nOrh's $399 "Class A" Single Ended SE9
Integrated Stereo Tube Amplifier
The Little Engine that Could?
Review by A. Colin Flood
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The company is nOrh (pronounced like "more"). It is the same company renown for its unique loudspeakers. They are heavy, round, sculpted and polished cones of marble, with a single driver peering from the end. The nOrh SE9 is their integrated tube pre-amplifier and amplifier with an arm's length of desirable features and few crucial drawbacks. The SE9 is
"Class A", single ended (SE) and only $399, including shipping direct to your door from Thailand!
The SE9 is quite a solid little performer for the money. The amplifier comes fully assembled as a polished stainless steel square, topped by stocky black transformers. The hefty little amplifier weighs 35 pounds, feels even heavier and has a black
front plate with only two small toggle switches. It looks more like the powerful Quicksilver amplifiers than a low cost offering. Output is a mere 9-watts per channel with power consumption of 80 watts; on many of the loudspeakers however, it seemed even less than that.
The SE9 uses common, readily available tubes. It has two EL34EH power tubes, along with two typical 12AX7EH drive tubes. Both sets are small to medium size tubes from Electro
Harmonix. The tube sockets are ceramic, with a 5AR4 rectifier tube, instead of cheaper silicon diodes, and beefy
hand wound transformers. There is no fiddly biasing of the tubes with adjustment screws - just plug them in and you are ready to go. There are no protection fuses.
Start Me Up
The tubes do not run especially hot, so they should not burn up quickly. One can expect a usable tube life of a few years, depending on usage. The tubes are easily found and replaced, both unused old stock (NOS) and new. While warm to the touch, the little amplifier does not run very hot, yet two to three feet of cooling air space should be available for all sides.
The chunky size of the transformers is a nice plus. For tweaking audiophiles who want to get under the hood, the SE9 uses a circuit board, making wiring modifications more difficult.
The SE9 is a clean, featureless front plate, dominated by only one small volume knob and the two toggles. One toggles the inputs, the other toggles the power. The knobs and toggles work fine, but feel as cheap as Radio Shack parts. Most of the time the volume knob was set at the 10:00 mark or higher, in order to get any volume. The rear plate is also sparse. Only two sets of RCA input jacks and a row of small gold binding posts.
One nice feature is separate posts for both the 4-ohm and 8-ohm taps. On a low impedance loudspeaker, it is quite easy to switch the positive cable from one to the other - the common ground stays the same. Though small, the posts can still handle large spade or banana plugs. There are no popular upgrades for it, as there are for the enduring Dynaco legends, though this may change with increased popularity. There is also no tube cage to dissuade children's snooping hands.
The SE9's low price competes with anything offered on the used market, but without the worry of aging parts, uneven sound and scratchy knobs. There are no adjustable power knobs or meters. There are no other controls, tone or otherwise. The power cord is separate, allowing for a cheap and possibly effective tweak by replacing it. With better looking and feeling knobs and posts, this hefty and shiny beast could easily sell for three or four times its price through retail stores!
I auditioned the SE9 with a number of bookshelf loudspeakers, all of them rated with above average sensitivity: the simply cherry bookshelf Coincident Triumph Signatures (solid recommendation coming); the dynamic
Omega TS1s; and the large Classic Audio Cinema Ensembles horns (soon to be reviewed). My initial impressions of its sound is somewhere between the punchy and charming little
ASL Wave 8s and the suave and detailed Bottlehead 2A3 Paramours (both of them reviewed here). Yet, the SE9 is NOT immediately warm and detailed, punchy and quick, sharp or smooth. While its sound is not the immediate tube sound I know and love, it is not austerely dry or clinical as a solid-state amplifier either. On the other hand, it does have not the control of solid state either.
The Coincident Triumph Signatures are extremely well made, audiophile quality, two-way bookshelf models. Since their review was pending, I spent a great deal of time listening to the SE9 with them. The Triumph Signatures are very easy to drive, but this was not a happy combination. The SE9 did little for the Triumph Signatures and the loudspeakers offered nothing in return. Despite the need to give them as long a listen as possible, I kept swapping the sophisticated Triumph Signatures for the more dynamic Omega TS1s.
Skewing The Scorecard
On the Enjoy the Music.com™ scorecard, one delightful feature can skew the other categories. The Omega TS1's super-sensitivity, for example, added joyous dynamics to many of its average categories, boosting those scores. The TS1's silky blue-gray marble finish didn't hurt either. In this case, the compelling feature is the SE9's unbelievable low price. Its
rock bottom $400 price tag raises many otherwise mediocre features.
I definitely prefer the SE9 with either the single driver TS1s or the Cinema Ensembles horns. The higher TS1 sensitivity got more from the SE9 than Triumph Signatures did. So did the dynamic Cinema Ensembles. Of course, if you shell out the
1,200 to 1,500 clams, which these two models require, you are not likely to pair them with a bargain basement amplifier anyway - and you shouldn't. To do so is to waste the capabilities of the loudspeaker.
Various loudspeakers seem to encourage one type of music over the other types. A few don't encourage listening at all. That is how I felt about the laid-back
Vince Christian E6c system without the mighty Pass X250, which paired so well with it. Unless I was listening to "see" the placement of the instruments, especially with orchestral music and large concert halls (which the E6c did exceptionally well), I found myself not listening to music at all. Such was the case with the SE9 and these loudspeakers. Even its charming flaws, not unlike the polite civility of dangerous pirates and rogues, did not lure me into extended listening sessions.
I have not heard other well-regarded integrated tube amplifiers, such as the Antique Sound Labs
(ASL) MGSI15DT, AQ1003, Jolida 102b or 202a, on my big old horns. The horns love anything with tubes and really rock, even with the ASL Wave 8s. If the Wave 8 amplifiers sound great with Klipsch Cornwall horns and very good with charming Axiom Audio M3Ti bookshelf speakers, other more powerful and costly tube amplifiers may sound even better with my big old horns. ASL has a new 10-watt 2A3 tube amplifier, which I would love to hear on my big old horns.
Whatever it is that tubes and sensitive speakers "get" about making music, these hefty little babies do not "get it." Whatever coloration or
euphonic tubes add to the texture of music, these amplifiers lack. I did not love what they did with any of the loudspeakers. True, they exhibit a little of the "tube sound"; warm mid-range, sparkling treble and 3D imaging. Just a bit of honey though. Not enough to satisfy Pooh Bear. They kept me switching back to cable movies.
Compared to the pocket change price of the $99 Wave 8s, the SE9s are several times more expensive. Yet, I would rather mate the Wave 8s with a used tube pre-amplifier or consider a reconditioned Scott integrated amplifier
before I would jump for these. Even if I did go for the SE9, it would be for a small room or entry-level system and the loudspeakers would have to well above average sensitivity.
At an entry-level price of only $99 per side, few power amps compare to the amazing rendition of high-end audio that Wave 8s give. If there is an entry level tube amp out there for neophyte audiophiles, or simply some one who wants the most "tube bang for their audio buck" with their above-average efficiency speakers, the Wave monoblocks are the ticket.
Same could be said with the more expensive Bottlehead 2A3 Paramours. Even when listening on the low cost, but charming Axiom M3Tis, the Paramours revealed the care, skill and craftsmanship of musicians on recordings. Plus, they played plenty loud enough, without audible signs of clipping in my average size living room. For anything but subdued popular music in small rooms, I would give delicate amps like the Paramours, punchy amplifiers like the Wave 8s, or used solid state classics, like my SS Pioneer, the "thumbs up " instead of the nOrh SE9.
The delicate Bottlehead 2A3 Paramours did benefit from the vibration isolation of platforms like
the ones I constructed here ("Save $1,680, Simple to make platform isolates vibrations:
Brings out details for CD and record players"), but the SE9s were not obviously sensitive to it.
On the Enjoy the Music.com™ reviewer's scale, a score of 25 or less in a category is failing. It means that other, comparably priced offerings can do better. A score of 50 is passing, but only about average for what you get with other similar offerings. 75 then, is above average, better than most other offerings. My score of 90 is superb, well above average; only fantastically expensive dream systems might possibly do better (but who cares?). 100 points means that regardless of cost, nothing could be better. Grading each of my amplifiers on the same curve means the amazingly low cost nOrh SE9s are about average in many respects with normal loudspeaker fare. My own category, Enjoyment, reflects my emotional response to the unit.
Speakers are the only bargain in the audio biz - you get the most bang for your buck - while amplifiers are the sinkhole of stereo. They drain dozens of dollars. Yet, amplifiers are also the brains and brawn of a home music and movie system. I would love it if a low cost integrated tube amplifier could bring the tube sound to the masses. Sadly though, even at $400, the hefty nOrh SE9s is not that magically wonderful solution. It is a hefty performer, at a bargain-basement price for a Class A integrated stereo amplifier, shipped directly to your door from Thailand, but it is also a little engine that can't.