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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; Bel Canto Design PRe3
EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE run bridged; Yamamoto A-08S; Canary Audio CA-308s; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Bel Canto e.One S300; Eastern Electric M-520
Headphones: AKG K-1000 w. hardwired Stefan AudioArt harness; audio-technica W-1000
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro in custom lacquer; 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 Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer; Crystal Cable Ultra complete wire harness [on review]
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular five-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option
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; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room
Review Component Retail: $1,200/pr
The kindness of strangers. This stranger had a name. To wit, Kevin Scott, headman at speaker house Living Voice; as well as proprietor of retail operation Definitive Audio in the UK. Prompted by moonie Edward Barker -- he of four pairs of WE300Bs in a set of paralleled push/pull Canary Audio CA-339 monos -- Kevin had brought me pair to try when he and his wife Lynn recently visited Cyprus. They were due for a bit of R&R from the dreary English weather doldrums.
Back story time. Kevin is a Kondo man - not the Johnny-come-lately AN stuff but the original Japanese issue. Edward is a Living Voice man who recently had his Avatar OBX speakers updated to latest crossover hotroddery. While at LV headquarters, Edward innocently sampled a set of what his speakers would sound like post-op, just to play nice to his host who was showing off his big rig. Alas, biamped by rare Kondo amps and run off an absolutely massive battery supply at Definitive Audio meant that his pair didn't end up sounding like Kevin's once delivered to his more demure home rig. Pedestrian -- entry-level he called it -- was his punishment for tasting the forbidden apple. Edward's Road to Damascus experience is chronicled here. He has seen the light. Its name is Kondo. The -- very heavy --crucifix he'll have to bear in trade has Mammon engraved upon it in shiny gold leaf.
While his piggy bank slowly grows into a cash cow, Edward has discovered quite the stop gap for his Canary monos - Western Electric's new 300Bs. Those are crafted using original (or rebuilt) manufacturing equipment from the original plant. Plus, they use the bona fide recipe and ingredients that made yesteryear's WE 300Bs the stuff of legend. Word is that the new valves are not as good as the old ones. They're better because certain manufacturing processes have been improved. While his Canarys didn't suddenly morph into Kondos, they now deliver a goodly dose of that special Kondo magic he's lusting after. Enough to where Edward decided that his publisher had to hear this for himself. He suggested as much to Kevin who didn't know me from Adam. Alors, a shiny new loaner pair of dark blue boxes in Coral Bay, virgin and sealed and sporting the famous logo and nomenclature. The kindness of strangers.
Back story two. Having heard a fair share of 300B amps over the years, I concluded in the wake of my Yamamoto A-08S review that a well-implemented premium 45 like a big Emission Labs has it all over 300Bs in linearity, transparency, control and definition. A bit less romance, yes, but less signature stamped on each and every piece of music as well. More honesty. Less fuzziness around the edges. Less subliminal blur or flimmery dust between the notes. Much better bass. Better highs too. Faster reflexes. More pep. I'm overdrawing for emphasis but I never quite got the 300B devotion. Outdated is how it sounded to me. Not up to modern resolution snuff. The Wyetech Labs Sapphires were the chief exception. They made me suspect that perhaps the tube type was at least partially innocent. Circuit implementation was to blame. Or praise. In hindsight, I wish I'd heard the Sapphires with WEs.
The upshot of all this? As a self-professed tube guy, I'd taken myself off the 300B books, similar to how you might decide one day that Mexican food shall no longer make any major appearances in your dining-out schedule. If what I'd heard was representative of the breed -- and I had every reason to believe it was -- then personal preferences and 300Bs didn't fully see eye to eye. Yet I too have seen the light since. The name burned painfully into my retinas? Western Electric. I blame those Brits, Edward and Kevin. The painful part is the sticker. $1,200 per pair. Ouch. This gets expensive if you run anything other than an old-timey non-paralleled single-ended amp. Even then. And Edward, lemme calculate... he runs $4,800 worth of power tubes in his amps. Brother. Way cheaper than Kondo, granted - but that's still a ton of green paper. That said, these bottles are beauts. According to my British friends, anything other than a Western Electric is a pretender when it comes to 300Bs. I haven't done the ground work of endless comparisons to sign that vote. However, I have now heard WEs transform things pretty drastically twice. One is chronicled in the first installment of Adventures in Cyprus. The other is the stuff of today's brief report.
Simply put, the Canary CA-308s with the factory-fitted high-sensitivity mod -- a voltage divider to drop gain and noise for ultra-efficient speakers like mine -- now compete head-on with my Yamamoto. That was not the case before. Differences remain. But as far as what's better? Now the Canarys could get the nod depending on mood. The WEs adjust the amps' focal length to banish the prior softness on transients and the inter-note stuff that felt like fine dust suspended in air. Where the picture was a bit soft-focus before, it's now perfectly crisp. Not razor sharp, mind you. That's the trick here.
While definition is clearly improved, nothing has turned etchy. Yet compared to the 45s' minor textural leanness, things are tonally more fulsome - without sacrificing subjective speed. Bass is equivalent, meaning I no longer have to give the Rane EQ's gain a slight upwards nudge to, below 40Hz, compensate for the 300B's weaker bottom. Where with certain transients the 45s occasionally cause textural striations -- as though you were listening to a giant zither suspended between your speakers, all strings plucked simultaneously with one or two standing out as being a different material, not silk-coated but pure steel -- the 300Bs treat all transients the same.
Tonally, they're denser than the 45s. Their acoustic center could be bit lower since they don't sound quite as lit up. Lower harmonics seem further developed for a more coppery rather than silvery sheen. In toto, it's mostly a give'n'take between the Emission Labs 45s and Western Electric 300Bs there. Except for the transient continuousness of the 300Bs, these differences belong in the different-but-not-clearly-superior drawer. Where the WEs do gain a small but appreciable lead is in an area that's highly subjective to call. I'll simply opt for "more emotive, less cerebral". This advantage isn't huge. It would be a big mistake to infer that I'm calling the 45s heady. It's only in the juxtaposition that it seems appropriate to call these 300Bs more soul than mind food.
You hear it on Martin Tillman's bowed cello. Over the 300Bs, it's effusive. Its bel canto quality is highlighted. It wafts like a shade banner on the breeze. It breathes like a vocalist or woodwind. This is a tangible quality yet well nigh impossible to pin on any specific audiophile attribute. It enhances dimensional presence without tonal balance trickery. In fact, it's quite fitting to call the WE a hybrid of sorts that falls right between a standard 300B like a Sophia Electric/Full Music and a truly superior 45. As an aside, 300Bs in traditional single-ended circuits are good for 8wpc, not a mere 2. The more I think of this 300B as a high-power 45, the more I'm loving it.
|Aspects about this special trait do tie to warmth. Yet the usual liabilities of warmth -- drag, loss of transparency, damping of energy -- aren't present. This tube seems to be far more linear than the type is generally credited for. Unlike certain adrenaline versions of modern 300B variants, this traditional Western Electric recipe avoids the occasionally metallic quality and somewhat mechanical mien I've heard elsewhere.
Think magic with full control. If you are oriented along the modern highly resolved credo of sound and have written off the 300B as not delivering all the goods, you might be very surprised by this new Western Electric bottle.
Amplifiers you and I may have judged poorly could have gotten a minor bum rap because we didn't hear them with WEs. Without shortchanging the magic part, the WE tightens up the loose ends.
Does that make it the supreme 300B on the market today? Would that I knew. I'll simply take Kevin Scott's word for it. He isn't involved with Western Electric as a distributor or importer. He simply sells their tubes. He could have picked any other brand. That he considers WE the only genuine option is pretty telling, at least in my book now that I've met the man and watched him voice a system.
|Edward Barker has had some long-distance discussions with Charles G. Whitener Jr. of Western Electric on the|
|subject of manufacture under the authentic yet improved vintage conditions, to zero in on what might be responsible for the special qualities of these reborn legends. I let him tell that story in his own good time. For now -- and as I already said in Adventures in Cyprus 1 -- consider this an insider-trading tip if you're playing the 300B market. Despite its cost, this just could be the bottle to use if you want to retain the traditional 300B allure without the shadow side, by moving resolution, linearity and overall control into the 21st century.
Needless to say, the inherent desirability of the newly minted WE300B means it's just a matter of time until fakes begin to make the rounds.
The gennuine ahticle has two paper seals on each end of the box; a serial number at the bottom of the box which matches the permanently engraved one in the base of the valve; a curve-trace paper for that serial #; a non-transferrable 1-year warranty with Westrex Corporation which must be registered via the enclosed form (self-addressed envelope is included) to extend beyond the limited 90-day guarantee.
WEs without engraved serial numbers are production rejects and not officially in circulation. Unless it's got an engraved serial #, there's no warranty, the valve in question hasn't met its specs and Western Electric never meant for it to be used by paying consumers.
Blue'n'white boxes as mine above signal bulk packaging. Individual order fulfillment can also arrive in cherry wood boxes. The vital distinction isn't the shipping container but the serial number and enclosed warranty registration card. If you're offered a brilliant price and your shiny new WE arrives without these items... well, you've been had. You get what you pay for. My prior favorite 300B was the KR Audio "WE clone". I no longer have those test samples for a comparison. What struck me about the KRs at the time was cleanliness, dynamics and control. What I don't recall is the waft, wax and wane factor -- for lack of better terminology -- of the Western Electric. But audio memory is notoriously untrustworthy. Until I can compare side-by-side, I think of them both as thoroughly modern, extremely robust 300B incarnations (the WE has got a special composite graphite structure that's peculiar to it and a trade secret of Westrex Corp.)...