Because of its 8-watt power rating, I initially mated MiniMax with my 103dB Avantgardes. However, Anthony Gallo's Reference 3 speakers would see active duty as well just to be silly and report on results with 88dB of sensitivity. Common wisdom (which isn't always so wise) would assume that 92-94dB defines the minimum to truly make for an all-around recommendable setup. But this has never yet prevented reviewers to defy such doomed wis. I'd proudly continue this questionable tradition. Far less questionable, Bill O'Connell had included some Herbie's Labs tube dampers. Comparing the tubes nude and cuffed, I concluded that the extra definition and clarification of transients via the dampers provided a fetching complement to the amps' expansive harmonic palette. So I left 'em on.

Regarding self-noise, MiniMax couldn't compete with ne plus ultra designs. On the Duos' mid horns, it produced significant hum which became inaudible at the actual listening position but was loud enough to still be noticeable 6 feet away. On the Gallos, this vanished even from close up. At $1,350 for the amp, something's gotta give compared to $10,000 designs. Here it is raw drive and ultimate resolution which is buffered by the 'dither' of the power supply noise. These are realistic matters which only further underscore the need to identify copasetic speakers. Whoever expects REL-type bass extension and control from a micro-power tube amps needs to trade in his or her audiophile credentials. Swap them for a daydreamer certificate.

In his review, Dick Olsher noted rather significant performance enhancement with the Mullard rectifier. Since the Mullard became instant ground zero for yours truly, this scribe can't report on results with a 'stock' 5AR4 valve. However, inserting Robert Lighton's Dutch Philips Miniwatt 5AR4 confirmed Dick Olsher's sentiments. Like its preamp sibling, MiniMax the amp reacts extremely responsively to rolling tubes. And that includes the rectifier more than you might think. The Mullard exerted more oil-painterly control and firmness around the edges, the Miniwatt was more watercolor romantic, slightly bigger yet not quite as tight and a bit more forward though never protruding in front of the speakers. However, listening with either recto valve, the drier Mullard and the wetter Miniwatt, you'd never have figured the socket housing it to belong to a relative budget amp. Despite its ultralinear strapping and DC-coupled screen grids, this is very much a triode lover's champ. It's got that archetypal penchant for vocal magic in spades - throw in hearts and aces, too. That extends to solo instruments like Anne-Sophie Mutter's violin or Jan Garbarek's saxophone. It casts a super-dense holographic and vibrant soundstage that communicates like your proverbial brothersucker in heat. (Is that a working title for Wesley Snipe's Blade Part IV?).

It's curious that the best solid-state amps only dream of pulling that particular stunt which even affordable -- though well- executed -- triode designs rather flippantly execute 10 times in a row without breaking a sweat. If that's your idea of Olympian greatness, MiniMax is a multiple gold-medal winner. Sure, it sweeps certain fine details under the table. But what it puts on the table could very well make you completely oblivious to the goings-on below the cloth and its plates and cutlery. It's a bit like the difference of following a gripping conversation between smart, cultured and colorful people who have truly interesting things to say and say them in a most compelling fashion; and being bored to death, hoping for an impossible opportunity to play footsie with a sexy dame four tables over while you fake involved participation with the upstairs verbal fencing in your table square.

Put more succinctly yet, MiniMax is for music lovers, not theoreticians, critics and other cold-blooded experts. Before you read into this undue romance, sauna and greenhouse effects, remember that push/pull operation tends to cancel most even-order distortion which usually is blamed or celebrated for triode's peculiar come-hither magnetism. MiniMax is a unique combination of the bigger bolder sound of push/pull amps with a goodly dose of direct-heated single-ended elegance thrown in. With the tubes provided, I really could find no fault with the amp's frequency extension behavior. While guilty of slightly overdrawing when compared to my far dearer reference tube monos, the spatial dimensions as cast by this little 'un from Hong Kong were truly something to behold. It's all about tangible timbral colors and the involuntarily involvement this generates in the listener who is pulled into the music.

The real question really was whether MiniMax would drive - er, real speakers. After all, 103dB horns or single-driver designs tend to far eclipse the financial playing grounds of this amp's sticker price. Gallos to the rescue. Their average efficiency and passive 10" woofer would be a far more challenging load. As is so often the case in this hobby, paper specs and actual experience missed each other in the Dark Night of Assumptions by quite the mile. On the predominantly acoustic music I listen to, with the speakers in an elongated triangle with 9' distance between each other and the listener 12' away, there was nothing to suggest an improper match. Go figure.

From Manzanita's Gitano Cubana fiesta with blaring Cuban trumpets, hammered piano, timbales and saucy lyrics [WEA 0927445512] to Salif Keita's inspired Mouffou [Decca 440 016 906-2] and my usual harem of Dulce Pontes, Sezen Aksu and Lila Downs, I couldn't believe that I was grooving to perfectly satisfying levels slightly higher than necessary without hearing any indication of clipping, wooliness, absentee bass or overall confusion. I routinely get e-mails where folks want to know whether xyz amp is truly sufficient for abc speakers. Why? Because reviewers always seem to call less power perfectly sufficient while the speaker manufacturers themselves invariably recommend and specify far more.

88dB/1m/2.83v means that unless you sit too far away, an 8-watt amplifier will be perfectly adequate for 80-90dB listening levels if the speaker is an easy, mostly resistive load that doesn't burn up the available power in its crossover well before it ever reaches the drivers nor drops too low in impedance to make undue current demands. Forget Aerials, Thiels and company. They could be rated at 90dB yet make this amp sound like wheezing church mouse Roshi Runtlinger who hasn't had a meal in a few days. But give MiniMax a simple 1st-order series crossover of a cap and coil across the terminals and this Runtlinger will bark with far more ferocious fangs than the big-boy brigade could ever conceive of.

Don't believe it? Ask me whether I care. I'm sitting here hearing it loud and clear. I'm telling you to look at something like a Vandersteen 1c, possibly the most underappreciated of all Vandies; a Sonus Faber Concerto; Meadowlark Kestrel; or Omega Loudspeakers or Cain & Cain Fostex designs. You'd love all the way back from the bank. Remember the modest bouquet Peter Parker grabs on his way to the playhouse in Spiderman 2? His grasp exceeds his budget and the flower man withdraws 2/3rds of the stems before he lets Peter part.

If you pay in the proper speaker currency, MiniMax isn't at all stingy. You get to keep the whole floral bunch and make the intended impression on your significant other. The trick lies with the right speaker and nearfield or quasi nearfield positioning. Naturally, headbangers can exceed anything's natural limits. Mavens of large-scale orchestral music with never-ending climaxes and very low median recording levels will run out of steam and redline into soft clipping. Pipe organ fanatics and HipHopsters won't even have read this far. That's all simple math. But say you made a realistic assessment about what you're actually listening to rather than what you bring to demos to frighten and trip up your dealer. Let's say you concluded that it didn't include counter-indicative material and Maxell ad levels. Now you really should check out what MiniMax has up his sleeve.

This is all about balance. Designer Alex Yeung clearly knows his way around basic tube circuitry to tweak and tone, tinker and dink. What he has wrought with his MiniMax amplifier is the equivalent of a professional -- and highly paid! -- photographic retoucher; the kind who expertly adjusts highlights, manipulates shadows and hues to emphasize an image's message. This isn't photo realism although it looks very real. This is unabashedly in the service of emotional impact. It's traditionally used in advertising to loosen your purse strings. In this instance, the victims are your heart strings. Isn't that the whole bloody goal of this insane hobby of ours?

Let's call a mouse a mouse: To get this level of emotional persuasiveness plus photo realism -- or whatever goes for that in our world where neutral is on permanent vacation and, in fact, has never yet been sighted by anyone just like the tourist attraction of the Loch Ness monster... that kind of "have your cake and eat it too" is usually mujo expensivo. Chances are that you'd end up with hyper realism but no emotional conviction while you chase that 8 megapixel digital camera equivalent of audio. Without endless money and a saint's patience for costly mistakes, you're far better off with something like the MiniMax. It'll hand you roses instead of thorns. And unless you were masochistic, isn't that what you should expect from a music-making device?

Does this kind of casual talk sound less descriptive and more poetic than is appropriate for a clinical performance report card? You bet. That's why I don't indulge it very often. However, every once in a while a component stimulates and thus justifies it. The MiniMax is great fun and greatly satisfying. It's affordable and handsome. It's very well put together and backed by an extremely service-oriented individual. It welcomes tube rolling without breaking the bank. It's an eminently sane product. And that's the whole point of today's rant. In HiFi's continuous decline into deeper and deeper levels of certifiable insanity, there's much to admire and applaud in a product that squarely puts its foot down in favor of sanity. All it asks in return? That you approach it with level-headed sanity as well.

Those prerequisite qualifications have already been spelled out here. If you can heed them, MiniMax will be a charmer of the first order. You'll get harmonic beauty balanced by plenty of moxy and rhythmic integrity to avoid drowsiness. You'll get image density that eludes sand amps nearly by definition. You'll get enough drive to portray an upright double bass in completely believable fashion. Ditto for the kind of soft techno beats that float Suba's popular São Paulo Confessions of Brazilian-flavored lounge [Ziriguiboom/six degrees 657036 1019-2]. You'll get a very expansive bold sound that completely belies the size of the transformers or the specified output rating. And vocals will have the kind of reach-out-and-touch presence that opens zippers in less openly acknowledged table-dance establishments. Essentially, think a runner after a good run. Everything about that person is flush with the radiance of highly oxygenated blood flow. Such can be the magic of truly well-balanced tube amps. And because MiniMax doesn't attempt the impossible -- pull that trick with higher power and single-endedly which would necessitate expensive iron and far more sophisticated power supplies -- the price of admission for once isn't out of reach for mere mortals. Well done, monsignors Yeung and O'Connell.
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