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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Vinyl: Garrard 301 with Cain & Cain maple & walnut plinth, Denon 103 phono cartridge, Miyabi 47 MC phono cartridge [in for review], Miyabi Standard MC phono cartridge [in for review], Origin Live Silver Mk 1 tonearm [on loan from Origin Live for the Garrard Project thanks guys!], Origin Live Silver Mk 2 tonearm [in for review], SME 3012 vintage tonearm [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports thanks Jonathan!], Pete Riggle Audio VTAF (Vertical Tracking Angle on the Fly), Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer for Denon 103, [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports], Tom Evans Audio Design Groove Plus phono stage [in for review], Fi Yph phono stage, Manley Steelhead Version 2 phono stage [subject of this review], The Cartridge Man Isolator [in for review]
FM source: Vintage early 1960s Scott 370 FM vacuum tube tuner supported by Yamamoto ebony audio bases from Venus HiFi, Magnum Dynalab ST-2 vertical omnidirectional FM antenna
Digital sources: Meridian 508.20 CD player used as a transport with the Audio Logic 2400 vacuum tube DAC crunching numbers, Superscope PSD340 Music Practice Tool & CD recording system
Preamplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Lithos 7 Vibe with optional Pulse power supply
Integrated amplifiers: Almarro A205A EL84 SEP; Almarro A205A Mk2 [in for review] Sonic Impact Class T; Sonic Impact Super T
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 single-ended triode monoblocks; Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A power amplifier
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.1, Omega Super 3 & matching Skylan Stands
Cables: 47 Laboratory OTA cable kit interconnects between DAC and preamplifier, Nirvana S-L interconnects between preamplifier and amplifiers, 47 Laboratory OTA speaker cables between amplifiers and speakers; 47 Laboratory OTA wiring harness to connect the Duos midrange and tweeter horns and woofer module, Nirvana Transmission Digital Interface [on loan]; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable; 47 Laboratory OTA digital interconnect; Auditorium 23 speaker cable [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports]
Stands: McKinnon Bellevue Symphony media cabinet in walnut, Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Billy Bags 2-shelf rack
Power line conditioning: none
Room size: 20' L x 17' W x 17' H
Review component retail: $800
It's been almost exactly 2 years since I previewed and then reviewed the original version of the Almarro A205A EL84 single-ended-pentode (SEP) integrated amplifier here at the moons back in 2004. For those who didn't catch my scribblings back then, the original Almarro A205A was a nicely crafted, attractive, minimalist integrated amplifier with one pair of RCA inputs and a passive volume control to attenuate the output of its simple circuit comprised of an ECC83 (12AX7) twin triode feeding a single EL84 (6BQ5) per channel used in pentode mode A1 for a whopping ca. 5 watts output. Five watts of output isn't much by almost anyone's standard but it did drive my 103dB sensitive Avantgarde Duo 2.1s and 93dB sensitive Omega Super 3s to levels easily louder than I care to listen at.
That was my first brush with an EL84 valve amp. I was impressed by how well the little Almarro worked with my Avantgarde Duo and Omega Super 3 loudspeakers. In my opinion, it could very nearly go toe-to-toe with some of the best direct-heated single-ended-triode (SET) amplifiers, like my own reference Fi 2A3 monoblocks and the 45 Yamamoto A08 I had in for review. That is high praise indeed. All three of those amplifiers sounded very good but they were also very different from each other. I think you could prefer any one of them over the other and it would largely depend on your taste, the other components in your system and the thickness of your wallet.
The big story with the Almarro was that for a measly $800, you could buy a minimalist single-ended amplification system (no preamplifier required) that played music with the big boys. All you needed for a complete HiFi system was a pair of copasetic speakers, some connecting wires (think 47 Laboratory Cable Kit) and a source to go with it for a really top notch rig. That original Almarro A205A was just a wee bit on the dark side (which I still love about it). Yet it also possessed a sweet inner fire that infused the music with an intensity of musical color and the spark of emotive communication that made it an instant hit with me - and before long, a hit with many others in the audio underground. If you can imagine late night listening sessions in that underground with the Almarro driving Altec 604s in a 10 cubic foot cabinet, a Garrard 301 spinning vinyl and perhaps a homebrew, George Wright or Fi Yph phono stage with a step-up tranny crafted from vintage microphone transformers... well, you've got the right image - musical bliss by the dim light of EL84s. It really doesn't get much better than that musically, regardless of how much you spend on your audio rig.
|2A3 and 45 valves are highly regarded in SET circles and for good reason: They sound great and play music wonderfully well. However, the EL84 valve was not on anyone's high-performance HiFi radar I knew of at the time. And it's not even a directly heated triode. It's a lowly pentode! When I started doing a little research for this article, I found that the EL84 valve has quite an interesting history. It was originally designed for inexpensive radio applications by Phillips BV in Holland, then became popular in audio circuits in the 1950s because it could be easily driven in simple and inexpensive circuits, perfect for the low-cost high-performance consumer market of that time. Then H.J. Leak & Co. in 1958 introduced the now legendary Leak Stereo 20 amplifier that used two EL84 valves per channel to produce about 10wpc RMS.
|It's not just radio and budget HiFi nuts who know about the magic the humble EL84 valve is capable of. Thanks to the design work of Dick Denney (Jennings Co.) who in the late fifties used the EL84 in his guitar amplifier designs, the EL84 was introduced to musicians. A special note sounded in music history as the Vox AC30 30-watt guitar amp was introduced. Its warmth and sparkling 3-D sound has charmed musicians for over forty years now. Musical innovators like the Beatles, Stones, Bryan Adams, Brian May and many others loved the sound of the EL84-based Vox AC30 guitar amplifier, making it one of the most recorded guitar amps in Rock & Roll history. Even today, the Vox AC30 continues to attract admiring musicians and keeps growing in popularity after four decades.
|An interesting EL84 trivia note: The EL84 isn't just popular as a music valve in rock guitar circles but also powered the signature sound of an equally legendary musical institution: the Hammond B3 organ which was (and still is) a fixture in rock, blues, country and gospel groups across the USA. Nearly every small Baptist and Pentecostal church had a B3 organ (or the C3 church version with a slightly different cabinet) pumping out the notes to inspire generations of church and not so churchy musicians like Elvis and groups as diverse as Keith Emerson, Jimmy Smith, Hall & Oates, the Allman Brothers, Joey DeFrancesco, Jim Hall, John Scofield, Lou Donaldson, the Black Crowes, Bryan Adams and Eric Clapton. The famous 1950s Hammond B3 organ used as its musical heart an amplifier with six EL84 valves. Those produced roughly 45 watts that were used to fine effect to get a musical mojo rockin' for appreciative audiences from coast to coast. Heard a great recording with a Hammond B3? It was an EL84 amplifier bringing its organ vibe to pulsating life.
|It seems intuitive that a valve that can make live music come to life as successfully as the EL84 ought to be able to reproduce music through a HiFi rig with equal success. Don't you think? In fact, that turns out to be just the case. In the case of the Almarro A205A, audio designer Yoshihiro-san really got back to the roots of both audio and musical design for the audio everyman by using the EL84 valve in a simple and well executed circuit, with a single 12AX7 as an input/driver for the single pentode EL84 in each channel and a touch of global negative feedback to give 4.8 watts of romping musical thrust to get your musical mojo swingin'. Word has gotten out pretty well about what a great little amplifier the Almarro A205A is. In fact, it has achieved a certain underground status as a musical giant killer for those on a budget (or even not as the case may be). I had an anesthesiologist write to me and say "Burn me at the stake o anointed audiofool but I think the EL84 kicks the snot out of both 2A3 and 300B. Not the 45 but definitely the other two." No foolin'. I couldn't agree more. When the doc gets a chance to listen to the EL84-based TEAD Linear A, he'll add the 45 to his list. I did. I know, it sounds like heresy. But just give the A a listen and decide for yourself.
|Reports from the field
Reports from the field have suggested that the A205A responds well to valve rolling. For those slightly more adventuresome yet, there are also some easy mods that reportedly really perk up the little A205A. For example, Yoshihiro-san says that the C1 capacitor can be changed to a different type or value, affecting the character of the sound and the overall frequency response. Or with a simple modification, you can change the pentode circuit to run in triode.
Yoshihiro-san says that "the value of C1 affects the bass response frequency and its sound quality. The value of the C1 capacitor can be varied from 0.01uF to 0.1uF. The C1 value for the stock unit is 0.047uF (630V). By substituting PIO (paper in oil) or Teflon capacitors, you can tailor the sound to your preference. We have found that the value of the capacitor tends to have more of an effect than the type used. Smaller value capacitors tend to make the bass response lighter and more polite, higher values the opposite. The A205A has coils (L1) that affect the high frequency extension by making it roll off around 14 kHz. If you remove the L1 coils, the A205A won't roll off until 20 kHz. The L1 coils are used with some of the older full-range speakers in mind, to cancel their driver resonance which occurs at around 15kHz. For more recent drivers, this L1 coil is not needed. The Bakelite sockets are Japanese SMK issue with a long history and good reliability. The customer may order ceramic sockets as an option."
|For those who would like to get a little solder slinging experience without starting from scratch, the A205A could be just the ticket to getting your feet wet without getting in over your head. I might even give it a try myself and report back. If a humble ham-fisted audio writer can do it with almost no experience at soldering, there's a pretty good chance you could, too. Stay tuned.
On the valve rolling front, there are quite a few brands of new or new-old-stock (NOS) EL84s and 12AX7s on the market and at relatively reasonable prices. You can even get various cryo'd valves that are at the cutting edge of valve musical performance. Part of Yoshihiro-san's design goals for the A205A was to make it easy to use and easy to enjoy. With the A205A's great sound and music-making ability, the easy and inexpensive valve rolling options and its easy to mod nature, Yoshihiro-san has accomplished that goal magnificently! My A205A has now been in nearly daily service since 2004 with a perfect reliability record. I haven't even changed a tube - at least until this review. I still love it as much as I did when I first heard it too so it wears well over time.