As you undoubtedly know and vividly remember, I purchased a rather unwieldy and monstrous early nineties power amp last year: the glorious and terrribly powerful Marantz SM-80. Remember the beast?
Serviced and repaired by the impressive Mr Phil Good from PG Electronics (email me for the contact details) it turned out to be a veritable and lovely sounding chunky piece of rather uneconomic electronics. All it needed was a pre-amplifier.
The choices are of course endless. One could go for a modern digital pre/pro and prepare ones household for Dolby Atmos, THX multiquadular systems or whatever modern home cinema sound setups are called these days. Or go back in time/back to your roots/back to life to re-introduce some stereo enjoyment in ones life. Having dabbled with tube harmonics before, I thought it might be a good idea to pair the SM-80 with a straightforward valve/tube pre-amplifier.
Boy, was I ignorant.
The current choice for people who don’t want to spend thousands of pounds on a tube pre-amp is ebay, who currently has literally dozens of choices of different chinese copies of classic tube-amps. DoukMall seems to be the current provider of choice, but you can of course spend thousands (and indeed tens of thousands) of pounds/euros/dollars on tube audio of your choice. But having read a few reviews of these clones of famous tube preamps of the past, I wasn’t sure whether I want to have one of them explode in my living room.
Here’s the moment were the lovely Aric Kimball comes to the rescue. Owner, proprietor and sole engineer at Aric Audio, he produces tube gear for people with slim wallets, all hand soldered on his workbench in Brimfield, USA. I have to admit that I was rather disinclined to prop up the American mid-fi industry due to their current obnoxious commander in chief, but Aric’s reviews were excellent and he was a pleasure to communicate with.
Ordered via email and paypal, the ‘Expression‘ arrived in time and on budget with a transformer adapted to UK’s 230V electricity. It has 4 RCA connects for line input and two RCA stereo outputs, giving you lots of choices for both inputs and outputs.
So, out does it sound?
A buddy of mine and myself chose 8 tracks and compared it to my all digital audio chain, a Denon DBT 3313 and AVR-X5200 (good, solid japanese made mid-hifi). The analog and digital chain were seperated by a Beresford switch and hooked up to the very mid-fi Klipsch RF-52 II. We chose chamber music, symphonic classical music, electronica, acoustic pop, rock, female voices, male voices and jazz. Most of the tracks were from SACDs, but it didn’t matter what we played: the little tube pre-amp and the SM-80 blew the all digital audio chain out of the water. The biggest difference was soundstage: switching to the tube gear, the whole performance jumped forward into the room, with a much more palpable 3d aspect to the music. Highs were much more defined. I was a bit upset by that, as I genuinely thought that my Denon gear would much more hold its own.
Oh well, that’s psychoacoustics for you.
Summary: I am ecstatic with the new addition to the setup. It just shows that for a truly amazing piece of audio kit you don’t have to spend thousands of (insert Western currency here) to reproduce music to an utterly enjoyable level.