ACCUPHASE E-380 integrated amplifier
+ Large soundstage, with great depth and dimensionality; bags of detail, not “etched” but naturally presented; lean bass with good pacing and timing; XLR balanced inputs have more “meat” and aural density.
– Speaker matching absolutely crucial for this amp to sing – no speaker will sound bad, but might not “get up and go”; can come off as bass light for certain genres of music; single-ended RCA inputs can also lack aural density; can be too relaxed compared with some other more energetic amps.
ACCUPHASE is one of those brands which have held a mystical status amongst audiophiles, especially those who know their Japanese hi-fi brands. The E-380 represents the latest iteration and refinement of its “one up from entry-level” integrated amp. Although the stable includes pre/power combinations, Accuphase is known for its “super integrated amps” in the Japanese vein – something that has been a bit of a strength of the hi-fi industry there.
The unit itself looks like it could have come from the 1980s, with the large VU meters, large volume and selector knobs and the champagne gold finish. As you might expect from a “high-end” product, the build quality is almost usurious – nothing has been spared and the weight of the unit is testament to it. The tactile feel of the volume knob and the source selector is sublime. The way that the flap drops down in a damped motion speaks volumes about the care that has been put into this product.
In terms of technical specifications and features, this amp ticks almost every box possible. Far from being a “purist” amp, this unit features amongst other things, tone controls, loudness button, mono/stereo, phase invert and two sets of switchable speaker outputs. Of note, too, are two expansion bays which can take DAC and phono cards to suit your system, creating a fully featured amplifier in one chassis.
In terms of built-in inputs, the amp has a plethora – five single-ended RCA inputs, and two sets of XLR balanced inputs (wired with pin 3 “hot”). It also has an honest-to-goodness tape loop and two sets of single-ended preamp outs. There is also a quarter-inch TRS headphone jack working off its own amp circuit which does not mute the speakers – you can mute those using the speaker set selector switch.
The E-380 represents the latest step in an evolutionary refinement of the 300 series integrated amp, featuring 20% more power (now rated at 120 watts per channel into eight-ohm speakers) and an increased damping factor of 500, driven from heavy duty push-pull bipolar transistors. The internal layout is very much dual mono, with very well specified power supply transformers and reserve capacitors, all bespoke and looking very handsome in their glossy cases.
Volume control is achieved using Accuphase’s proprietary AAVA “gain” unit which eschews using potentiometers in favour of multiple parallel V-I (voltage to current conversion) amps. In doing so, the designers claim greater linearity and control over the gain and volume, and so preserves the dynamics of the music, even at low listening volumes. Other technical innovations include the Mosfet-based muting relays (and associated opto-coupled protection circuits), which boast solid-state operation and reliability as well as very low “on-resistance” in the mili-ohm range.
The bipolar push-pull amplification is said to be inspired and based on “instrumentation amplifier” principles, which promise greater accuracy in amplitude and phase, and feature the latest high-current bipolar transistors which can work up to 160V/15A.
The source selection is electronic, but the source selector knob has a lovely weighted feel to it, and there is an LED to indicate the source selected. On the front, the lovely ballistically weighted VU meters flank the display which also pulls display information from connected DAC boards.
Set up was very straightforward – IEC mains cable, pry out the blanking plugs from the speaker terminals to enable the use of banana plugs, and hook up your sources.
I tested the E-380 with a variety of sources. Analogue testing was done courtesy of my Denon DP80, Micro Seiki MA505X arm, with an Ortofon 2M Black MM cart, EAR 834P phono stage. Digital sources included a Hugo2 DAC driven by a Sonore Microrendu in as a Roon ready endpoint and also the Sony HAP-Z1ES in balanced XLR mode.
On the outputs, I tested the amp with a pair of Q Acoustics Concept 500s as well as two pairs of LS 3/5as driven in parallel in a double formation (per Ken Kessler’s suggestion in HiFi News and Record Review), and also a pair of KEF LS50s. Principal listening was with the Q Acoustics Concept 500s, and listening notes are mostly from that.
I also tested the headphone output with a pair of HiFiMAN HE4XX planar magnetic headphones.
I let the unit burn in for about two days, with BBC Radio 3 on Internet radio before serious listening.
With the Q Acoustics Concept 500s:
I started out with the Hugo2 as a Roon Ready endpoint, and the words clarity and transparency were the first words to jump to mind. This amp has all the hallmarks of a high-end Japanese amp – clarity and transparency are its watch words. On the single ended inputs from the Hugo2, the oodles of detail it can dig out are apparent, but not presented in an “etched” manner – the detail is presented in the right context, unforced and easily appreciated. These are the hallmarks of truly high-end equipment.
First up, Bags & Trane (John Coltrane/Milt Jackson, DSD 256 Download), a great recording to test timbral and textural retrieval and also simple to tap your foot to. The E-380 presented the timbres and textures superbly, rendering the rasp of Coltrane’s horn as well as the bell-like notes from Jackson’s vibraphone with vibrancy (no pun intended). The rhythm section was painted around the two soloists well, with great finesse in the cymbal textures. It was also apparent that the rhythmic drive was well paced, though I have heard more energetic amplifiers.
Moving on to some folk-pop in the form of Suzanne Vega’s Nine Objects of Desire (16/44.1 FLAC ripped from CD). Vocal projection was excellent, with Vega’s distinct voice and diction clear in the mix, with the instrumentation well layered – the lyrics of Caramel sounded sensuous and rich.
Orchestral music was handled well and showcased the other strength of this amp – soundstage width and depth. Back to the trusty 1963 recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies by Herbert Von Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon (Tidal MQA Stream), the ability to paint the orchestra and still make out sections clearly in the wide soundstage and also in depth is quite stunning. No doubt the ability of the amp to dig out detail and present it in a natural and unforced fashion is the key to this soundstaging – all the aural cues and timbral richness are evident and easy for your brain to interpret.
I then switched to analogue playback using my Denon DP-80 with an Ortofon 2M Black MM cartridge mounted on a MicroSeiki MA505-X arm. Again, the amp showed its ability to be transparent to the source, showing the basic characteristics of the cart/arm/TT/phono front end – solid direct drive pacing and rhythm, backed by the detail which the 2M black can dig out. My favourite spin was the newly released vinyl pressing of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Just Coolin’’on Blue Note, a 1959 session which was hitherto unreleased. The driving hard bop with Lee Morgan’s horn and Blakey’s drums was superb, a testament to the original recording and the modern mastering which brings the sound right up to date.
Finally, I rounded out the listening by testing the balanced XLR inputs, fed by a Sony HAP-Z1ES, which has true balanced outputs. I toggled the phase invert switch as the E-380’s XLR inputs are wired contrary to the Sony’s outputs. What transpired was a shift up in the “aural density” – the feeling that the instruments and voices are palpable, with volume and weight. It also helped address the slight lack of bass weight I had detected on the single-ended inputs. With the Sony feeding the E-380 and with the Q Acoustics 500s, there was a real sense of synergy and balance. The Sony has a very fine grained sound, but can come across a “polite” – in this system, via the balanced connection, the fine grain sound was there, but the E-380 was able to inject enough excitement and drive the Concept 500s to project a large, detailed and layered sound stage. Of particular note was how vocals were placed delicately in the mix – not unduly emphasised, but in the right context. Pacing was good and rhythms were infectious.
Quick note on the tone controls – they work well and subtly, but unless there is a big imbalance in your system (which would suggest that you should reconfigure your system) or if the recording is particularly poor, I would not recommend regular use. There is a slight loss of clarity and transparency which would run counter to the strengths of the amp. It is nice though to have the option to engage them if necessary.
Of all the speakers I tested with, this was the most satisfying, with good bass depth and good aural density – the sense of the weight of the instruments. Speed and pacing was good as well. Although these speakers are not hard to drive, the control and grip from the E-380 were evident.
With the dual LS 3/5a set up (Falcon Acoustics and Harbeth)
At the behest of the agent for Accuphase, I also tried driving my resident double LS3/5a speaker set-up (the top speaker is mounted upside down, so the tweeters are in the centre of the stack, both speakers are driven in parallel). He was curious to see if the Accuphase would work well with this curious set up. Surprisingly, it did not quite measure up to my expectations. For some reason, the combination came across rather reserved – although there was lots of detail, and the soundstaging was characteristically excellent, there was a lack of “excitement” which I have felt with other amplifiers, some of which are of very modest origins. There is no mistake that the E-380 is far more refined and has a lot more detail, dimensionality etc. than these more modest amps, but for some reason, it comes across as polite and reserved.
This was a hint to me that speaker matching is very crucial with this amplifier to truly hear it at its best.
With the KEF LS50s
As a reference point, I paired the E-380 also with the KEF LS50s – although a modestly priced speaker, it is a bijou standmount speaker which has a known set of characteristics, and can be truly high end if in the right setting. When in this setting, the LS50s can image and resolve detail that would put many more esoteric speakers to shame.
The match with the E-380 was good – the control, power and grip of the amplifier is evident and allowed the LS50s to do what they do best – image, retrieval detail and stage the sound. The large sound stage was evident again, and the slightly “dark” nature of the LS50s was mitigated by the amp’s neutral-to-well-lit balance. The only fly in the ointment was the lack of deep bass (certainly nothing below 50Hz) – which is not the LS50’s forte, and as such, the “foundation” of the sound was not as solid as I would have liked. Instruments were well rendered but lacked a little aural density, which was much better with the Q Acoustics Concept 500s.
I did not have time to wire in a subwoofer such as a REL acoustics, but I suspect that this would have been a good solution to help flesh out the bottom end.
With the HiFIMAN HE 4XX headphones
It comes as no surprise that given the attention to detail, this amp also has a superb headphone amp, which has the same hallmarks of the main amplification sections – detailed and delicate where required, and with power at other times. The hard-to-drive planar magnetics had good head room and felt in control at all times. Although it’s hard to judge “head stage”, there was a good sense of spaciousness, with a good picture of the aural landscape.
THE LAST WORD
As with the other pieces of high end gear that I have reviewed, I always find it hard to assess “value for money” as this becomes much more subjective as the price scales up. The E-380 is truly a high-end piece of equipment, but like a lot of high-end equipment, its vast potential can only be realised through careful system matching as its capabilities are vast. Of particular import is speaker matching – the E-380 can make certain speakers “sing”, so you must audition this with your intended transducers.
Therefore, recommended for those whose pockets can afford it, but with careful auditioning!
Sources: Denon DP80 direct-drive turntable, Micro Seiki MA505X arm, Ortofon 2M Black cartridge, EAR 834P phono amp, Chord Electronics Hugo2 driven via USB from a Sonore Microrendu in Roon Ready Mode, Sony HAP Z1-ES high resolution digital player via balanced XLR cables / Speakers and headphones: Q Acoustics Concept 500, Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a and Harbeth LS3/5a driven in parallel in a double formation, and HiFIMAN HE4XX headphones.
Price: £6,800 / US$8,300 / ¥450,000
Malaysian price: RM29,000
Malaysian representative: Hi-Fi Creations (+60122962799 / email: firstname.lastname@example.org)