For several months now, Sam-Pro has had me thinking about classic stereo gear, and how you can put together a kick-azz system without spending zillions of dollars if you shop carefully.
Recommend this product?
The B&K Stereo 202 (often listed as ST-202) power amplifier is probably too young to be "classic," but it is a wonderful solid state home power amplifier that was available in the late '80s/early '90s and can still be found on the internet--places like ebay or craigslist--for maybe $500.
In the late '80s, when many young audiophiles like myself were graduating from receivers to separates, the two hottest brands for relatively inexpensive separates were Adcom and B&K. Adcom had a reputation for being the best if you liked pure power and an aggressive, maybe almost etched kind of sound. B&K's rep was that their sound was a bit more mellow and "tube-like."
I bought my B&K Stereo 202 in 1990, I think, and have used it with a conrad johnson pv-10 preamplifier and a B&K Pro-5 passive preamplifier. Speakers have included DCM Time Windows, Vandersteen 2Cis, Spica TC-50s, and Cambridge Soundworks Towers. I think I bought it for around $500, though I can't say for sure.
How to describe the amplifier? Well, first of all, it's really cool looking in a classic kind of way. It's about 13' deep, 6" high and 16" wide. The front panel is black with nothing on it but a red illuminated on-off switch and two sexy-looking gold handles. There are two cut-outs on each side for rack mounting.
The binding posts (where you attach the speaker wires, for those of you who don't speak audio) on the back are NOT the super-high-quality gold binding posts you find on most of today's mega-buck super-amps. They are regular black and red color-coded pretty-good terminals. The center posts have fairly large holes that you can run your wire through before screwing the terminals down. They are also spaced so they take banana plugs easily. Good move.
But here's the bad part: The binding posts are located just BELOW the removable fuses, meaning that it's hard to hook up the speaker wires without removing the fuses if you're working from the front, leaning over the amplifier. Stupid move.
Further, the (high quality) RCA jacks that receive input from the preamplifier are located BELOW the black external heat sinks on the back of the amplifier, meaning that the RCA cables are a bit hard to insert into the jacks. Another stupid move.
But how does the B&K Stereo 202 Sound? That's what really matters. And how dependable is it? That matters too.
The B&K sounds really good, especially for only $500 or so. Its reputation is well-deserved: it is a relatively forgiving, very slightly mellow-sounding amplifier, especially for a transistor amplifier. Dynamics are also excellent: When the music goes from really quiet to really loud, the amplifier sounds huge. It never strains. I'm not even sure what the power rating is: I think it's 140 watts per channel, but I can't recall exactly. I know it's more than 100 watts per channel.
Subtle things in the music, like a triangle placed well-back in the sound stage during a symphony, come through with a great deal of clarity and delicacy. And the image is nice and three-dimensional.
Is the sound perfect? Heck no. On really complex passages, things can sound a tiny bit congested, even at moderate volume. Two voices sung in duet are pretty well separated, but not as well separated as with my little (tubed) Jolida 102B. But the little Jolida has only 20 watts per channel and runs out of gas WAY before the 202. It also does not have the same BALLS, even at low volume.
The inner detail of the B&K ST-202 is not as great as with a $4000 solid state amplifier. But it's pretty darned good.
When I had a conrad johnson MV-50 tube power amplifier in my system for awhile, voices were even more relaxed and natural than with the 202 (or the Jolida). But the conrad johnson simply could not control the woofers of larger speakers: solo guitar (e.g., Alex DeGrassi's "Slow Circle") sounded pretty, but bloated and unrealistic on the bottom. But oh those voices!
Anyway, compared to a similar vintage Adcom, the B&K Stereo 202 sounds equally dynamic, and equally powerful, but a tad less etched. The 202 really is smoother and more "tube-like," relative to the Adcom gear of the same era.
I've used two separate preamplifiers with the B&K Stereo 202: the tubed conrad johnson pv-10 ($1000 retail) and the matching B&K Pro-5 (about $350 retail). With the cj, the sound was a bit smoother and more rolled off at the frequency extremes. With the Pro-5 in passive mode, the sound was remarkably neutral. Put the Pro-5 into active mode (to activate the tone controls, for example) and the sound got a little harder. I usually stick with passive.
A nice thing about both of these preamplifiers is that they have phono sections with proper equalization; many contemporary preamplifiers do not.
How is the reliability of the B&K Stereo 202? I've had mine for close to 17 years and it's never let me down. There is one caviat, however: The fuse that blows if you short the speakers wires (easy to do if you're hooking up new speakers while leaving the wires hooked up to the amplifier--a not-too-smart but common practice) is INSIDE the amplifier. You can't just slap a new one in; a repair person has to do it. I think I may have suffered that fate once about 14 years ago.
But overall, the B&K Stereo 202 is a well-built and reliable amplifier.
Did I forget anything? There's a lot of really good, relatively inexpensive vintage and semi-vintage power amplifiers and preamplifiers out there, and if you're willing to go used, you can put together a good system backbone without spending too much. The B&K Stereo 202 is one of the better ways to go if you want a dependable solid state amplifier. Pair it with a used B&K Pro-5 preamplifier, and you're ready to go for about $700. There are also modified 202s out there, which cost more and offer more power (about 200 watts per channel) and an even smoother more tube-like sound. But I haven't heard one, though I've read good things about them.
To conclude, my thanks to Sam-Pro for inspiring me to write about my old B&K ST-202 power amplifier. If you're thinking of putting together a high quality system involving used separates, put the B&K on your short list of amplifiers to consider. Because components "interact," try to make sure you can return it (or any component) if it doesn't work in YOUR system.
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Amount Paid (US$): 500