If you run into a friendly, middle-aged man at an audio show calling himself “Uncle Kevvy,” you can be sure that nearby there will be two things: lots of tubes and good sound.
He may not be your real uncle, but Kevin Deal will treat any tube lover like family. The owner of Upscale Audio eats, sleeps and dreams about valves and has an affinity for audiophiles who share his passion.
When not selling a broad range of new equipment from his large Upland, California-based store, his idea of a vacation is going overseas and rummaging in dusty warehouses for overlooked boxes of new-old-stock tubes.
Deal does a big telephone business, handling many calls personally. There’s nothing he’d rather do then talk your ear off about gear (he has $7 million in inventory) or provide insightful re-tubing advice. In either case, the conversation usually concludes with an offer to make you a “smokin’ deal.”
Uncle Kevvy rented two rooms at the 2017 Los Angeles Audio Show. One held a carefully assembled demo system and was playing a variety of interesting tracks, while the other had silent displays of some of the products he handles, including the PrimaLuna electronics line (tubed, of course) for which he is the US importer and distributor.
Deal’s show rig was built around the PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium HP integrated amp ($4,399 USD). The unit in triode mode produces 40 watts a side with eight of the standard EL34 tubes or 54 watts with optional KT150s. In ultralinear operation, that rises to 70 watts and 96 watts, respectively (all into eight ohms).
PrimaLuna achieves those numbers without redlining its valves. The manufacturer believes taking it easy on the filaments produces better sound. (The amp also has six 12AU7s).
One other notable thing about the PrimaLuna integrated is the company’s Adaptive AutoBias feature. It not only makes the Dialogue HP pretty much plug-n-play, but it also allows for many choices for tube-rolling fans.
In addition to the EL34 and KT150, you can also try the 6L6G, 6L6GC, 7581A, EL37, 6550, KT66, KT77, KT88, KT90 or KT120. In fact, to illustrate the effectiveness of the auto-bias circuit, Deal likes to show a Dialogue running with eight different tubes installed at once.
The first track I heard was one of my favorites, “Wild West End” from Dire Straits’ debut album.
I’ve heard this song on a lot of systems, including quite a few at the megabuck level. Deal’s moderately priced, PrimaLuna-based rig didn’t leave me wanting much more, however.
Mark Knopfler’s Stratocaster had a warm, resonant tone and the underrated Pick Withers’ drum work was prominent enough in the uncluttered sound field to appreciate both his wonderful sense of timing and subtle stick work.
That song was followed by Elvis Presley’s version of “Fever.” It’s hard to hear this song without picturing Elvis sweating in white-jumpsuit mode. But this 1960 single – taken from his first post-Army album – found the singer focused and entering his vocal prime.
The PrimaLuna Dialogue capably rendered Elvis’ stylistic evolution – his vocals being deeper, more emotional and even more powerful than before. “Fever’s” iconic finger snaps practically jumped out of the Sopra 2s, and Bob Moore’s walking bass line had extension and tunefulness on the REL.
Overall, the system Deal assembled proved you could get impressive tube sound for a lot fewer greenbacks than what you might have feared. Indeed, a page on the retailer’s web site features a letter from a customer with a $22,000 USD pair of exotic speakers. The audiophile tells Deal he’s now driving them with a Dialogue HP that wound up replacing $40,000 USD in big-name valve separates.
The buyer’s conclusion? The PrimaLuna integrated, he writes, is not just good for the money, it’s just plain good. “No qualifications needed,” the new owner says.
You have to admire the overachievers in the high end. Kevin Deal – who just expanded into 10,000 square feet of brick-and-mortar space – and PrimaLuna are two of them. Who’s your uncle?