Apart from the fact that T+A is a full line producer of high fidelity and home cinema equipment, and that it is based in Germany, the name meant relatively little to me. Until quite recently, I knew T+A as one of the smaller companies that could justifiably claim to be a full line producer of hi-fi and home theatre equipment, of interesting and sometimes slightly idiosyncratic design. What changed the situation for was a recent visit to company headquarters in Herford, Westphalia, where it quickly became apparent that T+A elektroakustik (the company name stands for theory and applications in electroacoustics) is no mere assembler of off the shelf components, but that it has its own ambitious and impressive full range design and manufacturing facility, perhaps the most striking I have seen since visiting Linn Products factory some years ago, which (at the time) was roughly the same size.
I also discovered something of a passion for quality control. Some of the tests routinely applied to every unit off the line I have never seen elsewhere, one striking example the logging of distortion levels as the equipment is subject to vibration. As a point of fact, T+A engineer for long-term model lifetimes and serviceability (proof of the latter was on show in their service department), and most of their models come with remote controls that will operate complete systems. Other facts: the company was founded in 1978, its early specialty being transmission line loudspeakers. Active speakers followed, then the broad range of electronics with which the company is mostly associated. In the UK at least, it is the loudspeakers that are least known these days, though they have long made some impressive designs. The stereo only V series was launched as a 25th anniversary project.
As it happens, and for reasons that should not need spelling out, about the only equipment not subject to routine vibration testing are the two items reviewed here, which form the core of the nascent audiophile range of T+A components, which rather confusingly is described by T+A as the V range, though V only figures in one of the product names. As I write the V10 integrated tube amp and the G10R turntable, the latter available in various versions, constitute the entirety of the current range, but a stereo SACD player is due to be shown at CES in Las Vegas this January, and should be available shortly thereafter. Visually there is little to connect the 10 series with any existing T&A product, or with any other range for that matter. Aesthetics are always an individual matter, but there is no doubt that a lot has gone into the industrial design of these two products, which I for one regard as both striking and successful — and the control system is a clear step up from the usual run of the mill minimalism of audiophile brands. The materials used — an extravagantly eclectic mix of steel, fine alloy castings, thick acrylic panels, metal mesh covers for the vacuum tubes, and beautifully milled controls - are well chosen, and the multi-tone dark grey overall finishes are highly distinctive.
The premise on which the two components tested here are based, and this is something that T+A is committed to with additional products as and when they become available, is that while being designed to please the audiophile, they are very much real world products, rather than being specifically aimed at the anorak brigade. The intention was that they don't require the intensive, sometimes obsessive TLC required with some high-end turntables and amplifiers. As you will see this thinking has various consequences, which has led the designers in intriguing and sometimes unexpected directions.
G10R PH-G10MC Record Player
The first decision when the turntable was being developed was to produce a complete package, that is a record deck with a cartridge, and also a phono step-up which is bolted into the base, and which allows direct connection to the line input of any amplifier. This is a wholly rational way of designing turntables, which has been done before (for example by Roksan and Linn), so this thinking has plenty of form. For the record (no pun) the G10R is also available as a plain record deck, but is normally sold as a complete unit with one of two arms, a customized Rega RB300 or an SME M2-9, each fitted with a Benz manufactured cartridge, the high output CO5 for the Rega, and the low output C-10 in the case of the SME. There is yet another choice, as the turntable can be supplied without the phono step-up included in the base. For this test, the player was supplied with the Rega /Benz combination and with the PH-G10MC phono step-up, chosen on preference, based in part on an admittedly brief audition at the T+A factory. The phono step-up is configurable via DIL switches accessible from underneath, and is usable with low output MC and MM cartridges alike.
The black magic that underpins the player is a DSP controlled motor, which monitors the drive parameters of the AC synchronous motor which is driven a very low voltage (5V I believe) given the motor's nominal 12V rating, and which constantly adjusts the motor coil voltage in real time to effectively counter cogging effects. The speed control works without the requirement for a servo, which sidesteps the overshoot/undershoot 'hunting' effects associated with servo loops. The DSP even controls run up to normal speed operation by adjusting start up torque. In practice the turntable gives completely smooth operation from standstill without needing a clutch or other complications.
Setting up is a doodle: decant the player from the box, insert the main ball into the inverted bearing housing, add oil, lower the platter into place while hooking the machined drive belt over the motor spindle (less fiddly than it sounds), and place the acrylic top part of the platter in place, which blocks access to the drive belt. There is no suspension setup involved. Even the cartridge arrives fitted and adjusted, leaving just the setting of tracking and bias forces to the user. Operation is equally simple. With an RJ11 data lead connected to the amplifier, selecting the line input associated with the player starts the motor. Otherwise simply use the front panel controls for this purpose, and to set play speed — 33 and 45 rpm (78rpm is said to be a factory mod away). A front panel display shows the nominal running speed, and indicates when it has been locked.
Ease of setup and freedom from routine maintenance has dictated that the player does not have suspended subchassis. Environmental isolation is instead provided by four well damped (low Q) non-adjustable shock absorbing feet, and the stabilizing effect of the turntable's own weight, aided by a steel main chassis bonded to a thick acrylic top layer and sandwich construction for the outer chassis panels providing the appropriate mix of mass loading, rigidity and damping. The platter consist an alloy disc to which five brass weights are attached, and an acrylic disc with holes cut out to level the surface around the discs. An internal mechanical damper filled with lead and sand further controls the structure. A brass centre weight and a cover are available as optional extras, but were not available in time for this test, and so were not assessed.
The amplifier is a full on tube-powered design with an impressive power output rating of 80 Watts/channel (8 or 4 Ohms, according to the output connectors chosen). As an exclusively line level design — as you have seen phono compatibility is handled externally by the matching G10 player — the G10R features five line inputs, one a tape circuit, with full remote control operation.
The V10 is a "Class A/B" design that employs a proprietary circuit architecture called SPPP (Single Primary Push Pull). One of the properties of the circuit is that it offers a full 100kHz operating bandwidth appropriate for SACD, but most of all it is intended to address the non linearities and asymmetries of push pull tube circuits, and in particular the "Class B" crossover artifacts which are inevitable when the two separate half cycles of the waveform, which are generated by different tubes in a non Class A design, are combined. A single-ended "Class A" circuit would have solved the same problem in a simpler, and arguably more elegant way, but at the cost of much less output power and vastly less electrical efficiency and inevitably much higher cost.
In addition, a single ended solution would not have allowed the designer to address the problem of stray inductance in the primary transformer output windings. SPPP uses only one DC feedback loop to set the 0V point of the amplifier, with no need for the half wave currents, and therefore no need for summing them in the output, which is a source of distortion. Because there is only a single primary transformer winding, there are no symmetry issues and less stray interference, and hence (say T+A) a cleaner output. The circuit design is inherently suitable for toroidal output transformers, which are inherently wider in bandwidth and suffer less from phase problems. Less negative feedback is required, and the frequency bandwidth can be extended to 100kHz (as noted earlier) without problems.
Again the key to the performance of the amplifier is sophisticated microprocessor control, which extends to most of the operational settings, such as voltage levels, overload margins, current flows, and even to operation of the quiet internal fan, whose running speed is controlled thermostatically. In addition the microprocessor mediates the start up process to ease the load on the tubes, and monitors long term operation, even the type of load connected, which has the effect of extending the effective lifetime of the tube set (up to 5000 hours is claimed), and warning when a change is required. Downsides? The electrical design is unusually complex, which is openly acknowledged by T+A, and the circuit requires a substantial tube complement (two ECC83, two ECL82, two ECC99, and four EL509/II), and 22 separate voltages have to be defined internally, which would be difficult to achieve at a reasonable cost by lesser manufacturers than T+A.
The stunning mechanical design mirrors that of the record player, and features steel 'platform', with sandwich construction chassis panels, and shock absorbing feet. Aluminum die-casting is used to shroud the massive toroidal transformers and mesh covers keep the tubes street legal.
The user interface of these two components cossets the user in a way that initially at least seems out of keeping for a combination of tube amplification and belt drive turntable. True, arm lift/lower is a completely manual operation, but the player's phono step-up obligingly mutes when the player is turned off. Even more impressive, the amplifier is controlled by an all-singing system remote control, with a front panel display that can be made to show bias levels, and estimated lifetime for the vacuum tubes based on usage history. All in all if the tubes were hidden from sight, there would be very little sign that the amplifier is not a solid-state design — apart that is for the way it sounds.
Similarly, the record player is a technically bullet proof. Speed stability is subjectively solid as a rock, with no aural signs of wow or flutter. The bass is tidier and more crisply defined and tuneful than is often the case with vinyl players, and despite the absence of a suspended subchassis, as long as the player is used on a solid support, it is not particularly subject to microphony or footfall noise. Indeed vinyl noise of an impulsive nature was handled with considerable decorum, a clear indication of a well-behaved turntable. There is very little main induced hum, certainly nothing that is audible from a normal listening distance, and noise levels are also low. Basically this is a very civilized system. You just turn it on and it works. No hassle, no temperament.
So far, so good, but how does it sound? First, let's make clear that the two are a natural working combination. Each has qualities that work hand in glove with the other in a way that speaks of genuine synergy. In particular, the record player is a peach. It has a muscular bass and a firm, disciplined quality through the mid and treble that is associated with the Rega arm when used in a context that allows it to stretch its wings. This was my first exposure to a Benz cartridge, and after a suitable (fairly extended) running in period, I found myself impressed and a little surprised by a cartridge that demonstrated an ability to dig deep for detail and bass extension.
When it is set up just so, which may take some fine tuning of the tracking force adjustment to optimize VTA (the two are interrelated through the finite compliance of the suspension), the Benz delivers a sharply defined but large scale soundstage, with good high frequency separation, and a sense of life and vitality that could drive some lesser systems over the edge. The Rega has long been a, arguably the consummate affordable arm, not so much for the way it performs at the frequency extremes — it's treble can and does sound a little clouded by the best standards — but for its overall disciple and stability, which presumably made its contribution to the good tracking ability demonstrated throughout the test. The two are clearly at home with the T+A record spinner lending support and control. In short, this is a good combination, one that errs towards maximum information retrieval rather than euphony.
But for those who are happy comparing apples and pears, the real star of the show has to be the V10 amplifier. In a nutshell it is a stunner in the very best sense in which the term can be applied to tube amplifiers. This is no softie. The bass isn't excessively warm and it is not overtly euphonic. In many respects it sounds more like a solid-state amplifier than many bottle powered designs, and if you regard a tube amplifier as a means of escape from the supposed ills of solid state amplification, you may end up disappointed. But then you would probably be disappointed by most of the better tube amps, which is a smaller and more select group than many tube fans allow.
What distinguishes the G10R from the crowd might be described as its vitality and presence, though as in many things audio there are alternative ways of characterizing performance. What I noticed with known orchestral recordings (from CD, SACD and from vinyl LP) was a lively textured quality and a sense of solidity. Orchestral sounds are placed coherently around the speakers, filling the space in between. Thanks to proper handling of subtle ambient information, the soundstage is properly characterized in terms of depth, varying smoothly in range from the listening seat from one orchestral section to the next, and with well recorded, coherent recordings, between individual instruments in a section - or voices in a choral piece. The T+A amp is also adept at reproducing the expressive range of individual instruments, the rasp of tubas, the soaring woodwind, the fresh crispness of percussion achieved without the fried eggs edge of lesser electronics.
With chamber music it was as often as not the silence, the expansive quality, the light and shade, that really sang out, that made the often dark early Shostakovich string quartets (Emerson, DGG) for example into the compelling listening experience they can and should be. The overall effect was always human, organic, and never clinical, but it never underplayed the drama, or reduced the tonal and dynamic range. It didn't soften the edges, which can make tube amps sound nice and smooth, even when the music is rugged and aggressive.
The record player then is an excellent design, easy to chose (no worries about which arm or cartridge to use), and particularly easy to set up, with the implied promise that it won't require routine incantations of voodoo magic to keep it on song. But for this listener the real star is the amplifier, a tube powered amplifier with the usability, loudspeaker drive capability and power output of a decent solid-state design, and which doesn't throw out too much waste heat. It may disappoint those looking for a sound that won't upset grannies, because this one can, but its bold musculature, obvious dynamism and open expressiveness, combined with some excellent high tech electronics in the background to keep it running sweetly, make this one of the most practical and musical tube amplifiers I have seen for some time.
G10R record player
Type: 33/45 rpm record player, belt driven synchronous motor drive player with internal resonance controller
Drive: quartz controlled synchronous motor with DSP optimized supply of motor drive curve.
Speeds: 33.3/45 rpm electrically switched
Platter: 4.4kg acrylic-aluminum
Bearing: inverted hardened polished steel, precision machined in one operation including centre bore in one operation without re-chucking
Wow & Flutter: not measurable
Features: includes customized Rega RB300 arm, Benz C05 high output MC cartridge, PH-G10NC MM/MC phono step-up
Dimensions: 150 x 443 x 378 (HxWxD in mm)
V10 tube integrated amplifier
Type: tube stereo integrated amplifier
Output Power: 80 Watts/channel into 8/4 Ohms (110 Watts peak)
Frequency Response: 8Hz to 100kHz
Harmonic Distortion: <0.05% @ 1 Watt
Channel Separation: 100dB
Inputs: four line level plus tape circuit
Features: High/standard valve bias voltage settings for low & high level replay
Dimensions: 186 x 443 x 378 (HxWxD in mm)
Remote control - included
T + A elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG
North America Distributor
Voice: (707) 762-0914