These are great little entry-level tube amps for super-efficient speakers. They rock. The base price is only $99.00 each for Antique Sound Labs' monoblock tube amplifier. But do not let the price fool you. These are charming amps.
Our astute publisher has already endorsed these charming little amps with his "Cool Audio System on the Cheap" suggestions. He recommends them with a pair of Lowther-like loudspeakers and a $13 tweak for a complete system costing under a grand. Therefore, this review will only concentrate on their sound on low cost cone and big old horn speakers. After skimming through my thoughts, pop on over to Steve's review by clicking here.
The Wave 8 clearly provides the tube sound, for a pittance of the price of most good tube or solid-state amplifiers. They perform with a joyous snap and pop. More like the exuberance of college football than the smooth professionalism of the NFL. Yet, the low cost and low powered tube amps were wonderful to hear. They have a whiff of the rare air of magical audio combinations. Indeed, I found myself returning again and again to rock recordings and playing the Waves loud.
I thought Tracy Chapman's New Beginnings (Electra 1995), for example, was an upbeat, although sedate, version of the artist who made "Talking about a Revolution" a famous hit (Tracy Chapman Electra 1988). With the Waves however, New Beginnings was now a bopping piece of rock n' roll. Instead of frequent listening sessions to the smooth jazz croonings of Diana Krall or k.d. lang, I cranked Tracy and rocked. The Waves may only put out eight tube watts (but remember tube watts ain't solid-state watts), but they also have auto biasing. This handy little feature means that tweaking audiophiles do not need to adjust their voltage settings for the tubes. This makes them almost as simple to use as a solid-state amp. Just do not handle them when the power is on.
We were both impressed by the quality of the sound, the construction and the low cost of the amps. Steve Rochlin likes the $99 version of the Waves, while I appreciate the safety of the tube cover and the ease of hooking up speakers to the back without the hindrance of the power cord. Both of these handy features come in the $119 version.
Unlike Steve, the models I reviewed did not come with any blemishes, nor were the tubes already installed. Yet one of the input connections was not tightly snug with the Monster Silver input cable, so I suffered a low buzz in one channel. Grabbing the connection tightly helped. Strangely, the other amp had no such problem and the connections were identical. The amps I reviewed came with the 2.5" high PCL82 tubes as advertised on the Divergent website. Compared to the light tin receivers sold in the same price range, these amps are elegantly made, sturdy and hefty.
As Steve noted, the Waves do look cute without their covers. With their tops down, there is no mistaking these fiery little amps for sleek SS boxes. These are not stock Cameros or Firebirds with Madison Avenue designed pointy noses, smooth flares and side grooves; low slung and powerfully smooth. These amps are more like souped-up square-nosed Chevy Novas: lighter, punchier, low cost, sporty, fun to work on, jack rabbit quick starts and ready to party!
I listened to the Waves against two sets of speakers and amplifiers. One amp was a massive solid-state model, while the other was of the flea-powered tube variety. One set of loudspeakers were charming bookshelf models, the others were big ol' horns.
The Axiom Audio Millennia M3Ti are small 6.5" two bookshelf loudspeakers with amazingly good sound and impressive construction details for only $275 a pair (shipped Fed Ex three days)! They are rated at above average efficiency, 93 dB/w/m. In an average size living room, the Waves should produce somewhere between 94dB to 97dB peaks without audible signs of clipping. When played within their clipping range, upper 90dBs, these are admirable performers. A review of these charmers is included here, plus their top-of-the-line brothers (only $1,100) are on their way to my abode.
The other speakers were my big old 1982 Klipsch Cornwall 1 horns, one of the largest 2-1/2 way speakers ever built. With a metal mid-range horn covering much of the music spectrum from 600Hz to 6000Hz, and a metal tweeter adding brightness to the top, these babies are not only ultra-efficient (at 100dB/w/m) but they are also relentless revealing. Few front-end components sound good with them.
The Other Amplifiers
I compared the solid little Wave monoblocks to some city-folk cousins, the Bottlehead 2A3 Paramours (usually sold in kit form). These are 3.5-watt (@ 1% distortion) monoblock amps with a 2A3 bottle sitting on a thin tan elder wood box. Their size and weight is about the same as a box of Kleenex™ tissues.
I also listened to the horns on the massive silver Pass Lab X250. This is a powerful, flawlessly performing Single-Ended Class A amp reviewed last month. Power output is way out of the league of both of the two tube amps… combined. The X250 is rated at 250 watts into 8ohms and doubles when faced with 4-ohm loads.
Ultra-efficient horns (100dB/w/m) are one of the few speaker designs that can truly benefit from flea-powered amps like the Paramours. The gorgeous Pass Labs muscle on these big old horns of mine was an extremely thorough and accurate sound, yet the combination was not as "musical" as their weight, construction and price would suggest.
In comparison, the mid-bass and upper bass of the low cost Waves seems very good. It has a good thump to it. It is round and tangible, with very good punch for such a low powered unit. A bow pulled across the bass strings sent shivers cross my shoulders.
My current stack of reference discs includes: the wonderfully sultry and showy jazz of 24-bit/96kHz Diana Krall (Stepping Out, JustinTime 2000, see my gushing review); the excellent darkness and tone of a variety of instruments on the DMP Does DSP SACD (Digital Music Products '99); the amazing clean and enjoyable jazz on the 20 Bit Taste of DMP sampler (DMP '93); plus the various Stereophile magazine Test CD recordings ('90, '92 and '95).
With Tracy's New Beginnings, the midrange was is quite good. On the reference stack, the midrange was also quite good. Definitely some of the tube magic, though it is neither refined nor subtle. When fingers are sliding on strings, they made the strings sound metallic. Guitars rattled like mean snakes. There is an edge to the Wave mid-range not found on either the Bottlehead Paramours or the Pass Labs X250. They made many CDs sound more like live concert recordings. The flute was sharper, not as smooth or as liquid, as JM Labs speakers with Audio Refinement equipment. On the Cornwalls, the Waves reminded me how impolite horns can be. They are sometimes brassy, loud and in-your-face. Klipsch puts the loud back into loudspeakers. The Waves brought out some of the PA sound in them.
Highs were also good. More forward and sharp than the Paramours or the Pass X250 amps, yet with more of a roll-off at the highest extremes. Tambourines spiked my ears like tweeter targets. Like many tube amps, the soundstage and imaging was good. I found myself inching the big old horns in and out - to widen and sharpen the soundstage, in a way I never was tempted to try with the X250.
The Waves seem fast as they are quick to deliver on the notes. Not as quick as the Paramour, but faster sounding than the Pass X250. The fast notes, though had more power behind them than the Paramour, although of course, not as much as the massive X250. Sonic effects, though not as fully formed, were more enticing than the Pass X250. The snare drum rim shots were there in spades. Bass and mid-range pop like champagne corks at a bachelor party. Pianos plinked. Castanets clicked. Blocks knock. Cowbells rang. Bongos and toms whack. Like the song says, "they make you wanna jump." For $99 a side, this is one delightful audio bargain.
Chapman singing "gimme one reason to stay here and I'll turn my back around" sounded live, boisterous, vibrant, full of life, although sometimes painfully unrefined. The hemi-loaded Wave 8s peel out with plenty of pedal and rubber. They are not refined old Jaguars like the Paramours, or the brute Vette muscle of the Pass Lab amps. Yet on above average efficient speakers like the Axioms, they play with plenty of power. Chapman's rock created a crescendo wave pushing at me as she sung, "say it, say it, say it."
It is amazing that such diminutive and simple amps could even hope to accomplish what juggernauts like the X250 do so well. No wonder amp and speaker matching is so difficult. Who would ever match a $99 amp, with tubes as small as your thumb, up against a jet-powered $6000 heavyweight B52 bomber like the Pass X250? Yet these go-cart size models zip around the audio course with just as much fun as the thunderous Pass Lab bombers.
Whatever it is that tubes and sensitive speakers "get" about making music, these charming little babies "get it" too. Call it coloration, call it euphonics, but give it to me by the shovelful. I loved what they did together with either speaker. They kept me reaching for more music.
Compared to the bargain basement price of the solid little ASL Wave 8s, the Bottlehead Paramours are twice as expensive; $549 base price for the Paramour pair (usually sold in kit form). Yet, the Paramours are one of best bargains in the world of 2A3 tube amps.
Listening on the wonderful 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 chamber music or orchestra lovers in small to moderate rooms, I would give delicate amps like the Paramours the nod over the Waves.
If the Wave 8 amplifiers sound great with Klipsch Cornwalls and very good with Axioms, other more powerful and costly tube amplifiers may sound even better. Antique Sound Labs has a new 10-watt 2A3 tube amp. I hope to have a review on their recently announced Tulip model in the April issue.
Since speakers are the only bargain in the audio biz - you get the most bang for your buck with speakers - then amplifiers must be the sinkhole of stereo. They are the drain, down which we dump dozens of dollars. The ASL Wave 8s plug that hole. Now anyone can match with a musical sounding amp, a smooth sound source and sensitive speakers for a musically sounding system.
At an entry-level price of only $99 per side, few power amps compare to the amazing rendition of high-end audio that these charmers 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, these have got to be the ticket. They certainly punched mine.
Output Power: 8 watts