Here we have a $100 monoblock amplifier, a pair of Lowther-like $700 per pair loudspeakers (including cabinet!), $4 hookup wire and a $13 tweak. Add a great passive stepped attenuator like the DACT stepped attenuator for volume adjustment (around $150 depending on your needs) and you have a complete music reproduction system, minus a source component yet with a great tweak, for under a grand, $1,000... under 1,000 dead presidents. No kidding!!!
Ok, so the mainstream audio guys who easily spend $1,000 on loudspeaker cables might balk here, yet even those Super Richey Riches can hopefully learn something here too. Of course if you find this system better than the $3,000 one you were considering purchasing, feel free to send me the extra $2,000 and we will call it even-Steven :-) . For those of us living in the real world of tight funds, crashing dot coms and high-tech layoffs... this is also where many true budding music lovers may begin their quest for audio nirvana. Who knows, maybe you have a great system now and are looking to experiment, or desire a second system... or want to get into DIY-type tweaking. This could very well be the ticket! Goodness knows trying any or all of these components will not break the bank like many other audiophillia goodies.
The Antique Sound Labs Waves AV-8 are a push-pull design tube monoblocks using the ECL82 or 6BM8 tubes. The tubes contain a double triode (driver) and a pentode power (output) devices all in one glass envelope. This eliminates a stage, per se, for a claimed faster and more coherent sound says Tash Goka of Antique Sound Labs in Canada, eh.
Supporting circuitry is fairly straight forward and is of the self biasing variety. As seen to the right is a photo of the inner working of the Antique Sound Labs Wave AV-8. Nothing really fancy here and of course tweakers could upgrade the capacitors, resistors, etc if they so desire.
So what makes it so inexpensive? For one, Chinese labor. Second, all transformers are purpose-built in-house. This means that there is no "extra" windings and the transformers are made specifically for this amplifier. Benefits? The exact specified part for the job at hand while the cost savings are passed on to you. Good quality gold plated five-way binding posts and RCA jacks do not show any real cost cutting like the cheaper alternatives i have experiences on bargain basement products. While not of the Cardas or WBT variety, they are quite good. Especially for a $100 amplifier!
The chassis is solid and the faceplate is quite thick! If you need a tube cover, just add $20 for each $100 monoblock. Me? Seeing the tubes glow in all their glory is enjoyable, so tube cages need not apply here. In fact the owner of a well-known high-end audio company that makes high-end tube gear was here just an hour ago and i showed her the little AV-8's. Her first words were "cute" followed by wondering how the AV-8 could be sold for only 100 bucks each. As they say, good things come in small packages (yet do not be fooled guys, size does mater with some things in life).
Speak To Me Baby
As for the Moth Audio Cicada, these are also purpose built in virtually every way. Unlike the usual mainstream Lowther drivers, which i find have a nasty few dB increase hump at around 2kHz, Moth Audio decided to design their own full-range 7.5" driver using the same basic basket structure as the Lowthers. While the sensitivity is a bit lower, 94dB 1w/m to be exact, Moth Audio claims to have chosen this design to tame the well documented midrange hump found in Lowther drivers. The great news, besides the $700 per pair price, is that for $700 it includes a well-finished cabinet! A nominal impedance of 12 ohms with a sensibly rated frequency response of 60Hz to 18kHz is obtained. Now we are getting somewhere with the Cool Audio System on the Cheap.
As for the cabinet, it is a 41" high, 13" wide and 12" deep ported design that comes is a very tough covering. According to Moth Audio, it is the same type of covering used within automotive truck bed lining. The covering is very coarse yet seems tough enough to withstand a lot of abuse so you need not worry about scratching these babies. Mounted on the lower rear of the loudspeaker cabinet are four-way binding post located inside a "cup". While the binding posts are good (but not as good as those with the Wave AV-8), i find it hard to attach hefty loudspeaker wire to them. Of course this is Cool Audio on the Cheap so who needs 1.21 Quintillion dollars garden hose sized cables? And that leads us to, what else, super duper el' cheapo cables that are synergistic with this system, yet will not break the bank. In fact these cables are so cheap they are less than 2% of this entire system's cost! Fact is, these cables work well in many systems so you guys with those very expensive cables should take note here!
Cables used are the good ol' famous Radio Shack, that's Tandy to my friends on the other side of the pond, magnet wire. In stock at stores here in the States are the three spool pack for a super duper bargain basement price of $3.99 (Catalog number 278-1345). Each spool holds a different thickness of wire that in total adds up to 315 feet. To quote the Radio Shack website "This enamel-covered solid-conductor copper wire is perfect for winding your own coils and electromagnets. Includes 40 feet of 22-gauge, 75 feet of 26-gauge and 200 feet of 30-gauge." Now i am not going to be winding transformers (or tweaking the toaster oven for better depth and coloration of bread), yet the 30-guage has long been known to make great interconnect and loudspeaker wire. Of course you can use the larger wire size such as the 22-guage if you are using this for, say, a dedicated subwoofer. While i did not go the custom order way, Radio Shack (Tandy) does sell through their website thinner wires such as:
i, for one, will not try custom order or attempt fate with incredibly small 36-guage wire. Of course the true DIY experimenter might try the 36-guage and send me an e-mail to let me know if this stuff is truly better, or if going to extreme is a bad thing. Regardless, the 30-guage is tried and true for providing great sound quality... and costs less than a meal at a fast food joint! So you college dudes can skip a meal of that dastardly macaroni and cheese (or salty Ramen Noodles) and buy all new cables for your system. A true DIY guy would do away with all connectors and solder the wire directly to all inputs/outputs. Mere mortals looking for normalcy would buy some RCA connectors and use those for pre-amplifier to amplifier duties while nothing extra is needed for the job of amplifier to loudspeaker. And now the tweak.
Tweak on the Cheap
As for the tweak, Bright Star Audio, who has won many awards for for isolation devices, is now selling half-sphere squishy dampeners called the IsoNode isolation feet. A set of four per monoblock amplifier will insure that those nasty floor-borne vibrations are dampened before they reach the tube amplifiers. Thereby reducing possible tube microphonics and the negative effects of smearing the soundstage accordingly. This seemed to win out sonically over my trial of cups, caps and marbles. As much as i tried, those darn glass marbles were a pain to work with no matter how much i put holes in metal beer bottle caps. Sonically, the whole beer cap/glass marble thing just did not work out. i wasted (or is that got wasted on) a six pack of beer for you my friends. Hey, that's what friends are for ;-) . Look at it this way, the IsoNodes are cheap and effective. A great drop and go solution to tube microphonics!
Selling by the Volume
Of course we all need a preamplifier to change the volume level of our Cool Audio System on the Cheap. Enter the great DACT stepped attenuator, please feel free to see the complete review of this product on the Enjoy the Music.com™ Archives by clicking here. Bottom line, possibly the best stepped attenuator out there and will work wonders. Those with existing pre-amplifiers may want to considering swapping out their current internal volume control attenuator with the DACT.
So what does this entire system sound like? First i will give you my basic impressions of the individual pieces and then how the synergy between them all works wonders. After all, no single component stands alone, it is used with a system and it is how the system operates that dictates the final result. Here is where one can use creative component equalization to enjoy a wonderful outcome the brings us to audio nirvana. Ah yes, hours upon hours of musical ecstasy!
The Wave AV-8 monoblock amplifier seems to be an amazing deal at only $100! During this review the amplifier worked flawlessly without a hum, buzz or momentary noise of any kind. It just sat that looking ever so cute as the tubes glowed gloriously. Sound-wise, you get strong bass support with good, if a bit harmonically deficient, midrange and ok highs. Bass seems to be the amplifier's strong suit. While the midrange is good, it seems to lack the richness found in, say, 300B-based single-ended zero feedback units. The midrange was impressive and grain-free while the highs seemed a bit recessed in the uppermost registers. Of course we are discussing a $100 amplifier here, and for $100 it is sonically one heck of a bargain over some lame low-fi solid-state receiver at three times the price!
Imagining was a nice surprise as these babies were capable of throwing well-separate images across the right/left stage. Depth was lacking a bit though. These monoblocks also seemed to reproduce a fast attack while decay was good as well. Microdynamics were a bit lacking, yet the AV-8 never seemed to abruptly cut off a note. For those familiar with recording studio gear, it was akin to using a bit of dynamic compression and not using nasty gating. All and all a very impressive package and at $200 for a pair of the AV-8 seems to be one of the best bang for the buck deals in tube audio.
As for the Moth Audio Cicada Lowther-type loudspeakers, like the Antique Sound Labs Wave AV-8 there is good and bad here too. The good news is that the damn midrange hump seemed to be solved. Just say no to listener fatigue! The highs were very smooth while the famous Lowther midrange were there is good doses. Maybe not equal to the midrange magic, yet these are $700 for the pair including a very solid cabinet! And for the bad news, the usual lacking of proper deep bass. Sorry all you Lowther folks, but you must admit that no sanely-sized single Lowther loudspeaker has full deep bass support below 60 Hz. The Moth Audio Cicada seem to go down to about 60 Hz nicely if you place the unit near the walls. When i placed them in the room 1/3rd of the way, they seem to lose all bass below around 100 Hz. Therefore best to keep these babies near the walls for added bass support. Back to the good news.
Imaging is very impressive as one expects with this type of design. The using of matched single driver loudspeakers works wonders for imaging. Right/left staging is very good and depth is very impressive once you have everything positioned just right. A little toe in towards the listening position seems to help a bit here. All in all a very impressive package and those truly into DIY might beg Moth Audio to sell them just the drivers and commence with cabinet building. Guys like me who have two left thumbs and no time for building cabinets can rest assured the Cicada cabinet is very solid and seems to mate well with the driver.
The magic that bonds these two is the choice of wire. The good old tried and true Radio Shack (Tandy) 30-guage magnet wire smoothes out the highs, makes the midrange ever more charming while the bass is still quite good. The small bass boosting of the AV-8 amplifiers is exactly what the Cicada loudspeakers need to me ears. This does not mean the Cicadas are now transformed into subwoofers capability. What it does mean is that the bass properly full without being overblown down to about a good 45 Hz or so. As mentioned earlier, placing the loudspeakers near the walls is a must to my ears. Of course the true DIY will also replace the internal wire within the Moth Audio Cicada for the magnet wire. Consider the entire synergy to work well so that the harmonics become richer as the overall frequency response seems better balanced. Bravo! Of course we need a way to adjust the volume level of our Cool Audio System on the Cheap. Enter the DACT stepped attenuator.
Need i spill more cyber ink here? The bottom line is that the DACT makes a great passive volume control. In fact those with normal pre-amplifiers might also want to remove the stock conductive plastic-type units such as those by Alps, Bournes, and Noble for a proper stepped-type such as the DACT. Some say that these conductive plastic volume controls add a bit of lushness to the music. Bottom line: it is your call. i have my tried and true DACT passive pre-amplifier already made it seemed to mate well within this system. As for interconnects, you can either solder the Radio Shack (Tandy) 30-guage magnet wire directly to the components or use RCA plugs of your choice. Me? i have been having a recent love affair with the Eichmann Bullet Plugs ($36 set of four, review forthcoming).
And In The End...
You will get a great system fully tweakable for even more musical enjoyment. Maybe change the capacitors in the AV-8 monoblocks, find ways to tweak the Moth Audio Cicada loudspeakers... The result here is a wonderful sounding system with great imaging, smooth octave to octave frequency response and wonderful detail without it being etched and no harsh highs... yet not lush either! Using a good CD player like the previously reviewed Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 ($579) and you now have a complete CD playback system for under $1,700 (or use the built in volume control in the Tjoeb and save more fundage)! And what about those looking for an outboard DAC...
And coming soon is a full review of the under $200 street price Applied Research and Technology (ART) DI/O two-channel, 24-bit/96kHz A/D-D/A tubed converter. Could this be the killer DAC for the above Cool Audio System on the Cheap? Perhaps! Stay tuned!
Antique Sound Labs Wave DT
Output Power: 8 watts
Moth Audio Cicada
Driver: Full range 7 1/2" custom
Inputs: four-way binding post speaker cup
Bright Star Audio
Set of four IsoNode isolation feet high-compliance vibration control feet.
Bright Star Audio