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Quickly skimming through the specs of the amp reveals single-ended and thus class A operation employing EL34/KT88/6550 power tubes and 12AX7 input/drivers delivering an 8Ω output of 10wpc.

Tube bias is automatically adjusted but rolling between EL34 and KT88 requires a flick of the switch on the left side. The toggle switch on the other side takes care of NFB (4dB/none). The rest of the figures:

Frequency response 20Hz ~ 40kHz (± 1dB)
S/N ratio 90dB
Input sensitivity 700mV
Input impedance 100kΩ
Inputs 4 x RCA
Speaker outputs 4Ω-8Ω
Power consumption 70W
Size 310 x 280 x 185mm
Weight 12kg 

I connected the amp to my Klipsch Synergy F2. I pushed power and cautiously waited for the tubes to light up. As precaution for some stupid soldering mistakes I sniffed around for acrid smoke or burnt wires. To my relief no alarm bells rang. I popped in the 2010 Hong Kong AV Show SACD and dialled up the TRK-3488’s volume. Ah, sound. To share my joy of passing the test, I rushed upstairs to get my wife. Her immediate responses to look and sound were "beautiful" and "beautiful". The burgundy red and mellow music complimented one another perfectly. On the first CD the TRK-3488 already delivered very rich bass and lush warm tone. We liked it immediately. My only quibble was some hum coming through the speakers. It was constant but went down a little bit with NFB on. It definitely was not mechanical because the transformers were absolutely silent.

I emailed Victor asking him if this was normal with 95dB speakers. He referred the question to the factory and Yamazaki san responded: "95dB will have bigger hum. This amp is designed for small speakers from around 85 to 88dB sensitivity." Victor confirmed that he used the amp with ProAc Response 2.5 (rated 86dB/W/m) and it was pretty quiet. From my experience, a highly reputable and expensive Japanese line of tube amps famous for valve bloom has even more hum. Knowing that single-ended output stages emphasize even-order harmonics and are more vulnerable to power supply hum to mandate heavy filtering and high-quality transformers, I talked myself into accepting that the two had to go hand in hand.

The next day I was prepared to reconnect the amp to the 84dB Dynaudio Facette but I turned on the amp to have one final check with the Klipsch. Surprisingly the hum was dramatically lower, perhaps by 50%. Part of the run-in? Then I hooked it up with the Facette and immediately noticed a big drop in noise floor. As I tried to store away the packing cartons I found the factory power cord. I had no intention of using it and thought a power cord is a power cord is a poo.

Then I realized that it had a two-prong plug with a floated ground wire. Busted! The amp asked for a floating ground. Without further ado I took out my own power cord and plugged in the factory one. That killed the hum once and for all. Now the amp was as quiet as my other tube amps. Whether NFB was on or off, I could only hear a whisper when I stuck my ear to the driver.

It was only the second day but I couldn’t resist the music that flowed out from the EL-34 to the Facette. For the entire week I used this setup to do my monthly music CD review assignment for Hong Kong and I enjoyed it tremendously. The setup included the Philips CDV770 as transport, the Deltec Little Bit as DAC and OCOS speaker cables. The music titles included:

Couleurs de Chine – compositions chinoises pour le piano
Jia Zhong, piano
Accord 478612-2
Higdon: Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Hilary Hahn, violin / Vasily Petrenko, conductor / Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
DGG 477 8777

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Schumann: Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120
Arabella Steinbacher, violin/Fabio Luisi, conductor/Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Orfeo C 752111 A
Sarasate: Music for Violin & Orchestra, Vol. 3
Tianwa Yang, violin/Ernest Martinez Izquierdo, conductor/ Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra
Naxos 8.572275

Morton Gould: Derivations for Clarinet & Band/Jericho Rhapsody/Saint Lawrence Suit /Symphony No.4 ‘West Point’/Fanfare for Freedom
Stephanie Zelnick, clarinet/Scott Weiss, conductor/ University of Kansas Wind Ensemble
Naxos 8.572629
American Music for Percussion Vol.1
Frank Epstein, conductor/New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble
Naxos 8.559683

It’s interesting to note that I’d been listening to most of this music on other audio systems for a few weeks but couldn’t click with the two violin concertos. Hilary Hahn is my favorite violinist but I find her Tchaikovsky almost too mild. It’s not so much that she plays the original Tchaikovsky version as opposed to the spicier Auer score. Her much refined tone and that whole sensibility-over-sensitivity approach seemed to downplay the fiery passion I’ve come to expect. I must have listened to the CD ten times and had already drafted my thumb-down verdict. Then I played it on the TRK-3488 and it turned the table around. The violin suddenly had that magic of articulating Hahn’s opinion of Tchaikovsky in the most sincere and earnest way. It really is a well thought-out and cultivated mature reading. It’s still different from most other interpretations but I understood it now and loved it. I had to rewrite my review.

The other ‘problematic’ violin concerto was Arabella Steinbacher’s Brahms. I voted nay on the violinist’s Beethoven not long ago and her Brahms didn’t impress me either – until I cross-examined the case with Triode. Now Steinbacher’s violin tone was captivating in yet another way, very refreshing and sparkling. It all of a sudden made Brahms more colorful and rich. There’s certainly some chemistry between the TRK-3488 and this live recording at the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein. Just when I thought the Triode amp only flattered violin music, Jia Zhong’s piano solo CD proved equally compelling. Her more artistic rendition of the popular Chinese piano music on a Yamaha CFIIIS had both sonic gravitas and musical authority. The low-power amp didn’t alienate modern orchestral works either as testified by Morton Gould and his contemporary American percussion works ranging from three marimbas to over 100 pieces of instruments struck, scratched, brushed or tinkled in various imaginable or unimaginable ways to emit sounds.

I also did a quick survey on the negative feedback switch. NFB on: Imaging was defined and focused, projecting a perspective with one sharp vanishing point and a very deep soundstage where even dense orchestral tutti were well articulated.

NFB off: The soundstage was less deep, the air was filled with more valve bloom and bass was richer. Then I made some quick comparisons. With the Dared 2A3 driving  the Klipsch, the soundstage likewise wasn’t very deep and instrumental textures were leaner. With the KingRex preamp/T20U bi-amping Loth-X BS-1 D’Appolito arrays, the soundstage was wide but not deep, imaging was sharper with more articulated detail.

As still a preview, I’d almost arrived at a conclusion already. But I’d hold back and let the amp run in properly. The Vitamin-Q and V-Caps had arrived to invite experiments. My Gold Lion Genalex tubes were standing by. Lotsa rolls to thing. Victor would be visiting Japan in mid August and meet Yamazaki san at the Triode factory in Koshigaya-shi, Saitama, a 1.5-hour JR train journey from Tokyo. He promised to return with some exciting photos and the latest updates on Triode Corp.

PS: It caught my attention that the TRK-3488 is also available through a Japanese online merchant who ships worldwide. It should be noted that his is the domestic Japanese 100V kit. Bear in mind that import tax and duties will be added depending on your country and that the 100V power transformer is prewired and not easy to change to other input voltages. The review item I worked with was the proper 120V version for our Canadian utility power.