TubeMagic M23SE Vacuum Tube Monoblock
Plus P23SE Preamp & A.O.S. Systems CD-One CD Player
Birth of a high-end company.
Review By Rock Becker.
my Montreal 2008 show report I wrote: "TubeMagic
Canada put their M23SE monoblocks ($6000 per pair) in action with parallel
300B tubes putting out 20 wpc in pure Class A. Four of them bi-amplified a
pair of Martin Logan electrostatic hybrid loudspeakers producing the
finest music I've ever heard coming from Martin Logan. Of particular
interest to me was their vibration dampening clear acrylic platform with
three passive hydraulic shock absorbers. They call it the A.O.S. System CD
One (for sealed Air, thick
silicon Oil and Spring
in each cylinder). This is one of the most sophisticated
suspension systems I've seen short of the active Vibraplane or VYGER
turntable stand. At $599 for a set of three, it seems to be a good value.
Discounts are available for multiple sets. I learned quite a lot about
this design in my conversation with Eddie Wong of TubeMagic Canada, but that level of detail is more appropriate for a formal review."
Not only was the vibration absorbing platform and tube
gear interesting; Eddie Wong himself was both outgoing and passionate
about his creations. I must have made an impression on him, too. Not long
afterward he contacted me and sent review samples of his A.O.S. System CD
One and a pair of the M23SE monoblocks. Thus began the saga.
Eddie shipped the gear to me via UPS the day before he
to contract for more parts for his amplifiers. Coming from across the lake
, they seemed to take an inordinately long time to arrive. The day the
tracking log said they would arrive I was suffering from a sore back. I
had the UPS man place them in the back end of my Tracker so I could take
them home from work without having to lift them twice. No tinkling of
glass was heard when I carried them into the house but upon opening the
boxes it was evident there was serious damage. Emails flew back and forth
with Eddie in
The short story is that UPS denied a claim because there
was not sufficient packing material between the flight cases and the
cardboard box in which they were shipped. All the cushioning foam was on
the inside of the flight
cases. Clearly, they had been dropped from a height of at least four feet.
The spikes on the bottom of the chassis punctured the flight case. But the
Inside, the 300B tubes were not in their sockets, and
one of them in each amplifier was broken. There was not enough headroom
inside the amplifier for the tubes to come out of their sockets without
the top being removed. I thought it strange that the machine screws were
not fastened down tightly when I removed the top to inspect for further
damage. I eventually removed the bottom so I could clean out all the
shards of glass, and I discovered that the transformers were not only
loose, but one had actually been pried off the sub-chassis. It looked like
the clumsy hand of US Customs. I suspect the tubes had been removed from
their sockets and because they didn't notice the different diameters of
the pins, they could not align them properly to reinstall them. So they
apparently just set them inside the chassis, reinstalled the top and sent
them on their way. Clearly they were looking for the wrong kind of magic
in all the wrong places. Eddie, meanwhile, assured me not to worry; he
would send me new review samples.
The guy really knows how to take a punch.
A.O.S. System CD One
The A.O.S. System CD One fared much better. Like the
amplifiers, it came in a flight case, but since it was already
disassembled, no damage was wrought upon it. It took a little visual
analysis to figure out how to assemble it, but it is not difficult. My big
problem was where to put it. With its tall hydraulic cylinders made from
extruded aluminum and 20 mm thick clear acrylic platform, it raises the
component about 5 inches above its shelf. I decided to put it beneath my
digital front end and removed my proprietary vibration absorbing spacers
from beneath the Sony CD player (used as a transport) and the muse DAC
that sits on top of it.
Please note that my system utilizes vibration absorbing
footers of one kind and/or another under each component, including
loudspeakers. My windows, walls and floor are also treated. Most of the
footers are Boston Audio Designs TuneBlocks used in combination with BAD
TunePlates or Sound Dead Steel IsoFeet, but there are a couple of other
secret weapons I've written about, too. I felt my rig had been pretty
well maxed out in this direction, but I was wrong.
Adding the first set of special footers to your rig will
provide an easily noticed improvement when quality footers are used. Some
components will improve more than others. I suggest starting with the
component that gives evidence of the greatest improvement, then add more
sets to additional components when you are comfortable doing so. By the
time you get down to your least sensitive component, the improvement will
be considerably smaller than your first set provided. This doesn't mean
the last few components don't matter…just that the returns are less.
In most cases, the footers are a lot less expensive than upgrading a
component to get a similar improvement.
That said, I positioned the CD One under the digital
front end without removing any footers from my other components. In other
words, I kept the performance bar set pretty high. If the CD One was going
to be better than the others, it would have to contribute an obvious
improvement while the others were still in the system. My expectation was
that it would be about the same quality as the carbon graphite footers and
viscoelastic polymer sandwich type footers. I was very pleasantly
The CD One cleared the bar and proved to be superior in
terms of resolution of inner detail and overall focus. It didn't change
the tonal balance or the pace rhythm and timing to any perceptible degree,
but the soundstage became slightly more focused and more subtle detail
emerged. As I suggested, if this had been the only
component in the system to receive a vibration absorbing footer
or platform, the difference would have been much more prominent. That the
music got better in the context of my heavily treated system tells me that
that the CD One is a superior product — but not without a price.
At $799CDN ($650 USD) this platform is considerably more expensive
than the best of the individual footers on the market. (Think Boston Audio
Designs, Sound Dead Steel, Stillpoints, Symposium Acoustics and probably
some others I haven't tried). Of course, shelf-type damping systems from
these same companies can also cost considerably more than the individual
footers. My theory predicts that footers placed directly in contact with
the chassis of a component will be more effective (and cost effective)
than any shelf upon which a component is placed where the factory supplied
feet still support the component. (Of course a few components, some
turntables in particular, have rather elaborate suspensions build into
their supports). The CD One does not contradict this theory because its
upward facing spikes on top make contact directly with the chassis, just
like individual footers. It just also happens to be a shelf.
Since the aluminum hydraulic pillars are mounted in the
acrylic platform to stabilize them in the vertical direction there is not
the flexibility of positioning the contact points that you have with
individual footers. There is a small amount of vertical adjustment in the
contact points to allow you to level the component. Small chrome plated
discs with divots drilled in them are supplied to protect the underside
surface of the chassis and the shelf on which the CD One is used. The
shaft that contacts the chassis transmits the downward force to a piston
in the column which is supported by an internal spring in the lower
chamber. This lower chamber is filled with thick silicon oil. The lower
chamber is connected (through an external plastic tube) to the upper
chamber above the piston. The weight of the component presses downward on
the piston, forcing some of the oil up into the upper chamber where it
compresses the air in that chamber. Macro and micro vibrations in the
component create pressure that forces the oil to "dance,"
microscopically, and compress the air in the upper chamber, thus damping
the vibrations. By changing the springs and the quantity of oil, the
platform can be "tuned" to support heavier or lighter components.
I also tried a pair of speaker stands with Usher Tiny
Dancer monitors at Tom Lathrop's house. The tall aluminum and acrylic
pillars had a definite contemporary or techno presence in the room. And
they were also expensive enough to consider upgrading to a floorstanding
loudspeaker first. TubeMagic Canada
also makes shorter platforms for amplifiers on the floor. The speaker
stands made a definite contribution in the way of improving focus. This
was most obvious in the bass but extended across the audible range. I
suspect the platforms will find greater acceptance as amplifier and
components where the visual impact is less prominent. Fit and finish of
these stands was quite good with the "TubeMagic Canada"
name etched in the acrylic giving it a very finished look.
M23SE Monoblock Amplifiers
Eddie eventually returned to
and we arranged for him to deliver a new pair of amplifiers to me by car.
It was a pleasure to meet him again in person and pick up on his high
level of energy and commitment to his products. At last, I was able to
hear the amplifiers in my rig and the sound was quite impressive, yielding
better focus across the board and more control over the bass with its
transformers. As much as I had tweaked my mighty Manley Mahi, the M23SE,
at more than twice the price, easily outperformed it.
Before I could get very deep into listening with the new
amp, Eddie emailed to tell me that the amp had been greatly improved. His
persistence had led to the replacement of the Wima capacitors with Jensen
pure copper foil capacitors with silver lead-outs and a couple of other
changes. And he asked if he could come to New York
to swap out the parts. Did I tell you this was a saga? Eddie drove down again with one of his technicians to
help him make the changes in the amps and I set him up to do the work on
the island in our kitchen.
As I've said before, the most important component of
any system is your significant other. The kitchen was Linda's territory
and we were lucky to be able to use the space. Eddie worked with the speed
of a craftsman doing piece work; He knows his amplifier inside and out. A
temperature controlled soldering iron was used because the special
lead-free solder required a higher than normal temperature. It was
fascinating to watch him work and an education to hear him talk about his
amplifier. As a parting gesture, I gave him a small bottle of AVM that had
a little "Blue Tube Goop" left in it and suggested that he try it on
his fuses first.
With the modifications Eddie made there was an obvious
improvement in the focus, but the new parts barely had time to burn in
before Eddie e-mailed again. He couldn't believe the improvement the AVM had made
to his amplifier. But it was too expensive for him to use commercially. He
would begin to experiment with different types of silicone that might have
a similar effect at a more economical price. In the mean time, I kept on
enjoying the music — especially so since this was the amp I used
primarily for the review of the new Coincident Super Victory and Total
Victory IV loudspeakers. In those reviews I referred to the M23SE as a "prototype" because the rapid improvements that were happening made it
clear that it would likely only get better. But by most standards, it was
already a very good amp that I could easily recommend.
Eddie finally emailed that he was ready to make a "final" visit, this time with his wife, Cindy. He not only wanted to
add silicone at strategic points for vibration damping, but he wanted to
remove the input capacitors and perform what he calls his PCB-PLUS
innovation. Linda graciously prepared a delicious dinner for our guests
and afterwards I took the opportunity to let Eddie hear the outstanding
Coincident Frankenstein Mk II monoblocks with the KR 300B Balloon tubes.
He readily acknowledged the fine sound of the Frankensteins. And then he
went to work on the kitchen island, once again. I watched curiously as he
applied different types of silicone to different parts of the M23SE.
Finally, I could resist no longer and pulled out my vintage Musical Design
SP-1 preamp and borrowed some of his silicone to perform similar tweaks on
this "Oldie but Goodie". Eddie worked until 1am before retiring. He couldn't perform all of the silicone damping that is normally done when
constructing the amplifier from the ground up, but he did most of it. The
PCB-PLUS innovation is basically the technique of using the PCB board to
position and anchor the parts. Once this is done, the board is flipped
over and point to point hand wiring is neatly accomplished to complete the
circuits. So there is not really any "circuit" in the PCB — it is
primarily a sophisticated jig that allows for optimized layout and
facilitation of the point to point wiring.
Eddie was up early in the morning and finished the job
shortly after I went to work. I could hardly wait to get home that day.
From the very first notes of Buddy Guy singing "Damn Right I Got the Blues" on my compilation CD it was evident the M23SE had been
transformed. The music had solidified even further and the transparency
was very close to the Coincident Frankenstein. And with 20 watts per
channel, it was even more powerful and effortless, particularly with the
Kharma, which was less efficient than the Coincident Total Victory IV that
was still in house waiting to be shipped to the CES.
By this time about six months had passed since I first
received the M23SE in damaged condition. Eddie was satisfied that the amps
were optimally functional and he was anxious for a review to be published.
But the saga was not quite over, yet. The experience of listening to the
Coincident amplifier with the KR tubes had an impact on him. And the
improvements wrought by the Jensen capacitors had raised the level
performance of the amp to the point that the sonic signature of the
Chinese tubes came into question. He began to roll tubes back at his shop
and told me he wanted to change the 300B to a Western Electric. After some
testing in his shop, he settled on new input tubes, driver tubes, and
ultimately, Electro Harmonix 300B power tubes.
The new tubes arrived shortly after I returned from CES.
It was a quick listening session of three hours of music, plus time to
change tubes. First, listening with my Kharma loudspeakers, I ran through
my compilation CD with the old tubes still in place to establish a base
line. Having just heard a lot of outstanding rooms at CES, the rig was
below par, but also a lot less expensive than most, if not all of them.
Step Two was to insert the new input and driver tubes into the M23SE's
and replay the compilation CD. The amplifier acquired a noticeable
improvement in transparency with the new small signal tubes and my rig was
sounding a lot more competitive with the better systems I had recently
heard in Las Vegas. Four small tubes — it was impressive.
I then installed the Electro Harmonix 300B tubes and
went through the compilation CD a third time. I had to leave the tops of
the amplifiers off because the Electro Harmonix tubes were about 1cm
taller and seemed to touch the aluminum top. I didn't want to test the
viability of extra heat being dissipated into the chassis that way. (Eddie
later wrote that it would not be a problem). The transparency took another
noticeable step forward, although not as much as changing the input and
driver tubes. Perhaps the results would have been reversed if I had
swapped in the 300B's before changing the input and driver tubes, but I
didn't have time for that experiment.
The results at this point were about par with the
Coincident Speaker Technologies Frankenstein Mk II that I reviewed just
before CES. In terms of driving the Kharma, the TubeMagic Canada was
superior to the 8 watt Coincident monoblocks. Its larger transformers and
greater power were simply a better match for the Kharma in my large room.
Deep bass segments and orchestral crescendos were more easily handled by
the M23SE. The soundscape was wide and deep with even the most distant
edges being very well lit. When the more efficient Coincident Total
Victory Mk IV loudspeaker was in my home, the development of the TubeMagic
amplifiers had not reached its present peak of performance, so at that
point in time, with the Coincident speakers, the Frankensteins were
But it has not been a truly level playing field. The
Frankensteins were reviewed with my CAT preamplifier. The comparison of
the Frankenstein with the M23SE using the Total Victory Mk IV loudspeaker
was also made with my CAT preamplifier. After the Coincident speakers and
amplifiers had been sent off to CES, I reverted to using TubeMagic's
P23SE preamp which had been lurking in the background until this time.
This bare bones preamplifier has had some teething problems rooted in its
use of a pair of 300B tubes — a very challenging proposition as those of
you who know tube amplifier design surely know. It has also undergone
similar changes as the monoblocks being reviewed here, but it is not quite
ready for Prime Time. An almost identical version of this preamp, the
P22SE, which uses 2A3 tubes, is further along in development and should be
ready for production very soon, if not immediately.
The optimum results I reported above for the M23SE
monoblocks were achieved in conjunction with the P23SE preamplifier, which
contributes greater transparency and dynamics to my system than my CAT SL1
Signature Mk III. Whether Coincident's Frankenstein Mk II might be
capable of even greater transparency with a preamp such as the P23SE, I
did not have time to verify, but quite possibly so.
The M23SE immediately grabbed my attention when I first
saw it at the
show in 2008. The elongated brick shape is more typical of large solid
state amplifiers yet looking through the window on the front you can see
the tubes and some of the circuitry. Slots for air flow cover most of the
top of the chassis where you also see the model name in large letters in a
subtle two-tone silver effect. Round pillars at the front corners are not
a new idea, but they add character to the shape. No pretense of spikes is
made at these corners as the actual solid aluminum spikes are inset
beneath the amplifier and are only visible from a distance or if you get
down close to the floor. "TubeMagic
Canada" is spelled out across the tinted glass window. Out back are two sets
of taps for bi-wiring and separate connections for 4 and 8 ohm
loudspeakers. I'm told future production will also have a tap for 16 ohm
loudspeakers. The review sample had inputs for both single ended and
balanced lines, but I only used the single ended pathway for this review.
The IEC AC power connector also held the fuse in a little drawer, as well
as a spare. As you might expect at this point, the glass cylinder of the
fuse was painted blue with AVM — a small detail that has contributed to
the transparency of every fused component in my system.
The advantage of this enclosed chassis is that it is
reasonably child-friendly, protecting little hands from hot tubes. The
chassis is quite warm over the 300B tubes, but not so hot as to burn the
skin in an accidental or casual touch. This can be a big plus for some
people. Also, your cat will probably find it uncomfortable as well — a
plus for some other people.
For those who like to listen in the dark, the small blue
LED above the power switch is bright and throws a nice, but not obnoxious
glow both into the room and into the amp itself, illuminating some of the
inner workings. The EL34 driver tube and 6SN7GT driver tube add some nice
orange glow, but the Electro Harmonix 300B power tubes are visible only if
you get down on your hands and knees where you will see a few specs of
orange and a bit of blue glow. For me, the light it threw into the room
was a welcome and comforting addition to the listening experience.
The size of the amplifier suggests it to be powerful and
if your loudspeakers are reasonably efficient and have a benign impedance
curve, it will live up to that visual image. It will probably do a
reasonably good job driving less efficient loudspeakers than I had on
hand. Each monoblock weighs in at about 42 pounds. It is probably best to
carry them one at a time. Given that the aluminum walls of the chassis are
not massively thick, much of that weight is due to the transformers.
Overall, I would say it has a masculine look to it. Fit and finish must normally be addressed, too. Since
these were basically prototypes, not production run samples, several minor
issues came to light.
The screws that hold down the top plate did not fit
precisely flush, probably because the holes were drilled by hand rather
than by jig. The power button would sometimes stick in the "in"
position because the tolerance was either too tight or not drilled
precisely at 90 degrees to the surface. But these are minor issues that
are normally cleared up when formal production begins. Even the power
button was operating smoothly by the time I began writing this review.
Other issues, like the flexibility of the long panels of
the chassis are more innate to the design. It is not built like a tank. If
it were, it would cost a lot more and be a lot heavier than most
audiophiles would prefer. I will take a close look at production samples
at shows in the future, but I expect these minor complaints will become
non-issues. The shipping problem experienced early on is also a thing of
the past. I'm told the packaging has been re-engineered to withstand UPS
handling. And with printed labeling on the boxes it is a lot less likely
to be torn apart by the United States Customs.
A lot of magazines, print or otherwise, will not touch a
product unless it comes from an established brand name and is available
through an acceptable distribution channel. I certainly took a risk by
committing my time and energy to TubeMagic Canada, but I chose to follow my gut instinct. The more than seven month review
period has been stalled by mishap and pending improvements. I never
regretted my decision and was rewarded with first hand insight into the
developmental process. Nor did I ever doubt Eddie Wong. He is a tireless
man of ingenuity and determination with openness to suggestion. The M23SE
kept getting better and better, delivering more transparency and focus
with each round of innovation, and revealing the differences between
cables, preamplifiers and loudspeakers as they moved in and out of my
system during this time. Not only is this amplifier transparent and
musical, but it took control of my Kharma loudspeakers providing more
solid control of the bass and smoothing and sweetening the treble. Yet at
no time during its evolution was it ever difficult or tiring to listen
with for long periods of time. Sonically, it is almost as pure as the
Coincident Frankenstein Mk II monoblocks I have reviewed recently, but it
has the advantage of more power and the ability to handle more difficult
loads with its more massive transformers. I give it my highest
recommendation and I trust the actual production versions will not only
sound slightly better than the review samples, but measure up as well in
fit and finish.
The A.O.S. System CD One vibration absorbing platform
raises the bar above any of the individual type footers I have reviewed
and challenges me to examine more of the higher cost platforms available
on the market today. Whether they fit your system given the additional
height they require, or suit your décor, you will have to determine.
The Montreal Festival Son-Image is only a couple months
away (April 2nd through the 5th, 2009). If you plan to attend,
you owe it to yourself to visit the TubeMagic Canada room. These fine
products and other TubeMagic Canada amplifiers nearing completion will be
well worth your time to audition.
M23SE Pure Class A Mono Blocks
Tube Compliment: Two 300B, and one each EL34 and 6SN7GT
Zero Negative Feedback / Auto bias
RCA input standard / optional with XLR Balanced input
High voltage transformer, Filament transformer and choke
Capacitors: BHC, Rubycon electrolytic capacitors plus Jensen
Internal Cableing: D.H. Lab cable
Weight: 42 lbs each
Dimensions: 23 x 12.625 x 9 (including front pillars and rear cable taps)
Price: CAD$6799 (approximately $5500 USD)
Other Tubes Used During The review:
Electro Harmonix 300B Gold (300BEHXGOLD): Matched Pair $259
KR Enterprises KR300B: $459.99
Zero negative feedback
Stepped ladder attenuator / Dale resistors
High voltage, Filament transformers and Choke customed with M6 core
BHC, Cerafine, Rubycon, Jensen capacitors, Belden, D.H. Lab cables
Standard stereo RCA inputs & outputs, XLR Balanced outputs
Balanced inputs are optional
Price: CAD$3900 (approximately $3200 USD)
A.O.S. Systsems CD-One CD Player
Price CAD$799 (approximately $650 USD)
TubeMagic Canada Inc.
#14-1 Select Avenue
Toronto, Ontario M1V 5J3