Danish company Tangent makes hi-fi equipment at prices that everyone can afford. And although the price is on the small side, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the sound quality on several occasions.
However, it came as a surprise when Tangent launched the PreAmp II and PowerAmpster II in early summer. Partly because they launched the new products at the high-end trade fair in Munich, and partly because this is an amplifier set with separate hi-fi preamplifier and power amplifier at a price that is on a par with a multi-room loudspeaker.
The PreAmp II and PowerAmpster II are sold separately, but we’ve chosen to test the set together, as it’s likely to be sold together in most cases. However, we also listened to the parts separately and also tested with two bridged power amplifiers. We’ll come back to that.
The PreAmp II and PowerAmpster II are exactly the same size and also match the Tangent Ampster BT II, which we’ve previously tested. It makes perfect sense. Both because there is money to be saved by being able to use the same cabinet for multiple models. And also because there you can build yourself a small stereo rack along with the matching radio tuner and CD player.
At just under 20 cm wide and 7 cm high, the stereo components don’t take up much space. Which in some people’s eyes would be an advantage. Although buyers of separate preamplifiers and power amplifiers are likely to prefer the system to take up some space.
Tangent PreAmp II
The PreAmp II has one knob on the front panel, and it functions as a volume control, input selector and power button. A series of LEDs indicates which input is selected. The small preamp has enough inputs to cover most needs: an optical input for CD player or TV, Bluetooth wireless reception for streaming from mobile and computer, and a line input that can be converted to turntable input. The latter was missing from the cheaper Tangent Ampster BT. There’s also an extra 3.5mm minijack line input for computer audio, for example.
There are, of course, outputs for power amplifiers. Both in the form of normal single-ended RCA sockets and balanced XLR outputs. The latter is surprising on such an inexpensive device. But it makes sense because of a clever circuitry in the power amplifier. There’s also an output for an active subwoofer.
Tangent PowerAmpster II
The PowerAmpster II is even simpler to operate. There are no buttons on the front panel. Not even an power button. The power amplifier turns itself on and off depending on whether there is a signal on the input. And it uses only half a watt at idle.
Of the inputs and outputs, there are line inputs with RCA jacks and balanced XLRs. The terminals for speakers are of quite decent quality. And far better than you’d expect at the price. There’s also an – almost invisible – switch between stereo and mono operation. The power amplifier can be bridged. And that’s where the cleverness of the balanced inputs comes in.
When bridging an amplifier, the two channels work in opposite phase and the speaker signal is taken between the positive terminals of the two outputs. And instead of building a phase inversion circuit into the PowerAmpster II, Tangent takes advantage of the fact that a balanced connection already gets two versions of the signal in opposite phase to each other. The downside is that you can only bridge the PowerAmpster II via the balanced input.
The amplifier outputs 100 watts in class D in normal operation and 200 watts bridged. Tangent does not mention at what impedance the figures are measured.
The Tangent amplifier set is easy to set up and easy to live with. The sound is pleasant and without sharp edges or tendency to harshness. And there’s enough power to drive most speakers that the kit will realistically be paired with. That means compact and speakers with moderate sensitivity and in smaller spaces. And that’s all you can reasonably ask of a separate amplifier set at such a ridiculously low price.
But of course we couldn’t resist giving the Tangent set a closer listen while we were at it. And it does most things well, as long as you don’t make onerous demands. First and foremost, the bass is well controlled. Rap and pop and most electronic dance music sound fine, and you can play loud enough for a warm-up in your dorm room before the party moves on into the city.
There’s actually some sense of space and depth to the soundstage, too. Enough so that you can hear the difference between a good hi-fi recording and a less good one. And voices, for example on favourite test track “Right Hand Man” from Hamilton actually sound quite natural.
But don’t put anything on that’s more complicated than that.
After all, nuance and resolution are neither the pre nor the power amp’s strong points. In fact, I’d have happily traded a lot of the raw power for a better acoustic overview. On Disturbed’s cover version of “Sound of Silence,” you can just make out how the vocals in the introduction are built from several layers of recordings. But when the orchestra is unleashed in the endings, it all becomes a convoluted wall of sound where it’s impossible to distinguish the instruments from one another. For example, I know there’s an acoustic guitar somewhere in the mess – but I can’t hear it. The amp clearly has the power surplus to play much louder. But not the ability to reproduce detail.
I also tried putting on Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. Which I regretted. Although there is only one instrument on the recording, the task was clearly too big.
We had two PowerAmpster IIs available for testing, so of course we had to try running them as bridged. The doubled power and ditto power supply reserves added to the already good bass response. It was a pleasure to hear the gloriously rocking interplay between Jonas Hellborg and Ginger Baker on “Time Be Time”. But the bridging solved a problem that didn’t really exist. The weakest point of the otherwise successful amplifier set is not the output power, but the nuancing ability. And the bridging didn’t change that.
If you need hi-fi in the dorm room or a pair of nice speakers for the desk, you will get far too little money here.
Making so much of the shortcomings may sound harsh. And it should be seen more as ideal claims in a perfect world than as criticism of the Tangent set. For we are dealing with very cheap amplifiers, and it is hard to find anything that costs so little! If you can make do with less power, however, the Argon SA1 is worth considering. And if you need a bit more wattage and are therefore considering the bridging solution, it might be worth looking at streaming amps like the Harman Kardon Citation Amp.
The Tangent PreAmp II and PowerAmpster II are something as unique as an amplifier set with separate preamp and power amp at a price so low that I haven’t seen anything like it since the 1980s. If you want a taste of ‘classic’ hi-fi, but only have a student budget available, the Tangent set could be the ticket. Sound-wise, you’re pretty well covered too. Granted, the sound isn’t particularly nuanced, and complex music is to be avoided. But there’s a good bottom end to the bass, and the sound never becomes unpleasant or harsh. With an additional power amp, you can play really loud. However, if you don’t need quite so much power, and you’re happy with a single unit rather than two or three, you can get just as good a sound elsewhere.