I’ve got some stuff to do. I have a Red Wine Audio Signature 15 that I’m running in — right now. I’m also working on write ups for a loaner King Rex UD384 DAC that I have on hand, as well as one for an HD-160DS headphone DAC/amp that I have on loan from Burson, courtesy of Moon Audio. Work, work, work.
But that’s not all! A day or so ago, I heard that my loaner speakers from Vaughn Loudspeakers should be on their way this week. I’m getting two pairs of Pinots — one pair of bookshelf monitors, one pair of towers — which should make it a lot of fun to do comparisons. With a sensitivity of 94dB, I’m thinking low-power amps! With a big Fostex driver, a ribbon and (perhaps?) a powered low end in the tower, and with no crossover anywhere near the mid range, I have some really high expectations for great sound quality. No pressure, but color me “excited” (what color would that be, anyway, ‘orange’?).
Speaking of speakers, I’m going to be bringing in a pair of eFicion F300 speakers, too. These will be on loan from distributor Bruce Jacobs, and quite frankly, I’m really tickled to get to play with these guys. They’re really big, sound really big, and are stuffed full of some neato tech. I was quite struck by them at RMAF this past year, so here’s to hoping they’re even better live and in person.
What else is on the way? Cables! I’ve got some Black Cat Morpheus speaker cables and interconnects being spun up by cable maestro Chris Sommovigo at some point in the very near future. They should provide a nice counterpoint to my reference WyWires, and with them in hand, I’ll be revisiting the Tekton Pendragons and working pushing forward on the Red Wine Audio Signature 15 integrated amp.
Another wrinkle … I don’t really have a “tube amp” on hand anymore. I was able to borrow a really great KT88-based integrated from Triode Corp of Japan, but that had to go back to the dealer. I do have the itty-bitty Miniwatt N3, but at 3.5wpc, that amp isn’t going to do much with any speaker with a moderate sensitivity — sure, it’ll make sound, but with only 6dB of gain (max), we’re talking relatively low volumes for dynamic music. Why is that, you ask?
Time for a quick aside: I think the sweet spot in amps for speakers at the seemingly industry average of ~85dB sensitivity is about 100 watts per channel. This is really plenty for just about any speaker — with all the usual caveats about badly designed speakers (radical impedance dips, phase changes, or other amp-unfriendly behaviors) aside. 100wpc gives about a 20dB lift to the base sensitivity number, which would be your max output. The goal, at least in theory, is to provide enough “head room” from the nominal listening volume (say, 80dB) so that your gear can accommodate the big swings in volume naturally embedded in some music. Most currently produced music has a relatively limited dynamics, so as long as the music’s dynamic range is less than what the amp can provide in gain over the speaker’s sensitivity, you’re good to go — for that piece of music. Again, in theory, if you shoot for at least 15dB of head room, you should be good to go for most well-recorded music. If you miss a bit, it’ll probably not kill your music. If you miss by a lot, well, that’s called “clipping” — and generally bad things happen to the sound quality at that point, not to mention your speakers and possibly the amp.
Okay, that was a roundabout way of saying that most SET amps (<10wpc) are probably not enough unless you’re looking at speakers with a sensitivity (significantly) higher than 90dB, especially if you want to crank it anywhere near eleven and expect the music to sound good, uncompressed and unclipped.
Does that mean you have to go to 100wpc to get the most out of your music? No, I don’t think so. Remember that for every doubling of power that you only get another 3dB of gain, so working backwards, 50wpc will give you about 17dB. Again, unless your speakers are really not sensitive (read: 85dB or less), 17dB should be fine for the vast majority of your listening, regardless of your taste in music. Pull that down by half again to 25wpc and you get about 14dB of gain — and this is the lower threshold of where anyone really ought to be. Again, this should work for most speakers with most music most of the time, however, expect problems when you feel the need for speed. No Nigel Tufnel action here, but still, eminently usable.
Especially if it’s a tube amp! Not exactly sure exactly why this is so, but there is apparently a bit of a lift you get with tube amp power supplies in that most tube amps feel louder watt-for-watt than their average solid state cousin (have to interject here, because this is somewhat mythical — what is an average amp, anyway?), and “the Internets” have held fast to the idea that a tube amp “gives back” about a 3dB advantage (over their solid-state brethren). Okay, if true, this would bring your 25wpc amp back to about 17dB — where I wanted to be.
Of course, remember that my needs may not be your needs — I’m likely to be doing a lot more swapping of stuff in and out, at least for the foreseeable future, so that I can continue to feed your voracious appetite for audio data. See the sacrifices I make for you, gentle reader? Yep, that’s how I roll. Takin’ one for the team. Y – e – a – h ….
Anyway, I’ll probably be best served by something a bit more beefy than your typical SET. Sure, I could go with a 211 or an 845, which put out more power than your average 300b (20wpc vs 8wpc), but then we’re also talking heat and weight. Those tubes are monsters, cruise around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and generally have transformers large and heavy enough to require special equipment to move around. I’m thinking more EL34 or something like that, with pretty archetypical “tube sound”, but that are built to run about 30-50wpc. Make it an integrated with a reasonable footprint, and I’ve got myself an amp that can run my desktop system (whenever that materializes) and can do double-duty in the main rig to provide color commentary against my big ass Plinius gear. Like I said, my needs may be a bit different than yours.
I was looking at another integrated from Triode Corp of Japan, a TRV-35se, but I think a local dealer has another solution, a Line Magnetic Audio (LM Audio) 211ia EL34 integrated. I saw this amp at RMAF in 2011 in the DeVore Fidelity room, but it wasn’t hooked up to anything (they were running the big — and I mean big — 219ia integrated when I was in there). My dealer says this amp is pretty awesome, with some seriously massive transformers, so that might be a good and reasonably affordable option.
Decware also has a little giant-killer, another EL34 amp, called the Zen Torii. This is almost 2.5x the cost of the LM Audio, but then, the Decware amp is Made in the USA while the LM Audio amp is made in China. Does that matter? Well, sometimes. When it’s an apples-to-apples decision, I tend to favor solutions from the local guys (shop local!), but it’s rarely apples-to-apples. And the Zen Torii is a $4000 amplifier when you add in the highly recommended options. Still, the Tone Audio review makes a very compelling case for this amp.
Another amp “in the mix” is at about 90-degrees from the tube amps — ever heard of a “chip amp”? Most “pure” audiophiles shudder at the thought of a Class-D amplifier (switching? ewww!), which is silly, but I can only imagine how they’ll take an amp driven by op-amps (yikes! run for the hiiiills!). That said, the chip amp has some serious advantages. Most don’t have the sheer grunt for truly amazing bass performance, but … well, that’s the only but. According to some, they’re the most transparent amp on the market. No coloration. No adulteration. Just whatever your speakers and source material have to bring, well, that’s what a (good) chip amp brings to the system. Total transparency — and crazy dynamics. Again, according to some, the chip amp is the “fastest” amp you can get — got complex music? Whatever! Music that would bury a SET is kung fu’d by a chip amp. Compelling, no? Yeah, I thought so too. Not sure I’d want one as my only amp, but who knows? Anyway, Audiosector is still making their Patek amps. They look like they’re tanks, and all the parts are top-shelf (if one can say that about op-amps, but what can you do?), and both Black Gate caps (an extra $300) and a stepped attenuator ($100) are available for their crazy-cheap $1250 integrated. Of course, that brings the amp to a respectable $1650, a bit more than the Red Wine Audio Signature 15 that I’m currently staring at. The Patek-based integrated puts out 50wpc into both 8ohms and 4ohms, but still, that’s plenty for all but the most demanding (read: poorly designed) speakers.
Did I mention that both the Decware and the Audiosector amps were recommended to me by readers? See! I listen.
Well, that’s about it, and sums up where my head is at right now. Lots whirling about in there, kinda like the snow that’s swirling around outside. Good day to crank it up, which is what I’m gonna go do now. Cheers!