This Review is one of the less usual I have done. Normally I have to beg to get my hands onto anything really neat to try. This time it was different. Having build and completed the review of the Edison 60 Amplifier Kit for TNT-Audio, I was curious how large the difference would be if one where to substitute a pair of 300B’s per channel for the EL34’s.
Now four WE 300B’s tend to be quite dear for all one can say and somehow I did not fancy paying $1,600 just to try something. So I asked on the Joe-Net (the Sound Practices E-Mail List) which of the inexpensive current production 300B Type Valves was my best bet to buy four of them. I was very surprised when I received an E-Mail from Eric Barbour at Svetlana offering me two pairs of Svetlana 300B’s “no strings attached”. I could not but say yes.
Having by now used these Valves for the better part of a year and having had the chance to compare the Valves with some other makes has prompted me to write this review. You can consider the observations very long-term indeed.
Yet I can hear some of you scream out “WHAT IS A 300B?! PRAY TELL AND ENLIGHTEN ME! What is it good for...?”.
Okay folks; let’s recap. We write the year 1937. Europe is gearing up for War and in the US the Western Electric Corporation is a making Amplifiers for the Cinemas of their time. This being a time when Film with sound was pretty much the latest thing since sliced bread. In these Cinemas various Amplifiers rated at a few Watts where driving huge Horn Loudspeakers. Yet even back then the Quest was for more POWER.
So Western Electric introduced the 300B directly heated power triode. With a massive 40 Watt anode dissipation it was the undisputed power-king of the Audio Triodes (which included the nimble sounding 2A3 and the charming but a little gutless 45 and so on).
With the new 300B it was possible to obtain between 6 Watt and 12 Watt output from ONE SINGLE VALVE. Now this was a huge leap up in power from the 1.5 Watt of the 45 and the 3.5 Watt from a 2A3. Many Theater Amplifiers where build using the 300B and it was also used widely in telephone Systems. It always was a fairly expensive Valve. Build ruggedly with a very long lifespan and excellent linearity it can in some ways be seen as the crowning achievement of “old-fashioned” Audio-Engineering and valve making Craft.
After the end of the War in 1945 the star of the 300B in Audio began to fade. More and more Amplifiers where introduced, using pentodes or tetrodes in the output stages. While allowing for much higher output power, these new valves and their associated amplifiers sounded nowhere near as good as their 300B based predecessors. But who cared.
Harold Leak in England build the 0.1 Series of Amplifiers; all featuring 0.1 per cent Distortion and more Power than the 300B ever could muster. Messieurs' Williamson, Walker (Quad) and Hafler (Dynaco) where busy nailing the lid on the coffin of the 300B as Audio Amplifier with their penthode and tetrode designs.
Still, in other applications the 300B prevailed and indeed, the 300B was manufactured by Western Electric (and the companies that followed on from it) until 1988. Not bad for the good old 300B, only the 6L6 has a longer history in production and unlike the 1988 WE 300B the modern 6L6 Valves are nothing like their 1940’s counterparts.
Now 1988 could have been the final fanfare for the 300B. Yet unnoticed by the general Audio-Public the 300B was making a slow comeback. In the 70’s a number of Valve Designers in Japan and France (among them Anzaï Zaïka, Ken Shindo and even Goldmund Founder Michel Reverchon) effected a Renaissance of Amplifiers using directly heated valves like the 300B.
By the time Western Electric shut down the 300B Production this Renaissance was spilling over into the US and the rest of Europe. With the WE 300B out of Production, other sources quickly appeared including the US made Cetron and Chinese “almost” 300B Valves.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain and with 300B fever sweeping the Audio-World, a lot of factories that had previously manufactured Valves for military purposes in the former Eastern Block had spare capacity and got in on the 300B Act. These Days 300B copies are available from many sources in China, Russia and the Chekz and Slovak Republic.
Even the WE 300B is back courtesy of Westrex and Charles Whitener, even though a Pair of the new WE’s does costs $800. The prices fetched by original NOS WE 300B’s are mind boggling. Anyway, with all these 300B Valves around and with all these yummy 300B Amplifiers around we need to know one thing.
If we ain’t got the green to make the scene for the real WE 300B’s (old or new) - what should we buy?
Svetlana, a joint Venture between Svetlana US and a St. Petersburg Factory originally manufacturing transmitter Valves, was one of the last companies to introduce their version of the 300B. What makes their Valve interesting is that Svetlana (or rather the Russian facility where the Valves are manufactured) has been making directly heated triodes for many decades.
Admitted, they made radio transmitter valves rather than Audio Valves, yet the people at the factory and in the Design-Lab’s have much experience in making directly heated triodes. Would all that experience be born out in the final Product?
I was very interested and when I finally received the Valves after a lengthy dispute with Her Majesties Customs about the fact that commercial samples send free of charge should NOT be subject to import duties (I lost by the way), I could hardly wait to try them out.
Living in a Box?
Well, we all know the presentation of valves from the former Eastern European Countries, do we? Dinky, undistinguished looking Cardboard boxes, often badly able to protect the Valve. Even more to the point, looking inside the valves, it is often possible to play guessing games of “How many Vodka did he have when he made this valve?”.
To say it kindly, consistency, manufacturing quality and presentation often leave a lot to be desired with eastern European and Chinese valves. Compare this to the effort Westrex now puts into the packaging of their 300B. They use reproduction of the original boxes, a nice looking wooden presentation Box.... Even unpacking a pair of the WE 300B’s must be an experience!
So how do Svetlana Shape up? I must say I was surprised. The matched pair valves come in a very nice and professional high gloss Box, with a nicely shaped Foam Interior that gives best protection to the Valves. A little certificate for each valve, listing the test-results is included.
The Valves themselves are superbly made, with pretty thick, solid glass and an internal design that follows the classic WE 300B almost to the dot. Instead of the yellow flash logo and WE Print, the Socket has a subdued golden Print with Svetlana Logo. Classy! The consistency of production is excellent, the two valves of a matched pair not only electrically but also physically a perfect match.
But what good is the best looking Valve if it does not sound good?
What is the Sound of one triode?
One of the most famous misquotes in "Ultra-Audio" is the classic "What is the sound of one Hand/Triode clapping?". It does have its roots in a Buddhist parable but it actually was more like this:
A Master was asking his student to clap his two hands together and describe the sound. Then he asked: "What is the sound of one hand?".
Obviously the answer is not so simple as to say non.... It shows that the 300B as Output Valve (or any other Output Valve) does not operate within a vacuum (though it does rely on having a vacuum inside). We cannot really talk about "THE SOUND OF THE Svetlana 300B", only about the sound of a specific Amplifier using the 300B and the interactions between the Amplifier circuit and the 300B.
To this effect the Svetlana 300B was tested in two different Amplifier Designs. Valves on hand for comparison where Chinese (Golden Dragon) standard 300B’s and Sovtek 300B’s. I would have loved to have a pair of original NOS WE Valves at hand to. Alas, no-one I know has enough money and determination to own these.
One of the test-amplifiers was the Edison 60 Kit, converted to use 300B’s. Here the Valves where operated in parallel single-ended configuration for about 18 Watt of Power. The Edison 60/300B operates the 300B’s with AC on the Heaters and in self-bias mode.
The other Amplifier used for testing the Svetlana 300B is my Fugue 300B Design. This is a very unusual Amplifier Design. It uses direct-coupling, a highly developed driver stage and valve-regulated power supplies; for what might very well be the “ultimate” 300B Amplifier. Here one 300B Valve produces around 12 Watt - 15 Watt of Power.
The Speakers used during the (very lengthy) evaluation of the Svetlana 300B where the Beauhorn Virtuoso Reference and Gold Horn Speakers. I also used a pair of DIY Speakers that where very close copies of the Wilson Audio Watt 3 / Puppy 2 System. I also used a pair of ancient Goodmans of England Axiom 201 twelve inch fullrange Speakers I recently acquired.
Used in either Amplifier the Svetlana 300B distinguished itself by low sensitivity to microphonics. You need to whack the valve pretty hard to hear much in the Speakers, even using the 103db/W/m sensitive horn speakers.
The Hum even when used with AC Heaters is very low, much lower than what is possible with the Golden Dragon 300B Valves. Used in the Fugue 300B Amplifier with DC Heating the Svetlana 300B is eerily quiet. The whole Amplifier measured a Signal/Noise Ratio of better than 96db with respect to 1 Watt with the Svetlana 300B.
However, the killer bit about the Svetlana 300B is the sound. Low noise and microphonics are good, but some of the quietest Valves are also among the worst sounding. Not so the Svetlana 300B.
Music is present beautifully open and detailed, but with also with authority. Indeed, what I noticed most about the Svetlana 300B was the tightness and depth of the bass. Sure the Midrange had all the beauty, naturalness and detail the 300B is known for. However here we have a 300B valve with BALLS! Compared with either the Sovtek or the Golden Dragon valve the Svetlana 300B digs deeper and offers a much tighter, more controlled Low End.
The other great strength of the Svetlana 300B is in soundscaping. If one changes from the Svetlana valves to the Sovtek or Golden Dragon valves the Soundscape almost collapses. All the beautiful extension and focus disappears and is replaced by a much smaller version of the same. This is not to say that the Sovtek or Golden Dragon 300B are bad in terms of Soundscaping. Compared to even very good Solid State Amplifiers or something like a Quad II they are miles ahead. Yet the Svetlana 300B tops this already excellent performance by a good deal.
If I where to sum it up, the Svetlana 300B gives you more of everything, compared to either Golden Dragon or Sovtek 300B’s, a lot more of everything actually.
The last item some may question is the longevity of the Svetlana Valves. A number of recently introduced 300B Type valves have suffered from a range of problems. I am happy to say that Svetlana 300B’s have proven themselves extremely rugged and reliable. During the development of the Fugue 300B Amplifier I “cherried” the anodes of the 300B’s repeatedly, yet the same valves are still in the Amplifier right now and sound great.
Svetlana SV 300B Valve - matched Pair $380
Svetlana Electron Devices
Telephone: (256) 882 1344