Little microchip that could: Lepai 2020+

Lepai 2020+ in action

Lepai 2020+ in action

I’m constantly reminded that sensory inputs like sight, sound, and touch can’t be separated. It’s why the aroma of fresh pie is integral from the taste, why you anticipate how a leather seat sounds when you fall into it, why rock concerts have light shows. The main sensory effects are amplified by enriching the experience with other senses.

I think that’s part of the reason why I value the aesthetic so much in my obsession with hi-fi. Performance is key but presentation is almost as important. I’ll guarantee ugly speakers sit in the showroom long after all the pretty boxes are sold.

And this blog is called ‘silver face stereo’ for a reason – personally, I think the style and aesthetic of the hi-fi world back when things were supposed to be seen and heard is hugely important. I think it’s a tragedy that in recent decades it seems that most of the mainstream home entertainment design has gone out the window, replaced by black plastic boxes.

Good design can be participatory and bring you in to the process. Even if you’re never going to use them all, admiring or playing with the myriad dials on a classic receiver makes you part of bringing the recording alive. So does queuing up a track on a turntable. You are helping to reproduce this experience and therefore make it your own. Interestingly enough for me, contemporary digital design is exacerbating this tendency:  iPod, iPhones or Android phones, with design and interface staging that is intended to disappear in use, cannot oby definition make you a participant in this important way. The irony of a digital interface that seems seamless and transparent is that it connects you less with the experience, not more. You don’t have to work for it.

Lepai 2020+ with iPod Classic

Lepai 2020+ with iPod Classic

So here we are then with the Lepai 2020+. A minimally-designed shiny plastic box the size of a couple of decks of playing cards. When I say it is minimally-designed, I don’t mean in the Bauhaus style – I mean minimal thought was put into making it look good. To my eye, it’s not far removed in design from the car amplifiers my friends stuffed into the trunks of their ’82 Corollas in high school – light metal casing, shallow ribbing over the tops and sides, bright LED light of some sort announcing its presence. It does not look expensive at all.  But since it’s so small, you can hide it, so maybe its looks aren’t that important. And really, for $20 you’d better hope they’re spending money on the sound quality.

On the front there’s a volume dial which is backlit by a blue LED, two tone controls, a tone defeat button, the power rocker switch and a 3.5mm input jack. On the back a re speaker wire outputs for one set of speakers, RCA ins, and a hookup for the power adapter, which is almost as big as the amp itself. So all the important connections and pieces are there.

Lepai 2020+ front plate

Lepai 2020+ front plate

Hookup is simple. Plug in one set of speaker wires (The terminals look cheap but work fine), plug it in, and flip the switch. There’s an audible thump through your speakers as the amp’s relay closes. It’s louder than you expect but won’t be damaging anything. The blue LED around the volume rocker is very bright. In a dark room it could be pretty distracting.

So how does it perform?

Actually, pretty well.  It’s rated at 20w/channel, but folks who have tested it report you’re actually getting closer to 7w/channel of clean stereo power before clipping and distortion sets in.  For me the usable volume goes to about 11-12 o’clock on  the dial. I’ve tested this amp with Klipsch KG4s (94 db/w sensitive), Design Acoustic PS-10A (90Db/w), and Polk Monitor 5s (89Db/w) and they all get plenty loud, especially if you’re sitting relatively close. Songs sound pretty good. There’s good detail and clean reproduction throughout the frequency range – plenty of bass and high end.

For me, the amp sounds ‘just fine’ – I can’t pick out anything super special about it and it does nothing poorly. For the price I paid through Parts Express (about $25) this is an amazing steal.

Rear panel of the Lepai 2020+

Rear panel of the Lepai 2020+

What’s most surprising about this amp to me is what technology has accomplished. This amp uses the tripath chip, which is a sound chip developed in the early 2000s to provide audiophile-grade sound on an integrated circuit for a low price. Tripath technologies eventually went bankrupt in about 2007, but the chips persist and are catching on in the hi-fi world. A quick look on Amazon or Parts Express lists dozens of tripath-powered amps which provide cheap, low-maintenance and reliable sound. They’re even easy to mod!

I like this amp a lot for a few reasons – firstly it’s so small I can take it anywhere – it goes out on the deck to power barbecue speakers. It usually lives on my work table where I use it to test speaker projects in the repair or assembly stage. Currently it’s doing temporary duty in my HT room while we paint and all the big equipment is packed away.

The fact that this thing is ugly and only functional has its own endearing quality to it – I don’t worry about the aesthetics and just enjoy the music. it’s never going to be in my main rig. Wherever it is it’s there not to enrich my serious listening experience but to help provide background music. That’s important sometimes too.

What really surprises me is that this amp’s limitations also show me what my real listening requirements are. I can have a lot of music enjoyment and quite good sound on only 1-5 watts per channel. It makes you wonder why I ever switch on my 160 watt per channel Pioneer SX-150 to listen to Stevie Nicks 4 feet away from my speakers. I can’t be using more than one watt per channel.

Lepai 2020+ in action with two Polk Monitor 5Bs while the rest of my gear is stored during basement renovation

Lepai 2020+ in action with two Polk Monitor 5Bs while the rest of my gear is stored during basement renovation

There are other limitations that aren’t so nice. For one, that thump when you turn on the amp. For really sensitive speakers, that could be a no-no. Also, when you add the tone controls to the signal path the amp gets noticeably quieter. That’s kind of cheap. And the thing is so light that it can be pushed around. But really, these are minor concerns.

If I weren’t such a style and brand snob, there’s no reason that this amp couldn’t be one of my main listening rigs. As it is, I think it’s a fine component for outdoor systems, for computers, workbenches, and garages. Its almost-vintage sound will not surprise those of you coming from lower-power classic amps (reminds me of my old Sansui 551 actually). And it’s the perfect size to be incorporated into projects like powered speakers, boomboxes, and outdoor or all-weather enclosures. What fun!

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~ by silverfacestereo on September 5, 2013.

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