TL; DR: VIVID! Sean finally built one for himself.
In amateur astronomy, we have orthoscopic eyepieces. Orthoscopic
optics are designed for absence or near absence of dimensional distortions in
the optical view, and they use relatively few glass elements for high light
transmission, scant aberrations and low-to-no light scatter. Orthoscopic
eyepieces are the standard for critical visual astronomy of planets, due to the
undistorted detail, minimal glass and resulting contrast rendering fine details
observable at high magnifications. Newer optical designs emphasize other
characteristics, particularly wide fields of view for a more immersive
experience in observing the night sky, but designing for wide fields trades
away some orthoscopic properties to gain something more spectacular and useful
in a different way, to the point where intentional spatial distortions are
introduced or accepted in order to tame worse ones when field of view goes very
Not wanting to go all the way down another hobby’s wormhole
here, I’ll leave the matter of orthoscopics at that as a way of shifting your
mindset to orthosonics for a similar agenda to design for authentic sound in
hifi audio. It’s more difficult than it seems.
Last year marked 50 years elapsed since I spent my first dollar
of my own money on gear to replay music. 2018 also marked 50 years elapsed
since I spent the first dollar of my own money on guitars. I’ve been buying
recordings longer than both. I mention this because one thing has remained
absolutely consistent in all this time, and counting: at any given time, and
for any given category of products, there are only a small handful that are
worth buying. There’s always lots of choice, but choice isn’t the same as
worth. I am aware of the full panoply of audio gear but am undistracted by most
of it, because….well…..most of it at any price isn’t compelling.
Especially loudspeakers, which mostly remain very far away from
representing music and the instruments (including the human one) that produce
the sounds of music. If mid-to-high-end hifi buyers were primarily driven by
music concerns rather than gear, or what’s cool, or whatever makes the best
success statement, or whatever else you’ve got that isn’t strictly endorsing of
objective music replay, the entire market could be served by just two speaker
makers: Audience with their ClairAudient line, and Zu Audio. I wish I could say
otherwise, but these are the only makers of speakers fully delivering authentic
music fidelity today, i.e. replaying music orthosonically. There are a few
additional contenders who nearly get it right, at various price strata:
JohnBlue, Voxativ, 47 Labs’ Lens, Quad with their electrostatics, and Konus are
some who cover between 270° and 330° of the full 360° circle of fidelity. Which
is great, and that much completion of the circle can deliver beautiful sound.
But only Zu and Audience have mastered making speakers that can effortlessly
deliver altogether holistic music fidelity, authentically.
Send your Magicos, YGs and KEF Blades to the smelter. Torch
everything Wilson, Focal, Devore, Maarten, Revel and Dynaudio, let alone those
horrible JBL Century 100 reissues we see rising from the dead now. Throw every
crossover-intensive speaker into the woodchipper and send the ground-up mulch
to your local toxic waste facility. Fake news is mostly a trumped-up
distraction, but fake fidelity – that’s real. The orthoscopic authenticity
cornered by Zu and Audience is rooted in both companies having developed,
within any practical considerations, uncompromised full-range drivers coupled
to insightfully-engineered cabinets. In loudspeakers, adroitly-chosen
materials, along with astute mechanical, resonance, acoustical, structural and
construction decisions, preserve the essential simplicity of a full-range
driver design, emitting music without exaggeration.
And that’s the whole distinction, because let’s face it -- most
of the supply side of the hifi realm is in the exaggeration business. Moreover,
much of the consuming public likes it that way! For every “hungry-ear” buyer
who seeks the artificiality of being in the band
or inside the piano, or gulped down by the singer to be
a swallowed resident inside the body’s resonant cavity, there is a designer and
manufacturer willing and eager to tilt the ratio of transient-to-tone, or the
inverse, away from real and aggressively
toward spectacle. It’s endemic, and buyers are as much at fault as the designers
& sellers in the industry. For people who want more transient detail than
is actually present in a performance or from an instrument, orthosonic speakers
aren’t for them. If you want a Fender guitar amp running 6V6 tubes to sound
like a Marshall stack, or if you think Johnny Cash sounding 12 feet tall is
authentic, you don’t want a true-sound, orthosonic, hifi speaker.
If you need or want a surprisingly convincing speaker that can
be held in one hand, buy a pair of ClairAudients. But if you want something
with room-filling shove, you want Zu. So, I will leave Audience behind here,
since this commentary is about Zu, particularly the Druid 6.
This year marks my 15th year of continual Zu in
my hifi systems. I started with a pair of used Druids that had been updated by
Zu to 2004 configuration. They turned out to be one of the first ten pair of
Druids made back in 2000. Those Druids were the first convincing find in my
then 30+ years quest for a convincing crossoverless speaker. The 2004-spec
Druid was certainly not perfect, but it was a revelation. Imperfect because it
was a bit of a narrowcaster, and was soft on the top end. A revelation for its
completely coherent presentation, octave-to-octave balance, consistent
transient behavior, striking intimacy, pinpoint imaging, absence of
crossover-point pinching, plus it was a tone monster. Druid was effectively a
dynamic driver Quad ESL-57 but with dynamic range, energy and willingness to be
abused. It was the first speaker to ever pass my test for reproducing specific
electric guitar/amp combinations with true fidelity. I immediately added an
early pair of Definitions to another hifi system but kept those Druids on my
secondary system until Druid 5 was introduced, along the way getting periodic
upgrades installed, culminating in Druid 4-08.
In parallel, I made the Definition > Definition 2 >
Definition 4 migration, yet the Druid never lost relevance. Definitions favored
scale; Druids favored intimacy and they both overlapped on tone, coherence,
speed, holistic transient and tonal behaviors and both excelled in delivering
shove – that quality of musical dynamism that gives music projection and reach.
In Zu’s case you get shove without gobs of power.
Druid 5 updated and expanded on the core Druid proposition but
extended the top end for more harmonic completeness (courtesy of the Radian
compression supertweeter replacing the older Zu tweet), deepened bass response,
added greater agility and speed to the main driver, upped transparency,
broadened the spatial presentation, boosted shove and put the Druid form factor
in league with Definition by further killing cabinet talk. Druid 5 was the
first Druid that had sufficient scale to double as a movie speaker, if the room
wasn’t too big. Frankly, when Druid 5 debuted, it struck me as nearly perfect
in practical terms, and about as much as one could expect from that form
factor. Beyond Druid 5 lay incrementalism.
Or so I thought, then.
Enter Druid 6. Why has it taken me seven months to write this
commentary? Because Druid 6 may as well be ground zero for a new vector of Zu.
It completely unshackles the single-FRD / no-sub form factor of the Griewe –
Druid configuration from the physical limits of its original form. Definition 1
had scale and a lot of cabinet talk. Definition 2 sacrificed some spatial scale
to slay the cabinet talk. Definition 4 restored the spatial scale and tamed
the cabinet talk to deliver a notably more objective speaker. Druid 6 has the
spatial scale of Definition 1, which original Druids couldn’t come close to. It
has the tone density trademark of all Druids and beyond what any Definition
delivers. Snap and dynamic shove set a new Zu standard. Nuance and transparency
Windex the entire presentation. Druid 6 is unbelievably quick, with the dynamic
agility of Tiny Archibald confusing basketball opponents in his prime. And
there is a fairly dramatic improvement in bass depth, character, impact and
texture. I never had a real impulse to add subwoofers to any of my
Druids, but then I had another system with Definitions and their powered
sub-bass modules to satisfy deep bass cravings. Still, it just seemed counter
to the simplicity and elegance of Druid to clutter the room with more boxes or
towers to get bass fundamentals few recordings actually include. It’s probably
only a half-octave further bass extension over Druid 5 but it sounds so
convincing and fundamental that a sub is really only called for by a bass fetishist.
All this adds up to a speaker that is a larger improvement over Druid 5 than
Druid 5 was over v4-08. Which is saying quite a lot.
If you’ve traipsed through the Druids sequence as I have, that
might not be your first conclusion, because on everything most obvious – high
frequency response, neutrality, greater shove and improved bass, Druid 4-08 was
left behind and there wasn’t a single aspect in which Druid 4-08 was better
than Druid 5, other than you could buy a pair for much less cash. Druid 6
improves all these particular aspects over Druid 5 somewhat less so than the
last generational shift, but that all sums, along with a specific and new Druid
quality, to a new speaker that makes the greater leap over its predecessor. The
new quality is “vividity." “ Yeah, that’s not a word, but I’m using it
here. My TL;DR for this assessment is “Vivid.” And that is what slams your mind
when you wire up Druid 6, especially after the 100 – 200 hours burn-in period
needed when new.
Basil Hayden bourbon is 80 proof. Technically, that’s a little
short for the category. But if I’m having whiskey before the sun is down, I
often start there. It’s easygoing and doesn’t front load you for the evening.
Druid 5 was like Basil Hayden. Forgiving, convincing, mellow. Works with almost
any mood, music, room, aesthetic, amplification. Druid 6 is more like a 137
proof George T. Stagg bourbon. You need to be ready for it, and it’s going to
seem a little loud on your palate. If you leave everything the same and just
wire ‘em up, a pair of Druid 6 will hit you like a hot whiskey. Burning,
flavorful….vivid. And unfailingly
revealing. Druid 6 is a deity’s-honest truth of music presentation. So much so,
some of you Druid aficionados out there might (will) prefer Druid 5. Depending
on what you have today, Druid 6 will force upgrades, or at least changes in
your system, upstream of the speakers. The most likely change Druid 6 will
force is in amplification. Depending on how your DAC is voiced (don’t kid
yourself, they’re all voiced) you’ll be contemplating a change there too. Phono
cartridge? Could be, but less likely than DAC. Preamp, least likely to require
a change unless a change in power amp argues for it. In my case, Druid 6
brought to a halt 15 years of Audion SET amplification with Druids, and really
a total of 20 years of continuous SET listening in my secondary system. Why?
Because the extra half octave or so of bass response is just a bridge too far
for really clean, bloat-free bass from any zero-feedback SET amp I know of. SET
works well with the deeper-plunging the Definition series because in the Def, a
solid-state plate amp has a grip on the sub-woofer driver(s). The tonal
qualities of the sub bass are derived from the power amp outputs (and
characteristics) but the actual sub driver control is a product of the plate
amp’s damping and grip. In Druid 5, the ~34 Hz bottom limit doesn’t reveal the
limitations of low-damping factor, SET bass. My Audion Black Shadow 845 amps
have excellent bass on Definitions and Druid 5. On Druid 6, bass extension is
just enough further to bring SET deep bass control deficiencies to the
forefront. Same with SET & PSET 300B.
So, I have to replace my beloved Audion Golden Dream monoblocks
(300B PSET) to enjoy Druid 6 without distracting and illusion-undermining,
zero-negative-feedback bass bloat. More on that near the end of this commentary.
But, if you’re forced into an electronics revision once in 15
years because of a significant loudspeaker advance, one can’t really complain.
For the first time since first exposure to Zu Druid, I recommend alternatives
to single ended triode amplification. As I will outline in a topical addendum
at the end of this, I recommend single-ended pentode/tetrode, push-pull triode
and some high-coherence push-pull tetrode and pentode amplifiers. Or if you’re
tube-phobic, some solid-state amps one might want to consider include, Pass,
First Watt, 47 Labs Gaincard, M2Tech Crosby, etc.
Druid 6 is the first Druid to serve as a convincing transducer
for symphonic music. With the right amplification it will even play viciously
intense metal without choking like you’re trying to squeeze toothpaste from its
tube too quickly, forcing the tube itself to burst. No prior Druid could quite
do that. On the other hand, Druid 6 loses nothing to prior Druids in the
lone-performer-with-guitar genre, in fact drawing you into closer intimacy with
the tone and textures of expression while maintaining the right spatial
distance. It doesn’t exaggerate like the bulk of this industry’s loudspeaker
offerings, inflating definition like you’re inside the instrument to feign
Druid 6 is also easier to set up than any prior Druid. It might
be more demanding of amplifier matching but the formerly-fussy floor-to-plinth
gap height adjustment is much less hyper-critical now, for attaining correct
bass. Because of its dispersive scale, getting a convincing soundstage is a
less obsessive proposition in placement and toe-in. There will be rewards for
taking the obsessive route, but you don’t have to. And one of the best small touches
is that Druid 6 default footers are flat discs, layered with a thin polymer,
and attached via a ball-mount that threads into the plinth. You can spec the
plinth to be drilled through so the height of the feet can be adjusted
from above with a hex wrench!
Fantabulous. But the big advantage sonically is that the ball mount acts as a
bearing for resonance dissipation. You can get spikes to anchor the speakers to
a firm flooring under thick carpet, but for hard floors the default
ball-mounted, top-adjustment, polymer-interfacing flat-disc footer is the bee’s
knees, sonically and ergonomically. And it’s kind to your floors.
The design and execution emphasis on Druid 6 was the cabinet.
The full range driver is improved and I won’t say that’s not important, but the
complete revision to the cabinet materials, construction and the mounting of
the drivers (including the FRD’s torque-tensioned anchoring to the rear of the
cabinet, complementing the baffle attachment and its beefier surround), and the
massive plinth are collectively a major advance in Druid resonance control,
energy channeling and, by extension a murderous spree annihilating cabinet
Figuratively Druid 6 wastes nothing from the signal in its
transducing obligations. Of course it does waste something, but compared to
what’s come before, it sounds like it doesn’t. Druid 6 is direct, declarative,
clear, orthosonic. It snaps and crackles like real life sounds.
Instruments and people have body and breath in correct proportion. Vocal fry
sounds exactly like its coming from the Millennial voice behind it. Real
acoustic guitar (if amplified, microphoned, not piezo-electric) sounds authentic
in tone and in attack : resonance proportion. Voices, instruments and people
are sized realistically. Everything is in high resolution in a natural way,
without faked detail. Presentation is bursty and serene, strong and laid back,
as is authentic to the performance.
It sounds perfect, but there’s a backside to the coin. Druid 6
is not forgiving of bad recordings, cheesy mixes, idiotic mastering. It lays
bares faults in performance, recording decisions by the engineer, mastering,
pressings (if vinyl). It is intolerant of runaway digititis. The manic sawing
of digital compression loses the loincloth producers try to cover it with. The
nasty bits of degraded fidelity traded away for expense reduction are naked for
all to see.
You can ameliorate the relentless truthfulness of Druid 6 by
choices upstream. A more forgiving phono cartridge or more sonically elastic
phone preamp or DAC. Get the right tubes for your new configuration. Back off
sheer resolution a trace with Zu Mission cables instead of Event 2. Or not. Go
for the unmitigated, all-nude, vivid Druid 6 experience. Hear the beauty and the
beast in modern recordings. You’ll thrill to music recorded in the
pre-multi-track, pre-all-solid-state studio era. Recordings from the days of
vacuum tube consoles and mics, with performers in the same room, have a
holistic, tuneful sound mostly lost today, except for recordings from a few
performers. Those recordings have a vividness perfectly transduced by Druid 6
and projected into your domestic space. With Druid 6, a modern, congested,
over-processed, excessively-compressed assault is revealed for the noisefest it
is. If you can’t handle that, you need Druid 5 or you need an obfuscating amp
for poor recordings, and another amp for great ones.
Which means Druid 6 isn’t for everybody, and that’s a good
thing. Because Zu can’t make as many of them as it can build Druid 5 in the
same period of time. And Druid 6 costs about twice as much as its esteemed
predecessor. Hence both are in the line concurrently. And this makes sense. In
my TL;DR I noted “Sean built one for himself.” Sean has visited me often enough
that I’ve had many hours of listening with him present. I’ve seen Sean spin
vinyl of music he loves irrespective of recording or pressing quality, able to
note the sonic offenses and still set them aside to let himself be infused by
the tunes. And when the worst disk is done playing, he thinks about how to get
more out of it.
This makes Druid 6 its own contradiction. It is the least forgiving
Zu speaker ever, and yet the most fun. It’s seductive and off-putting in equal
measure, depending on the quality of the source material. And yet its uncanny
PRaT pulls you in to ignore what’s wrong with the source and revel in what’s
Zu’s finish quality is higher than ever, running with the best.
The jewelry adorning the cabinetry is all functionally mandated, designed to
look fab and is perfectly machined. While it sounds like this is as good as
Druid can get, there’s no doubt Sean will take Druid further in coming years,
but Druid 6 is a high plateau on which it can be parked, bought, enjoyed and
admired while another speaker in the Zu line gets the new foundation of
materials and build techniques laid down by Druid 6. In the meantime, in Druid
6, Sean Casey is making the one, true, full-range, orthosonic speaker. It
doesn’t exaggerate, nor does it shade the truth. It neither spotlights nor
romanticizes. It doesn’t make rough, wooly music silken, and it won’t make
velvet sounds abrasive. Druid 6 presents Tom Waits and Maria Callas with equal
authenticity. Yo Yo Ma and Joe Satriani are equally convincing. Frank Sinatra
and Hound Dog Taylor are nothing but themselves.
A (lengthy) note on
amplifiers for Zu.
If you’ve read anything prior I’ve posted here about Zu, you
know I regard the amp-speaker interface and combination the fulcrum of fidelity
for any Zu-based system. As I referenced earlier in having to abandon SET amps
with Druid 6, buying this speaker requires careful consideration about the
mated amplification. In the past 18 months another development required a
complete revision to my power amplification in my Definition 4 system as well,
so I have put extended effort into surveying alternate amps for both Zu systems
over the past year or so.
In 2017 I had solar panels installed on my roof, and then later
that year added Tesla Powerwall batteries. The panels were installed on the
area of the roof directly over my living room where the Zu Definition 4 system
lives. It’s a one-story rancher, wood construction house, so not much other
than air, wood and sheetrock umbrellas my Definition 4 system from the shower
of solar RFI. Apart from any RF emissions from the panels, the system has two
wireless internet connections: a Wi-Fi connection to my mesh network by the
Tesla Powerwall controller, and a cellular connection by the solar system
inverter. At the same time, to accommodate the exterior Wi-Fi needs as well as
prepare for wireless Roon endpoints to two separate systems, I changed my house
Wi-Fi from a Google wireless router to an Eero mesh network.
The result was that my SET amps in the Definition 4 system
proved perfect antennas for the shower of RFI bathing my living room, and no tactic
for quieting that worked. The first step was to get an active preamp out of the
system, so I sold off my crazy-good Melody p2688 tube preamp, which removed
about half the problem. It was replaced by the splendid Luxman AT-3000 TVC from
the early 1990s – a real work of magnetic art. Once that was added, I had quiet
with push-pull tube and solid-state amps. At the time, I still had Druid 5 on
the other system, and its location sharply contained the new RFI problem, so my
Audion SET amps could still be used there. Then Druid 6 arrived to undermine my
commitment to Audion SET. So, now what, for amplifiers?
About a year ago, after years of great difficulty finding a
phono preamp that can make an Allnic Puritas phono cartridge sound correct
(Allnic’s own phono preamps do not), I ventured a radical experiment to try the
M2Tech Joplin Mk2 phono ADC, which I mated to the M2Tech Young Mk3 DAC, both
powered by the Van der Graaf linear power supply. For this signal, The ADC
converts analog to 24/192 digital and the DAC converts the processed phono
analog digital signal to analog at 24/192 decoding. With RIAA done in the
digital realm, and gain adjustable by 1 db increments, and a good range of
options for cartridge loading, I finally got the Puritas to sound musically
convincing. This led me to take a flyer on the M2Tech Crosby power amplifiers
as a temporary fix to my Definition 4 power problem so I’d have something good
to listen to while I took my time trying alternate tube amps. I bought two
Crosby to run as bridged monoblocks. These are Class D amps using ICE modules
with an M2Tech proprietary input section for better sound than most ICE-based
amps. Into 8 ohms, one Crosby outputs 60w/channel. Run as a bridged monoblock, Crosby
outputs 180w. Into the Def4’s 6-ohm load, Crosby should be good for ~270w each.
With a pair of Crosby amps and the Luxman TVC in the Def4
system, I had a quiet system again. In fact, dead-quiet. Quieter than ever! Without
the RFI-induced gurgling, sputtering, spitting and whirring coming through my
RF-antenna SET amps, I could listen in peace and embark on a tube amp odyssey
as I had time.
Chalk up the M2Tech Crosby Class D amp as wonderfully-Zu
compatible. This is the best Class D sound I’ve heard, period. Maybe only
rivalled by the 47 Labs Gaincard, which has much less power. I prefer these to
most bi-polar solid-state amps, only a few of which have somewhat better
musicality, usually at less output. Such amps are generally associated with
Nelson Pass. So if you are tube phobic or have any other reason to need or
prefer a smooth, bursty, dynamic, musically-convincing, high-definition, solid
state amplifier for Zu, consider the relatively affordable M2Tech Crosby.
Back to tube amps. At the same time I was considering tube amp
alternatives to my long-time Audion SET amplifiers, I also have to note that I
regularly am contacted for advice on affordable tube amps for Zu speakers as
well. Now, I have a pair of Quad II Jubilee monoblocks, which were the last
edition of Quad II amps produced in the UK. They sound quite good on any Zu speaker,
so when I got Druid 6 and found them not ideal for SET in the bass region, it
was easy to slip them in the Druid 6 system, or to move them over to Definition
4 when I wanted some tube-amplified music. The Quad II pair are always a great
backup amp for me, and the closest-to-SET seamlessness I’ve heard in a
push-pull amplifier, simple circuit and all that.
But Quad II is built for KT66, with 6L6 an alternative. I had
mine pretty tweaked through tube selection: Tubestore Preferred Series 274B
rectifier, Mullard mesh plate EF86, Sylvania NOS 6L6 long ago sourced from Mesa
Boogie in the form of their legendary STR-415 power pentode. As an alternative
I also used cryo’d Tube Doctor KT66. The Quad II sound seriously good but still
only 12-15w and the pair could be more elastic. I would love them to have more
of the Plasticman kaPow! reach &
slam that my Audion Black Shadow 845 SET amps muster.
My system racks are setup for monoblocks, so all stereo amps are
ruled out. Meanwhile, as I started my tube amps odyssey, more requests for
affordable amp recommendations trickled into my email. Which is why I want to
let you know about Ling Xiao Nan and his hand-built, affordable, amplifiers.
Xiao Nan designs and builds his amps in the Guangzhou region of China. He is
self-taught on the subject of vacuum tubes and amplification, and been building
amps for over a decade. He’s also a guitar player, but he’s proud to point out
that he is a “full-time amp builder.” You can find Xiao Nan offering amplifiers
on eBay under his Tube Fantasy brand, but that’s only a fraction of what’s
possible with him.
Online, Xiao Nan generally sells clones of vintage circuits,
particularly pre-war and post-war German cinema amplifiers, the Quad II and the
Williamson designs. The circuits are faithful with only a few component value
deviations for modern speakers, particularly in cathode capacitors. When he is
cloning an amp circuit, he builds his transformers to the original electrical
spec but uses his own preferred winding techniques. Xiao Nan machine-winds his
transformers on his least expensive amps, and hand-winds them in everything
else not-very-much-more expensive. He keeps cost down first by building in
China, but also by keeping to a Quad II-sized chassis for most of what he
offers, in black or natural aluminum, or a similarly-proportioned upsize for
designs with larger transformers. Ling Xiao Nan builds monoblocks.
I first learned about Tube Fantasy when I was out on my patio on
a cold-for-Los-Angeles night in December with a glass of Corbin Cash Rye, Tidal
on my iPhone through my i.am+ Buttons, idly flipping through tube amps on eBay.
A listing for a Quad II clone pair at a ridiculously low price stopped me cold,
especially since I had gotten a request to recommend a cheap tube amp for Zu
earlier that day. They were so inexpensive I decided to do the Zu community a
public service to evaluate them. If someone was selling a pair of Quad II
clones for a few hundred bucks, I had to hear them, for better or worse.
I’m going to comment on those Quad II clones shortly, but in
email correspondence about the sale and in asking some questions I had about
the amps, I quickly got to know Xiao Nan beyond the usual eBay transaction, and
in doing so I learned about other amps he makes. Perfect. I now had a custom
amp builder to let me affordably tour circuits and tube types to bracket myself
and zero in on where to finally land in replacing my Audion SET amplifiers.
This led to me acquiring the following monoblock pairs in the span of 3-1/2
months: Quad II clone, Williamson push-pull, 2a3 triode push-pull, Klangfilm
KLV-204 clone (F2a beam power tetrode-based) single-ended tetrode, LS50/GU50
single-ended pentode, 300B-or-2a3 push-pull. And I am considering getting a pair
of Telefunken V69 clones.
At some point, some of these amp pairs will be sold, but the
luxury of auditioning a range of circuits and tube types on a relatively modest
cash outlay is considerable. And you know what? Xiao Nan might make you a pair
of stepping-stone amps, or he might make you the last pair you need. He
certainly can. Xiao Nan tends toward simpler circuits, high quality parts, emphasis
on transformers and pentode/tetrode designs, though he builds triode push-pull
anytime you want. He is quick to build, his soldering is clean and careful.
Nothing is needlessly bulked up for faux masculine appeal.
Ling Xiao Nan and Tube Fantasy are in many respects the Sean
Casey and Zu Audio of tube amps. Both represent strong points of view, are
music-driven and constantly tinkering for better sound, and delivered value is
Here’s a sampling of Ling Xiao Nan / Tube Fantasy prices, monoblock pairs, shipped to USA
(DHL), amps only, no tubes:
QUAD II Clone (18w),
(25w wired triode / 45w wired pentode), $688
2A3 push pull triode
Clone, single-ended-tetrode (10w), $688
LS50/GU50 Direct Coupled, Single-ended Pentode
In cases where Xiao Nan supplies any of the
tubes, he specifies so. Otherwise, you source tubes and stuff the amps when you
get them. Every amp Xiao Nan builds gets burned in and listened to for five
hours before shipping. All my amps have arrived trouble-free electrically. One
had stripped transformer cover threads due to customs overtightening during disassembly-reassembly
under inspection, and they also damaged a faceplate. Xiao Nan immediately
ordered replacements for me.
Xiao Nan does not pot his transformers both
for maintainability and because potting compromises high frequency performance.
You may hear a trace more mechanical hum up close than from, say, a true Quad
II. But music-on, this is irrelevant. The amps are quiet electrically. Common
to all of Xiao Nan’s amplifiers is exceptional transparency, very high
definition, fast transient speed, exceptional soundstaging and depth. For
whatever reason, with any of his amplifiers, I am getting more spatial depth in
the soundstage than with any amplifiers I’ve had connected to my Zu systems,
regardless of price, and that includes the many amps visitors have brought to
audition on Zu speakers. That fast, transparent, dynamic, tuneful sound I
valued particularly in Audion SET is here. Further, in the push-pull amps,
crossover notch grunge is vanishingly low. Some notes on specific amps:
II Clone: Fast, open, dynamic sound. Because Xiao Nan winds the output
transformer differently than Quad did, this also changes the feedback behavior
somewhat. The result is greater audible difference between KT66, 6L6 and EL34
in the clone compared to genuine Quad II. With EL34, the clone is relentlessly
revealing, hi-def and blindingly fast, which is great for excellent
recordings/masters/pressings, but not forgiving of flawed wax or
digitalis-digital. With KT66 the clone is closest to the original Quad II sound,
which was not strictly romanticized but does possess some vintage warmth. The
perfect balance is found with the NOS 6L6. With this power tube, the clone is
smooth, defined, dynamic; delivering Druid-like tone density and lots of
dynamic punch for its power. The amp takes some time to burn in and bloom.
About 120 hours will do it. It will sound thin in the bass region until then,
but progressively less so.
(Triode-Mode): Dynamically stronger than the Quad II or its clone. Refined,
smooth, high definition, solid deep bass on Definition 4 or Druid 6. Same basic
sonic difference between EL34, 6L6, KT66, as in the Quad Clone. Again, I
settled on NOS 6L6. In the Williamson, the Quad II and QII Clone, my preferred
rectifier is the Tubestore Preferred Series 274B. It gets the most tone, space,
definition and dynamic punch from all three amplifiers. This is an exceptional
tube amp, that lives up to the Williamson amp legend from shortly after WWII.
In fact, it’s the best Williamson implementation I’ve heard and easily walks
over a Marantz 8B.
Push-Pull: Inexplicably bursty and elastic for its 13 watts. And my pair
have only 8 ohms windings. On 16-ohm Druid 6 they sound dynamically huge.
Excellent bass discipline compared to any SET amp, while retaining all the
triode magic, though still quite objective. No slow, lazy, old-school triode
amp sluggishness. This amp, Xiao Nan’s custom circuit at my request, gives up
nothing in definition, speed and punch to the tetrode and pentodes in his other
push-pull amps. The rectifier you want is NOS 5v4.
KLV-204: This is an early post-war German cinema and studio amp. It was
used as a monitoring amp in recording studios (so high definition required) and
as a reserve amp for cinemas using the larger KLV-402 & 502 amplifiers. It
lives up to its high definition requirements. I have known about the F2a
tetrode tube for decades and never managed to get my hands on any of the
Klangfilm or Telefunken amps that used it. I was excited to get a chance to
hear the Shindo Cortese, which promptly disappointed me like most other Shindo
amps I’ve heard. But this KLV-204 clone is exciting to listen to! Only 10 watts
(I had my pair wound for 16 ohms to use with Druids), it sounds dynamic beyond
its means. No detail gets past it. Midrange is tone-dense like a great triode
but burstier. Among the quickest, most agile amps I’ve heard at any price. Like
Druid 6, this KlangClone is vivid, tonally, dynamically, and spatially.
With Druid 6 it is musically amazing on an excellent recording, but the x-ray
truth of the combination can render a poor recording too distracting to listen
to. Badly recorded or mastered bass, particularly, shunts the illusion of
musicality. This is one of my favorite amps ever heard, but it is a specialist
and Xiao Nan builds it affordably enough to use it selectively. The F2a tube,
btw, is a German Post power tetrode built for 10,000 hours of life. They often
go longer. As NOS and vintage tubes go, they aren’t cheap, but they aren’t
ridiculously expensive, either, given how long they last.
Single-ended Pentode: More like the sound of the Klangfilm KLV-204 than any of the
others. Crisp, clear, fast and transparent. Also dynamic beyond what’s expected
from its mere 13 watts output. Clean top-to-bottom. A little bass shy compared
to the push-pull amps but there’s a remedy. In most tube amps, particularly
those with cathode bypass caps, there is a trade-off between ultimate bass
performance, and ultimate top end. When faced with this, Xiao Nan prioritizes
top end linearity over bass linearity. But making adjustments to the chosen
values for cathode bypass caps can land you in your zone. You can do
this after getting the amps or if you communicate to Xiao Nan your general
preferences, he can reliably adjust for the right value. You just have to
communicate effectively. Overall, Xiao Nan’s LS50/GU50 single-ended pentode
monoblocks are sonically in the same realm as the F2a-based Klangfilm KLV-204
clones, but not quite so MRI in unsparing revelation. The LS50 has more
latitude in acceptable recording quality than the KlangClone. Given the
Definition 4 sub-bass extension, Xiao Nan suggest snipping the cathode bypass
cap on the E180F driver tube to bring bass performance into better balance with
the speaker. But I have to say before doing that, the intrinsic bass from this
amp on Def4 maybe a little light, but it is very well presented in terms of
character, definition and attack.
Push-Pull: I commissioned Xiao Nan to build for me a pair of monoblocks
that can use either 300B or 2a3 output tubes, in push-pull configuration. I
have a quad of KR 300B Balloon tubes held back from my recent sale of my Audion
Golden Dream 300B monoblock amps, which I wanted to use in push-pull
configuration with either my Druid 6 or Definition 4 system to make continuing
use of those magnificent tubes. Xiao Nan indulged me with a custom design.
Those amps are arriving in the next day or two. Comments pending if anyone is
V69 Clone: Probably last in my series of bracketing amps from Xiao Nan
will be a pair of clones of the legendary Telefunken V69 Cinema amp. This is a
full Class A, push-pull, tetrode amplifier using a pair of the F2a tetrode
tubes in each monoblock. Like the Klangfilm KLV-204, input and driver tubes are
the equally-revered EF-12 small-signal pentode. Class A output is 25 watts per
monoblock. I will decide in the next day or two whether I will order these, put
them in the mix and then vet the whole shebang for what stays and what goes.
You can find Ling Xiao Nan on eBay as seller “fatkit83-8.”
If you private message me, I can offer his direct contact information for amp
Of course the genuine Quad II remains a
highly-viable tube amp for any Zu speaker. It is coherent, musical and also
delivers more dynamic shove than its diminutive specifications might lead you
to expect. Ling Xiao Nan gives you alternatives, and plenty of them, for less
cash. And similar to like-minded Asian originators like mhdt (DACs), Jasmine
Audio (phono preamps and amplifiers), and Melody (preamps and amps), all of
Ling Xiao Nan’s implementations are informed by music listening and in-depth
inquisitiveness seeking more fidelity than he previously delivered at any given
time. Just like Sean Casey.
Ask questions if you have them.