Ah, tooooobs! Tubes fascinate me. They look cool. They glow. You can tweak them. You can watch flies immolate themselves when they crash into one. They can even keep you warm in the winter if your furnace up and dies. For those of you who live in a saner climate and may not know, a furnace is a big metal box that burns oil or natural gas to generate heat and then blows it through the house. It prevents us from freezing to death in this bizarre Ontario climate. In the summer, it's usually drier than a fart in a desert. In the winter, we are subjected to -30C temperatures - and a foot of snow every two days. What kind of climate is this? Why do I live in this infernal country? Well, there's hockey, the beer, the lax pot laws (sorry Mr. Ashcroft). The women are hot and our political leaders make me laugh so hard that I wet myself. On further reflection, so do the political leaders south of the border. But I'll leave that for our Southern neighbors to comment on. I do not wish to be subjected to a cavity search next time I cross the border.

As stated in my bio, I have little experience with the alleged pleasures of thermonic glass bottles. I have heard them in stores, shows and have never really been that interested, partly because the music chosen to demo the gear sucked. It was usually one of those audiophile recordings where a third-rate Jazz ensemble plays like they belong at the local Holiday Inn. I had yet to hear AC/DC or Wagner demoed on tube gear. Many reviewers also complain about limited power, flabby bass and no highs. Thus I got the impression that tubes were fine for small scale 'tinkly' music, i.e. chamber music, Diana Krall, Frank, Dino etc.

The other issue that kept me away from tube gear was its cost. When I was shopping around for a new integrated amp some 6 years ago, all I could find was Jadis, Cary, VTL and Audio Research. They were way too expensive for me. There was Jolida, however. Unfortunately, the build quality left much to be desired - and rumors abounded about poor quality control and reliability. So solid state it was. Fast forward to 2003. Everywhere you look, there are affordable tube amps, mostly from Asia. This no doubt is a result of an expanding global economy. As Srajan discussed in Auroville 17, the sleeping dragon that is China is starting to stir. When it fully awakes, many Western HiFi manufacturers are going to be in for a shock. The build quality I've seen thus far is easily comparable to Western standards, and in some cases surpasses it. Best of all is the cost. Asian imports are generally priced well below Western gear, for reasons Srajan fully explores in his article.

Ovation Audio is a relatively new HiFi retailer situated in the lovely town of Aurora, about one hour north of Toronto. It wasn't long before Ovation became one of my fav haunts, not so much for the gear carried but for the very amiable owners Mike Hamelin and Rickey Yan who, together, have twenty-five years of experience in the HiFi retail business and are terrific to deal with. The sign of a good retailer is not just the range of equipment. It's also the time they take to build relationships with customers.

I walked in one Saturday to pick up a couple of CDs I had ordered. As I strolled in, I spied a cute little tube amp, hooked up to a pair of PMC IB1s. It all sounded quite good, a big, nice, warm, enveloping sound. Mike asked me how much I thought the amp cost. I opined approximately CDN$3000-3500.

You can imagine my shock when Mike divulged that this little amp sells for a mere CDN$1650 (approximately US$1200). I knew that it wouldn't be long before I sussed out a way to snag it for a closer listen. That amp, the subject of today's review, was the Houston Mini-2 Integrated Amplifier.

Top International Electronic Ltd is a major, well-known (at least in Asia), and respected Hong Kong based HiFi company that offers a rather large range of tubed products in three separate lines: Duntonic, Houston and Audio Space (I hear that Top makes a killer copy of the famed Marantz Model 9). As you can imagine, Houston is aimed predominantly for North American markets. Why Houston, you ask? I don't know - but it sure beats Scranton, Flint or Poughkeepsie. If you think I'm just picking on American towns, then how about Kamloops, Medicine Hat or Sudbury? Yeah, Houston sounds fine to me, too.

The Houston Mini-2 is a class A/B push-pull tube integrated amp that can dish out 32 watts of thermionic glory in ultralinear mode or 15 watts of triode bliss.

Tube complement is 4 x EL34s, 2 x 12AU7s and 1 x 12AX7. The unit is 240mm wide, 345mm long and 175mm tall and weighs in at 12 kg. The EL34 is commonly used in affordable tube amplifier designs due to its low cost and higher power output. Direct-heated triodes such as the 300B are expensive and can't dish out the watts like its more powerful cousin, but they are highly regarded for their rich, musical sound. A neat feature of the Mini-2 is its ability to change the EL34s' pentode performance characteristics to that of a triode via a toggle switch. You get the best of both worlds and the ability to customize sonic performance.

On the back of the Mini-2, there are three line level inputs, a 3-prong IEC power inlet, 4 and 8-ohm speaker jacks. All connections are gold-plated and appear to be of high quality. The binding post nuts are plastic but quite solid and I had no issues with them. The power switch is on the left side near the rear. The feet appear to be unique - a Sorbathane ball, or material like it, is set into a traditional circular footer. I suspect that Top considers this footer superior to the standard hard plastic feet seen on just about everything else. On the front, there are two brass rotary knobs to control volume and input selection. Between them are two metal toggle switches. One flips the Mini-2 from 'ultralinear' to 'triode' mode. The other adjusts negative feedback from 'low' to 'high'.

Unfortunately, the English portion of the manual does not explain what triode and ultralinear are, or their operational criteria. The same is true for the negative feedback adjustment switch. Negative feedback is used in amplifier designs to reduce distortion. Some listeners believe that this circuit degrades sonic performance while others disagree. Houston allows the user to choose between low and high levels of negative feedback.

Unless you experience hum, leave it in low mode as the Mini-2 sounds more alive with greater presence. I would also recommend to run the Mini-2 in ultralinear mode for the majority of listening, unless you wish to listen at lower volumes or to less complex music such as a string quartets. There is an LED in the front to indicate power status. Why you would need a LED on a tube amp is beyond me. Geez, just look at the tubes or stand next to it. You'll know if it's on or not. In a darkened room, the lovely orange tube glow is somewhat offset by the intruding LED. Otherwise, fit and finish are first-rate. I experienced no difficulties or mishaps with the Mini-2. The only issue I had was the lack of English instructions explaining the functions of the feedback and operating mode switches. The unit needs to be opened up to perform biasing. If you aren't handy with a multimeter, any decent HiFi shop should be able to do it for you.