Tube amp for KEF Reference 3s

Hi Everyone,

  Long time Audiogoner but this is my first post here.  I am looking for some suggestions regarding amplification for my KEF Reference 3s.  Currently I have a Modwright KWI 200 with built-in DAC which I like a lot, but wonder if the KEFs would benefit from a high-quality tube amp.  I would like to go for a high-end amp like a VAC or Air Tight but would prefer "testing the waters" first by trying a tube amp in my system.  I primarily listen to Tidal streamed through a Audalic Aries into the Modwright and analog through a VPI Traveler/Musical Surroundings Nova II.  I have a small listing area (my office) which is approximately 12 x 16 and I have some GIK acoustic panels in the corners and along my back wall.  If anyone has suggestions as to a "low-priced" tube amp that might give the KEFs a somewhat warmer sound I'd be willing to purchase used and then move up the chain to a higher-end amp if things work out.  Thanks in advance for your advice.

I run my Ref 5s with a single MC275 Mk VI with upgraded tubes.  I was going to add a second to run them in mono but didn't feel the need for it (my room is about the same size as yours).  Some say that the Reference line really needs high watt amps to shine, but I really like how mine sound now running with an all tube front end. 

If you want to try at a lower price point first, I would say that either Rogue Audio Atlas Magnum or a used PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium HP would be a good place to start.  If you felt the need to upgrade (but you might not after hearing either of these in your system), you could most likely resell them with minimal financial exposure. 
Thanks so much.  I'll begin looking on Agon for one of these.  Any other ideas?
Hi Guys, how are the ref 3 for my space 18x12. I listen low volumes.
I have a Hegel h30 that i am planning to use.
@mountainsong, if I recall you own Ref 1s.  I think those should give you a pretty good idea of how the Ref 3s would sound in your space - just "more" of what you already have.
I think KEF ref in general sounds better with SS amps VS tubes.
It will not occur to me tubes with them.
I am getting into the ref 3 soon. Ill use my H30. Second to none. Just my opinion.
@mountainsong, so it seems you already answered your own question....
I really like the Leben cs600.  I heard them with a few pairs of Devores and Harbeths speakers and they sounded great.  I owned the Rogue Cronus Magnum 2 which sounded great in that price range.  What's your price range? 
Thanks  nycjlee.  It is interesting that the dealer from whom I purchased the Ref 3s thought that tube amps are a better match for the KEFs, but he sells VAC so perhaps in that price range he is correct.  I have always been a SS guy mostly out of convenience but thought that the KEFs, given their neutral tone, might benefit from tubes.  

My price range fortunately is not limited, but before I delve into an expensive amp (SS or tube) north of 10k I thought a less expensive trial of a tube amp with a new DAC (my Modwright has the built-in DAC) made sense.  For now I'd like to keep it in the 2-3k range new or used.
I originally used a SS amp (Mark Levinson 23.5) with my Ref 5s but, like you, wanted to try tubes due to the nature of the KEF sound and wanting to evoke those lush mids that I like so much. I was concerned that I would lose some of the bottom end with tubes, especially since the Ref 5s aren’t exactly bass monsters.

My concerns were unfounded though. While I don’t consider the MC275 to be a high-end tube amp as compared to the VAC or Air Tight, but it really has a nice grip on the bass and it is as deep, fast and tight as with the 23.5 (I use a combination of Gold Lion and Mullard NOS tubes and a Clarus Crimson HC power cord which helps). I was so pleased with the result that I now have an all tube system (amp, preamp, phono and even headphone amp) and find the music to sound natural and very organic without being fatiguing.

" If anyone has suggestions as to a "low-priced" tube amp that might give the KEFs a somewhat warmer sound I'd be willing to purchase used and then move up the chain to a higher-end amp if things work out."

It doesn't work like that. What you're doing is like thinking about buying a Corvette, and test drive a Mustang instead, thinking it will be close enough.
Thanks theothergreg.  I use a KEF R series subwoofer with the 3s and this really helps with bass.  I have heard mixed things about the Mcintosh gear (mostly from my dealer who does not think highly of it-of course he only deals with "higher end" gear like VAC and Zesto so this may be why), but have never listened myself.  The area where I live is remote from any high end dealers so I am at a distinct disadvantage in accessing gear to demo, especially in home.  I like the idea of the Rogue in that I can buy new, it is made in USA, and from what I can tell I could probably resell it as there seem to be few in Agon for resale (which I take to be a good sign, assuming there are a good number of units out there in use).

mb1audio02:  I would disagree with you in that while a Mustang may not be a Corvette (which is not a Porsche), both are sports cars such that at least you can get a feel for the ride!

If anyone has thoughts on the EAR amps that are currently on Agon, these might be options for me.  
" mb1audio02:  I would disagree with you in that while a Mustang may not be a Corvette (which is not a Porsche), both are sports cars such that at least you can get a feel for the ride!"

You get a feel for the car you drive. I'll agree with you on that. But I've owned all 3 of those brands, and it never even occurred to me that someone would actually disagree with my statement. You're not talking about a video game, are you?

As for audio, I doubt anyone will attempt to talk you out of listening to a different amp as a "close enough" demo for something else. This is how we get all of our equipment in brand new condition, at huge discounts. I know there's a couple of people here on AG that would like a really good deal on an EAR amp.
Anyone have thoughts on the EAR 890 for sale on Agon?
If, as I suspect, the KEF's are a low-impedance design, an amp particularly good at driving low-impedance speakers is the Music Reference RM200 Mk.2. Read the Stereophile review of it to see why. It is included in the Class A/Tube category in the Recommended Components list in the October issue of the mag.
Thanks bdp24.  My review of prior posts suggests the customer service from the owner/designer might not be optimal.  Anyone else have any experience with this tube amp or others that might be a good match for my KEFs?

If the objective is to just get close enough to experiment, I'd guess ANY tube amp with a >50 wpc power handling should suffice. My very limited experience with the tube amplification (or preamplification) has shown me that its difficult to find a "common thread" across all tube equipment with the exception of power handling and some midrange bulge, both of which can vary with tube choices even within a given amplifier.

Thanks kalali.  I'll probably try and go with a new tube amp in the 2k price range that is self biasing (don't want to mess with that) and see where it takes me.  Sounds like I have Rogue, Primaluna, Music Reference to look for. Any other considerations?
Hello  grnmtnboy77,
I own a pair of Kef Reference 3s as well.  I believe you made a good purchase!.  I run a Conrad Johnson tube amp and tube pre amp.  The amp is a LP66S and the pre amp is a Premier 17LS.  This combination has worked well for many years.  Unlike the C-J Premier 11A amp, which is shy of bass slam, (I owned one for many years as well) the LP66S provides a very realistic sound stage.  You would not be disappointed if you went this route, plus you can find excellent bargains right here on Audiogon for good quality, lightly used, C-J equipment.  Happy New Year!
Thanks quincy. I am old enough to remember when Conrad Johnson was THE tube equipment to buy. Good to know it is still being used successfully, particularly in this setting. I’ll keep my eyes (and ears) open!

As to my choice of the Ref 3s, I have been a KEF fanboy for a few years now-I own X300As, LS 50s, and had the R700 before moving up to the Reference series. Not sexy speakers but very neutral and not fatiguing in any way.
A retailer near me just got a pair of PrimaLuna ProLogue 7 mono amps in on trade and has them for sale at $2k.  They might be a good place to start with 70 wpc and self-biasing. 

Forgot to ask - are you planning on using the KWI200 as a preamp for your trial?  System synergy is an important factor when pairing an amp and preamp.  As I said, my MC275 might have some shortcomings, but paired with my preamp, it is pure heaven and the Ref 5s just disappear - regardless of what your VAC retailer might say :)
Thanks theothergreg.  You raise a good point regarding the preamp.  My thought was to either get a tube integrated or to use my Modwright in the interim as a preamp and then move to a tube preamp or a DAC/pre combo.  Any thoughts on this?
I'm a bit out of my depth when it comes to tube integrateds, so can't offer much in the way of help there. 

I think that if you are happy with the Modwright's pre function, it should be fine with a tube amp.  Most who want tube warmth usually go in the opposite direction with a SS amp and tube pre if they don't go all tube, however.

Thanks for the input.  I hadn't considered simply interposing a tube preamp and using my Modwright as an amp only.  Perhaps I should consider this first?
In my experience, the preamp does impart more influence over the sound than the amp.  Plus the Modwright does have 200 wpc, so it has ample power to drive the Ref 3s.  Another option is to get a tube integrated and try it both as a stand alone and then as a preamp coupled with the Modwright.

Sorry, I just realized I might be complicating things more than helping! :)
Not at all.  I am leaning towards the integrated tube idea, which gives me some flexibility.  I am on the lookout-there was a Rogue Integrated on Agon briefly yesterday but it went quickly-thinking that perhaps a new one might make sense-2500 it seems for the one you recommended.
Any thoughts on EAR gear?  There is a used EAR line stage preamp currently available-maybe a good idea?
Sorry, no experience with EAR products, but they generally receive excellent reviews and feedback from actual users. 

You seem to be a bit scattered in terms of your strategy.  You might want to take a deep breath and really think about what you will do if you don't like the new component in your system.  Likewise, what will you do if you love it? 

There is no way your retailer will allow a home trial on a VAC integrated? 
Happy new year to all!
grnmtmboy77:  I have a wonderful recommendation as I own the KEF Ref 3 and also a VAC amplifier (Phi 300.1a). The VAC is excellent with the KEFs but the Audio Mirror 45 watt SET Monoblocks, sold here on Audiogon for a great price, sound absolutely fabulous!  As much as I love VAC, with the KEF Ref 3 I haven't been able to return to the VACs for 4 weeks since trying my Audio Mirrors. These amplifiers are gems and a gift to those on a tight budget!
Vladamir Bazelkov, Audio Mirror designer, electrical engineer, and owner is also most reputable.  These amazing and inexpensive (by any measure) monoblocks are equipped with dynamic auto bias as well. Highly recommended as they'll drive even difficult loads, with extreme musicality and extension.  Enjoy!

theothergreg: you are correct, I am definitely scattered in my approach.  I am exploring ideas and my plan is to get to a KEF dealer to try out some tube electronics, but wanted some suggestions before I engage a dealer (mine is 3000 miles away in Southern California). 

Autobrian: thanks for the suggestion.  Another consideration from a fellow KEF owner.
grnmtnboy77, having your dealer 3k miles away does make it a bit of a challenge (BTW, I'm pretty sure I know who your dealer is now).  If you were in California, you could come by and hear my system.  I have nearly 40 tubes in my primary system, so you would definitely be immersed in tube warmth.

With all due respect to audiobrian, if you intend to buy a used component in the $2k price range, I would still suggest you stay with a bigger name brand such as EAR, PrimaLuna or Rogue since they will tend to sell easier should you decide to move up the food chain in the future.

I've been a "VAC addict" for over 10 years and still love VAC with my KEFs!
However at $3500-$3700 NEW for the Audio Mirror 45 watt SET monoblocks, they sound absolutely remarkable with my KEF Ref 3's, as I sit here listening with my VAC amplifier resting comfortably, waiting to get back into the ring....not yet!
I'm surprised such great sound is available at a fraction of the cost of my other fine amplifiers.  Enjoy and good luck!

theothergreg, I should say that I have a good relationship with my dealer, from whom I have purchased multiple pieces of gear over the past 3-4 years, including my Modwright, KEFs x 3, VPI Traveler (which I dislike and would never purchase another VPI product, but that relates to my indirect experience with VPI and is a story for another time), Musical Surroundings Phono preamp, and Nurprime Amos that I use for my desktop systems (and like a lot for that).  It is just that as you know every dealer has his/her biases and limitations as regards component matching.  I have visited my dealer in person twice, most recently to purchase the Ref 3s, which were demoed with high end VAC electronics, and my dealer while selling some solid state gear (Constellation, Rowland, Bryston) is clearly more of an analog/tube guy.

I agree that the decision to purchase gear must incorporate some consideration of reliability and customer service, which is why I almost always purchase new (and I fortunately can afford to do so).  While I don't doubt that audiobrian has found a great match with the Audio Mirrors, I would prefer to stick with more mainstream brands-I am a set it and forget type, which is in part why I have never considered tubes previously.  However, I feel like I am missing some warmth in the system which is pleasant but not all that engaging.

The EAR 868L is a nice line stage pre, same circuit as the $12,000 EAR 912 but without it's meters and extra controls. They go for about $3000 when available second-hand. Not as well known or owned as American brands, but EAR designer Tim Paravicini is one of the handful of most knowledgeable, talented tube circuit experts working today. The EAR 868/912 is a favorite pre of both Art Dudley (Stereophile) and Robert Levi (Positive Feedback). And myself. 
grnmtnboy77, you no doubt have a solid relationship with your dealer after buying that much gear over the years.  My comment regarding it being a challenge was in reference to my question about asking them to let you do a home trial with anything in which you have an interest.

When you demoed the Ref 3 with the VAC electronics at the store, there was obviously something that moved you enough to buy them.  That experience is not enough to get you to just go straight to the VAC integrated and bypass the trail phase?

Have you tried other tweaks to dial your system in to make it "more engaging?"  Room treatments, power cables and interconnects and speaker placement can all have a profound impact on the sound of your system. 

I'm also a set it and forget it type person, so all 5 of my tube components have auto bias.  Just be sure you have plenty of ventilation as those pretty bulbs do get quite warm.  With my one experience with VAC, I recall that it ran very hot.  It could have just been that particular amp, but it does stand out in my mind.
Thanks theothergreg.  As with most things audiophile, the decision to purchase the KEF Ref 3s was in part logical and part emotional.  I had R700s which I  liked but the Ref 3s came available as demos from my dealer about 1 year ago, and as I was traveling to southern California on business anyway, I visited him and demoed them with VAC Statement amp/preamp, Aurender server, hi-end turntable (can't remember which one) and I decided to go for it as they were a good deal and I figured I would grow into them.  He also played the system through Magico's (I think they were Ms?, which was pretty mind-blowing).  My Modwright is/was easily able to power the KEFs and overall I have been happy with the system, although I definitely need to upgrade the VPI setup which is very limited.

The reason not to dive into new VAC hardware at present is that the space where I have my setup, an office which has corner and wall treatments from GIK that I think have definitely helped the sound, is not ideal and I don't think there is much to gain with the present setup given the space limitations, exposed ceiling, windows, etc.  I have spent some time tweaking speaker placement and I think I am set with this. My interconnects and speaker cables are Nordost Red Dawn (again from my dealer).  My thought was that if I could enhance the warmth of the sound with used tube gear that this would be a relatively inexpensive way to test the water, and when in 4 years I move the system to a dedicated listening room in my home (my job is a contracted one which expires in 4 years) that would be the time to try and spend some serious money on a high end front end.   Given the way technology changes, spending north of 10k for a high end front end at present, when it can't really shine, is probably not the best way to go about this-therefore I thought a 2-3 k interim investment would be enjoyable if not the ultimate (and hopefully final) system.

I am completely with you on the auto biasing concept, which it sounds like VAC offers-not sure if there are other systems that do this.  After thinking this through, perhaps a VAC preamp, maybe used, might be a relatively inexpensive way to tweak the system and see if this is the proper direction, or if ultimately I need to stick with high-end SS gear like ML, Pass, Boulder, etc.

I am also unclear on how to go about the digital part of the setup.  Now that MQA-encoded streaming is available from Tidal, and if I bypass the pre/DAC part of my Modwright by using a tube amp, how do I deal with the streaming/DAC part of my setup?  My Auralic is simply a bridge and if I went to a tube preamp I would need to figure a way to play my digital files through another means.

If you don't mind, are you in northern or southern California?  I visit friends in the bay area and soCal every so often and would love to meet up with you if possible. Thanks for sharing your thoughts/experience with me.

grnmtnboy77, I think the strategy to go with a VAC preamp makes sense based on your situation.  For your digital, could you use Modwright as a stand alone DAC connected to the VAC inputs? 

I'm in NorCal and always happy to talk shop.
If you're in SoCal, the U.S.A. distributor of EAR-Yoshino is somewhere in Los Angeles, perhaps Santa Monica. I believe he sells as well as distributes, and may have a small showroom or at least demo room, and may be willing to play the EAR 868 for you. But don't quote me---he can be cantankerous! 
Thanks theothergreg. I’ll probably get back in touch with my dealer and see if he can help me move in the VAC direction albeit slowly.  Not sure if I can use the DAC part of the Modwright-probably easier to reconfigure the digital part of the system as well and sell the Modwright eventually.

bdp24, thanks for the suggestion.