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If you're daft enough to force the issue, Theo will drive a dead short. Because of inadvertently reversed terminal bridges on my Rethm Saadhanas (I had their non-conducting sides facing up rather than down on the connections), I learned the real gumption of this affordable little amp. No sparks, no smoke, no blown fuse, just stubborn uphill struggles against an impossible immovable load. Once I'd realized my potentially fatal error, I powered down aghast and flipped the metal bridges on the combo posts. Heart in hand, other hand in wallet, I powered up again, feeling sick to my wame. Unfazed normal operation. Cowabunga. Blowing up review loaners was so not on the menu. Bloody good show, Theo ol' chap.

With such singular defiance at getting toasted, The Experience One was already punching well above its welter weight class of power and price. Still, to get started, I remained keen on a reasonably priced-matched rig. Well, 'reasonable' as much as an enthusiast invested into exotica can manage. Because my Yamamoto A-08S and Fi 2A3 monos standing by were amps, not quasi integrateds, Raysonic Audio's CD-168 player would control volumes. This smartly eliminated preamp interactions to focus on the power amplification. Theo's pot would be fully opened in bypass. Voila, apples to apples - as much as these things are possible.

For cables, I retired my customary and very expensive Crystal Cable Ultra. In with Sezai Saktanber's Turkish SilverFi leads, Blackbyrd for high level, Pergamon for low. The former's nude gold-plated silver leads at the ends of stiff wooden tips require a bit more care connecting than usual. For sonics though, these very affordable wires are tremendous performers on par with the amp's special status. They demand their own review and will get one in due time. The 8K Rethms? Well, they -- cough -- are three grand less than my Zu Definition Pros. For more affordable hi-eff that will do well on 4 watts, think Omega, Lovecraft/Cain & Cain and such. I could borrow my wife's Druid Credenzas and whip up an ungainly stand scenario. This would demonstrate full-range operation. After all, both the Saadhana and Def Pro sport active bass systems. That's undeniably the smartest way to enjoy micro-power tube amps. Alas, it's less than fully telling of their ultimate mettle (or lack thereof). From what I had available, the Rethms would be the initial soothsayers on Theo's prospects, to be followed by the big Zus, then the baby Druids.

With Theo's pot opened to 15:00 hours, Raysonic's volume display for normal listening levels ranged from 60 to 75 of a possible 99. At those values, there was merely the faintest of tweeter rush on the DX55s, ear on phase plug. With the pot fully opened to 18:00, I got very mild power supply noise right on the driver, i.e. the usual 60Hz + harmonics lower-frequency components. This was inaudible from a few feet away. It was also lower in amplitude than the Yamamoto; and significantly lower than the Fi monos. In short, top gun performance and better than reported in my Saadhana review where the high-gain Supratek preamp weighted the noise issue as became clear here.

Sonically, Theo was last in this group of equals. The differences were less than what you'd expect based on cachet and price. Hence equals. The more massive power supplies of the competition and the full-on mono division of labor with the Fis did however assert their raison d'être. Hence last. The A-08s -- and 2A3 monos even more -- had greater mass and density. The Yamamoto was the most lit up in the treble while simultaneously also the most suave on vocals - energetic, incisive and smooth all at once. The Fi was a bit more brash but with the highest image density and the laterally grandest staging. The Trafomatic was more laid back than either and just a touch warm. It was less metallic on plucked strings, less hard-hitting on percussive transients, a bit softer and more removed overall - really what you'd expect considering the disparities of raw transformer sizes at work.

Granting Theo a 2 to 3dB listening volume handicap, these differences could be marginalized to then mostly operate in the realm of "play something a bit louder and everything else being equal, it'll sound fuller, weightier and more colorful". If cheeky budget hounds retorted to this revelation with "you mean if I played Theo a few clicks higher on the dial, it'd sound essentially like those other world-class amp do a few clicks lower - hell, I can do that and my wallet will be grateful"... well, I couldn't find much practical fault with their reasoning. You'd truly come close, just missing by a few degrees of gravitas while gaining a few clicks of calmness, of that less tensioned, less energetically driven quality on the flip side. And yes, were you to match volumes as the book mandates for fair comparisons, the competitors would simply maintain their lead. No surprises there.

To totally turn tables involves the addition of an active preamp. True, that'll add cost but the Eastern Electric MiniMax would still get you in below what my two dearer amps demand on their own. Trafomatic of course already has their own preamp on the drawing board. It'll presumably be priced to not just match sonically. A follow-up story perhaps for another day?

Relevant for now was this: Starting with its excellent noise performance, Theo's recovery of ambient micro detail kept up with the big boys. Categorically no veiling or obscurations. The direct-heated triode-typical dimensionality, what you might call spatial sculpting, enhanced holography or more audible space, was in less evidence with the Serbian which moved closer to good solid-state. The Yamamoto and Fi are unapologetically, unmistakably triode amps. The Trafomatic integrated is a bit less so. There's less texture, less intense color temperatures. The soundstage is just as open and penetrable. In interstellar terms, you'll see the soundstage a fraction before it has fully beamed up and materialized. It's not as dense and fleshy then. The amp also has slightly lower gain than its compadres. Based on preamp comparisons where gain differed widely, some of these observations could be tied to gain effects on tone, not mere power supply brawn.

In toto, one could think of The Experience One as a Yamamoto Lite - lighter in overall weight, lighter in illumination. Though its treble is brighter, the A-08S' overall lighting is more saturated and thus later in the day than Theo's. Otherwise the amps are really similar in subjective linearity. They both present a thoroughly modern, de-romanticized view on things without patina.

On the Big Greens and now preceded by the hi-gain Supratek to tap into its 6H30 output for the bass leg of the rear arrays, I got the usual mild dose of 60Hz power supply under full throttle. Onward to sonics. Compared to the Lowthers, the heavily modified Eminence/Zu widebanders are more earthy,
thick-blooded and heavy. Where the Lowthers are upwards-bound, sprightly, highly caffeinated and extremely intimate, the Definitions are solidly planted, downward-grounded, muscular, comfortable and huge of scale. If one wanted to tone down these specific speaker differences, one would mate the Rethms to the Yamamoto, the Zus to the Trafomatic. That's it in a nutshell.

Despite its entry-level price, The Experience One is the opposite of sloppy or syrupy. It's just not voiced to emulate Deep Triode. Those valve attributes popularly attributed to SETs by people who've never heard any -- or at least no good ones -- are deliberately missing in action such that I'd not call this machine voiced per se. It seems its designers were after measurable linearity. Fitted with a stiff power supply -- on song without a beep, just a quick bright flash of the small valves, off-line just as quietly without any transient whatever -- this amplifier walks the middle. It reminds me of a FirstWatt amp seasoned with a very wide bandwidth, very transparent tube pre like Wyetech's Jade. The outcome is 2/3rd transistor, 1/3 tube. As such, it's (literally) a cooler operator than Almarro's celebrated 6C33C-based A318B. Compared to my Melody I2A3 integrated, the Trafomatic is faster, more separated out, less massive and dense, with better micro and inferior macro dynamics. The Serbian is more resolved and leaner, the Chinese a bit fuzzier, bigger and ballsier. By now, things seemed nearly a bit too good to be true. Time to abscond with my wife's Baby Druids while I swapped her our bedroom Mark & Daniel Ruby minis for the duration.

On Marta Topferova's Flor Nocturna [WorldVillage/Harmonia Mundi 468062], a gorgeous small-scale outing of vocals, cuatro, double bass, clarinet and violin in an Andean vein, the difference between Zus was surprisingly slight. The scale was reduced due to narrower setup and massively diminished cone area but the upright bass remained virile without missing notes and of surprising presence. To reveal limitations, untoward or plain realistic, I had to go on a more serious search & destroy mission. Inching towards favored ballbusters in the bass, I kicked off with a new medium-duty discovery in that department, Suren Asatryan's Veda | Farewell [Akustik]. It's clarinet-led snake-charming music above drum 'n' bass grooves with didjideroo, sitar and various ambient effects. Granted, I netted no resultant room-lock silliness but even at happy levels, there was truly righteous low-bass coverage sans distress signals. As my respect for the little amp extended downward, I grew more reckless. Time for the heavy artillery. In Coral Bay, this usually means Mercan Dede's Nefes [DoubleMoon] at serious SPLs. A mix of first-rate Turkish acoustic instrumentalists and a master DJ's synth effects, the all-artificial soundscapes are huge and the low-frequency content is quite unnaturally endowed. The Definitions as masters of scale always flabbergast visitors on this album.

Inspiration struck twice. I now switched the Supratek feed to the 6H30s. They are stronger in the bass than the 101D bulbs and have significantly more gain. As mentioned earlier, adding an active preamp to Theo fills out his leaner frame (a stock truism with 'passive' integrateds). Now that the amp had to cover the full bandwidth on truly hard-hitting fare, a simple tube swap transformed the preamp and in turn, the 4-watt Serbian. It sounded like an injection of current into the 2A3 drivers. Everything firmed up just like saluting soldiers puff out their chests, suck in the gut and stand ramrod tall. Checking off Nefes track for track, it was my turn to be flabbergasted. The hideously low stuff below 40 was barely hinted at because these speakers can't do it. Mid and upper bass however had true grip and gumption. I flashed on a German dish called 'Strammer Max' (from the Saxony slang for erection). In Bavaria, it's a fried bread with Leberkäse, fried egg and potato salad. It translates to strapping. Though flying in the face of any number of things, that's exactly what things now sounded like. Strapping!

I next replaced the Supratek with the ModWright LS-36.5. It also runs 6H30s, albeit not goosed by 6SN7s. It thus produces only about half the gain. Things in the drive/oomph department took a small backward step. This perhaps suggested that the real determinator was raw preamp gain even though actual levels attenuated a lot. If this assumption is correct, to truly grasp what The Experience One is capable of requires a high-gain 20dB+ preamp.

Naturally, the allure of a €1,250 integrated amplifier is not to glorify it with an unnecessary extra box. Yet there's Trafomatic's announced transformer coupled preamp. Then enter Theo's deliberately passive 'integrated' nature. Doesn't it appear that its own makers view the subject similarly? Until the stable mate issues, the $1,099 MiniMax with 20dB would seem ideal. Run solo, The Experience One is a very good machine. Its third place behind class leaders like the Yamamoto and Fi monos is more than commensurate with its significantly skinnier sticker. Where things gets silly good and off-the-charts amazing is when preceded by an active preamp. Such a proposition, due to existing volume control and multiple inputs, can be approached in stages. Using the Eastern Electric preamp as model, the combo price should be no more than $3,000, i.e. what the 2-watt Yamamoto demands all by itself. If you're shopping in this micro-power sector and want a zero-feedback SET with real cojones, Trafomatic's maiden product is an unconditional recommendation. It'll do insanely more than wispy lounge singers and chamber music. Add the signal conditioning only active preamps seem to produce and the outcome will even surprise hardcore been-there done-that types, including those prepared to spend more on established players that already have a reputation and plenty of gushing owners on the forums.

Or put it this way: if an amplifier is 80% power supply; and a SET's output transformer another huge factor vital to its performance; having a transformer specialist issue its own amplifier nails it. Too, it makes financial sense. These most expensive parts of any tube amplifier need not be outsourced, performance variables swallowed. They're built and tested in-house. Being in Eastern Europe, there's an additional pricing advantage. Added up, this math truly hunts. The verdict is clear. This is realsization to the letter.

Wrapping up, Trafomatic Audio's Experience One is well put together and attractive without going bonkers and into bunker construction and designer glitz. There are no operational issues. Rather, there's the surprising realization that this circuit is stable driving a dead short. The amp is exceptionally quiet for a NFB single-ended so low-level detail retrieval is high. The standard JJ 2A3-40 is a luxurious, super-robust valve in the KR Audio, Emission Labs vein. To find it included is a shocker in a price class that customarily fits cheap Sino glass. The power supply, output transformers and smoothing chokes seem of similar caliber. This adds up to a very linear, stable machine that sounds a lot more potent than its power rating. No overt voicing is detectable and the sound is like good solid-state black coffee with a dollop of valve cream and very little sugar - transparent, honest, slightly warm, a bit laid-back. This machine goes no extremes of dimensionality, tone color or textures. It's a thoroughly modern and clean take on what a single-ended valve machine should be. Getting shipped in a massive wooden crate merely underscores the seriousness of the design team. Without doubt, this component is a statement about what one should henceforth expect from affordable glass audio regardless of origin.

For the cherry, Trafomatic has even added a second color scheme of gold and black. What more could one ask for?

Thumb nails open in new windows for full size

Trafomatic's new Experience Head One - $720 transformer-coupled headphone amp: two inputs, pre and sub outs - 2 x 6S45P and 1 x EZ80 rectifier.

Quality of packing: Ships in massive wooden crate with full foam lining. Apparently Oops and FedUp proof unless they lose it, spear it with a fork lift or drop it from on high.
Reusability of packing: Good for plenty of extended trips. A seasoned traveller.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: A no-brainer if you can handle a screw driver.
Condition of component received: Good but paint on transformer cans and finish of top plate not 100% flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Included power cord, small valves and rectifier. Would include output valves but since I owned multiple sets already, they were omitted.
Quality of owner's manual: None included but one is said to be under preparation.
Website comments: New, with further updates forthcoming.
Warranty: 1 year on electronics, 60 days on tubes.
Global distribution: Direct, with Canadian and US agents.
Human interactions: Professional and friendly, timely responses to questions.
Pricing: Beyond fair.
Application conditions: Four watts will want 95dB+ speakers or a high-gain preamp. Regardless, higher-impedance speakers with non-reactive bass alignments are preferred.
Final comments & suggestions: An active preamp can improve performance to shockingly good.
Trafomatic website
Trafomatic Audio website