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Last but not least would be vinyl. I’m not an extreme vinyl supremacist but since the TL66 has that magical golden touch on DDD recordings, I just had to know how it would complete the full analog cycle with AAA recordings. Two preamps with phonostage were called in: the KingRex PREference sourcing from a Denon DP-59L/DL-302 combo; and the Dared MC-7P from a Rega Planar 3/RB300/Elys equivalent. Speakers alternated between the 93dB/8ohms Loth-X BS1 and the 89dB/6ohms JB4. This wasn’t an exercise to identify the perfect preamp but to assess the partner-friendliness of the TL66, which proved to be highly responsive and affable. Needless to say, different types of music favored different kinds of responses.

With the KingRex PREference, the TL66 exemplified sharply contrasting dynamics and pointillist dexterity in a Prokofiev piano concerto. With the Dared MC-7P, the TL66 excelled in mood painting, hall ambience and arousing climatic upheaval in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. The most flattering AAA recordings had to be the latest Speakers Corner releases of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 with Giulini [DGG 2707 097], the exuberant tube magic Die Röhre [Tacet L 74] and Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony under Rajski [Tacet L 984], all scheduled to be reviewed soon.

The ultimate test were the Songs of the Russian Revolution by the Soviet Army Chorus and Band [Angel/Melodiya SR-40127]. Quite the opposite of Gregorian chants and Vienna’s Boys’ Choir, these folk songs with their proud heritage of fierce Cossack cavalry and propaganda chorus with patriotic militarism present the listeners with a different kind of vocal color and fabric. That could be quite jarring on some systems. The TL66 with Mullard EL34 melted my heart with the bitterly charming "Ah, Nastasya" and the seriously whimsical "Song of the Machine-Gun Cart". From the soloists to the bass-rich chorus, the tonal spectrum extended naturally without graininess and never failed to create either stirring tension or harmonious amity.

1. Some tube amps fill up the entire room with excessive valve bloom like covering a waffle with one-inch thick maple syrup. Some spurt transients so fast and cut decays so short that you’d rather listen to transistors. The JohnBlue TL66 strikes the ideal balance.

2. User-friendly auto bias lets you freely roll between 6L6, EL34, KT66 and KT88. With the Mullard EL34 for instance, you can tip the balance towards more tubey romance.

3. Conveniently equipped with volume control, the TL66 can work (and performs excellently) without a preamp. Its friendly nature means it’s not picky about preamps either.

4. Few tube amps are so versatile in terms of optional configurations for power filter and coupling caps to suit your taste. In fact, JohnBlue offers bespoke person-to-person service. Just ask.

My rating for this amp falls somewhere between highly recommended to Blue Moon Award. I’m holding back for two reasons. A/, compared to the build quality of well-established makers, the TL66 remains cosmetically somewhat DIY and leaves rooms for improvement. B/, the configuration options offered by the factory make it unfair to conduct A/B comparisons with competitors. The TL66 is a chameleon or moving target. It turns pros into cons on the comparison front. Besides, I have not yet heard the ultimate version with the Rifa caps.

The TL66 lurks in the hard-to-define 'amphibian' category between manufactured products and customized factory-assembled kits. Admittedly a unique positioning and marketing tactic, it truly reflects Tommy’s belief in audio as art form. He shared with me some success stories of customized TL66s sold in Europe as well as his local market where he has a core group of followers. One thing is certain, the TL66 is a magnificent tube amp with an exceptional cost/performance value that comes with a personal touch and service from the designer. You don’t often find this kind of amp at this price.

30 days later: An Epilogue

I’d been good this year and Santa let me keep the TL66. Then something miraculous happened on Christmas night. I plugged in the Gold Lion Genalex tubes that I'd ordered by catching a last-minute year-end sales promotion with the Parts Connexion. I was literally floored by what I heard, first the KT77s, then the KT88s which were even more captivating. In my earlier conclusion, I'd said the amp struck the perfect balance between valve bloom and resolution. With the Gold Lion Genalex tubes, it took both to the next level. The valve boom was even more euphonic yet more details were revealed. I listened through CDs from solo piano to huge orchestral works that I thought I knew well but I kept hearing details that I'd not noticed before. At the same time, I never had so much warmth and tubey ambience. I listened through the Yuja Wang Sonatas and Etudes and the Vladimir Cosma Euphonium Concerto. I could hear all the subtle tonal shadings, all the microdynamics of the hammer action and the delicate plucking and bowing of the string section amidst the heavy crossfire of percussion and brass - none of it at the expense of valve bloom. And I haven’t yet mentioned the chest-pounding punch and jumpy transients that were so unreal for low-power tube amps.

I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon except that I made a few changes in the setup. First I used the Audio Zone Pre-T1 transformer based passive preamp and two pairs of Loth-X BS1 in a D’Appolito array. (My Marantz SA8260 remained as the digital source, no separate DAC.) Perhaps the passive preamp was sufficiently transparent to let the TL66 show its true colors. Perhaps the single driver was closer to what the designer of the amps had in mind when he conceived them. And perhaps the Loth-X BS1 with the augmentation from a crossoverless tweeter was the closest to single-driver speakers without their drawbacks. But in my mind the largest contributor to this eventual revelation was the simple circuit of the amp itself and the tubes. The Russian Gold Lion Genalex are very affordable compared to all the exotic vintage or NOS tubes. (Matched pairs of KT77s and KT88s are $100 and $110 respectively.) When I shared my excitement with Tommy, he warned me that "the vintage GEC KT66s are even better!"

It wasn’t a bad idea after all to be a little reluctant and hold back an award. I was able to cool off and as it happened, warm up again. To reconcile my own criticisms, most of the cosmetic issues have been addressed (see final comments and suggestions below). As to configuration versatility, it’s only fair to say that with the TL66 at $2,188 and an additional $110 for the Gold Lion Genalex KT88s, this became the best performance-to-value tube amp I've come across yet. I simply had to upgrade the earlier highly recommended status to a full Blue Moon Award now:

Quality of packing:
 Carton box with foam cradle.
Reusability of packing: A few times for sure.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Entirely unproblematic.
Condition of component received: Perfect in its own right but... (see final comments below.)
Completeness of delivery: Just the amps.
Quality of owner's manual: No accompanying manual. 
Website comments: Adequate facts, nice photos.
Warranty: One year.
Global distribution: (Through the KingRex network) Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A., Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland.
Human interactions: Professional and friendly, timely responses to questions, adequate English skills despite being non-native English speakers, forthcoming about technical questions and everything else. 
Pricing: Exceptional C/P value.
Application conditions: Tube rolling is a must!
Final comments & suggestions: The amp is under constant improvement as far as cosmetics go. I complained about the lack of footers resulting in unsightly scratches on my audio rack. Now rubber footers were added. I complained about the sharp corners around the transformer top plates resulting in scratches on my arm reaching for the power bar. Now the new top plates have rounded-off corners. I complained about the blindingly naked blue power indicators. Now they were replaced with dimmed red LEDs with protective lenses. On the sonic front, the latest news as of November 17, 2009 was that BHC caps are temporarily out of stock. (BHC was acquired by Rifa some years ago and the two companies merged.) If you want to upgrade, you might as well go for the Rifas since it’s only a $93 surcharge.

John Blue AudioArt website