Phoenix Gold Elite.4
Near the end of the 90's, I found myself working for a local "mom and pop" car stereo shop. Up to this point my exposure to car audio was limited to a few friends with their own stereos who had been highly influenced by their older friends or family members. Bias ran high, as did brand loyalty. The car stereo shop I worked for was the single source of car audio equipment in our area, and therefore the brands they sold were on the minds of every kid with a car. Phoenix Gold was the top brand carried. At this time I personally could not afford PG, but this further fueled the flames of my desire to some day own a PG product.
Fast forward several years to when eBay started becoming a key marketplace for audio equipment, and suddenly all of the old equipment I could never afford was within reach on the used market. As if some deep rooted brain disorder began to take hold of me, I purchased more and more vintage PG equipment. Over time I had found myself owning at least one of nearly every amplifier PG ever produced. Like many others the MS series of amplifiers captured a unique place in my heart. They were examples of perfection, simple in design, quality in construction, and brutal in performance. What more could anyone want or need?
Today I have been given a unique opportunity to review what I, and many others, regard as the first real challenge to the MS line of old to come out of PG in all those years. Now don't get me wrong, PG has produced many excellent products over the history of the company, some of which I personally find more interesting and more useful than the MS series. What many of us die hard PG fans have been waiting for has been a product line to offer us everything the MS line could and more, much more...
...and that is what PG's new Elite line is all about. Everything and more, no compromises, something of legend from a legendary manufacturer.
Morgan West has been with PG for some time. He was there years ago, left at least once I know of, and has been back around the past few years doing his best to help the phoenix truly rise from the ashes. Let's face it, there have been some dark times for PG in the new millennium. At a time when car audio manufacturers have been dropping like flies, and the younger generation is more interested in text messaging on their shiny new phones then knocking pictures off of their neighbor's walls, the whole car audio industry has a tough road ahead of it. The team at PG (and parent company AAMP) has been raising the bar with each new product produced, and what I gather is this is their strategy to stay competitive in a volatile marketplace. The best part of their whole policy with raising the bar on each generation is they have been slowly giving themselves the resources to build even better products, approaching levels unseen since the golden years of car audio. This is were the Elite.4 comes in.
PG took all their know how, all their effort, some advice from their fans, and attempted to produce a real flagship product. So, with that in mind, I have done my best to analyze the Elite.4 to the best of my ability, and hopefully give you the chance to form your own opinion about it.
At this point I would also like to thank AAMP and all those there who were involved in getting one of these amps in my hands to review.
Up until I started reviewing products from the new PG, I never really spent much time looking at the packaging. PG dedicates a good deal of effort to packaging, and I feel it is only fitting to cover it as well. You might think packaging is irrelevant, and less effort should go into it with more placed on the item in question. Well, I have finally come to the realization that packaging is pretty important. If any of you are like me, you probably have an assortment of amps in your possession which you do not use. I have more than I can remember, and only have one installed (yes, I know this is sad). For me the box means a lot, as the amp will spend most its life in there and I want it to take up a minimal amount of space, be easy to get at the item inside, protect the item well, and let me stack more junk on top of it as the years go by. PG packaging on the Elite.4 meets all those needs and more.
The packaging protects the amplifier in layers. The outermost shell of the box lifts off, so there are no folding flaps to become damaged, or other interlocking tabs to fall apart. Inside the box large laminated pieces of foam secure the amp in position. The amplifier itself is wrapped in both a plastic bag, and a nice fabric bag closed by a zipper. There is a remote level control, the cable for said control, a small tool kit, the birth sheet for the amplifier, and a manual all included.
The packaging seems to accomplish its goals. It does not take up much more space than the amp does itself, and still provides plenty of protection.
The amplifier is simple in appearance, with a nice smoked plexi top cover. Lights inside the amp illuminate through this Plexiglas cover, indicating it is powered on. The ends of the amplifier are cast aluminum. They are very crisp castings, with a clean looking powder coat finish.
The main signal end of the amp is well organized. There are LEDs to indicate clipping on either the front or rear sections, one LED for if the amp is in protection, and one more for if the amp is powered on.
The RCA jacks are very nice bolt on types. All the controls and switches are quality in appearance, and smooth when used. There are options to set the fan at auto, on, or off.
The ends of the amplifier are made up of two parts. One is a sheet metal insert, and the other is an outer casting. Since the indicators are silkscreened on the sheet metal, this leaves the option open for the owner to paint the casting what ever color they wish.
Also of note are the rails which hold the plexi window in place. These can be swapped from one side of the amp to the other. In theory one could switch them around if they wanted to have the RCAs and power jacks on opposite ends of stock.
The only drawback to this is the LED indicator inside the amp. It would end up being upside down. I have looked at this tri-LED array, and it does not seem you can flip it around as the wiring would be wrong. This is something PG could fix though. With only a slight change (say make the inside posts hot, and the outer ones ground), the owner could then be able to flip the lights around when they flip the aluminum plexi retainers around.
Any amplifier is a sum of all its parts. Each component performs a certain function, and generally speaking the quantity and quality of these components directly relate to the final performance of the product. This amplifier is no exception and it easily has what it takes to get the job done. All of these parts need a place to call home, and in the case of this amp, that would be the heatsink.
This heatsink is easily the highest mass heatsink I have ever come across. It is VERY heavy. Take a look at the next photo of one of the ends...
There is a lot of solid material under the main rows of components. Plenty of mass to absorb heat. Then, down below are some small fins, to help dissipate that heat through the use of a fan. Here is that fan.
The electrical foundation of any amp is its power supply. The Elite.4 has a very overbuilt power supply section. To start with, no less than 16 P70N06 transistors feed the dual power supplies (8 per supply). For those of you familiar with older PG amps, this is similar to a pair of ZX500 power supplies, or similar in parts count to a ZPA0.5.
Unlike a ZPA0.5 though, this amp has two separate power supplies, driven by separate PWM controllers, and using separate components. My assumption is one power supply is for the front section of the amp, and the other is for the rear.
Each of the two supplies is fed with 4 2,200uF capacitors. This is not as much as many older PG amps, but nothing a local external capacitor cannot make up for.
Power from the transformers is then rectified with two TO-220 sized diodes per supply. Back in the day PG used larger TO-247 devices, but technology has come a long way. Semiconductor loses are much lower, and today TO-220 devices can handle more current than their older TO-247 sized counterparts could.
After rectification, current is fed through a pair of iron core inductors to filter out high frequency noise.
Rectified and filtered power is then stored in a pair of 4,700uF rail caps per supply.
Also of note is this area. I have not figured out what this TIP transistors are for, but my best guess is voltage regulation for the preamp section.
That pretty much rounds out the power supply section of the amp. In many ways it is on par with any other PG offering, and in some ways it is more robust.
Now for the output section. Like any other PG amp, we have a legendary triple Darlington design. Here are some components I suspect to be the last voltage gain stage, and the first two stages of triple Darlington.
And now for the very best feature of this whole amp, the main output transistors. For years PG has been using TO-247, or TO-3P sized output transistors (bipolar), but this new amp takes that to the next level with MT200 package devices. To the best of my knowledge MT-200 is the largest transistor package ever used in any large production car (OR HOME) amplifier! This is very big news indeed.
These transistors have significantly more thermal capacity than smaller ones, and they also happen to be models designed specifically by Sanken for audio reproduction. You can't get any better than that.
As mentioned by PG marketing, a pair of "tombstone" emitter resistors are used for each output transistor.
Power from the transistors in then routed to the speaker terminals via large buss bars.
Now, what about the preamp section? Can anyone say "Burr-Brown"? We have the largest gathering of Burr Brown op-amps I have found in any OEM amplifier I have come across. They are all over the main board, and the smaller preamp daughter board. Twelve OPA2134PA op-amps are used in all.
Signals are fed into the amp through some nice solid bolt on type RCAs.
So to sum up, the Elite.4 has a parts count which rivals any PG amp before it. As for part quality, no other PG amp in history has this level of parts in it (due primarily to the use of the MT-200 size transistors). Now that we know the design has what it takes, it is time for me to see if it measures up.
Before I go any further, I need to mention a cool feature which really has nothing to do with much of anything. When you power the amp on, the tri-LED array slowly brightens, and when you turn the amp off it slowly dims. Makes for a pretty impressive look when you see it for the first time (or maybe I am just easily amused).
To start off, I took a few measurements to see where this amp was at. I found the amp to output 27V RMS prior to clipping. If you do the math, this comes out to 182W, which is right in line with the amp's birth sheet at 183W a channel. I think this is the first time I have had my numbers come out so well.
I also checked out what the amp requires to drive it. It turns out you need 5.7V RMS input to fully drive the amp with its gains all the way down, and 0.2V RMS to fully drive the amp with its gains all the way up. With this in mind the amp should work well with most any head unit on the market.
Now for the major gripe I have with the amp in general, the preamp/crossover section. To start with, this amp has no way to feed both front and rear off a single pair of RCAs. I was forced to use "Y" cables, and I really hate doing that. Next, this amp has no preamp output to drive another amp. And finally, this amp has only 3rd order (18db/octave) slopes on its crossover. I find all of this kind of sad considering PG has been known for such flexible front ends on their amps over the years.
If any of you are really bummed about my findings on the crossover, consider that this is an "audiophile" amplifier. Everything about this amp related to the act of boosting signal voltage and current is done well, and done as good or better than any previous offering. Anyone serious about using this amp will probably use some sort of upstream processor or external crossover anyway. To be honest, it might have been better if PG just left the crossover out of the amp altogether. The fact that it is in there is a convenience feature, and may come in handy if you happen to need it.
Now for what a lot of you probably were waiting for, sound quality. This amp is hands down as good or possibly better than any other amp I have had the pleasure of listening too. It is a cut above all the other PG amps, and every bit as good as many other brands out there. I started listening to various CDs with the amp, and found myself enjoying the experience so much I listened for many hours straight. Every CD sounded great and I am very confident this amp can run with my multi-thousand dollar home amplifiers as well. If you have had any concerns about how this amp will stack up against older PG products, it is time to put those concerns to rest, you will not be disappointed.
Elite vs MS:
For anyone interested, here is a rundown of the new vs the old...
|MT200 sized output devices||TO-3P sized output devices|
|Ultra high mass heatsink||Typical mass heatsink|
|Fan which can be disabled if desired||Ability to cook hot dogs if desired|
|No loose wires in design||Loose wires everywhere|
|Remote level control||Nope|
|Crossover (though not an impressive one)||Nothing|
|Don't have to mount upside down to show off guts||Have to flip over to show guts|
|Black coated PCB||Our beloved gold plated PCB|
|Cast aluminum ends which won't rust||Ends which rust away and look awful|
|Nice mounting tabs||Cumbersome screws through heatsink|
|Burr-Brown op-amps||Jelly bean op-amps|
|No way to run more channels with less RCAs||Mono switch to run with less RCAs|
|All black look is clean and mean||White shows every flaw|
|A box which actually protects the product||A box which helps to break every terminal on the product|
If you have not figured it out yet, I really like this amplifier. Sure it has a few issues, but no more than any other amp I have come across. I would love to see PG add some way to run both the front and rear off a single pair of RCA inputs, and I would love to see a stereo/mono switch, so I can easily turn this 4-channel into an insane 2-channel. 4th order crossovers would be nice too.
The bottom line is this amp is the best amplifier I have ever had the opportunity to play with. It has more power than it is rated for, it sounds perfect, and it looks to be a very reliable design. I commend PG for producing an excellent product, and something truly better than anything which they have produced before.
PG has started putting little messages on their PCBs a few years back, and I think they really say it best themselves...