In order to have a library of different recordings you need to remove as much coloration from your system as possible. Put simply, the Comparison by Contrast method ought to determine which of two playback systems or components are the more accurate: If you play pairs or groups of recordings of the same artist or of similar instruments, or different editions of the same performance, the system or component that yields the greatest differences between the pairs or groups is the more accurate because it is the least colored. It is important not to get hung up on which system or component makes recording A sound more like a piano or a violin or a voice you think you know. You cannot know what is on the recording and, unless you want all your recordings to sound the same or have a similar sonic signature or attitude about playback (e.g. large or tall stages or lots of "air" between the instruments), you need to shoot for accuracy to the degree this is possible.
Now, that said, it is of some importance that the system have a frequency response sufficient to aid in the illusion of a live performance, but just adding bass or treble without considering coloration will result in eventual boredom. In any case a system with limited frequency response will not do well in the Comparison by Contrast test. With a good playback system, every recording should be a new adventure a different approach to both recording and performance, since, for better or worse, that is the intention of the recording producer.
A critical comparison of output tubes necessarily inherits certain difficulties, the most obvious and problematic of which is that the same amplifier must be used for the "A" and the 300B/C tubes, which means that a certain amount of cool down time for the one and warm up time for the other has to elapse, making the usual A/B comparison not really possible. Some will argue that using vinyl as the source also offers difficulties - for example, that the second playing of the same record soon after the first would necessarily be a little different. The good news is that the necessities of the first difficulty mitigate the effects of the second, since the recordings cannot be played back to back.
It is also necessary that the amplifier be single ended. You can't have more than one output tube per channel if you are to have a shot at knowing what is influencing what.
A mere 8 to 10 watts per side is going to give out before long, so this means that you are also limited to high efficiency speakers. Audio Note's two-way AN-E/SE is rated around 95dB/Wm, so it's a good compromise for the purpose. It's nice that it makes music if given the opportunity and offers very good bass response without a subwoofer. This model also employs high-density, high-resolution Alnico tweeters, which extends and clarifies the treble a fact that makes for exquisite 300B comparisons. One final note for those of you that care about such things: the driver for the 300B on the Audio Note Baransu is the Pope 6SN7.
This is, in fact, what I did. One evening, three listeners joined me to compare the best of the TJ Full Music tubes to the tried and true Western Electric (WE) that were about two years old, fully broken in with maybe 500 hours of use. We were all keenly aware that the WE is not in production (at least not with any consistency) at this time, making claims of NOS product quite valuable. An alternative is desperately needed, but none of us were prepared to give up our WE's for a usurper simply because its arrival is fortuitous.
I had had a previous encounter with Sophia 300B mesh plates a few years ago and, after an initial honeymoon infatuation with their lean, razor sharp presentation, I eventually put them away in favor of the warmer, more voluptuous Western Electric. Given that the TJ mesh plate (not reviewed here) is identical to the Sophia, I was not disposed to expect much from a tube from the same source that appeared to merely have a more robust plate. In any case, we felt we should go direct to the "SE" version for comparison to the WE, especially as it was TJ's best shot and, if that didn't cut it, the 300B/C version performance would have been moot.
A word about our panel before we get to the meat of the matter: In addition to myself, there were two men and one woman, all about 50, give or take a few years. Only one has been and still is in the audio business: he is a highly qualified tech with decades of experience and has been a retailer for about ten years. The other two have learned what they know about audio by osmosis, rather than study or experience in the field. All of us own 300B amplifiers, one of us (not me, alas) has an Ongaku.
For this audition, we limited ourselves to vinyl program material (violin, piano, vocal, band and orchestral). We began with the Western Electric and went through all the recordings at hand, then visited the TJ-SE, then returned to the WE, then again to the TJ.
From prior experience with mesh plates, we half expected a certain degree of precision for the carbon plates as well but what was not expected was the sense of performance that we heard. But right off, it was evident that the TJ performers were better violinists: not only were they clearer about their attacks, bowing and phrasing, but their intentions were more evident. We could hear why they bowed this way, rather than that, and where the phrase was headed. Expectations set up by the composer were more clearly and thoughtfully realized by the TJ.
It was on piano recordings that I began to notice the carbon plate's advantage in bass reproduction, which would reveal its superiority in everything from piano to full orchestra: It is something like what results from a turntable with rock steady turning ability. The bass becomes that much more solid. It propels the music forward by how its overtone structure attaches itself to the melody and inner voices (assuming everything and everyone is in tune.) I can't overstate the importance of this, for without this clarity, we are at a loss to understand the drama in musical terms. There is a reason why this note and not that one is played over the bass, why this pitch and not that one, and it has to do with the overtones. An organ takes care of all this for us by a series of stops chosen by the performer, but a group of instruments and singers or the notes on a piano only work together when the overtone structure is correctly revealed. I always knew that a proper turntable is essential to recreate this effect, but it would not have occurred to me that two similar tubes from different manufacture would manage this differently. Yet when I think of it now, it all seems so obvious. Thus the TJ-SE, which sorts out the notes in something like the way piano tuner works: it's all in the overtones.
I also listened to music whose recordings are compromised, to put it kindly. One thing the best amplifiers have taught me is that there is gold in them thar hills if you have the tools to mine them. One recording that I like to use for this purpose is Artur Schnabel's 1937 performance of Beethoven's Op. 37 Bagatelles. I don't know what EMI/Toshiba did to capture or process the original source, but the result, despite its lack of treble or deep bass, is really magical or, at least it is in the hands of the TJ-SE. The Western Electric does a good job. We still enjoy the piece. Beethoven has a strong presence and often cuts through the most pedestrian of performances or playback systems. But this is not the case here where Schnabel is in top form. The TJ's help him make his case that much better. There is a solidity to his playing that feels like an extension of the very instrument. It's really quite magical.
In some recordings, that presence was palpable. One of the most show-stopping examples was on "Stimela" ("The Coal Train") on the 45-rpm reissue of Hugh Masekela's Hope. It is a number that I had heard recently in concert performance and so I have some idea of what his band is up to. Even if balances and timbres aren't going to be the same, nor should they be. If you know this recording you'll know that there are several crescendos where the band just knocks the hell out of the music, where ecstasy and outrage intermingle. There is one that begins about three and a half minutes into the piece. Until I heard this with the TJ-SE I had not been aware that every stroke by the percussionist must be and is different in intensity. It is not a drum machine. There is direction here. The WE tube doesn't manifest this.
A little later when Hugh comes in on his horn and this was the big surprise for all its analytic abilities, the TJ gave out with more even-numbered harmonics. His horn was more gold than silver. I had fully expected a biting brassy sound, but instead it was delicious, like a ripe peach. My point is that in this case it's not so much a question of which is the more accurate representation of the actual instrument (though that is certainly of some importance) it is that the TJ, which was able to manage the most exquisite articulations of the violin and could find the difference in propulsion of attack by the drummer, could also give out with a liquidity of horn that I usually get only from a 211 or a 2A3. By the way, can you tell if he playing a trumpet or flugelhorn at this point?
What would an audio listening test be without vocals: Again I am interested in obtaining the greatest possible difference in recording attitudes? I expect large voices from Columbia (Doris Day); smaller ones from Capitol mono (Sinatra); wide dynamic range on Pop-Pop; a direct, unprocessed quality from Bob Fulton's Tricia album. I want to feel that mike in the chest on the Johnny Hartman LP, but not be squeaked out on Dinah Washington's 1946 rendition of "Embraceable You," and I want the furthest thing from a natural recording from my LP- single of Thriller with its ridiculously pumped up, yet explicit bass. And again, The TJ expands our record library by differentiating the recordings. On a record like Tricia, where the artist placed herself in different relationship to Bob Fulton's microphones with each song, it is like listening to Tricia at a different venue on a different day, making every cut a new experience. The Hartman record, long a favorite with audiophiles, projects an even more competent singer than his 57 years would predict. His rich resonant voice never overpowers the back up because they are all articulated and propelled clearly and because their overtones and his work together instead of compete.
My Sinatra LP is an original mono from the mid-1950. It's in pretty good shape considering, but it permitted a novel observation: The Western Electric tended to mix the surface noise into the center, whereas the TJ-SE tended to separate it out to the sides. I think you can see which is to be preferred. Since our attention is directed to the center on the mono recording, imagine how much easier to remain involved when the undesirable noise is at the periphery. Cool, huh!
Orchestral music and opera were auditioned along with uncompressed audio on some of the more interesting Blu-ray discs (the intervening processor is the Integra DTC 9.8. I took a deep breath, for it is here that we really press the single 8-inch hemp driver of the E/SE Sig. Not to worry, for the TJ demonstrated the advantage of less overhang and clearer attacks just as important in massed sound as it was on violin recordings, else we might simply zone out in lushland. When I had much larger speakers, like the Fulton Premiers or even the Klipschorns, they were able to push out an effect that only the Ongaku could realize with these smaller speakers. We hear that effect on the "Crown Imperial March" on the British Band Classics record when the organ comes in at the climax of the piece - that extra amount of wind positively presses listeners back in their seats. I can't say that the TJ or the WE can quite manage, but I can feel the potential waiting and hoping to get out with the carbon plate.
Another instructive selection was "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef" on the Bernard Herrmann film score album. At the point where we descend into the sea, Herrmann calls for, and Gerhardt employs, nine harps (count them!) some in a trickling accompaniment over others in their deepest registers. It's an effect that may be lost in the theatre, but not on this recording. The TJ-SE was able to distinguish attacks in the treble, making it clear to us that these are not automatons, but flesh and blood performers, whilst the bass notes of the harps glowed with a vibrancy rarely heard on recording. The effect was eerie.
Decca is the go-to agent for opera on record. On their best recordings, there is a direct-to-disc quality that the other guys don't seem to capture. One of my favorite mono opera recordings is Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw (click here for review). The first thing we notice is the sparse orchestration (if we can call it that) for a mere 17 instruments and its lack of any bass voices. Such an arrangement, while the effect is deliberately designed to make us a little uncomfortable, should never grate or glare or fatigue. It's one of those places where we expect the Western Electric, with its extra warmth, to be more agreeable and perhaps it is, for a while. And then we start to lose focus. We switch tubes and the result is startling: at first we think there's something wrong here: where did what little bass we had go? And then we realize that it wasn't there in the first place, it was an added consequence of the Western Electric. Some of it is simple overhang. I'm not sure what else. We press on and finish the side, and then the rest of the opera, leaving the story in anguish as the Governess realizes what her righteousness hath wrought.
One of Decca's early opera successes in stereo was Solti's Das Rheingold. There is not only a palpable realism to some of the effects (most notably the 18 tuned anvils that accompany the Descent into Nibelheim and the fall of Donner's hammer before the rainbow bridge opens), but a clarity of textures without compromising the voluptuous sound that is Wagner. We don't expect a 10-watt 300B tube to reconstruct a live performance but we can hope for hints for our minds to fill in the gaps. The better the rest of the system the better our chances of making it all happen (which reminds me to thank Nick Gowan of True Sound for the loan of his AN-S9 step-up transformer and Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note for the M8.)
At the very outset, before there is any movement in the strings, you want to be able to hear those overtones generated by the deep strings that can make a major triadic chord out of a single note: the effect is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The Western Electric possesses all the warmth necessary to bathe our libidos in luxury, but the TJ-SE provides a blueprint for what is to come. If you know the opera the whole of The Ring you can almost make it out inside those opening bars. By the time the upper strings start things moving, we are at Wagner's mercy: for the next 130 odd bars of E-Flat we can foresee the next 14 hours, just as do the Norns at the beginning of G๖tterdไmmerung. At the entrance of Rhine Maidens we are not jolted into an alternative reality so much as enveloped in a waterfall. Later, in the Nibelheimsegment it's hard to grasp how a tube this size can sort out such competing textures, while making something resembling music at the same time. As I said: it's magical.
But before summarily dismissing the 300B/C version of the carbon plate, I should say that we did give it a hearing. Indeed it is a perfectly good tube as far as it goes, which isn't very far when the SE is so very nearly in reach. The 300B/C is simply not as good at differentiation and articulation. The treble resorts to whistling when it should be singing. In other registers, some notes feel like they are stopped instead of being allowed to sing out.
The consensus of our panel was to recommend to the importer that they not bother with the 300B/C version since the target market is mostly interested in a possible alternative to the Western Electric, and the SE is about the same price as the Western Electric before it disappeared. Our experience in these parts with the mesh plate is dubious. Seems Q.E.D. to me.
I suppose I should admit to a preference, perhaps even a bias, for a different tube altogether: the 211A and 2A3 have always sounded less colored to me than the 300B, regardless of manufacturer. They seem to get to the heart and soul of the performance in a way that the 300B merely comments on. It would not be entirely unfair to read my remarks as an apology for the 300B: that the 300B is not a 211 and that such and such are its shortcomings in comparison. Possibly I prefer the TJ-SE to the Western Electric in part because of its resemblance to the 211 in its ability to clarify texture, catch and release attacks, and maintain order in the harmonic structure, which is absolutely necessary to both accurately reproduce timbres and propel the bass line, without which the melody has nothing to hang onto. I trust that you will take the trouble to sort out my bias from observation, and to take into account that my knowing about it may make me a more honest reporter.
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