Eastern Electric MiniMax Pre-Amplifier
Review by Karl Lozier
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This review is starting with an overview of this new-tubed preamplifier. Due to some sort of dichotomy affecting either my judgment, or me, I'm planning on following with two viewpoints in this one review of this little and I mean really little preamplifier. Alex Yeung Is the designer of this "Goliath slayer". It is manufactured in China not too far from where Alex is located and to keep the price down but there is no obvious price-cutting that I am seeing. Actually it appears to be particularly well made with great attention to fine details. It is definitely not another dull black box with knobs. You can easily pick it up in one hand though it is deceptively heavy for its size - it is not a toy. Width is a tad more than 12 inches wide, 4.25
inches deep, and a small 6 inches. The height of the main chassis including feet is 2.5
inches but to that must be added the height of the nicely finished transformer and three tubes for a grand total, feet included, of 5 inches. It is diminutive and beautifully finished on all four sides and the top. Front panel plus top plate wind up with a two-tone finish with a lightly brushed aluminum front panel rolling over the top edge to abut the rich glossy gray of the top plate where even the top of the transformer matches!
The front panel's toggle switch is power on/off with a beautiful blue LED to indicate on. I am sure you can figure out what the two knobs are for. The large one rotates through about 300 degrees and the small one has 3 discretely marked positions. It has elicited favorable esthetic comments from all who have seen it. There is no cover or shield over the tubes; an attractively designed one is warranted and probably demanded by some prospective purchasers. If that interests you, simply contact the company; they will listen to you. Do not bother to mention anything that might negatively affect sound quality such as tone, phase, remote or balance controls. The rear panel sports an input for a removable
A.C. power cord (included) and two pairs of L/R output and three pairs of L/R input connectors (all
R.C.A. single ended type). All are identical and beautifully finished.
The bottom sports three impressively finished small, chromed plus one third of a hard rubbery ball, feet. I recommended four feet for the next production run, as it is too easy to tip over with just three. When I mentioned this to the designer he said that he had tried four feet originally but because of the short depth of the unit four feet did not work as well as three. With heavy input cables or
A.C. power cords the unit tends to tip back on one foot. It is easy to figure out ways to prevent that. As regular readers know, esthetics is important to me and I find the MiniMax to be esthetically pleasing, classy and unobtrusively elegant in a very small package weighing approximately eight pounds. With two exceptions coming up later, any controls or features not mentioned simply do not exist. Simplicity is definitely a key factor in this design and in that respect it is actually audiophile- perfectionist oriented.
Music Lovers Viewpoint
Bill O'Connell of Morningstar Audio Imports is the importer of the new Eastern Electric preamplifier. He tried to think of everything and had burned-in the unit before shipping it to me. Very thoughtfully, he even included sets of spare tubes of different brands and tube types for possible experimentation. The stock 12au7 tubes are the Chinese Shuguang brand.
Within seconds it was obvious that the MiniMax was painting a big, very full and rich sonic picture. Just as apparent was the sense of great clarity. Whether the clarity was due to the point-to-point wiring and direct coupling of the stages or excellent signal to noise ratio was not clear to me - ha! There was a sense of warmth and size that was suggestive of an excellent seat in a relatively small concert hall (for classical music recordings) with fine acoustics. In the higher frequency range the usual little annoyances of a bit of harshness or edgy distortions were somehow smoothed over to a certain extent. Further meditation led me to believe that the MiniMax was simply not adding to or exaggerating these higher frequencies. Tonal balance could then be described as beautifully full with a seductive richness that made listening a relaxing and enjoyable experience.
It was the almost larger than life happening that seemed "almost too good to be true". It has been almost axiomatic that in the home listening arena you just "can not have everything". The implications have always been that getting a full rich and encompassing life-like sound results in not getting the tightest, deepest most detailed sound in the lowest bass octave or octave and a half range. It also has seemed to preclude a reasonably flat, smooth and sweetly extended top end's two octaves response above five thousand Hertz. Many, if not most, music lovers I have known do not really care if the bottom bass notes are a bit too full or rich sounding. Actually we can question whether anyone other than a given recording sound engineer or producer knows just how it should sound. As all of us with truly full range sound systems have noticed, the quantity and quality of just a single bass drum stroke varies from one extreme to another from one recording to another. Ultimately the question arises for the listener, (particularly music lovers) "do you really care exactly how it should sound or if it simply sounds really good and satisfying to you?" In general, audiophiles cringe at even the thought of questions like this. Their bottom line or goal is to get exactly the same sound off a recording as was put on the recording - no more and no less. Yes, it may be asked when do they know with certainty they have accomplished that?
In the treble range this little MiniMax complements the bass and lower mid-range almost perfectly with a smooth and particularly sweet high end. Little nasties such as harshness or edginess are slightly ameliorated. This of course continues the almost "easy listening" character this little gem often provides. Audiophiles would promptly dismiss anything with that moniker attached. Audiophiles may have their appetite whetted further along in this review. While doing this evaluation I was also immersed in reviewing a new CD from
Telarc Got Swing [CD-80592] review in this month's music section. In addition to Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops, The Manhattan Transfer, John Pizzarelli and Janis Siegel, there are six different arrangers featured. A couple of the arrangements (more trumpets, fewer trombones and saxophones?) result in a deliberate tonal balance that could be described as a bit lean and bright.
The MiniMax definitely changed that a bit and for the better as far as I am concerned. Yes, I realize the arranger's intent was then mitigated, but the relativity to other arrangements remained. Music lovers, as with others, should audition this new preamplifier in their own system. Though almost bargain priced at twelve hundred dollars that amount would purchase a couple of season tickets to the real thing. The number of dealers is quite low as would be expected of a new company's introductory product (more are planned), but at least one of them is a very respected mail order dealer. Any possible future parts replacements should not present a problem per se, but most parts whether transformer, capacitors or resistors were chosen by the designer with listening tests - not by reputation or measurements. In other words, other replacements would function fine but the original sound quality might suffer a bit, all of which can be true with any product. For anyone used to using typical solid-state preamplifiers, even at double the price of the
MiniMax, the initial reaction to the rich sound may come as almost a shock. Give it at least a few evenings to prove itself. If the sound quality still sounds a bit borderline or overboard to you, I can suggest a possible "cure". The "cure" if ever needed will be mentioned in the "audiophile" oriented section of this review a bit further on.
The "audiophiles" section of this evaluation and review of the Eastern Electric's MiniMax preamplifier simply contains some bits or tidbits of little or no interest to typical music lovers. Do not take that statement as a put-down. When a music lover "really connects" with a piece of audio gear it is often a very long-term relationship, lasting for years if not a decade or more. When an audiophile obtains his, or her, latest or upgraded piece of gear often, within weeks, tweaks or modifications or new accessories are contemplated ad infinitum. Which group contains the happier or more contented individuals?
Do not be put off by first impressions. The usual first visual impression, by others in my home, results in a "huh", followed by a slight shake of the head. This is promptly followed by phrases such as, "that is really small-really", usually followed by, "boy, it is sharp (or classy) looking". Do not think of the "small" description as being negative. Translate it as a design that is simple and straightforward. Isn't that usually regarded as an ideal in electronic circuits? Well then, here it is, or at least reasonably close to that ideal. Though not specifically mentioned in the rather brief instruction manual, there obviously is a turn-on mute relay circuit of at least thirty seconds. Seasoned audiophiles typically wait for about two minutes after turn on with any preamplifier before firing up succeeding equipment such as power amplifiers. Warm up time seems to be much shorter than with many
pre-amplifiers. Waiting for fifteen minutes or so for serious listening and the sound approaches its best very closely. Perhaps the simple circuitry and relatively few parts are responsible. This is a fine time to mention something this little gem of a preamplifier has, that I have not seen mentioned in any of their literature.
It has a choke filtered power supply and speaking to designer AlexYeung in Hong Kong revealed that as developmental changes were made to parts, including the excellent transformer, it resulted in forcing changes to the choke
filtering's specifications. It may be remembered that some months ago I reviewed three products from the well-known Musical Fidelity Company of England. Two of their products, a
pre-amplifier and a CD player, featured their often-mentioned choke filtered power supplies and to my ears a particularly fine and sweet treble range. Their third product, a very moderately priced pair of power amplifiers, did not contain their well-known choke filtered power supplies. They did not sound as smoothly sweet in the treble range as their other products and I said as much in my review. Maybe it was just a coincidence; maybe it is just a coincidence that I have been unable to obtain any of their fine products for review since then - maybe.
The MiniMax seems to be very affected by the choice of tubes. No, I think it is decidedly more accurate to say that it is very revealing of differences between various tubes, types or brands. I am not familiar with such a simple (seemingly) design in a commercial product and is probably a result of having only three tubes doing all the work for two channels. (An aside here is that during this time John Hellig of Musical Concepts and I were discussing some new "universal player" modifications he had developed when he mentioned his newly designed
pre-amplifier project that had two variations - a two tube model and a single tube model - yes, for stereo! I will keep up as that project progresses.)
pre-amplifier has four tubes and a design goal of neutrality. The pre-amplifier
it replaced had eight tubes. Those are the only pre-amplifiers I have owned in the past dozen years. The three stages (and tubes) in the MiniMax are direct coupled with no coupling capacitors to interfere or color things.
Each tube works with both the right and left signal paths. The first tube, the left one, is the rectification stage. The fact that the middle tube, buffer stage, and the right or amplification tube are both listed as 12AU7 types might lead to the belief that they work together in a push-pull output arrangement. That is simply not true so there is no need to be matched and furthermore, semi-official company and designer recommendations encourage a limited amount of tube rolling (changing brands or types) for either the best or the personally desired sound quality! This is the fundamental reason I separated this audiophile section of the review.
The idea of changing around with different tubes would be a complete turn-off to many music lovers and understandably so. How would you answer a music lover's question, "do you change the output transistors in your amplifiers (or whatever)?" Music lovers can simply plug in the supplied stock tubes and after a reasonable time, probably a bit more than twenty-five hours, be enjoying the sound from the MiniMax
pre-amplifier. It should be close to its best by then. My unit arrived with burn-in already accomplished so I am unable to advise from personal experience with this fine unit but would be willing to bet on my guesstimate. Music lovers in search of a
pre-amplifier offering great clarity and musicality in the price range under twenty-five hundred dollars are advised to make every reasonable effort to listen to Eastern Electric's MiniMax before making any final decision. Seriously consider it in even higher priced competition.
Most of the remaining will be of more interest to audiophiles than to music lovers. Music lovers can simply follow the advice in the preceding paragraph and make decisions simple. Many, many CD's, SACD hybrids, DAD's and HDCD's were listened to at length during this review evaluation as would be expected. Bill O'Connell had sent a number of tube substitutions to me some of which have the reputation of being the very best ever manufactured for a given type. It really started to become an almost overwhelming chore to try all the combinations possible. I pretty much followed his advice and in the past week I simply narrowed my source choices to some old CD favorites and listened, listened and then listened some more comparing tubes back and forth too often.
A completely unexpected thing happened. Particularly noticeable in the middle and deep bass range the results were dramatically different with my current favorites - the latest model Heart CD player and a solid state CD/ HDCD/ DVD-Audio player! I have no explanation for that very complicating factor. If time were to be more readily available I would have tried to toss a couple more players into the mix and then report. That was not to be, so the generalities will replace some specifics.
For those interested here is my list of selections used in the final days of multiway comparisons.
Copland (various) [RR-93CD HDCD] unsurpassed bass drum recording as well as overall and used by many at 2002 CES, Pizzarelli and George Shearing
Quintet by Telarc [SACD hybrid 63546] approaches being a perfectly balanced
recording Sinatra [Reprise 26501-2] probably a dozen different recording venues and microphones, one or two which should sound just right on your system and be a pop reference, Fennell and Eastman Winds
Ballet [Mercury 434322-2] tremendous dynamics and range from almost forty years ago, Fiedler's
Carmen Ballet [RCA High Performance series 09026-63308-2] extremely competitive with the aforementioned Mercury though recorded from a slightly further perspective, the famous and historic
Weavers 1963 Reunion [Classic Records 24/96 DAD 1041] plus a few others used intermittently near the very last.
Ultimately Bill suggested changing the middle tube, the buffer stage, to one of the Tungsram E80CC's he sent to me. It was a subtle but definite improvement and with my system seemed to somehow meld the upper and lower ranges more seamlessly into the all-important mid-range. Next I added the extremely rare Genelex Gold Lion U707 at the first stage with a definite overall improvement, not night and day of course, as all was mighty good as received. Those two tubes were essentially left alone and following comparisons were done with changing only the amplification stage tube (the right side tube - typically a 12AU7). As dedicated tube rollers find out, some companies use different coding numbers for essentially the same tubes. Are the possible slight differences in tube specifications creating sound quality difference or is it the care and quality of the manufacturing process? My vote is cast with the latter choice both here and with previous experiences.
The main new candidates included the Siemens & Halske silverplate 12au7 (eventually this company became simply Siemens), Raytheon's 1950's blackplate D getter 5814, the Hivac CV491-12a7 a tube name that simply escapes my memory and I do not know for certain if they actually manufactured or had them made to their specs by some other company, the Telefunken #803, the blackglass Tungsol 12au7 and even a Mullard special 10M series with gold pins. Actually I believe all these were from the early fifties - the height of the golden age for mini tubes as I explained in detail in earlier Karl's Korner tube articles. A dozen years later and that golden age were declining and the end was approaching.
You are not going to easily find all of these tubes and some of them when found will turn out to be weak, subpar or microphonic. It is usually a tough search in the tube-land jungle for fifty-year-old tubes. Unfortunately your previous search may have been for 12AX7 or 6DJ8/6922 types. Music lovers should not despair. Yes, the best, and these are undoubtedly the best, tubes can take the sound of the MiniMax to another level but the standard stock level is very high to start off. You can be happy for a long time and upgrade later on. If you were to ask what you can get by changing tubes the answer is simple. You can get (hear) almost anything you want, but as I mentioned earlier, I have to generalize and you will have to try for yourself and
The quality of all is extremely high but a couple of them have almost unbelievably solid and extended bass, a couple have a fuller upper bass lower mid-range, some add a touch of high-end detail and snap and so on. Can it be some effect caused by the input characteristics or the fairly high output impedance of the
MiniMax? I really have no idea and some things in the audio world simply interact in different and sometimes unexpected ways. No matter what the parameters were, the MiniMax seemed to almost always offer the sensation of great clarity and a strong lower to middle mid range and a feeling of aliveness. Just experiment and find satisfaction here at a moderate price. Enjoy.
If I have done my job well you should have a good idea of what to expect. If not, I doubt if the numerical ratings that follow will be of much assistance. Please use them with at least a grain or two of tolerance.