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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: APL HiFi NWO 3.0-GO; Yamamoto YDA-01
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright 36.5DM

Amplifier: Trafomatic Audio Experience Reference monos

Speakers: ASI Tango R
Cables: ASI Liveline interconnects, Crystal Cable Reference power cords, Furutech PowerFlux cords [on review]
Stands: 2 x Ikea Molger, Ikea butcher-block platforms with metal footers
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S, custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option for 120V gear
Sundry accessories: Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro; extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters
Room size: The sound platform is 3 x 4.5m with a 2-story slanted ceiling above; four steps below continue into an 8m long combined open kitchen, dining room and office, an area which widens to 5.2m with a 2.8m ceiling; the sound platform space is open to a 2nd story landing and, via spiral stair case, to a 3rd-floor studio; concrete floor, concrete and brick walls from a converted barn with no parallel walls nor perfect right angles; short-wall setup with speaker backs facing the 8-meter expanse and 2nd-story landing.
Review Component Retail: varies

If there was such a critter as a Chinese audiophile horoscope, 2008 was my Year Of The 300B. I familiarized myself more deeply with this single-ended breed and managed to publish four 300B amp reviews on models by Emillé Labs from South Korea, Trafomatic Audio from Serbia, Woo Audio from the US and Yamamoto Sound Craft from Japan. I also penned side bars on the importance of driver tubes and an overview of current 300B manufacturers which are relevant to all four reviews but originally appeared appended to the Yamamoto review.

Because the Yamamoto A-09S can take from traditional to 'super-charged' modern 300B variants, it became the platform of choice to compare current production 300Bs from EAT, EML (300BXLS and 320BXLS), JJ, Shuguang, TJ and WE. To conclude these investigations, I subsequently performed comparisons between the stock JJs in the Trafomatic monos and two pairs of Western Electrics and Euro Audio Teams. I didn't have other twin pairs on hand to outfit the paralleled Serbian amps for further comparisons.

The upshot for this concluding 300B Redux is simple. All the output triodes sampled fell into two classes and within their classes, into a clear hierarchy of preference.

The vintage/classic group: Sino and US The modern group: Czech and Slovak
from good to best Shuguang 98, Full Music/TJ mesh, Western Electric JJ, Emission Labs 320BXLS, EAT 300B or EML 300BXLS
good traits limpid, liquid, elastic, willowy controlled, dynamic, extended, linear, taut, damped
poor traits limited treble and bass extension, a tendency to the slow, thick and fuzzy particularly when driven from 6SN7s, softer contours a staid stiff-backed demeanor, a tendency for a more transistor-type overdamped sound, potential for occasional glassiness with the JJs
ideal amps Emillé Labs, Woo Audio Trafomatic Audio, Yamamoto
ideal music chamber music, vocals complex symphonic, full-range highly dynamic modern music

While regardless of amp, the performance hierarchy within each class remained constant, from which class to pick the output triode depended mostly on the amp circuit and secondly, on what type of the music one planned on playing most. I'm by now convinced that the 6SN7 is an inferior driver tube for the 300B. It's primarily to blame for the latter's negative reputation. The 6350 used by Emillé seems superior but still not ideal for the modern 300Bs. Those fully came into their own with the ECC99 Sasa Cokic runs. However, the perhaps ultimate driver, from within my small cross section of amps, was the German NOS C3m hi-gain pentode which Shigeki-San champions in the A-09S.

This is how the cookie crumbled. A Western Electric was slightly superior to a TJ mesh-plate which itself was noticeably superior to Shuguang's WE clone. An EAT or EML was slightly or more overtly superior to a JJ depending on amp. But whether a particular amp would sound better with a top pick from the classic or modern group wasn't predictable. It required auditions to establish that one cannot categorically declare one tube class superior to the other.

The 6SN7 seems responsible for the slow and soggy expectations many carry for 300B amps who haven't sampled a broader scope of such designs to know the possible permutations of sound. When a 6SN7 is mated to a classic 300B, one will emphasize the latter's frequency extreme limitations to arrive at a softer, fatter and more midrange-centric sound. If such an amp takes one or two 5U4G rectifiers, the massive Emission Labs variant will inject a goodly dose of wakeful vigilance and control.

Be aware however that due to size, that Czech rectifier nearly predictably won't fit a stock tube cage, thus demands to be played in full view - which is bloody impressive if I may say so.

If you take a 'classically voiced' 300B amp and fit it with a modern 300B, you will shift the dominant harmonic hue from red to yellow or
white gold. Depending on how receptive the circuit is to the extra HF energy, you could either applaud the results for more extended decays and greater charge on triangles, cymbals, on-string action and such or feel that your very deliberate system voicing now veers into a more forward coolish presentation.

If you take a modern amp like the Yamamoto A-09S which was deliberately voiced around the Emission Labs valves, the EML 300BXLS and related EAT will clearly perform best. The Yamamoto is a very dynamic incisive amplifier that marries the speed and fire of a 45 to the bloomier denser tone of a 300B and has the proper driver to get the most from a 'super' triode. Reverting to a classic valve then appears as a setback in dynamics, bass grip, top-end air and separation power.

In the more traditionally voiced Emillé with its 6350 drivers, I preferred the vintage valves of WE and TJ, the latter incidentally the stock complement to underscore the designer's agreement. This is a somewhat gentler, slower and fluffier amplifier positioned closer to vintage ideals while staying clear of overtly voluptuous 6SN7 excesses. The Woo Audio Model 5 too sounds best with classic valves.

How would the interstage transformer coupled, twin tube rectified paralleled Serbian monos settle the bill? As in all other tests, the JJ and EAT proved cut from the same cloth but with the EAT again more suave, the JJ more prone to occasional glassiness. Both tubes again showed more top-end extension that the Western Electric, weightier bass and accelerated dynamics. Alas, because of Sasa Cokic's interstage transformer, his amplifier circuits are even sonically more direct-coupled than capacitor coupled circuits. In conjunction with the more damped mien of the Czechs, this made for a stiffer, more staid presentation that lacked the innate fluidity of the Western Electrics on 'piano + cello' fare to categorize a general genre.

In other words, the EAT (and JJ) veered nearly too deep into transitorized sound with the kind of material that vintage lovers would likely favor. They might question why to bother with a valve amp that stopped sounding like one. For such listeners, the big Trafomatix will sound better with the WE and TJ tubes. Trafomatic's superior
iron and power supply are already unusually in control. This quality handles -- some might feel demands -- an injection of willowy elasticity without compromising its status as a neutral modern valve machine. If you see music like a young tree bending in the wind, that's the essence of the Western Electric. If you see it like a mature tree standing firm amidst violent thunder storms, that's the essence of the Slovaks. If you unleash hell with your musical choices, there's no doubt that the EAT out-hells the Western Electric by a significant margin. The choice is yours.

If the four 300B amps I reviewed this year represented a fair cross section, I'll say categorically that no matter what 300B tube or amp, you'll never approach the treble extension of a properly implemented 6C33S such as Ancient Audio's Single Six monos for example sport. Those amps themselves are just slightly edged out in these treble elucidation matters by my First Watt F5, a truly fantastic transistor amp that maintains tube man's grip on hifi honesty and what's possible.

Part of the 300B allure is its particular harmonic distribution. In the classic sector, there's more emphasis on the lower harmonics. Those are responsible for the 'red-golden' hue of tone. In conjunction with the lack of ultimate top extension, it creates that infamous midrange emphasis.

If the head room of the driver stage is limited, you'll enter a zone of water-color confusion when things get massive and complex. And forget slamming bass altogether. There's just not enough current delivery and the highish output impedances typical for 300B amps won't help either.

And low-level resolution such as becomes vital at subdued listening levels is not of the caliber of the best transistor amps. Until I hear a 300B amp to prove otherwise, that's my verdict, period.

Emillé's fixed bias scheme and always-on meter proved that the EAT and EML 300BXLS are true plug'n'play replacements for classic/normal types. No bias adjustments were required whatsoever. The specifications for the 320B XLS meanwhile suggest a different beast that comes into its own at non-standard settings. Unless your amp was specifically optimized for it, you're better off with the 300BXLS. The 320's distortion specs reduce as the tube is made to work harder but traditional 300B amps won't provide the necessary conditions.

300B sonics in single-ended mode span quite the gamut. While it's impossible to split the percentages between circuit, transformer and driver tube quality unless one cleanly isolated each via elaborate substitutions and combinations (something a good designer ought to do during the R&D phase), the driver tube seems the most overlooked contributor to the recipe. With a wide bandwidth, low-noise, hi-gain and hi-current driver, a 300B will shed most of its ponderous girth and fuzzy demeanor and emerge as surprisingly close to a 45, albeit with a lower harmonic center, less treble sparkle, more robust bass and fleshier textures. Particularly in a circuit optimized for this shift away from traditional (or at least, commonly associated) values, the EAT 300B and Emission Labs 300BXLS are the most advanced. They offer superior control, dynamics and extension in both directions. In a circuit voiced around the Western Electric ideal -- which could also mean Full Music, TJ or Sophia Electric -- the same Slovak qualities may minimize the former's buoyant fluidity to equate more control with greater stiffness.

For those insisting on a winner -- after all, I did review four amplifiers -- Yamamoto's A-09S is my favorite and sounds best with the Emission Labs bottles as recommended by its maker. This amp exemplifies a near perfect merger of classic and modern virtues, meaning it can play hard-driving wide-bandwidth fare without crumbling and still serve the bel canto qualities of an expertly recorded violin or arpeggio piano. However, this 300B redux wasn't about amplifiers but output tubes. I trust the above will serve tube-rolling readers with a general overview of the field and a notion where to begin...

Websites: EAT | Emission Labs | JJ | Shuguang | TJ | Western Electric