Sometimes, there is a very small difference between the winner and the second place finisher. If we observe their actual performance, we may be unable to see any substantial difference at all. There is only a couple percent difference in the DNA of a man and a chimpanzee, but in this case, the difference is immediately obvious. Being close to the top of the food chain is not enough. Put another way, almost good enough…isn’t.
The PS Audio HCA-2 power amplifier is an interesting piece of gear. It uses an emerging technology that offers a good balance of strengths at a budget price. It is light in weight, runs cool, accepts balanced XLR or RCA inputs, and is powerful enough for almost any application. It looks very good, too, especially in black with the cool blue “PS” logo on the right side of the face plate. If the sound was close to that of acknowledged winners, this technology could change the landscape of high-end audio.
The first few moments listening to this amplifier were exciting, as I heard a presentation seemingly without fault. For those few moments, the HCA-2 presented a perfectly balanced sonic picture. There is no sign of the midrange problems that mars the Bel Canto’s 200.2’s otherwise fine performance. Everything from the low bass to the high treble is presented in a very balanced, evenly distributed, and dynamic manner. The overall sound can be summed up as “smooth”.
It quickly became apparent that something was not right. All the notes were there and the timing was excellent. But it was difficult to connect with the music and become involved. Even though it avoided the Bel Canto’s problem, the HCA-2 has its own particular anomaly. Where one could balance out the Bel Canto’s perceived frequency imbalance with careful and deliberate system (mis)matching, this one presents a steeper challenge.
Simply put, the HCA-2 seems to leave out the last couple of percent of low level detail. Bass notes are not quite as round and resonant as they should be, although the bass foundation is deep and powerful. The bass is affected the least by this characteristic, which increases with the rise in frequency. Bells don’t ring as clear or as long as they should, or possess much shimmer or air. Cymbals sound almost like tin, lacking much of the harmonic structure that gives brass its identity. Brass wind instruments lose much of their blatty brashness that makes them so interesting. The midrange is very good, except that, like the rest of the spectrum, it misses the degree of resolution that turns recorded music into listening enjoyment.
Somewhere in this technology the magic of musical involvement is lost and, along with it, the listener’s interest in hearing more music. The HCA-2 does nothing wrong; it just needs to do more right. Hearing ninety-eight percent of the music is just not enough.
This amplifier deserves a 10 LP ranking for what it does. But it earns 4 LPs for what it doesn’t do.
Overall Rating: 4 LPs