Adventures in Mid-Fi Valve Goodness

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? P1030333

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.


That’s mine, during its testing phase. Picture by Aric Audio


Proper point to point soldering here. No PCB boards. Picture by Aric Audio

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.




So, today’s blog entry is about HiFi. Not High – End with its speakers for £200,000 and cables for € 5000, but High Fidelity. Pieces of technology – new and old – that make music sound like the listener likes it and are a step up from sound bars, transistor radios and sodcasting with your mobile. A part of my personal setup until recently was a magnificent power amp, the mighty Marantz SM-80. I always wanted to own a big piece of solid state eighties hifi, as much for sheer power (150w per channel) as for the aesthetics. Just look at it. Isn’t it gorgeous in its monolithic beauty with it’s magnificent layout?



This magnificent beast has been sitting amicably next to the universal disc player and the audio/video receiver. It’s main purpose is to create enough power to make the speakers sound good, both when played loud or on low volumes. There are some speakers who need that much wattage to perform at their best, but here’s the rub: my don’t. My horn based Klipsch speakers only need a fraction of the power of what the SM-80 has to offer and so it has been bit like a rugby player in charge of tackling a gaggle of ducklings and just wasted a huge amount of energy for not doing much at all. I looked around for an alternative piece of of technology that could take over the role of the Marantz, still sound as brilliant as the monster but with a fraction of the energy usage. Turns out there is such a thing, and it even sounds darn good. So good in fact, that the people of 6Moons (who usually don’t review anything that’s not hand soldered by a farmer in Styria, costs less than 500,000 Swiss Franks and has been made with the blood of a virgin goat) gave it a prize. Yes, it’s that obscure (and good).

And small.


Yes, that’s it. It’s tiny. So if your stereo is all about the looks, this probably won’t do.


What is it ? It’s something called a Class – T amplifier designed with a pretty nifty chip by Tripath (no, me neither), made by Hong Kong outfit Trends Audio and has been reviewed to death by every hi-end website out there (always positive). It costs about as much as 1 cm of high end cable and was with me 3 days after the order, all the way from the Pearl River Estuary.

And it works. Really well. I knew that it wouldn’t have a problem with my highly efficient Klipschs but I wasn’t expecting it to beat the sound of the chunky Marantz, but suck me sideways, it does. I used the work related absence of the best girlfriend ever to crank up the volume and threw it a volley of my favourite tracks, be it Coltrane, Mahler or Matt Bianco: it dealt with all of them beautifully, produced a crisp and competent deep bass and outperformed the Marantz in clarity of the upper registers.

The best girlfriend ever loves it already as it managed to eradicate one big black metal box from her living room, as the Marantz is now in storage and the TA-10.2p (that’s it’s name, though I’m thinking of calling it Tarquin) is hidden by the Calvin and Hobbes collections.

A perfect metaphor.

I rest my case.