Kevin Hunt: Review: Grace Digital Bluetooth Amplifier


If you and Bluetooth are like this (fingers crossed), the next step in your relationship could be a little trinket like either of Grace Digital's new integrated amplifiers with built-in you-know-what.

This is an invitation to put aside the Beats headphones when you get home, flip on your phone's Bluetooth to cue your loudspeakers and listen to music (Beats Music? Spotify?) instantly.

The Grace Digital integrated amplifiers, which combine a preamplifier and amplifier in a single box, are not the hulking, big-as-a-microwave amplifiers of yesteryear. They are less than 6 inches wide, 5 inches deep and only 11/2 inches tall. Each weighs about a pound.

The $129 GDI-BTAR122, which I have been evaluating in recent weeks, puts out all of 12 watts per channel with its Class D amplification and never breaks a sweat. In my tests, it consumed 2 watts at its midpoint volume, 1.7 watts at standby and 1 watt when turned off. Leave this amplifier on full time, with little environmental regret, and you'll have an on-call music system — just add speakers.

The GDI-BTAR502, at $169, offers two notable upgrades: more power (50 watts per channel) and potentially better sound with aptX streaming via Bluetooth. Apple's mobile devices do not support aptX, so the advantage would be available to Android owners. The lower-priced model supports lower-quality AAC streaming.

The back-row snickering about the measly 12 watts will stop when the GDI-BTAR122 powers your favorite speakers. In an average-size room, it will sustain surprisingly high volume levels without surrendering. A budget shopper also looking for speakers might start with the Dayton B652 ($39.80 a pair, parts-express.com) and the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers ($129.99, but often discounted at newegg.com). I paired it with the Pioneer speakers' predecessor.

The amplifiers are identical twins, with a black brushed-aluminum chassis and a faceplate dotted with push buttons for bass, treble, balance, Bluetooth activation and an auxiliary input. The amplifiers do not have traditional RCA connectors, only a minijack (auxiliary input) for computer, direct-connected mobile device, gaming console or cable box. A USB port, for charging mobile devices, is also available. A miniature remote adds equalizer settings, like "Jazz" and "Rock," to the basic controls.

The amplifier's Bluetooth range, with the supplied screw-on antenna, reached almost 50 feet in my tests, well beyond the standard 30-foot range and second only to the Amped Wireless BTSA1 adapter among Bluetooth devices tested in my house.

The sound, for 12 watts and $129 per pound, will astound anyone who has not heard a Class D (or Class T, built around a computer chip) amplifier. Expect a romantically rich midrange, tapered highs and modest but occasionally bloated lows.

The seven-step volume control proved an annoyance. The volume dial rotates infinitely but registers only seven increments as indicated by tiny LEDs on the front panel. The volume increase from the third light to the fourth is too great, making volume fine-tuning difficult. I'd often make minor adjustment using an iPhone's volume control.

Some owners have complained of inordinate hiss with no music playing or during quieter passages, but the hiss created by my review unit was neither unusually loud nor distracting for an amplifier of this type. Others say the power-saving mode shuts down the amplifier during quiet music passages, but I could not re-create that scenario.

If sound quality matters and you're an Android owner committed to Bluetooth, the GDI-BTAR502 is the better buy with aptX and more power. To hear Bluetooth's limitations in the lower-priced model, play a CD-quality file stored on a mobile device, as this Apple owner did, and send it alternately via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to the Grace amplifier.

No contest: With Bluetooth, the sound collapses, bass weakens and vocals lose prominence.

Bluetooth lovers, however, will love this little box of dark chocolate.

Grace Digital GDI-BTAR122 integrated amplifier with Bluetooth

Price: $129

Good: Excellent Bluetooth range, surprisingly good sound, good value in an amplifier with wireless and remote.

Not so good: Low power, limited volume fine-tuning, does not have aptX streaming like the more expensive model.

Information: gracedigital.com

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