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Reviewer: Michael Lavorgna
Analog: Rega P3, Denon DL-103 cartridge, Auditorium 23 moving coil step up, Fi Yph phono stage
Digital: Audio Aero Capitole MKII
Preamp: Déjà Vu Audio, Tektron TK6J5 [on review]
Amp: Fi 45 Prototype, Fi X, Fi 421A, Minute, Tektron TK2A3/50S [on review]
Integrated Amp: Tektron TK2A3/50S-I [on review], Audio Tropic Musical Machine [in for review]
Speakers: Cain & Cain Abby (Normal) and Cain & Cain Bailey, Tonian Acoustics TL-R2 Super Tweeter, DeVore Fidelity Super 8, Lamhorn 1.8 with AER MKI drivers [in for review]
Cables: PHY interconnects, Shindo interconnects, Auditorium 23 Speaker Cable, JPS Labs Digital AC Power Cable, Audience PowerChord, ESP Essence Power Cord, and Z-Cable Heavy Thunder V2 on the Blue Circle MR
Stands: pARTicular Basis Rack
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle Music Ring MR800
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks Series II under AA Capitole, Yamamoto Sound Craft PB-10 Ebony Bases under Abbys and Bailey, PS Audio Ultimate Outlets, and AudioPrism Quiet Lines. Room damping provided by lots of books.
Room size: 13' w x 14' d x 9' h
Review component retail: Tektron TK2A3/50S $1,800 | TK6J5 $1,500 | TK2A3/50S-I $2,050
"It slices, it dices, it makes julienne fries!"
Veg-O-Matic: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to show you the greatest kitchen appliance ever made, all your onions chopped to perfection without shedding a single tear."
Dial-O-Matic: "Slice a tomato so thin, it only has one side."
Popeil Pocket Fisherman: "The biggest fishing invention since the hook - and still only $19.95!"
Showtime Rotisserie and Barbecue: "Set it and forget it!"
While Ron Popeil does not have a hand in Tektron, perhaps he should. Perhaps that's what this industry needs. A good, clean and fun kick in the pants with an oversized shoe. Some carny. Some showbiz. Some pizzazz.
Tektron has been around for over 15 years getting its start restoring and repairing antique radios. In Italy. Alas, my factory tour request has been stalled by someone in the 6moons international corporate travel division. Apparently since I've already visited the US Importer Robyatt Audio in showcase destination New Jersey, "I've got it covered". "Request denied" with that big red stamp. If you visit the Tektron website -- the next best thing to being there -- you'll see that Tektron is still involved in antique radio restoration and sales. Then add today's line of tube gear which has already been around for 10 years; the sale of new and NOS tubes; vintage HiFi components; and various parts including their own hand-wound transformers. Tektron also has a hand in a line of tube-friendly loudspeakers produced by Max Research, also of Italy. The designer behind Tektron is Attillio Caccamo who, together with a partner, does all assembly and testing of Tektron's own line of hand-wired amplifiers and preamps.
|I can recall coming across the Tektron website some years ago in one of those meandering late-night web tours. And I thought, "huh? An amp that will play 2A3s, 45s, 50s, 300Bs and VT-52s? Must be compromised. Must be some sort of Popeil-esque kitch pitch. I suppose it slices and dices too." Self-righteous smirk. Off to greener pastures. Well, here I sit in NJ now with the Tektron tube-O-matics - the stereo amp, preamp and integrated. The only ones not present in the full lineup are the monos. And I can tell you, there's no compromise in the sound coming out of these Italian wonders.
But first things first. How do they do it? How do they allow for all these tubes with their different operating points to be used in the same amp? Through the same transformers? The short story is that the Tektron amp and integrated employ a 3-way switch that changes the filament voltage of the output transformers to match the operating points of the various tubes. Position A is 2.5V, B is 5V and C is 7.5V. You will see that this is not a cheap pot. It stands up to wear. On the basic operational side, this switch is located next to the power transformer to dial in the proper setting for the tubes in use. You should do this while the amp is powered off. A is for 2A3s and 45s. B is for 300Bs and the Sophia SET Princess. C is for cauliflower. No wait, C is for "others" like the 50s and VT-52s. There are two hum pots located behind the output tubes (and yes, I did feel the glow twiddling with them but with a little care, you can adjust without touching the tubes). Around back of the TK2A3/50S, there are some nice brass binding posts and the IEC and fuse. Up front sits the power switch, a blue LED status indicator and the Tektron logo on a brass plate. Rectifiers submitted were NOS National and Majestic 80s, driver tubes NOS 6SN7s.
The chassis of the review amp and preamp were done up in matching light oak with copper top plates, all bell caps and screw heads matte black. Overall, very nice understated designs. Corners are rounded over smoothly and the overall fit'n'finish speaks of quality. The amp measures 16 ½" W x 11" D x 7" H to the top of the trannies and weighs 30 lbs. The preamp is on the smaller side, 12 ½" W x 9" D x 6" H. The preamp uses a pair of 6J5s and a GZ32 rectifier. The review sample came with a pair of NOS CV-1932s.
|The integrated matches the amp in size but as submitted, carried a different finish - Olive wood with burnished copper. And to my eyes, she's the looker of the bunch. Eh, bella. The preamp and integrated use a similar input selector marked A, B and C. So we have three inputs and two outputs, one variable, one fixed. These are single-ended so you'll only find RCAs around the back. The input selector and volume, of the dual-mono variety, are plain black knobs in keeping with the black/wood/copper scheme. Again we have a blue status LED and Tektron brass logo on the fascia of the integrated amp and the same binding posts as used on the amp around back.
Robin Wyatt is the US Importer for Tektron. I asked Robin how this came about. "They were selling an amp on eBay. I bought it, loved it and asked if I could be their US agent." End of story. Robin Wyatt is known -- infamous even -- for hot swapping tubes during shows. Jim Bosha from HE2004: "And apart from the downright fun, boardwalk-style showmanship..." And Paul Candy: "Robin W. terrified not a few visitors when he swapped out various output tubes on the Tektron 2A3/50SI integrated while the amp was under signal!" Showmanship aside, Robin Wyatt has an extensive collection of NOS tubes and audio gear plus an impressive knack for system building that I've experienced first-hand.
La Dolce Vita
Ciao. Have you been to Italy? Hung out on a piazza of some hill town that hasn't changed much in a few hundred years? Had some cellar-chilled, label-less red wine turn your tongue black in an outdoor restaurant under the stars of Umbria after spending the day visiting the frescoes of Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco? "Don't sweat the details" may be an appropriate T-shirt phrase to fit a certain personality style. For those of you who are already sweating over the various operating points, running a 2A3 at 2.5V or heaven forbid a 45, you've built up antibodies that I'm not even going to try to temper. Have it your way. Live and let live. For those of you with a triode stash or a nearly unquenchable thirst for variety, Tektron may have your salve. Or salvation.
I had the opportunity to try the following Full Music tubes generously provided by Sean Ta at AYDN: mesh-plate 2A3s, 45s, 300Bs and 50s. Robin Wyatt sent over NOS Cunningham balloon CX-345s, Cunningham ST-50s, Cunningham balloon 50s, Sophia 300B 2.5Vs (used on position A) and Sophia SET Princess tubes (position B). I also gave my EML solid-plate 45s a spin along with some NOS RCA balloon 345s and Sovtek 2A3s.
Please cut and paste all this valve info into the integrated amp as well. I tried the same bevy (or is it gaggle?) of tubes in the integrated as I did in the amp. With one big but. The integrated uses a 6SN7 driver as opposed to the 6SL7s in the separate preamp. Stay tuned for listening impressions but anyone who keeps tabs on these things knows I have a soft spot for the 6SN7. The review integrated came with a pair of NOS CV-181s.
Power output will vary in both amps depending on your tube choice, from a low 1.8W with 45s to 5.5W with 300Bs. You may be wondering if our site's customary 3-month review turnaround policy was enough to really get to all these different tubes in two different amplifiers. After all, switching between a 45, 50 and 300B is really like hearing 3 different machines. How can I be sure which tube is best without clocking far more time? To get to the heart of the matter, you don't have to decide if you own a Tektron. You can wallow. You can revel in uncertainty. Swap and switch 'til the cows come home. But you already knew that. I just thought I'd bring it up again. It's tektronically worth repeating.
Before digging into the various sounds from Mr. tube-O-matic, I'll touch on what doesn't change in the TK2A3/50S and S-I. With the exception of the Full Music 50s, I was able to eliminate hum to barley audible by simply adjusting those pots. This includes the NOS 50s so I have to assume there was an issue with this particular pair of Full Musics. Operating the amps and dealing with the ABCs was no problem and the A-is-for-apple approach worked fine for me. I admit I wrote down "Sophia SET Princess = B" because it didn't occur to me until writing that I simply could have said "B is for Beauty". We all know princesses are beautiful. On the preamp and integrated front, I found the dual-mono volume control useful since my listening room does not have equal corners behind the speakers. On the left side, there's a 1-ft wall, then an opening. The other side is all wall so having the ability to slightly vary the volume balance was welcome.
It's also worth noting that I played the Tektrons through my Cain & Cain Abbys and a review pair of Lamhorns. Without getting to giving things away, I find the >100dB Lamhorns to be extremely revealing and nearly surgical in their precision and ability to flag any flack coming downstream at 'em. The Tektrons also went head-to-head with a slew of amps (I suppose I've become an amp collector) including the Fi 45; a newly acquired Fi 421A (an early AM Audiogon find - still stunned at that bit of luck); the Fi X; the EL 84-based SAC Thailand Minute; a loaner pair of parallel 2A3 monoblocks; and a loaner EL34 P/P integrated. I just thought I should mention how much fun this really is, not to gloat but to counter all the pain and suffering you can read about on the pages of posts on the Audio Asylum related to listening to music on a HiFi. I don't know about you but I've had my fill of all the angst and anger associated with this hobby, all the infighting of opinions masquerading as fact. My toy train is better than yours. If you measure that thing too much, you'll go blind.
Captain Obvious sez, the sound of the Tektron changes depending on the tube you use. When approaching this review, I had a bit of dilemma. After all, I couldn't very well compare the tube-O-matics directly to each competitor. I don't own a dedicated 300B amp or a 50, VT-52 amp or anything that can even play the Sophia SET Princess tube. So let me dispense with the direct comparisons early on and say the Tektron -- both the amp/pre combo and the integrated -- are not as resolving nor ultimately as musical as the Fi 45 when using 45s (and the Fi of course is optimized for only the 45 so that makes sense). I still feel that the 45 is one of the best all-around tubes - rich (and I mean rich like dark chocolate), detailed with strong yet controlled bass and extended airy highs. And to keep things straight, I'll talk about the Tektron amp/pre separates first as we enter the listening portion of our program.