Editor's Note: Following is an excerpt from Dick Olsher's CES 2009 Report on new tube gear. Read the full CES report in the current issue of TAS (http://www.avguide.com/theabsolutesound/the-absolute-sound-aprilmay-09)
Ripples of the global recession were clearly visible in the tube-gear arena. There were few new product introductions, and most of the action was at under-$10k price points. The trend toward affordability via the designed-in-the-West and built-in-China business model shows no signs of abating any time soon; good news for those of us who can’t afford gear priced along the lines of new automobiles. However, ultimately the success of any product manufactured in China is critically dependent on maintaining quality control.
During my visit to the PrimaLuna room, Durob Audio’s Dominique Chenet kindly elucidated the cultural differences between East and West as far as wiring/soldering practice and passive part selection, which can lead to quality issues. Her job is to personally oversee the assembly process to ensure that the manufacturer follows the exacting standards set by PrimaLuna. I also took this opportunity to have Kevin Deal, the U.S. distributor, review for me product changes for 2009. A few highlights follow. The entire ProLogue line, including the Model Eight CD player, is being upgraded to Mk2 status. All power amplifiers will feature significant enhancements designed mainly to increase reliability (e.g., a power transformer protection circuit). A new Adaptive Auto Bias Board is said to be slightly better in dealing with component and ambient temperature variations. The Mk2 appellation also means no more 12AX7 tubes anywhere in the circuit, and this is the main change for the Model Eight CD player. The switch to 12AU7 dual triodes was implemented, according to Herman van den Dungen, to reduce front-end distortion and improve sound quality.
Vincent’s new and very cool looking TAC V-60 integrated stereo amplifier bucks the seemingly never-ending design trend of defaulting to a KT88/6550-based output stage. Its quartet of Russian 6CA7/EL34 pentodes per channel is under active bias control and dishes out a dynamic 60Wpc. It appears to deliver superb tonal colors. You won’t find any 12AX7 tubes here either. Input and driver stage tubes are the 6CG7 and 6922.
When I asked LA Audio Electronics whether its products were built in China I was told emphatically that its gear is designed and built in Taiwan. A bevy of products was on display but what caught my attention was the M-1 integrated amplifier rated at 18Wpc. Priced at an amazing $260, it is definitely worth considering for multimedia applications. As I understand it, the voltage gain stage is tubed while the output stage is solid-state.
In my book, the LAMM Industries’ ML3 Signature SET still reigns supreme. Its 32Wpc power output is a testimonial to the concept that not all watts are created equal. Driving the Wilson Audio MAXX Series 3 loudspeakers it produced some of the best sound at the show with simply gorgeous harmonic textures. Bass control was firm to a degree I had not previously experienced with SET amplification. For the record, the rest of the chain I auditioned consisted of the NeoDio NR Two transport and DAC, Critical Mass Systems racks and stands, and Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnect and speaker cables.
VTL’s Luke Manley was on hand to demo the TL6.5 and TL7.5 preamplifiers. Since the TL7.5 Reference preamp has garnered much recent critical acclaim I was curious to discover first hand just how competitive its more affordable TL6.5 ($9500) cousin might be. A brief audition, in the context of the Siegfried monoblocks driving Avalon loudspeakers, disclosed only a small sonic differential and that’s good news indeed.
As was the case last year, the main attraction for me in the Manley Labs room was the Stingray iTube integrated amplifier with its iPod dock. EveAnna Manley assured me that this model is finally in production. While in the room I spied the Manley Neo-Classic SE/PP 300B monoblocks ($7200/pr.) on display, a model that was (I’m told) originally introduced in 2001. Its tube complement is totally cool: 2 x 300B (output), 1 x 6SN7 (driver), 1 x 6SL7 (input), 2 x 5U4 (rectifier). Not only that, but it can be switched between push-pull and single-ended operation on the fly. I’m still scratching my head over this one; how did I mange to overlook it for so long?