This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

This review first appeared in the September 2009 issue of hi-end hifi magazine High Fidelity of Poland. We publish its English translation in a mutual syndication arrangement with publisher Wojciech Pacula. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end shows an e-mail address should you have questions or wish to send feedback. All images contained in this review are the property of High Fidelity. - Ed.

Reviewer: Wojciech Pacula
Review system: Go here
Review component retail: 110,000 zł/pr (ca. €30,000)

Ancient Audio is one of the few Polish audio companies that unquestionable have achieved success. Their success is defined not merely as being considered making the best sound for a given amount—or the best sound in a given category, period—but also success in the amount of units sold. Reviews of its products appeared in the Hi-Fi News print magazine written by Andrew Harrison and in these pages by 6moons' own publisher. That's something which does not happen to Polish hifi very often. A complete Ancient Audio system comprised of the Lektor Grand SE player, today's amplifier and semi-active loudspeakers called Wings which utilize the biggest Raven ribbon is set up in the Californian residence of one John Tu, owner of Kingston Technology (report here) and thus a man able to purchase anything he wants but who is also a musician with good hearing. Hence in Poland and certain areas outside our country, Ancient Audio has become synonymous with the loftiest of the hi-end. But nothing happens by chance. It took owner/designer Jarek Waszczyszyn ten long years to reach this plateau. Educated as an electronics engineer who was specialized in digital transmission and performed research at the AGH University of Science and Technology, he left behind everything and put his career and the well being of his family at stake. And succeed he did. Clearly some things cannot be achieved in a safe, no-risk, semi-committed way that hopes to marry fire and water. Ancient Audio is a symptomatic example filled with the necessary devotion and a clear goal that has finally led them to the very top of current audio.

This company is also special to me because I have followed their pursuits for years and listened to most the interim versions of the amplifier that sprang to life between the Silver 300 and the Silver Grand Mono version 2006 under review today. Constructing his no-compromise power amplifier, Mr. Waszczyszyn from the very beginning made some assumptions which he then developed and modified subsequently. He himself claims that the previous model Silver 300 was built according to the Japanese canon of tube design created in the 1970s:

  • Single-ended topology
  • power triodes
  • no negative feedback loop
  • silver cabling
  • silver transformer windings
  • paper-in-oil capacitors
  • tube rectifiers for high voltages
  • large chokes, small capacitors for the power supplies
  • Black Gate electrolytic capacitors.

Some of those assumptions remain valid for the Silver Grand Monos. The output tubes are 300B triodes working in single-ended (parallel) mode and there is no global negative feedback. But to obtain better sound meant that certain aspects required a rethink since they made the sound worse - tube rectification and oil-filled capacitors. I heard the first change because together with the Krakow Sonic Society, we listened to a version where we could swap the GZ34 tube rectifier for a solid-state rectifier stage. The second version was most certainly better. The tube muddied the sound and warmed it up, not what we were looking for. Once oil capacitors were exchanged for Teflon units, the sound changed again for the better, albeit the oil capacitors unexpectedly returned not in the signal path but as electrolytic capacitor bypasses in the power supply.

A characteristic trait with companies devoted to sound is ongoing development. There is no way of speaking about a definitive final version of anything. It's why the review loaner was the interim version designed in 2006 but made current with certain refinements and tubes chosen by the second architect of its success, Janusz Stopa, also a member of our KSS. Identical to the very best current version, it benefitted from upgrades based on the latest ideas of Mr. Waszczyszyn, an asset of small firms. The company describes the very unit reviewed as follows:

  • two monoblocks with two monophonic power supplies
  • output power : 2 x 18W/4-8Ω
  • directly heated 300B power triodes 300B
  • Parallel single-ended mode
  • no global or local feedback
  • hand-wound output transformers
  • silver secondary windings with Teflon dielectric
  • point-to-point wiring
  • silver ribbon hookup wiring with Teflon dielectric
  • V-Cap TFTF Teflon capacitors with tin foil for the signal path
  • V-Cap OIMP oil capacitors in the power supply
  • full solid-state power supplies
  • 6 power supply transformers
  • 160 000μF heater circuit capacitance for the 300Bs
  • 1000J energy in the high voltage capacitors
  • all voltages stabilized
  • tubes: 4 x 300B, 4 x E88CC
  • bias voltage meter
  • bias current stabilization for power tubes
  • input sensitivity 500 mV
  • noise: - 100 dBA,
  • granite plinth for the monoblocks
To convey the most accurate information, I asked the manufacturer to describe his design in detail which is what follows in its entirety:

"The construction of the Silver Grand Mono completes ten years of Ancient Audio's presence in the market. It is in my opinion also the conclusion of the current art of such designs. The previous Silver 300 model was made according to the canon of tube amplifiers from the 70s in Japan. Those rules perfected by Hiroyasu Kondo stood perfect ground in many hi-end products. However the ongoing improvements in loudspeakers and source components imposed the need of changing some of those assumptions. 20th-century solutions became insufficient for the 21th century. Hence the design of the Silver Grand Mono combines certain canonical solutions with new ones not used before.

"Power supply: The influence of the power supply on the sound of audio devices is commonly known. An ideal power supply should be a voltage source, its impedance for direct and alternating current zero so the voltage does not fluctuate into any DC or AC load. Such a power supply does not exist but we can approximate the ideal. When an amplifier works in class A (as does every single-ended amplifier), the supply current is steady. But this is only true for the mean value. For circuits with inductive elements like chokes or transformers, the amplifier is a current receiver during one cycle, the current source in the next. Hence big impulses affect the current draw from the power supply in magnitude as well as direction. To provide a stable voltage, the power supply must have a very low internal impedance for alternating current. A classic design with a rectifier tube, a big choke and small capacitors provides satisfactory damping of the power current fluctuations yet is at once very sensitive to transient current changes. For those, the impedance of the choke is very high. To reproduce musical dynamics and instrumental attacks, we need exactly the opposite. Experiments with the concept of “large capacitors, solid-state rectifiers, no chokes and active circuits to lower the power supply impedance” were the first step to construct the new Silver monos. Reproduction of dynamics and bass control were a whole league superior than classic valve amplifiers with tube rectification.

"The necessary power supply turned out so large that it had to be transferred to a separate enclosure. In addition, the separation of two monoblocks and two monophonic power supplies minimized mutual interference especially between dissipated magnetic fields. Each power supply has three independent power transformers for the high voltage and heating of the E88CC tubes; heating of the 300B; and amplifier control. All voltages are stabilized. The amplifier has a battery of capacitors which hold a significant amount of energy. The high voltage capacitors for example can hold over 1000 joules of energy. This would be enough to start a gasoline engine or light up a 100-watt light bulb for 10 seconds.

"Output transformer: This is key for every tube amplifier and why the best manufacturers make their own. Ancient Audio has developed a proprietary technique to create windings from silver wire. The 99.99% pure silver wire is prepared in a special laboratory and undergoes a full cycle of heat treatment. This wire is then used to hand wind the secondaries of the output transformers which are made in pairs and after each step tested and measured. A novelty here is the usage of Teflon insulation. This minimizes losses, provides low capacitance and lack of hysteresis. The Silver Grand Mono is the first amplifier to utilize this technology.

"Silver foil: Silver is a very good conductor. It has similar impedance to copper but at low signals conducts current much better. Silver oxide—always present after melting—also is a good conductor. Copper oxide meanwhile acts as semiconductor and the boundary between oxide and copper has rectifying capabilities. This is why at low signals and zero crossings, copper cables cause large signal losses. Remember that high-frequency currents flow on the surface of the conductor (skin effect). To further minimize acoustic signal losses, all connections are made by silver ribbon with a 3mm squared cross section, 20mm width and Teflon dielectric.

"Teflon signal capacitors: The difference between Teflon and other synthetics is noticeable already with small surface areas as in interconnects. However the composite surface of signal capacitor plates is measured in square meters. The quality of the dielectric and plates has a significant influence on the sound. Yet commonly used dielectrics like polyester, polypropylene or paper are nonlinear. Their dielectric constant depends on capacitance, temperature and worst of all, voltage. In addition there is a memory effect. After discharge, the capacitor 'remembers' some of its previous state. The best solution of the available dielectrics besides a vacuum is Teflon. Unfortunately the low dielectric constant, high costs and technological difficulties limit its usage. Mass production of parts incorporating it started just five years ago and only a few companies offer them. The best currently manufactured capacitors are the V-caps by Chris VenHaus. They have tin foil plates which better the commonly used aluminum-dusted versions.

"Fast electrolytic capacitors: Electrolytic capacitors are a necessary evil. In places where large capacitance is needed, they have to be used but must be as good as it gets. Black Gate capacitors were the standard due to their low impedance. But after 30 years of production, they were pushed out of the market by modern equivalents designed to work in switching power supplies. Switching power supplies impose very high requirements via high currents, low intrinsic inductance, low impedance, high operating temperatures and high frequencies. Modern power supplies work in the megahertz range. This allows them to be smaller, with better parameters and higher durability. This is the reason behind the development of modern passive parts and the quick development of their technology. The capacitors used inside the Silver Grand Mono amplifier benefit from these advances. The battery of capacitors in the heater circuit has an impedance in the mΩ range over the entire audible range.

"Tubes: The voltage tubes are E88CCs from old Philips, Telefunken, Valvo and Siemens stock still available in quantity. They work with low current to last for 10000 hours or more. The 300B power triode designed by Western Electric is the most commonly used in hi-end SET amplifiers. Due to high linearity, it is able to work without any negative feedback global or local. The demand for those tubes was so great that the manufacturer decided to restart production after 50 year but here too progress was achieved.

The Taiwanese company TJ designed a version with a mesh anode. Those were splendid tubes although research into optimal construction and materials continued. Two years ago, TJ created 300B tubes with a graphite anode. Graphite has large heat inertia and dissipates well. Those are the best currently available 300Bs. Their durability is around 3000 working hours.

"Anode current meter: Each 300B tube is different and why the tubes are prepared in pairs. But during transport sometimes, the mesh slightly deforms. That's why the amplifier is equipped with a bias current meter. This meter consists of a row of ten LEDs. Each LED represents 25mA of anode current. The nominal current for two tubes is 150mA or six lit LEDs. Higher current can be harmful to the tubes and that's why the LEDs indicating it are bigger. The 2006 edition of the Grand had automatic bias so no adjustments were needed. This solution increased the safety and durability of the amplifier.

"Mechanical construction: The Silver Grand Mono is mounted on a granite plinth. The 2006 version uses three granite elements separated by a soft vibration-absorbing material in a sandwich construction. This makes for a splendid base that is heavy, rigid and damped. The audio parts are mounted directly to this chassis and all connections are point-to-point with silver foil." - Jarek Waszczyszyn