Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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Reviewers' ChoiceOn March 1, 2016, I enthusiastically reviewed Onkyo’s A-9010 integrated amplifier-DAC, calling it “a screaming bargain.” My opinion of the A-9010 amplifier hadn’t changed since then, so I was very pleased when editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz suggested I review the A-9010’s successor, the A-9110, which costs precisely what the A-9010 cost three years ago: $349 USD.

Description

It takes a bit of looking to see the differences between the A-9010 and A-9110. Both look like models from the late 1960s or 1970s -- the Golden Age of stereo. In the upper left corner of the A-9110’s faceplate is a largish On/Standby button, and to its right is the sensor for the infrared remote control. At the center of the faceplate is a very large Volume knob; to its right is a long, narrow, slot-like display that indicates the input selected (Line 1, Line 2, etc.), at the end of which is the Input button itself.

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Running along the bottom of the A-9110’s front panel, from left to right, are the Bass, Treble, and Balance knobs, and two small buttons, each with a status LED. One of these, labeled Direct, is for switching the tone controls out of circuit; the other is Phase Matching Bass, which the A-9110’s owner’s manual says “maintains smooth and powerful bass reproduction while effectively keeping the midrange clear and making vocals stand out.” (More about this below.) In the lower-right corner is a standard 1/4” headphone jack. (The A-9010 also had a 1/8” stereo input jack for a line-level input, but that’s omitted on the A-9110.)

The rear panel is uncluttered. At left is a series of stereo inputs (RCA) that allow connection of a fixed-coil (moving-magnet or -iron) phono cartridge and four line-level sources. There’s also a Line Out pair (RCA) for feeding a recorder of some sort or an additional amplifier. Then comes a single RCA jack, labeled Pre Out and Subwoofer, that can feed a powered subwoofer. At center are binding posts for one stereo pair of loudspeakers with impedances of 4 to 16 ohms. (The posts on A-9110s sold in the US accept banana plugs.) There’s also an 1/8” jack for connecting an Onkyo source component -- CD player, network player, or tuner -- so that the A-9110’s remote control (included) will control that source as well as all A-9110 settings: Input, Volume, Muting, Direct mode, Phase Matching Bass.The remote is long and slender -- I found it a bit too long to fit comfortably in my hand, but I have short fingers (or, as my wife calls them, flippers). The A-9110’s power cord is hardwired.

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What the A-9110 lacks that the A-9010 didn’t are the digital inputs that fed the A-9010’s Wolfson DAC. For the A-9110, Onkyo seems to have decided to upgrade the amplifier’s capacitors rather than offer an onboard DAC. Those capacitors are a definite step up from those found in many entry-level units: Nichicon’s Fine Gold caps, their models recommended for use in high-quality audio gear, are used throughout the signal path, including the phono stage. Even standard Nichicons aren’t exactly chopped liver; the Fine Golds should help the A-9110 perform well.

Why drop the DAC in favor of better capacitors? Onkyo’s Don Milks told me that their user surveys revealed that the DAC built into the A-9010 had few fans -- it didn’t turn out to be the “unique selling proposition” they’d hoped for. They believe the new capacitors used in the A-9110 result in higher sound quality than the A-9010’s.

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Milks explained the Phase Matching Bass circuit as an improvement on the usual Loudness or Contour control. A typical Contour circuit can introduce significant phase shifts in the midrange and higher frequencies, which can lead to blurring of the sound. Phase Matching Bass adds practically no phase shift in bandwidth, to result in, Onkyo believes, sound that’s clearer and better defined.

The A-9110 is relatively compact at 17.1”W by 5.1”H by 13”D, and weighs 15.4 pounds. The inputs and speaker terminals are plated with what appears to be cadmium rather than gold, but this should make no real difference in the A-9110’s sound quality.

Onkyo’s rather narrowly defined power-output specification for the A-9010 was a very basic 44Wpc into 8 ohms at 1kHz, both channels driven, with 0.08% THD, FTC. Similarly defined, the A-9110’s power output is a very similar 42Wpc. Over the full audioband of 20Hz-20kHz, the A-9110’s power ratings are 30Wpc into 8 ohms (0.7% THD) and 50Wpc into 4 ohms (0.9% THD). While the A-9110’s levels of total harmonic distortion (THD) are higher than the A-9010’s, I’ve found that I can’t hear a level of THD lower than 1%.

The A-9110 is covered by Onkyo’s standard limited warranty of two years.

Setup

By and large, setting up of the A-9110 was straightforward: connect the source components, connect the speakers, plug it into the wall, and off you go. However, one mandatory and two optional settings must first be addressed.

First, the mandatory one: The A-9110 wants to know the impedance of the speakers you’re using and requests that you optimize performance via a Setup option on the remote. Press Setup on the remote, then press the up or down buttons until the input source indicators on the A-9110’s front panel begin to blink. Finally, press the remote’s back/forth directional buttons until one of these two things happen: If Line 1 and Line 2 are displayed, the A-9110 is optimized for 4-ohm speakers; if Line 1 through Line 4 are displayed, the amp is set for 8-ohm speakers. It’s important to do this -- it can affect both the life of the amplifier and the level of distortion the amp produces.

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The first optional setting is how you want the A-9110’s subwoofer output to function. Again, you cycle through the choices by using the remote’s directional buttons. When Line 1 and Line 2 are both displayed, the subwoofer output is in its default setting, Auto: When it detects a powered sub, it will feed the sub signal unless the A-9110’s Direct button is pressed. When Line 1 through Line 3 are displayed, the subwoofer output is active at all times. If Line 1-4 are lit, the subwoofer output is deactivated.

The second optional setting is of the Auto Standby function, also accessed with the remote. This automatically switches the A-9110 to Standby when the amp hasn’t detected an audio signal for 20 minutes. The North American default setting is Off; for all other areas, the default setting is On.

To exit any Setup mode, press Setup again. In most cases, you’ll never need to think about that setting again.

Listening

Before doing any serious listening to the A-9110, I used it for background listening with my Electro-Voice Interface 1 Series II speakers. Each day, I listen to the jazz service offered on the HD-2 digital subchannel of our local classical public radio station, WGUC. As these subchannels go, WGUC HD-2 provides decent sound, as it uses a 48kbps sampling rate.

What I found was that the A-9110 is a fine little amp. Its highs and upper mids were detailed, its overall sound was tight and cogent, and during a long xylophone solo I was impressed by the percussiveness that came through, and that brushed snare drums sounded exactly as they should. Finally, I felt that Phase Matching Bass served up more than the usual amount of boost to low frequencies.

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On to serious listening, still with my Electro-Voice speakers. First up was Quincy Jones’s 1969 recording of Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe,” from Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz: Urban, a 1999 compilation (CD, Rhino 75870). This is old-style stereo -- everything is panned either hard left or hard right, with next to nothing in the middle. However, the music is superb, with tight playing from such masters as flutist Hubert Laws, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, double bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Grady Tate, and the A-9110’s reproduction of it couldn’t have been much better. Even in Direct mode, without bass boost, the bottom was nice and fat. Hubbard’s solo on muted trumpet was crisp and clear, and in the background, Laws’s flute was extremely clean. There was a lot of rhythmic cohesion in the sound. Very impressive.

Peggy Lee’s recording of “Fever,” from the collection Miss Peggy Lee (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Capitol), is a deceptively simple recording: Lee singing, accompanied by double bass, drums, and a guy snapping his fingers. Lee was centered and out front, and her voice had her trademark combination of silk and roughness. The drums had a lot of slam, and provided great counterpoint to Lee’s voice. The entire recording is bathed in echo from Capitol’s main studio. I won’t say she sounded as if she were in my listening room, but it was darned close, especially for a recording made in 1958.

For something very different, I tried “Highway 40 Blues,” from Ricky Skaggs’s Highways & Heartaches (16/44.1 AIFF, Epic). This song, by Larry Cordle, carries on the tradition of the road song with a rhythm resembling that of a vehicle rolling down a highway. The Onkyo A-9110 presented it with a great sense of ensemble from the band when they play together, but on their own? Dynamite! Skaggs takes a great solo on mandolin, and it was right up front, as it should be. The banjo (Béla Fleck) gets its turn as well. Then, in what has seemed all along to be a nice semi-bluegrass song, the electric guitarist takes his solo and tears it up -- and the A-9110 sounded appropriately aggressive. This song deservedly hit No.1 on Billboard’s US Hot Country Songs chart in 1983.

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There’s a fabulous duo from Hawai‘i called Hapa. In Hawaiian, hapa means “half.” One of these guys, Keli‘i Kaneali‘i, is of South Pacific ancestry; the other, Barry Flanagan, is a New Jersey native. They perform in a contemporary version of the Islands’ traditional slack-key guitar style (in which the instrument is tuned lower than usual), and do so amazingly. “E Hele Ana E” (Why Are You Going Away?), from their third album, In the Name of Love (16/44.1 WAV, Mountain Apple), is astounding. It’s a multitracked recording with electric-guitar chords over heavy echo and two acoustic guitarists, one of whom solos with licks Eric Clapton might envy. The voices of Hapa’s two halves are also heavy with echo. With all this going on, some amps might go a little mushy, but the A-9110 held everything together. For instance, I was treated to a soundstage that seemed to extend beyond the outer walls of the speakers themselves. The percussive playing of the electric guitar was precise despite all the echo, while the mellowness of the solo on slack-key acoustic was prominent. A great album, and great sound from the Onkyo.

As is my wont, I wanted to hear Frank Sinatra through the device under test, and chose “Summer Wind,” from Ultimate Sinatra: The Centennial Collection (16/44.1 AIFF, Capitol). This track, recorded in 1966, features an electronic organ and a full big band playing an arrangement by Nelson Riddle. The sound is huge, with instruments layered behind the Chairman of the Board. In ’66, Sinatra still had most of his chops, and of course his phrasing was perfect -- and the sound through the A-9110 was nearly so. There was a slight midrange boost that might be an artifact of the production, as in 1966, most recordings were equalized to sound good on AM radio. That notwithstanding, the Onkyo’s reproduction of “Summer Wind” was most delightful.

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All that was left to hear was how well the A-9110’s phono stage sounded with my Pioneer PL-516 turntable, which has a Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge. In a phrase: pretty darn good. I began with “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” from Billy Joel’s Piano Man (LP, Columbia PC 32544), which has a full orchestral arrangement that sounds as if composed by Aaron Copland, and a manic drummer who sounds like Mick Fleetwood on speed. Everything was fine except for some weakness in the bass. The Electro-Voice speakers in my office system aren’t bass-forward, but I found that when I turned the A-9110’s Bass control to about 1 o’clock -- that is, one notch higher than flat -- the low end blossomed, and better matched the sparkling mids and highs. I then tried setting the Bass knob to flat and engaging Phase Matching Bass, but the overall effect wasn’t as pleasing or as accurate.

“Tuxedo Junction,” from The Best of The Manhattan Transfer (LP, Atlantic SD 19319), was recorded live in Tokyo, where ManTran has a large, rabid fan base. The combination of Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge, Pioneer PL-516 turntable, and Onkyo A-9110 did a superlative job of reproducing all four voices -- two women, two men -- whether they sang solo or together. The high-note trumpet blasts sounded a mite brittle -- which, based on listening to other cuts on this LP, might be an artifact of the large concert hall and the live recording.

Comparison

In comparing the A-9110 with the A-9010, I found that with most recordings the two amps sounded very similar. I pulled out an album I hadn’t listened to in a while, Clair Marlo’s Let It Go (CD, Sheffield Lab CD-29). If you’re not familiar with Sheffield Lab, it was a cult audiophile favorite in the 1980s, producing LPs and CDs made from sessions recorded live to two-track on analog tape, with no sweetening or mixing or postproduction. Marlo has a girlish but sultry voice, and in “All for the Feeling” she’s accompanied by keyboards, synthesizers, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and “mouth percussion” -- producer-engineer-composer-bassist-drummer Ed Roscetti making cheek pops, etc.; these sounds are actually the most startling in this track. With the A-9010 the sound was crisp, and the mouth percussion was just that: percussive. Marlo’s voice came through clearly and subtly, as one might imagine executive producers Lincoln Mayorga and Doug Sax wanted it to sound. I found the sound through the system extremely pleasing.

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The A-9110 offered just that tiny bit more. The bass was slightly more solid, the soundstage a tiny bit deeper if no wider, the instruments just a bit farther behind Marlo and her backing singers. Roscetti’s mouth percussion moved around the stage a tiny bit more distinctly. The entire recording sounded just that little bit more whole. The sound was a touch crisper, sharper, and more coherent. The A-9010 is a fine amplifier; in all the ways just mentioned, the A-9110 was better.

Conclusion

Like their A-9010, Onkyo’s A-9110 is a screaming bargain. Based on the improvement in sound quality, I think Onkyo made the right decision in replacing the A-9010’s DAC with the better capacitors used in the A-9110.

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However, if your listening room is ginormous and/or your speakers are very inefficient (say, less than 88dB/2.83V/m), and you like to listen at close to lease-breaking levels, the A-9110 is not the amp for you. But for a system that will be used in a moderately sized room, or a second system for a home office, the A-9110 could be just the ticket.

The A-9110 has all the analog inputs you might need. Its very fine phono stage should help you get the most out of your vinyl, and its silent, wideband amplifier stage will give you more than just satisfactory sound. It offers crystalline highs and punchy, realistic lows. If you’re in the market for a bargain amp, you owe it to yourself to audition the Onkyo A-9110. It’s a winner.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable -- Pioneer PL-516 with Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge
  • Digital sources -- Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dm4-1160us laptop computer running JRiver Media Center 19; HRT Music Streamer II+;Cambridge Audio 650C and Sony CDP-X303ES CD players
  • Integrated amplifier -- Onkyo A-9010
  • Speakers -- Electro-Voice Interface 1 Series II on 24”-high Sanus stands
  • Digital links -- Dayton Audio (USB), Transparent Audio (S/PDIF coaxial)
  • Analog interconnect -- Dayton Audio
  • Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research 14-gauge

Onkyo A-9110 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $349 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Onkyo USA Corporation
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (800) 229-1687

Website: www.us.onkyo.com