When an amplifier takes two men to move it, you could start to question your choice in amplifiers… but not me. I knew I was on to something truly special. The fact that Audio Note dealer, whiskey confidante, and bon vivant Don Thorne had taken the time (and considerable effort) lugging the behemoth Meishu Silver Signature integrated amplifier all the way over from Victoria to my home in Vancouver was the sign of true friendship. How the hell he’d managed to get the damn thing into his truck remains a mystery until this day, and if I ask he just smiles wanly. Which leads to me believe it’s the dark arts he’s involved in, because if I tried to move it on my own I’d wreck myself.
The reason Thorne had brought the bespoke-built Meishu integrated (approx. 70 lbs, and an intimidating 9″ x 18″ x 20″) over from Soundhounds was because he wanted me to have a couple months to experience the magic of the legendary 300B tube in my own home. The Meishu is a strange, and somewhat mythical audiophile beast. I’d always thought of them as being very thin on the ground, since one doesn’t see reviews. They seem niche even in Audio Note UK’s own lineup because in my mind most Audio Note customers who want a 300B solution for their amplification needs would seek out one of AN’s various monoblock pairs, such as the Quest or Conquest. So, I decided to go to the source, and asked Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK his thoughts on the Meishu, and just how it fit into their product line:
“The line of Meishu integrated 300B amplifiers are essentially our best selling products, at least until the Cobra hits the streets, which given the current size of the order book may take a while longer! The Meishu does bridge, if that is what you can call it, between the OTO/M2 and the Level 3 separates, but it really was always meant to be a relatively cost efficient way to enter the realms of truly high quality no-feedback triode amplification, and to provide an introduction in that regard.
The standard Meishu came in very early in 1994 and has remained largely unchanged, apart from a change in 1997/1998 from the 6X4R to the 6X5, plus upgrades to the output transformer core quality over the years. The Silver version came in when we sourced C-cores made from Swedish steel in 1997/1998, the Silver was then upgraded to the better Japanese IHiB core material we sourced in 2003/2004 and the Silver Signature version came in around the same time using the better SHiB C-cores.
Well, the 300B is of course the classic power triode and if used correctly is both great sounding and very reliable, we are fortunate in that the Chinese make such good versions of them, we use the Psvane standard 300B in all the Meishus [because] for the cost it is by far the best sounding and most reliable of the 300Bs in our experience. No changes planned for now, it will be at least 12 – 18 months before we would even look at changes, there is so much else going on that needs finishing.”
– Peter Qvortrup
Once you get over the size of the amplifier, the next thing you notice is the heat it throws off. Don’t cover the casework with anything (it will catch fire), and I wouldn’t recommended running it with anything less than five inches of space above the top of the case. I ran it without any of it’s austere black casework the entire time I had it. Not only did it help to run the amp cooler, it was brilliant during listening sessions to be able to look at the tubes bathing the amp’s interior with their spectral glow. The intricate point-to-point wiring that coursed through the innards of the Meishu like steam-punk intestines were there in plain view. Keep in mind too that despite it’s size, it produces eight watts of output. Yes, that’s not a typo: Eight watts. So proper speaker pairing is crucial. Lucky for me, I had a pair of 98 dB efficient Audio Note AN-E SPe/HE loudspeakers on hand.
The valve compliment consists of 1 x 5U4G, 2 x 300B, 2 x 6X5, 2 x 5687,2 x ECC83, 2 x ECC82, and 1 x 6SN7. For those number-challenged souls that’s 12 glowing thermionic valves to contend with eventually replacing, which for tube heads could be a badge of honor, for solid-state gang members, read on. AN UK firmly insists the tubes are good for 6,000 hours of use, which for me would mean about six or seven years until I’d have to look at coughing up coin for replacement valves. I’m going to add that, as good as the valves AN UK installs are, it’s been my experience that Audio Note amps love to get rolled, so don’t be surprised if you find money fleeing your bank account when you decide to source NOS Telefunkens, Amperex or Mullards. Tube rolling valve amps so they sound better is an art unto itself, so do yourself a favor, and buy whiskey for whomever you know that is knowledgeable in this endeavor, and ask them for tube recommendations because it’s not hard to blow hundreds of dollars on the wrong valves, and be terribly disappointed by a sound shift sideways, rather than upwards.
This Meishu was the shop demo model, and had plenty of burn-in so listening sessions could take place immediately: which after about 20 minutes of warm up they did. Thorne, and I had dollied the amp into place like a refrigerator, and proceeded to wire it up to a couple of turntables via the DSA Phono II to let the music playing begin. The first thing that strikes you when you hear the Meishu for the first tine is the size of the sonic image. This amp throws an enormous sound stage, and creates huge areas of space around each instrument, and voice in the mix. It’s positively cavernous the first several times you play something through it, and then you start to get used to it, and think it’s normal. But really it’s not normal. It’s unsettling. There was an almost exaggerated amount of the recorded space around vocals, piano keys, and strings in particular to my ears. This reinforced the sensation that the performers on the recording had a palpable, if imagined presence. I mean, obviously they’re not in the room, but the dynamic realism, and spatial cues from the recorded space were there. Cymbals, and high-hats had delicious amounts of decay, and while I continued to take it all in, mumbling a bit, and jumping up to throw another LP on, Thorne just sat in my lounger sipping his single malt, and smiled.
“No help there,” I thought to myself.
Over the following weeks, and months I became rather enamored with the Meishu. I’d heard numerous 300B amps in show settings, but this was the first in my home, and being able to gauge the impact in a for-real-world room I was familiar with made all the difference. Shops don’t recommend home demos for nothing.
I need to say that the Meishu made intimate recordings sound like a secret being shared with you for the first time: it does barely-there, and whispered recordings incredibly well, even at lower volume levels. In the almost eight weeks I had the Meishu, I played pretty much every type of musical genre, and sub-genre I had in my modest vinyl collection (450+ albums) through it. Pop, punk, and rock had a renewed mid-range vitality compared to my Audio Note Oto Line SE (EL84 valve, single-ended integrated). Jazz, and singer/songwriter acoustic guitar probably benefited the most from the way the amp handled wood-bodied instruments, saxophones, trumpets, and voices (drum skin texture, brushes too). Classical music was imbued with deep breaths of spaciousness around the frothy surf of massed strings that allowed individual violins, cellos, and horns to be more clearly articulated, and delineated. The Meishu was demonstrably better at everything I sonically prized about my Oto Line SE.
For example, I’ve got a 2xLP copy of Gord’s Gold remastered by Joe Reagoso that was put out by Friday Music. This is an outstanding album to me, and a one-stop-shop if you’re a Lightfoot fan as it’s loaded with a goodly number of his hits. The 12-string Gibson B-45 acoustic that Lightfoot favors on If You Could Read My Mind seemed to materialize out of thin air on the right of the sound stage as Ollie Strong’s steel guitar came stage left to accompany him. The textural separation between the two felt like a strip of velvet was being torn between my ears as Lightfoot’s voice hung there TDC between their plucked notes shimmering like a sonic mirage between the speakers. The 3D placement of the bass guitar was deep down the lower-middle, which in the grip of the Meishu’s massive hand-wound output transformers comes in with such solidity that you feel like you could walk up each note like they were a concrete staircase.
Björk is someone who fascinates me. Her albums in the ’90s were pitons that I would pound into the somewhat dodgy mountain faces of electronic music to help me ascend the peak to get a real, informed view of what has happening in this ever-shifting music scene. Ditto for Massive Attack. But it was this Icelandic pixie who always got me on to the dance floor after a few pints, not so much MA, who were far better suited to solo philosophical mental endeavors. Debut is rife with the touch of producer Nellee Hooper with a blend of disparate, but seamlessly integrated percussion that makes it nigh impossible to not move a part of your body while listening to this LP. The limited-edition 180-gram copy I procured goes very deep in the bottom end, far more than any digital copies I’ve heard before or since. The Meishu’s ability to maintain it’s composure with such a raucous, densely-layered album that is synth, bass, and effects-heavy at high SPLs with cuts like Big Time Sensuality, Violently Happy, and Human Behaviour proved it’s EDM chops to my ears. This also dispelled another rumor I had read, and heard: that 300B-based amps are only good for certain types of playback, ie; ensemble jazz, chamber music, folk, or acoustic.
Getting short-listed for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize means you’re no slouch. Daniel Bejar of Destroyer creates a slushy pop-club soundtrack that merges Roxy Music with the Pet Shop Boys on Kaputt. This is the dream album for everyone who found themselves still awake against their better party judgement at 5 a.m. It puts you at ease with it’s drug-friendly familiarity, dreamy vocals, and synth-drenched optimism only to have that facade fade away with every moment of the dawn-brightening sky through the windows. Like an all-nighter on Wednesday, as you listen closely to the lyrics you realize you weren’t having as much fun as you thought. “You got it wrong,” preens Bejar on Suicide Demo for Kara Walker. This is an album of midrange, not extremes, which according to those in the know far more than I about 300B amps should play directly into the Audio Note integrated’s hands (which it does). This is an LP all about balance to my ears, and complex tonal structures with enough textured woodwinds, percussion, and pitch-perfect horns blowing your hair straight back to demand the attention of the most hardened audiophile who wants to see the measurements. The Meishu treats every song on this 2xLP open-collared white shirt of an album like the perfectly coiffed werewolf that it is. The sheer number of instruments used in the production of all the songs might make many another integrated amplifier put a foot wrong, it’s just too rich. But not the Meishu. It just glides through the whole set. And, like a multi-bladed razor with a lubricating strip it cuts through any stubble, and delivers a smooth shave indeed.
There’s a simultaneous infectious weight, and gravitas mixed with Aero-Bar lightness to the 300B sound of the Meishu that kept me playing album after album in some weird quest to see if i could trip it up, and I just couldn’t. This mix of heft, and airiness is something I’ve heard before, but at a much higher price point, and always in separates. This is an integrated amplifier for music lovers first, and foremost, and well… why the hell wouldn’t you want an amp that wasn’t all about the music? While the form factor may be intimidating for some who might be space-challenged, (or unsure of embracing tubes) if you’ve got room to house it, I can’t recommend it enough. The fact that for a modest price bump you can get a world-class moving-magnet phono stage included in the same chassis should be of note for many black-disc spinners. Again, it’s a one-box solution, albeit a very large one. But, oh what you get from that box. As I mentioned at the drop, it’s only eight watts, so high-efficiency speakers are a must to get the most out of it. While it mated perfectly with my Audio Note loudspeakers, I would be a liar if I didn’t say I’d love to hear what it could do with the likes of some SET-friendly Klipschorns, big-boned Tannoys, or some vintage Altecs. Is the 300B my favorite valve now?
I can say without hesitation this was one of the most fun reviews I’ve ever done thanks to the outright musicality of this amplifier. There are many output tubes to choose from in the world of valves, and even Audio Note uses everything from the mighty 211 to the punchy 6L6WGB for output, so there’s still a lot of ground to cover out there from my perspective.
Wish me luck.
Meishu Silver Signature Specifications: