Onix SP3. Outstanding value . About $500 or under used. Prime choice for sound and retro looks .
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Well, you have some pretty good suggestions above if you can find 'em; let's see what an "alternative" picture might look like. If you are buying new and are committed to retaining the Rainmakers, then have a look at Bob Latino's Dynaco-derived KT-120(easy)kit for KT-88's, et.al. Bob's eBay spots had a more useful one-shot presentation on this amp than the main website, the last time I looked. Documentation is said to be thorough for first-time builders, and options are set out clearly. Bob seems to have favored the Gold Lion Reissue KT-88's in this design for awhile, but there are other choices, both cheaper (some say the E-H KT-88's are fine), and dearer (Shuguang Treasure Series, et.al.). I'd opt for appropriate NOS tubes at the input, if not right away, then when you can: Bob, or someone like Jim McShane can surely guide you here (G**gle).
Some practical benefits of this choice: Work slowly, wire it with consistent, symmetrical, and "artistic" neatness; make the practical/premium choices in the "non-consumables" and input tubes; take photos as you go and record all the reasons YOUR build is "as good as you'll ever see"... and the inherent value, your retained value (for if and when you upgrade), will probably exceed comfortably your other options buying new. Your true cost -- that is, the real "price" -- is your total cost of ownership. Therefore, this might be your most economical choice, as well as potentially the best sounding. Of course, who can say what might show up in the listings here worth grabbing with little hesitation!
My personal choice might be for "[slowly] appreciating assets" among the vintage amp listings on eBay, and sometimes here: recognized "classics" like Pilot SA-232 and SA-260 (if bidding doesn't get overheated), and other broadly-respected units such as Eico HF-87 and Fisher SA-100. Also consider well-accepted models the whole crowd hasn't gotten hip to (i.e., bargains): various 7189/EL-84/6BQ5 Heathkits -- AA-151 is a good, low-cost choice (with some modding)-- Fisher SA-16, Stromberg-Carlson ASR 333/433, Sherwood S-5000 II and S-5500 --> version IV 7868 amps (stylish, if they're to your taste -- my late S-5500 IV is less rats-nest-y under the hood than earlier iterations, which = easier to work on); as well as the option of two decent integrateds to use as "monoblocks" (I picked up -- "submitted for your approval", as Rod Serling used to say -- in separate transactions, two VERY clean Heathkit AA-181's, ~23 watts/ch., with original tubes -- 7591's + the small tubes, worth approximately the cost of the amps themselves! -- for WELL under three hundred bucks). Figure $200 for refurb by a qualified person, maybe less, maybe a bit more... and you're there, depending on what sensible, straightforward mods may be advisable. Many know what to do here. In cases involving the integrateds especially, you'll probably want some wiring and control circuits up front bypassed, which is not a big deal; but read the vintage and DIY forums for guidance and caveats. You can also get an idea who can perform the work -- all of it, or some -- as you go along. Just G**gle.
For the latter choices, you'd want more sensitive and/or tube-friendly speakers, so it would be kind of a sea change for you. You didn't mention musical tastes, and that will have much to do with deciding which speakers would be suitable for the power on tap. I'm setting up a vintage-y system now myself (partly as a hedge against the economic effects of any more dubious four trillion dollar wars... or similar little faux pas -- seriously... I'm semi-retired and vulnerable). Through Audiogon, I have Silverline SR-15's & Minuets, plus Jordan wide-rangers to experiment with. There are the usual high sensitivity options (Tekton Lore [?], e.g.); also check out models that, at first glance, seem too "insensitive", because a few of these can surprise, if you have a small room or rarely CRANK it. Two examples I've seen vouched for in this regard -- though I cannot do so directly -- are the last iteration ACI Sapphires before the smaller Emeralds (by the designer); and the PSB Synchrony 1B's, if Andrew Marshall and 'Audio Ideas Guide' can be believed here (2A3's?!).
In sum, that's one sort of survey of the not too "specialized" tube universe from circa $1000, on "down". Have fun!
I share your opinion when it comes to Rogue Audio amplifiers and currently own a Stereo 90.I also own and love a Raysonic SP-120 KT-88 based integrated.It is great sounding,very dynamic,and the quietest tube amp I have owned.You may be able to find a NOS SP-120 or its EL-34 based SP-100 sibling at or near your price point.They have been replaced with mk.II versions.The differences (between the original and Mk.II) are mainly cosmetic.
Though a notch down from the Raysonic,the affordable Yarland amps do a decent job as well
There are a lot of good suggestions here.
However, I would encourage you to check out a true blue Dynaco ST70, either used, or new and available through Kevin at http://www.dynakitparts.com If you need someone to build it for you, he has a network of folks to provide that.
For all the criticism leveled at the ST70 over the past half centure, it remains one of the touchstone products in audio, and possesses a magic that most high-end audio components never come close to. The only real negatives I find with it are 1) lack of power compared to a larger amp and 2) subpar performance in the low frequencies. It took me 25 years of overlooking them, only to discover as one of the finest, most engaging products I've encountered.
Trelja makes a fair point regarding the ST-70. Note that Mr. Latino can also supply an all new, "modernized" version of this that addresses these issues to a useful degree, and the Dynaco pedigree look is retained. Keep in mind that no matter how many raves you hear about this or that amplifier from the so-called "Golden Age", practically all of these were designed under serious cost constraints for a MASS MARKET. There was neither much of a "high end" as we know it today, nor a hardcore consumer subculture for extremely pricey solutions or boutique parts, status symbols not withstanding.
I think you'll find the KT-88/6550 version I mentioned with the beefier transformers more economical in the long run: the "supply side" constraint on resale prices and "appreciation" of the standard ST-70 and its many variants is pretty obvious. Then, too, your options for speaker choices (and speaker bargains!) are expanded. You can always use EL-34's or 6CA7's in the he-man version, if that better suits your taste in sonics. Also consider that triode mode switching and an input attenuator with gain/sensitivity options via tube choice are available, too. Work through the math, consider the market's alternatives... you'll see.
A few more things I should have mentioned regarding the "true blue" pop-classic: Proper NOS 7199's are a must -- they are generally considered pricey -- so carefully investigating the condition of these in any ST-70 you're considering is important. A minor mod to accept NOS 6GW8's (pricier)in this position is considered by some enthusiasts to be the high end way to go. Substituting a pair of top-shelf input loading resistors such as Caddock is dead simple and can clearly improve the sonics in a well sorted out tube amp for the price of a solo dinner at Appleby's. And don't think the kind of gold binding post mods you commonly see around are improving the sonics: more likely, the opposite, cable-fitting issues aside.
BTW, Trelja, do you think some folks in Kevin's network would want to take on some of the refurb work I alluded to in my initial post at a keen price for tube newbies? THAT would simplify this path greatly for Rossbernstein and others.
Seakayer, you are incredibly knowledgeable about this vintage gear. This year, though I've not acted on it, I've been more than a bit curious regarding the Eico HF-87 you mentioned. My hat's off to you...
I happened to recommend the "original" Dynaco circuit as I find there to be a purity in that Concertina front-end that is overlooked/underestimated by most. Rather, I see it as one of those situations where simpler can be better. I fully admit that mine represents the minority opinion, and that more elaborate (VTA/Latino, KTA, Dynaco's own 1990s tubed ST80, etc) front-ends, most of which employ a classic Mullard long tail pair driver stage are considered to be a major improvement by most. As you said, budget played a huge role in design, and obviously, less parts translates into an easier fit into a budget.
Again, tipping my hat to you, your point on the 7199 is spot on. With Sovtek tubes, I consider the Dynaco to be, at best, an average product, and I'm not even sure it reaches that level. Install a pair of Sylvania or RCA, and the amp comes alive.
But, to answer your question, while the individuals should be contacted, the impression I get is that some of them are more oriented toward a new build. That said, there are a whole lot of folks out there who can get an old Dynaco right.
By the way, one final point - I often see folks make the statement that today's circuits are the reason for the superiority of today's tube amplifiers. That is absolutely incorrect. With an incredibly few exceptions, today's amplifiers employ the circuits of yesterday; there are no two ways about that. The difference is the implementation of today's products, both parts and things like higher bias (we are not as conscious of the economics of tube life today). This is why a Dynaco ST70, built with today's metal film resistors and better caps can outclass a lot more current tube amplifiers than most would believe.
I very much take your point on the Concertina, Trelja, but here's the rub: the Concertina, or split-load style of phase splitter & driver, really is not properly used "naked" driving a Class AB output stage, or with any sort of output stage where you are going to be drawing much grid current. This is because the frequency balance between the two phases -- which interacts in various complex ways with other characteristics of performance -- depends crucially on the plate circuit and that of the cathode in the Concertina seeing EQUAL IMPEDANCES at all times.
Contrary to audiophile mythology, in a circuit where the two loads are effectively kept close in value and stable, the output impedances of the splitter, top & bottom, hence the "drive" characteristics of the two halves, are VIRTUALLY IDENTICAL. Not so in a Stereo 70 trying to push out nearly 35 watts into most real world speaker loads. How many "respectful" ST-70 mods retaining this splitter arrangement, but operating in pure Class A, where neither OP tube cuts off, have you seen -- preferably with grid chokes, etc, to handle the grid current? None, I bet. This is why D.T.N. Williamson added a LTP driver stage after the phase converter in his classic design... at the expense, because of multiple poles in the now more complex circuit, of marginal stability vis-a-vis the global loop feedback -- which itself interacts with complex, dynamically changing speaker loads. D.T.N. got it pretty much right -- others didn't.
Thus, some Williamson copycat amps of the '50's, being adulterated by cheaper, slightly wonky or inconsistent output transformers and such, could be -- and STILL ARE -- very dicey performers. The Heathkit W4-M is an example. It will work fine with a LTP converter and a simpler front end circuit.
Their are ways to stick some band-aids on these problems, but you know, why not get it right?
By contrast, a little EL-84/7189 amp with Concertina, running Class A or close, at 10-12 watts out, can sound excellent in ways a stock Stereo 70 never can. So, I have the doggone cutest little refurbished Fisher SA-16 on the way to me now to add a little reinforcement to my point! And I have, I guess, a very nice ST-70 refurb with the stock front end for sale (in theory).
BTW, thanks for your very gracious compliments! One more point: This audio business is a funny thing. Sometimes things that just "shouldn't" work manage to sound better than, as some say, "they have any right to". Other circuits and executions look like the bees' knees on paper or upon physical inspection, and for some reason you may never figure out, just sound like doggie-doo. Credit should also be given to those old-timey engineers, who because of their deep knowledge, had their ways to pull a rabbit out of the hat. The trick may not be evident to modern day analysts! This is what makes the hobby "fun"(?).
I was wandering down this road some months back, and finally ended up contracting out to Jim Nicholls to build me a tube amplifier at a very good price. I am very happy with the finished product. He employs a modified seesaw circuit to good effect. His webpage can be seen here:
OK. I have not spoken to a JWN amp owner who is unhappy. Sonically speaking, his amps are quite amazing. The highs are lush, the mids are to die for, and there is ample bass. There is an added dimension-an almost holographic soundstage display, practically three-dimensional.
My amp uses 8 output tubes. I am currently using EH 6CA7 variety, although the amp will take EL-34's, KT-88's, etc. It weighs 85 lbs and has huge Baldwin amp transformers. It is auto-bias.
For a detailed explanation of the circuitry, check out this review by Dick Olsher:
It is basically a grounded cathode input stage with a floating paraphase phase splitter. For contemporary reference, the $18K Esoteric A-100 uses a similar modified circuit.
I paid $1,500.00 LOL. Oh and did I say it sounds great?
Hey guys, I really appreciate all the time you put into your responses. I am going to spend some time later today going over them in depth. So far, I really like what I'm reading. The idea of putting my own tube amp together is exciting, from both a performance point of view and an economic one. It would also be a good educational experience for me since I know very little about tubes (even though I'm an engineering student and an audiophile). I also understand that there may still be good deals out there that are better than anything i can put together, so I will definitely do my homework in that regard. I will probably have more to say after I'm finished going over all your responses in depth and googling everything I don't yet understand. Thanks again.
There are a few good ones for around your price range.
My first choice is Vista Audio i34. EL-34 tubes. (Those tubes are some of the best) $980. The cool thing about this amp is that it is made in Serbia by a Serbian designer. Everything else in this price range is made in China. It has some great reviews and there is a 30 day trial period.
Another one you can try is from Jolida. The Jolida 202BRC $839 or the 302BRC around $1100.
If you can stretch your budget there is always the American made Rouge Cronus for $1800. Another interesting and well made amp for $1500 is from Antique Sound Labs. The AQ1003 Mark 2.
I have a Granite Audio 834 integrated. $2400 new. American made. Digital bias meter built in, that really helps. Had it for 2 years now and thinking of selling it soon to try a Mastersound Due Venti $3000. The Granite is the best amp out of all of my suggestions. It even sounded better to me than the VTL-i85 I had before it and that is saying something. I am hoping the Mastersound will be better than the Granite. Always trying something new :)
I personally do not think your Totems are a good match at all for tube amps. I would hook any of these up to a pair of Vandersteen 1C's or Zu Audio or even Proac speakers and be in musical bliss. I hope this helps. Once you go tubes it's hard to go back to solid state. Tubes rock.
Ditto, Mezzanine, on the loudspeakers! As to these specific suggestions: If you get the ProAcs or Vandys at the right price, you shouldn't have any problem at all reselling, if for some reason they don't suit your own situation. For Zu, please do read the Audiogon forum responses thoroughly -- there are many close observations on their sonic characteristics, plus useful comparisons here.
You may also find that more sensitive, tube-friendly loudspeakers "wake up" at lower a volume and have a bit more life at civilized levels. For me personally, I tend to have little interest in models that won't show well with something like 9-10 watts Class A EL-84 power, even if you don't go there amp-wise for your own circumstances. There are exceptions, of course.
And don't overlook the fact that Paul Speltz's 'Zero Autoformers' will let you optimize the power output of tube amps of modest power, or the First Watt amps for that matter, into loudspeakers having an impedance minimum right there in the midrange where you may need EFFECTIVE power the most! They are not just for the OTL guys -- see Paul's website for plenty more on this. I keep a set of these around for exactly that reason. A First watt J2, being one example many may not have considered in this respect, should simply put more watts into typical examples of these loudspeakers, according to the math. This is because you are current limited -- it's similar with small tube amps which are not optimized for low-distortion power into low impedances, like some of the small Decware amps are. Nelson implies -- you may know how the Zenmaster operates with respect to pronouncements of opinion -- in a recent addition to the website something to this effect.
Your Totems are good speakers but they are not a very easy load to drive. 87 DB @ 4 ohms. Most tube integrated amps are rated around 30 watts. They give you good value for money, seeing that you wanted to stay around 1k. The rogue cronus is most likely powerful enough at 55 watts but I still think it is not the best. When I think of totem I think of solid state type of sound. A bit lean, a bit bright sounding on top. They like a lot of juice to get them going to sound their best. Magnepan and Theil speakers are other such speakers I tend to think of when I think of solid state amps. They need a lot of current.Then there are speakers that sound best with tubes. The electrical load is better suited for tubes. Usually 8 ohms nominal and/or at least higher sensitivity 90DB or higher. I have a 30 watt tube integrated and I use Proac speakers and JM Reynaud speakers. Both found use a little more watts but are an easy enough load for my amp. Speakers that are great for tube amps usually excel in the midrange, perhaps have a warmer and less lean balance then you totems. Speakers such as Joseph Audio, Zu, Tekton, Devore, are good matches for tubes.
The bottom line is, if your get the Rogue, you can use it with your Totems. After sometime you may want to explore different speakers. You will notice a difference.
You can always buy a high powered tube amp that will drive just about anything. But if you want to stay within your budget then a lower powered tube amp and higher efficient speakers are the way to go. There are many that would say this is the only way to go. This is a bit of a ramble but I hope it helps some. :)
Please, by all means ramble as much as you'd like, because I am eager to learn about tube amps. I've been reading as much as I can lately about them. In addition to the Totems, I also have a pair of B&W CM7's that I use for TV-system. Since they're 8 ohms and higher efficiency, would you say they would be a better candidate to match with tubes? I know people have reservations about B&W, myself included, but for some reason the CM7's sounded particularly nice to me. Either way, I'm sure that I will eventually upgrade my speakers as well.
In regards to the amp, I am seriously considering putting together my own from a kit--so far I've only seen kits from Bob Latino, but are there any other noteworthy places to get kits that are worth comparing?. I'd like to take advantage of any potential good deals that pop up on here or ebay, but it's hard to pull the trigger on an amp that I've never heard solely based on faith, and it's hard for me to evaluate the condition/quality of specific listings of old tube amps since I don't have the experience. I can't find anywhere to audition these either, as much as I'd like to listen to them. My only source of reference are new tube amps that I hear in local audio stores selling for much higher prices. The places near me carry brands like Rogue Audio, Rogers, PrimaLuna & McIntosh. I imagine I'd learn a lot by putting together my own as well. However, since I still want the best bang for my buck, I would still just buy a complete amp if it were a much better deal. What do you think? There is still the worry that I don't know exactly what the finished product will sound like. So, how would you describe the sound characteristics/overall quality I can expect from the Dynaco amps versus something I might hear at the store? Also, what about other brands like Jolida? The Chinese Yaqin amps?
Rossbernstein, the three main sources for Dynaco kits are Triode Electronics, Bob Latino, and Dynakit Parts. All of them are a different implementation, and as such, will sound unique.
I also own a Dynaco ST80, but not the more ubiquitous solid state product with that moniker. It's the rare tube version from the early 1990s that was a redo of the ST70, addressing the myriad criticisms of the original. It features a regulated solid state power supply with much more capacity, driver section using 12AT7 and 6922 tubes in Mullard long tail pair configuration (like the VTA/Latino, KTA, etc. upgrades), individual biasing of the four output tubes with two color (green = low, red = high, out = OK) LEDs, and triode/ultralinear switch.
But, I think it's good to begin (and, possibly end?) one's journey with the original, so I recommended the version from Dynakit Parts, as it is the true Dynaco ST70, updated with modern parts and a bit larger power supply capacitor can. While it does not possess the power of larger tube amplifiers with more output tubes, and there is a looseness in the low frequencies (there are a few simple/easy tweaks for this), I find a certain beguiling purity of sound, along with an astounding degree of resolution, detail, and overall refinement. One thing about the ST70, presuming you don't partner it with a speaker that pushes it out of its comfort zone, it's just an incredibly pleasant and easy to listen to amplifier, and you can stay up with it long into the night. It seems equally happy with rock, jazz, or classical music, and does proper justice to all three. I own amplifiers that cost a whole lot more ($5K - $15K) than my ST70, but I'm more happy listening to it than most of them; I think that's the biggest compliment I can pay it.
The point I made about new products using the classic designs directly applies to most of the Chinese tube amplifiers. For several years, I was the importer for one of the largest Chinese high-end audio companies, so I have some background and opinion there. They normally employ the Mullard long tail pair driver stage with an ultralinear (sometimes, with switch for triode operation as well) connection output section. They usually sound nice enough, but apart from one or two companies, for several reasons, the vast majority of these amplifiers have exceptionally poor resale value.
Also, I wouldn't be in a rush to move away from your Totems, and I certainly wouldn't sell them before coming into the tube amplifier. You might find the combination makes you happy. That doesn't mean I think they're the friendliest match, but I'd at least give it a chance.
Mezzanine, while I've not spent a lot of time with the Granite integrated, I owned the monoblocks as well as the tube output CD player. They were incredibly nice components, always made me happy, and Don Hoglund was a terrific guy to deal with.