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July 2007
Superior Audio Equipment Review

deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company
GM70 SET Monoblock Amplifiers
Supreme smoothness, or in corresponding musical term, legato.
Review By Dick Olsher
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company GM70 SET Monoblock Amplifier  Over the past 15 years single-ended triode amplifiers (SET) have gained a measure of respectability in high-end circles, which is rather ironic considering that about 60 years ago such an output stage topology was only considered suitable for inexpensive designs. Times have changed. It is now recognized that directly-heated SET designs are capable of superbly fleshing out that first watt of power, which is responsible for getting a couple of things right in reproduced music: a sense of 3-D spatiality and a closer approach to the vitality of the real thing. Flea-powered SET designs based on the 2A3 or 45 triodes have demanded ultra high-sensitivity matching speakers. However, even a typical 300B-based SET sporting 8 wpc will thank you for mating it to at least a 95dB/W/m sensitive load.

A few designers, not content with the power and headroom limitations imposed by traditional SET designs, have taken to explore the possibilities offered by large power triodes such as the 211 and 845. Apparently, deHavillandís designer, Kara Chaffee has taken a liking to the Russian Gm-70, in reality a beefier version of the RCA 845. This is a massive power triode whose graphite anode is capable of dissipating a maximum of 125 watts. Throw the power switch and the thoriated tungsten filament lights up like a light bulb sucking 3 amps out of the wall. For the record, Kara is very proud of the GM70 amplifier and believes that it maintains all the virtues of the Aries 845G with nearly double the power output. Well, I do have to quibble with the 50 wpc spec, because at maximum rated power output the total harmonic distortion (THD) is already well above 10%. Indexing the power output to a more reasonable 5% THD, gives a power rating of about 30 wpc.

 

Technical Details
deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company GM70 SET Monoblock AmplifiersThe input stage is DC coupled and is based around the 12SN7GTA/B dual triode, which is a 12-volt version of the 6SN7. The 6AU5GT pentode, a TV tube originally designed as horizontal deflection amplifiers, is used for the driver stage. There is only a single cap in the signal path, which fulfills the mantra that Ďless is more,í at least when it comes to the signal path. A soft start circuit allows the filaments to warm up before applying plate voltage. The nominal plate voltage is 1,000 V, so please do me a favor and do not operate this amplifier with the bottom plate removed. Plate current is adjustable and should be set to 80 mA, which corresponds to the red mark on the bias meters. I can report that bias is quite stable and once tweaked after 45 minutes or so of play time stays stable for many weeks.

No global negative feedback is used. As with other design choices, there is no free lunch, and as a consequence the output source impedance (not to be confused with transformer impedance taps) is about two ohms. This limits the amplifierís damping factor and can impact the speakerís frequency response with loads whose impedance curve is non-uniform. Typically, a speakerís impedance curve can vary significantly, by a factor of a few or more between the minimum and maximum values. Some ESLís are far worse in this regard, varying by a factor of 30 or more, and dropping to 1 ohm or so in the extreme treble. The amplifierís output impedance acts as a voltage divider in concert with the speaker impedance, resulting in reduced output as the load impedance approaches the amplifierís output impedance. My recommendation is that the GM70 should not be mated with speakers whose impedance dips significantly below 4 ohms.

A single set of output taps is provided, which are optimized in terms of power transfer for a 4 to 8 ohm load. Note that a 16-ohm configured output is available on request. The output signalís polarity is inverted, so be sure to compensate for it. I simply reversed the speaker cable leads at the output binding posts. And by the way, Iíve always been a fan of Cardas binding posts, so be sure to opt for this option at an added cost of only $100.

During the design phase, deHavilland discovered that the Gm-70 Russian tube socket was poorly made and caused plate current instability due to poor socket connections. The decision was made to custom engineer a new matching tube socket to get the best sound possible out of this tube. This is no ordinary socket: the base is machined out of a bar of 7/8" thick Teflon, while the terminals are machined out of 3/8"x 3/8" OFC type copper billet. The socket terminals float slightly in the Teflon block so that the tube pins fix their location. As the tube and socket heat up and expand, the copper terminals maintain an intimate spring-loaded contact with the tube. Kara says that the new socket is responsible for better bass, enhanced dynamics, and tighter midrange focus.

 

The Sound
One of the advantages of hanging on to a review sample for several months is the opportunity to audition it in multiple contexts, and in the case of the GM70, that amounted to several loudspeaker loads. In the end, it became a complex tale of amplifier-speaker interactions, making it difficult to offer a simple sonic assessment. In fact, auditioning any high source impedance amplifier is a tricky business as its tonal balance and bass performance are very much load dependent. But I see that I am getting ahead of myself...

In the beginning, life was good. Hooked up to the DIY OB2 open baffle loudspeaker, the GM70 literally astonished me in several performances aspects. In an audio review world overrun by hyperbole, it is difficult to communicate its soundstaging and imaging prowess. Let me make this perfectly clear: its spatiality was not on par with that of other SET designs. Au contraire, it raised the bar higher than Iíve previously experienced. Yes, image outlines were palpably fleshed out, but they were so solidly etched within the confines of the soundstage, that when I closed my eyes accepting the spatial illusion became effortless. Ordinarily, when I listen with eyes shut and attempt to localize instrumental outlines, there is a residual imprecision, a spatial flicker if you will, that distracts from the illusion. Driving the OB2, image outlines felt like they were built out of brick. Soundstage width and depth perspectives were well extended and layered, and on natural recordings, hall size was clearly communicated.

Midrange harmonic textures were lusciously sweet sounding. But make no mistake about it: this is not your grandfatherís SET amplifier. Many SET amplifiers constrict the power bandwidth, struggling to get past 20 kHz, and as a result make textures sound overly liquid and soft and turn transients mushy. Since the DC bias current flows through the transformer primary of an SET design, special air gap techniques are required to prevent core saturation, and in the process, bandwidth ends up well below that of push-pull output stages. In contrast, the GM70 exhibited quickness of attack and transient definition that in fact rivaled that of push-pull designs.

The tonal balance was full bodied, offering a slice of vintage tube sound. No doubt the presence of octals contributes to the perceived full tone character. But I would also have to point a finger at the harmonic signature of the Russian Gm-70 as being mostly responsible for the ampís tonal authority. It seems to me that the 300B has been overly exploited in SET designs. Its sound tends toward the civilized and refined, which might lead someone solely exposed to 300B sound to presume that the entire SET universe sounds more or less that way. Leave it to Kara Chaffee to yet again follow the road less traveled and explore new sonic possibilities. The sound of the GM70 was not only refined but also dynamically bold. Microdynamics bubbled to the surface with almost no effort so that musical lines ebbed and flowed with dynamic conviction and plenty of drama. And despite its modest power rating, it shifted gears from loud to very loud much like a muscle car going through its paces. I was simply having a blast!

deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company GM70 SET Monoblock AmplifiersThe only proverbial fly in the ointment was bass performance. In general, bass lines sounded under damped, lacking adequate tightness and definition. There was plenty of magic in the range covered by the D5nf 'Naturflux' driver. Being a 16-ohm nominal impedance driver, the D5nf appeared to be ideally suited to the needs of the GM70. On the other hand, the GM70 failed to adequately damp the 4-ohm Augie 15-inch woofer. Even given its imperfections, I was so blown away by its sound that I actually considered spending a chunk of our life savings towards purchasing this amplifier.

The second chapter unfolded with the Micropure ĎKotaroí minimonitor loudspeaker (review in progress). This Japanese phenom features a 4-inch full range augmented by a Murata ceramic supertweeter. It unveiled its absolute best when driven by the GM70 monoblocks. The purity of the midrange was almost electrostatic in character with squeaky clean textures and exceptional retrieval of low-level detail. Harmonic colors were imbued with satisfying warmth and natural vividness. And above all else I experienced this feeling of supreme smoothness; the corresponding musical term is legato. It felt as though the great Mozart himself had descended from the spirit world to take control of this session. Unfortunately, there is nothing to report on with respect to deep bass reproduction, as the Kotaro has no deep bass response to speak of.

Having recently acquired a pair of refurbished QUAD ESL-57s via Electrostatic Solutions and QUADS Unlimited, I decided to try my luck with the GM70. The QUADs, represent a difficult load with a drooping impedance magnitude in the treble that approaches short circuit conditions, well almost, but around 1.5 ohm is low enough. Presumably Peter Walker was already aware of all the problems posed by electrostatic speakers when he designed the QUAD II amplifier, which works well enough with the ESL-57. But, in general, it is safe to say that the Quad ESL is a bad choice for SET amplifiers. There was still magic in the midrange, but it was clear that the GM70 was having a tough time at the frequency extremes. The speakerís measured response shelved 2dB in the extreme treble and bass lines sounded distinctly flabby. And the last thing I was looking forward to was less treble output.

It was a similar story with the Swiss Piega TC-10X. Relative to the response obtained with the E.A.R 890 tube amplifier, the GM70 caused a 2dB drop in treble output and a similar decrease in upper bass output. These tonal balance deviations were noticeable. Since the Piega is a 4-ohm load in the midbass and only of moderate efficiency, I was able to drive the GM70 out of its comfort zone with orchestral music and did not like what I heard. Distortion levels rose rapidly, well above acceptable levels of tube euphonics, even tapping into odd-order harmonic harshness. This was a low point for the GM70 and highlights the need to carefully match it with a compatible load.

 

Conclusion
By virtue of its low damping factor, that is to say highish source impedance, the GM70 is far from the ideal of a universal amplifier. To be fair, this is a common problem with most SET amplifiers. The GM70 appears to work its most compelling magic when partnered by highish impedance loads and moderate to high efficiency speaker design. Therefore, to be on the safe side, it would be imperative to audition this amplifier with a prospective load to ensure compatibility. Its fortunes can swing considerably from a state of sonic bliss with a synergistic load to frustration with an incompatible load.

When operated within its comfort zone, this amplifier is adept of conveying a sense of suavity, legato style, and imaging prowess that is nothing short of stunning. Bandwidth is reasonably extended to maintain transient realism and it retrieves harmonic colors with vibrancy and dynamic nuance. As with other SET amplifiers it does impose its personality over the music, but what a personality!

 

Specifications
Type: Single-ended triode monoblock amplifier

Frequency Response: 20Hz to 35kHz

Power Output: 50 watts rms into 8 ohms, Class A

Tube Compliment: Power triode Ulyanov Gm-70 
Driver tube Type 6AU5
Input tube Type 12SN7 GTA/GTB

Input Impedance: 50k ohms. (Values from 10k to 500k available on request).

Residual Hum: <2mv.

Dimensions 12 x 18 x 10 (WxDxH in inches)

Weight: 60 lbs.

Price: $9,995/pr (optional Cardas Gold/Rhodium binding posts - $100)

 

Company Information
AndeHavilland Electric Amplifier Company
2401 NE 148th Court 
Vancouver, WA 98684

Voice: 360-891-6570
E-mail: 6SN7@abac.com
Website: www.dehavillandhifi.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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