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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio Passive Magnetic; Wyetech Jade; Bel Canto PRe3; Supratek Cabernet Dual [on extended loan from owner]
EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; Canary Audio CA-308s; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Bel Canto S300
Headphones: AKG K-1000 w. hard-wired Stefan AudioArt harness; audio-technica W-1000
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro; Anthony Gallo Acoustics Ref 3.1
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial, Gede, Libtech and Ibis; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; double cryo'd Acrotech with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer; Crystal Cable Ultra [on extended loan]
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular five-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S; AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron 240-to-117V step-down transformer with balanced power output; Furutech RTP-6 for 240V connection
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Extreme SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9-13' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 14' x 35' living room
Review Component Retail: $1,800
|My new amp short list for our small new media room was - well, short. It had to be an integrated amp. Down with the box count. Since it would run off a cheap DVD player, it had to have tubes to compensate. Add a remote for couch potatoes. And it had to look great. Be built well. Be stone reliable, i.e. sound smmmmokin' without otherwise emitting noxious fumes. Avoid rare and expensive prima donna triodes at all costs, pun intended. Be affordable, period. Have enough power and drive to get from my Gallo Reference 3.1s the astonishing bass their side-firing sealed 10-inchers are capable of especially in a smaller space. Hey, some of us want it all. In short, a short list then. But not such easy shorts to fill.
Enter Eastern Electric's M520. Over time and his phonostage excepted, I've owned each one of Alex Yeung's formidable MiniMax pieces. All have proven killer performers for the money. Plus, US importer Bill O'Connell of MorningStar Audio is a sweetheart of a guy to deal with. It's something countless readers reaffirm whenever they pen yet another unbidden note to share their own satisfaction with this gentleman's out-of-his-way service ethos. Exactly one year ago, O'Connell had approached me to review Yeung's then brand-new integrated. "His master piece" as I was told. It became one of the few reviews I've gotten flak over, from owners and importers alike. In their minds, I had failed to roll just the right tubes. As a result, I hadn't taken the amp over the top into wonderland. My findings, they insisted, weren't indicative of its true performance potential. Prospective buyers were liably cooled off by my review. I really owed it to them and myself to revisit the piece.
Granted, that is part of the shortcoming of our review process. We insist on turnarounds that are fair to the manufacturers. We call that 3 months. That's sufficient in general. When it comes to rollen Sie das glass, bitte which here means four different kinds of glass (one EF86 into a 12AU7 phase splitter feeding two EL34 family output tubes plus one 5AR4 rectifier, multiplied by two for stereo) and rather endless permutations of combinations thereof... well, it's not enough time for all that.
As our unfailingly dashing Indiana Jones discovered in one of his unbelievable escapades, the penitent man bows low. This avoids getting beheaded by concealed scythes. My own penance for not getting to the bottom of the M520's true potential? Order one for personal use. I placed that order just before things shut down in New Mexico. O'Connell preceded Yeung's Hong Kong shipment of my 240V unit to Cyprus with what his personal experiments one year into the M520 have identified as his favorite output valve: the Yugoslavian NOS fat bottle 6CA7 by the Ei factory (here additionally labeled Magnoval on the dark yellow tube cartons). He also added a quad of JJ Electronic's new KT77s. From prior MiniMax sessions, I knew full well that Alex's circuits tend to be exceptionally transparent to tube changes. What you plug in becomes more of a personally relevant choice than with tube amps that telegraph such changes with less fanfare.
"My only regret is that I didn't have some Mullard 5AR4/GZ34 to also send. F31 B or F32 B date codes ( B = Blackburn factory) would have been the rectifiers to ship. I think they are the best ever made. You will like the presentation the Ei 6CA7 fat bottles present - very textured which I believe your Zus will love. These valves crave the pentode mode. For more clarity over tone, the KT77s should work well but during break-in, I like playing them in UltraLinear since they have a sharp high end at first. You'll know what I'm talking about when you hear them. I find it peculiar that the Ei fat bottles sound great with just a few hours on them while the KT77s need many hours but yet they really dig out all that's on the recordings."
Have you ever tried to sneak a stack of tubes past airport security? Oy veh! My carry-on bag enroute to Paphos stopped the lady monitoring the X-ray dead in her tracks. The buzz-cut security guy she waved over shot me the evil eye. My lengthening hair and full beard probably didn't help matters either. The concomitant rapid fire exchange between them was too low to make out. Still, I could see my treasured cargo condemned to the trash heap or my seat forcefully relinquished. Neither was an option. "They're like light bulbs". It's what escaped unbidden from my clenched lips. Thankfully, that bit of stretch did the trick. Tension evaporated, guns remained in their holsters and my momentary eligibility for terrorist club membership was revoked on the spot. Phew.
On with Take Two on this 18/24wpc EL34 amplifier. One unique feature? Remote-switchable mode from UltraLinear to full pentode. A thoughtful in-the-dark bit is the LED indicator on the non-stepped rotary volume knob. And at 54 lbs, brother M is no lightweight. Nor does his construction compromise anywhere. No, this is serious kit that just happens to not break the bank.
|As Mr. SE single-ended, I needed a proper push/pull tube amp in my growing arsenal of realsization entrants. The M520 fulfills my list. About those tubes. O'Bill called it spot on. The KT77s are frisky and a bit shrill at first but do settle down. The amp then shifts its endowed, minorly creamy lusciousness compliments of el fatsos to something more overtly detailed, drier and dare I say, glassier. On balance, it's as though the M520 now docked adjacent to the Melody/Onix SP3. That Chinese amp, fitted with stock glass, is a very ballsy and - um, linear amp that's plainly modern, not vintage. It's ultimately less about tube sound per se. You can't really derail the M520 from its tube groove. Yet the KT77s will downplay aspects thereof. Deliberately. Whether you want that or not is your call.
Before you assume that by implication, this renders the Eis too friendly and diplomatic for honesty, enter the Blackburn rectifiers. They are bloody fantastic. Bill did find a pair to send along after all. Tasting the forbidden fruit explains why it's in short supply. The audio gods want to keep Eden to themselves. To wit, the Mullard rectos add tautness and impact to the fat boys' tone. More importantly, the amp's dynamic reflexes get a nice kick in the keister. Law and order remain even during complex mayhem that before had a tendency to clump up. Goodbye confusion when the tough get going. Outfitted accordingly, brother M leaves nothing under the table even when action soundtrax in our modest 2-channel movie rig call for backup as it were to roll out the big artillery of effects, explosions and submarine rumblings.
|Considering the M520's history and design brief -- to revive a classic Mullard circuit with modern parts and direct service support -- the 6CA7s with a super rectifier fully satisfy 21st-century requirements of resolution and drive grunt. Yet (and this is relevant), they play to the amplifier's essence: Tone. Also, pentode really is how this amp wants to run. No question about it. Everything gets fuller, ballsier, more grounded and simultaneously, more spacious and open. Anchor and sky at the same time. Remember, this isn't ultralinear. Pentode here is true pentode, run off a separate power supply for the screen grid rather than the customary transformer tap. Even the center default setting for modest negative feedback turns out to be my favored one. I nearly feel like letting Alex and Bill write their own follow-up review. I'm agreeing with everything they claimed or predicted. They clearly know their stuff. Truth in advertising. What an unexpected break.
Let's tally up. The M-520, as described in my original review, is a vintage-voiced amp (vintage here used as most people understand it when referencing valves). No surprise. That's its raison d'être after all. If you're attracted by its stout build, thoughtful features and friendly price -- it's a stunning package no doubt -- yet wish for just a little less golden era and a bit more heavy metal... well, the amp's happy to oblige. Just start rolling out (and in) the glass. The circuit is transparent and responds. The KT77s definitely tip the balance post 9/11. Less waft, more crunch. Less warmth, more briskness. Less fire, more glass. For some, that could be the end of the road. However, if the M in the amp's nomenclature is what pushed your button in the first place, the NOS Slav 6CA7s with a choice rectifier remain solidly in the M domain. They simply elevate your perspective by a number of upward turns on the evolutionary spiral.
In the end, this is a Mullard circuit. It's about tone, weight, warmth and density. Don't change it. Simply feed it premium fuel. Frankly, I'm plenty tickled with the Ei output bottles and Blackburn rectos. Why bother with more rolling? There'd be no end to it. UK Mullard 34s. Amperex. More money. Why turn an Eastern Electric amp into a Kondo? That defeats the whole purpose. For more detail and jump as some say the Amperex valves would give? Why not go Class D then to render faraway objects as crisply as those in the nearfield? For realistic ultra detail, I've already got the 2wpc 45-based Yamamoto A-08s. It's faster, more lit up and energetic than the M520. It's M-lite, with a heavy dose of caffeine thrown in. And it can't drive the Gallos worth squat. Plus, why replicate the same sound I've already got with different ingredients all over again? Too many whys. Plus, my M520 rig is for intimate late-night dim-lite occasions. If I want farther-field bombast with heightened adrenaline and leaner jump factor, I go to the big 101dB rig in the dedicated sound room.
If you have $2,000 and speakers that are happy on 20 watts; if you want rich tube tone that won't ever offend but isn't lazy either, just no adrenaline junkie; if you need remote, first-rate construction and stellar support (who doesn't?) ... the M520 belongs on your voter's registration. It's actually more with our modern times than I gave it credit for in my first go-around. I reckon that's why Bill O'Connell included the KT77s. To prove that very point. On second thought though and after spending extended time with either sonic scenario, I have to side with Bill's first choice. The Eis stay true to the M's essence, just refine it. As I said earlier, O'Connell does know his stuff. As does Alex Yeung, the designer. Next time I will let them pen their own review. As far as my personal "what should I buy" assignment goes, I'm done. Ivette's thrilled, too. Our little movie system is getting plenty of play these days and it's doing exactly what we had in mind. As a result, the Eastern Electric M520 gets a - let's see ... robust, appropriately warm and glowing recommendation. And for SPL reference, sitting in the nearfield at M3 explosion levels, with high ceilings and goodly pain threshold, the 88dB Gallos peg the 520's dial at 11:30 o'clock in pentode and medium feedback... in other words, the power produced is just right for such real-world applications even when it gets loud. Did I mention the best part? Concert DVDs. Forget multi-channel. Two superior speakers are all you need. What a treat seeing formations like the Hadouks Trio or George Dalaras with Dulce Pontes perform with a full orchestra. Excuse me while I close the door and pull the curtains. Tubes do rule. Some of us knew this all along (and some rare survivors as early as way deep into the last century)...