Review: Antique Sound Labs Hurricane Tube amp
Review -------Antique Sound Labs 200 Hurricanes
Ever since owning my current speakers, the Infinity Reference Speakers 1 B's, I have always had a desire to power the system, (the mid and tweeter sections), with a high powered (200 wpc) tubed amplifier. What I have used in the past for this assignment have been Conrad Johnson's MV75's, ARC's D-115's, and my current amp ARC VT100 MK2. As I progressed up the ladder, with these amplifiers, there was always a noticeable and marked improvement in sound. The VT100's were, and are in my opinion, a great and powerful, (very powerful 100 watts/channel) amp. I was quite satisfied with this set-up. My amplification for the bass towers have always been the Perruaux 2150B after a brief encounter with a Bryston 4B. This review will be on the Hurricanes, although I have also recently upgraded the bass amplifier, which I will include comments on in this review.
As I mentioned, I was quite happy with my set-up until I read Harry Pearson's review of the Hurricanes in the issue 140 of the "Absolute Sound." It was not only Harry's rave review of these amplifiers, but also their ridiculously low price that got my thinking of an upgrade.
I have been in search of a 200 + amplifier for quite some time hoping to capture some of the qualities that have been described by reviewers of larger amplifiers such as VTL 450's, ARC 200's, Conrad Johnson 8's, and so on, that drove this speaker. Although I have purchased used equipment before, I was a bit hesitant to do so with a tubed amplifier. The price for new amps, I mentioned above, was a bit high. So therefore, you can see why I began salivating while reading Harry's review of this, shall I say, "cheap" powerful tubed amplifier.
I made a decision and ordered the amps through a dealer, sight and sound unheard. Now let me explain that I've never done that before. Although I have the greatest respect for Harry's hearing and his great reviews, and agree with his assessments usually, there have been times when our opinions on certain equipment did not match. For instance, Harry loved the Infinity IRS system but had many concerns about their smaller sibling the RS 1's. I heard the RS 1's and loved them. I did not agree with Harry's view, at that time, and purchased a pair.
I ordered the amplifiers from Lyric Hi-Fi, in NYC, and followed the recommendation of Harry Pearson and order the units with the original Multi-Caps MIT Capacitors. I waited approximately two months for their arrival. Ordered in January and picked up in March.
The amplifiers, although heavy, are single chassis and weigh 65lbs each and can be handled fairly easily after eating your bowl of Wheaties. All of the tubes, 8 KT88's and three 6SN7's/channel, are marked Antique Sound Labs.
I unplugged my ARC amp and, after placing the Hurricanes on their stand, I connected the inter-connect cables to them. When I went to connect the speaker cables, ( I am using Acoustic Zen silver MK2 IC's and Satori speaker cables), the spades did not fit easily on the rear binding posts of the Hurricanes. I know this is a minor point, but this was my first indication of the build quality between these two companies, (ARC and ASL). I needed to adjust my spades to fit snugly on the Hurricane posts. As I am very un-technical and dislike fooling around with tools, this annoyed me a bit.
Anxious to hear what they sounded like, I plugged in the supplied power cords, ( they also look cheap), and turned on the amplifiers. Everything in my system was exactly the same, that I have been using, with my ARC VT100's. That is: Helikon, (regular), cartridge, VPI 10.5 arm and ARIES table. This is plugged into my ARC PH3SE and that into the ARC LS25 MK1. At this time I was using the Perreaux 2150B for bass amplification into the Infinity Servo Controlled cross-over.
As soon as I began listening I was struck with two initial, and negative, impressions. The first one being a (60 HTZ?), hum coming out of the main columns. The second one was that the sensitivity match between the ASL and Perreaux was off. The sensitivity of the Hurricanes was much higher than my previous ARC amp and therefore, I needed to fool around with the controls on my Infinity crossover to boost the output of the bass columns. The higher sensitivity made amplification of moving coils much easier, but seemed to be bright ,a bit edgy and the upper bass/mid-bass was missing. However, I was struck, immediately, with a new unveiled sound that spread instruments wider across the stage with much more clarity than before.
After posting my two initial problems on Audiogon, (the hum and the sensitivity problem), I was helped with some good advice from you all. The hum was an easy fix. I just added an adaptor and floated the ground. The results: hum was gone. The sensitivity problem was a bit more of a challenge. I am, I must confess, a creature of habit and a person who avoids change as much as possible. So when I began to fool around with the controls of the crossover, trying to get more out-put from the bass amplifier, and a better level match between the two amplifiers to restore the mid/upper bass, I felt that, in some neurotic way, I was some how pushing the system into the final limits......almost like, turning up the volume control of your pre-amp and getting it where you are comfortable with it, BUT it is now only a click or two away from the maximum limit. Another example.......and in my case......I had to run up the volume control almost at maximum on the crossover to get out the amount of bass needed to compensate for the high sensitivity of the ASL's. It was there, (at a good level) but almost a maximum.......Am I explaining it correctly? I hope you get it. Anyway, there was an additional fix for this and it was the addition of a newer (used) amplifier for the woofer columns.
The newer amp, a Perreaux 3150B (recommended by "Sean" on Audiogon ((Thanks Sean)) did do the trick!! The Perreaux is more powerful (300-8ohms/600-4ohms) and solved some of the mid-lower bass that I was missing from the bass towers.
However, I believe the biggest fixes that occurred and solved most of the sensitivity/coolness problems I was hearing were two things.
1. I replaced the ASL supplied 6SN7 tubes with NOS Sylvania's from Andy's Vintage Tube Service.
The change in tubes was noticed immediately and continues to improve with use.
2. The KT 88's NEED TO BURN IN!!
I never really experienced this before, but as the 88's began to age (10 to 20 hours, then 30 to 50 hours and now 70 to 90 hours) and at each increment, I became aware that the overall sound began to relax and warm up with noticeable extension both at the top and bottom of the audio spectrum. Remember, I am using this amp for only the top/mid drives of my speakers which go down to approximately 120 hertz.
You should note that I am still using the original power cords and I suspect (and heard from others) that newer and better power cables will add more improvement.
My first indication that this amp possessed a special quality, one that I had never heard before in my system, was on the following two recordings. The first was the Classic re-issue of the famous Dave Brubeck CS8191. I had listened to this particular album many times, especially, the famous "Take Five" cut. I was a bit awe-struck at the "in you face" ultra clarity and definition of the instruments in the recorded venue. However, what struck me most was not only the sound of the music, but the weight. Let me explain. Brubeck plays a melodic, repetitive melody throughout the recording. As the piece continues, his piano playing becomes more intensified and his attack on the keys becomes more deliberate and, at times, more powerful. With these amplifiers, it was the first time I heard the weight of his hands on the keys of the piano. It allowed me to become closer to a live event, rather than a recording.
The second recording was the very famous M&K "Encore" recording on Realtime Records. In the cut " I got plenty O' Nuttin'", sung by Wardell Howard, I could detect, in his voice, the swaying of his head and or body to the left and right as if swaying with the rhythm of the music or emphasizing a particular passage or note. With my previous amplifier, that spatial effect was never realized.
As the tubes began to age and the amp started to sound better with the changes I made (better tubes and more power at the bass columns), I began to realize that this amp was cutting through all the "junk" out there and focusing in on the individual instrument/singer/event. This was said best in the TAS sound review issue 140. It was Marilyn Marchisotto who said "the images just appear 'in air'; you don't seem to hear the loudspeakers"......and that's what I was hearing also. Recording after recording I was invited into the event whether it be a symphony, jazz combo or rock session. Let me relate some of my notes with you that I kept while I was listening to this amp.
I again I felt the weight of the hands, this time it was Byron Janis, on the keys of a piano and the recording was the famous Mercury "Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3". I could tell how vigorous the artist was playing and yet this amplifier revealed to me later in the piece how delicate Janis could be with the keys. I have heard this recording many times, but never like this. I heard the difference of his playing and emotion rather then hearing a piano being played.
If you wish to talk about sound stage and imaging this amp, to me, is a heavy weight champ.
As I mentioned above, images are splashed across the stage. Maybe splashed is not the right word because it infers confusion. This amp is NOT confused when it comes to spatial images and razor sharp focus.
In the Chesky Records recording of "Daphnis et Chloe", Chesky RC15, the symphony is spread out wide from wall to wall. However, there is a tambourine at the end of side two that is so correctly placed. The instrument is way, way back in the last row of the orchestra and, for me (again) first time I realize how deep the stage on this recording is. OK, want more? Put on the great Professor Johnson Sound Show on side two and listen to Kronos. The instruments are all over the place. Take out Dark Side of the Moon and play Money. The darn guitar was so far to the right it was on my wall!!! That's how far this amp spread the stage.
Finally, I must tell you about my experience with the great album "Klaatu" on Capitol ST11542.
Many years ago I was invited to a listening session with Harry Pearson in Sea Cliff. At that time he was auditioning, for a review, the Infinity RS 4.5 speakers. Since I was interested in these speakers for myself, I was most interested in this listening session. The finial piece we listened to was 'Little Neutrino". At the ending of this piece there is a constant drum beat accompanied by a, how shall I explain this, show of shooting stars? Maybe they were shooting lasers.....but the sounds of these stars or lasers were coming from the back of the speakers and going from left to right. However, they were not only be shot left/right but from the rear of the speaker to the back of his room. At the very end there is an explosion with more lasers and then- smoke (use your imitation). All of the sounds were directed in all four directions.......front-right-left-rear. Maybe it was Harry's room, but I tried for many years to reproduce what I heard that night and failed every time. I will not tell you the Hurricanes reproduced this same effect I heard at Harry's BUT this amp was the closet I have come (pretty darn close) to what I remember!!!
Now lets talk a bit about power. And (again-to me) this amp has the power and enough to spare. The recording that revealed this to me was the RCA direct disc recording at 45rpm of Beethoven's "Appassionata". Turning up the volume which I hardly do, this amp sailed through the toughest negotiations of a piano recording that I know of. This was pure delight to me to hear for the first time the piano in my living room at full force. I must confess that at the end of the record the cartridge/arm could not take it and began to sound congested. I played around with the anti-skate and it improved somewhat but not completely. I am sure a good cartridge/arm person could solve my problem and align the cartridge more correctly to deal with this.
Two more things I'd like to mention. Upper/mid bass and overall neutrality.
As I mentioned above, I felt that the upper/mid bass was somewhat anemic compared to my ARC VT 100. However, after the tube's in the ASL started to cook, and I did some of the other change, I was successful in getting the sound of the concert hall "bass" back. The key word here (again-to me) is concert hall. I feel that the ARC (a great unit-I might add) fattened or emphasized the upper/mid bass a bit too much. I found this out recently when I attended a recent New York Philharmonic concert. The program that night was the NY Philharmonic symphony playing Beethoven. The upper/mid bass that night at Avery Fisher hall was "right". It just couldn't be anything else!! Right?? The bass was not heavy or bolted or emphasized, it was just there along with the other frequencies from top to bottom.
I think we (or should I say me?) try to fool ourselves and add a bit too much bass for sensationalism. A good friend and audio colleague of mine mentioned to me once that.......yes, we know that a particular frequence (usually the bass) is not correctly portrayed, but we like to bump it up for fun.....and I know that I am guilty of that also. However, once I listen to the Hurricanes and they are reproducing frequencies in the bass area, I know now that that is how it's supposed to sound.
As to the overall neutrality, I must say that one of the greatest strengths of this amplifier is the continuity of sound form top to bottom. Almost like listening to a speaker without a crossover network. The reproduced sound is cut form the same sonic fabric and that fabric is very neutral and very uncolored.
If I had to listen very carefully and identify one section that is, how should I say...., off, I could not do so. I could say that the entire sound is slightly tilted to the "clean" sound. Notice I did not say bright, because these amps (after 70 plus hours on the tubes) are not bright.
I left this for last because I truly think these are great amps and their cost ($4,400) must be realized in some compromise. And that compromise is in the overall build quality of the units.
I have seen, in many of the threads on Audiogon, the one complaint in the so called problems with the amp. I myself ran into a little problem (could have been huge if I didn't have such a great dealer). I have heard of hum problems (unlike mine that can be fixed by floating a ground) that are difficult to repair. Some curious among us actually attempted to repair the amps (approved by the importer) and has reported a real miss-marsh of insides. My own problem was a faulty on/off relay that occurred around 40 hours of use. I thank God I purchased these from a great dealer (Mike at Lyric Hi-Fi) because we just swapped amps and off I went home to continue my enjoyment of these amps. Since then, however, they have be functioning as a champ. As to the biasing, it's just as HP said. Set it, check it, do it again and it should be good for awhile. Besides, when you do it it is easy!!
Oh, I forgot!! These suckers run hot, hot....HOT!! I don't know what will happen this summer???
Well, I must say that this amp........poor build quality and all....is just simply fabulous!! I love mine and I am enjoying it each day I use it. I find it allows me to re-discover my vinyl treasures.
I am not here to defend this amp or to disagree with folks who purchased this amp and found that could not live with it due to poor sound or the quality of the unit. All I can say is mine, the one with the original mulit-caps, are great and here for a long time!!!
And now back to.......Respighi and "The Pines of Rome"