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Both M520 and Sonata were fitted with the same set of JJ EL34s to minimize variables and ran off my Esoteric UX-1 universal player in APL Hifi NWO 3.0GO guise. The M520 was set to full-power pentode mode and min. rather than 0 or max feedback. Cabling was ASI Liveline and Crystal Cable Ultra.*
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* As per Hannes Frick, my 'pre-series' loaner only diverged from final production units in not yet sporting internal metal liners on the exposed wood frame sections to conform with CE regulations. An optional tube cage will be available.

As perhaps the hallowed Mullard connection should have predicted, the Eastern Electric turned out to be the more old-timey machine. Its greater textural girth and slower reflexes seemed voiced more for warmth than incision, more for overall comfort than fresh speed. Dead giveaways were various Jazz Manouche cuts. Their fiery Maurice Dupont guitars had their trademark twangy glassiness toned down, the metallic bite of deliberately accentuated attacks mellowed.

The same then of course held true for snapped and popped bass strings. Their peppery buzz and growl had less spice. But more importantly, the M520 was more opaque in general. It sounded less crisp and articulate. It felt slower and somewhat indecisive because the beat impulse of the leading edge had been rounded off to lose definition.

Rather than simply sounding cozier though -- what deep triode fanciers might call fireside romance -- the M520 run as integrated just like the Sonata (the former actually sports a clever power-in function to bypass its input stage) lacked the kind of resolution modern listeners as a species have grown accustomed to.

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While fitted with very modern amenities like remote UL/pentode and relay input switching, remote volume, adjustable feedback and the power-amp mode, the Eastern Electric is really tweaked for a particular vintage sound. WLM's Sonata moves very resolutely into the 21st century by comparison. It represents modern valve sound with toe-tapping rhythmic fidelity and the ability to see deep into the musical stage rather than having the audience encounter a somewhat amorphous blending action. From reviews and prior tradeshow impressions, its biggest competitor will likely be something from Rogue Audio.

To shed some light on single-ended vs. push/pull notions, I next juxtaposed the Sonata to my Yamamoto A-09S. Both ran off my Music Audio First Passive Magnetic TVC. This gave me volume control for the Yamamoto and ran the Sonata's pot fully open (with zero noise incidentally) to have both machines work as pure amplifiers. The choice of TVC meanwhile eliminated unpredictable additive effects from active preamps to keep focus. And because no tube swapping was involved, both amps could remain powered up to be thermally fully stabilized.

This gave me EL34 'common-man' pentodes and 'lowly' push/pull with feedback in one corner; and mucho expensivo direct-heated designer triodes with rare NOS drivers and one very big 5UR4 EML rectifier in the other. Financially, it pitted 3000 EU against 6.950 US (EML tubes extra, plus whatever preamp the Yamamoto has to add which the WLM does not). On power, it ran 35 against 8 watts. For reference, the passive sat 30dB below unity gain* on Sonata and A-09S alike (the latter's higher gain is due to its 'gone postal' drivers from Germany's 1958 telephony service).

* I routinely get reader e-mails expressing doubt as to how I could possibly listen to anything but background levels with the A-09S/Tango R combo. Too many people misjudge their actual power consumption. True, big rooms, high levels, inefficient speakers and large sitting distances can quickly add up on this count. But with 91dB speakers at 3 meters away, peaks of max 95dB at the ear mated to a high-gain 8-watt amp don't even require a preamp. Really.

In this context, the Sonata was texturally leaner and thus felt a bit coarser, i.e. not as harmonically rich. It also lacked that peculiar intimacy superior direct-heated triodes set up with the music. You hear it right away yet better men have tried in vain to explain what exactly makes it so. Our previous collaborator Chip Stern simply called it the lap-dance factor and left it at that. The designer triodes also had greater speed and excavation. The latter is an equally peculiar triode trick. It somehow peels out events from the background such that a snarling bass string for example is - well, snarlier. It's as though one took an air compressor against wood and blew out the softer bits by a few millimeters to put the remaining hard grain into actual relief. That holographic deep relief was beyond these EL34s.

The speed aspect had to do with transient attack fire. This coexisted with tonal fullness for both zing and body. Vigorous upright bass pizzicato thus had even more energy, more rip and shred. In terms of soundstaging, the triodes clustered things a bit tighter centrally and a mite more upfront. The pentodes sat things a bit deeper into the stage and widened it laterally. Their color temperature was a bit cooler and the overall gestalt of the music a bit more relaxed. The triodes had it wirier and more tensioned from the inside. Of course the Yamamoto also put its best foot forward. It was fitted with the in my book best possible tube complement (EML 300B XLS, EML 5U4G). The WLM was running deliberately affordable valves without groping for Mullard EL34s, trick NOS ECC82/12AU7s or other posh glass. That salient fact made it doubly impressive just how well the Sonata fared against what is my favorite SET of those I've reviewed.

Specifically, the Sonata is free from what I think of as the push/pull fuzzies. Those are overly generous textures and soft outlines which create a bit of inner woolliness.
In that regard, the Sonata sits far closer to good single-ended operation and enjoys most its superior articulation (without direct-heated power triodes' artificial but attractive sculpting factor or their potential for accelerated transient freedom without hardness). The WLM amp thus downplays the EL34's fat-tone archetype. As any comparison to solid-state shows immediately, tube tone is there. It's simply far from excessive to avoid the warmth fog.

Juicier than the drier KT88, with superb top-end extension, powerful non-bloomy bass and toneful mids, the EL-34 Sonata is harmonically leaner than a 300B amp and more linear, modern, articulate and resolved than most its ultralinear or true pentode competitors. This amp has no issues at all with going loud under control and is very potent in the bass to not short-change rockers. As the photo below shows -- after all, looks matter too -- the layout of the valves has been designed such as to let you see all of them unshadowed by the others. Very often, push/pull amps will place their power tubes one behind the other to where you only see the ones in the front. With the Sonata, you get the full-on valve glow effect.
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Adding it all up: Certain Sino imports are handicapped by confused distribution, service uncertainties and production fluctuations that misalign with Western ideals on quality control and consistency. The made-in-the-West Sonata might cost a bit more but also buys piece of mind in that regard. The simple wood and metal work are understatedly elegant and of very high quality. On my 230V line, the machine was electrically dead quiet without transformer hum. Even with the pot fully opened and when preceded by a zero-noise passive transformer attenuator, there was no electrical hum or hiss. The amp powered up and down without any annoying pops or clicks and ran warm but far from hot.

Acoustically, the Sonata falls squarely into the 'mild valve preamp + transistor power amp' category. In casa Chardonne, this meant kinship gestalt with my ModWright DM 36.5 + FirstWatt F5 combo at a somewhat lower level of overall resolving power but with a higher degree of harmonic texture. Preceding the Sonata with a quality transistor preamp bumps up micro detail recovery, a valve preamp adds textural heft. Neither is in the least necessary to be completely satisfied with this
3000 purchase. It's mentioned only to cover all the bases and then more relevant when most your listening occurs below 9:00 on the dial. Past tube rolling sessions with triode amps also suggest that rolling the Sonata could generate refinements close to or on par with the rather higher expenditure of external preamplification. Which, let's face it, makes rather more sense with a standalone amp of the sort WLM and Trafomatic already have on the books.

SideBar 1 covers certain elements of the WLM/WLM system sound, SideBar 2 shows additional Sonata images.

As recounted, the Sonata combines a certain 'inner articulation' from single-ended amps with the power and linearity of push/pull. It then grabs a goodly dose of famous EL34 tone while staying well clear of the full-on Blues Brothers hit. The warmth aspect is played down in favor of the resolution angle. The latter is supported by excellent HF extension that puts a lie to the common notion of all tubes being roller-offers. Image density is typical of tubes by being superior to most equivalent transistors but nowhere near extreme to maintain high transparency. Bass is very powerful and only very minorly redolent for a nice combination of impact and body. Despite its classicist name, the Sonata can also rock out and hangs tight on large-scale massive stuff. Power belter vocals can withstand high levels without getting problematic.

If there's a sonic precedent for the Sonata, it would be the Rogue Audio Cronus. That's well-accoladed company indeed. To deliver such a well-rounded performer on this, their very first and 'least ambitious' project, speaks volumes of the potential that exists for this fortuitous partnership between Trafomatic's Sasa Cokic team and WLM's Hannes Frick and compadres. The secret weapon must ultimately be the Serbians' iron craft. The kind of in-house transformer expertise they bring to bear on the WLM Acoustics venture -- that's what it says on the Sonata's shipping box -- goes well beyond what most their competitors even in the big leagues have at their disposal. And it shows. In the listening seat.

Quality of packing: Stout.
Reusability of packing: Multiple times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Easy.
Condition of component received: Perfect.
Completeness of delivery: Power cord. Owner's manual too new to be included.
Quality of owner's manual: See link embedded in the sidebar - perfectly adequate.
Ease of assembly: None required.
Website comments: This product was too new to be listed already.
Human interactions: Prompt and forthcoming on all info requested.
Pricing: Very competitive.
Final comments & suggestions: None. Out of the gate, this is a mature product on the shoulders of prior Trafomatic Audio expertise.
WLM website