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"Living Single: A Dalliance With a Different Paradigm" By Larry Alan Kay

For some years now, a significant minority of serious audiophiles have been dancing to the beat of a different drummer. They’ve (re)turned to a low powered (3 to 18 watts), single-ended triode tube amps driving high sensitivity speakers, an approach that dominated early-Fi in the ’30s and ‘40s. They believe music from such systems flows more naturally and feels more real, regardless of "scientific" arguments that the simple technology can’t match newer electronics in all manner of measurable ways that horn-loaded loudspeakers, which are efficient enough to be driven by such low-powered amps, are hopelessly colored.

I’ve been skeptical. For one thing, I prize transparency (the sense that there’s no system between me and the music) over euphony (the sense that the system is there, making everything sound mellifluous and pretty). Amps with high distortion, even the musical sounding second-order distortion of single-ended tube triodes, probably head in the wrong direction as far as I’m concerned. My limited experience at shows and otherwise suggests that horn-loaded speakers have a disturbing signature (just cup your hands like a megaphone and talk- you’ll hear it) and that low-powered amps sound strained when pushed (making everything sound like a badly recorded brass section overdriving a crescendo). The whole single-ended craze just might, I thought, be an overreaction to high-priced, analytical solid-state gear and, most especially, to the horrors that early digital visited upon music.

Then I did something very dangerous. While visiting my inestimable friend and colleague Fi Editor Jonathan Valin, I abandoned my preconceived notions and just listened to the Avantgarde Acoustic Trio Profile Horn Loudspeakers that J.V. had reviewed most favorably in Vol. 1, Issue 1 of Fi. I heard no horn coloration; I heard no "blatty" distortion; I heard huge dynamics and phenomenal speed; I heard all the things audiophiles usually prize and that some claim these systems cannot provide- a big soundstage, well-placed images, deep intertransient silences, neutrality, low distortion. And I heard Jon on the phone arranging a pair of the Avantgardes for me! Indeed, I was to receive the bigger version of the Trios.

As this article is about amps and Jon has thoroughly described the Avantgardes in his review, I’m not going to spend too many words on the speakers. But some words are needed to provide a context for the amps, as single-ended triode amps must be used with appropriate speakers and, if they’re to be appreciated fully, must be used with appropriate speakers that also happen to be great.

To be appropriate, the speakers must possess two attributes. The first is high sensitivity. The Avantgardes sensitivity is 106 dB/watt/meter! This means that most of the time you’re listening to a good deal less than one watt. So, the high distortion (second-order or otherwise) of a little single-ended amp of roughly ten watts is pretty meaningless. Where I once thought that my Wilson X-1 Grand SLAMMS, with a relatively high sensitivity of 96 dB/W/m, would work well with single-ended triodes, I know now that I wasn’t quite in the ballpark. Single-ended triodes demand coupling to extremely sensitive speakers or their weakness will, methinks, outweigh their virtues.

The other attribute that single-ended triode amps require is simplicity. Even if a speaker is pretty sensitive, it will still stump these little amps if its crossover has lots of parts and complex circuitry (the X-1s again). You don’t want those few watts to be burned away pushing signal into anything but the drivers. From the performance of the Avantgardes I’d guess that the watts get point A to point B with little interference.

Having met the basic single-ended compatibility criteria, the Avantgardes sound great, astonishing in fact, but for one important caveat (the bass). They have almost no horn coloration. They throw a huge, wall-to-wall soundstage. They sculpt well defined images within it. They are detailed, transparent, neutral (even slightly cool, most definitely not overripe). And then you get to the really good part. These are easily the fastest (at least as fast as electrostatics) and most realistically dynamic loudspeakers I’ve ever heard. Their greatness lies not only in their huge dynamic capabilities but in the natural, lifelike speed with which they recreate dynamic gradation. To electrostatic transient speed and detail, the Avantgardes add dynamics. They can shade dynamics as Sinatra can shade a lyric, eliciting the most subtle emotional nuances from music. I can think of no higher praise.

Only the bass below about 100 cycles is a bit problematic. It isn’t handled by the horns but by powered woofers. With care in set-up they work well; the notes are there; they are tonally, spatially, and atmospherically coherent. But there isn’t the same dynamism or speed. You don’t get the same remarkable transfer of sonic energy into the room, the same movement of air, that the horns provide. (As it happens, due to vagaries of schedule and shipping, I may not have been using woofers of Avantgarde’s most recent vintage; it could be they’ve closed the gap a bit- I’m not sure.)

Then some suitable, and mighty fine, electronics came my way. Audio Note provided three single-ended amps- the inexpensive P1SE (a $1,695 pentode, not triode, and not of high enough resolution to make it in this system), the Conqueror (a $2,695 triode using 300B output tubes, which I didn’t have time to try before deadline), and the Baransu (an $89,000- yes, you read that right!- 300B-based design). And Cary Audio Design sent a pair of its 300SE monoblocks, $3,795 per pair and also based on the 300B output tube. This review then, will cover the Cary CAD 300SE and the Audio Note Baransu. Both were auditioned with the Avantgardes and, upstream, my current, familiar references: the Rockport Sirius II Turntable with Transfiguration Temper Cartridge, the Goldmund Mimesis 2 and Klyne System 7 phono stages, the Levinson No 39 CD Player, the Audio Research Reference One Revised line stage, and interconnects from Nordost and Cardas (balanced) and Audio Note (single-ended), as well as Audio Note speaker cables.

Despite the huge price difference, the Carys and the Baransu are similar in two important ways. First, both are based on the 300B triode output tube. While all sorts of exotic tubes are now being employed for the output in single-ended designs, many argue that the 300B remains the best way to go. Sure, it’s low in power, but with speakers as sensitive as the Avantgardes that’s not an issue. Sure, it’s weak in the bottom octaves, but with powered woofers, and horns that are pretty much doing nothing below 100 cycles, that’s irrelevant too. Maybe, as some contend, the 300B is slightly rolled in the extreme highs, but I don’t think I’m hearing any such thing (of course, at age 50 I may not be able to hear any such thing). In between, though, where almost all the music is, based on my experience with push-pull and, now, single-ended amps, the 300B is as good as it gets. Simultaneously capable of harmonic richness and extraordinary detail, delicacy and dynamics, with a simply glorious midrange, this tube is more natural than any other. I believe it’s the key to the greatness that Harry Pearson, Frank Doris, and I, among many, have heard in Valve Amplification Company’s push-pull Renaissance series amps, and that attracted many others tot he sound of single-ended triodes when that "movement" began.

Second, both the Carys and the Baransu use just one 300B per channel, for an output of about 7 to 10.5 watts, depending on which 300B is used. True, that’s very little power; some designs use two 300Bs in parallel and get about twice the power, but they sacrifice some of the purity that this single-ended thing is all about. No, if you’re going to go in this direction, do it this way. All or nothing. Just use speakers that can live happily with the consequences. Like the Avantgardes

Cary sent its amps with a pair of Western Electric 300Bs. The W.E. 300Bs were and are the stuff of audio legend; original production having stopped years ago, they were hideously expensive [ upwards of] a $ 1000 apiece NOS-JV ] if you could find them at all. But their marvelous sound, that combination of dynamics, detail, and harmonic (near) perfection in the midrange, made the cost and effort worthwhile. Now they’re back in production, though still terribly expensive at $800 per matched pair, delivered beautifully packaged in a wooden case, and very special indeed.

As Cary sent no other 300Bs with the CAD-300SE amps (see below for other details regarding the specifications of these very well made, nice looking, utterly reliable, stone quiet, and-what a concept!-easy to carry little monoblocks), I can’t compare the Western Electric 300Bs to others in the Carys. But I can tell you this: for a total cost of $4150 for the amps with the W.E. tubes, and provided that, as with the ultra-high-sensitivity, separately woofed Avantgardes, they are used within their limitations, the 300SE amps are, overall, as good as or better than anything else I’ve heard, solid-state or tube, high powered or low, push-pull or single-ended. The Avantgarde/Cary system produced music in my home that was at once startlingly realistic and breathtakingly beautiful.

And I wasn’t alone in so opining. Everyone who heard the system, from non-audiophiles to very experienced listeners like Fi’s Wayne Garcia and Mike Grellman, was utterly smitten. Within a deep, tall wide (as in wall-to-wall ), highly atmospheric soundstage, images were remarkably well place, solid, and properly-sized. Contrary to my expectations, there was no trace of sluggishness-transients were fast and sharp, decays unsmeared. But a number of amps meet those audio criteria. What set the Carys apart was truthful tonality, dynamic correctness, and, for a music reproduction system, an almost preternatural immediacy.

The tonal accuracy was perhaps least surprising, given the attributes of the 300B, especially from Western Electric, But I had feared that the sound might be overripe and prettified. It wasn’t. From the inner air of tom-toms (try the upcoming Alto Analogue reissue of Shelly Manne’s 234) to the imploratory insistence of ‘Trane’s tenor sax (try the MCA reissue of Cresent, originally, like the Manne album, a great Impulse! Release) to the complex sonority of an orchestra at full cry (Testament’s reissue of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, Previn conducting, on EMI) to the menacing growl of a deep bluesman (Alto’s reissue of John Lee Hooker’s Real Folk Blues, a Chess original) to the amazing range of Sarah Vaughan (The Ellington Songbook, Vol. II on Pablo Today), the sounds of familiar instruments were simply spot on, fully but not overly enriched, disarmingly natural, and tonally "complete."

The dynamic correctness-the ability to place exactly the right emphasis on a sound or phrase and the changes between them-did more to convey the emotional nuances of musical content and performance than I’ve ever heard from a system. If you want to know just how well a great singer can, with the most subtle acceleration or deceleration of a phase or inflection of a single syllable, convey irony, loss, anger, despair, and every other emotion, find an opportunity to hear this system replaying Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (on Capitol, and about as deep as it gets).

Through all these examples, there was a sense of immediacy or "presence" (as Jon Valin has put it, a feeling that the listener is in he presence of real live musicians, rather than an elevation in the upper midrange, or presence, region) that could be spookily realistic. Last Saturday night I almost would have sworn that Keith Richards was in my room playing the introduction to "Love In Vain" (The Stones, Stripped). Whew! Direct to the ear, the brain, and the heart. The Cary CAD 300SE’s delivered exactly the sort of experience that we all crave, that illusion that addicted us to audio in the first place.

So, for a price difference of about $85,000 ( enough to pay for a college education, make the downpayment on a nice house, go around the world in leisurely luxury, or but a Porsche outright with change for gas, insurance, and maintenance!), could the Audio Note Baransu so still more? Well, yes…

With the Western Electronic 300Bs the Baransu had many of the same attributes as the Cary. But the Baransu did reveal a good deal more musically important information. If you need to hear exactly what Jimi Hendrix is doing with his Strat (copious amounts of inner detail), if you demand revelation of every harmonic nuance of Keith Jarret’s chording of grand piano (astonishing complete and truthful tonal color and modulations of harmonic content as music flows), if you just have to hear your uncle, who happens to be the fourth violin in the second section (astounding specificity and focus of images), the Baransu will get you there. But the soundstage will not be as expensive as the Carys’ perhaps because the Barabsu is a stereo amp, unlike the separately power-supplied Cary monoblocks, but also, I suspect, because the greater image specificity, the reduced wooliness, of the Baransu triggers a psychoacoustic perception of a smaller space. And if, like me, you’re not quite a single-ended true believer, you might find the Baransu/Western Electric’s sound overripe in the lower midrange and too likely to excite a bit of megaphonic horn coloration.

But if you just gotta have all that information (and it is truly remarkable to hear so deeply into the details of music and space while still getting completely unbleached, rich, beautiful tonality) there is a way. For the Baransu, you see, sounded better with its complement of Audio Note/VAIC 300b SLs ("SL" denotes "Super Linear") than it did with the Western Electrics. The AN/VAICs got rid of the pan of fudge in the lower midrange, eliminate the megaphonic horn coloration, while preserving unbelievable transient speed, unrivaled dynamic agility and range, and more detail than you might believe is actually locked inside records and CDs.

Following the tube change, my listening experience with the Audio Note Baransu/Avantgarde Trio was, quite simply, the best I’ve ever had. Only you, as a reader-listener can decide, however, if it’s worth $85,000. Should you decide to go that route, you may want to go even further than I, for logistical reasons, was able to go, as Audio Notes products are intended for use (and generally are used) as a single system, from cartridge (see review in this issue) and CD player to preamp to amp, with Audio Note’s wires as well. Big money to be sure, but musical glory as well.

Finally, and speaking still of my personal bottom line, where do I, a devotee of higher tech, higher-powered camp (and amps), now come out on the high sensitivity, horn-loaded speakers and low-powered, single-ended tube triodes? As a reviewer I have to stick with the versatility of the amps that’ll work with most of today’s speakers. And with full range speakers that will reveal, top to bottom, the performance of most amps. Further, I believe that tomorrow’s improvements will be in that area, not the retro-tech dingle ended domain.

Sometimes, though, a dalliance can lead to unexpected depths of involvement. And complicate one’s life. I’m as surprised as you may be with this conclusion, but if I were listening privately, as a music lover, to just one system, based in what’s available today I’d probably keep the weird, big, ugly/gorgeous Avantgarde Trios (Gargantua’s ear trumpets indeed, J.V!) and those little 300B-based single-ended triode tube amps that have none of the usual technical qualifications. Equally adept at the grandest gesture and the tiniest nuance, they provide the most sensually beautiful, sonically natural, spookily realistic, emotionally compelling reproduction of music I’ve ever heard-and they won my heart.

 

This page was updated on: 06 Aug 1998
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