The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LII: Flea Power! (Amp power)
Two watts per channel. Not two hundred, not even twenty, but TWO! That's how much power my new amplifier has.
I know I spent most of last year talking about amplification and more than a few people wondered, "When is he going to start talking about vinyl again?" And my response was that it was all part of an ecstatic, wondrous whole. For the last seven years I'd been able to convince a handful of people that vinyl records still sounded better than the compact disc. Then I started talking about things like mono pressing's and vintage receivers and turntables while traveling further and further back into time - and before you know it I arrived, eager and enthusiastic, at the doorstep of tubed electronics.
You see, once you're convinced that we really haven't improved recording techniques over the last forty or fifty years and that digital technologies have ultimately been backward steps in sound quality; and when you finally and fully believe that most modern recordings have been overly-compressed in the studio, robbing their sound of life, light, and dynamics, it is then that you can understand why I'm now listening to an SET (single-ended triode) amplifier whose circuits are based on designs implemented in the 1920's. Listen to an original first pressing of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, or Sonny Rollins' Way Out West, or Coltrane's A Love Supreme, or an RCA "Shaded Dog" or "Mercury Living Presence" LP, and you'll begin to understand what it is that I am getting at. Back then, recording techniques were simple and so was the equipment. Somehow the process was more pure and much closer to the true music and the spirit of the original performance. Somewhere, someway we've gotten lost, having drifted off the sonic path of purity and out on a soul-less tangent. An obsession with the loudest, the cleanest, and the most powerful of sounds has led us astray...
But two watts per channel? What's that, a transistor radio?
Perhaps. But take a quick look at my Yamamoto Sound Craft A-08S 45 amplifier and you'll be talking to yourself saying, my that's one hell of a radio! This amplifier is a work of art. Its beauty is almost alarming. And it is like nothing else that I've ever owned (See the Venus Hi-Fi for photos - which still don't do the thing justice.) Like my Koetsu Rosewood cartridge, the Yamamoto is hand-built, one at a time, by a Japanese Zen master (Shigeki Yamamoto) who pours everything he's learned about life, art, and science, into something that can be purchased by just about anyone. I've mentioned this before but I absolutely believe that when you buy something like this - as opposed to something that rolled off an assembly line manned by robots - you've purchased a piece of the designer's soul. And that is what makes such a work of craftsmanship so extraordinary.
You need merely to look at the gorgeous materials used in construction of the Yamamoto. The body of the amp is made from a rare and beautiful Japanese cherry wood that is sanded and polished and hand-rubbed to an almost other-wordly sheen. The legs of the amplifier are built from equally rare African ebony, the same wood used for resonance control by the famous (or infamous) Shun Mook monks. And the tubes themselves are delightful anachronisms. The Yamamoto uses 45 tubes which are known for their purity, midrange beauty, and soul, not to mention very low power. In fact, Yamamoto-san supplies his amplifiers with what's called NOS tubes, which means new-old stock. In other words, the NOS RCA 45 tubes that come with the amp have been sitting in their boxes, untouched, for anywhere from forty to sixty years. Yamamoto-san and I are the only ones who have touched these tubes since they likely left the RCA factory back when Eisenhower was in office.
But how can you get a two watt per channel amplifier to work in your system? Well, you can't. Pair it with an ordinary pair of speakers, and indeed the Yamamoto will sound like the aforementioned and anachronistic transistor radio. As I've explained before, it doesn't matter how many watts your amplifier has, it only matters how it interfaces with your speakers. Some speakers, obviously, are more efficient than others. That's why you need to use a high-efficiency speaker system; one that can take just a little bit of juice and turn it into a lot of sound. And with the rising popularity of low-powered tube electronics there are now more highly efficient speakers available than any time since transistors began to replace tubes back in the 1960's.
High-efficiency speakers, like low-powered single-ended triode tube amplifiers, are also anachronisms. One type of high-efficiency speaker is the horn speaker, which can sometimes look like a giant tuba on a stand. Horn speakers use the same philosophy as those old Victrolas (or even the megaphone) by using a long tapered tunnel that folds in and out of the speaker enclosure creating a lot of air space for a little sound to grow bigger and deeper. Then there are the single-driver speaker designs which use one relatively small driver as opposed to woofers and tweeters and such and are mounted in an enormous enclosure. It's quite a strange sight to see a single four-inch driver mounted in a box the size of a coffin. It's even more strange when you hear it and realize it works quite well.
I wound up choosing a speaker that's the result of both very new and very old thinking. The Zu Cable Druid Mark IV speaker is extremely efficient. It offers a 101 dB sensitivity, which means it can take one watt of power to create 101 decibels of sound (very loud!). In other words, it's perfect for the two-watt Yamamoto. But unlike the other high-efficiency designs I've discussed the Druid is a very slim, elegant floorstanding speaker which uses a rather large single driver to create most of the sound (see http://www.zucable.com/druid/ for photos). They've also added a supertweeter to handle the very highest sonic registers - something the other manufacturers of single-driver speaker systems are also starting to do. The Druid goes loud with very little power and goes very deep in the bass (the slim cabinet is actually hollow and much of the deep bass comes from a large slot in the bottom of the cabinet). The Druid also works with much more powerful amps - unlike a lot of other high-efficiency designs. Best of all, the Druid is very affordable for the kind of performance it delivers. It is truly the Swiss Army knife of speakers. It does everything well.
Okay, okay... so there's some validity to the whole low-powered amp/high-efficiency speaker craze. But what does this mean to vinyl lovers? I know you think I'm going to tell you that this type of system works well with analog, but to tell you the truth, it's not that cut-and-dry. When I first started listening to these types of systems at industry shows and dealerships I noticed that they were pairing the flea-powered amps (a cute nickname for SET amps that's caught on) with CD players. I didn't see a lot of turntables in those rooms. At first I thought it was because these systems really give digital the warmth and the soul it so badly needs. In fact, I saw a growing trend of using really cheap CD players (you know, the sub-$100 type players you find at Sears and Target) with very expensive amp/speaker combinations. The point was - or so I thought - that flea power was the cure for all of the digital nasty's. Which, for the most part, is absolutely true. CD's have never sounded better to me than they do right now with Yamamoto and Zu in my system.
What I didn't expect, however, was the analog playback would be a little trickier with these kinds of devices in the playback chain. First of all, when I put the Druids into the system, before the Yamamoto amps arrived (yes, I bought the matching Yamamoto preamp, the CA-03L, too), it was like putting the most sensitive microphone in the world into my system. The Druids showed me everything that was going on in my system - both good and bad. Point in case: at times I was able to hear voices coming through the speakers if I held my ear very close to the driver. At first it sounded like a ham radio operator but then my wife listened to it and realized that we were picking up someone talking on their cell phone! The Druids also picked up tube noise from the various tube amps I'd used prior to the Yamamoto. Worst of all, however, the Druids made surface noise on my records more pronounced. This was definitely bad news for vinyl anachronists everywhere.
I was starting to worry about the Druids and whether or not they were right for me when the Yamamotos arrived. Since Yamamoto-san makes the amps AFTER you've ordered them, it took nearly three months to get them (they were even held up in customs at LAX for a couple of weeks, much to my growing frustration). As much as I'd like to say that once the Yamamoto's were in the system all was well the truth of the matter is that everything sounded horrible for the first few days. The amps were incredibly noisy. Every review of the Yamamoto seemed to rav about how quiet the amps are - something rather uncommon in the world of low-powered SETs. My Yamamoto amps, however, hissed and hummed, farted and coughed, and frankly I started to get pissed off. I exchanged a couple of dozen e-mails with the importer, Brian Bowdle of Venus Hi-Fi, and he kept telling me to be patient. I politely agreed, but I also politely started thinking about his refund policy.
And then one day all of the planets aligned and the universe was well. In fact, it was more than well, it was absolutely glorious! For the first time in my life I felt that I could hear everything that was going on in a recording. I could hear if the musicians were standing or sitting. I could listen to them breathing. I could feel them moving around the stage. I knew when the singer walked over to the bass player and whispered something in his ear. I could hear when the drummer flubbed the beat, laughed at himself, and then dove right back into the song. I could hear light, hear life, and experience real soul. Everything just needed time to settle down and break in. I've been waiting my entire life to experience this kind of sound in my home, and I just needed to wait a few more weeks for it to happen. And it did - Oh! How it did!
I know, I know, not everyone has the resources to assemble this type of system. But I'm not a rich guy. I'm just committed to hearing music and having it sound the best it can. For me it's all about listening to vinyl on a low-powered SET tube amp with high-efficiency speakers. And while I did spend a significant amount of money achieving this goal one of the most rewarding things about the whole SET movement is that a lot of this stuff is downright cheap. Many high-efficiency speakers, from companies such as Loth-X and Omega only cost a few hundred bucks. The amazing Cain & Cain Abby loudspeaker, which is extraordinarily beautiful and offers superb sound, sells for an amazingly low price for what it delivers. And low-powered SET amps from Bottlehead and Decware are also merely a few hundred bucks. And many of these amps are available in kit form, saving you even more money.
Just toss in a Rega P3 table, or even an old reconditioned Thorens or AR from VinylNirvana.com and you'll be experiencing world-class analog sound for about the same money as you paid for your chintzy mass-made home theater system which, through the magic of planned obsolescence, will be dead in less than a decade from now. This gear is really special, and it will give you and your children a lifetime of musical enjoyment. It is truly, truly worth it.
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