The reason I fancy the Art Audio PX-25? It's for its fine-boned litheness whose elegance of expression remains untouched even in the densest aural thick or hellacious outbreak of orchestral violence. It never gets thick, sluggish, ponderous or ruffled. The Gill Signature, a paralleled EL34 SET like the Diva amp (albeit operated in triode mode) somewhat departs from Art Audio's energetic house sound. It's a bit meatier and thicker, texturally a bit more voluptuous while also slower. It's a more "traditional valve" sound, in line with its designer David Gill's preference which slightly diverges from Art Audio's main man Joe Fratus. Remember, with tube amps, it's a matter of flavors. The Tian Zhu, unlike the Gill, exuded the mien of my reference amps, the PX-25 and AUDIOPAX monos - that quintessential single-ended-done-right pellucidness which doesn't impart the fatter glow of most 300Bs or the denser muscularity of push-pulls.

While more treble-extended than the illustrious 300B tube family, EL34s don't have the reach of the PX-25, never mind Eduardo's morphed KT-88s. Accordingly, while not rolled off, Tian Zhu's treble wasn't lit up either. This imparted a distinct while non-syrupy sweetness to the midrange. The relative lack of unmitigated airiness, rather than sounding overly dry, simply created a sense of intimacy. Call it being close enough to the performers where, naturally, room ambience effects aren't as pronounced as in the far field. Intimacy. Fittingly, Tian Zhu's part-the-curtains loudness threshold was a good few clicks lower than usual. Playing louder didn't pose problems but simply wasn't essential to enjoy optimally delivered goods - a perfect late-night amp with wonderful low-level richness.

Being an intrinsically slightly soft-focus tube without the harder crystallized contours of, say a KR 52BX, EL34s are friendly, gutsy valves with tonal fullness that positively adores voices. Bass is more extended than many triodes while slightly fulsome. That's exactly what the Tian Zhu delivered. Interestingly, where it departed from typical EL34 behavior was in transcending the modicum of coarseness that usually hides behind its jovial facade. Presumably due to the ML6 drivers as implemented here, the paralleled power tubes exuded that lucid refinement of expensive triodes. In principle, it reminded me how cleverly Eduardo de Lima altered his KT-88s' innate timbre. With his Tian Zhu, T.S. Lim -- only one 'a' shy of the Brazilian genius as it turns out -- has pulled a related stunt. Time for a merry-lim limerick to salute these gents:

There once was a guy from Darjeeling
who had a peculiar feeling.
With tubes aglow,
time turned slow
and stars appeared on his ceiling.
ML6 drivers flanking the 6SL7GTs

Back to the "serious" business of telling you what such star-struck performance sounded like. The truly surprising element of Lim's recipe? The degree of timbral accuracy in the low bass that clearly telegraphed drum skins, mallets, real and synthesized, the larger cavity of a contrabass and the far shallower of an electric bass. Going low is good. Going low with pitch definition and harmonically realistic content is impressive, doing it with modest bloom rather than Gilette razors is a matter of religion but bloody pleasing (and without nicks) if you ask me.

Tian Zhu's innate treble mellowness meant that female vocals refused to exhibit glare even at higher than natural levels, but the lack of overt midrange centeredness avoided the shortfalls of clearly tailored frequency response, such as the Cary 2A3 amps demonstrated that I listened to a few years ago. While their voicing fogey'fied hard-driving music as being prettier than it is, the Tian Zhu, despite its celestial name, got down'n'dirty when called for.

Pierre Sprey of the famous Mapleshade label could be accused of pronounced brightness in many of his recordings. Live at Ethels [Mapleshade 56292] by Clifford Jordan teeters on the verge of obnoxious cymbal sizzle, piano thinness and occasional steeliness whereas the embedded spatial data make for a truly phenomenal "live" vibe. Agony & ecstasy. While I don't doubt for a moment that the recording mimics what the life performance sounded like, having my ears hardwired to the Paiste cymbals' molecules doing the amphetamine dance isn't my idea of a good time.

Tian Zhu didn't put the damper on Vernel Fournier's ringing metal discs but tamed their heat just enough to where this famous recording, for my taste at least, crossed the line from annoying audiophile relic to listenable. This by way of measuring the extent of high-frequency shading this amp incurs - very modest then, distinctly not in the rolled-off triode camp. Clifford's sharp'n'dry attacks on the uptempo "Arapaho", in keeping with the EL34's aforementioned benign outline softness, sounded less close-miked, not quite as bracing as I've come to file away this track from prior sessions.

Susheela Raman's "Nagumomo" [Salt Rain, Narada World, 723438-50955-2-8, 2001] is a Telugu piece of songwriter's craft and demonstrated Tian Zhu's specific balance of harmonic beauty and subtle dryness. Unlike tube amps voiced to be unapologetically romantic-sounding -- the kind with the sauna effect of harmonic sweat and steam like the 572-based Viva Audio Devices Sintesi or certain 845s -- Tian Zhu only borrowed a quarter dose from that school and grabbed the bigger half from the class room of well-damped, less "reverb-resonant" designs. Susheela's alto voice had richness for sure, but it was accompanied by a no-nonsense bluntness that spelled singer/songwriter honesty rather than nightclub seduction. Djanuno Dabo's surdo and conga beats had more pop than poof for that rhythmic tightness holding the song together.

To this recipe of dry warmth now add the single-ended textural lightness and you've captured the essence of Heaven's Voice from Singapore. The sense of overall refinement and even-handedness suggested far more expensive amps from the likes of Wavelength's Gordon Rankin while the conservative 20-watt power rating added an audible element of control. To test how the latter quality would translate with large-scale complexity, I overlooked Lim's Mahler and went East into the Russian steppes of Rimsky-Korsakov - his fourth movement from the Scheherazade Symphonic Suite Op. 35. In romantic tone poem narration of Ravel-like superior orchestration skills, it depicts the saga's chapters of the Baghad festival & the shipwreck on the rock with the bronze warrior [ Neeme Järvi, Scottish National Orchestra, Chandos 8479, 1986].

Unless I pushed levels beyond what you'd experience in the concert hall, Tian Zhu didn't even remotely compress. It handled the wild dynamic swings and hefty tympani whacks with aplomb and, not surprisingly, made massed strings sound gloriously silky. While not the nth-degree soundstage champ like my far costlier references -- expensive power supplies, especially true dual-mono, will always beat lesser supplies with image placement specificity and depth -- Tian Zhu didn't have reason to be ashamed at all.

The major differentiator to the PX-25 and AUDIOPAX was really its slight overall softening of leading edges, that subtle and hence becoming EL-34 soft focus I mentioned earlier as being intrinsic to this tube family. It meant that rather than hitting like machine-gun fire, the impossibly fast flutter-tongue trumpet staccatos were a little less distinct. It's an area where Tian Zhu gently absconded accounting precision, where it scaled back a bit in the resolution leagues. More importantly, this had no bearings whatsoever on emotional impact or believability.

Because of the firm reach and displacement wallop in the bass, the combined attributes chronicled with these musical examples conspired for polished glory of tone. It's why Blues guitarists are fond of the EL34. It's why this amp is called "voice" rather than "drummer", "imager" or "slammer" from Heaven. Plenty well endowed for my 93.5dB Triangle Ventis, the 87dB nOrh SM6.9s played loud enough but clearly would have benefitted from heftier current and headroom reserves, especially during raunchier material like Take Six or Temple of Sound.

8-watt Tian Zhu mono with CV345 Also available as a non-paralleled 8-watt monoblock (here with CV345 output tube and cherry-red chassis) Diva Audio's Tian Zhu is clearly a music lover's weapon in the struggle against bland, boring, uninvolving stereo that proceeds with the precision of a sewing machine but has your ears fall asleep and shrivel up like wilted roses.

It's a device of poetry - not the flowery but postmodern kind. It's a tone monster - not the super wet but "bluesy" sort. It sounds beautiful not in a cloyingly fake but "essence of music" way. For a lot more money, you could acquire a bit more ambient retrieval, harder accelerating rise times, an added row of depth or two and the trappings of visual sex or cool appeal.

Would $3,000 buy you another what for SETs nearly counts as a high-power amp -- it easily does 25 watts but T.S. Lim prefers conservative ratings -- that sported this level of sonic micro-power refinement? We'll have Chuang Tzu answer that:

If this Taoist turn of events proved too much for your audiophile review sensibilities, take heed - Confucius would understand. But Tian Zhu inspires such creative and poetic license. After all, being a well-juiced SEP with commoner's tubes -- even the ML6 is affordable and easy to obtain -- is a bit like flapping your tail in the mud. You're alive, you're well, you're having fun in the sun. Yet nobody looking down from their high horse will take you serious. That would be their loss, you think to yourself while admiring the colossal love muscle of their ride from your unique vantage point.

Make no mistake - despite its fat tone, Tian Zhu's no pretty wall flower that never gets on the dance floor. It's a unique marriage of moxy and mellifluousness that puts many a far more expensive amp to shame. It gets top marks for sonics and affordability and merely gentle demerits for aesthetics which would have been considered concomitant with cost even a few years ago. But then the likes of Unison Research's Giovanni Sacchetti demonstrated what Italian ingenuity could do for $1,000 and cruelly raised the bar of expectations on the global competition. Could Lim contract with Dared, Ming-da, Xindak or Opera on the Chinese mainland for fancier casings? However - with sound this good, only an ornery reviewer would even dare go there...

The manufacturer replies: Dear Srajan, thanks for a great review and the inspired piece of poetry, complete with embedded limericks and Chinese legends. The only thing we wish to add is that, as seen in the new "Fiat Red" Tian Zhu 345 monoblocks, we have been working to improve the aesthetics. Sonics and cost considerations place severe limitations on what we can do to change the looks, but we do what we can. The new look Diva will be up on our website soon.

To avoid costly return shipping to Singapore, we are hoping to sell this review unit to a US customer at a discount. Interested parties should contact us. Thanks once again.

T. S. Lim & Richard Seah

Manufacturer's website