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PIONEER A-A9-S Audio Streaming amplifier

SINCE Pioneer’s success with the A400 integrated amplifier in the early 1990s, it has not made much impact with stereo-only hi-fi equipment. Efforts were channelled into home entertainment products, resulting in some excellent multi-channel amplifiers and plasma display units. Recently, however, Pioneer returned to the two-channel market with the exceptional EX range of speakers and a range of electronics, among which is the A-A9-S integrated amplifier.

Viewed front-on, the A9 looks good – it has an elegantly curved minimalist fascia, with just a power button, knobs for volume and source selection, a “Direct” button, a headphone jack and an LED display (all other functions are controlled from the remote). Tone and balance controls can only be accessed via the remote handset, and can be bypassed.

However, the top plate is cluttered with one too many screws – 16 of them to be exact! While these serve a purpose, the indents for the inset screws are either too large or non-existent. Features include a preamp out, inputs for five sources including tape loop and phono (MC/MM), and a USB input (your PC will recognise the A9 as an external sound device).

I do take issue with the speaker binding posts. Regular banana plugs are incompatible with the sockets and only fit sideways, clamped with the screw-down knobs. Those with stiffer and heftier speaker cables may run into trouble. Additionally, the remote control is plasticky and cheap looking, and imprecise in controlling levels. Frankly, it was quite embarrassing to see “Made in Malaysia” stamped on the back of it, in stark contrast to the high build quality of the unit itself, which is made in China.

Otherwise, the A9 is actually a very solid piece of gear. The chassis is rigid and the entire unit is relatively weighty at 10.8kg, given its dimensions. The amp is a true dual-mono design, with a dedicated toroidal transformer for each channel and a power rating of 55 watts into eight ohms (and 70 watts into four ohms).

The A9 was put in the company of Marantz DV7600 and CD63 KI digital sources, diyparadise Monica 2 DAC, and Rega P5 turntable, powering a pair of Magneplanar SMGb speakers.

The amp used “Direct” mode through the duration of the review.

The A9 also features a Sound Retriever function. The manual says this is a “new technology that helps remove the adverse effects of compressing two-channel audio by restoring bandwidth and smoothing jagged artefacts”. It appears to be a loudness button by another name!

Tunes off a portable Samsung YP-T8 portable digital player showed added presence and drive with the function engaged, but when employed with full-range audio, it was far from neutral – volume was louder and bass was bloated, so best to leave it off when playing the latter.

The A9’s sound is touted to have been refined at AIR Studios, the recording studio founded by legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin.

What is obvious about the A9 is its immediate, fast and detailed sound. It is able to bring out high levels of detail and nuances from your music, but sounded leaner compared to the resident Euphonic Research ATT-600/Amp-80 pre/power combo.

The A9 does not stumble over any sort of music you throw at it. Rock, classical or vocals, the amp presents it as is, warts and all. Bass is delivered with authority and always controlled, treble is detailed without being strident, and the midrange is generously precise with good presence. It is not exactly dry, but if you veer towards the tube amplifier sound, this may not be to your fancy.

The amp offers a generous amount of power and good dynamics, and should drive most speakers to loud volumes without much trouble. The phono stage, though, is there mostly for added functionality. It does the job but you could do better with a standalone unit.

So how does the Pioneer A-A9-S measure up against the A400? The latter was a great amp – for its price. It did not measure up sonically to higher-end designs, but was a no-brainer for newbies looking for a budget hi-fi system.

The A9, however, is not cheap. There are lower-priced integrated amps available, and many competitors at the price. So while it may not have the makings of a classic like the A400, those seeking a decent amplifier with good design basics going beyond the budget category owe it a listen.


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