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Amplifying creativity

With Crown, Lab.gruppen and QSC among those launching their most significant ranges in some time, 2013 is shaping up to be a landmark year for standalone amplifiers. But what’s behind this sudden splurge of creativity?

Finding a sufficiently strong news point for PSNEurope’s amplifier coverage during the last few years hasn’t always been straightforward. There have been some notable product launches, of course, but relatively few that would warrant the epithet ‘groundbreaking’.
No such issue in 2013 – a year that is rapidly shaping up to be a line in the sand for standalone amplifiers, especially those geared towards the install market. Highlights so far include Crown’s DriveCore Install Series Power Amplifiers, QSC’s PLD and CXD amplifier families, Lab.gruppen’s sub-£1,000 IPD series and ‘decentralised’ LUCIA installation amp, and Powersoft’s newly expanded Ottocanali series and forthcoming, solar-powered DEVA solution.
Increased competition in the install market is generally felt to be one important factor behind the recent explosion in new product releases – but arguably more significant still is the ability of more efficient, primarily Class D topologies to reduce energy consumption and, therefore, overall cost of use. As QSC’s VP marketing, Gerry Tschetter, observes, what we are witnessing is “likely a convergence of economics and technology”… Jewel in the Crown? Kicking off the year, Crown’s DriveCore Install (DCi) Series of power amplifiers first saw daylight at ISE 2013. Crown’s performance-boosting DriveCore technology is familiar from its touring products, but as Daniel Saenz – Crown’s business segment manager for install sound – confirms, it is “relatively new to install”. Now, with DCi, the technology reaches fruition in a 12-strong range of Class D amplifiers featuring powers ranging from 300 to 600W (into 4 and 8 ohms and 70Vrms and 100Vrms).
Incorporated into DCi, the DriveCore IC chip combines the amplifier drive stage into the power output stage along with additional audio signal functions – “yet is about the size of a postage stamp”, remarks Saenz. “By using the one IC interface, you are able to replace about 500 parts, yielding a much simpler design.”
@page_break@ In terms of delivering efficiency for install applications, DCi has several key benefits, says Saenz. Firstly, its ability to offer direct drive ‘constant voltage’ capabilities for 70Vrms and 100Vrms amplification without the need for a step-up transformer means increased quality in distributed audio applications.

Secondly, all amplifiers in the range are only 2U rack spaces high, thereby helping to minimise installation space. Last but by no means least, the DCi Series is hailed as Crown’s ‘greenest amplifier line ever’, sporting a PFC power supply and a selectable powersave auto-standby mode where the amplifier will power down after 30 minutes of no input signal and consume less than 1W.
Beyond the rollout of a range that also incorporates Harman’s HiQnet protocol for networking monitoring and control, Saenz confirms that “as far as new product development goes, we [at Crown] will be focused on install for the next 18-24 months”. Reconnecting with the ‘grassroots’ Lab.gruppen has also been actively consolidating its install presence in 2013, with two significant ranges debuting in recent months. Showcased at Prolight + Sound, the IPD Series of networked and DSP-enabled amplifiers is adept at both live sound and install duties. Hot on the heels of IPD, Lab.gruppen selected InfoComm for the launch of the LUCIA decentralisation amplifier – a product that marks a more concerted step into compact, localised AV install.
The initial impetus for IPD, says Mark Flanagan (pictured), marketing manager for TC Group’s Install & Tour brands, was an acknowledgement of “recent polarisation for Lab.gruppen in the touring market. Increasingly, we found ourselves occupying a position that was almost entirely in the top-end of the touring audio market and had all but left our roots behind – that of serving the thriving grass-roots live music scene, small venues, modest touring bands and suchlike.”
The result of Lab.gruppen’s ensuing deliberations is a range that brings features from its high-end products to a sub-£1,000 price point. There are two power configurations, IPD 1200 and IPD 2400, with power outputs (at 4 ohms) of 2 x 600W and 2 x 1200W, respectively. Both models are built around a DSP engine equipped with a total of 40 real-time, multi-slope parametric EQs, along with adjustable gain, input delay, output delay, and high-pass and low-pass filters adjustable to any frequency. Networked monitoring and control via computer or iPad, a four-channel input matrix, analogue and AES3 inputs, and Lab.gruppen limiters complete a core specification that is also resonating with install customers.
LUCIA, Lab.gruppen’s other new range, was developed with install in mind from day one. The line comprises four models across two power configurations – 2 x 60W and 2 x 120W – each available with either 4-in, 4-out matrix-mixer and configurable DSP features (LUCIA 120/2M, LUCIA 240/2M) or in a basic 2-in, 2-out configuration (LUCIA 120/2 and LUCIA 240/2).

While all models are equipped with DSP pre-configured ‘out of the box’ for operation in typical applications, the Matrix variants also facilitate extensive set-up via USB connection.
Running contrary to the install philosophy that sees audio control and power being brought into one rack room, LUCIA is instead “intended for decentralised systems, putting amplification, processing, matrixing and I/O exactly where it’s needed – close to the loudspeakers and the input devices (and the end user!). There are inherent benefits to this approach – when it happens to suit the application – in terms of better sound quality (low impedance so no transformers), no 70V/100V lines with trunking running from the rack room, and potentially saving money on the cost of transformers in the loudspeakers when there’s an option to buy Low-Z versions.”
Due to begin shipping in September, LUCIA is proving to be “probably the most positive product introduction we’ve seen in recent years – almost surprisingly so,” admits Flanagan. “We knew this would bring new potential to the market and really engage our existing customer base, but it looks like it will do a whole lot more, attracting a completely new segment of the market.” Life in the FAST lane Several of the aforementioned strands – making Class D designs more efficient, and catering to the demands of live and install – are combined in QSC’s new CXD and PLD power amplifier families. Introduced to no small fanfare at InfoComm in June, the ranges share a common four-channel Class D platform, but are separately geared towards fixed installation (CXD) and live sound reinforcement (PLD). Shipping as of last month, the two ranges both deliver powers ranging from 400W to 1,150W (at 8 ohms).
A groundbreaking innovation in power distribution is central to the undoubted industry excitement around these amps. Specifically, QSC has built in a new function, dubbed Flexible Amplifier Summing Technology (FAST), that actively distributes the total amplifier power in various combinations across one, two, three or all four outputs. Matt Skogmo (pictured), director, R&D Power Group at QSC, explains that this allows PLD/CXD Series products “to drive, for example, four full-range loudspeakers or subwoofers; a high-power subwoofer and a biamplified speaker; a single high-power full-range loudspeaker and subwoofer combo; or multiple power-hungry subwoofers from a single, very high output mono-block.”
@page_break@ Elaborating on the thinking behind FAST, Skogmo says that “rather than burden a single channel with the full current and voltage swing required, we began with a single high power channel and then built four of those into a single amplifier. Our FAST technology gives us the ability to then bridge or parallel those amp channels to deliver the required power to a load – no matter if it is 70/100V or 1 ohm… One amplifier can do it all!” Competition and cost All this is only to skim the surface of recent launches. March saw the announcement of Camco’s new i-Series iDR power/management system, while Powersoft has lately announced plans for a solar-powered solution and confirmed the integration of AFMG’s FIRmaker technology.
Yamaha, meanwhile, has just added four eight-channel products to its XMV amplifier range (pictured), for which ease of connectivity and networking are priorities. The XMV8280 and XMV8140 are equipped with Yamaha’s YDIF digital audio format connectivity, designed for fast and easy set-up with Ethernet cables. The XMV8280-D and XMV8140-D, meanwhile, utilise Audinate’s increasingly ubiquitous Dante digital audio networking technology. “The eight-channel XMV products are due to begin shipping in Q4 this year,” confirms Yamaha Commercial Audio Europe’s Tim Harrison.
All of which leaves one obvious question unanswered: why so much creativity in this area, and why now? PSNEurope anticipated a range of theories, but in fact there was a broad consensus that the evolution of Class D platforms and the corresponding energy-saving benefits for increasingly cost-conscious consumers has been the greatest single spur to action.
“When it comes to amplifier developments,” remarks Flanagan, “I’d say it’s economic factors more than anything: how to make ownership more cost-effective and provide greater power density, lower current draw, more energy efficiency and more reliability.” Tschetter echoes some of these sentiments, noting the emergence of technology that “allows the creation of more sophisticated, sonically accurate and higher-powered Class D designs. And at a time when there is concern about energy costs, the market welcomes the efficiency of Class D.”
Powersoft’s Luca Giorgi similarly credits the “maturation” of Class D designs, but also emphasises “competitive factors. Some manufacturers have lost ground during recent years and have therefore sought to regain share with new products in the same market.”
Greater functionality vis-à-vis networking and overall system control will continue to have a growing influence on amplifier design. But right now, in 2013, it’s clear that the sector’s traditional drivers – of delivering more power, more compactly, more cheaply – have come back into sharp focus as amplifier makers work to calm the nerves of users whose eyes are locked evermore intently on the bottom line.