A good external design of an everyday appliance, like the Eryk S Concept Red King integrated amplifier, almost always equals lots of money. Anonymous design studios are paid small fortunes for devising designs to attract the buyer's eye without frightening him. Such design concepts must be both innovative and classic, and thus according to the principle "I love what I like". Every now and then we come across designs signed by big names or brands, which naturally equals even more money. Hence, specialized audio market (excluding "consumer" audio) is rarely discussed in the context of industrial design. Audio is a business where spending such large sums has no chance of making a return on the investment. Although we got used to the fact that the "black box" concept is the thing of the past, its modified version is still absolutely normal. It is a so-called "decorated shed", a term for rectangular buildings with a richly decorated front I have taken from Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, the authors of Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (MIT Press, 1972). The name – perhaps counter-intuitively – is used in a positive context as opposed to "the duck", a building pretending to be something different than it actually is, submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form.
We face very similar problems in small design forms, such as household appliances and hence audio equipment. Have a look at a classic audio product: it is still a black box with a decorated front. If it happens to be a tube amplifier whose top panel is also part of an aesthetic play with the user, we recognize it as something as unique as to be pretty. And what about speakers? Here, both cited terms fit like a glove – the basis is a simple box but quite often oddly shaped, rarely referring to its function.
Why aren't we then surprised, why don't we rebel against it? Why don't we require a greater aesthetic involvement of audio designers; truly aesthetic though, not monster-like? I have my own theory to explain that. We often consider ourselves very progressive, a vanguard of progress, and pushing audio in the right direction. Ours are innovative solutions that make the world a better place. In reality, we're just "grinding stones", smoothening up what others came up with. The days of brilliant engineers, constructors and inventors working in their homes and garages are long gone. Now progress involves and depends on money. Engineers, designers and researchers are still the core of this, but they work in a different manner – in teams, far more anonymously, for large centers and corporations.
What's more, we dislike changes. We think of every novelty as a loss of something valuable. Hence our huge sentiment for tube amps like the Eryk S Concept Red King, speakers with broadband or horn drivers, and the turntable. Yes, I know – analogue is still the best source, and the absolutely top amplifiers are usually tube designs; however the story looks different below the top price level. We're even more careful when it comes to the external looks of audio products. We associate all eye candy with the "lifestyle", i.e. junk products that look nice. But what about Devialet? Or the newest design from Wadia? What about Italian audio products? More and more often new audio devices don't fit into the "decorated shed" canon and move audio towards the "duck". From the perspective of the authors of "Learning from Las Vegas…" this is bad news.
Although I didn't agree with the main message of the aforementioned book for a long time, blaming it for promoting bad architecture and poor aesthetics, I now come to the conclusion that it all makes sense. The new quickly stops being new. Stylish is forever. Just like the master of style has been for years, and still will be for some time, Eryk Smólski from Warsaw. First I saw, got to know, and fell in love with his Nuvo speakers, small two-way monitors with a ribbon tweeter. At first glance they didn't change anything in the monitor design paradigm: a rectangular box finished with natural wood veneer, drivers on the front baffle and a small cabinet size. Their proportions were delightful, though, and the finishing details wonderfully chosen. They looked like a work of art. And that's how they sounded, too. The next were the Ketsus speakers and finally the Ketsus Special model. I think it was a teaser of what we were to expect from the amplifier reviewed today. The speakers, based on broadband drivers support from the bottom, with a high sensitivity, just begged for a stylistically matching amp. It took Eryk over two years to come up with something like this. Thus was born the Red King integrated amplifier.
If Eryk lived in Italy, he would be a well-known designer in a famous company, I'm sure. Just have a look at the amplifier. Yes, one thing is the Ferrari red paint, gold details, and taste. More important, however, are simply fantastic proportions. This is a truly designer unit. Unlike usual, its form is the other side of the same coin - the sound. Eryk S Concept products are in fact designed as coherent entities, their primary role being to work as an audio device. But a beautiful audio device. A slight modification, a huge difference.
The Red King costs around $2690 depending on currency fluctuation and is an integrated amplifier with a modest power output. The output stage uses a pair of EL84 tubes, working in PSE mode, i.e. with two tubes in parallel. These are small power pentodes not particularly valued by audiophiles until recently. It seems that Mr. Taku Hyodo played a large part in their popularization with his Leben CS300, being in my system for five years. In the case of the Red King they are NOS tubes manufactured by Telam, a Polish company having formerly been based in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. The input SRPP (Series Regulated Push-Pull) stage is based on NOS 6N6P double triodes, manufactured in USSR in 1973. SRPP is one of more interesting audio circuits. It features two triodes connected in series (one on top of the other). The input signal is fed to the bottom triode and by reacting to that signal it gives the top tube gets its drive signal. If we use a dual triode, the whole circuit comprises a single tube. One of the main advantages of such a circuit is that it is essentially a phase splitter and no additional reverser stage is required. Here other advantages of this circuit were employed. The tubes are mounted in ceramic sockets with gold plated pins and retaining clips. Transformers are placed at the rear. They are not closed in special enclosures; only their sides are shielded (and protected) with steel plates.
On the front, between the input tubes there's a characteristic, aluminum plate with Eryk's beautiful logo with a golden pin sticking out of it. There is a volume knob and inputs selector in one. You can also operate this integrated amplifier using a tiny remote with membrane buttons, plus standby and mute buttons. The remote was born as a classic unit used by Pro-Ject and Heed but it has a wooden front now – minimalist and pretty. The designer decided for a move towards the contemporary, giving the user a display. It's blue, hidden behind a very thick acrylic window, and it displays the volume level and the selected source.
In the rear panel, made of an acryl plate veneered with a layer of wood, we have two sets of speaker terminals, for 4 and 8 Ohm, two pairs of gold-plated RCA inputs and a mains socket with a mechanical switch.
The stylistics of this amplifier is mainly "set up" by the type of its chassis, however. It's made of two MDF plates, connected visually with a black aluminum tape recessed beyond their outline. It's as if Don Garber, the designer of Fi amps, decided to "close them" in something more stylistically acceptable. The amp dimensions are 27 x 39 x 17 cm, it weighs 14 kg and stands on gold-plated feet. The color of the top and bottom plates, as well as the feet, can be customized. The power output is 12 Watt per channel.
You can tell it's a dual-mono design when you look at the top panel. Two power supply transformers let you know that both channels are run separately from the beginning to end. There's another, small transformer inside, for the low-voltage circuits – the input-activating relays, and a PCB with the Bluetooth receiver module. Internal wiring is a classic point-to-point. You can see many NOS Soviet-made components in the signal path; ultra-precise, low-noise, high-power resistors used in the army products of the Warsaw Pact. They work in parallel circuits; 1% Dale resistors are connected in series. The cathode and power capacitors are modern, however, and come from Rubycon, Elna, Nichicon Fine Gold and Muse. The power supply is a multiplied, serial Pi circuit. An effort is visible to keep internal wiring to a minimum. The only thing missing, in my opinion, is a headphone output.
At first glance, things seem different in the audio world. It's also a field of art, established on the intersection of technology and artistry, but having a different destination – a delivery, as accurate as possible, of what was registered, or what had taken place before microphones (depending on the perspective we take on). It would seem, then, that the more designers follow the same path, the better, and the higher the probability of success. If we look at it soberly, without any superstitions (because what else are all "certainties" in the audio world?), we'll see that in both cases – literature and audio – it's all about the same thing: about getting to the TRUTH. These are big words, but they reflect the sense of what I'm trying to say here. Fine literature tries to describe the world as it really is – poetry through different means than prose – but it's all about the same thing. Through the variety of literature you can see that there is no one way of getting to the point, that you can try doing it in many different ways. I think it's similar in the audio world. Although the objective is the same for all designers, they try to reach it by taking different paths. Most of them, although distant from one another, are equivalent. Some are very similar, and yet we don't call it plagiarism. Why? For once, because the ideal identity in audio doesn't exist, and also because these similarities usually occur between products in different price ranges.
When I listened to Eric Smólski's amplifier I could not resist comparing it with a two-box amplifier from Octave that had been with me a few days earlier: the HP 500 SE preamp and the MRE 220 power amp (total price is around $35,000). It is exactly the same path, the same way of understanding the sound and very similar choices regarding what is more and what is less important sonically; what must be found in the presentation and what can be considered a compromise, unavoidable in audio.
The Red King's sound is incredibly saturated. Looking at the amplifier and knowing its power output, especially after the six boxes and 220 watts per channel of the Octave system, we expect a rather small sound, focused on details. None of that. A few seconds into – no pun intended – "One More Second" by Dominic Miller (from his album "Fourth Wall") and we enter a warm world bursting with colors. Listening a little longer to the next tracks, including those with an extremely low bass extension, we hear something more: that the bass around 100 Hz is slightly emphasized and that whatever is lower is rendered with moderation. What's most important, however, is that it doesn't really matter as the pleasure of listening to the "Red King" in the system is simply incredible.
Eric's design relies on the appeal to the emotions, to the deep layers of listener's sensitivity, especially one who's tired of chasing an unattainable goal, who's had enough of listening to the details and just wants to relax. It's an amplifier for those who take the "good enough" as the point of destination, not a stop along the way. The Red King is not necessarily an amplifier for an "audiophile", the person seeking in the sound what is most often mentioned in audio reviews. It's rather dedicated to a music lover, to someone who really listens to the music, not the audio gear.
Recorded live at 5am on a wooden platform at lake shore in Salzau by Christopher Dell, Lars Danielsson and Nils Landgren, the album Salzau Music On The Water is an example of an ultra-purist and successful musical recording. The singing birds, the clinks of the "Music on the Water" installation and the instruments at hand's reach always make for an extraordinary experience to me. Audio products show it in a very different, often a radically different way which is made possible by the subject matter and rich sound production. They can emphasize selectivity and highlight detail with resolution. It renders the amount of music information not usually experienced on a recording. The Red King does something else: it builds sound sources at hand's reach. Full, large, and colorful. The selectivity is clearly not its strong suit and there are audibly less details describing the sound in hi-fi terms than e.g. from the Leben CS300F. Instead, we get the elements known from live events. The Polish amplifier builds before us a close-knit, dense presentation. The instruments are differentiated by their color and by the way of playing, not by details or even their positioning into the soundstage. It's something I know from the most expensive audio components, including the said Octave and my reference system.
While the presentation can be described as warm, it's not muddled or suppressed. The cymbals on Dizzy Gillespie's "The New Content", the components of the installation in Salzau, the top registers of the vibraphone on the same album or the electronic drums on OMD's new, highly successful album "English Electric" – everything was clear and lucid. Without a strong treble extension, with a rounded attack but also with a sensual directness of sustain and saturation. It's generally such a "from the gut", deep presentation that does not dazzle with information and "music plankton", but instead gives an idea of the whole, of what a given event was like in reality. That is very rare, indeed. It's easy to "make up" an amplifier with plenty of detail, selective, and with a strong attack. To "make up" something like Eryk did is an art that rarely succeeds, regardless of its price.
I've mentioned OMD not by chance. Although much of my listening time was dominated by albums with sparse instrumentation, to which I'll come back in a moment, I equally often reached for electronic music with generous amounts bass. Despite its moderate power output, Eryk's amplifier handled them all with aplomb, showing a slight compression of the bottom end that was easy enough to swallow, and having me surprised at how nice it all sounded and how freely the Red King ventured into the territory normally reserved for much more powerful designs. I listened to it driving the speakers that offer loads of bass and whose powerful woofer can pump lots of air. The amplifier sounded insane with the new Daft Punk album Random Access Memories, keeping the rhythm and saturating all audio sub-bands, filling them with the connective tissue of content. I did not expect that. Or that color and dynamics differentiation would be maintained. It's not a sound in the same fashion, in one rhythm and color.
Let me now come back to the way of showing instruments' timbre variations as it's the most important feature of that machine. To see how the amp fares with it, I listened one after another to the snippets from J.S. Bach's "Partita in D minor" "BWV 1004, primarily "Allemande", in three different versions - Henryk Szeryng's from 1955 (mono), Jaap Schroeder's from 1991 and Hillary Hahn's from 1996. The versions differ in almost everything, from their pace (Szeryng - 3:33, Schroeder - 4:53, and Hahn - 3:04, my favorite interpretation) to the manner of recording. The Red King captured it beautifully, showing the somewhat "romantic" 1955 interpretation, rather dull in high registers, the transparent, sparkling 1991 recording, and the dense and direct 1996 performance. A strong lower range of the amplifier allowed to render the instruments in an appropriate scale, without reducing them as is often the case. I had a great time! In absolute terms the sound was colored, since the range around 800 Hz was slightly emphasized and the sound wouldn't open up as it did on the reference system. But, as I already wrote, it didn't really matter as the sound was so natural, so "normal" in the sense of "digestible" that I didn't think about it even for a moment. This type of sound suspends our suspicion and makes us not focus on details but on the whole instead. We receive the full presentation, without assembling it in our mind from a million pieces.
I've already discussed its selectivity and detailed presentation, as they are not exemplary. However, given its surprisingly good resolution, one can get used to it. I will say more: after a while it seems that it is the other amps that are garish and exaggerated in their quest to show as much detail as possible. The bass descends low, is very well saturated and mature, but begins to gently roll off below 100 Hz to be heard only occasionally around 50 Hz. Its cohesiveness at the low end is not exceptional and I would not expect a punchy, contoured sonic detail, which we get with more powerful machines. Again, it's something one can live with and even come to like it. What needs to be faced is its not fully developed imaging. The sound is deep but rather in terms of individual instruments than the whole soundstage. Everything is close to us, full and nicely separated, but the in-depth dimension is averaged. That's it.
However, once we see the "King" in action, once we listen to it we will fly away. I can guarantee you hours of great music during which you will not be worrying about what I've just written, immersed in the dense matter of recordings. I had the best results with high-resolution files and CDs. Bluetooth can be rated as a nice addition, especially for handling background music. Eric Smólski came up with an amplifier I could happily live with, in spite of it costing about thirty times less than my reference amplifier. Brilliant stuff!
Interview With Eryk Smólski
Eryk Smólski: A short question but there is no chance for an equally short answer, so let's see… The idea grew out of the fact that despite owning different solid state amps, I felt I dealt with a very good "artificial intelligence" at best that can only "perfectly" imitate the sound. I didn't get the feeling that the sound was natural and true, with a full three-dimensional soundstage, micro-details and a full set of harmonics that are largely responsible for the emotional charge in music. Despite various earlier adventures with the tubes I steered in their direction because they sounded very decent in a good push-pull design, although rarely better than a finely tuned solid state in class A. A tube design has a major advantage: it doesn't need many stages or multiple correction circuits; it is simple. Its simplicity, however, requires a perfect matching of those few elements. There are no shortcuts. This way I arrived at SE Class A tube circuits on pentodes and on triodes. Working with a very simple single-ended triode mode Class A design with very finely tuned parameters of individual components, I knew that was IT. No Class B distortion due to splitting and recombining the opposite halves of the input signal and, more importantly, generating only even-order harmonic distortion stoically accepted by the human ear vs. push-pull / Class B, where you quickly catch the odd harmonics generated by just a slight overdrive. Imaging is also great since the whole signal is handled from the beginning to the end by a single tube.
The Red King is pentode based. Weren't you tempted to design something on triodes – it seems smarter commercially...
Ok, SE triode sounds superb and I really like the low powered 2A3, but unfortunately it requires highly sensitive speakers. High sensitivity still involves some performance tradeoffs, such as a high resonance and the resulting limited bass extension, parasitic diaphragm deformation and non-linear distortion. This way we arrive at PSE designs on power tubes. I have chosen the EL84, not only because it's easily available but most of all due to the fact that it is a modern pentode with a very natural sound. One may come across an opinion that it's rather delicate, etc., but it's as authoritative as a verdict that all V6 engines have great performance. It all depends on the application, on the chosen circuit and on the accompanying components. I have intentionally passed over the very popular EL34, because despite the abundance of available circuit designs it imparts too much of its "sonic character" to music. Of course there are loads of other tubes, but I don't want my amplifier owner to spend sleepless nights in search of a properly matched tube set in mint condition. With strong EL84 tubes the PSE is able to deliver more than 13 watts per channel, which guarantees very good dynamics with speakers of the sensitivity of 89 dB. The PSE circuit also gently enters into overdrive and we love it for that, too. I don't run pentodes in a triode mode as they were not designed for that and I don't want to tie their "hands".
Any interesting design choices?
Here you go:
Three power supply sections: for the outputs and the pre.
Remote control as well as a turn & push – volume &
input selector on the unit
Three inputs, including the optional Bluetooth to play your
and your friends' favorite tunes from your smartphones
PSE design with a 6N6P power triode in SRPP topology
Paper-in-oil signal path capacitors; remaining caps from
Nichicon, Elna and Rubycon
1% Dale resistors in the signal path
Some components are made using laser burning technology
Sandwich-type vibration damping: feet > bottom panel >
rubber absorbers > top panel with the tubes
Ceramic golden plated tube sockets
Where do you source the transformers from?
From Germany. I can't say any more than that due to business
Flipping through inputs, I
can see one that is marked "PC" – what is it?
PC is actually Bluetooth – you will see it on your cellphone as "DMZ Music". Just punch in the standard 0000 code and of you go, listening...
What inspired the external
I'm inspired by everything and treat head only as a generator of "new." Certainly the end result must be thought out, fresh, unusual and harmonious in form. I can only tell you how many years, hours went to such requests, the current amplifier here Red King and its components - the sum of ranks well beyond the calculus of rational business approach.
Recordings During Auditions
• Daft Punk Random Access
Memories, Columbia Records/Sony Music Japan SICP-3817, CD (2013)
• Danielsson, Dell, Landgren, Salzau
Music On The Water, ACT Music ACT 9445-2, CD (2006).
• Dizzy Gillespie, The
New Content, Limelight/Universal Music Japan UCCM-9097, Immortal
Jazz on Mercury CD (1962/2003)
• Dominic Miller Fourth
Wall, Q-rious Music QRM 108-2 CD (2006)
• Frank Sinatra Where Are
You?, Capitol/Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2109, No. 251, SACD/CD
• Hilary Hahn Hilary Hahn
Plays Bach, Sony Classical/Sony Music Japan Entertainment SICC 30087,
Best Classics 100, Blu-spec2 CD (1997/2012)
• Hilary Hahn Hilary Hahn
Plays Bach, Sony Classical SK 62793, Super Bit Mapping CD (1997)
• Johann Sebastian Bach Sonatas
& Partitas, Henry K. Szeryng (violin), Sony Classical/Sony Music
Japan SICC 840-1 CD (1965/2007)
• Johann Sebastian Bach Sonatas
& Partitas, Jaap Schroede (violin), Smithsonian Collection of
Recordings/ADDA 581134/35 CD (1989)
• OMD English Electric,
100%/Sony Music Japan SICP-3810, CD (2013)