As we are constantly told, prejudices are a bad thing and a book should not be judged by its cover. First impressions, particularly of people, are supposedly inaccurate, unfair, and downright bad form. In less than humble experience (a loaded phrase if there ever was one) I have not found these maxims of conduct true. Often, I spot a nasty piece of work on first meeting, only to berate myself for later giving them the benefit of the doubt. And cars that look lovely, most often are lovely.
It is therefore with some (as it turn out, justified) prejudice that I greeted delivery of GLOW Audio’s Amp One. GLOW And here, more rather than less, my prejudgment came to be true. This was one book that could successfully be judged by its cover. I should, however, get my three (two fixable, the latter the nature of the beast) off my chest. I should add that these all very, very minor gripes.
1. I have taken a serious dislike to the changing colors of the illuminated volume control. There is, I have been told, a heat sensitive circuit that activates different LEDs to create different colors. What I didn’t know is that the heat generated by a valve amplifier is not as directly associated with the volume it is playing at than I had thought. Overall, I found this really rather small function distracting. When I buy this amp – which I will – the LEDs will get the snip. The implementation of the magic eye on the DARED Hybrid MP-5 I find much more satisfying and less distracting as it boogies, as it where, with the music.
2. GLOW has found it necessary to add further illumination to the tubes by lighting them from below. Mine, unlike the picture above, are blue. Call me old fashioned, but I like the look of a lit tube just as Lee De Forest intended. Again, teensy, weensy complaint which is easily fixed.
3. Lastly, and this is one gripe that the fine fellows at GLOW could do nothing about if they wanted to realize the amp as they intended. There is just not that much real estate available on the back of the amplifier such that if you use speaker cables that are not terminated with bananas or weird interconnects that think more is more or wish to take right angles or some other such stupid things you will run out of space.
While my first two complaints I believe of the form of gilding the lily, the latter is simply the cost of doing business with an amp this petite with proper iron.
Now that I have my gripes out of the way: what do I like about the GLOW Amp One? Pretty much everything. I like the way it looks. I like the narrow design that fits nearly anywhere. I like the use of an EL84 Pentode as a triode. (The first tube radio I was given – an early 60s Grundig tabletop that my father won in a poker game -- around age six employed almost the same topology with an Old Old Stock Telefunken and I have loved that sound ever since.) I suppose I also like the point-to-point wiring but don’t know if I could hear the difference between that and a bog standard PCB. I like the amp’s ergonomics and big volume knob. I like the USB input that I soon plan to use to with the Asus Eee laptop I am picking up tomorrow. I like the small amount of feedback – about 9dB – that keeps the bass in check. No negative feedback calls for some special speakers. In addition, I like what a perfect match it makes with my Role Audio Sampans that I reviewed in a previous article.
I also like the sound.
A few other features that no doubt GLOW would like me to mention. The GLOW’s tube cage is removable and ingeniously attached with magnets. It does accept a USB input, which makes it great for a PC. I do not, however, know the nature of the included DAC. The amp only sports a single line in, which is automatically switched out when a live USB feed is inserted. I switched between sources either manually – between my tuner and SACD player mostly – or with a Sim Audio passive pre-amp that I used as a switch. A single line in is less trouble than you might think and bestows on you the benefit of cleaning your contacts every time you change source. That said, I think the primary goal of this amp is to be used with an IPOD and to that effect a decent mini to phono cable would not have gone amiss. In any event, you know doubt already have a few of these in your junk drawer. The amp runs a Pentode in a Single Ended configuration, essentially using only have the output tube. EL84s or as we wannabe yanks like to call them (or is that the other way around) 6bq5s are cheap as chips and available everywhere. The driver tubes are commie 6n3s rather than the ubiquitous EC83 variants in these sort of applications. If the Russians knew enough to put a dog in space, they knew a good signal tube when they saw one.
Rectification is solid-state while the tube sockets are ceramic (less fragile than porcelain?). Wiring is point-to-point with the substantial output transformers being carefully hand wound. As previously mentioned, about 9dB of negative feedback is usefully employed. The output tubes are self-biasing for ease of use and the volume control is by Alps. For your $488 of quickly declining greenbacks (less than 1/2 a Troy ounce of gold as I write) you get a full one year warranty which I assume also includes the tubes.
As the GLOW only puts out a paltry 5 watts, it would seem that the Sampans with their rated sensitivity of only 87dB/W/m would make them seem to be too insensitive (like me, I suppose), but the single driver Sampans seemed a match made in heaven for the GLOW. Through the Sampans I could hear all that single ended detail and that certain clarity that only a speaker without a crossover can provide and here is where things became weird.
The Role Audio Sampan
This may sound completely wrongheaded but this setup – Sony SACD player or Carver tuner up front, switched manually – completely freaked me out one sleepless night when I was listening to ‘Coast to Coast AM’ on that pinnacle of High Fidelity, Toronto’s AM640 News.
You insomniacs out there will know what I am talking about: that freak show of an apolitical talk show Coast to Coast AM started by Art Bell and presently being massacred by George Noory. I love it. Indeed, sometimes I can’t get enough of it. Anyway, whoever is in charge of ‘the bumper music’ on Coast to Coast has absolutely impeccable taste. I was sort of half listening on the couch, half snoozing, half frustrated at myself for being betwixt the two states of consciousness, when I heard this.
When I was just a baby, my
mama told me, "Son,
I must have been half asleep but I have to say I felt as if (and this is over AM radio for Beezlebub’s sake) Mr. Cash was speaking directly to me in the same room as me. Completely sober, half asleep, it is the closest I have come to a full blown hallucination since I care to relate. The incident so freaked me out that I shook myself off the couch and went to bed scared.
The incident occupied me quite a bit the next day. That evening, I tried to reproduce the effect by digging out my old Lomax recordings of old blues singers and the prison songs of Parchman Farm and Harry Smith’s simply weird Anthology of American Folk Music. (If you don’t own this collection, you won’t know shit from shinola in American music.) For a taste of it, listen to the opening track ‘Po Lazarus’ on Oh Brother Where Art Thou?)And lo and behold I was able to reproduce the presence of these recordings with the Single Ended GLOW/Single Driver Role combination in a way that I never have before. Why? I imagine it has to do with the sheer simplicity of the signal chain and the few demands made on it.
It feels terribly odd to me to be writing that the system excelled on lo fi, limited bandwidth recordings with little dynamic range but quite simply I have never heard these recordings sound more real, whatever real here really is to mean. To quote one of my favorite hi-fi clichés after ‘ruthlessly revealing’ and that ‘the cable swap resulted in a change in sound that was far from unsubtle’ there was simply more ‘there,’ ‘there.’ I experienced a kind of presence that was downright spooky and which kept me pulling up field recording after field recording, many that I felt I was only really hearing for the first time and feeling less bad for having bought all of them in the first place only to have listened to them once or twice. Somehow, the curtain between these recordings and me had fallen away.
This was not my first case of a Hi Fi epiphany.
My first sound of tubes when I was six. I suppose that was my first. My first encounter with Hi Fi was with the acquisition of a NAD 3020 when I was 13. Another was the highest hi-fi I have ever heard through a pair of Stax electrostatic headphones, which I stupidly sold. Properly integrated bass through a pair of Tannoy D700s bi-amp'ed by a NAD Silverline with the SACD of Dark Side of the Moon as a source was also notable. Seeing and hearing Nirvana’s Smell’s Like Teen Spirit on TV for the first time profoundly changed me. Having a nightmare that the Red Hot Chile Peppers were coming to get me after watching them for the first time on late night tv. The sound of a truly High End turntable by way of a 40-year-old Garrard 301 re-plinthed, re-armed, re-cartridged and fed to an EAR834p. The scary layering effect of the Audio Note Kit 1 whereas with a long focus lens and a wide aperture you could focus on one instrument at the expense of all else and then blur my eyes (or ears) to hear the sum that I am not even sure to this day is greater than its parts.
This is not to say that the GLOW Audio system would not also play full range material with large dynamic range recorded after the Second World War or as a part of the WPA program for the Library of Congress. While evaluating (that’s too strong a word, let’s say ‘enjoying’) the GLOW amplifier I read the fascinating The Dark Side of the Moon: The Making of the Pink Floyd Masterpiece by John Harris.
(As an aside if you like the album Dark Side of the Moon, Harris’s book along with the MTV DVD Classic Albums: The Making of The Dark Side of the Moon is essential.)
I listened to the SACD of the DSTOM repeatedly while reading
the book, finally coming to understand how the album was held together and how
it really was the apex of their work, with everything afterwards a sad
denouement with the possible exception of Wish
You Were Here. I digress, but the words ‘The sun is the same in the
relative way, but you're older
The GLOW Amp One, unless you have horns bigger than most apartments in Japan, is not, however, a system for head-bangers. A 3.5-inch driver in a respectably sized box powered by a 5 watt single-ended amplifier will not reproduce the visceral impact of a kick drum. Everything is present and accounted for from the opening heartbeat (which is not a heartbeat at all I learned but Nick Mason), to ‘the Crash’ and the unfortunate and I must image accidental pun about keeping the loonies off the grass. If you want it all, you must strap on your headphones, where the GLOW Audio acquitted itself on my cans very well indeed. (Damn am I ever mad about those Stax.)
I think I know what I like so much about the sound of the GLOW Amp One. It is its eminently listenable nature, most probably conferred by its topology, one so well employed by the German Table Top radio designers just after the war. It is a sound with a slightly under-damped bass hump and a slight prominence in the mid treble that lifts out detail (not at anyone’s expense) and a slightly rolled off high end. The, I imagine, fairly prevalent 2nd order distortion will also serve to a great degree to eliminate listener fatigue.
Between those 60s table tops and today’s GLOW a lot of advances in passive components, sources and speakers have been advanced such that we would be wrong to say that this amp sounded ‘vintage.’ There was no hum. Bandwidth is much extended due most probably to proper output transformers and higher quality caps.
What I mean to say is that with the Amp One you get that glorious, absolutely non-fatiguing sound of the old German table tops, but in a distinctly modern way. The GLOW Amp, to me anyway, seems like a fine example of your having your cake and eating it too.
So if you do not want to bring the house down or call in the cops, aren’t swapping the Amp One for the Krell, have reasonably efficient speakers and listen at moderate levels in a moderate size room, the 5 watts or so that the GLOW Amp one provides you are well on your way to having a great setup. (It also makes a fine desktop amp attached to your computer for near field listening.) And, indeed, if you are of one with iPod nation, for this kind of cash (US$488 — how do they arrive at such numbers) you are likely well on your way to Enjoying the music.