For audiophiles and music lovers who love to read...
5 volts. Ear on driver, I first compared Linlai, Elrog and WE 300B for self noise without Vinnie Rossi' grounded tube chimneys to shield them against airborne interference. Unlike in the photos below, I had the chassis cover on which provides major shielding itself. The Elrog was perfectly inaudible. The Linlai betrayed a very slight hum, the WE was clearly louder but still too low to be heard in the seat. The diameter of my original tube shields is slightly too narrow to fit Linlai's 300B/2A3 and WE. It fits the slimmer Elrog and Linlai 101D perfectly. Because I normally run Elrog's ER50, I never updated my early shields. Using the Signature linestage as judge, the noise verdict for Linlai's E-300B was very good and clearly better than the premium Western Electric.
"Vintage" light exposure. Linlai and Elrog.
Of the three 300B, the Western Electric was the most burnished, microdynamically astute, midrange-enhanced and temporally elastic. With it, music felt slightly more stately or suspended. It also had that peculiar often cited inside-out illumination of vocals. That's the stereotypical tube glow. You know it when you hear it. If you have never heard it before, you might still relate to reading that the other two looked at the same sonic scenery more from the outside in. They injected more subjective observer distance or abstraction. In the feeling dimension, the WE had the greater on-stage participation. Call the others drier/stiffer, the vintage valve more intimate, wet, close-up and radiant. On complex fare with elevated rhythmic drive and bigger ensembles however, the Linlai and Elrog both preserved more stability, sorting and slam. They traded the WE's bloomier portlier bass for crisper impact and bigger macrodynamics. Their overall color temperature simply was cooler as I've attempted to suggest with how the lower photo is cooler and 'whiter' than the one above.
"Modern" light exposure. Linlai and Western Electric.
Within these gestalt parameters, the WE and Elrog thus occupied opposing poles, the Linlai sat somewhat off-center but closer to the Elrog than WE. In my book, that made the Linlai a modern variant. I'd recommend it to those who'd also consider a KR Audio or Emission Labs and want linearity and precision but also just a whiff of the freer more 'colored' WE 300B aesthetic.
4 volts. Sonically, Linlai's 101D instantly usurped the WE's spot. It did everything that classic had done, just more so. In musical intimacy terms, this was the proverbial lap dance. Sadly the bottle's fragile ringy innards meant big audible noise in the chair. That was despite the tube shields which had already knocked this noise down a lot. Unlike common low AC hum, the 101D's far higher hum included plain harmonics. That created a constant standing chord. Really! In all my years with valve gear, I never heard that before. Whilst raw sonic quality begged me to continue, elevated microphony put a strict end to it. In our direct-coupled circuit without intermediate transformers or capacitors, Linlai's punched-plate 101D was grossly too noisy. We must wait on Joël to learn how it behaves in his transformer-coupled Canadian DHT preamp.
With Linlai E-2A3.
2.5 volts. Often called half a 300B, the 2A3 is a bottle which—for no good reason as it turns out—I'd never explored as a preamp candidate.
Imagine my shock when on the earlier WE | Linlai | Elrog axis of upscale 300B, the Linlai settled down very close to our WE on intimacy and inside-out lit-uppity but added lower noise, speed and more drive or forward momentum. This begged for an immediate tussle with our 7.5V ER50 run on the 5V filament setting. Hello. A meeting of equals with just one key difference. The ER50 was more filigreed or fragile, the E-2A3 more robust and driven. Whilst the general gestalt and 45-reminiscent air and sparkle were clearly similar, Linlai's 2A3 was more muscular, assertive and forward, the Elrog more lithe and set back. I had a new favorite; a 2A3 no less. With no prior reference on the breed in this preamp, I can't tell you where on the general 2A3 map it belongs. Linlai popped that cherry. I can only state that compared to the 300B on hand, their 2A3 was far closer to a livelier quicker 45 yet still eclipsed our Elrog super 45 on potency of released musical energy.
In conclusion, I'll focus on Linlai's E-2A3—in our linestage, with our speakers—and call it a rare hybrid of modern/vintage aspects. On self noise and build, it's a very quiet robust modern valve like its 300B stablemate. It's equally modern on bandwidth, drive and linearity. It's full-on vintage then on microdynamic freedom, elasticity and glow.
To my ears it's a best-of-both-worlds handshake. The E-2A3 also combines color intensity, energy and directness reminiscent of a 45/50 with the meatier substance and weight of a 300B. Put casually, it does chunkiness and quick chops. Think Master Ping Xiao Po the panda; elegant yet powerful tubular kung fu from the People's Republic. In our small domestic spice rack of direct-heated triodes for the luxurious Vinnie Rossi grounded-grid linestage, it's made Linlai's 2A3 in their Elite range a new favorite. February 1st 2021 when I realized this was a very good day indeed. Rachel, I shall need an invoice for the E-2A3 pair please. Thanks for introducing me to new brand Linlai!
Postscript. After I'd sent Rachel the review link with a pickup request for the 300B and 101D, she had this: "We had some major changes related to Psvane and are now in the process of terminating the entire line at their request effective February 7th, 2021. You may want to update your review to reflect this since your publishing date overlaps with this major event and otherwise could result in readers thinking we still carry Psvane tubes." Rachel's website has more details on this split. "The Linlai factory already received your comments about their mesh 101D noise issue. After the Chinese New Year's holiday, the owner and his design team will immediately implement production improvement procedures and I will receive new samples afterwards. If you're interested in testing those, I will be happy to send you a follow-up pair to check whether the improvements now meet the expectations of Western audiophiles. We'll keep working with the factory until our quality is the very best." So stay tuned for 101D season two. Joël's findings can be found here.
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