I learned a long time ago (around 1992 or so, as I recall) that low-powered single-ended triode
vacuum tubes, when properly utilized in an audio amplifier, can do some crazy magical things.
That mind-bending experience has again been re-awakened in part when the new ToolShed Amps
Transcendence 300B amplifier arrived on the scene.
ToolShed Amps you say? OK, I’ll get back to that, but first a short story.
A long time ago, as a poor graduate student living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, about the best
thing I could do was to travel to local brick and mortar audio shops (remember those?) with the
intent of honing my listening skills and becoming educated in all things high-end. Perhaps my favorite was a salon called Advanced Audio, which was run by a somewhat crusty gentleman from New Jersey. This guy, Tom Hoffman, was opinionated as hell and would probably toss someone out of there in a heartbeat for any kind of misbehavin’.
Deep down though, Tom had a heart of gold and was always ready to “educate” a young guy like myself. I’ll always be indebted to him for letting me hang out at his shop after hours on random Tuesday evenings, listening to whatever he had set up in his best room. There at Advanced Audio, I had the opportunity to experience firsthand some of the best vacuum tube gear available at the time. Some of it was single-ended triode-based, an absolutely new idea for this neophyte.
Indeed, these simple triode-based amps had limitations. Higher-efficiency speakers were most
definitely not in vogue. The poor flea-watt amps occasionally had quite the difficulty driving the
transducers available at that time. When I tried to play big scale orchestral stuff, the soundstage
collapsed, the volume dropped during crescendos, and you could see those poor tubes running
out of juice. Put on some vocals or easy jazz, however, and it was sonic unicorns and rainbows. All was right in my world.
Fast forward thirty years. As a high-end audio consumer and reviewer, I’ve tried a lot of stuff. I’ve been down many a rabbit hole. I’ve no doubt wasted a lot of money, not to mention time. All of this in search of the best and most enjoyable sound I could possibly obtain. But hey, isn’t that what a healthy obsession with a hobby is supposed to be?
That said, I never forgot the sound of a true single-ended triode (SET) tube amp. I decided, now
that I have access to a few different efficient speakers, that I needed to dive down that rabbit
hole myself. I’d been decidedly spoiled by the two superb sounding 300B amps I’d had in residence from Gary Dews at BorderPatrol Audio. I’d become accustomed to their voices, and I found that I had
a slight preference for the bit of added warmth I heard from the single-ended SE300B EXD that I most recently reviewed. All of this got me to thinking…what other varieties of SET amps are
out there, and who makes them?
What I found was that there are a few somewhat “mainstream” manufacturers of these amps out
there, supplemented by a bevy of SET amps designed and built by individual enthusiasts, often
as a part-time passion. You just have to know about them or hear about them on the audio blog
sites. Then there are a few who seem to be making the jump into the mainstream of high-end
audio. These are the folks who are transitioning from part-time passion into “Hey, let’s see if we
can make a real living doing this.”
One from this latter group who caught my attention was Matt Formanek, an ex-Marine and high-
end audio dealer who decided to go for broke and build what I would call heirloom quality SET
amplifiers and preamplifiers. While his company, ToolShed Amps, isn’t exactly a household
name (yet…), what I learned made me want to find out more.
Suffice it to say that my first visit to the ToolShed Amps website had my eyes about popping out
of my head. These amps were not only amps, but works of art! From the hand-mitered finger-joined wooden bases to the intricately etched aluminum metalwork, I was smitten. It was obvious to me that if Matt Formanek is nothing else, he is a master artist and craftsman. Who knows, maybe he even knows a thing or two about circuit design and implementation. The man obviously understands attention to detail.
It didn’t take me long to get in touch with Matt. I quickly found out that he had been a student of
Gordon Rankin, the man behind Wavelength Audio. Now Mr. Rankin has been designing and building top-tier SET amps for a very long time, so I’d wager that he knows his way around a triode-based circuit. This fact alone gave me some assurance that Matt Formanek knows what he is doing. In fact, Gordon and Matt have worked collaboratively on several projects.
I took the bait and decided to have Matt commission me an amp. Not just for review, but for my own long-term use. What we decided upon was his most current offering, the ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B direct heated triode amplifier.
ToolShed Amps and Transcending Expectations
I was really in no hurry with this build. I think I put down my deposit of $1000 with ToolShed Amps around a year ago, in November 2020. I needed to wait for my summer teaching job to raise the balance for the project, so I asked Matt to take his time. In the meantime, we had lots of back-and-forth about what options would be in the amp, and how much performance I could squeeze out of the budget I’d given the two of us to work with. What I ended up with was pretty much the best Matt could do, the top-tier version of the Transcendence design.
Speaking of options, anyone who commissions Mr. Formanek to build an amp will have lots of
these from which to choose. The base price is actually quite reasonable in my mind, considering
the level of craftsmanship the buyer gets: $5500 without tubes; $6000 with the full stock tube set
included. This option merits high quality ISO (formerly Tango) input/output transformers. If
vintage iron is desired, that too can be had at an up-charge, along with top-tier modern Hitachi
FineMet amorphous core output trannies.
Here are the ToolShed Amps “extras” I ended up with (full retail pricing considered):
Hitachi FineMet amorphous core output transformers ($1000)
Vintage potted CTC power transformer plus UTC potted choke ($500)
C3g driver stage upgrade ($500)
Gold Point stepped attenuators ($250)
I opted to go with the stock tube set, which consists of a Psvane 274b rectifier and a pair of
Psvane 300B output tubes. Normally, a pair of vintage Mullard E180F drivers would be included,
but I’d already gotten the C3g driver upgrade. Matt also threw in vintage new-old-stock Pyranol
film-in-oil and wet-film capacitors where appropriate.
All in then, the retail pricing of the amp I have would be $8250, which is still quite the deal in my opinion. I mean, damn, just look at the thing!
On top of all of that, ToolShed Amps ships the goods equipped to survive World War 3. When it
arrived and I cracked open the box, I got the same feeling that Howard Carter must have had
when he viewed the outermost sarcophagus of Tutankhamen: there must be a mummy in there
somewhere! I’m talking layer upon layer of carefully cut styrofoam insulation followed by yards
of bubble wrap. I think it took me at least half an hour just to get the thing out of the box.
System and Initial Impressions
The system driving the ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B was the usual: my BorderPatrol SE DAC (via usb) fed signal into a Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL 2.0 preamp, which in turn drove the amp. While the ToolsShed Transcendence has dual mono volume pots and can be used as a stand-alone integrated amp (it even has two line-level inputs), I chose to use the preamp for additional gain.
Matt Formanek put about 100 hours of burn-in on the amp prior to sending it my way, but he told
me it would probably need around 400 more hours to really run in. Indeed, the ToolShed Amps Transcendence sounded smooth and supple as soon as I rigged it up and got it going, but noticeable
improvements continued to happen over time. Even after several months of continuous use, I think it’s still settling in. An example: I initially heard audible hum coming from the output transformers. While this never really bothered me from my listening position while the music was playing, I could readily hear it when the room was otherwise silent. However, one day when I fired the amp up, it was gone. No more hum! Today, the amp is more or less as quiet as a church mouse.
It Sounds Like…
I’ve heard a fair number of descriptions of how a good 300B amplifier should sound. Even so, I often find it difficult to put what I hear into printed words. I know what I like and I know when I hear it.
Every 300B amp I have experienced in my room, either push-pull or single-ended, has been defined by a sense of clarity and tonal purity. These amps get out of the way of the music and work solely to its service. Sure, push-pull can sound perhaps beefier and more analytical, whereas single-ended can tend toward the more euphonic and tonally colorful. Do I have a preference? Hard to say. As with all things audio, it depends on which speakers I’m using, as well as my mood.
The ToodShed Amps Transcendence 300B puts out about 7 watts per channel into 8 ohms, so reasonably efficient speakers are something of a requirement. Much of my critical listening was done with 100 dB efficient Charney Audio Maestro X speakers. These were a wonderful matchup with the ToolShed amp, and that combo would have no trouble rattling windows and annoying neighbors.
The Transcendence amp has a lot of sonic attributes worth writing about. One thing that stood out to me right from the get-go (and only kept improving) is its tonal palette. The amp is incredibly accurate and detailed in presentation, but never dry in sound. From this standpoint, the ToodShed Amps 300B works swimmingly well with single-driver speakers such as the Charneys, which can sometimes sound a bit dry and lightweight due to their incredible speed and resolution. What I hear is what I might describe as “fast bloom.” Have you ever seen one of those time-lapsed videos of a flower bud transcending into a full-on blossom? Think that, but speed it up about 500-fold and hear it rather than see it.
I hear a wonderful sense of attack and leading-edge transient followed by immediate swelling of the tonal event, like a plucked string or stick against skin. I like good jazz saxophone recordings (who doesn’t?), and I noticed a few interesting things while listening to a few of these. Sure, I heard all the normal stuff that we audio folks love to hear: the sound of air moving through the mouthpiece at the conclusion of a long phrase, and the swelling of the sound out of the horn during a building crescendo. I heard some other stuff as well, stuff I’m not used to hearing. For instance, I found myself picking up on minute details I’d never really noticed before, such as clanking of keys and slapping of pads against metal. It was as if I could visualize the performer’s fingers moving along the keys up and down the instrument. Interestingly, none of this detracted from the musical experience, but rather enhanced it in a most enchanting “I am there” sort of way.
Once I was keyed into these fine details captured in a recording, it was hard to let go and listen to a less resolving system. I asked Matt Formanek about what I was hearing. He credited at least some of the resolving ability with the choice of the upgraded C3g input stage; turns out that these tubes were designed for relaying analog signals in underwater communication cables such as those used for intercontinental telephone applications during the days of yore. So yes, resolution was important and integral part of this tube’s design, and it shows.
Time for a few tunes.
Listening with the ToolShed Amps Transcedence 300B
Checking out German saxophonist Heinz Sauer and pianist Michael Woolny’s live album Don’t Explain (16/44.1 kHz flac file, streamed via Qobuz) gave me a good taste of the ToolShed Amps
Transcendence’s strengths. Okay, so Sauer is kinda old and beyond his prime here, but his tone is just so spot on. Besides, the recording is exceptionally resolving, up-front, honest, and well-balanced. Through the ToolShed/Charney Audio combination, I’m hearing everything, and I mean everything. The perspective is close-up, so I’m catching those clinks and clanks of the keys on the sax that I was talking about before. And, wow…that sound of air moving through the horn is amazing, as is the attack and decay of the piano hammers against strings.
Another live album I enjoy is Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine’s Live at the Berlin Philharmonic
XI: The Last Call (24/48 kHz flac file, streamed via Qobuz). Here we have dueling masters of
the strings duking it out in a highly ambient concert hall environment. The ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B really goes at it in its ability to hash out the complexities of both the electric and acoustic guitars, as well as their intricate interplay in a “real” acoustic space. While the whole album is wonderfully entertaining, my favorite cut is “Bags’ Groove,” which supplements acoustic guitar with stand-up bass. This pairing is magical via the 300B amp and single-driver speakers, with precise tone and image placement. The cut has plenty of nice audience interaction as well, and everything has its place from a spatial perspective. When I close my eyes and just listen, I feel almost transported to the venue, awash in swirling harmonic bliss.
ToolSheds Amps Conclusion
Summarizing my experience with the ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B amplifier is pretty easy: here we have a feast for both the eyes and the ears. While I am a big fan of the industrial “form follows function” appearance of many audio components today, I am every bit the sucker for something that also looks like it might be as comfortable in a museum as in my listening room. Matt Formanek refers to his work as a “celebration of classic American craftsmanship,” and I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree.
OK, so I know that looks ain’t everything. Not a problem here. The Transcendence amp is a tonic for the ears and right up there with the best I’ve ever heard. Now I’m starting to wonder about how it would be with those Western Electric 300B output tubes that Matt’s hawking these days. I suppose that sooner or later I will just need to find out!
For the stellar combination of good sound, superb build quality, attention to detail, out-of-this-world appearance, and great value for the dollar, it’s a no-brainer that I’m awarding the ToolShed Transcendence amplifier with a PTA Reviewers Choice Award. Congratulations Matt, and well-earned.
ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B Amplifier:
$ 6000 base price (with stock tube set)
$ 8250 as reviewed