You've got to be kidding. Not yet another 300B tube review in our magazine. OK, I admit we have had a lot of 300B reviews, but honestly, I didn't intend to review a 300B tube. It was strictly selfish. One of the amplifiers I have is a highly upgraded Audio Note Meishu single-ended 300B phono integrated amplifier. One day I broke one of the original Audio Note 300B's. So I called my good friend Joe Freitas, big cheese at Art Audio, for his recommendations. By the way, Joe makes excellent tube electronics (see my review of the Art Audio Vinyl One phono stage in the Archives section).
"What 300B Would You Recommend?"
I called Joe and asked him if he had tried a lot of 300B's. He probably had 'cause he builds many single-ended amps including a 300B model. He said the best he's heard is the Sophia electric mesh plate 300B. He have me their phone number and a man's name, Richard Wugang. I called Richard for a review pair & he said that he will ship a pair. Coincidentally, I was going to his home town near Washington DC anyway, so I picked them up in person.
Hey Good Looking
These tubes really look sexy, not as good as a busty blonde, but hey, close... close. Their mesh plate design allows the heaters to be seen when powered up which looks very attractive and distinctive. They also aren't shaped like a shapely 300B tube either. A typical 300B tube has a kind of coke bottle shape, such as the Western Electric 300B tube. The Sophia looks very different; it has a round large head and has straight narrowing sides until its black plastic base. The glass appears to be about as thick as the other Chinese tubes as well as the current Western Electric 300B. The glass on a KR tube, such as the ones I have, a pair of KR 32's, is much thicker and the tube is more substantial as well. I've also seen the JJ 300B tube and the glass here is also thicker, but to my recollection, not as thick as the KR; not as substantial as the KR tube either, but more substantial than the Sophia. But glass thickness and substantial build quality may not necessarily mean better sound. However, I would guess, and it is a guess, that they may have better resonance performance and less micro-ringing because of their robust construction, especially the increased thickness of the glass.
How Do They Sound, George?
Art Freitas was right. These are very good tubes indeed. Because of my busy schedule, I've only tried them in my Audio Note Meishu amplifier. But, you know, I've tried a few 300B's in this amp so I can report on the performance of several 300B's. In the Audio Note, I've tried the modern production Western Electric (an early production sample, mind you, about three years ago I think), a JJ Electronics, the original Audio Note branded Chinese tubes, the Sovlek, and the tubes I now have, the KR32 which are not a "proper" 300B but can be directly plugged into a 300B socket. The bias on this KR tube is different from a standard 300B I/m told, so you wouldn't be hearing this KR tube at its absolute best. The KR32 tube also can draw a lot of current from the power supply, a lot more than a standard 300B. Many years ago I changed the 300B regulators to supply the additional current that the KR's demand. This made a big difference in the sound of the Meishu. More dynamic, more punch, better bass, as well as the ability to play cleaner at louder volumes. This regulator upgrade also made a similar improvement in the sound of all the other 300B tubes as well.
The Sound, George... The Sound!
OK, before I start, I must say that the only other tubes I had for direct comparison on hand were the DR 32"s and the one unbroken original Audio Note 300B. The rest of the tubes I mentioned above, I did not have on hand, so what I say about them is based strictly on my memory of them, OK?
The Sophia, like I said, is a great 300B tube, one of the best normal 300B's I've heard. This tube is very easy to listen to. It has an excellent tonal balance. I find that typically 300B tubes are lighter sounding without having enough weight in the lower midrange and bass. They have a tendency to "spotlight" the voice range, the upper midrange and the treble. It's not necessarily a tonal balance problem so much as a focus, a spotlight, an emphasis on these areas. This quality gives the normal 300B tubes a lighter, airier, clearer, more articulate presentation. I found that to be the case with the original
Audio Note tubes, the Sovteks and especially the Western Electric tubes (the early production samples I've tried anyway).
Enough Philosophy, Socrates, Go On...
Speaking of Greeks, Sophia is a Greek word, I'll have you know. It means wisdom, enlightened, holy and learned. Okay, okay. The Sophia is very light, airy, spacious and articulate sounding. These, generally, are the things that a good 300B is good at. It also has a good open soundstage. It is very easy to place the instruments. And like a good 300B, the Sophia is excellent on vocals. The bass is also excellent for a 300B tube. It is fast, tight and has good depth reach and definition for a 300B tube. It dos not have the ultimate control of the woofer however, no normal 300B tube does. It wasn't great at handling fast bass starts and stops, and with a bass reflex design speaker, the bass range can sound a little loose and lumpy.
Comparison With The KR Tubes
Overall, the KR32 tubes are more evenly balanced tonally. The bass range goes deeper and is stronger and fuller. The DR is, contrary to the slight midrange/treble highlighting of the Sophia, darker in this area, like the intensity of the spotlight has been lowered, but lowered a little past the normal amount. Where the Sophia has an emphasis in this area, the KR has the reverse, a slightly darker, slightly more closed down sound. It almost feels like the Sophia is a little
under damped, less controlled and the KR tubes are a little over damped, more controlled. You know, I can't help
thinking... I wonder if the more substantial construction of the KR tube including the internals, the glass and the base are less resonant and ring less while the lighter construction of the Sophia "rings" a little bit.
What A Body!
I find that most 300B tubes don't have that excellent body to the music. They don't have that mass, the physicality to the music; they are more open, airy, more ethereal. The Sophia is more open, clear and more open at the upper frequency ranges, but also looses a fair bit of the body, the fundamental of the music. This makes the music a little lighter sounding than it should be. It's like listening to music through a good minimonitor loudspeaker. It lacks the fullness of the performance, the foundation of the music, the fundamentals of the notes. The fullness of a stand-up bass, the resonant sound of its sound bass are less well reproduced with a minimonitor speaker, and are also weaker points with the Sophia tubes. The same thing with drums. The attack, the hits, the speed are there but the resonant body of the drum "barrels are less well reproduced. When I listened to the Sophia tubes at Richard's house, I heard the same characteristics I'm describing here as well.
The Sophias tend to work better with a "warmer" cable such as the Cardas Golden Cross. This cable compliments the great sounding Sophia tubes like Spendors or Harbeths or other warmer, fuller sounding speakers will greatly help these tubes. But the above choices of components will not compliment the KR tubes. They need a quicker, faster cable and speakers to get the best of them.
Put It Into Perspective
Okay, I'm comparing the Sophia 300B design to a non-standard 300B design which may not be fair. Comparing the
Sophias with the original Audio Note 300B's and the above-mentioned Western Electric is a much fairer comparison. The Sophia, to my ears, is a better balanced tube than the WE, the Chinese
Audio Note and the Sovtek. The Sophias are tonally better balanced, significantly smoother and have less spotlight at the upper
midrange and highs than the above 300B's.
Nice Back End
The Sophia 300B mesh plate tubes are excellent tubes. They are better balanced than other normal 300B tubes. They are smoother, better tonally balanced, more articulate than other 300B tubes. They have less 300B "spotlighting" at the upper
midrange and highs, and therefore are easier to listen to long term. It is only in comparison to the non-standard KR32 tube that the
Sophia tubes performance loses a little ground.
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