Hifi Pig first bumped into the Greek “Black Pearls” brand whilst at the Munich High-End show earlier in the year. They were part of the newcomers’ area of the show and had what looked to be a pretty accomplished design for a company with just one product under their belt – the Birth 100 amplifier…alas it wasn’t possible to listen at the show and so we sought out a review sample.
Black Pearls founder is Konstantino Papachristou who is an electronics engineer with a Ph.D, a love of music and high-end audio and whose aim is to reproduce an audio experience which is as accurate and high fidelity as can be achieved.
The resulting first product is the Black Pearls Birth 100 which is an integrated design boasting 70W into 8ohms and 110 into 4ohms and having a class A preamplifier stage. The amplifier’s power stage is “deeply” biased for class A and it has five line inputs, plus an unbalanced XLR input and a pair of loudspeaker binding posts round the back. On the front there’s the input selector buttons, powered volume knob and a headphone output socket.
Finish on the amplifier is first rate and, whilst it is certainly not over the top on bling, it strikes an attractive pose on the rack with its brushed aluminium front plate and minimal design.
It’s a heavy beast too, but picking the amp up you find most of the weight appears to be towards the front end of the unit and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the thick aluminium front plate was responsible for this weightiness, but a quick peek inside reveals that there are no less than four toriodal transformers along the front panel – these are for each of the channels’ preamplifier and power stages – it’s very much a dual mono design.
The Birth 100 comes with a (basic but just about adequate) remote control that controls volume and channel selection – there’s also a mute button. It’s small and simple affair and very much of the no frills variety. Some will like this no frills approach whilst others will say that for an amplifier costing €3500 you should expect to find something a little more substantial – given the number of remotes we have in the house I can see this getting misplaced from time to time – the remote powers the motorised Blue ALPS pot which is pretty cool.
First up we had the Q Acoustics Concept 20 loudspeakers which recently received a Hifi Pig Recommended award and some new techno in the form of South American Sano and his album of the same name. This record digs deep into the bass frequencies and with the little Concept 20s it appeared the Black Pearls amp allowed them to go a little deeper than when we reviewed them with the more realistic pairing (price-wise) of the Clones i25 amp. Higher frequencies jump out from the mix and the already very good imaging of the speakers appears to be further enhanced with the Birth 100 in line. Actually the Black Pearls amp with the Concept 20s is a very good, if surprising pairing given the price differences. There is a little bloominess in the bass being hyper critical, but over all the presentation is very controlled.
Popping on Kathryn Williams “Heart Shaped Stone” again emphasises an ever so slight bass bloom but with a bit of judicial placing of the speakers this was cured leaving us with a very natural sound. The vocal appeared much fuller than with the Clones amp and over all there is a feeling that there is a very nice tonal quality to this amplifier. There’s the impression that the amp is adding certain “oomph” to proceedings and with the next track (“Counts”) you’d be forgiven for thinking that the double bass wasn’t coming from much bigger loudspeakers.
Imaging appears to be enhanced with a great representation of instruments being in the right place and with good height to the image too.
Moving over to a more realistic price pairing and the main system using the VAD DAC and our hORN Mummy loudspeakers (95dB) you are rewarded with an absolutely huge sound with the amp – a real wall of sound but with depth too.
Grace Slick’s “Dreams” album and the flamenco tinged “El Diablo” sounds very good with a great feeling of attack and decay on guitar notes. Castanets sound crisp and snappy but compared to the Iridium amp there is a slight warmth to the sound. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and the Birth 100 will appeal to those who enjoy a slightly warmer presentation – it’s far from pipe and slippers though! Where the Birth 100 does win over the Iridium is in overall slam particularly in the bottom end and this is no doubt down to the extra power available with the Black Pearl.
Changing CDs and with no music playing I note a bit of a hum. It’s not apparent when playing music but it’s certainly there when there’s nothing playing – it persisted throughout the review on the main system but wasn’t apparent on the Q Acoustics system so I’m assuming this is down to the increased sensitivity of the Mummys. Speaking with Konstantinos he says he thinks this hum may well be down to low power at our end…this would not surprise me and is one of the reasons I’m exploring a balanced power supply for the hifi rig.
Now this is an odd one to my mind – I’ve noticed that when reviewing amps with different flavours I tend to gravitate towards particular genres of music and with the Black Pearls amplifier I found myself reaching for rock album after rock album.
Hawkwind’s “Levitation” sounded taut and with a great punch. I also noted that the soundstage appeared to be HUGE with great separation to the instruments and noises in the mix..again. As good as I’ve heard this album sound…and I’ve heard it a LOT!!
Fishbone’s “Give a Monkey a Brain” confirms my thoughts that this is a fab amp for playing rock music, but then we don’t all listen to rock music do we! So it’s with a degree of irritation (I really was loving delving into my harder rock music) that I thought I ought to reach for something of a little less rocksome nature.
Guichen “Freres” combines Breton acoustic instruments with more familiar rock themes (it seems I can’t help myself) and a very good album it is too. Acoustic guitar sounds fast and accurate whilst there is great weight and authority to the bass notes throughout the album. The bass isn’t over domineering in the mix but it is certainly making its presence felt. That said the Birth 100’s rendition of finger work on the record’s second track is superbly detailed and fine sounding.
The more I listen to the Birth 100 the more I begin to think that this is actually very much my kind of amplifier in many ways – it has wollop on the bass end, lovely definition and detail in the mids and an ever so slightly rolled off top end.
Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” demonstrates that moving away from amplified instruments amply (‘scuse the pun) demonstrates that the Birth 100 is certainly no slouch. Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet cuts through with a raspiness to its tone – just as it should….Nice! Hats are nicely crisp but not over exaggerated. Image is again good with everything being in its correct place on the stage. The comparison to the reference Iridium displays that the Birth 100 doesn’t quite have the same finesse I’ve become used to, but where it does score points over the Iridium is having that extra power on hand to really reach down low.
I suppose the acid test with any bit of kit is to ask yourself “Could I live with this?” …So could I live with the Black Pearls amplifier then?…well yes I could a it happens. It has a big powerful sound that appeals to my rock sensibilities but it can also do other genres with aplomb. Jazz music (I played a lot) sounds true to life and with “live” recordings you get a real sense of that being there feeling and that little bit of warmth I mentioned really suits this kind of recording.
I know readers are going to pick up on the word warmth (which when I’ve read this back I’ve used quite a lot) as being a negative quality to the amp, but if truth be know I don’t actually think it is with the Black Pearl. What you get is a really non-fatiguing sound that you can enjoy for hours on end without becoming jaded by the music.
I said it’s a rock amp earlier in the review but I need to qualify that a little I think – The Birth 100 is a great all round amp that majors in balls out rock, does instrumental and simply recorded music beautifully and with techno really comes into its own with that deep, powerful and controlled bass as heard on Benassi Brothers “Pumphonia” – it really does sound great at high volume and the Black Pearls amp shows itself to be a great party rocking amp….but it can also do the later more mellow smooch numbers too. Youngest son wandered through the room when I was playing the “Pumphonia” record, turned to the speakers, nodded his head, turned and said “I approve”…the youth has spoken!
Listening to the Black Pearls on headphones (Grado 325is) you get pretty much the same flavour from the amp as you do through the speakers and this is a good thing to my mind – the headphones’ output is directly driven from the power stage so no real surprise really. Not much else to add to this really other than to say it’s nice to have an amp with a headphone socket on the front. Just remember to press mute on the remote before listening on ‘phones – just like I didn’t!
Well shiver me timbers if I didn’t really enjoy the time I spent with the Black Pearls Birth 100. It’s certainly an amp I would heartily recommend for the rock lover out there, but I’d also recommend it for those who enjoy acoustic music too – particularly live jazz!!!
On the negative side I think the remote control is cheap and, whilst functional, for an amp costing €3500 I would have expected something a little nicer.
What it lacks in rinsing out the very last miniscule of detail from a recording it makes up for in its lively and gutsy rendering of the music. Play it loud and you’ll love it. Play it quietly and you may notice it’s not the last word in absolute detail, though it’s in no way terrible – it’s actually pretty good! Play it for hours and hours and you’ll appreciate that this is an amplifier that is made to simply enjoy the music – you don’t want to get all analytical and what not, you just want to listen to your tunes with it!
Author – Stuart