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Using the Passive Magnetic preamp by Music First Audio from the UK instead of the ModWright, one of the Hyperions proved to be dead quiet on my 101dB Zus. The other elicited just the faintest amount of self noise with the ear pressed to the driver. Removing active preamp gain ahead of the HT-88s showed just how quiet their circuits really are. The slight variance between the monos makes me suspect minor differences in tubes. In general, this is completely unheard-of performance for affordable tube amps. Checking the volume setting, I found myself using the same attenuator range (plus/minus 12:00 o'clock) I use for my 2-watt Yamamoto A-08S. Its input sensitivity -- logically considering its micro-power rating -- is high: 0.5V. By comparison, that suggested something like 1.5 - 2 volts for the Hyperions. A low amplifier voltage gain would certainly help explain the exceptional noise performance. Time to call marketing manager Albert Wu and get the hard figure (2 volts +/- 2% his engineers confirmed). While I had him on the horn, he explained their new rear-wave absorber, a device that will be installed behind the midrange driver of the new HPS-968 flagship speaker to launch March 2006. This device is said to only work with a spider-less driver damped solely by magnetic fluid. That itself then only works in conjunction with Hyperion's Synchro-Vibrate-Flattop. It looks like a flat dust cap but is actually a sounding board direct-coupled to the voice coil.

Did I mention that Hyperion makes a remote-controlled tube preamp for $1,600? If you get the idea that this company is somewhat disgusted with the caviar-as-hamburger attitude of HighEnd audio -- where caviar pricing is shrugged off as though it was a blue collar worker's $5 McDonald's lunch -- you'd be correct. How do they manage, translating this disgust into true value-priced offerings with inventive solutions instead of me-too sameness, all the while working with an old-fashioned dealer network? That indeed is the big mystery question. As music-loving consumers, we of course needn't understand the answer to benefit from it. Which brings me back to the amplifiers under review.

Plainly put, they're silly good for the money asked. The question isn't really whether better amps exist. That's always the case. Somewhere. Sometime. And it's always more relative than Einstein and contingent on context. The relevant thing to ask is really whether that question would present itself to a prospective hypster (Hyperion owner). It doesn't. Yes, coming off the direct-heated 45 triodes in the Yamamoto, you'd notice that the Japanese amp is more lit up, sharper and more articulated around the edges and more energetic and jumpy. By comparison, the Hyperions are fluffier, softer and warmer. But only by degrees of separation. At this level of competence, that's all it ever is these days - degrees.

I call the Yamamoto a resolution monster because in the hunt for detail, it apparently leaves no grain unturned. In fact, it competes head-to-head in that department with the NuForce switching amps. It's also intensely immediate. That's a peculiar quality often associated with direct-heated triodes. Their specific quality is indeed different from the indirectly heated Western Electric 421A as tested in Don Garber's unique multi-decker SET. Like that amp, the Hyperions are somewhat less driven and more soft focus than the Emission Labs 45s. Especially at lower volumes. Of course these KT88s do step closer to the camera the moment you prime the pump. That's normal. It's simply how human hearing works. Rare amps simply delay the stepping away motion as playback levels shrink. They also take position in extreme closeup no matter what. In that regard, the Yamamoto is monstrous. It's right in your face in a very good way of heightened intimacy. One reviewer calls that phenomenon lap-dancing. The Hyperions are a bit more distant, less so at regular volumes, more so at low ones. But monstrosity of resolution and immediacy can come with a price: a certain ruthlessness with brighter or lesser recordings. The Hyperions are more forgiving. This bodes well for the kind of music regular folks play in utter disregard of "audiophile-approved" short lists (very short lists, usually).

Playing a few numbers of the amazing crossover album Agua Madre by Jordi Bonell [World Village 498005] proved this point. Alternating between acoustic and electric guitars depending on track, the e-guitar numbers have plenty of bite and edge as they should - but at full-on playback levels, nearly a bit wearingly so. It's the old audiophile conundrum. Extreme fidelity makes harsh sounds sound harsh, hot recordings really spicy. Bona fide audiophiles pride themselves on such systems. G.I.G.O, they call it. Garbage in, garbage out. Truth serum you might call it - scopolamine, sodium amytal.

Music lovers -- those who listen without checklist and pencil in hand -- tend to reach for music for pleasure. And that's measured by how long your sessions last and how often you turn your system on for aural nourishment in the first place. Whether by design, chosen output tube or other technical parameters, the Hyperion monos round over edges just a bit to take out the sting. Yet they avoid the deliberate blur of the above photo. Think focus, not hyper focus.

Instead of extreme holography in 1st-row central close-up, the HT-88 soundstage is thus more midhall in how textures start to blend rather than sharply separate - that minor softness already mentioned. This is apparent in bass transients, too. They lack that excessively overdamped striated attack that seems to forget about the follow-up of ringing out. Ditto for the treble - there's shimmer but whatever metallic elements may be contained aren't exaggerated with a bright light to cause squinty reflections.

Now mate this ever-so-slightly diffuse nature of how transients are handled with a big sound that rests on a solid foundation of low bass and is suffused by modest warmth. What do you get? Extremely listenable long-term pleasure on the billowy fluffy end of the spectrum, a bit more watercolor than acrylic. When listening to new amps, there's usually an aspect about each that stands out right away. There's an immediate first impression - i.e. dynamics, a silky texture, razor-sharp image outlines. Whatever.
Anything goes. With the Hyperion monos, that calling card, that core character, that overriding attribute is mellowness. These dudes are mellow fellows. Smooth operators.

Don't mistake that for timidness. These amps don't lack balls. Simply turn up the wick and you'll see. They're just not macho about it in the way Paul Candy recently described the 8 x 6550-fitted Almarro integrated - massive macro scale overshadowing the micro. Listening into this effect to tease out what caused it -- and if I were to overlook the outrageous value equation of Hyperion's amplifier proposition here -- I would file one small complaint. It's to do with a layer of cotton-candy intermediacy. Call it buffering or damping. It's an energetic restraint from perhaps excess inductive filtering. It's as though that colossal choke undermined a bit of spunk factor and energy. I could wish for a few steps into the wild side of things if that makes sense. You see, the Hyperions are relaxed. Coming off the perfect two Yamamoto watts, I feel myself reaching for a tiny dose of imaginary Wasabi and hot chili pepper to heat up the temper a notch. That's it, essentially.

That's it? Indeed, that's it for criticisms - and even that has to be tempered by the likelihood that speakers of the HT-88s' target audience will err on the side of too much edge, bite and sizzle. Suddenly their slightly limpid demeanor becomes tailor-made. Where does that leave us? Simply that the Hyperions are and sound like single-ended amps, never mind the choice of the so-called commoner's tube that isn't a proper triode.

These amps are closer to the Yamamoto than the cosmetically sexed-up 300B monos currently in-house. Once you factor in the price of a premium pair of Bs, the Hyperions are exactly half the price and double the power. Now that's the kind of math that walks its talk!

In fact, I predict that blindfolded listeners would have a pretty hard time picking out the 300Bs in an elongated session (these are not deep triode voiced chaps). Characterwise, we're talking brothers. If you concentrated, you'd eventually notice differences in the frequency extremes. Or you'd zero in on a minor difference in texture (the triodes are a smidge looser than the kinky tetrodes). That's how you might identify which amp was which. Perhaps. This particular game is far closer than pricing and tube cachet would have you believe. So think of the Hyperions as really good high-powered 300B SETs. That gives you a solid head start on realistic expectations. Now add the rolling options: 6550s, KT66s, KT90s and KT100s. Then factor that Sean Ta at Aydn will sell you a JJ KT88 for $34. Want a pair of Sovtek KT100s? $48.50. A matched quartet of Valve Arts KT66s? $95.

Not only can you roll different brands, you can roll different types. Try that with a 300B amp. See what I mean? The way I hear it on my Zu Definitions, the Hyperion HT-88s are a thinking man's -- and woman's -- modern 300B amps. No sticker shock, no shiny badge of honor. However, better bass, arguably a bit more extension on top, definitely more real-world muscle. While I leave the door open to change my religion -- Kevin Carter's new push/pull 300B is said to be the cat's whisker -- I am, presently and unrepentingly, a single-ended man. That's because to my way of listening, they tend to do the micro scale better. With the music I fancy most --non-bombastic, mostly acoustic, filled with intricate rhythms and exotic timbres -- the more micro, the better. Getting transported in the midst of a symphony hall with room-loading tympani crests and gargantuan brass calls isn't something I do too much of where a large push/pull amp might have the edge in sheer swell. So SET it is for S.E.

Because I deliberately own speakers that don't require power, a puny direct-heated 45 triode will do in my muscle department. You likely need more. But possibly not a lot at all. If you are like most, you'll have far too much gain in your system as is. You're probably running your preamp at more than -20dB of attenuation. That means you're throwing away signal by the bucket load, converting it into resistive heat. If so, 18 watts on the amp end could be fat city and actually have you use your preamp's gain so your volume control operates between high noon and 2 o'clock rather than 9:30. Say hello to the HT-88s then. It really might be that simple - unless you run known power mongers in which case you wouldn't be reading this review in the first place.

For an actual demonstration, I inserted the 88dB Gallo Reference 3s. To achieve customary levels, I still ran the passive preamp at -10dB attenuation, off a 1-volt input signal from my Zanden DAC (yours would likely be 2 volts as the industry standard for digital source components).

Plus, your preamp would likely be active for even more gain to go around. Into the Gallos, the HT-88s now evaded being permanently stuck in first gear where the ultra-high efficiency Zus had previously parked them.

This clearly moved them into the sweet spot of their power or torque curve. All the aforementioned attributes still held but the sense of 'inductive restraint' fell away. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback that I didn't have to press my ModWright SWL 9.0SE into service in the first place. My recent excursion into TVCs has really undermined the popular equation of how much power we actually employ for regular listening - a lot less than sales people of high-power amps like to let on. Here I was running a passive preamp into 18-watt amps into 88dB speakers and happy as a pig in you-know-what. All the while, the numerical markers circling the Music First's attenuator showed me the amount of signal cut for a clear appreciation of actual figures.

Any predictions of compromised bass wallop or definition flew out the window. Driving a passive and somewhat current-happy bass alignment, the tetrodes now established their clear superiority over quite a few designer triodes in this department. Pulling out certain of my punishing bass tracks, the HT-88s remained boss, perhaps now precisely because of that humongoid inductor I had previously suspected of low-torque restraint. A good reminder that assigning subjective listening observations to clear cause-and-effect items is impossible.

Asked to now drive a speaker rather than barely touch it, the Hyperions kicked harder and the soundstage opened up laterally, ably assisted by the famous cylindrical omni tweeter. The leading edge still retained the previously noted softness but was now followed up by real whomp. Silly good for the money had morphed into giant killer. Into this speaker sensitivity, the amps were completely and utterly quiet just as expected. The sense of sustain underneath swelling crescendoes was more powerful yet smoothness and lack of hairy edge never wavered. Definitely more wallop across the board I nodded while flipping CD covers.

How about female vocals, the key domain of tube amps? Souad Massi to the rescue, with her newest called Honeysuckle (Mesk Elil) on Wrasse Records [170]. As I followed her through the album, I began to think of the amps more and more as being endowed with semi push/pull attributes, namely their sense of 'big sound' and the underlying sense of locomotive propulsion. While not as blistery and subjectively fast as the Yamamoto, the attribute of relaxation on the Zus had transformed into something grippier and more potent. Does power corrupt? Not really. The Zus sound great on high-power amps - but consuming in the neighborhood of 0.5 watts or less in my size room, certain amps just don't give it up fully until asked to put out something more substantial. To really hear what the Hyperions can do, I thus don't recommend to treat them as micro-power SETs. Run them into 88 - 90dB speakers.

Do that and 99% of listeners will be very hard pressed to justify spending a penny more on superior 20wpc tube amplification. In fact, let me further qualify that statement. On a load like the Gallos, the $8,000 160wpc Western Reserve Audio Design WRAD 300 won't give an iota more performance. Been there, done that. Neither an extra $5,200 nor additional 142 watts will get you aurally ahead. (For that, you'll need more reactive loads, vaster rooms and higher playback levels). The only thing the Hyperions haven't got is major cosmetic sex appeal - though black is arguably far more practical than the usual chromed finger print magnets. And with this nod at practicality comes another - no big-time name recognition. Buying these amps won't raise your placement on any snob-appeal lists. So what? It makes you smart. It allows you to get into performance for essentially half of what it should cost were the folks at Hyperion Sound not so hell-bent on making a statement. [Check out their power cord below which converts incoming AC to fully balanced so you can add the benefits of noise
cancellation without running every single component off a balanced powerline conditioner in case that's sonic overkill. Now that's smart.]

Discovering honest value and highly commendable audio performance that's relevant rather than out of reach these days is pure joy. You know, caviar for the masses. If $2,800/pr are in your budget and tubes in your future, the Hyperion Sound HT-88s belong on your short list - a very short list (and not of the stupid kind that limits how few recordings the audiophile police allows you to listen to with 'em). Asking Albert Wu whether he gets any love in the US -- by picking up dealers for his products -- he confided that England and the Far East are going gangbusters but that the domestic market is slow to catch up. Only 10 dealers at
present. While that will make personal auditions a bit harder, it's certainly worth it even if you have to travel out-of-state to do so. The money for a plane ticket and overnight accommodation will be peanuts compared to what you save in the end.
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