairytale” breathes life and vibrancy when Spec M99 happily plays it. The emotional contents are obvious, I can only think of valve amplifiers that can do this as good as we can hear in this set-up. The voice floats in open air, the piano resounds into eternity. The same can be said about “Blues in orbit” by Duke Ellington, we’re beamed to a different place and time when this historic recording graces our listening room.
Again change of scene, the enormous epos “A Dark Knigt”, Hans Zimmer’s movie music, thunders through the listening room, dark and threatening. Not a microscopic sign of control loss, this is a sheer demonstration of power. It just can’t be done so much better, and then I think I have said the most.
This feeling of limitless power is of course not real. Bear in mind that forces of nature can’t be outwit by Spec, either. So my clear advise is to choose speakers that are fairly easy to drive and control. I have a weak point regarding the Norwegian Doxa 8.2 Signature, that fit hand in glove with the Spec M99 amplifier. Then you can fully exploit all its abilities, all the way from the thundering bass, via the open and communicative midrange, up to the silky, delicate treble. On top of that you can see the enormous soundscapes in front of you, pinpointed, huge. Top it by raw dynamics, and most is said. Now, there are many other good speakers to choose from, just be sure you think high quality, these amplifiers deserve it. I must say, however, that the Klipsch B3 / Spec 777EX combination was a very interesting escapade that I really can recommend as an entertaining evening, without costing an arm and a leg.
So, if you have made it this far, I guess you have an idea where we are going with this. Spec still comes across as unique amplifiers, carving out a niche of their own, more or less. This is class D done right, these amplifiers are masterpieces, artistry with sovereign, everlasting quality. They might seem to carry a heavy price tag, that goes for both the amplifiers, actually, but when you are overcome by the fantastic mix of strengths of these units, you will find the money, and live happily ever after. Again I have enjoyed each and every second with Spec amplifiers, so of course I will recommend all serious music lovers to have a listen to these absolutely excellent hifi components.
Spec RSA 777EX integrated amplifier, 2 x 50 Watt, NOK 39 900,- (approx. 4100 €)
Spec RSA M99 integrated amplifier, 2 x 60 Watt, NOK 105 000,- (approx. 10 800 €)
Import Norway: Bebop Hifi