Vac PHI 300
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1) Reliable, Cheap to operate, great 4ohm performance Music Reference RM-200 (or any Music Reference amp)
2) Incredible lush sound in triode, poor customer service, not for high watt/current requirements CJ Premier 11a (what a sound)
3) Statement amp - Lamm ML2.1
4) Amazing computer control and delicate sound, plus ease of maintenance and lack of tweeking required VTL S400
5) Beautiful to look at even when not playing -VAC Phi
(1) Deja Vu Audio PVK 2A3/45 Push Pull monoblocks with circa 1950 vintage "Acrosound" or "Chicago" output transformers (especially using RCA single or bi plate output tubes and "Sylvania" 6SN7's)
(2) Original Jolida 102B 6BQ5 PP (will amaze you for ~ $500)
(3) Jadis JOR w/KT 90 tubes
(4) Korneff 45 with RCA Cunningham 45's
(5) to be continued...
a survey such as this is very difficult only because it's too open ended, and subject to personal favorites, vs. test data...that being said some obvious choices are:
1) Zanden 9000 series 300B's
2) Tube Research Labs GT 400 & 800 series
3) Convergent Audio Technology JL-2 Signature
4) Kondo Ongaku w/KSL technology
5) Shindo Labs
6) Wavac HE-833's MKII
7) Lamm ML2
8) Tenor 300 Hp
9) Jadis JA 80's
10) SAP (Strumenti Acustici di Precisione) New Anniversary
Lord knows I've only scratched the surface?
i.e. FM Acoustics, Nagra, VAC, Joule, and so on.
I can already see red in this thread.
Might i back up my choices of having audio note and blue circle at the top of the list by describing the sound of a few of the other amps in my list which are lower down but none the less good. Jadis is very musical but some colouration takes a way from the whole picture (JA80's). Canary CA339, refined good at most things but not particularly musical or emotionally involving as my top two. Music reference fast and a little lean tonally, again not quite making that step into musciality, but excellent in all other areas. I could go on, but the reason behind my top selections is because of the emotional connection as well as the hifi aspects. I think if people are going to make recommendations then a word or two about each one might also be helpful. There will be those who simply enjoy their equimwnt becasue of their ability to recreate good soundstaging or deatil, while others will be happy with the whole musical picture of the event that is taking place. I do not mean Naim route where pace and rhythm are taken to an extreme at the cost of all else, to the point where you can be left exasperated by their energy.
Audiojoy4- I have not had the pleasure of hearing Audionote or Blue Cirlce outside of a show, so I cannot comment on your rankings, but as for your endorsement of them as "emotionally involving". IMO, that is the THE criteria for gear selection. IOW, if the music you are hearing does not "touch you" , then the gear is not working, for you, in your system. Writing and performing is an art and as with any art, it is in the emotional reaction that the artist communicates with the observer/viewer/listener. A great artist can do that over an AM car radio. So frequency extension, imaging, soundstage, etc don't matter if the resultant sound that you hear is does not touch you. Remember, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!
Swampwalker that is in my opinion the sad thing about the hifi retail world. There are so many manufacturers trying to get into the act that there is too much stuff for all dealers to stock. Even more unfortunate is that in my opinion the majority of these companies have designers who do not have a musical ear or indeed have never even played an instrument and work on the hifi aspects of the sound only. If you look at magazines over the years, up until the last one or two years reviewers have been fascinated by trying to get you to recreate the illusion, but totally ignored the emotional aspect of the music.I belive that this is at the heart of many enthusiasts needing to constantly change equipment. If they were connecting with the music at the emotional level then the hifi would matter less and analysis of the soundstaging or detailing would not be the concern. Instead of listening to bits of albums I bet you would be more likely to sit and listen to the whole lp without stopping to analyse the sound or change to an LP which might satisfy your need for realism for those few moments. I know I went through these stages in the same way reviewers are too now discovering what hifi should have always been about in the first place. This is why some of the older classic hifi sounds so good, Garrard, Rogers Leak etc etc, they started off building equipment sounding natural in the midrange and which emotionally connected. We some how all lost our way after that. Now more and more manufactures are beginning to under stand the concept of a 'musical' sounding system.
I wonder if the manufacturers and reviewers always new that but if they kept the musicality out of the equipment and aimed at getting you to just recreat amazing deatail and dynamics then you would always get bored quickly and want to move onto the next equipment. Interesting, were they clever enough to have conceved this in the same way that we have been fooled about Hydrogen cars as still being a new concept in development 20 years after the first working modwel was made, so that we would all continue to buy petrol?????????
Audiojoy - You are right about the high end missing the point about musicality. I came to this conclusion at last year's CES/THE show, where the vast majority of systems, regardless of price, had an excess of upper midrange energy and a lack of mid-upper bass energy.
The mention of a car radio is interesting, as I had an experiencethat bears this out. The BSO was featuring a deaf percussionist (Evelyn Glennie) one week a few years back. I heard / read good things about her, so I went. My seat was so bad, I didn't really enjoy the performance. I later bought the CD, and thought, unusual, but not great. I then heard her perform the same piece with the Detroit (or was it Minneapolis) symphony on NPR Radio, ov er the factory stock torn-up paper speakers in my 83 Ford Fairmont, and was spellbound. Somehow, the orchestra and Ms. Glennie just hit it off together, and their ability to make music came through even on a terrible system, and was more enjoyable than the OK performance on the CD played over a high-end system. I've wondered if the lack of enjoyment at Symphony Hall was really due to my bad seat, or if somehow, they just weren't pulling it together musically. The sound at Symphony Hall was certainly better, even from my seat above the right side of the stage.
Honest those are interesting observations. Car radios have always sounded very musical though not of 'hifi' quality. those tweeter sized speakers probably have great speed and the battery might be helping as well. However can only surmise that your concert hall experience must have been due to a poor performance on the day (unlikely) or the acoustics disrupting the actual performance you were meant to hear. With my arguments a highly musical sounding system should be able to differentiate between good and bad performances. Indeed, those that know certain pieces very well can differentiate talented musicians from less talented ones from the way the score is played and the amount of emotion exhibited by that individual or band.
With due respect to the contributors to this thread, there are not a lot of people out there who have enough meaningful experiences with enough tube amps to put together a top-ten list. What can safely be said is that the following tube amp builders, in no particular order, have a reputation for making well-built to very well-built amps that can sound very good in the right systems:
- CAT (Convergent Audio Technologies)
- Air Tight
- Audio Valve
The above list is partial and derived only from what immediately comes to mind. The list is also overly simplistic, as I could also have a category for "Very model-dependent" (Audio Research, Cary), "Very era-dependent" (Jadis), "Only now playing in big leagues" (Siegfried vintage VTL), "Great stuff, but builder dead" (Audio Note Kondo), etc.
The thing to remember is that the vast majority of tube amps, regardless of their wattage ratings, will not have power supplies or output transformers of sufficiently high quality to allow them to properly control typical, modern full-range speakers; in fact, it is rare to find either a tube amp or speaker designed with the limitations of tube amps in mind (e.g., CAT amps have massive power supplies and really high quality output transformers that allow them to handle almost any load, and Verity speakers tend to have benign impedences and low phase angles that a good tube amp can handle), and they are invariably expensive. Another approach, which is an intelligent approach in my opinion, is to run a tube amp with monitors presenting an easy load (e.g., ProAc) having little output below 50 Hz. or so that are partnered with a sub.
Audiojoy - I agree. Have you ever noticed the same effect with cheap boom boxes? Not the big ones that boast of Mega Bass, but the simple little ones. I've thought they have great speed / transient response on things like picked guitars and drums. I think it's the single driver and lightweight paper cones. I remember hearing a little Sony playing a recording of a guitar at a flea market, tracking it down to see what it was, and was embarrassed to myself when I found out what it was.
The following factors, which have not really been discussed in this thread, are highly relevant to any comparison of tube amps, namely, the amp's weight, the amp's price and the listener's choice of tubes.
As for tubes and output tubes in particular, their contribution to the performance and character of a tube amp is monumental -- people shouldn't say anything about the sonic character of a given tube amp unless they have spent a few hundred hours each with three or four different sets of output tubes on that amp.
If you really want to judge a tube amp in a general sense, however, the best way, in my experience, is to look at its weight and price. Much of the cost of a tube amp is determined by the cost of its output transformers and power supplies, the better output transformers and power supplies both being progressively heavier and more expensive. Although rated at only 100 watts per channel, the discontinued CAT JL-1 Limited Edition monoblocks cost $50,000, weighed 192 lbs. each, were all point-to-point wired, and could drive speakers better than monstrous solid-state amps. Why? Because they had incredible power supply capacitance (more, for example, than the 600 watt per channel ARC Reference 600 monoblocks, which, it should be noted, weigh 22 lbs. less), had outrageous output transformers that weighed 55 lbs. each and cost a fortune, and used very specially culled output tubes.
Another indicia of quality is whether the amp uses circuit boards, which make assembly less time-consuming and thus cheaper, or discreet transistors which are individually soldered in and thus more time consuming and costly to use ("point-to-point wiring"). Due to both the high cost of point-to-point wiring and general contraction over the last ten years of the two-channel tube-gear market at the expense of easier-to-operate multi-channel solid-state gear (I did not write "easier to own" -- tube amps are ultimately easier to own in my opinion, as they tend to be easier to fix if they break and basically become "new" when they are re-tubed -- some older solid-state gear cannot be fixed at all because the transistors are no longer made), it is is now hard to find a tube amp that is point-to-point wired. Highly respected manufacturers like VAC and CAT used point-to-point in the 90's, but have stopped doing it. Atma-Sphere still uses point-to-point exclusively, which is one reason why Atma-Sphere gear is expensive.
In any event, if you need a friend to help you lift it and it cost more than your Toyota, you can be pretty sure that you've got a good tube amp.
My experience is limited but w.r.t whatever I have heard my (short) list is (in particular order) :-
Bel Canto SET40 esp with manuf provided cryo'd 12AX7 + power supply & coupling cap mods. Superb sound, very musical, midrange to die for, not the best bass control. Better with higher efficiency speakers.
RM-9 Mk1 (Ozzy's amp) - excellent overall sound. Superb PRaT. (Wonder how much better it is in its Mk2 rendition? :-))
K&K Audio's Vivo amp - 300B-based 30-35W/ch stereo P-P amp. Very musical, excellent soundstage depth + width, midrange airiness. Better with higher efficiency speakers.
The following are some of the better amps I've heard in my system or in familiar systems. Most of them can only be used with somewhat efficient speakers.
Audionote (uk) Sogon
Audionote (uk) Gaku-On
Audionote (UK) Kageki (the one I own)
Western Electric (don't recall the model name, but it is mounted in an enormous vertical rack; the owner paid $70k of a single channel)
Custom made OTL amp (hand-made by a Greek diplomat, around ten models in existence)
Joule Electra Grand Marquis
Deja Vu pushpull 45 (very limited production amps made in Virginia by a retail store- Deja Vu Audio)
Another indicia of quality is whether the amp uses circuit boards, which make assembly less time-consuming and thus cheaper, or discreet transistors which are individually soldered in and thus more time consuming and costly to use ("point-to-point wiring").
A case for point-to-point wiring might be made on the basis of better sonics and lower cost to upgrade or repair.
I believe Thor amps use circuit boards to fix its components, but no signal carrying component is fed through through a printed circuit. The last I knew, Quicksilver tube amps were hand wired.
If I was not clear, I confirm that point-to-point is superior. Some manufacturers claim that boards are better, but I think that claim is disingenuous -- the only advantage I am aware of with boards is a more consistent sound from unit to unit, because they take much of the "hand-craftmanship" out of the process.
The $350k Wavac 833 with outboard power supplies is the best I have ever heard. The Reimyo PAT777 is the second best, but not all that close. I have owned twelve different tube amps both SETs and PPs and still say that the 45 based ones in SET at 1.56 watts are the best if you have 103 db plus efficiency.
How about Vladimir Lamm's new SET the ML 3 which at 30 wpc has an MSRP of $126,200.
Debuts next month at CES at the Venetian hotel
Dear Friends and Associates,
LAMM INDUSTRIES, INC. announces the arrival of the long-awaited ML3 Signature power amplifier -- to be unveiled at CES 2007, Venetian Hotel, Tower Suite #34-309 (Las Vegas, NV). We welcome all to visit us there!
The text of the official press release follows; PDF version is attached.
December 26, 2006
The ML3 Signature Power Amplifier
LAMM INDUSTRIES, INC. is proud to introduce its crowning achievement, the ML3 Signature power amplifier. The ML3 is a single-ended amplifier with a separate power supply utilizing a very powerful direct-heated triode GM70 (plate dissipation 125W).
The ML3 continues the fine tradition that began with the Lamm ML2 single-ended amplifier, and takes it to unimagined heights of performance attainable only now.
The ML3, along with the renowned Model ML2.1 amplifier, is practically the only single-ended amplifier on the market capable of reproducing the entire range of audio frequencies. The ML3s midrange is beautifully rendered, along with a natural and extended bass, and unparalleled high frequency reproduction, up to now only available in our ML2, ML2.1, and ML3 models.
The ML3s innovative circuitry enables a recreation of the original spectral balance and harmonic structure of the recorded material without loosing a strand of low-level detail or nuance. Another unique aspect of the design enables the ML3 to recreate a three-dimensional soundstage without boundaries or limitations, while maintaining an extraordinary transparency of perceived sound. The ML3 truly demonstrates what a properly designed single-ended amplifier can do.
Technical Aspects in Brief
The ML3 is a 32 Watt, no overall feedback pure class-A single-ended amplifier. Its built on one of the most sophisticated power supplies ever used in audio, and its most prominent features are:
Separate plate and filament transformers
Six filter chokes
Six rectifier tubes
Highest quality film capacitors used in high-voltage power supply feeding the output stage
Refined soft-start and delay circuits
Option for turning the amp on/off controlled via Lamm preamplifiers
While the ML3 has no overall loop feedback, the amplifier features an option allowing the user to introduce small amounts of local feedback in the output stage. You can choose between two levels of feedback: NFB1 and NFB2, which differ in their levels. This allows for three feedback options: No feedback, NFB1 or NFB2.
A multi-turn trimming potentiometer, accessible through a special opening in the amplifiers chassis, along with a set of test points, allow the user to adjust and measure the plate current of the output tube via an external voltmeter.
Absolutely unique custom-made output transformers, along with our unique output stage and sophisticated power supply, allow the ML3 to drive most real-world speakers yielding tremendous sonic impact and stability under the most dynamic conditions. Although the ML3 can drive most speakers, their full potential is best realized with high-efficiency speakers of 92dB and higher.
The design goal of the ML3 was to use best modern technology and processes in a style reminiscent of equipment from the golden age of vacuum tubes. Each amplifier is carefully constructed and handcrafted of the finest materials and world-class parts, some of which include military-graded DALE metal film resistors, PRC wirewound resistors, CADDOCK power film resistors; BOURNS multi-turn potentiometers; CORNELL DUBILIER and UNITED CHEMI-CON electrolytic capacitors, ELECTROCUBE, ROEDERSTEIN and ELCON film capacitors; HAMMOND chokes; gold-plated NEUTRIC and FISCHER connectors; military-graded low-noise long-life vacuum tubes.
Special attention was given to designing the plate and filament transformers that have no mechanical contact with either the transformer cover or the chassis, and are suspended in a special encapsulant that almost completely absorbs even residual mechanical vibrations. This plays a significant role in assuring absolutely unique clarity and micro-resolution.
Four 6N30P-DR / 6H30П-ДP (cyrillic)
One GM70 / ГМ70 (cyrillic)
The ML3 is designed to function on AC line voltages throughout the world -- 100/120/220/230/240 V -- and can be internally adjusted without elaborate modifications.
Suggested retail price (preliminary): $126,290.00/pair
See you at the Venetian at CES, Suite 34-309!
I have to put in a word here for the Sonic Frontiers Power 3 or Power 2 amps. I recently acquired a pair of Power 3's and had Chris Johnson, the original co-owner of SFI, now running Parts Connexion to upgrade them to SE+. I can't believe it gets much better than this in the audio world of diminishing returns. Always looking for that elusive combination of the best of tube quality with the control of SS and I this is close. Had quite a few tube based systems in the past including VTL, ARC, Granite Audio, Kora, as well as Bryston, Simaudio, Musical Fidelity stuff and the modded SFI amps outperform everything so far and now relatively inexpensive to find .... Built like the proverbial brick sh*@-house.
What I like about the Power 3's is the combination of finess and muscle, very palpable sound, refined and detailed but not sterile, you can follow the individual instruments or bathe in the bliss of the total sound. Equally good whether its vintage rock or female vocals. What I don't like is they are a very toastie 220 watts per channel, which is OK in the Ottawa winter!
I'm all for very high-end systems and have proven capable of spending a lot to get that last 3%, but spending $120k for a piece of gear is just idiotic -- think of the good that a mere half of that money could be put to use for. Seriously. Vladimir builds great stuff and has integrity, but he is tempting our worst tendencies as Americans toward mindless excess.
"I'm all for very high-end systems and have proven capable of spending a lot to get that last 3%, but spending $120k for a piece of gear is just idiotic -- think of the good that a mere half of that money could be put to use for. Seriously. Vladimir builds great stuff and has integrity, but he is tempting our worst tendencies as Americans toward mindless excess."
It is all about choices and what rocks our boat and to what extent you want to carry the zeal of the hobby. Frankly, I hope Vladimir hits a home run with this one and can retire. He has worked by himself alone in his lab for years to bring the ML 3 to market.