REVIEW: PIONEER A-70DA INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
Pioneer's latest integrated amplifier delivers on all levels and punches well above it's weight. You might want to buy one before they put the price up! Read on for the full review.
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Pioneer has been active in the audio world for decades. It is really a bit of a stretch to think that anyone with an interest in audio or video products will not have, at the very least, heard of the company.
I remember back in the ‘80s and ‘90s they had quite a good name in car audio, and then AV Receivers and surround sound systems into the ‘90s. Following that, of course was their very good reputation for plasma TVs.
Their HiFi component offerings have always been available but have perhaps been overshadowed in more recent times, as their Home Theatre offerings have taken the lions’ share of the advertising budget.
The latest offering, the A-70DA Integrated Amplifier is the subject of this review. The DA version is the second generation of the series which started with the A70. The difference between the models is small, but noteworthy. The change from A-70 to A-70DA included an upgraded DAC, added an optical input and DSD decoding, as well as the inclusion of balanced inputs.
On the exterior is everything that we have come to expect from integrated amplifier offerings in recent times. Bass, Treble and Balance controls, input switching, A/B speaker output selection, loudness button, direct button (to bypass all the tone controls and my personal favourite function of all time), a rather large volume knob (its bulbous shape is almost intimidating) and a dozen little blue lights to tell you what input and/or control is active.
Turn the unit around and we have a choice of several analogue inputs, 3 x digital (one each USB, coaxial and optical), a single pair of balanced inputs and A and B speaker binding posts.
There’s also a phono stage that will accept both MM and MC cartridges. The selectable phono stage and the balanced inputs are a nice touch and serve to give us just a hint that this might be more than just another standard integrated amplifier.
I should add that every single feature to be found on the Pioneer is able to be selected and/or altered via the remote, so the convenience factor here is very high.
Pioneer tell us that the preamp section is a fully balanced design.
Back to their roots
The A70 series of amplifiers has been designed with a combination of old school engineering practices and modern technical applications.
The designers at Pioneer have separated the power supply, preamp and power amp sections of the component by dividing the chassis into three sections. Each of these sections is separated from the others by a steel divider. This is a design technique that more-boutique manufacturers have been using for years but it is rarely seen in products designed for the mass market. One large PCB that contains it all is obviously much more budget friendly to design – it’s clear Pioneer are pitching higher with the A-70D.
In addition to minimising electromagnetic interference between the sections (which minimises electrical noise) this design also stiffens and strengthens the chassis, reducing chassis resonance. This chassis is further strengthened by the addition of a lower bottom plate made of 3mm steel, another feature that usually belongs further up the price ladder.
But wait, there’s more. There are also two shielded transformers, one each for the pre and power amp sections. This is very nice to see and obvious that Pioneer’s engineers dislike ‘noise’ as much as their discerning customers.
With a nod to modern technology the A70 series design uses a class D output stage, referred to as a “Direct Power FET” design, with thickened power supply, ground and signal lines. I take this to mean that Pioneer have designed the PCB to optimise the operation of the output devices mounted upon it.
The DAC included is the well-known and well-reviewed ESS SABRE32 ULTRA DAC. Digital inputs can handle PCM signals up to 32/384kHz. The asynchronous USB input can also handle 11.2 MHz DSD signals. That’s a bit upmarket for a DAC installed in an integrated amp, but very welcome.
Pioneer claim 90 watts per channel into 4 Ohms at 0.5% THD.
I used the A-70DA with my ETI/Lenehan S2R stand-mount speakers and a YBA Heritage CD100 acting as a transport. Digital signals were fed via an Aurealis coaxial cable and analogue ones via a set of nice thick, 10AWG, copper speaker wires.
I have to start with a few things to say about the DAC function of the A-70DA. I compared it directly to the YBA CD100 and also a Consonance CD120 CD Player and I have to say I was quite impressed. The ESS Sabre 32 Ultra DAC is clearly in the same league as those used in these cd players.
I noted that its personality was somewhere in between the two cd spinners and while the Consonance has slightly crisper instruments and a little more impact, the YBA has its signature smooth vocals, but neither of them felt clearly superior to the Sabre DAC of the A-70DA.
The vocals from the Sabre were a little more smooth and prominent than the Consonance and the instruments were slightly crisper and more defined than the YBA. Overall, it’s an excellent compromise between the two sonic signatures.
This is a surprisingly good result from the built-in DAC of an integrated amp. In my experience, they’re often considered more of an add-on as a connectivity feature, rather than a performance feature. A gold star for Pioneer’s design team.
The USB input is certainly simple to use but finding the driver to download it was more difficult than I feel it should have been. After a lengthy search, I found it on Pioneer’s UK site, seemingly absent from the local Pioneer website.
I set up my laptop with Foobar 2000 and a small library of FLAC files created from my own CDs to see how the Pioneer performed. In a direct comparison with the coaxial input fed from the YBA I was surprised to find that there is a volume difference between the two.
The coaxial input is noticeably louder than the USB, about 2.8db louder. A direct comparison with this amount of volume difference is almost impossible. Once I found the preamp settings inside Foobar and added some gain I came to the decision that I preferred the coax input to the USB. It seems to have just a little more texture to the background and a slightly wider sound stage. I’m being pedantic though, there really isn’t a great deal in it.
I must confess to having not joined the ‘vinyl revival’, so was unable to put the phono stage of the A-70DA through its paces. What I can say though is that the phono stage on the earlier model A-70D has been reviewed several times with very positive results.
I have a stack of familiar CDs that I cycle through on most components that I review. They give me a quick sense of the sound signature of a review piece and what may be good, not-so-good, or indifferent.
They’re a mix of soft and sultry, with light vocals and single instruments, all the way through to hard rock with some alternative genres, orchestral pieces and some older rock and roll thrown in to the mix as well.
To the A-70DA’s credit, they didn’t give me any early indication that the A-70DA focuses on any one genre. So, moving further into my music library with a more open (and quite frankly, more curious) mind, I already had a very good feeling about the result.
The top end was lightly rolled off but very carefully done so there was no feeling of a heavy weight hanging above the speakers.
Brass has a nice tactile rasp to it without feeling overly hard while metallic sounds are softened slightly. Triangle is very easy to listen to but sounds slightly softer than usual and doesn’t ring out as long as it could. I suspect this is a symptom of that slight roll off.
The A-70DA excels at acoustic strings and piano in the mid-range. Violins are a joy to listen to and lightly played piano is as good as it jolly well should be.
Xylophone performance is also a stand out as it comes through clean and clear. Orchestral music is also excellent, with Wagners ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ an enjoyable, instrumental roller coaster of a listen.
There is a nice, rhythmic feel to the midrange which is very effective at getting the toes tapping and the head bobbing side to side.
The bass region has nice impact with a tight delivery and high level of control. While the upper bass region has a good level of weight and presence there isn’t as great a depth to the bass on display as there could be. I can’t help but wonder if this is what allows the midrange to shine as well as it does. The bass level is not light as such, but it is not as heavy as many amps within this price point.
Bass heads will likely be seeking to add a subwoofer but personally I am happy with the bass levels. They back up the midrange but allow it to do most of the musical ‘heavy lifting’.
Female vocals come through clean, clear and detailed but are missing just a little touch of breath, sitting on the slightly sweet side of neutral.
The stand out performers in the vocals are the men, and that is not something that occurs very often. There is something about that clean, clear and detailed delivery that brings out the enunciation in male vocals. I should say that this doesn’t mean that the guys necessarily sound better than the ladies on the A-70DA, just that the guys sound better than they usually do.
The overall standout is without doubt, the midrange. It blends in brilliantly with the A-70DA’s sound staging abilities and together adds up to much more than just the sum of their parts.
The sound staging ability of the Pioneer A-70DA is quite simply, top notch. It’s wide, high and capable of placing each instrument separately within its space. I can quite easily say I have not heard a better stereo sound stage in an amplifier under $7K.
I will admit it could use a little more depth, but at this price point it is already far exceeding expectations so I won’t be greedy.
An often-played album, Dire Straits “On Every Street” gets a spin on each and every amplifier to enter my lounge. I happen to like it and obviously know it intimately. It is exceedingly rare for me to listen in wonder though as every instrument in each song comes from a slightly different position between the speakers.
Even better were the two cases of instruments leaping out of the speaker plane towards me. I don’t think I’ve heard that effect since I was forced to give up my very first listening room. At this rate, I’ll run out of gold stars to hand out before I’m done with this review.
The highs, mid-range and bass sections are integrated very well, while the bass supports the higher frequencies and stays out of the way of both the excellent mid-range and that very impressive sound staging ability.
It’s clear that the A-70DA is quite good at conveying emotion via the mid-range, particularly through the use of acoustic strings. Violins deserve a second mention here, as does softly played electric guitar. Santana’s “Supernatural” Best of album is worthy of a mention and eminently enjoyable.
Let it rock
With harder electric guitar, the amplifier also performs convincingly. There’s a well-defined presence which comes across big and loud with a nice feel to the feedback, but at times feels just a little subdued. It has a good level of energy, but is just a bit lacking in rebellious edge.
If we pull the focus on guitar out a little broader to cover Rock and Roll (and other associated musical styles), in general I would happily recommend this amplifier for light to medium Rock and Roll, Jazz, R&B, country, folk and pop – you get the idea.
The fine line for the A70-DA occurs somewhere in the middle of the Hard Rock genre. I discovered this while listening to one of Guns ‘n Roses compilation albums. While I greatly enjoyed November Rain, Paradise City just didn’t come across as fast and weighty enough to be effective.
The Pioneer A-70DA sounds nice and wide, spacious even, with a lightly addictive rhythm to the midrange that combines to build up a very pleasant momentum to the music that is sure to draw the listener in.
The detail and accuracy of the soundstage and instrument placement within the plane of the speakers adds another level of entertainment, that is usually just not achievable at this price point.
The Pioneer A-70DA represents excellent value for money at $2,099 RRP. As a starting point for anyone serious about sound quality at a realistic price, it would be hard to beat.
My advice? Buy one now before Pioneer realize what a high-quality product they have and put the price up.
For more information visit the Pioneer brand page.
Jeff thought Chemistry might be his passion but in 2012 discovering StereoNET, that was the end of that. An enthusiast of most things Hi-Fi, he particularly likes Integrated amps. He is working on broadening his horizons but integrated amps remain his first love.