PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblock power amplifier

Although PS Audio's Stellar M700 monoblock power amplifier ($2998/pair) is a brand-new design from a team led by engineer Darren Myers, it draws on the company's extensive experience with class-D amplification. Sam Tellig and Kalman Rubinson reviewed PSA's HCA-2 power amp in, respectively, the October and December 2002 issues, and I reviewed their GCC-100 integrated amp in January 2006. The Stellar M700's input stage is the latest version of PS Audio's Gain Cell, which they describe as a "proprietary, fully differential, zero feedback, discrete, class-A MOSFET circuit.

In the Stellar M700, the Gain Cell drives a 700ASC class-D power module from the Danish company ICEpower. I asked Paul McGowan, CEO of PS Audio, why they chose this module rather than, say, one from Hypex, another class-D specialist. He said that they spent a lot of time listening to modules from various manufacturers, and the 700ASC was the one whose sound quality most closely matched that of the Gain Cell.

The M700's industrial design is very much like that of PS Audio's other recent products—perhaps not as solid as the DirectStream DAC or the DMP transport, but its full-size case (it's 17" wide by 3.25" high by 13" deep) and evident attention to fit'n'finish suggest high quality.

Setup
Each Stellar M700 has unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs, and two pairs of speaker binding posts, made of nickel-plated copper. My reference preamplifiers, a Convergent Audio Technology SL-1 Renaissance Black Path Edition, has only unbalanced outputs, so I had no decision to make in that department. My Monitor Audio Platinum PL300 II speakers are equipped for biwiring, but as I've never been convinced of the superiority of biwiring, I use only single wiring.

I normally like to place audio components side by side, which is how I positioned the last pair of monoblocks I reviewed, Audio Alchemy's DPA-1M. However, in all the PS Audio product literature I've seen, the M700s are shown stacked, and in any case are too wide to sit next to each other on my amp stand. (The DPA-1M is much narrower, so a pair of them fit side by side.) Thus, setup at first involved placing one amplifier on the stand, and the other atop it.

Although stacking the Stellars had no obvious detrimental effect, such as heat buildup or increased noise, as time went on I began to wonder if the M700s were actually sounding their best. I have two identical stands, so I decided to check out the possible audible effects of placing each amp on its own stand.

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The music was Dance of the Tumblers, excerpted from the suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden, with Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra; the track appears on Tutti! Orchestral Sampler (CD, Reference RR-906). I first listened to it with the Stellars stacked, then listened again with each amp on its own stand. This piece is one of those orchestral blockbusters whose familiarity tends to breed contempt, but its very familiarity makes it a useful test of sound quality. With the M700s stacked the sound was generally fine, with no obvious weaknesses, but not as exciting as I remembered when the same speakers were driven by the Theta Prometheus monoblocks, which I used as reference amplifiers for my review of the Audio Alchemy DPA-1Ms. The Theta, a class-D design that Stereophile ranks in Class A, costs $12,000/pair—finding that it sounded better than the $2998/pair M700 wasn't surprising. Maybe this was all the M700s were capable of—appropriate for the price. I moved the top amp to its own stand and played the Rimsky-Korsakov again.

Whoa! Everything came into more precise focus, with more detailed, more extended bass, cleaner highs, and greater dynamic ease. Going back and forth between stacked and unstacked while listening to other familiar recordings confirmed those initial impressions: The Stellar M700s sounded better when sitting side by side on individual stands than when stacked atop one another. I left them on their separate stands; the following descriptions of their sound all derive from my listening to them in that configuration.

Sound Quality
The sound of a power amplifier has many aspects, some of them quite subtle and requiring extended listening to pin down. However, one aspect is immediately obvious: noise. Whenever I connect a new amp to my system and turn it on the first time, it's always with a certain trepidation. Will the system be quiet, or will I hear noise? And if I do hear noise I haven't heard before, it's not necessarily the fault of the new amp, but of an interaction between its ground-level voltage and that of one or several other components. Tracking down the source of this noise and eliminating it by trying various grounding arrangements can be a frustrating process, and not always a successful one.

With PS Audio's Stellar M700, I knew at first turn-on that there was no problem with noise. With no music playing but the volume set to a normal listening level, I had to go up to one of the speakers to hear even the slightest buzz or hum.

Whether or not a new amplifier will need to be broken in remains controversial. Some amplifier designers think all that's needed is a few minutes for the circuits to reach their operating temperature, and that the audible results of longer periods of break-in are extremely minimal, and perhaps imaginary. Paul McGowan is not of that group. Asked whether the M700 needed to be broken in, he said, "Lots." Pressed to be more specific, he said, "Two weeks."

No problem. I left the Stellars on all the time, playing music and various break-in CDs for several hours a day, and doing no critical listening for at least two weeks. I occasionally checked the sound quality during this period, and afterward kept listening for further changes, and while there was definitely some improvement—the sound became smoother and more relaxed—the degree of change was moderate. Breaking in the Audio Alchemy DPA-1M, another amp with a class-D output stage and a designer (Peter Madnick) who recommends extensive break-in, resulted in similar improvements, but to a greater degree.

COMPANY INFO
PS Audio
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301
(720) 406-8946
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

Of course, I'm only asking your opinion.

Is your review a useful comparison to your Theta Mono Amps ?, in your opinion.

Why be vague ? , $3,000 for a "hell-of-a" pair of powerful mono Amps, Made In USA ! ( for gods sake ) is something to "Crow About", isn't it ???

Did the lads in Colorado do a hell of a job, again ?, is that what your Say'n ?

But we're still waiting on those French Tube Amps ( and JVS ) that look like gold plated Heathkits, I'm wondering if they'll be Class A recommended ? ( presuming they don't explode during the review period )

I was hoping to learn if the Stellars did "density" very well, "density" being the latest Reviewer's descriptive terminology.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I'm becoming a fan of PS Audio again, after being one of their Dealers 35 Years ago. Seeing YouTube & Paul and the inside of the Company is a "Power-Close" for a Factory man, like me, the Place looks as clean and organized as Sennheiser.

ps.2). I wonder if I could get a Signed Pair ?

Glotz's picture

I was wondering that as well, after reading the measurements. I believe High Class B... ?

What do I know... I haven't heard these amps, but after the 2nd review, they seem like real values.

I wonder about that new preamp as well. It looks like a great sweet spot, but digitizing my analog sources... NO thank you. I could use clarification on that though.

Once again, Tony you are a pleasure to read and ask all the right questions!

Frans's picture

I am confused by the reviewer improved results from placing these amps side-by-side to get better results. Then came the expensive isolator pedestals, and there's Paul Gowan claiming a 2-week minimum break-in period... Is that the break-in period for your ears of the equipment?

Are these amplifiers not designed to be placed on top of each other, and are they so sensitive to minute vibrations as to requiring pedestals?

Is there any science behind this, and if so, why sell these amps without these features from the factory, or are these actual manufacturer's recommendations?

Glotz's picture

No shame, every component on the planet has issues with vibrational feedback. Cost is the culprit as it is expensive to isolate a component from external and internal vibrations. In the case of turntables and disc players, it is critical.

As well, every component extant needs break-in. Not one's ears. If a mfg. decides to break-in the components themselves before shipment, that is a rarity and will not affect the review process.

If a component has excellent damping characteristics, ie: the company has added damping materials or chosen substantial materials for construction, then the ability to stack components can be met.

I guess I don't understand why the review decided to stack mono-blocks in the first place, perhaps out of rack space issues or just simple curiosity (he was reviewing the footers in other issues).

Lastly, I really needed more comparisons, as Tony as elucidated.

AJ's picture

No, although some mumbo-jumbo about "microphonics/vibrations, etc." is likely.
Scientific method listening tests, ears only, delusion and self deception controlled for, would yield zero change in the sound.
Of course to anti-science types, the conclusion wouldn't be that the uncontrolled viewing "listening" daydreams were the source , but rather the scientific listening tests were faulty. Duh!! ;-)

tonykaz's picture

All things have a resonant frequency and will microphonically resonate. Increasing Mass & Dampening will lower the resonant frequency but not eliminate it.

Now, the big question : Will the Amp try to play the ultra low frequency content in Bob Katz's Bombay Dub Orchestra's masterings annnnnnd will the Amp become a resonant "tuning fork" ?

I suspect that the Vinyl Era reviewers won't notice an Amps low frequency capability with Digital's performance envelope in mind, vinyl gear has a natural low frequency limitation.

Clearly, the PS Stellar is a Digital Era Amp needing a contextually relevant evaluation of it's musical performance capabilities.

I wonder if PS Audio Engineering even own a functioning Turntable? , Ps has been a committed Digital outfit since the 1980s.

Tony in Michigan

ps. here is a chance for PS to (YouTube) demonstrate the Stellar's playing into a Full Range Loudspeaker while Mr. Paul pounds 'em with a hammer ( shoe ) of some sort. By the way, Paul is starting to look like a Veggie, Tea totaling & non-smoking Johny Carson sitting on a White Sofa. Next comes The "Guest" Appearance with a Side Man doing the drum rolled Introduction: heeeeerrrrrrrs Paul McGowan !

supamark's picture

you may have done in your audio dealer days (if you sold open reel tape decks) - with inputs disconnected start recording on an open reel tape deck and yell into the record head. It will record the sound you made onto the tape... talk about microphonics lol.

Bill Leebens's picture

I'll try to respond to several points here. First off, thanks for the kind comments from everyone.

Glotz: I believe Tony's "is it Class A?" comment was not referring to the class of operation of the M700s, but to the class rankings in Stereophile's Recommended Components list---as PS is honored to have four components ranked Class A or Class A+ on the list.

As Bob Deutsch indicates in the opening paragraph, the Stellar amps are Class D, and the company does indeed have decades of experience with Class D amplification. After extensive testing and auditioning we chose an ICEpower module that is also used by a number of other companies; we believe that the sound quality of our implementation of the module is superior, naturally---and thankfully, Bob seems to agree.

Frans: Regarding break-in---PS' experience over the past 45 years is that the sound quality of nearly all components will improve with extensive warm-up and break-in, and most PS products undergo a burn-in period before they leave the factory.

While this is a contentious issue for some, it seems pretty straightforward to me: capacitors take time to form, values of resistors stabilize over time, and a number of physical changes occur in most circuit elements over time.

Regarding vibration: the Stellar casework is quite robust, we often use the Stellar components stacked, and they were designed to be used that way. Having said that, they may well benefit from the use of the IsoAcoustics Orea isolation devices. I personally use IsoAcoustics Gaia II feet on my speakers, with excellent results---but as you note, the Orea are expensive, prohibitively expensive for inclusion with our amps.

Finally---yes, we do own a functioning turntable. While PS has been a leader in digital audio, our first product in 1973 was a stand-alone phono preamp, and we still manufacture the NuWave Phono Converter. Downstream, you can expect to see phono preamps in our Stellar and BHK Signature lines.

Bill Leebens
Director of Marketing
PS Audio

AJ's picture
Quote:

While this is a contentious issue for some, it seems pretty straightforward to me: capacitors take time to form, values of resistors stabilize over time, and a number of physical changes occur in most circuit elements over time.

It's only contentious for those who are blissfully unaware of, or reject perceptual science/psychology outright.
No contention among those who do not.

Bill Leebens's picture

Having spent a good chunk of my career having to respond to folks who consider almost everything in audio snake oil or worse, I am perhaps hypersensitive to such concerns.

I was also trying to respond fully to the previous poster, for whom such issues seem to be uncharted territory.

Cheers, Bill

Frans's picture

Bill - Please point me to actual verified measurements that show what changes after the first 5 minute of the device being on, and after 45 days. What is the % improvement in these KPIs over this time? I'm interested specifically in amplifiers, and not a generalized rule of thumb.

I'm struggling with understanding the science and statistics behind extended break-in periods, it's usually the listener's auditory adjustments that change over time versus the equipment.

Bill Leebens's picture

The audio biz is a mature industry---which means little is spent on fundamental research. So it goes.

We primarily rely upon what we hear. Given the collective several hundred years of experience at our company, we're pretty able to differentiate between effects, artifacts and psychoacoustics.

If that's not good enough, sorry. But cars improve after break-in; speaker surrounds generally loosen up after break-in; and while you might not think of electronic components as having physical components, they do. And they change.

Life would be easier if that were not the case.

tonykaz's picture

Certainly, any device will deteriorate at a measured pace. There is no engineering group that does not take component spec. changing into careful consideration. Everything on earth is "unstable" in it's composition and performance envelope.

We have to take into consideration that shooting a bolt of Electricital energy thru a device will effect and affect its existence and it's functionality.

Audiophile Industry is tiny, which is why no-one bothers to spend time educating it's nitchey hair shirt hobbyists.

One look at any piece of gear that sits on the Repair Bench will prove that these tiny components have all shifted in their ability to perform, many are near the end of the device's life-span.

Electrolytic Capacitors in power supplies commonly fail after a brief life-cycle.

Valid and verifiable Proof of electrical component stability is accessible throughout the electrical component Industry. Call a capacitor manufacturer to discover these things.

We have to assume that all Hi-Fi Components are in constant change. We're lucky that we don't notice it until smoke starts floating thru the air.

Audiophiles live in happy oblivion.

Tony in Michigan

ps. have a look at the power cord of electrical devices to see active deterioration. Cars Electrical systems are designed to NOT fail for 15 years ( or so ). Older Audi Cars were known for bad wiring ( I've been told )

ps. 2 ) Electrolytic power supply capacitors are though to have 8 Year life-spans which suggest that we should turn off our Gear instead of leaving it on "4 Eva", like some silly folks recommend. go figure!

Frans's picture

I have no problems with deterioration, we can measure this, observe this, repeat this. PREDICT this.

However, electrical components improving with time due to a break-in period is what I was asking about. With car engines, the break-in period (although no longer a common practice because it's done at the factory) is more important because of the thousands of moving components and oil distribution through the engine. My diesel didn't require any break-in, these are mostly myths these days.

Electrical solid-state circuits are not the same as internal combustion engines, they work, fail fast, or fail slow. If there is a build-defect it will happen regardless of a break-in period.

There are plenty of mass production industries that are not niche like high-end audio that have more applicable use cases around break in I'd imagine. For example:

Do we break in light-bulbs, refrigerators, smoke detectors, video cameras, Smart phones, PCs? Not niche and esoteric enough?

After 45 days of using this smart phone, will your calls connect better, will WiFi range increase, will it SOUND any better?

tonykaz's picture

Arn't we simply thinking about a drifting performance capability?

I'm not "drifting" into being contentious, rather I'm suggesting that in active electrical circuits, the values of any component will shift, sometimes in predictable ways.

As a Consumer, I'd rather not notice it.

As a Reviewer, I'd be nervously worried about it.

As a Manufacturer, Importer, Retailer I'm buying from reputable "Name Brand" suppliers so that gear achieves consistently high performance levels with a minimum of failures. Still, I'll accept the deteriorating of Tubes as the price of lovely. I'll even accept Car Tires not lasting long enough.

Reviewers speaking about "Break-in" times is probably a nervous personal obsession, not a recommendation. We reading consumers will agree ( or not ) with the "Slowing down" of the process that Breaking-in requires, it's almost a "More haste, Less Speed" philosophy embodiment .

I have to say that my old NewBalance Shoes broke-in and "improved".

I have a number of bicycles, only the few that I ride have been broken in to improved performance.

Phew

Tony in Michigan

tonykaz's picture

I've owned NEW loudspeakers that improved from use, was it the elastic surround that lost it's stiffness ?

Still, I'm not taking any sort of stand on this Breaking-in strategy.

However, my Audiologists tell me that my brain and it's associated nervous system will re-calibrate themselves as I correct my various gear's performance EQ curves.

Career wise, I've worked with a wide range of sensitive transducer systems, enough to realize that system hysteresis is a common ingredient to erroneous summaries.

The one thing that remains a puzzle ( that I'd like Paul McGowan to establish ) is the arrows on various, pricy Audio Cables. My question is : How the hell do they figure out which direction the cables should be going? , which way is the electricity going? , for gods sake !!!

Tony in Michigan

ps. lets stump the experts

Strat's picture

There is no improvement. Some people finally
got a wake-up call from their intelligence and
realized that this new "break-in period" was long
enough to take them beyond the equipment return date.
First it was speakers, but why not use the same for
electronics. This break in time was/is all over the
board, but it was always beyond the standard 30 day
return policy. Now you're stuck with it...unless you
want to pay a ridiculous "re-stocking fee." But hey look,
now it's two weeks. How did that happen?

I see this effort as a direct response to Legacy Audio's
Powerbloc2. They use the same 700ASC ICEpower module.
No coincidence there.

rom661's picture

"Whenever I connect a new amp to my system and turn it on the first time, it's always with a certain trepidation. Will the system be quiet, or will I hear noise?"
Really? That's what you listen for? I listen for music. I quit reading here. No offense to Paul. I want to hear the amps. I don't want to read more of your musings.

Bill Leebens's picture

A reviewer has to take note of all a product's characteristics, and noise level of electronic components is a major concern for many customers/readers.

Certainly, it's a concern we hear all the time, and exceptionally low noise was a primary requirement when we designed the Stellar line.

tonykaz's picture

But I do own a considerable CD Collection and boxes of Vinyl from my previous life as a Turntable Specialist Dealer.

Anyway, I've just been going back in time to read "Vintage" PS Audio reviews. Curious thing is that I'd mostly lost track-of and interest-in all things Audiophile. One 2011 day I got stranded in Colorado and ran into Tyll and Steve G. at RMAF , I bought some headphone gear as the result.

All this time I've been missing my Electrocompaniet Ampliwires/Theil CS3s & my Conrad-Johnson MV-45a/Audible Illusion & Magnapaan MG-2s and ProAc Tabletts. ( and my MiT-750s Cables ) Oh-dear, absence makes the heart grow fond.

Since 2011, I've been trying to come to an understanding of Digital Audio Conversion gear. Then: along comes Paul McGowan doing YouTube Vlogs about all things Audiophile and I suddenly feel like it's 1980 again, I'm getting gear tutorials from PS. Phew, just like the good old days and now Paul brought-in a talented group of seasoned designers who seem rather excited to be part of a Winning & Stable Audiophile organization, finally! #METOO
Annnnnnnd...
PS Gear has been getting darn good reviews, how did I manage to not notice?

I guess I'll have to get one of those "Audiophile" hats : "In for a Penny, In for a Pound" !

Tony in Michigan
aka B&K Imports & Esoteric Audio

windansea's picture

I just got the baby brother of the M700, the stereo S300. Works beautifully with my mini maggies. No coloration, lots of power and detail, doesn't have the air of a SET but for me it's a great tool at a reasonable price. And it uses a fraction of the energy of my Krell. Hot amps are a pain in the summer here in SoCal! Thinking Class D for summer, Class A for winter.

tonykaz's picture

"the Air of a SET", hmm, interesting concept.

PS Audio seems to have a Company Philosophy relating to the Superior Sound Quality Compromise of Sealed Baffle Loudspeakers which ends up with them building HIGH Powered Amps.
Aren't SET Amplifiers rather low power and therefor used to power high efficiency loudspeakers ( like Devore ).

I wonder if PS Audio could also have a Parallel Line of Amps for high efficiency loudspeakers and if there is any sort of market for 'em. SET Amp outfits seem to charge High Prices for their Gear which they tend to justify by using the highest quality parts available ( and many instances "no-longer" available, made from solid silver capacators )

Hmm, can Krell and PS Audio both serve the same need? You owning both says something significant.

Tony in Michigan

David Harper's picture

IMO there's a lot more going on in our heads than we're aware of, maybe even things going on that we can't be aware of since we can't get outside of our heads.Obviously this would explain why all of these differences in sound quality that audiophiles describe disappear when subjected to double-blind testing. A long time ago Julian Hirsch had a group of audiophiles listen to what they were told was twenty thousand dollars(which was really big bucks in those days)worth of high-end gear. After the listeners all waxed euphoric about the superb sound quality, it was revealed to them that they were actually listening to a three hundred dollar sansui receiver(which had been hidden from their view).They were furious. They all figured out a way, however,to argue that the test had been flawed and meaningless.

windansea's picture

Could anyone elucidate the Gain Cell? The reviewer just quotes PS Audio's cagey description. Because as far as I can tell, the amp is essentially just a stock B&O module with the proprietary Gain Cell input stage, so I'd like to know more about what's going on with that.

jeffreybehr's picture

Everything vibrates. I was e-mailing recently with Steve Herbelien (sp?) of Herbies Audio Labs about coupling or isolating audio equipment including speakers. One thing he wrote, and I paraphrase--'You may think your concrete floor doesn't vibrate, but you're wrong'. I'm now with him. To those of you with poured-concrete-over-earth floors--ever wonder why a 'thud' sounds when you drop to the floor quickly and on your knees? It's the floor vibrating, and its sound is of a very low frequency because the concrete slab is heavy. FWIW--and that's virtually nothing to anyone else--after over 50 years as an audiofool, I now mass-load and isolate electronic equipment, generally with Herbies Tenderfoot products*, and I couple speakers--with sharp spikes--to that concrete floor.

On more thing--William Bruce Cameron wrote "...not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." I believe very strongly that we still don't know--and may never know--how to measure the sonic quality of music-reproduction equipment. Those I call 'measurists' disagree with me. :-)

My one M700 amp sounds excellent on my centerchannel speaker.

* I may be able to spend thou$and$ on preamps, amps, speakers, cable, etc., but I can't yet spend hunded$ on isolation feet. Maybe sometime...

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