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Mid-August 2005
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Audio Note Kit 1 Amplifier
Single-ended tube glory.
Review By Jeff Rabin

Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

  Loves, like moons, wax and wane and no love of mine has waxed and waned so much as my love of Hi-Fi. In high school, I was a keen audiophile and, it goes without saying, a bit of a technophile. Actually, truth be told, I was that before and am still one today. But at the dawn of the CD, and certainly well after the Beatles first LP, I put together a system that I thought was really rather good. Composed of a Rotel integrated, Heybrook speakers in lovely black ash and neon green, Carver tuner, Teac CD player, and Revox record deck, the system to my ears still sounds good. Indeed, my father listens to Buffalo's wonderful WNED 94.5 on it every day and maintains he could not be happier with it.

My interest in Hi-Fi, however, declined precipitously when I moved to University. Not only were there girls, there was also beer, and philosophy and literature and history and a musical appreciation course that made a very black mark on my transcript to divert my interest. And while I bought a lot of records and even more CDs, many of which I shudder at today, as well as attended lots of live music which I don't regret, it was not until a fellow graduate school student years later asked me to go Hi-Fi shopping with him that cupid's audio arrow once again struck me down and I came down with a really bad case of the wallet-eating, internet surfing and magazine consuming disease of Hi-Fi.

In the interim the Internet arrived. And my renewed interest in Hi-Fi, soon led me, if only by web proxy, to taste of the cult of vinyl, the directly heated triode, zero negative feedback, the high efficiency single-driver speaker, and that dirty little corner of the Internet, rec.audio.tubes. These people were clearly whackos, but if you bought into their convincing creed, playing shaded dogs on scratch built horns powered by high voltage transmitter valves was the only way to go. Moreover, the results of such thermionic enterprise would surely trounce any tailor made solid-state gear that could be bought at any price. And the kit amp I would have bought to take me to this audio nirvana, should have bought at the time, would have been the Audio Note Kit 1.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda, didn't!

In old age, it is more often the sins of omission that keep us awake at night rather than our sins of commission. One sin of omission was not having the pluck to acquire and build a Kit 1. Instead, I spent the next decade or so collecting and listening to vintage gear, which is fun and not ridiculously expensive, but the gear is old and undoubtedly between then and now there has been progress. But this year, I had my chance at correcting my lapse of courage by being given the opportunity of building my very own Audio Note Kit 1. Was I up to the challenge? Not really, but I had help.

First, I had to secure the amplifier. When the Audio Note Kit 1 became available for review, as do most products for Enjoy the Music.com™, our esteemed editor asked certain qualified reviewers if they would like to review it. I had to get that amplifier and used every trick in the book to get my hands on that big box of parts. I played the Canada angle. I am close. Audio Note Kits is based in Canada. I played the 'I get nothing good to review angle.' I begged. I pleaded. I am not proud. I even offered a body part that Steven kindly turned down, and in the end I got the review and that's what mattered. A little while thereafter Brian Smith, proprietor of Audio Note Kits, arrived at my house in the middle of a snow storm bearing a gigantic card board box of bits and a guitar. Not the dullest tool in the box, and spying Brian's vicious looking fingernails, I asked if Brian would play guitar for us.

What followed was one of the best ideas I have had in years. Not only did we have wonderful live music played under our roof for my family and the children's grandparents, Brian also led us through an impromptu Flamenco seminar. Afterwards, we fed Brian an unfeasibly large amount of my father in law's chili before he left, against our wishes, for the snowy five hour drive back to Ottawa. I suppose it's rather a cliché, but I felt good about the prospect building and listening to an amp from a guy who knew how real instrument sound and loved music more than technology which, unfortunately, is not always the way.

 

The Audio Note Kit Story, So Far as I understand it.


Richard Attenborough in the 1947 Film
of Graham Green's Brighton Rock

Audio Note (of which there are of this writing at least three) has somewhat of a complicated past. Serious archeologists of the line would best be served by trawling through a discussion board to sift truth from untruth, but the short form, I believe, goes something like this (with apologies to all and sundry.) In the beginning, when guitar dinosaurs still roamed the earth, Hiroyasu Kondo founded Audio Note Japan. A little while later Kondo-san unleashed on the world what was at the time the most expensive consumer amplifier ever sold, the mighty Ongaku, an amplifier that our own Steven R. Rochlin, I understand, spent many happy hours with before pragmatism took the better part of his tubular valor. (Editor Steven sez: Yes indeed, color me the only reviewer who has owned an Audio Note Ongaku for many years and basked in it's glorious tubular bliss. Today my attentions turn to the Ferrari for both street driving and at various race tracks. My next expensive hobby will be...)

Soon thereafter, in association with Audio Note Japan, Peter Qvortrup set up Audio Note UK in Brighton to market Audio Note Japan's well regarded line. Audio Note UK, however, did not only sell Audio Note Japan's products, but designed and sold other products under the same name, including a series of highly regarded Kit amplifiers, imaginatively titled Kit 1, Kit 2, and so on. Somewhere along the way, and with some acrimony I understand, Mr. Q and K-san parted ways and the two Audio Notes became very separate concerns. A while after that, Audio Note UK decided to get out of the kit business altogether after the gentleman in charge of after sales and support – quite a considerable undertaking when you are selling boxes of parts capable of producing lethal voltages to amateur welders – retired.

Brian Smith, who had already built an Audio Note kit learned of Audio Note UK's departure from the Kit business and decided to buy one of the last kits before Audio Note's kit business went the way of Heathkit's and Dynaco's: history. Soon Brian finding himself in Brighton – Brian, like me, took an English wife – asked for an audience with Mr. Q. and proposed that he take over the kit business and manage it from the second coldest capital city (only Ulan-Bator, Mongolia is colder), Ottawa.Wilde once quipped that 'There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it' and Brian got it.

Brian did not quite, however, acquire the turnkey business that he might have expected. Indeed, aside from the name and the basic design of the existing Kits, Brian had, practically, to reinvent Audio Note Kits from scratch. Certain components were no longer available. Those that were had changed size. Manuals had to be rewritten, new chassis designs commissioned, and circuits modified (with the help of the ubiquitous Andy Grove). Brian, however, persevered and in short order launched a raft of redesigned and entirely new products under the Audio Note Kits name.

From speaking at length with Brian, I am still not sure what Brian thought he was getting into, but I am quite sure that what he undertook was not quite what he imagined. Sourcing components from boutique manufacturers around the world, and holding kit owner's hands when their new baby refuses to sing is a lot of work. But as I understand it, the kits have never been better, the manuals have never been so detailed or the after-sales support more thorough.

 

Indeed, I Could Not Have Done A Better Job Myself
Opening the box, about twice the size of a case of Bordeaux, revealed an assortment of plastic baggies within baggies that would supply a drug dealer a week filled with high quality electrical components, grommets, nuts, feet, wire, bolts and washers, and some of the biggest transformers that I have seen outside of the one in front my house. While the power transformer was by Hammond, the output transformers and choke, while unmarked, I understand are by Audio Note UK. Fit, finish, and manual of the Kit's parts was up to a very high standard. And when finished, the amp does not look like something assembled on a kitchen table. With all the messy bits hidden below the steel chassis and the tubes standing proud, the amp is, alas, about as functional looking as can be. I do, however, think that a nice pair of wood side cheeks or some other decorative flourish would not go amiss on this otherwise sterile design. Some say, well I say anyway, that Hi Fi, unlike children, is best heard rather than seen and the Kit 1, I am sorry to say, is no exception. I am not going to talk a lot about the build, but after procrastinating for an unseasonably long time, but having roped in a willing, able and soldering iron proficient helper, the kit was soon completed. Indeed, without Robert Deas, I am embarrassed to say, the amp would still be parts in a box.

I will also note that building the Kit 1 was nowhere near as daunting as I had imagined, it only took a few, admittedly very, very long evenings, almost worked on the first go, and that my only serious quibble is that the manual while comprehensive has some annoying non-linear eccentricities. And while the manual has many informative photographs, more would not go amiss. But I would also add that Brian was always available to help, emails were returned swiftly, and that on a discussion board there is a community of like-minded Audio Note Kit builders ready and willing to help. Moreover, from what I understand the old Dynaco manuals were nothing more than long lists of one-line instructions to connect this wire to that component without a diagram in site, so we should be grateful. One thing I would have liked to see in the manual, however, would be a little bit of an explanation as to what each section of the kit actually did. I now know more about how a tube amp is wired than I did before building the kit, but if you do not know what a choke does or what the function of an output transformer is before building the Kit, you will not know after either.

The Kit itself is made up of a strong steel chassis, 4 gigantic lumps of iron (those in the know call these 'transformers') and a number of small PCB boards that must be populated and wired together. On top are two directly heated 300b triodes running single ended in Class A without negative feedback, 5U4G tube rectification, which in addition to subjectively sounding better than solid state rectification also gives the other tubes an easier time when switched on, and a trio of driver tubes, two 5687s and a 6SN7GT. Once finished, a knob in front controls volume from a single source, there's a power switch in the back, a single-pair of high quality input RCA jacks for your source, and decent speaker binding posts for the two different taps available on the output transformers. I used the 8-ohm taps throughout my listening. The amp is no shrinking violet and weighs almost 50 lbs.

 

Partnering Equipment
The Kit 1, quite simply, was more sensitive to what lay up or downstream than any other Hi-Fi component I have ever had the pleasure to use. A cheap tube pre-amp made me want to throw up. And speakers, which I thought, I knew the sound of, sounded completely different to how I had become accustomed to with other equipment. In the end I settled on a NAD Silverline pre-amp, which did the admirable trick of disappearing, and a pair of DIY homebuilt tapered quarter wave pipes from a Bert Doppenberg design. I also tried a pair of modern Tannoy D700s, but found the amp to be bass shy with them and later understood they are a tricky reactive load that has to do with the supplemental bass driver. Those menacing bass notes on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon did not, for example, menace. A pair of stand-mount Axioms, the subject of a forthcoming review, with monster DSP subwoofer also sounded very nice. Good results were also had when the amp served a stint powering a pair of vintage Quad ESL57s. Sources ranged from local radio through SACD to tiny Apple hard disk.

There's an expression in car circles that there is no substitute for cubic inches and so to it the case with amplifier output. And if it is true, that with average sensitivity speakers an amp of at least a kilowatt per channel is required to produce concert listening levels in a large room, you will have no fear of Valkries riding into your living room with this amplifier. The Kit 1 with its 8 or 9 watts per channel played through all the speakers I tried to very listenable levels. When turned up past its sweet spot you might not even notice the loss of dynamic range until the amp hit its benign stops and clips softly. To get the most out of the amp, you must not push it. But whatever the source was – SACD, Vinyl and a whole lotta mono Leak Troughline, the Kit 1 seemed to bring everything to the forefront of the listening experience, good and bad. My Ipod, for example, was insufferable. The Leak Troughline, sublime.

 

The Sound
How did the amp sound? In short, the amp sounded both more and less like what I expected from a home built single-ended directly heated 9-watt amplifier. I was not surprised that the amplifier was not the last word in either bass extension or rafter shaking power. But what I was surprised at was just how modern, and dare I say it, clean and almost academic the amp sounded. Moreover, the ultimate resolution of low-level detail was simply breathtaking. Though the technology that underlies this amplifier is undoubtedly vintage, the sound most certainly is not, and if I have a criticism of the amp, it somehow misses the last iota of tube magic that a vintage push pull amp such as a Leak Stereo 20 can provide. This criticism, if indeed it is a criticism, is more a reflection of my taste in reproduced sound than it is a criticism of this truly, very good amp.

But if your musical tastes run to harpsichords, early instruments, and hey nonny, nonny, this is unquestionably the amp for you. In addition, the Kit 1 absolutely loved female vocals to the point that I accidentally found myself liking Diana Krall. I shudder at the thought even now. If you turn on the radio, you can't guard who will come in the door. All of this you would expect from a 300B amp, but there was more.

An amp, I believe, should serve your musical tastes, you shouldn't serve the amp's and this amp was not as sensitive to choice of musical material, if not quality of recording, as I had any reason to expect. Ella and Billie of course were well treated. But Eninem, Zeppelin and whatever else our local college radio stations threw up before my Troughline blew up, sounded very good as well. And while I deliberately did not throw at it that overly beloved hi fi show off piece the 1812 Overture, large classical orchestras came through with greater scale and authority, even in the busiest of sections, than I would have expected from an amp whose watts per channel was in the single digits. However, there is no mistaking the sound of a Kit 1 for a Krell.

What perhaps struck me most when first listening to the amp was just how well it allowed me to home in on a single line, instrument or voice in such a way that everything else receded into the background. Merely by changing the plane of focus of your ears you could draw out that other singer from all the rest and listen only to her and to her alone. The ability to do this is of course a mark of quality Hi-Fi, but nowhere was it to me more apparent than when listening to this amp. At times, it was downright spooky.

On the so-so recording of Bob Marley's Legend, a recording I thought I knew well, I realize now I have merely listened to a lot, I heard more voices, instruments and details in the mix that I had ever heard before. It was if I had never listened closely to this recording before which, indeed, turned out to be true. The Kit 1 made me listen closely. On the SACD version of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue I could clearly hear just how different John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley saxophone's are. And why I should never have heard how special Jimmy Cobb's brush work on this album is, I have no idea. The Beastie boys fared well too.

Reader, I bought the amp.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High-frequencies (3,000Hz on up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape width front

Soundscape width rear  
Soundscape depth behind speakers

Soundscape extension into the room

Imaging

Fit and Finish

Self Noise

Value for the Money

 

Specifications

Type: Kit 300B stereo single-ended amplifier

Chassis: non-magnetic Stainless Steel Chassis with countersunk holes for the base and driver boards

Tubes:  Gold 300B & 5U4G Valve bases for Signature Version Kit1

Capacitors: Elna Cerafine Electrolytic 300B caps come with standard kit

Volume Control: Chassis supports TKD potentiometer

 
Other Features: 5mm deeper chassis supports AudioNote copper signal caps 
Optional Silver - Hard Wiring Option for the kit - enquire 
Multiple size speaker posts supported with 8.5mm speaker holes 
New larger Mains transformer 
Black covers for transformers now come standard with basic kit 
9 pin valve base holes in chassis have been enlarged for easier tube installation 
Upgraded Heat sinking on regulator section comes standard

New online pdf manual complete with many color photos of build process and complete schematics

Weight: 50 lbs.

Price: $1399.99

 

Company Information

Audio Note Kits
Voice: (613) 822-7188 
E-Mail: audionotekits@rogers.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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