tube amp shoot-out

To follow the complete thread, see "tube amps $2000-$3200 below." Here are the results of my amp shootout from last weekend. I had at home the Conrad-Johnson MV60SE, the Rogue Stereo 90, and the Manley Mahi-Mahi monoblocks.

The Rogue, in short, I found silky (my listening partner's term, but it fits) but dull overall. The bass was thick and undistinguished. Plenty of energy on rock and pop (I admit to being a less particular listener in that music), and sorted things out reasonably on most classical music, but the presentation was just kind of disinterested. That's not a very clinical analysis, I know, but it was the overall impression.

The C-J sounded simply gorgeous on everything I played. Never ran out of steam on even the largest orchestral/choral music, every instrument true to life--with the exception of some of the natural air that surrounds voices and instruments in live performance. That's mainly what I missed: a certain amount of sparkle to the sound.

The Mahi-Mahi had all the sparkle and life that the C-J lacked. I really loved this amp--and the little monoblocks look sparkly as well. Vocals were stunning, chamber music was mesmerizing and sucked me right into the performance. I played this amp in both triode and ultralinear mode (as I did with the Rogue; the C-J came factory-set in UL mode), and which sounded better depended on what music was playing. The great failing of the Mahi's, for me, was in orchestrl music, which it really didn't seem to be able to handle very well. It didn't sound like it was running out of steam, just gave a confused presentation. Instruments were sometimes unidentifiable, multi-layered textures were clouded. Since I'm an orchestral conductor, this was an insurmountable problem for me, and quite depressing, because I loved everything else about this amp. One other exception: After a certain volume level (and I'm no head-banger), the sound got a bit glaring, which didn't happen on either the Rogue or the C-J. Is this what people mean by "tube glare"?

So the overall winner would be the Conrad-Johnson, because it had many virtues and did nothing at all wrong. But I didn't buy any of them. I guess I really want the life and love of the Manley, with the control of the C-J. I wonder, for another $2000, do the Manley Snappers have all that???

My system:

Nottingham Interspace/Dynavector 20X-H
Sony XA20ES cdp
Rogue 99 pre/phono
ProAc Response 2.5 speakers
Cardas/MIT/Analysis Plus cables

So, still looking! Hope to bring home a Cary Rocket 88 and the Rogue M-120 or M-150 monoblocks in a couple of weeks.
Give Terry/Steve a call,at Western Reserve Audio Design {216-521-0900}.They have an amp available for audition with money back guarantee {150w/ch auto-biased kt-88s,formerly the iTube design}.My former employer compared it against the CJ 140s and felt it was a better amp.Terry is your man,give it a shot.
Welcome to the audiophile club. You have discovered what all of us have discovered, is that audio equipment is all about compromises. As the equipment gets better (and usually more expensive!), the compromises get smaller. But, the compromises never really go away, they just get smaller and smaller until as some point, they become almost irrelevant.

By the way, have you checked out the Music Reference 200?
(This was one of the tube amps I researched heavily, before finally deciding that tube amps were not for me after all.) They go for about $2k, used.

My two cents worth anyway.

Good Luck in your search.
If you can check out used Atma-Sphere M60s, you might find a winner that would nicely drive the Proacs. The Air Tights are nice, but you might need to spend more to get something with enough power. Cheers,
Tpsonic: Thanks for the tip. Any kind of website--photos, all that? (Aesthetics matter to me, greatly.)

Kurt: No news to me! I'm afraid I've been in the club for longer than I ever intended to, and my bank account shows it. It's a matter of how much money to spend to minimize the compromises!

Haven't found any used Music References yet, but if I end up seriously considering the Snappers, they're in the same price range. Why did you decide that tubes were not for you?

Sbank: Thanks for the tip. I'll look them up.

In response to your question:

I have a friend who has an incredible stereo system.
(Avalon Eidolon speakers, ARC Ref. 1 preamp, Aesthetix Rhea phono preamp, VPI HRX TT, with Koetsu Urushi cartridge, and a Opus 21 cd player.) He and I have tried several tube mono blocks to augment his Classe CA401 (400wpc) SS amp. He tried the Kora Cosmos (100wpc), the Bat VK-150 (150wpc), the Manley Neo Classic 250 (250wpc) and the VTL MB-450's (450 wpc). (Lucky for me, I got to listen to them all!)

They all sounded great, but his speakers, like mine (I have the Revel Studios), are somewhat difficult to drive to realistic sound levels. This meant that all but the VTL's, did not have enough power to drive the speakers without clipping. (The Manleys almost made it, but they did clip, albeit gently, on a very large symphonic piece at very loud levels). Therefore, he settled on the VTL's.

Now, note the prices on these amplifiers, even used they are between $3,000 and $5,000 minimum. (Not counting the cost of retubing them, which is substantial). While I could afford that, maybe, I could not afford to do what he is doing, which is keep both his solid state amp and have his tube amps. He needs to do this because we live in California, where is gets pretty hot. (Neither of us has air conditioning either. Our priorities are stereos, not creature comforts like AC!)

We did a fair amount of auditioning of these amps late at night, with the windows open. Nighttime temperatures was in the 60's. Except in his dedicated and rather large listening room, where after only a few hours of listening, the temperature reached the mid to upper 80's! We were both sweating pretty good. (Good thing we had cold beer on hand!) Anyway, he now uses the tube amps during normal to cool days and uses the solid state amp on warm to hot days.

Now, my house is even hotter than his, since I live on a mountain ridge with a southern exposure. I can not afford to install AC in my house (it is an older house, and it would cost a small fortune), and I don't have the money to own two sets of amps. Therefore, I have decided to keep my Mark Levinson No. 23 (200wpc) amp. It sounds great, but maybe not quite as good as his tube amps. But then again, I'll sacrafice that little bit of sonics for a 20 degree cooler listening enviroment.

I know, this was a rather long winded response, but now you know the reasons I keep my SS amp, rather than switching to tubes. (Besides, to be perfectly honest, I was not dissatisfied with the Levinson amp, I merely wanted a change. I'm sure you know how that goes!)
Kmikey.for a photo,check the Innersound website {iTube}.They were hired By Innersound ,before the company was taken over,to build a tube amp capable of driving electrostatic speakers without clipping.The "new guys" at Innersound were trying to short them on their portion of the profits.They never signed the contract,thankfully or the amps would have been built in China with many parts substituted.I may be able to help on pricing,Terry is a friend and fellow audiophile.

Can't find the Innersound website--or rather, I found it, but no reference to "iTube," unless I missed it somewhere.

Kurt--Thanks for the story. If I were in your shoes, I'd stick with SS too. And I'm specifically looking for a tube amp that will not burn down the house! (Hence, I think I will decline someone's suggestion to go for the Rogue M-120's, which are supposed to be hotter than Hades, and have a look at the much cooler-running M-150's instead--also out of my price range, of course!
check out the VTL 300 amplifiers listed today for $1800 should better your amplifiers listed above. No I am not the seller or even know the seller
Mejames: Those are a bit older than I'd like. There are also a pair of VTL MB-125 monoblocks available. Know anything about those?
I'm using VTL 185s and they give me everything i'm looking for. The VTL sig series starts with the 185s and i'm pretty sure the power supply is stouter than the 125s and of a higher quality design.

A word about "tube glare" The manleys may be just revealing something else in your system. I had a pair of HT Pro Silway MK II that i was trying to fit into my system between the CDP and the pre and they had a nasty glare that undid all the positives they added. I had been experimenting with primitive vibration control under my CDP(mostly those air filled shipping bags...they tightened things up but completely removed the top octave) and i decided to take the cones i was using under my pre (to control vibrations to my tubes) and stuff em under the CDP. All the benifits of the silways shone through and no glare. It twernt the cables after all....maybe it wasn't the amp
Have you considered keeping the Levinsons and getting a tube pre amp instead? Seems like a good compromise to me.
Some amps you should consider:
Air Tight - used
Atma Sphere M60 MKII.2 monoblocks
BAT VK60 - used
Cary V12
Granite 860.1 monoblocks
Jadis DA5 - used
Jadis JA30 monoblocks - used

I am quite confident all will thoroughly outclass what you have described.
Piezo: Thanks for the info. About the glare: Why would it have shown up only with the Manley's. Probably they're more a bit more revealing, yes, but the C-J and Rogue had no such problems in the same system. They both revealed plenty!

Dlr: I think you must have meant to respond to a different thread.
The Innersound iTube was deleted from the website,never to return.You will need to contact Terry/Steve at Western Reserve Audio:216-521-0900 or search out some older {4-7Month old}audio magazines {TAS,Stereophile} for a bisic idea of appearance.I am sure that he would be willing to send you a photo,as the cosmetics have changed slightly.
definetly consider VACs
You might consider trying some different tubes in the Manley. Cryo treated can solve many of the problems you describe.

Send me a private e-mail and will share a source with you. I will also give you my phone # and I can call you back on my dime.


The Innersound iTube is still on the Innersound web page

I was wondering why you don't own one of Terry and Steve's
amps? You seem to promote them quite a bit.

I owned serial number 001 for a few months, and while it
had incredible dynamics for a 150 watt tube amp, and can
drive any load, at any phase angle, it sounds more like a solid
state amp, than a tube amp. That is not to say it is bad, in fact,
it is actually what Steve and Terry want the amp to sound like,
but if you are looking for a "tube sound," this is not the amp to
buy, IMHO.

It did have a way of driving electrostatics at the high frequencies
that I have not heard any other amp match. Wonderful extension
and detail. The upper midrange can be too much of a good thing,
however, depending on your speakers and tastes.
Tmback, I believe that "Steve &Terrys' amp desrves exposure and a home audition.Had you tried their amp with a speaker other than the Innersound Eros?Were you also using the Innersound audio cables?{ICs/speaker}
I prefer an amp that doesn't euphonically color the sound.Many tube amps will add extra warmth,at the expense of natural deatail.Even the Vivas that I use,would have some of those "solidstate" attributes.No fat midbass and rolled extremes.
I had hoped that "they" would have their monos ready,I'd love to audition them.The stereo unit probably couldn't
find a home in my system,not with my set-up.
Tmback, did they finish the passive crossover for your Eros yet?? You might try the amp again after this "mod"..The out-board crossover produces a slight suck-out.Maybe the source of your "solidstate" designation.
I did the same comparison 2 years ago. I fully agree with your findings. I really wanted to go with the Manelys, especially as size was important. Despite how lovely the Mahi Mahi were, they just did not have enough power (for my speakers). I bought the MV 60SE and then the CJ MF2250A. At first, I did not like the SS amp, but when I upgraded my front end, the 2250A was the clear winner. It needs a very good front end. It is a sleeper. The MF 2500A takes the 2250A two+ levels up in terms of liquidity, quietness, specificity, bass detail, soundstage and head room, but it is not in your price range. There are used ones out there and the "reconditioned ones" are factory amps with either small blemishes or were used at a trade show (static). Give them some consideration. The BC 24 with non-stock tubes is better than the MV 60SE and sits between the 2250A and 2500A. And, if you want to really throw a monekey wrench into the works, audition the Channle Island mono blocks. And, watch for the next pair of CI mono blocks!

Where in your system are your different cables? You may have some cable interaction that is not allowing the system to perform its best.

Finally, your amps may be just fine. It may be time to mod your CDP. This may prove to be the next step that gives you the biggest bang for the buck.

I see you have been talking to Steve and Terry. I too,
think their amp deserves exposure. Why do you think my
post was negative? I wasn't the one that said it sounded
like a solid state amp, it was Steve that told me himself
that they want their amp to sound like a fine solid state
amp, not a rolled or fat sounding tube amp. The only issue
I had with the amp was a forward sounding upper midrange.

Terry has modified an iTube for a customer that dealt with
voicing the iTube, and he loves the modded amp. And with
personal preferences, I think most tube lovers like a forward
"bloom" to the sound of their amps.

You did get one thing wrong, however. I have the ISIS,
not the EROS speakers, and I tested the amp with the
electrostatics, and three other dynamic speakers systems
(and with four other amps). The sound of the iTube was
essentially the same with each speaker, and I also heard
the same quality with a pair of Quad 57's.

I used 6 different speaker cables, 5 from the Cable Company,
and the Innersound dynamic cable, not the ESL cable, about
$10,000 worth of cable. Each cable had its own sound, but
the basic sound of the iTube was clearly heard though all
the cables.

I am looking forward for them to make custom passive
crossovers for my Isis, and to hear the monoblocks. In
the mean time, I bought a pair of large tube monoblocks,
that really make my ISIS sing.

But I am always open to better sound, and I think Steve and
Terry's custom crossovers will do the trick.

I am a bit confused why you think I was putting a negative
spin on their amp, I was surly not. It is a very special amp.
It just didn't match my system.

What I don't understand is why you don't purchase their
amplifier, and help Steve and Terry out?
TMback, I didn't originally bring the "solidstate" designation to this posting.Maybe a reread is in order.
I also explained that a stereo unit was not applicable to my system,nor was one available to audition when I was amp shopping.They were still working the bugs out of the design.There were some corners cut,when Innersound was negotiating the contract for this amp.I'm sure you remember that Terry had to "go back in" on your 001 unit.They decided to give Innersound that unit to satisfy them,after they offered him $350 profit on each $9000 amp.It might have been wiser to purchase your Innersound "package" from WRAD.They would have helped with set-up and technical advice.Since then ,there has been a Mu shielding installed around the transformers and some other mods.
It is a shame that you didn't contact me after our original conversation at WRAD.The Walker links would have solved many of your complaints.You might try a pair on your current speakers.If you had heard the transformation that took place,you might have kept the combo.
I should clarify.I mean no disservice to Roger Sanders,formerly of Innersound.He is a good and kind hearted person and an asset to this hobby/industry.I wish him only the best in his new ventures,as does anyone who had the fortune of dealing with him {directly}.