Stereo Amplifier

Review: Sony TA-FA3ES Stereo Amplifier

When they sent along that rather fine CDP-XA2ES Compact Disc player, the Sony people included a matching integrated amplifier from the new ES range. At £399.99, a shade more than the player, this beast offered an immediate indication of value for money judged from its weight alone. Previous experience of the brand had suggested this might be due to heavy mineral-loaded base panels which Sony once favoured - the so-called Gibraltar chassis - but not so: this TA-FA3ES is all solid metalwork and hefty components.

I hope Sony won’t mind me saying that its one-time near dominant presence on the audio separates scene has tended to fade a little in the past couple of years. True, there have been some outstanding products - Dolby S cassette recorders and a succession of audibly delectable low-cost CD players, for example - but the emphasis otherwise has been on ‘systems’ and slow movers such as DAT and the yet-to-boil MiniDisc. This year will mark a turning point if Sony UK has anything to do with it (and the UK team has had a lot to do with the design aspect) as this, the second new product to reach me recently, shows.

The FA3ES shares the same style as the aforementioned CDP-XA2ES CD player; the upper 20mm matt-finished panel section here houses seven tiny orange LEDs, lit to indicate the selected input.

The corners are again rounded and the lower brushed black satin finished area carries the neatly legended controls.

An attempt has been made to ‘domesticate’ the knobs etc. and although they are still far from subtle, those earlier ES years of resemblance to something recovered from a Second World War Russian battle cruiser have thankfully disappeared. Even so one can’t help feeling that in the second half of the 1990s a one-time progressive Sony ought to have made more effort to match the ‘house trained’, compact appearance of some European company products. The usual story, that it is “what the major markets demand”, rather falls flat when all the foreign show reports feature enlightened styling. Certainly such dated, bulky black boxes as these are not to the fore. Even so products like the FA3ES do contain a number of innovatory features which are worthy of investigation.

The chassis construction of the FA3ES is again of the ‘Frame and Beam' concept, although in this case the main beam is a deep one, forming a shield between the sensitive early stages and the power sections. Extensive use of copper-plated screws ensures enduring electrical continuity and copper plates clamped between the large output MosFet devices and the radial-vaned extruded aluminium heatsinks look after their temperature regulation. There are some ten printed circuit board sections, many derived from one large original board with snap-off sections later used individually; there is therefore more than the usual amount of internal wiring and plug and socketry. The main board carries the power supply and symmetrical output driver sections and is notable for the pair of 10,000pF Audio Elna capacitors and the centre point earthing arrangement.

Unusually in a Japanese design, the power transformer is a toroid and it is mounted on a separate small steel chassis so that it can be attached via vibration-absorbing material to the main framework. This also facilitates the installation of alternatives for other mains supplies. Unusually also, the parts so far mentioned, plus a few bits of fusing and switchery, constitute a complete and separate power amplifier.

The input, tone control, pre-driver and head-phone amplifier stages operate from a small independent mains transformer and associated supply components on an L-shaped board section sitting either side of the dividing beam. These stages run at a steady current and the stability provided by this arrangement avoids the disruption present on the main supply, which varies with the programme content and no matter how well further regulated is often the cause of lost fidelity in lesser designs. Other pieces of board carry the input and phono preamplifier, input and output phono sockets and the tone and input selection sections.

Front panel controls are logical with a couple of except ions. On the extreme left is the power switch with an associated LED which shows red at switch on, changing to green after a few stabilizing seconds. Below it is a window for the remote control ‘eye’ and a permanently live headphones socket; adjacent is a rotary knob marked Speakers On/Off. As I can’t think of any logical reason why one would wish to turn off the loudspeakers except when using headphones, [ ponder why the usual ‘break contact' on the headphone jack itself was not used to open the relay which isolates the loudspeakers, thus saving one control and an unnecessary knob. I had then presumed that perhaps it turned off the power amplifier section - after all one doesn’t need 100 watts per channel to activate a pair of headphones - but no, all it does is to open that relay in the loudspeaker feeds; just one of the mysteries of the Orient!

The next three small knobs are much more logical being centre-detented bass, treble and balance settings. The tone controls are quite mild in their effect and are only operative in the lower half of the volume control setting; as volume is increased above that their influence is progressively removed - a sensible arrangement. Alongside is a small three-position lever switch offering tape monitor for two machines; fortunately this is provided with an LED indicator as otherwise it is all too easy to knock it off-centre and spend time wondering why there is no sound. The same applies to a Mute button a little further along, provided for those too lazy to turn down the volume. Between them is a prominent mid-size knob, the input selector; this can be (rather stiffly) clicked through a full circle in either direction to sequence through the available inputs. As the actual selection is accomplished by relays mounted on the board behind the input sockets, a neat horizontal rocker switch would have been my preference both operationally and aesthetically. A further small button and associated LED provide a Source Direct connection, bypassing the tone and balance section. Lastly the large right-hand knob is the motorized attenuator, calibrated from 0 down to -80dB and then infinity.

On the rear panel one finds eight pairs of phono sockets (only those for CD and phono are gold-plated - one wonders why) and a ground terminal. Alongside the pair marked Phono is a push switch offering alternative facilities for moving-magnet or moving-coil cartridges. Unusual is a pair for preamplifier output. The two tape sets are optimistically marked DAT and MD but in fact all the auxiliary inputs are of identical sensitivity (150mV into 20kOhms) and the record out sockets are merely isolated from the selected Source by 1kohm resistors, which means that the connected source units could affect the signal. Over to the right are eight stout terminals for loudspeaker pairs A and/or B, both sets via the previously mentioned relay; they have 4mm centers. There is a permanent 1.5m mains lead. A slim RM5702 hand-held remote control offers input selection and control of volume as well as the basic operation of suitably appointed CD player, tuner and tape machines.


Measurements on the FA3ES showed it to exceed the specification in most respects and only revealed one flaw, which was a poor overload characteristic, particularly at high frequencies where an oscillatory blip arose on the sine wave. Attempts to throw some light on this problem caused a couple of resistors to protest, so it was not proceeded with. In view of the high power available one would not expect overload to be reached in normal operation but it is a point to be aware of.

Musically the results were extremely satisfying: solid authority in the bass and detailed, open transparency in the treble. Just occasionally a trace of hardness appeared in the upper midrange and drew attention to itself but it did not seem to be related to volume level; otherwise all was well.

Over the Christmas holiday a Bartok fan requested the suite from Bluebeard’s Castle and it so happened that the only disc I could lay my hands on was the old Mercury with Dorati and the LSO (CD 434 325-2MM, 7/93), It’s years since I played it - my, how good those 1962 recordings were, quite a test for this TA-FA3ES 33 years on.