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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear; Raysonic CD128 [on extended loan]
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio Passive Magnetic; Bel Canto Design PRe3; Wyetech Labs Jade; Supratek Cabernet Dual [on loan from owner]

EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Bel Canto e.One S300; Eastern Electric M-520
Headphones: AKG K-1000 w. hardwired Stefan AudioArt harness; audio-technica W-1000
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro in custom lacquer; Anthony Gallo Acoustics Ref 3.1

Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial, Gede, Libtech and Ibis; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; double cryo'd Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer; Crystal Cable Ultra loom [on extended loan]
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular five-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Extreme SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room

Review Component Retail: $2,999

For many years now, Melody-Europe has been the Lyon-based French portal for Australian/Chinese manufacturer Melody Valve Hifi Pty and its EU customers. Meanwhile the only opportunity for Americans to acquire Melody products on their own turf -- mail-order trafficking in 240V grey market products excepted -- have been a few rebranded machines. Those are the Onix SP-3 and H6550 integrateds through; and the Genesis M60 monos and I60 integrated very favorably reviewed in these very pages.

Mingus Chu to the rescue. Based out of Torrance, California and with a second office in Tennessee, his new Melody Hifi LLC has not only become Melody's formal US branch but also the exclusive source for specific models. These new pieces are distinguished visually by their tapered fascia bevel and added XLR socketry over the usual RCAs. They also sport purported circuit refinements and tweaked performance wherever previous platforms existed. The new P1688 preamp for instance looks very similar to the famous SWH1688II. Its circuit is said to be improved and different, however.

What remains Melody as we already know it are uncompromised build quality and the "dripping-wet" Piano gloss lacquers that are a photographer's true
nightmare and high-gauss fingerprint magnets. Cynics will counter that the model changes are nothing but profit protection against grey marketeers. Yet one look at Mr. Chu's pricing (which includes dealer margins for proper in-store representation) disabuses one of any such notions about price gauging and its concomitant need for price fixing. The kind of protection Mr. Chu wants for his dealers and customers begins with the letter 'S'. Service and Support. He offers 1-year product warranties (90 days on tubes) and 30-day return privileges if purchases were made directly through his office because a local dealer wasn't available yet (only two so far).

A legitimate dealer network can only be established if dealers aren't forced to compete against back door deals directly from China (and if an importer's earnest promises to his dealers aren't being undermined by his own supplier). With his own models, Mr. Chu enjoys exclusive agency. "I can't control the grey market, Melody has to" is all he added. Choosing to segue into today's review with this commentary is warranted by the uncontrolled influx of Chinese audio goods into Western markets. This hasn't yet stabilized sufficiently to allow us to catch up and learn who the quality players really are. Reviewers and consumers alike wear blinders. We can't determine who is building what for whom. Many apparently unique brands are merely repackaged jobs. They have multiple 'exclusive' agents competing unwittingly, each believing to represent original goods. Service calls are often the first occasion to separate the credible outfits from the shady operators. As an owner in need of service, that's
when you could find yourself in a pickle. It's exactly the reason why magazines feel compelled to include boiler plate warnings and to do as much prior due diligence as possible when reviewing such products.

With Melody, Gary Koh -- CEO of Genesis -- has done our home work for us. He travelled to China repeatedly before deciding to collaborate with Melody over all the other competing makers of valve equipment in China or Taiwan. My rationale then is simple. If Melody was legit enough for UltraFi brand Genesis to work with and lend its name to, it'd be credible enough for our readers once proper US representation for Melody had been formally established. Which it now has. Finally. End of small print, on with this evolving story.

Mingus Chu's present lineup includes a mix of preexisting and new models. The former sport the flat face plate and an absence of XLR connectors. They include the H300B, H88-II, H34-II and SP7 integrateds and the S88 monos. Pricing for those spans $1,168 to
$3,478/pr. The new models are the P1688 preamplifier at $3,488; the I-Series integrateds (single-ended 300Bs; push/pull 2A3s and KT88s) and the M-Series monos (2A3s in push/pull, 300Bs as SET). Nothing exceeds $4,000, three models fall below $2,000. This identifies Melody as a value-conscious brand and Mr. Chu's commitment to keep it that way whilst shouldering the very real costs of bringing the product to US shores and establishing distribution and service centers for it there.

While contemplating which model to review, I honed in on the I2A3. I'm terribly smitten by the direct-heated 45 especially in solid-plate Emission Labs guise. Having recently enjoyed an extended opportunity to compare a push/pull 300B amp against a 300B SET from the same maker, I unconditionally and quite unexpectedly preferred the push/pull circuit. This has me curious to hear a 45-based push/pull amp. After all, my reference amp is a 45 SET with the associated 2-watt power limit. Today's Melody piece is an unexpected opportunity to satisfy that curiosity. 2A3s are closely related to the 45 triode. In fact, they can be drop-in replacements even though most circuits then won't be truly optimized for one of the two types. Rather than requesting Mingus' Melody M2A3 monos at $3,478/pr, I opted for the integrated version. This would keep retail pricing closer to where a larger number of audiophiles could afford getting involved (rather than just reading about expensive toys for amusement or frustration as it were). Add something like the $1,699 Raysonic CD128 and a pair of Reference 3As and you'd have yourself a top-notch system. If the I2A3 proved up to snuff. Based on prior Melody-built encounters including the overachieving SP-3 marketed by Mark Schifter's Onix division, I didn't think this would be an unreasonable expectation. To document the visible changes between the preexisting Melody H2A platform and Mingus Chu's present I2A3, simply consider the following images.
While 2A3 push/pull integrateds for a useful 18 watts of Class A/B output power are quite the rarity, finding one with a 101D preamplifier section is rarer still. Having made this tube's prior acquaintance with Melody's SWH1688II and of late the genre-defying Supratek Cabernet Dual, this valve's presence center deck on the new I2A3 proved further enticement over its monaural power amp brethren. Those naturally eschew it to retain only the 6SN7 drivers and phase splitters. The integrated is a zero NFB design with an input sensitivity of 480mV and a claimed S/N ratio of 90dB. One of its five inputs is balanced and 4/8-ohm transformer taps are standard. Dimensions are 16.9" x 8" x 15.4" WxHxD and weight is a substantial 61.7 lbs, testament to parts density, chassis metal thickness and transformer size. A banana-fitted tube cage with horizontal slots in matching gloss black is standard outfit but most owners will probably prefer their exotic valve display au naturel.

Though unusually reticent to divulge detailed information about himself, his company or his products, I did manage to learn the following from Shi He Wang, Melody's owner: "Melody was established in 1987. The company changed its name and registered as Melody Valve Hi Fi in Melbourne, Australia in 1999. Production was initially performed in Australia. But in order to reduce UMC (Unit Manufacturing Cost), Melody moved its manufacturing facilities to Shen Zhen, China in 2000.

In 2001, Melody launched the 1688 preamplifier and received numerous awards including Product of the Year from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. The Melody brand name has thus become a popular brand and its products have been well received as selections of choice in south Asian countries.

The company founder and chief engineer Shi He Wang is a seasoned engineer and audiophile as well as an entrepreneur. He understands the stability and noise issues in the traditional design of tube gear. Mr. Wang overcame the problems by design changes and by using constant current sources, 101D tubes and high performance transformers to reduce operational noise level to nearly inaudible levels.

In order to improve the sound quality, audiophile-grade components such as Jensen paper-in-oil capacitors, Japanese-made and treated silicon steel transformer cores, 101D tubes etc are specially selected and designed into the products. This provides sweeter and warmer sound with an airy ambience.

You will find that the 6SN7 and 101D tubes are the main tubes used in Melody products. 6SN7s are for preamplification and 101Ds for voltage stabilization to maintain a stable DC supply. It is a different design philosophy to tube gear made by other companies. The cost of the 101D is higher than comparable tubes but it provides better voltage stabilization and better sound."
And we'll hasten to add, it's one handsome bugger too.

Visually pleasing as well is the yellow power LED which meshes far more harmoniously with the natural thermionic glow than the near ubiquitous blue elsewhere. For parts aficionados, a total of eight Jensen PIO capacitors will make for heady bragging rights.

Two banks of many paralleled smaller capacitors and one rather large cap mounted horizontally are some other attractions under the hood.

Bias trim is performed on the cheeks of the machine, with positive and negative access terminals for a volt meter readily accessible but essentially invisible by having been moved off the top deck to avoid visual mars.

Superior craftsmanship of assembly should be self-evident from the photos. Situating the silkscreened company name in front of the 101D rather than on the fascia is further evidence that Melody's designer is cosmetically conscious and fond of keeping appearances simple rather than ostentatious.

The attenuator is of the stepped resistor-ladder type, here completely sealed off inside its own block. At idle and after a few hours, the central power transformer gets warm to the touch while the output transformers remain remarkably cool, the latter likely evidence of Class A/B operation.

The only feature conspicuously absent for a company producing perfectly matching 2A3 monoblocks are pre-out sockets for biamping or subwoofer duties. Imagine the possibilities. There's no remote either. Yet that's nearly expected for a machine attempting sonic distinction in the financially sane realms. This machine weighs in massively butch and is conceptually bold. Would sonics follow suit?