By the end of the first decade of the twenty first century, China was beginning to make real inroads into the world’s hi-fi market, taking advantage of its low manufacturing costs to produce large and impressive amplifiers for less money than expected. But the advent of Class D technology allowed Japan to fight back. It’s a cheap technology – to make and to run – but needs real expertise to get right, something that Japan had (and has) more of than China. So whereas the Chinese may have been able to offer massive Class A integrateds with acres of sheet metalwork, the Japanese responded with some brilliantly finessed products, immaculately built and finished in Japan, and competed on price terms too. Onkyo’s A-9755 was a perfect case in point.
Onkyo’s Mamoru Sekiya is the company’s star designer, whose golden ears have given Onkyo products an extremely accomplished sound. Whilst he proved his mettle with Harman Kardon’s famed Citation series back in the eighties, by 2006 he was working extensively with Class D, and has arguably done more than anyone else in the industry to get great results from it at an affordable price.
Aesthetically the A-9755 is a blast from the past, it could be straight from 1986. Japanese integrateds from back then, a decade later and indeed now, all look much of a muchness. But as a tactile rather than an aesthetic experience, it’s impressive. Flawlessly finished (the finely brushed aluminium front panel looks ten times better than anything from Shanling, for example) with large control knobs and buttons with a beautifully positive action, this is a joy to use and reminds me why I first fell in love with Japanese hi-fi.
The fascia isn’t short of buttons to press, and many readers here will be horrified to see tone controls fitted, and even a Loudness facility. Fortunately these can all be switched out, and better still, the entire preamplifier can be switched out by pressing the ‘Main In’ button in for three seconds. This done, the blue volume LED extinguishes and the 9755 becomes a power amplifier – and a very good one too. Pleasingly, there’s an MM phono stage fitted (along with CD, Tuner, HDD, Tape, MD, and Line inputs), and it seems Onkyo have really taken this seriously. Whereas most RIAA phono equalisers use op-amps and negative feedback to get good signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range numbers, the 9755 has a discrete transistor stage with thick copper bus bars for earthing. There’s also switching for two pairs of speakers.
The amplifier is also equipped with Onkyo’s Remote Interactive (RI) system, which as well as allowing other RI-equipped components to be controlled via the remote control, also makes it compatible with the new Onkyo DS-A1 iPod dock which lets iPod owners operate their device via the A-9755’s remote control, as well as listen to their music via it. Usefully, the dock also charges the iPod and works with all dockable iPods.
Being Class D, most of the amplification circuitry is done on just a cluster of ICs, so the 13kg weight is explained by its ‘Pure Stream Power Supply’ which uses two sizeable frame type transformers. Inside, there’s the associated gubbins that comes with PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) digital amps, but it’s augmented by Onkyo’s VL Digital analogue-to-digital conversion technology (in its third generation), which “delivers a dramatic decrease in the pulse noise.” Onkyo’s Optimum Gain Volume Circuitry is said to adjust signal gain to decrease the amount of attenuation necessary at low volumes to typically less than half the usual, which means that the signal never comes close to the noise-floor. The output stage circuitry is all discrete, and there’s serious attention to detail shown on earthing with a thick, low-impedance bus plate. Audiophile-grade capacitors are used, and the amp sits on a rigid, anti-resonant chassis fitted with brass stabilisers.
After a good long running in period, and an hour or two of warm-up, the A-9755 presents itself as a surprisingly rich, warm and powerful sounding thing, which in absolute terms is a tad soft and over generous in the bass, hazy in the mid and overly silky up top. It’s also not the most lithe and dynamic, but still makes a nicer noise than most other similarly priced integrateds that I have heard. It’s flawed in the best, most euphonic way possible – which was the secret of the classic NAD3020’s success. It is big, plump and commandingly powerful.
Bass is brilliant for a £700 amplifier, quite breathtaking. Its designer is a huge tube amp fan, and it shows in this which is warm, tuneful and a little soft – but unlike glowing glass bottles it has seemingly limitless reserves of power. In the midband, the Onkyo shows itself to have a vast, ‘cinemascope’ soundstage’ which I suspect is thanks in some part to some voicing in the preamp section; when used in power amplifier mode then things became far more neutral, accurate and tightly defined. As an integrated amplifier however, the 9755 pushes the soundstage wider than it should be, and the result is a wonderfully spacious and sumptuous sound.
It’s not so hot front-to-back; things are a tad two-dimensional meaning that depth perspective leaves something to be desired. The image hangs back just behind the plane of the speakers, but still sucks you in thanks to its amazing left-to-right scale. At the price, I’ve yet to hear anything that’s convincingly superior in this respect, however. Up top, like all good digital amps, the Onkyo is smooth and silky, with nice gentle, finessed treble detailing, but nothing special in terms of atmosphere.
Rhythmically, it is surprisingly accomplished. Considering its aforementioned, big fat bass, you might be forgiven for expecting it to be leaden, but it isn’t. In no way is it as explicit as a Naim, but it certainly isn’t backward in coming forward to tell you about the timing and dynamic expressiveness of a song. Put simply, you enjoy the song, feel the dynamic expressiveness of the performance and languish in its warm, powerful sound. Switching the preamplifier out of the circuit makes things tighter and less coloured, still an extremely enjoyable listen.
Don’t let this amplifier’s retro styling deceive you – this is a modern, beautifully voiced performer offering fantastic sound per pound. That brilliant Japanese build (and reliability, I’m sure) is icing on the cake. Only Rega’s Brio, from the same period, offered a better sound, but with conspicuously lower power.