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Ultra-Compact Digital Amps Gaining Market Share

Smaller, ultra-compact digital amplifiers, offered by several leading brands, are quickly replacing larger, heat-sink heavy amplifiers, said many industry members.

Ultra-compact amplifiers, which run about 30 percent to 60 percent smaller than their forbearers, were popularized three years ago when Alpine launched one of the first series of multichannel digital downsized amplifiers. The concept has since been adopted by other brands.

The downsized amplifiers now account for more than 60 percent of the amplifier installations at Al & Ed’s Autosound, Van Nuys, Calif.; 75 percent of the installs at Hi-Fi Fo-Fum in St Louis; and more than half the installs at Freeman’s Stereo Video, Charlotte, N.C.

Other retailers, such as Columbus Car Audio, Columbus, Ohio, said about 30 percent of amplifier sales are in downsized models, and Abt Electronics, Glenview, Ill., said the category represents 30 percent to 50 percent of its amplifier sales.

The available space for hiding amplifiers in cars has been curtailed recently as the car makers cram the spaces under seats with electronics and heating controls, and place other computer electronics in kick panels.

Additionally, Hi-Fi Fo-Fum VP Tony Dollar said of amplifiers, “People don’t want to show this product off like they used to in the past. So we need to hide them. And with the smaller amps, you can mount them upside down and stack them, and you don’t have to worry about heat dissipation.”

Sound quality is not as good as the bigger amps, but “for the average customers listening to the iPod, it’s good enough,” said Dollar.

Another benefit is the smaller amps make the sale simpler for the sales people, said Freeman’s. Al & Ed’s Autosound said it had been requesting these amplifiers for years, “but the pleas fell largely upon deaf ears until recently,” according to product manager John Haynes.

While some still consider the product a niche for use in cramped installations, others say the amps will likely replace their larger cousins. JL Audio sees the smaller amps continuing to gain share. “Simply put — they fit, they rock and they demand less from the vehicle’s charging system per watt of output,” said marketing VP Manville Smith.

Kenwood just began shipping its first compact amplifiers. The two Excelon models measure about 9 inches by 8 inches and about 2 inches high, about half the size of Kenwood’s standard amplifiers. The mono digital XR-IS delivers 600 watts RMS at 4 ohms at a suggested retail of $600. An optional remote bass control, KCA-WR10, at $50, can operate the volume of the XR-1S from the driver’s seat. A four-channel version is the XR-4S, also digital, at $600. It is rated at 120 watts per channel RMS into 4 ohms. The company said it may offer a five-channel version next year.

JL Audio added two ultra-compact Class D amps this year in its HD series, including the five-channel HD800/5 — a 500-watt subwoofer amplifier plus a 75-watt by 4 amplifier. JL Audio claimed the HD800/5 uses less than a third of the space of its equivalent in the 500/1 plus 300/4 amplifiers, and it matches the sound performance. The H800/5 ships in April at a suggested retail of $1,099.

The JL Audio HD 1200/1 is the same size as last year’s HD 750/1 but now adds more power at 1,200 watts mono. It is expected to ship in the third quarter at price to be announced.

Eclipse claims it offers the smallest amp for the power output in its ZA1200 amp with ICEpower technology that launched last year. The digital mono amp delivers 1,200 watts RMS max into 2 ohms and measures about 12 by 10 inches and two inches high. The amp “is selling as well as our other amps, no difference,” said Michael West, marketing director, who added that Eclipse will migrating other amps to this size.

Rockford recently introduced three new Power series amplifiers with a cooling system that eliminates the need for large heat sinks. The model T1000-1bd, 1,000-watt, Class BD mono amp is rated at 650 watts RMS into 2 ohms at a suggested $849. The step-up T2500-1bd mono amp is rated at 1800 watts into 2 ohms at $1,849, and the T1000-4 four-channel amp is rated at 500 watts RMS by 2 into 4 ohms, also at a suggested $1,849. Shipping was expected in March.

Pioneer said its most popular compact digital amplifier is the GM-D8400M 600-watt mono Class D amplifier at a $300 suggested retail.

JVC’s newest compact amp is the KS-AR9501D mono amplifier measuring approximately 10 inches by 14 inches by 2 inches. It joins two compact amps introduced last year. The KS-AR9501D digital amplifier has a maximum power output of 1,800 watts mono and is now available at a $649 suggested retail.

Sony’s most popular multichannel compact amplifier is the XM-4S 4/3 amp rated at 50 watts by 4 RMS into 4 ohms and 160 watts RMS into 4 ohms (rear). Although it is an AB amp, it is the same size as a digital amplifier. Suggested retail is $199.