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Part 2. Elekit vs. Triode:
The Elekit TU-879S is a direct competitor to the Triode TRK-3488. Both are kit amps imported by VK Music from Japan. Both are class A single-ended integrated amp. Both accept more than one kind of power tube. The TU-879S comes with Electro Harmonix 6L6 but can also run KT88, KT77, KT66 and EL34. The TRK-3488 priced twice as high is factory fitted with Tri (Shuguang) EL34 and can roll only KT88 (KT77 can be used safely but is not recommended by the factory). Both amps take care of tube biasing automatically so users don’t have to. Users of the TRK-3488 are required to set the toggle switch accordingly.

I am no real DIY hobbyist. The TRK-3488 took me just 6 hours from unpacking to inaugural audition. That’s about enough fun for me. Unlike the TRK-3488 which has all transformers and input/output wiring pre-assembled by the factory, the TU-879S proved a lot more complicated. Although it wasn’t difficult if one is attentive to procedure (I made three careless mistakes), taking 12 hours to complete the assembly was tedious to me. In terms of upgrading parts (rolling capacitors for instance) the TRK-3488 caters for that. Instead of through-hole soldering on the underside of the PCB, the coupling caps are soldered to gold-plated turret posts mounted on the top side of the PCB. One simply opens the bottom panel and solders. To migrate between negative feedback and none is done with a toggle switch.

The instruction manual of the TU-879S makes a number of upgrade suggestions, rolling caps and changing to zero negative feedback included. But this can involve major surgery considering that the PCB has to be dismounted, flipped over and a few crisscrossing wires have to be disconnected from the binding posts or even output transformers to provide accessible working space to stick in the solder gun. That’s enough to deter someone like me.

Klipsch vs. Dynaudio.
Putting the two amps side by side, most people would agree that appearance is no comparison. One is so spartan DIY, the other so elegant. Does that justify the price difference? Can sonic performance leverage the amp that costs double? I was curious to find out. But, I didn’t right away make a direct comparison on equal footing. I first had the amps driving very different loudspeakers: Klipsch Synergy F2 (95dB/8ohms) versus Dynaudio Facette (84dB/4ohms). I had both amps with stock power tubes but upgraded input/driver tubes. The TU-879s was fitted with one Gold Aero Platinum 12AX7 driving two EH 6L6 for the Klipsch F2. The TRK-3488 was armed with two Psvane 12AX7 driving two Tri (Shuguang) EL34 into the Dynaudio Facette.

Auditioning is such non-scientific psychology. Don’t ask why but the 6L6 has always been my favorite power tube and the Klipsch F2 my favorite loudspeaker for tube amps. Without challengers that has always been one of my golden formulae for affordable valve magic. Enter the TRK-3488 + Dynaudio Facette combo. Now I had a real challenger. The two systems sounded as different as Venus and Mars. I had them sharing the same digital source (Marantz SA8260) through a pair of RCA Y-splitters. By dialing up the volume of one amp and dialing down the other, I could instantly hear the subtlest changes in tonality, proportions, scale and soundstage. In this case the difference was clear. Allow me an analogy. When only the TRK-3488 was on, I had Carreras. When I gradually dialed up the TU-879S, Pavarotti joined him on the stage. That’s oversimplifying of course. And since your audio perception of the two tenors might be different, let me be more specific.

Brahms’ Paganini Variations for Two Pianos recently recorded by Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães [TwoPianists103 902-2] is an electrifying collaboration on the verge of overpowering you with technical brilliance. That makes it less flattering on certain high-resolution systems. The TRK-3488+Facette team polished the sharp edges and massaged tonal body, making it very soothing and rewarding. I wished for the lowest octave to be more committed however so  I raised the volume to 2 o’clock. Now transient bursts began to crackle with distortion. The TU-879S+F2 clique by comparison still sounded a shade too brilliant in the highs during stormy passages but the mid to low registers were warm, rich and compelling.

By contrast, a superbly done recording immediately took the heat off the cruel A/B comparison and closed up the gap. Sommernatt [2L-062-SACD] was such a tactful mediator with its comprehensive agenda of romantic songs by Norwegian composer Johannes Haarklou (1847-1925). Soprano Linda Øvrebø and pianist Kristin Fossheim brought out melodious grace and accompaniment in the most unpretentious manner. Lyricism flowed through the pastoral passionate and melancholy pieces with an equally well-balanced tonal spectrum for both systems. It’s the sonic images that were different, the TRK-3488+Facette’s being smaller with a soundstage set back further whereas the TU-879S+F2’s were proportionately bigger and more forward.

Despite the loudspeakers being placed closer together, the TRK-3488+Facette partnership proved their ability in delineating instrumentations within three-dimensional space in Livia Sohn’s Opera Fantasies for Violin [Naxos 8.570202]. The Korean violinist and her pianist Benjamin Loeb maintained a transparent tone enriched with natural harmonics even in fiery passages. The Facette’s low efficiency did demand a certain penalty when playback volumes were pushed too hard. Here the Klipsch F2 was naturally more generous and accommodating with the TU-879S and wrapped a warm blanket of air around the violin and piano. Whether the two musical instruments suffered a slight overlap or enjoyed a natural relationship I remained undecided over.

Without the slightest intention to name a winner in this biased contest, I threw in Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott [Tudor 7170] without thinking about what to reasonably expect. I let the TU-879S + F2 set the bar first. In the first movement the wide orchestral range and dynamic surges that swept from complex tutti to the delicate intricacy of whispering drum, solo violin and solo trombone felt very much at home. The TRK-3488 + Facette portrayed the soundscape with apt felicity though on a somewhat self-restrained canvas. By setting the negative feedback to ‘on’ the soundstage became deeper and more layered.

Synergy F2 vs. Synergy F2.
In the second round of comparative auditions I had both DIY tube amps driving the 95dB sensitive Klipsch Synergy F2 by placing two pairs of them side by side and sourcing music signals from the same Marantz SA-8260 through Y-splitters. That should strike an immediate contrast if any was to be had. The only things I changed on the amps were power tubes. They were both fitted with KT88 - Gold Lion Genalex for the TRK-3488, Svetlana for the TU-879S. Despite now being on far more equal footing, the intrinsic characteristics of the amps from the first round were largely retained. The TRK-3488 remained more refined of texture and its soundstaging was deeper and better layered.

The TU-879S continued to be more robust, of fuller body, punchier bass and more reinforced treble that conjured up an impression of somewhat coarser textures by comparison. This was very noticeable when I cross-faded from the TRK-3488 to TU-879S. I could hear the soundstage expanding and advancing forward towards me and the two ends of the tonal spectrum expanding through the sonic imagery. Benjamin Grosvenor’s debut album Chopin/Liszt/Ravel [Decca 4783206] provided a smashingly vivid demonstration with a full range of colors and dynamics. The TU-879S might have sounded more exciting with its exhibitionistic flamboyance but in the end it was the TRK-3488’s well-tempered virtuoso wizardry and poetic finesse that won my heart.

There were a few additional variables I should mention. First, I had the TRK-3488 on Dared OFC bi-wire cables, the TU-879S on Dared OFC single-wire cables. I swapped the connections and the sonic impression remained unaltered. Second, I swapped the KT-88 power tubes (Genalex versus Svetlana). This gave the same results with the richly recorded symphonic string music  of Caucasian Impressions by the Caucasian Chamber Orchestra [Naxos 8.570324].

The TRK-3488 ensured a proportionately balanced tonal spectrum and scale and dimension were especially evident in the highly demanding "Haberban" from 14 Pieces on Themes of Armenian Folk Songs. By comparison the TU-879S sounded exaggerated in textural brush strokes and relatively swollen of dimensions. Now I rolled in the Mullard EL34. That managed to smoothen and liquefy the textures but the soundstage was still forward with a slight overlap amongst the various string sections. Third, I had the TRK-3488 run with zero negative feedback. The TU-879S doesn’t have that feature unless I resolve to modify it.

That more or less told me enough about the differences and similarities between these two DIY amps and hopefully is sufficient for you to make a choice if you’re in the market. Next I moved to rolling coupling capacitors to see how far the TRK-3488 could push the envelope. The early Japanese version of the TRK-3488 had been fitted with Vitamin-Q capacitors, a paper-in-oil cap from the relatively new Tone Factory in Toichi, Japan. Unfortunately production stopped last summer. Triode decided to replace them with Real Cap which is what I had for this review. According to Mr. Yamazaki, the Vitamin-Q is smooth and warm, the Real Cap smooth but more articulated. If you check online you should still be able to find NOS Vitamin-Q caps. Canadian importer Victor had them on hand so he sent me some together with V Cap to try out. He said V was even better than Q. Logically I took the progressive approach and tried Q first.

Finding the perfect monitor for cap rolling.
Although the TRK-3488 is roller friendly, unless I had two amps fitted with different caps side by side, comparisons would only be as good as my auditory memory, unfortunately far from eidetic. To prevent myself from wandering off, I needed to confine the system to the same power tubes and cables, music source and loudspeakers. I decided to tackle the loudspeakers first. Since Mr. Yamazaki had said his amp caters to 88dB speakers, I had to rule out all my Mark & Daniel, Apogee and the Facette model all of which are 84dB or lower. Near 88dB I had the JMlab Micron (89dB/6ohm nominal), JohnBlue JB4 MkII (89dB/6ohm) and Polk Audio MC60 in DIY guise (91db/8ohm). Way higher I had the Loth-X BS1 (94dB/8ohm) and Klipsch Synergy F2 (95.5dB/8ohm). It was a tough call to give up on the F2 in particular since I have a soft spot for it.