As he describes in his brilliant autobiography Made In Japan, Sony boss Akio Morita went to the United States in the early nineteen sixties in an attempt to persuade Americans that they should be listening to small transistor radios. At first, the US consumer electronics industry was not convinced that anyone would want to listen to something smaller than a sideboard, so it took him a lot longer than expected to get his message across. But when finally offered the choice, American buyers took to the idea in droves, and things were never the same again.
It could only have been a Japanese company; the country’s artisan tradition always placed the emphasis on aesthetic and ergonomic purity, rather than sheer size. Fifteen years later however, it wasn’t Sony that popularised small stereo systems, it was Aurex (Toshiba). Its ‘microsystems’ of the late nineteen seventies were things of beauty, and offered sound that was just as grown-up as full-size hi-fi separates. For a while, compact hi-fi took a back seat, but by the early nineties it was back in fashion again with the likes of Denon doing quality products, this time with Compact Disc players in place of cassette decks. By the middle of that decade, TEAC had joined the fray, and its ‘Reference’ series of small separates – now also with MiniDisc decks offered – set the standard.
Funnily enough, another two decades on, and the company is back in this market in earnest. The chintzy, rather nineteen seventies styled Reference 300 and 500 components have gone – as indeed have the MD players – and the latest 101, 301 and 501 series minicompo (Japanese-English for miniature components) are here. This time they’re beautifully cleanly styled and of course use all the latest technology. The AI-501 is the flagship mini amplifier, a very compact (290×81.2x264mm, 4kg) product with a beautiful brushed metal finish and lots of the latest silicon inside.
The Class D design uses ALC0180 chips from ABLETEC which give a claimed 90W RMS into 4 ohms. These run very cool and use tiny amounts of power relative to Class AB, making them ideal for a ‘desktop’ amplifier of this type. Not all Class D chips are particularly pleasant sounding; TEAC says it auditioned a good number of different ones before selecting these Norwegian-designed output devices. They’re assisted by a toroidal power transformer and Schottky Barrier diodes for the power supply circuits.
Also fitted is a BurrBrown PCM5102 DAC, which works via the USB, coaxial and optical digital inputs; the latter is limited to 24/96 resolution, with the other two inputs giving 24/192. Internal processing is said to be done at 32-bit resolution. The amp also has two conventional RCA line inputs, and its lovely ‘surprise and delight’ feature is the power meters – these have adjustable backlighting, depressingly slow ballistics and are calibrated in dB rather than watts. Still, they’re moderately useful at knowing just how close you’re getting to maximum output.
At £700 the TEAC is not a cheap amplifier. The price is certainly reflected in its excellent build and finish, which even extends to the aluminium volume knob. When the Japanese do this sort of thing, they do it so beautifully you wonder why British and American products seem so rough around the edges – in short, it’s an absolute joy to use, and even if it sounded average you’d still come away from your purchasing experience feeling you’d got good value for money.
Fortunately, it sounds good too. I wouldn’t say this amplifier is the best performer at the price; for example you can buy the Cambridge Audio Azur 651A for half the price that’s a better music maker, but still the AI-501 does just enough sonically to make you think you’ve got a good deal. Many Class D amps are just plain boring, but the TEAC isn’t one of them. Yes, it does sound a little soft and doesn’t quite have the hear-through clarity you’d expect when you look at its polished exterior, but it’s still nevertheless a musical device, with a good deal of detail and a generally pleasing air.
It isn’t the most powerful thing either, but what limited power it does have is clean all the way to clipping, and there’s little sense of it running out of steam when running at maximum volume. Bass is a little loose in absolute terms, but always nicely tuneful; midband is spacious and tidy, with no nasty tonal unevenness, and treble is smooth and couth, albeit not the world’s most atmospheric. Overall the TEAC is a good, solid, enjoyable all rounder – which immediately puts it a fair way ahead of most small separates, which are often seriously compromised. The only real criticism is that this amplifier doesn’t quite have the barrel-chested, powerful nature you might expect; it sits on dynamics just a touch, giving it a slightly rounded feel with is never unpleasant, but not quite as punchy as a similarly priced full size product.
Overall, it proves that good things can come in small packages. The built-in DAC is handy and decent sounding, the headphone driver (via full size 6.3mm socket) is good, and the amp lacks only a 3.5mm line input for small portable devices like MP3 players. The wee TEAC may be a little too niche for some, but others will find it the perfect device for their study, bedroom or office; paired to the excellent ultra-compact Monitor Audio Radius 90 loudspeakers it forms the heart of a wonderfully inconspicuous sound system.