Synopsis: Steven: Your evaluation format seems to constraining to me; it's like trying to describe a wonderful bottle of wine with a checklist. So instead I thought I'd write my review as a letter.
First off, the assembly was easy and straight forward, though I suppose you'd better warn potential builders that this is not a paint-by-numbers kit and that basic electrical skills and knowledge are esstential to assembly of the unit and to keep the assembler from electrocuting themselves in the process. So the first caveat is - If you've never worked with electronics before, for your own safety, stay away.
As far as the sound?
My, my, my.. Absolutely stunning. Far beyond my expectations. I have never been a big fan of the analytical, objective measurements used to rate amplifiers. THD? Who cares how many zeros there are? Is .0001 really better sounding than .00001? So my review of the amplifier will be purely subjective.
For a little background on my stereo system; it is not state-of-the-art. I have two 30+ year old Thorens 125MK turntables with the best cartridge being a Grado Green. I have a 10+ year old Denon CD player. The Speakers are AR3a's that have been completely rebuilt from the crossovers to the tweeters and Mids being replaced with DynaAudio speakers. The HK12 amp is paired with the original HK Citation 11 preamp (I have also used a HK Citation One, tube, preamp at times but like the 11 better). As a reference amplifier I have a pair of Dynaco MKIIIs, completely rebuilt with the best parts available, IMHO and a Nelson Pass MOSFET modified HK12.
From the first moment I heard the amplifier is was impressed. (Even considering that Mr. Bender says it takes 50, or so, hours for proper break-in). Perhaps the sound improved over the break-in period but it is hard to improve on the original sound because it was so impressive. The sound is nothing at all like the old HK12, which those of you currently listening to old HK12s know all the limitations; like the highs are lacking and the midrange seemed stunted. All the problems associated with the old 12 are gone and the Bender modifications open up the full potential of this amplifiers design. This is very much like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly because that metaphor works on so many levels in describing the way the new amplifier sounds compared to the old. The new sound is open, rich, full, effortless, detailed, and just simply wonderful to listen to for hours upon hours. I found myself in the attic digging out old albums to hear how they sounded with the new amp.
Speaking of albums I found that I really, really like listening to vinyl with this amplifier. Don't get me wrong, CD sound great too but I grew up with albums and maybe because of that I find it hard to really give CDs their due. I always seem to find ways to knock CDs, you know, too bright, lacking body and soul, too small, not black, and no album liner notes. I know, all are really ridiculous reasons but old, die-hard, vinyl fans need any excuse to hang on. I have even convinced myself that pops and hiss are an essential element of the listening experience.
Anyway, back to the amplifier, the new HK12 sounds better with vinyl than the Dynaco MKIIIs and we aren't talking about a middle-of-the-road rebuild of the MKIIIs either. They sport Ned's Triode Electronics' upgraded board all new wiring and all new precision parts. These amplifiers sound really good but I must admit that I prefer the sound of Bender amplifier better and those poor MKIIIs may soon be on ebay.
I also tried a side-by-side with a HK12 that I modified in the 80s using the Nelson Pass MOSFET design. Bender's amplifier simply sounded better. My take was that the MOSFET amp sounded too bright and the bass response wasn't as rich and full as Bender's design. I used to really like the MOSFET but when I have the time and money I will rebuild it too with the Bender modifications.
The amplifier sounds so good that all my other stereo components are showing their limitations, except the AR3a's. Already I've decided that I need a new cartridge. A Grado Master, perhaps? (Can anyone loan me 800 bucks?) I've also been looking into a new CD player.
Bottom-line? You can't go wrong with this modification. I have no idea how much money it would cost you buy a comparable amplifier. I can only imagine it would be a lot since this design sounds so very, very good. I certainly am glad I did it and I am looking forward to doing the same to my other 12 and bi-amping my system.
Here's to Steven and all his hard work, it has paid off - cheers!
David Ozolins February 2nd, 2004
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