One of my favorite things about my job is discovering up and coming talent in the specialty AV industry. While I don't dislike talking about and reviewing products from the likes of Sony or Harman, it is nice to shed a little light on the little guys once and awhile. Case in point, Bandwidth Audio, a small analog audio company hailing from my (current) hometown of Austin, Texas. Bandwidth is the brainchild of Matthew Beardsworth, an electrical engineer by day, who started the company back in 2011 in an attempt to create a zero-compromise tube amplifier that would stand the test of time. In 2012, a full year later, Beardsworth was satisfied with his creation, and thus the 288 monaural power amplifier was born.
The 288 is a tube-based, monaural amplifier, meaning that for stereo playback one requires two 288 amplifiers. The 288 utilizes five tubes of three different types, consisting of a pair of KT88 power tubes, a pair of 6SN7 preamp tubes, and a single 5AR4/GZ34 rectifier. From the front, the 288 looks like a traditional, open-face tube amplifier; that is to say it features a classic L-shape whereby the covered transformers sit behind the amp's complement of exposed tubes. The 288 is made of high-quality aluminum and is finished in a deep, rich charcoal grey/black, with real wood accents adorning either side. The front panel of each 288 features a stepped volume/level control for precise channel matching, which is located off to the far left of the chassis (when looking at it from the front). The front-mounted 24-position stepped attenuator volume control with Dale resistors effectively makes each amp a "pseudo integrated" design. A VU Output level meter and heavy-duty power toggle switch are located along the right side to balance out the 288's aesthetic.
Around back there are five-way binding posts with taps for speakers rated at four, eight, and 16 Ohms. A single, gold-plated unbalanced (RCA) input is all that is given for connecting the 288 to your preamplifier of choice, not uncommon among tube amps. There are two ammeters located on the back to aide in tube biasing and testing, as well as a standard IEC power receptacle.
Each 288 amplifier measures 20 inches wide by 13 inches deep and 9.5 inches tall. Weight is not given, but let us not mince words: the amplifier is one heavy bitch.
The 288 has a maximum rated output power of 60 Watts, which for a tube amplifier of the 288's ilk isn't too shabby. The amp features custom made, custom wound Ultralinear output transformers that tip the scales at 16 pounds apiece. Bandwidth claims these transformers give the 288 its low-end weight and soundstage bloom, which I'll discuss in a moment. The 288's total harmonic distortion figures are also quite respectable, on par with the best my ears have been privy to, with its full power distortion rating coming in at or less than one percent. Gain is stated at 22dB, which is within reason, not to mention spitting distance of amps in its class regardless of their construction. With the 288 being a Class AB amp, power consumption, rated at 150 Watts, isn't as bad as you're likely to find with pure Class A amplifiers.
Each 288 is made by hand in Austin using locally sourced hardware and US-made parts wherever possible. It features point-to-point wiring throughout, something hardcore enthusiasts love. It ships with all the requisite tubes one would need to get up and running and have the amp(s) sounding their very best, which includes a pair of Electro-Harmonix KT88s as standard. For all this high-end, American-made audiophile goodness you're going to pay. The 288 isn't cheap, retailing for $10,000 per pair and sold only through a few dealers. Two to be exact, AV Solutions in Pleasanton, California, and Whetstone Audio in Austin, Texas. Though if no dealer is in your area (which goes for pretty much everyone reading this), you can purchase a pair of 288 amps direct from Bandwidth simply by emailing or calling them directly.
I was fortunate enough to spend the Holidays with the 288s, along with another Bandwidth product, their Kaskode One phono preamp ($5,000). I utilized a number of different loudspeakers with the 288s, but spent the most time listening via my Davone Studio monitor speakers. My turntable of choice was U-Turn Audio's Orbit Plus, which is what I used for the bulk of my listening tests with the 288 amps. I used my Marantz NR1509 AV Receiver as my two channel preamp, albeit in its analog direct mode, which effectively turned it into a passive volume control so as not to color the sound.
So, how does the 288 sound? In a single word, sublime. It is the least tube-sounding tube amplifier I think I have ever heard. Not since my audition of Pass Labs' pure Class A line of amplifiers have I heard an amp that sounded so much like nothing at all. The 288 has all the natural, organic timbre and texture you'd expect from a tube-based design, but with none of the overt romanticism or editorialism. Full-range frequency response with firm bass and solid-state like speed? Check. Upper frequency air, extension, and natural decay? Check. Midrange that make vocals feel in-room? Check, check, check. None of it felt artificial or "voiced" in any way, which may or may not be what some aficionados are looking for.
Some tube enthusiasts like tubes for their tone control-like ability to roll off or smoothen out the rougher edges of a recording. Whereas others (like me) like tubes for their natural presentation, and don't want their sound to feel like wading through syrup or a light fog. The 288 definitely will appeal to those in the latter camp. Despite its imposing size and large tubes, the 288 quickly disappeared from my thoughts as I listened to record after record. Everything had such a natural ease to it. Never at any moment did the 288 feel like it was trying--or even cared--to impress me, for that wasn't its job. Have I heard faster transients? Maybe, but the 288 made me wonder if faster was better--or even right? More low-end impact? Perhaps? But again, the taut sounds and subsequent extension of each kick-drum impact left little to the imagination and even less to my desires for more. There's no other way to really describe the 288 monaural amplifier other than to say it's incredibly well-balanced, and as neutral to the source as I think you'll find in a tube-based design.
Competition and Comparisons
At 60 Watts per channel and at $10,000 per pair, the first product that came to mind to compare the 288 to was Pass Labs' XA60.8 monaural amplifier. At nearly $13,000 a pair the XA60.8s are more expensive than the 288s. The Pass Labs amps is also solid-state, whereas the 288 is tube-based. Still, these two amplifiers are more alike than many would likely think. I would classify both as being exceedingly neutral. Both are aimed at a very discerning listener and both could live in my system forever, if I were fiscally so inclined. The XA60.8s are pure Class A compared to the 288's AB designation, so purists may take issue with my comparing the two, but all things considered, they're more alike than they are different.
Comparing apples to apples, the 288 also compares favorably with Audio Research's VT80 and even their Reference 160M. While the 288 may not have the 160M's power output, it does match up quite nicely to the 160M in virtually every other regard.
Another consideration may be McIntosh's MC75, which has a bit more power, and a few more connection options compared to the 288. That and the McIntosh MC75 has heritage on its side. Though, if we're being honest, McIntosh isn't the same company it once was, and Bandwidth Audio is a lot more like the McIntosh of old than McIntosh is itself today.
$10,000 for a pair of anything, let alone a pair of tube-based amplifiers possessing a mere 60 Watts of output, is a purchase not to be taken lightly. But I would argue that anyone with ten grand to spend on audio equipment is accustomed to a certain level of risk and is in search of a certain something, something that not everyone is going to have--nor even be privy to. If this is you, then I would urge you to take a good long look at Bandwidth Audio's 288 monaural amplifier. Seek them out, audition them for yourself, for they are one of those products that possess that something special. The 288 is rarified air in that it has all of the traits a good, reference, cost-no-object amplifier must have, with virtually no discernable downside, sonically speaking, apart from either not having enough power for all speakers, or simply being too large or too expensive for some.
Who would've thought that a plucky little audio company in Austin would manufacturer one of the finest amplifiers I have ever had the good fortune to audition? Not me, but that is precisely what has happened.
• Visit the Bandwidth Audio website for more product information.
• Check out our Amplifier category page to read similar reviews.
•Pass Labs XA60.8 Mono-block Amplifier Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com