The golden age of Japanese hi-fi was arguably from 1976 to 1981 – a time when the Yen was drastically undervalued on world markets, allowing Japanese manufacturers to launch products that Western companies simply couldn’t compete with. Although Nipponese hi-fi became synonymous with value, all of its major brands had specialist high end divisions too. The things that came out during this period were weird and wonderful; with massive turnovers, these companies could afford to be daring – and indeed many were.
One such example was Sony’s TA-E86/TA-N86 high end preamplifier and power amplifier combination. Launched in March 1978, it seemed impossibly advanced and exotic at the time. Unlike more affordable Japanese hi-fi though, it wasn’t just about looks – it was a fascinating proposition in terms of its engineering too. Part of what has retrospectively come to be called Sony’s ‘Pre-Esprit’ era, this combo was the company’s second ever ultra high end pre-power pairing. It laid the ground for the famous ‘Esprit’ range that became so iconic in the world of nineteen eighties Japanese high end.
This pre/power amp pair followed on closely from what is surely Sony’s most ambitious and technologically advanced product ever – with the possible exception of the original 1983 CD-P101 CD player, perhaps. 1977’s TA-N88 power amplifier was a stunning Class D design that offered a quoted 2x150W RMS per channel, and used V-FET output devices and a switching power supply – pretty much the stuff of science fiction back then! Selling alongside it was the matching TA-E88 preamplifier, a perfect visual complement. Together, these Shigeo Takahashi-designed flagship separates were strikingly minimalist by the gadget-festooned standards of the age.
Back to our featured TA-E86B/TA-N86B, then. This followed on from its illustrious forebear by around six months, and was an altogether more affordable proposition. It’s all relative though, because you’d still have to pay around £1,000 for both of them – four times the price of a Linn Sondek LP turntable at the time, and more than a Mini 850 car. And there was more if you had the funds; Sony quickly released a matching TA-D88B four-way active crossover, ST-J88B digital FM tuner and TC-K88B cassette deck for the full ‘Pools winner’ stack system!
That hugely complex TA-N88 power amplifier was quickly discontinued due to endemic unreliability; its V-FETs were notoriously problematic and the power supply was right on the ragged edge, causing its capacitors to fail due to heat damage. The TA-N86 duly took its place as Sony’s top power amplifier, and in truth was always a far better sounding product – and more reliable too. Indeed, so popular was it that around ten thousand ’86 pre-power combos are estimated to have been sold, compared to just over half that for the 88s. The ’86 ran right up to 1984, which is one hell of a long time in Sony years!
The most striking thing about this combo is its size, or lack thereof – the previous generation of high end Sonys stood at least twice as tall, making them big and bulky things. Yet the TA-E86/TA-N86 were both surprisingly compact at 480x160x410mm (WxHxD). In a hi-fi world where bigger meant better, this was a powerful anti-fashion message sent by Sony, and also presaged its new 1979 range of amplifiers that were radically slimmed down. Soon, almost all Japanese hi-fi separates would share similarly svelte dimensions, ushering in a new look that would dominate the eighties. In the words of Hi-Fi Choice of that time, the Sony pair looked “both discreet and extremely classy.”
Such a bold visual statement by Sony could not have been made if the TA-N86 power amp had not been designed in the way it was. Here was a power amplifier that offered a quoted 100W RMS per channel into 8 ohms in Class AB mode, but could be switched into full Class A whereupon it put out a claimed 30W RMS per side. This was only possible from such a slim and small box due to the use of a switching power supply. This is no big deal now, but back in 1978 it was very rare in any consumer audio product. A suitable toroidal transformer would simply have been too bulky to fit inside the Sony’s case, so the company’s so-called ‘Pulse Power Supply’ was employed. True enough, when the company’s next range of integrated amplifiers launched, they all featured versions of this.
Inside, the N86 is a work of art. The large heatsinks that run down both sides of its case connect to four Sony High fT power transistors, two per side of course. After half an hour or so, the case gets really hot in Class A mode – although we’re not quite talking Musical Fidelity A1 hot. Things are basically laid out with dual mono construction, and high quality Japanese passive components are used. Indeed, the build is spectacular, the unit being assembled to extremely high standards without being overly frivolous. The fascia is an exquisite slice of 6mm thick brushed aluminium – complete with engraved lettering rather than screen printed. The gunmetal finish of the ‘B’ suffix versions shown here are very similar to what Apple calls ‘Space Grey’ on its MacBook Pros; ‘non-B’ silver versions were also available in Japan.
Round the back are switches for Class A or Class AB operation, and AC or DC-coupled mode. When partnered with the matching TA-E86 preamp, the latter mode is used. The front mounted on-off switch feels exquisite to turn on, and is supported by a tiny, solitary green power LED – the diametric opposite to the ‘Tokyo by night’ lightshows of many Japanese amplifiers of that era. Attention to detail is amazing; unlike almost all amplifiers I’ve come across with heatsinks exposed, the Sony’s are smooth and can’t do you an injury if you pick them up at the wrong angle. They even have a centre detent for a long rubber band to damp the metallic resonance of the fins; sadly this is now long gone on most examples you find secondhand.
The matching TA-E86 preamplifier is also a thing of beauty, albeit far more conventional than its power amp. Once again, simplicity, proper engineering and high component quality is key; it has a good quality ALPS volume potentiometer and other switchgear, premium components and even a second winding taken off the mains transformer for the MC phono stage. Like its partnering power amp, no integrated circuits are used anywhere. Facilities are sparse, extending to basic cartridge matching (3 ohm or 40 ohm for MC, 25k, 50k or 100k ohm for MM); there’s also a switchable low filter. Oddly the preamp has two sets of outputs, one of which with a degree of bass boost built in.
This combo sounds quintessentially ‘Japanese high end’ – clear, open, precise and transparent, with great insight into the recording, impressive dynamics and apparently endless power. It’s gutsy and grippy in a way that you don’t hear from most other amplifiers new or old, and drives any normal loudspeakers to high volumes – spectacularly so considering the year it was launched. Yet there’s a caveat, because the TA-N86 power amp is very strong sounding – but only up to a point.
In Class AB mode, thanks to the way that Sony’s switching power supply is designed, its output actually drops into lower speaker loads, making less power into 4 ohms than into 8. In practice, with most speakers and at anywhere near normal volume levels, this isn’t an issue and you’re left stunned by its speed, clarity and grip, but it’s something to remember if you’re looking for something closer to a public address sound system.
The other criticism of its otherwise excellent performance is a slightly tinselly sounding upper midband. It’s not harsh by any means, but things like snare drums and female vocals are ‘well lit’ in the mix. This again reinforces the ‘Japanese high end’ stereotype; it’s a showy, forward amp that’s bristling with detail but not the subtlest of performers. This all changes when you switch to Class A mode, however. Suddenly you have less power, but it’s a whole league more smooth and three dimensional. Now this pre/power sounds super-subtle, delicate and three dimensional, with oodles of naturally articulated detail.
Things also seem to change rhythmically in Class A mode, as you hear a swing in the music that wasn’t there before. In Class AB this combo sounds super-fast and exciting but is a little relentless, whereas back in A it retains the speed but threads the music together in a more organic way. The result is quite something – the acid jazz of James Taylor’s Wait A Minute for example, is tremendous fun yet you get all that lovely Japanese high end delicacy and detail too. This track also shows off this Sony combo’s sublime soundstaging; everything is locked rock-solid in three dimensional space.
Feed this pre/power with some classic new wave in the shape of The Motors’ Forget About You and it’s amazing to hear every single strand of the mix playing by itself, whilst remaining beautifully syncopated to everything else. The precision is quite superb, yet in Class A at least it doesn’t feel like the recording is being deconstructed before your very ears. Rather, the music sashays along with a kind of controlled aggression that communicates the intensity of the original recording. Move to a great eighties pop production such as Grace Jones’ Trevor Horn-produced masterpiece Slave To The Rhythm, and you’re amazed by the production effects and the dynamic tension in the singer’s voice. The whole things comes together in a way that makes you marvel at the insight and musicality this combination offers.
Sony’s TA-E86 preamplifier/TA-N86 power amplifier combination is important in the great scheme of Sony things, and indeed wider Japanese high end. It was the company’s first reliable ultra high end amplifier combination, with a sound to match the exquisite looks. It also directly inspired the company’s iconic Esprit series, but in my view was better – purer in design and sound. Many preamps and power amps are still in use even today, over forty years on – which is a testament to their brilliance.