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January 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
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Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX Vacuum Tube Integrated Amplifier
A very special artisan amplifier for seasoned audio and music enthusiasts.
Review By Rick Becker

 

Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX Vacuum Tube Integrated Amplifier

 Some people might argue that it is not healthy for a reviewer to review a lot of products from the same manufacturer. A reviewer's affinity toward a type of component or a brand can be established in an initial review. And this can lead a manufacturer to offer another product to that same reviewer as a "known entity", time and again. I'll plead "guilty as charged" for multiple reviews of Coincident Speaker Technology speakers and electronics, and now, Triode Lab tube amplifiers. Both of these companies make great gear and for the most part, offer products at fair, real world prices. Quite simply, they make great gear that audiophiles and music lovers should know about. Their stuff will enhance people's lives and I don't feel a bit guilty about reviewing so much of it. I've bought a fair amount of Coincident gear, but I've yet to purchase a review sample from Triode Lab. Not because it isn't good, but because their amps I've reviewed fit a narrow niche of low powered tube amps that require high efficiency speakers. I explored the depths of that niche in my recent Entry Level Project where I put together a complete rig for about $5000 that seriously challenged my much more expensive reference set-up.

The Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX at around $2800 (CDN) would have put that project "over budget" so I went with the Coincident Dynamo integrated at $1300 (USD). So, was the Coincident a better amplifier at less money? Well, it was different, and different doesn't always mean better, which brings me back to the fact that this is the fourth Triode Lab amp I've had for review. The advantage of reviewing so many is that it puts me in a position to sort out the differences among them. Not just their strengths and weaknesses, but also the characteristics that will make them more (or less) preferable for your personal taste and/or the needs of your particular rig. Hopefully, you will have been around long enough to develop an awareness of your own acoustic preferences and how you might want your favorite music to sound. And hopefully your listening room will be the size and shape necessary to achieve your preferences with gear you can actually afford.

Personal preference is a key concept, not only for determining what gear is best for you, but also for understanding the bias of the reviewer, who is also endowed with a set of preferences. Surely by now you've figured out I'm a tube guy. I revel in the sense of space and the tonal color that vacuum tubes deliver. I don't necessarily insist on pinpoint imaging, as that rarely occurs or is relevant in listening to live music, but a sense of large space can be intoxicating for me. And the absolute sound? Well, I listen to some live music, but many times I find the venue and the audience experience, as well as the preferred listening level of the sound man to be limiting factors. Being very visually oriented, I like to be up close where I can see the performers, but this often comes at the cost of music being too loud. With recordings, the intent of the artist and the producer is something over which I have no control. And the quality of the pressing is something over which they sometimes have little control, if any. Some recordings are really special, others, not so much. But what I can control to some extent, within my financial means, is my playback system including the room itself and the lighting. I'm not at all concerned with being able to identify the violins of the various masters of Cremona or the multitude of stompboxes used by masters of the electric guitar, but I do revel in being able to hear the nuances of those instruments and experience the emotional flux created by the music.

Like I said, my preference are for a sense of space and the decay of notes that comes along with it in addition to transparency. Combining ultimate focus with transparency creates a sense of "being there" that can be very exciting and engaging, particularly with live recordings. It can also be tiring when you string concerts back to back. A little softer focus can be much more relaxing—particularly when listening to Hearts of Space. One rig cannot do it all, just like shoes. I hike, bicycle, and work on my feet a lot. So as you can guess I tend to change my shoes several times a day. It should be so easy to change your rig for each type of musical experience you crave. But it isn't... which brings me back to Triode Labs and their amplifiers I've reviewed.

My introduction to Triode Labs was with their EL84TT, a 6 Watt per channel integrated amplifier for $2395 with tube rectification and their special driver design which gives a SET-like sound with EL84 tubes in push-pull configuration. I wrote "A very linear unit with impressive focus plus deep and defined soundscape." The build quality was very good, but the design was pretty basic. Driving the now discontinued coaxial Zu Union speaker, I was definitely impressed.

Their 2A3 Classic (Mk2) stereo power amplifier ($2888) followed. This was my first exposure to the 2A3 tube and to put it mildly, I was blown away. I wrote, "These could be the 3.5 most important Watts on the planet." Once again, there was a rather humble form factor combined with very good build quality, but the sound was considerably different.  I wrote, "The presentation is dark, being centered on the lower midrange with a full, sumptuous bass. Attack is good, decay is long, midrange focus is very good and the holographic music grabs your gut and pulls you right into the collective soul of the performers."  The top end was rolled off which ameliorated the tiresome treble of the Zu Audio Union, making for a very dynamic and engaging combination.

Next up was the gorgeous 2A3S, the racing version of the Classic, in Porsche Rubinrot Metallic, a luxurious deep red. With upgraded (and exposed) output transformers, power transformer and choke, and upgraded capacitors, this one put out an even more impressive 4 Watts per channel, but bumped the price up to $3888—still a reasonable sum for such a fine sounding amplifier with such visual appeal. It took all the addictive qualities of the 2A3 Classic to an even higher level with the Zu Union. Upon returning it to Carl Ng at the Montreal show, he immediately filled the void with the F138-FFX integrated amp, the subject of this review.

 

Internal Inspection Of The F138-FFX Vacuum Tube Stereo Power Amplifier
It gets a little confusing at this point. You have to dig deep into their website. Under "Product", click on "more" and you come to the Finale Audio by Triode Lab Ltd. website where they hide a whole other series of mostly low power products that range from affordable to reasonably priced. Click on "Integrated Amplifier" and then on "F138 FFX". Are you still with me? That's good, because this is another winner. It starts out as a basic F-138 stereo power amp ($1499) and gets the full NASCAR racing treatment—except for all the component decals on the chassis. The addition of an Alps attenuator morphs it into an integrated amplifier and an optional 16 Ohm headphone output is added for $2899 plus options.

Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX Vacuum Tube Integrated Amplifier

Among the options is computer coded automotive paint for the folded metal chassis and wood side panels. This one came in a Porsche yellow which, to my eye, was less endearing than the Porsche Rubinrot Metallic (deep red) of the 2A3S I had surrendered. But the color really doesn't matter, because the quality of the paint job instilled a pride of ownership matched by only a very few components I've reviewed. I've had this amp long enough to feel like I actually own it, but I'm embarrassed to say I've just taken a very long time to get around to writing the review. This in itself is a significant clue as to how much I treasure this amp. It's not silver; it's not black like most of your other components. It becomes the visual and audible center of your system. When you look at it, it seems to be a basic tube amplifier taken to a very high level with a superior automotive finish. Some of the FFX models come with a suite of Hashimoto transformers from the company that made the legendary transformers for Sansui. Other FFX models come with Tamura, Tango and other high quality brands. This one has a pair of Hashimoto and a power transformer from ANK (formerly Audio Note Kits, in Ottawa) who make very good transformers. But to listen to music coming through it driving a proper set of high efficiency speakers, the music sounds more inviting than massive solid state amplifiers milled from billet aluminum. How does it do it? Sound engineering, high quality parts, executed with Zen-like attention to detail. Notice the layout of the wiring. This is just one element of what they call FFX Silent Ground Technology—a grounding network they have designed to reduce hum and noise to produce an optimal SNR (signal-to-noise ratio). They also claim to have maximized the potential of the exotic parts with their special V-Max Tuning which yields maximum output power that is both measurably and sonically superior to more typical designs. With no music playing I turned the volume pot up full and I was able to put my ear right up to the drivers without hearing any noise. Small wonder that I was able to hear so much inner detail in the music.

Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX Vacuum Tube Integrated Amplifier

The EL84 power tube used here is much more linear than the 2A3 tube. Bass is tight and deep, but not iron fist tight. It doesn't need to be, because most of the music is found in the midrange and that's where the music grabs your emotions. Bass may trigger your testosterone, but the midrange grabs your soul. And the treble? Sweet and extended. It refined the treble produced by the Zu Audio Union speakers, thus making them more listenable for longer periods of time. With the Tekton Design Lore Reference speakers, the treble was smoother and more resolved. The Lore Reference was the $1000 speaker I used in my Entry Level Project and it received a Blue Note Award for 2014. Its tonal balance is flatter than the Zu Union and resolution is outstanding for a speaker in its price range, particularly when used with Sound Damped Steel Isofeet beneath the spikes.

Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX Integrated Amplifier

The Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FXX has even better focus than the Coincident Dynamo that was used in the Entry Level Project and it is a little smoother, too, but it gives up some transparency for which the Dynamo is extraordinary. The Dynamo is heavier (22 versus 18 lbs.) and with EL34 tubes, more powerful (8 versus 6 Watts). And the Dynamo costs less than half what the FFX costs, but the FFX has better resolution and a smoother presentation. Both amps are winners, but each excels in different ways, which makes your choice of speaker and your personal listening preferences so entwined with choosing one amp over the other. If you listen for long periods of time and like your music to be a more relaxing experience, the FFX may be the way to go. It will also be your best choice if your speakers or room are on the bright side of neutral and you want to tame that parameter. On the other hand, if you listen for only an hour at a time and prefer a more intense, "you are there" listening experience, the Dynamo will deliver. The FFX with the Tekton Lore Reference would be the more relaxing combination while the Dynamo with the Zu Union would be a near front row live concert experience. Both combinations draw you into the music. The Finalé F138-FXX / Tektondoes combination produced smoothness, detail and tonal color; while the Dynamo/Zu combination draws you in with dynamics and transparency. Put either amplifier with the other speaker and you get something in-between. And if you want it all, then you have to step up to something like the Coincident Turbo 845SE, which, at $6000 and 85 lbs, is in a different league. There are others, perhaps finer and certainly more expensive, yet I urge you to live within your means and enjoy the music, both recorded and live.

Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX Integrated Amplifier

Other comments on functionality should include mention of the connections. First, there is only one unbalanced RCA input. If you're using a DAC with S/PDIF RCA, USB and TosLink optical digital inputs, then the one input on the Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FXX becomes three inputs via the DAC. With my listening regimen including LPs, FM radio and CDs, I did a fair amount of cable swapping. Radio is a Sunday night Hearts of Space ritual, but when I get into the vinyl grooves or the silver discs, I tend to stay there for a week. Many people survive quite nicely with just a single source, but think this through. The absence of a switching device to select among various inputs contributes to the transparency and focus achieved with the F138-FFX. Not until you get into the league of electronic, rather than mechanical switching does this become a non-issue, but this technology comes with a steep cost. A decade ago I reviewed the Manley Skipjack which was a neat switching device activated with a pushbutton on a long cable that would have overcome this limitation (at a cost), but it hasn't been available since 2011.

There was only a single set of speaker cable binding posts; gold plated Cardas in my unit, or CMC posts with the plastic covers required in Europe are both offered. The binding posts are on both sides of the RCA inputs and there is not a lot of room between them. I was able to connect two sets of JPS Labs speaker cables with spades to each post when I ran the Tekton Lore Reference with vintage Tekton subwoofers, but it was not fun with these stiff cables. A screw driver with a hex socket was helpful to snug down the binding posts sufficiently even when only attaching a single cable.

There is a standard 1/4" headphone jack on the front of the amp that is wired for 16 Ohms and is capable of driving even the most difficult electrostatic type headphones. When you have a headphone input, your speaker binding posts can be wired for 4 or 8 Ohms. Without the headphone jack, the speaker posts can be wired for 16 Ohms, should you have such a rare speaker. There is a small toggle switch on the top deck of the chassis between a couple of transformers that will switch between headphones and speakers. Be sure to keep speakers attached to the amp even when using your headphones as the amp likes to see a resistance at that point in the circuit. I haven't succumbed to the recent headphone craze, though I've been increasingly intrigued by it. I had a couple of headphones on load from my buddy, Tom, which I auditioned with the FFX. His vintage Grado SR-80 cans have been very useful in my computer rig for deciphering my audio show notes on video. With music through the FFX, the Grado produced music of much higher resolution than I thought them capable, but it also revealed some of the tonal unevenness of this near entry level headset. Switching to his AKG K701 headset the focus improved and tonal balance evened out as you would expect from an AKG in the $200+ range. More expensive cans I've heard at shows sounded better, but I think it's safe to say that ultimately I would enjoy the F138-FFX headphone output as much as I have enjoyed the amp driving speakers.

Like many other models from Triode Lab, the Finalé F138-FXX is wide, left to right, and shallow, front to back. In spite of the rather sophisticated footers that came on the amp, focus improved even more when using Boston Audio TuneBlocks. I had to use a cardboard packing device beneath the heavy and somewhat stiff yet excellent sounding JPS Labs SuperConductor+ power cable to keep it from tipping the amp backwards and lifting it off the front footer. Whether this would be an issue for you depends on how your cables are draped behind your gear. I had less trouble with the more flexible Audio Sensibility Testament power cable. Both cables performed very well with the F138-FFX amp; you want to plan on having a decent power cord with an amp of this caliber. Ultimately, I preferred the Synergistic Research MIG footers for the enhanced sense of space they allow, but you may prefer a more neutral sound of the Boston Audio TuneBlocks. Other footers will make slightly different contributions to the final sound. It is a matter of fine tuning to your personal preference, taking into account the consequences of your listening room. A telling moment came at one point when I realized the amp had slipped off the front MIG footer without my being aware of it, hence resting on the stock footers at the front corners. When I reinstalled the front MIG footer the music regained more holographic imagery and the music floated more freely in space. The music playing was that flash-in-the-pan trio from the 1960s, The Jimi Hendrix Experience on Live at Winterland. It is also notable that the resolution of the F138-FFX has a way of sorting out such difficult live recordings in a way that makes the lyrics intelligible and the instruments musical. Neil Young & Crazy Horse on Live Rust, and Bob Dylan's Live 1966 were equally revelatory of the excellence of the FFX. The endless toe tapping and occasional goose bumps were proof.

Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX Integrated Amplifier

The red amp in the photo seems like it might be a different model, but it is also a Finalé F138-FXX. The new owner wanted a complete set of binding posts for 4, 8 and 16 Ohm speakers, as well as the larger 5AR4/GZ34 rectifier tube rather than the 6CA4 tube used on the yellow one that eventually came to me. You will also notice the RCA inputs have been moved off to the side on the red amp, rather than placed between the left and right speaker binding posts. This brings up an important point about Triode Lab. They have different models, like larger companies, but they are an artisan workshop that is small enough to cater to your specific needs. Moreover, they are extremely knowledgeable about tube amplifiers and the parts that go into them. For example, do you prefer Amtrans insulated/twisted gold plated solid core OFC or Belden silver plated solid core signal wires? And if you don't know the difference, they can guide you toward the proper choice if you can articulate the kind of sound you are looking for and what speaker you will be driving with the amp. That kind of flexibility and service isn't available from the big boys. On the other hand, you won't get uniform, engineered packaging with model names and logos printed on the box either.

 

Aurally Amazing Artisanal Audio
Triode Labs is a very special artisan shop that makes low powered tube amps for seasoned audio and music enthusiasts who have been around long enough to know what they want from an amplifier. They can build it basic, such as the Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138 power amp ($1599+) or hot-rod it into the superb sounding Finalé F138-FXX integrated amplifier reviewed here with an Alps volume pot among many other upgrades. And they can take it even higher than my review sample with optional features and even more expensive parts. I wish I could say I've spent three hours listening to music every day over the nine months I've had this amp. It's really that much fun, but show reports each take a month out of my listening time and I've done  three of them this year, plus the time consuming Entry Level Project in which I put together a complete system. Dropping the F138-FFX into that Entry Level Project was worth every penny of the additional $1600 and proved to me that I don't need a rig upwards of five figures to enjoy the music, at least from the digital sources that were in play. In an age when the middle class is being tightly squeezed this was a breath of fresh air. The Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FXX is not for everybody, however. If you're still speed dating with speakers and amplifiers, then Triode Labs is probably not for you. But if you've come to appreciate what tubes can contribute and have found a speaker with high sensitivity that works for you, by all means, examine the entire line from Triode Labs. Their models differ in subtle but significant ways and have a broad price range. I've covered four of them now, and I wouldn't hesitate to review even more, especially since I'm due to receive a couple of very promising high sensitivity speakers. Does it sound like I'm trying to launch this company into stardom? They deserve it!

Triode Lab Ltd. Finalé F138-FFX Integrated Amplifier

 

Emotional Involvement

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Vacuum tube stereo amplifier
Power Output: 6 Watts per channel Class A
Tube Compliment: EL84 output, 12AX7 driver and GZ34 for rectification
Speaker Outputs: 4 and 8 Ohms
User Options:
  •Choice of using 5AR4/GZ34 or EZ81/6CA4 for tube rectifications
  •Choice of Mundorf Silver in Oil, EVO Silver/Gold Oil Coupling Caps
  •Mundorf oversized high-end power supply capacitor (As Shown)
  •Choice of Cardas / CMC USA binding posts 0-8 Ohms Output (4/16 Ohm Optional)
  •Choice of Cardas / CMC USA / Furutech RCA connectors
  •Furutech gold IEC inlet
  •Alps Japan Blue volume potentiometer (option if want to use direct)
  •Soundcoat damping sheet for the bottom plate
  •Amtrans insulated/twisted gold plated solid core OFC or Belden silver
  • Headphone Out @ 16 Ohm with remaining 4 and 8 ohms to speaker binding posts
  • Volume control (Alps or TKD grade)
  • Choice of custom computer-coded automotive paint and sides available.
Price: $2899 plus options

 

Company Information
Tube de Force Ltd
Voice: 1-647-718-3223
Email: email@tubedeforce.com
Website: www.TubeDeForce.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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