Denon PMA-350II Amplifier
If you haven't noticed how competitive the market for budget amplifiers is, then you're out of touch. Simple as that. Yet according to Denon's market research, many of those budget wonders are out of touch with what users really want. Facilities don't always go amiss. So the thinking behind the PMA-350/II is to make a performance-orientated amplifier that nonetheless has tone controls, a phono stage, speaker selection, separate balance control, and so on. But a switched direct signal path is also provided, allowing you to avoid balance and tone controls for a clean feed. You get the luxury of choice; Denon hopes to get the sales.
Impressive attention to detail informs the design of the 350/II. High quality audio grade components are specified for critical areas of the circuit; all were chosen by audition. Custom-made Ansar Super Sound capacitors are used in the phono stage and power amp input. Cerafine capacitors are used in the power supply.
Unusually, there's a toroidal mains transformer (low stray hum field, compact size relative to output) rather than the usual frame transformer. Speaker and headphone switching is made by selected audio-grade relays. Two sets of heavy duty 4mm compatible speaker sockets allow easy bi-wiring. Connections from the amplifier output to the speaker/headphone relay board are made with hard-wired OFC (oxygen free copper) cables, and high current OFC cable is used for all power supply wiring to minimise loss of musical information. Power output is rated at 50W into 8ohms, or 80W into 4ohms.
The circuit is on a single board to ensure short signal paths, and the volume control is directly wired to the power amp via selected screened cables. Denon claims to have taken great care over the location and routing of internal surface cables to minimise interference and give better sound quality. The circuits in both power amp and phono stage are symmetrically laid out to ensure close stereo channel balance and identical sound quality for both left and right channels. This helps improve stereo imaging, giving sharper more positive localisation.
I never encountered the original PMA-350, but know the cheaper PMA-250/III quite well. The latter is a good little amplifier for its price, but suffers limitations in terms of absolute sound quality; it lacks focus and resolution and has a somewhat rounded, soft bass.
The new PMA-350/II improves on all the weak areas of the PMA-250/III. It gives a much stronger bolder sound, with greater detail and wider dynamics. The music has more punch and increased articulation, with sharper overtones and keener, more vivid tone colours. At the bottom end, the new PMA-350/II has real kick and presence; its bass is nice and tight, yet powerful too with excellent control. At any given volume level the PMA-350/II sounds bigger and gutsier than the little 250/III, giving the music more projection and excitement. Piano sounded very good indeed, with a nice bright ringing tone and lots of presence. Orchestral material was good too, though the Denon could sometimes get a little boisterous on heavily-scored music with lots of brass and percussion.
Put up against something more expensive like JVC's AX-A662 (£279) the Denon holds its own. Being critical, it isn't quite as refined; it's just a shade less smooth at the top-end. On massed violins the 350/II is slightly more prone to edginess if the recording isn't immaculate. The JVC sounds cleaner without losing bite or impact. These differences aren't vast; given the gap in price, many may feel that the extra is better spent on a superior CD player or speakers than the amp. Personal taste comes into it here, as well as the nature of the rest of the system.
Essentially the Denon PMA-350/II is a forward, lively-sounding amp with lots of bite and presence. To have a sound that is both vivid and refined is a bit like having your cake and eating it; usually one is obtained only at the expense of the other! The PMA-350/II is no exception. Its effervescent sound means it won't smooth off rough edges in the way that a softer, blander amp might. If the choice were mine, I'd always go for a vivid amp and get the required refinement by careful selection of CD player, speakers, and cables. It's easier to tame a punchy amp than liven-up one that sounds dull. In short I liked the Denon PMA-350/II: it sounds good, is very well built and offers excellent value.