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To test raw drive, I jumped into the deep end of my resident speaker pool and leashed up the 4-ohm Mark & Daniel Maximus Monitor with optional OmniHarmonizer. At 85dB/1w/1m, my Melody Valve HiFi I2A3 and Eastern Electric M520 really don't deliver the Maximus goods. Achievable SPLs aren't exactly the issue, control and drive are. With it, especially bass quality and quantity suffer but there's also an overall lack of grippiness and get out of the ethers down into the body conviction. Melody's SP9 50wpc push-pull KT88er handles the Maximus very well even though in the end, results are arguably a bit warmer, rounder, bloomier and less articulate than these speakers' fire power and cabinet technology warrant. The most copasetic amp for this speaker I own is the 150wpc ICEpower-based Bel Canto Design e.One S300. I prefer tubes but there's no arguing that in this application, transistor assets far outweigh what they leave under the table tube-wize. Ditto for the 50-wpc AudioSector Patek SE gain clone - excellent drive and control, accelerated transients but especially in the treble, a bit frisky on the ambiance tweeter and harmonically not as suave as valves.

Enter the A318B. It dusted the S300, categorically when the speakers were low-passed to the WLM Duo 12 subwoofer at 80Hz, in most aspects even full-range except for high-volume truly traumatizing bass transients. Marc-Michel Le Bevillon lays down ultra-mean bass on Romane & Stochelo Rosenberg's Manouche Jazz stunner Double Jeu [Iris Music/Harmonia Mundi 3001-833]. Stephane Huchard on batterie -- it's a French album and the better for it -- throws in killer jabs and roundhouse whammies for growl, rumble and general groove mayhem that swings hard and really stresses a single-ended valve system.

While nothing more than a silly Rubicon 4-wheel spectacle to suss out machismo limits, the Almarro's 18 watts proved worth 50 normal tube watts of the push/pull KT88 sort and thus, probably close to 100 transistor watts. This math isn't iron-clad of course. Even a 25-watt Vitus, Pass or Boulder transistor amp would quickly disabuse us. Still, it's a fair pointer for what to expect from the Almarro's current drive. In sub/sat mode, it truly liberated the Maximus Monitor from the sense of restraint my other amps invoke to let it shine as the monster speaker it is. This echoes the earlier B&W 801 comment. The most contrarious aspect of this experiment was really the apparent damping whereby the little tube amp controlled the brakes on the
woofers. I say 'apparent' because the Bel Canto's output impedance is lower than the Almarro's by easily a factor of 100. In any damping competition, it should have been sudden death for the A318B. Why and how it wasn't I won't pretend to understand or attempt to explain. [Published measurements on the 90-watt push/pull Lamm ML1.1 show that while, at 1% THD, it only made forty-two 8-ohm watts, that figure rose to a buff 110 watts if THD was relaxed to 10%, with an equivalent 130 watts into 4 ohms. This might give some indication as to this tube's useful power headroom especially during low-impedance short-term peaks.]

Double Jeu is a very angular outing of ultra-modern bass grooves and peppery guitar duels between two of the greatest Gypsy guitar masters alive. It's all about rhythmic tautness, leading edges, the occasional monster vibrato on top of a streaking arpeggio, rim shots, cracks, bass slaps and plenty of growl and rumble down below. Especially at foot-stomping saw dust levels, this isn't at all typical deep triode fare. Yet the A318B not only took it all in stride but excelled. It handled the high-excursion underhung woofers loaded into small-diameter twin ports and enclosed in a faux marble composite chassis.

Because the Almarro's treble takes the roof off compared to the direct-heated triodes I've heard -- except for the 50 which takes the cake -- I was hard on this setup whose air-motion transformer 5-octave tweeters plus auxiliary omnis are very dynamic high-output devices. That puts them far more in the modern high-resolution camp than my coaxial WLMs or Zus. If the plate-follower 6C33C-B overcooked the treble, it might perfectly counterbalance my usual setups but turn objectionable on AMTs and Piega-style ribbons which I had in-house as well. While there was more treble quantity, there also was so much low-end crunch and midrange saturation that nothing was emphasized. It felt like adding salt and sugar in equal measure. Intensity goes up but balance remains. Suffice it to say that the Almarro's treble performance seems beyond reproach and, qualitatively, on par with a 45.

What may not be is the 6C33C itself, originally designed as a high-current tube regulator. Sezai Saktanber, head of SilverFi and my mentor in all things Turkish clarinet (his latest tip was Serkan Cagri's My Breath after I'd fallen heavy for Hüsnü Senlendiriçi's Hüsn-ü Klarnet): "Nice to hear about the Almarro. I would like to try it but finding a standard sample of that tube for replacement in Ankara will be difficult. I have a friend here who last year designed and built 6C33C monos. He had a really hard time biasing them. All 200 tubes he had biased widely different." This mirrors what I've read about this bottle elsewhere. It's an excellent idea -- in the commercial sector that concerns us here -- to rely on Muramatsu-San to supply your pre-tested replacement glass. While he might have to sort through a bunch to furnish you with a closely matched pair, you needn't even concern yourself over it.

You should check on the A318B's bias religiously during the first few weeks however. That's what Yoshi-San recommends in the owner's manual. In light of the above, that makes perfect sense just in case a valve runs away. Bias checks won't have to become an hourly obsession, just a close initial monitoring until the amp settles in and the tubes down. Remember, 6C33Cs serviced Foxbat fighter planes. They're tough customers. My sample loaners proved ultra steady, with bias variations mostly in lock step between both bottles to suggest AC mains fluctuations rather than real bias drift. Did I mention how these tubes are miniature
reactors? It's the one hairy aspect of the A318B that could preclude ownership for those who are categorically intolerant of scorchingly hot devices in their crib; whose year-round climate forbids them; or where children and animals might burn themselves. I'm a diehard tube guy but these valves are industrial strength also in the heat-throwing department to even give me a bit of the willies. Naturally, 845s and 211s fall into the same general category. (Actually, nearly one third of the heat of the A318B comes off the filament heater and auto bias resistors - "perfectly safe" explained the designer.)

Because of the high voltages at play, Almarro uses the aforementioned 3-minute delayed power-up protocol to pre-warm the output tubes and prevent thermal shock. To protect the ceramic tube sockets and maximize air exchange, the sockets are mounted floating on stand-offs, with a big vent hole in the chassis right below each and a ring of perforated holes around those. Yoshi-San is fond of New-Old-Stock Russian inventories and keeps more than 1000 paper-in-oil caps from his personal sources on hand. His tubes too are prescreened and selected by his Soviet suppliers before they arrive in Japan. Thereafter Almarro does its own testing to assure that by the time the 6C33Cs get to you, they've cleared two tight inspections. Certain spec sheets predict a life expectancy of 1000 hours for the 6C33C, 750 for the 6C33C-B. Others state that if not used in a Mig fighter or tank, the 6C33-B will exceed 2000 hours. Users of Joule Electra OTLs have
gone on record with approaching 10,000 hours. Applied plate current is part of the equation. According to Yoshi-San, anything over 250mA will shorten tube life to under 750 hours. Between 180 - 200mA, he expects more than 2000 hours. The heater voltage too is influential, with anything over 6.7V speeding things up. Almarro's heater voltage lies between 5.9 and 6.2V which is fixed with resistors underneath the 6C33C sockets. With a plate current of 180mA and a heater voltage of 6.1V, Almarro averages 3000 hours. In the end, Yoshi's take on tube life is simple: "6C33C is very cheap tube. I recommend to our customer not to mind the tube life but to enjoy life. It's just a 6C33C! The A318B combines the current protection of auto-bias with trim pots so a customer can reduce the output power for best speaker matching. The A318A was a fixed bias design at first but got converted to auto-biasing due to customer demands."

Djelem [Orange Music 5512-2] is a Canadian formation dedicated to Russian Gypsy repertoire and I'm especially fond of lead singer Anatoli Iakovenko's pipes. A photo of him shows a bear of a man, with a massive handle-bar moustache, Indian-style top knot and his guitar looking like a toy in big hands. But you don't need the photo to know that. It's in the music itself, in the deliberate restraint of his delivery as though he would break something otherwise. And when he finally does let go, your neck hairs react - a perfect test for any amplifier's vocal mojo and center stage attraction of the Almarro which really sets a new standard in vocal aural pleasures. It's a meeting of deep triode and transistor-style control for come-hither vibes without any sloppiness. You don't sense interpretational liberties at all -- something which deep triode signifies to me -- but data truth with complete emotional conviction.

Djelem's lead violonist Sergei Trofanov isn't remotely in the same technical league as his colleagues from Loyko or Talisman but he has wonderful tone and a very lyrical touch. With each Djelem album so far, this has netted a multi-tracked hora solo violin meditation that's plain stunning. Where other high-voltage tubes like 845s have always given me body and saturation, they've also been fuzzy and blurry around the edges, compromised in the upper-most treble and too thick overall. On violin, this gives you wood (the resonating enclosure) but no or not enough metal (the string). The Almarro handles either as befits the occasion. There's wood and density but not to the degree that peak transients embedded in the fabric -- say foot stomps, double bass slaps, drum whacks or bow-shredding spiccatos -- don't cut right through and fly through the room to bite you.

So the A318B does both metal and wood. At once. And that's emblematic of this amp in general, this simultaneity bit. Usually, amps have specific strengths counterbalanced by lesser attributes. As you celebrate bass, you wish for a more developed top end. As you salute speed, you secretly criticize lack of texture. And so on. With the Almarro, you're hard-pressed what to get excited over the most, harder pressed to level any real complaints. The midrange is true direct-heated triode without the excess bloom
. Bass has the speed, grip, tremendous impact and shocking growl that lives somewhere between a good transistor amp for transients and control and the saturation of a high-power p/p valve machine. The top end is tube finesse all the way but as open as the rule-breaking FirstWatt F3 Power JFET amp from Nelson Pass. The only thing anyone could bitch about with the A318B (outside its lack of a pre-out for active subwoofing or other biamping) is the power limit. The answer to that are not only the forthcoming monos but the fact that in the real world, these 18 watts go a lot farther than seems reasonable.

You certainly cannot complain about the price. Verily as they'd say in Biblical times, you knock yourself bloody trying to pin any legitimate complaints on this amp. In far more elevated company that uses DacT or GoldPoint stepped attenuators instead of Taiwan-Alpha wipers; Jensen, Mundorf, BlackGate or Vcap capacitors; Riken Ohm or Kiwame resistors; Van den Hul or Siltech hookup wiring; you'd expect differences. Be assured though that even in the world of the Yamamoto A-08S, the Melody Valve HiFi I2A3, the Canary Audio 300B SETs, the Wyetech Labs Sapphires, the Fi 2A3 monos, the SilverTone 300B and such where a lot of the sterling parts aspect is handled to a high degree, the Almarro won't find itself embarrassed. To my ears in fact, it'll walk away the clear winner. As a silly audiophile, I of course wonder, theoretically, what would happen if one threw these kind of parts at this circuit which its present price precludes. Once you listen to the way it is again, such thoughts fade to abstract theory once more. That's design chops.

With it come insights. For example, certain capacitor junctions like to see less current, others more. Simply replacing a stock cap with a high-brow make of the same value will not guarantee good results. Certain current behavior will have been altered and the circuit on a whole would have to be rebalanced with additional modifications elsewhere. On that subject, Yoshi is firm. He cannot and will not extend his manufacturer's warranty to amplifiers which were altered by customers or for-profit modifiers. Besides changing his intended performance, certain modifications may simply be unsafe especially in high-voltage circuits. Almarro will not risk its reputation with ill results caused by second parties. As such, anyone who modifies Almarro equipment does so with the express understanding of deliberately voiding the manufacturer's warranty and they must henceforth obtain service and repair support at their expense from sources other than Almarro and Almarro's formal dealers and distributors. That's a perfectly reasonable policy for a manufacturer to protect his integrity and that of his creations.

I asked Hannes Frick of WLM how he rated the piece in the grander scheme of what he's heard, owned and sold over the past few decades. "How many fingers have you got?" he asked. "That's how much more I'd pay to get this performance - if I had to." From a man who not only owns the A80 Studer open-reel shown but also Sabas, a Sony TC-880-2 and plenty of vinyl, this is a pretty specific and qualified assessment.

Despite a sticker that suggests entry-level, warm and fuzzy and thus a good way for a first-time buyer to get his or her feet wet, the Almarro is a highly resolved machine that easily cottons to the difference of a signal from a $1,690 Raysonic CD-128 outfitted with rare Mullards, to a $10,000 Ancient Audio Lektor IV pure or with the $9,000 Slovenian Stylos sys Had converter on its tail to a $40K+ Zanden quartet. In short, it's plenty good enough for elevated company. That could be upsetting to some but should warm the cockles of all bargain hunters.

The A318B makes the difference between mediocre, good and excellent recordings very apparent - but differently than usual. These tubes not only run hot, they create a lot of energetic heat and color temperature, the more so the better the recording is. Lesser recordings don't become unlistenable at all. They just won't cast as dimensional a stage, as developed a tone, as fulsome and dense a presence. George Dalaras' EMI Classics pressing of his Metropole Orchestra concert celebrating Mikis Theodorakis pales in that regard compared to Marta Topferova's Flor Nocturna [World Village 468062]. That doesn't lessen musical enjoyment. It simply
shows that the mastering or pressing of the Greek double album contains less raw material for the Almarro to expand and expound upon. The recording is flatter, more whitish. And by comparison to what the A318B can do with a truly exceptional pressing like Marta's Peruvian-styles canzons, this difference is driven home. That's a far cry from the "rendered unlistenable" action whereby certain ultra resolution machines would love to justify away why over them, you're only playing 10% of your album collection. We're back at this amp's heart of simultaneity. In this case, it gives you resolution without a single one of your recordings going to the trash heap. The better ones will simply sound much better rather than the bad ones worse. That's useful resolution in my book, not analytic abstraction fit only for those you love to argue hifi rather than listen for enjoyment.

Qualifiers. Part of this recipe's magic is, it seems, current flow. As you open the pot, more of it flows to blow up the images on the soundstage from 2D to 3D like a sculpted air balloon. One enters this sweet spot relatively soon to not require happy-hour SPLs at all but this expander action is far more subtle at really low levels. Scaling back the bias current to enlarge the usable volume control range -- I didn't find this necessary with my 101dB Zus but horn-type ultra sensitivities might -- seems to incur a very small reduction of tonal heat and energetic pressure on regular speakers which don't need a gain reduction, i.e. the very qualities that make the A318B sound so vibrant. When the supplied 6H8C began to sound scratchy (without signal, one channel made intermittent noises like a hanging cartridge needle), I swapped it out for a JAN Philips black-base 6SN7WGTA I had in my Supratek preamp. To my ears, the sound actually improved, becoming even more open especially on deep-throated vocal climaxes. This suggests that rolling glass between the two small-signal tubes will allow for some small tailoring of the amp's voicing to personal taste.

Piega Switzerland TP3 monitors, Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.1s fullrangers (admittedly with Gallo's bass amp on the second voice coils) - the A318B didn't care. The same flavor of control coupled to magic -- iron and velvet -- asserted itself without fail even on the critical stuff: Dulce Pontes at full tilt; Jan Garbarek's wailing sax against the barest of ambience; Thierry 'Titi' Robin's Anita; massed strings on a Bruckner Adagio. Nothing closed in, got grainy, harsh or strident. Composure remained no matter what even though composure is far too staid a term. This amp sings freely and let's go with a flourish. My musical speaker chairs suggest that most 88dB 2-way jobs without bizarre load behavior should be game. So don't let the power spec fool you. Think 50 watts. In conclusion, let me reiterate something that only those who've heard a superior 6C33C SET before won't get upset about. I've got top Western Electric 300Bs, Emission Labs 45s, JJ 2A3-40s and own amps and had other through to stick all of them in to. For my listening tastes and over the somewhat warmish speakers I fancy, none of them match the far cheaper 6C33C in this amp. Perhaps some of Wavac's giant 833s do (as better they should for the money they command). That's a different discussion though. In the here and now on Planet Everyman, the Almarro does everything premium 300B, 2A3, 45 or 845 amps do I've heard or own - except better and more so. And with significantly more audible power and drive. This translates across the board, not just in the bass where you'd expect it though you'll still be dumbfounded. So that's why Vladimir Lamm is so stuck on the 6C33C?

In my by necessity limited experience, this valve puts to shame all the popular direct-heated triodes. It is exceptionally open and fast like a 45. Fanciers of 300Bs might feel the 6C33C to be lean. I don't because it majors on texture. The "pressure of current" simply cleans out the cobwebs and exerts stronger control over the drivers to banish most the bloom. In that sense, it's a very solid-statish sound, including the kind of bass and dynamics DHTs can only dream of. But where transistors will seem sterile and flat to direct-heated triode listeners, the 6C33C won't. Dimensionally, micro-dynamically and texturally, it's 100% and unmistakably tube. Unless I hear a 211 or GM-70 amp to reverse my opinion, I'd also have to include the high-voltage tubes as being overshadowed by the 6C33C based on previous encounters with various 845 amps - and if one favored a very open fast sound with a tube gestalt but no overt tube attributes. Naturally, don't mention Kondo-San's Ongaku. Otherwise Muramatsu-San would have to counter with a $20,000 6C33C Almarro. Which he'd never do. As is, Yoshi-San's amplifier is a major sensation in the realsization sweepstakes. It's a Yamamoto A-08S for standard speakers. It's a Red Wine Audio Signature 30 with real valves. And to my ears, it even transcends those exceptional amps. In this price range, it's in a class of one. Until the monos come out.

It also means that the list of famous Japanese senseis of the vacuum tube arts at Airtight, Kondo, Leben, Luxman, Mactone, Shindo, Zanden, Wavac and Yamamoto is incomplete without a space of special honor for Yoshi Muramatsu of Almarro. Applauding expensive esoterica is its own reward. It makes you a member of a very exclusive club where self congratulation is the order of the day. Almarro tears down class distinctions and creates relevance for the many. Man-of- the-street esoterica. That's what the A318B is. It's doubly relevant because a certain sector of especially Japanese audio esoterica is nearly synonymous with very steep pricing. The sad shadow of this all is simply that many who are lucky enough to find out about the A318B will write it off because it's not priced high enough. And those who'd appreciate it exactly for that reason might not find out about it in the first place. That's just a reflection on the current hi-end audio retail climate. It's why products like this one are such a breath of fresh air to the cynics amongst us. So much so that the A318B walks away with a rare Realsization Award and my personal nomination as most exciting product discovery of 2007 yet. (If you already own an A318B, it can be rewired for mono in a few simple steps. Contact Almarro for the details.)

The A318B is also a poster child answer to the kind of question I occasionally get - about why I don't review more true state-of-the-art equipment, implying of course the really expensive stuff. It's simply not relevant to most people. Justifying it becomes very difficult when you're a smart realsizer who builds a superior system for far less that's perfectly matched to the actual space it's in and the kind of listening you really do over it. If you heard the Almarro over the above speakers with a good source and in a room sized like mine, you'd understand why it renders a lot of the ultimate, extreme über stuff irrelevant. Now excuse me while I write Muramatsu-San an order for his soon-to-be reference monos. A pair of superior 40-watt 6C33C class A push-pull amps with twice the A318B's damping factor will fit perfectly with my own power-hungry realsization requirements, plenty of future review assignments and personal enjoyment - in exactly that sequence (of escalating needs).

PS: On the subject of escalation, Yoshi-San has created a power transformer for the GM-100, a tube intended as a 1000-watt transmitter tube with a 17V/18A filament. Quipped our designer in good humor, "A low-impedance output transformer is difficult to design to maintain the higher frequencies. Distortion goes up. Almost all tube amp makers list their power spec at 1kHz performance where one needs only a few
watts for very loud listening. The sub 100Hz power capability is the real key to determine power specs. The A318B uses the highest magnetic density EI cores. If we used normal iron cores, the transformer size would be 30% bigger and the sound would roll off in the treble and the bass would go fuzzy. Also, the winding pattern is another very important key to make a superior and big output transformer. Low impedance big OPTs are very difficult to design. To get big power from the 6C33C, OTLs are best because of the background already covered. I have an OTL power transformer for the 6C33C that I designed last year. I also designed a GM-100 power transformer. Both are
very big. But I suspended those amplifier projects. We're in the 'save energy' era after all. I might have gotten arrested by Green Peace. But I love big Russian tubes - good for winter life or suntan machines."
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