Parasound A 52 Multi-channel Power Amplifier 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Multi-Channel Amplifiers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

Ahh, power amplifiers. Aside from loudspeakers, they are often the most touted products in the consumer electronics industry, and for good reason. Without them, there would be no music. They are charged with a great deal of responsibility and, while they may not look as sexy as some of their counterparts, they are without a doubt the backbone of every system. So, when a new amp is released, especially by a company as reputable as Parasound, one has reason to get excited.

Officially launched in 2003, Parasound’s Halo line of components were specifically designed to bridge, or at least blur, the gap between ultra-performance and budget-conscious components. Solid performance at a reasonable price has always been Parasound’s bread and butter, so it was a bit of a gamble when they set out to challenge some of the industry’s most notable, and expensive, players. With the exception of maybe a handful of other companies, like Outlaw Audio and NAD, most of these outright challenges to the status quo have been met with defeat. However, Parasound has had an ace up its sleeve for years in the form of legendary audio designer John Curl, who was more than instrumental in the design and development of the Halo line of components, more specifically, the famous JC1 mono blocks. Heritage and audio gurus are all well and good, but it’s the performance that matters most and, with stiff competition already established in the marketplace, it was time to see what the A 52 was really made of.

The A 52 retails for a manageable $2,000.00 and comes clad in a striking, beautiful aluminum silver finish with glowing blue lights that accent the A 52’s power switch and channel operations. In fact, the A 52 is better-looking than most components I’ve seen in a long time. However, its sleek industrial design was a bit of an attention grabber when surrounded by my more traditional-looking components. Good or bad, for the look of a specific component is purely subjective, you couldn’t miss the A 52 in my system. It measures in at 17-and-one-quarter inches wide by six inches tall and a hair under 20 inches deep, and weighs a hefty 50 pounds. Rated at 125 watts into eight ohms and 225 watts into four, the A 52 is THX Ultra 2-certified and should provide more than enough power to run all but the most demanding speakers available on the market today. If the A 52’s power output isn’t to your liking, there is always the larger, more powerful A 51 multi-channel amplifier waiting in the wings. Turning my attention to the rear of the A 52, I saw a very uncluttered yet comprehensive set of input/output options. The A 52 has five XLR (balanced) inputs, as well as matching RCA inputs, which are selectable via a simple switch at the end of the input row. Parasound’s decision to include XLR inputs was a nice little bonus, a true taste of the higher end that, when mated with the C 1 controller (via balanced connections), proved to be a step up sonically. Below the audio inputs are the A 52’s five standard five-way binding posts, which can accept all forms of speaker cable from bare wire to spade adapters. The A 52 also features a 12-volt trigger, as well as a ground loop switch and a detachable power cord.

I utilized the A 52 in a variety of systems in my home, ranging from the more exotic to super-budget. Ultimately, I ended up connecting the A 52 to the feature-laden C 1 controller that Parasound graciously loaned to me for my review period with the A 52.

The C 1 controller, like all Parasound Halo products, features the same silvery finish, which goes a long way in creating one hell of a classy-looking set-up in any rack system. Its new Zhd HDMI switcher (sold separately) adds yet another useful feature to the C 1’s already stellar rap sheet of bells and whistles, making it competitive if not one of the best surround sound controllers available on the market today. Together, the C 1 and the A 52 proved to be quite a pair, both sonically and visually.

I connected the A 52 to the C 1 using Monster M Series interconnects for the unbalanced connections and Transparent Reference interconnects for the balanced ones, since the C 1, like the A 52, is a fully balanced design. I once again turned to my JBL Studio L loudspeakers as my surround sound speakers of choice and connected them to the A 52 via Monster M series speaker cables. My finicky Toshiba XA-1 HD DVD player was my source for multi-channel music and movies, with my Denon 3910 universal player serving as my primary two-channel source. Once again, everything was connected via Monster M series interconnects, with all power filtration falling to my Monster HTPS 7000.

There isn’t much in terms of set-up when it comes to power amplifiers, other than making the proper connections and plugging the sucker in. However, I had to utilize the larger bottom shelf on my rack to give the A 52 a bit more breathing room, since it did create a fair amount of heat. Connected and ready to go in under 20 minutes, I was ready to enjoy the show. And what a show it was shaping up to be.

Music and Movies
I started things off with singer/songwriter Howie Day’s debut album, Australia (Epic). I was first introduced to Day’s music several years ago, when he opened for Tori Amos at the Universal Amphitheatre in Hollywood. While this first studio album features Day with a full band, his live show usually consists of only him as he uses and samples various sounds from his guitar to give the illusion of a multi-piece ensemble. Simply put, Howie Day live is nothing like Howie Day on CD. However, the songs are still good and the recording quality is rather superb. On kicking things off with the track “Sorry So Sorry,” one thing was immediately apparent. The A 52 has rhythm. From the first note, the A 52 exhibited a sort of natural ease that made the performance simply effortless. There was considerable air surrounding the performers, who were rock-solid in their respective spaces, and the soundstage width was simply staggering. The performance was more or less sublime, with nary a sign of the A 52 injecting anything of its own into the signal path. Day’s vocals were clear, well-defined and above all accurate. The midrange wasn’t dark or moody. Instead, the A 52 opted for a much more nimble presentation that further accentuated the song’s melodic pace. I ran my JBL’s full range without the use of subwoofer to test the A 52’s bass prowess. Through the C 1 controller, the A 52 was deep, controlled and, above all, snappy. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to start tapping my toes and slapping my hands across my knees in utter excitement. Moving onto the track “Ghost,” I got more of the same. The opening vocals were reproduced faithfully, giving me a virtual front row seat to a live performance. Likewise, the opening guitar riff felt life-sized, with zero trace of excess bloat or embellishment. The A 52 was so tight in its presentation that it was able to reveal textures and details that most amplifiers gloss over or miss altogether. Now, some amplifiers, or whole systems, for that matter, tend to bowl you over with the details while losing sight of the bigger overall musical picture. Well, that wasn’t the case with the A 52. The bass had excellent snap. However, on this track, the A 52 didn’t seem to plunge as deep nor control the drivers as well; this may have more to do with the track’s mastering but, alas, it was a factor. The soundstage, again, was wider and more clearly defined than most, if not all, amplifiers in the A 52’s price bracket. If only the soundstage was as deep. Still, everything else was so emotionally right that I found myself not really caring that much. Honestly, I stopped caring altogether – about taking notes, that is, as I listened to the entire CD from start to finish.

Once Day left my listening room, it was time for yet another performance, this time coming from the Canadian alt-rock group Barenaked Ladies and their latest album, Everything to Everyone (Reprise). On the track “Another Postcard,” the bass through the A 52 was solid and taught. The impact was borderline visceral, while remaining very musical. The vocal track was a bit forward, which added a bit of zip to the performance, but it was never edgy or harsh. The treble was well-behaved, with an appropriate amount of air and sparkle on the cymbals and zero trace of digital harshness. Once again, the A 52 proved that the essence to musical nirvana is in the details. The A 52 is like the detectives on CSI: nothing escapes its watchful eyes. I’ve heard amps that are better at bringing to life the finer details; however, I always find them a bit over-pronounced, which makes for a much more academic performance than an emotional one. I’m pleased to tell you that the A 52 is all about emotion. Moving onto the track “Shopping,” which is a throwback to those jaunty ‘80s tunes featuring over-produced drum and synthesizer tracks that give the song its lively kick, the A 52 dished out enough dynamic horsepower that I began to wonder if it was waiting for the music to catch up to it. The presentation across the board was big and bold. It was never abrasive nor in your face, but rather simply appropriate. Okay, maybe it was a touch more than appropriate, but I didn’t care. The vocals were clear as a bell and stood out against the onslaught of sound happening just inches behind. Again, the A 52 simply sang. My only complaint was the soundstage depth, which is amongst the shallowest I’ve come across in recent memory.

Satisfied with two-channel music, I switched gears to multi-channel, opting for the DualDisc version of Ben Folds’ latest album, Songs for Silverman (Epic). Kicking things off with the song “Bastard,” the A 52 helped place me in the center of the performance. The opening horns were about as pristine as I’ve heard this side of the $10K mark and were completely free of glare at all but ear-splitting, gut-churning levels. The entire multi-channel performance was bigger than life, yet remained intimate, in the sense that I could literally hear everything that was aurally happening around me. Folds’ vocals were rich, full and very well-placed in space, yet I wouldn’t classify the A 52 as warm-sounding. When mated with the C 1 controller, the A 52 could at times sound slightly lean. However, it wasn’t at the cost of musicality. The treble simply sparkled and the upper octaves of Folds’ piano seemed to trickle across my room like beautifully textured and tuneful raindrops. The drum kit was a different story. Where the highs were light and airy, the bass proved to be raw and monstrous. The impact and speed of the bass was anything I’ve encountered in a while. Needless to say, I liked it. A lot.

Switching to the track “Landed,” I immediately focused on the A 52’s dynamics. Most amps, especially those in the A 52’s price range, tend to have a sort of musical/volume threshold where one peaks as the other suffers. Not the A 52. The track’s build to the final chorus seemed to go on for ages, getting louder and louder, all the while packing on loads of texture and emotional impact until … boom. My room shook as I was transported to the front row of what was one of the coolest musical experiences I’ve had in my new reference room.

Overall, when it came to music, I can sum up the A 52’s performance in a single word: astonishing. Simply, astonishing. That’s it. You can stop reading. Review’s over.

Wait. I had almost forgotten to watch a movie. Given the A 52’s performance with music, I wasn’t too worried about how it would handle movies, especially HD-DVD movies. I started off with the Keanu Reeves supernatural action extravaganza Constantine (Warner Home Video). In chapter two, Reeves flicks open his Zippo lighter to fire up a cigarette. Having had a Zippo or two in my lifetime, the sound of the all-metal casing and flint wheel igniting the rope wick was epic. The metal twang was crystalline, while the subsequent flare and spark hung effortlessly in the air. The crackling sound of the embers was so apparent and richly detailed that, for the first time in my reference room, which features a 120-inch projection screen, I felt as if a 10-foot long Marlboro had just been blazed up. Normally, a 10-foot cigarette is a bad thing, but given the extreme close-up of the shot, it was devilishly appropriate. Once the exorcism was underway, the viral rumblings of the demon seemed to reach as far down as my floorboards and come up through my spine. While the scene itself may not have been as intense as I was hoping for, the sound coming from the A 52 sure was. Shattering glass is always a bit tricky for any system. Yet, with the A 52 in my system, the sound of the mirror containing the trapped demon shattering over the hood of the taxicab was so vivid that I could almost make out every individual shard impacting with the ground. Also, the A 52’s control over all of the sonic elements made it easier for my JBLs to recreate spatial cues and ambient noise unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Skipping ahead to chapter 19, featuring Rachel Weiz submerged in a bathtub full of water, the A 52 put me square in the middle of the horrific action. The sound of being submerged was so hauntingly real that it made the scene difficult to stomach. The bass track, comprised of score and sound FX wizardry, seemed to roll along the edges of my room, hunting me down in my listening chair. The dynamic impact when Weisz finally broke free from the tub was so lightning quick and full of raw energy that it caused dust to fall from my ceiling down in my basement some two floors below. I know this because my housemate ran upstairs into the theater yelling, “Was that an earthquake?” Keep in mind that I left the subwoofer off throughout this review.

Overall the sonic performance of Constantine was far superior to the film itself, cooking up a dynamic mix of pristine highs, thunderous lows and everything in-between. My only shock during my entire time with the A 52 was that the police were never called.

The Downside
If you haven’t guessed by now, I loved the A 52. It’s hard for me to fault it. Okay, the soundstage depth is a bit shallow and it gets a bit warm to the touch, but based on all of its strengths, I really don’t care.

But there’s a catch.

The A 52 by itself isn’t exactly neutral, which means that proper equipment matching is critical. Moreover, if you have speakers that tend to be a bit lean or bright in the frequency spectrum, then I’m afraid the A 52 may prove to be a bit tricky. However, mate it with full-range, punchy speakers like my JBLs and you might ask yourself, why wish for more? And you shouldn’t, because when properly complemented with the right electronics and speakers, the A 52 is a sheer delight and one of the best in its class.

The A 52, at a touch under two grand, is a giant among men … er … I mean amplifiers. You get loads of power, more than I think most people will need, oodles of style and grace and killer sound. It really is an amazing amplifier, one that I’m happy to have auditioned and one that Parasound should be proud of. It can be ever so slightly lean-sounding on certain recordings and proper system matching is a must, especially when it comes to loudspeakers. Still, for its price, the A 52 is truly an astonishing piece of equipment that isn’t bound to disappoint. In spite of its age, it should still send chills up the competition’s spine, for it is a timeless piece in more ways that one and one of only a few amplifiers that I can say might be the last you’ll ever have to buy. I’m sad to see the A 52 go. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it resurfaced on AVRev’s top products of 2006 list, if you get my drift.
Manufacturer Parasound
Model A 52 Multi-channel Power Amplifier
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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