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Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: Esoteric UX-1, Yamamoto YDA-01, Metronome Technologie CD One 1 [on review], Luxman D-N100 [on loan]
Preamp/Integrated: Esoteric C-03 (transistor), ModWright DM36.5 (valves), Trafomatic Audio Experience Head One [on review]
Amplifier: WLM Acoustics Minueta [on review]
Speakers: Zu Essence
Headphones: Audio-Technica WHT-5000, Sennheiser HD800, AKG K702, Grado PS-1000
Cables: Complete loom of ASI Liveline
Stands: 2 x Acoustic System Int. HeartSong 3-tier stands, 2 x amp stands
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro; extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters, Advanced Acoustics Orbis Wall & Corner units
Room size: The sound platform is 3 x 4.5m with a 2-story slanted ceiling above; four steps below continue into an 8m long combined open kitchen, dining room and office, an area which widens to 5.2m with a 2.8m ceiling; the sound platform space is open to a 2nd story landing and, via spiral stair case, to a 3rd-floor studio; concrete floor, concrete and brick walls from a converted barn with no parallel walls nor perfect right angles; short-wall setup with speaker backs facing the 8-meter expanse and 2nd-story landing.
Review Component Retail: Ca. €2,100 for SQ-N100 [varies with VAT from country to country]; €1,200 for CD D-N100 [before VAT]
In Japanese hifi, two of the arch rivals are Accuphase and Luxman. As the latter's French importer explained, many of their respective models deliberately counter offerings in the other's lineup. However, Accuphase offers no vacuum tube models at all. The SQ-N100 not only has to be a Luxman, it suffers no real competition at home. For tubes, Luxman's catalogue at present offers two integrateds and a pair of separates. The second integrated valver is the retro-styled SQ-38u. That has enjoyed production since 1963 but gets reinvented every 10 to 15 years to reflect material advances.  
The SQ-N100 has UL-connected EL84s—one of the cheapest but best-sounding audio power tubes extant—and one-box integration. It has an ECC83 predriver and two ECC82 phase inverters, a properly buffered volume control with remote control and an equally proper 2H filter choke to not be a toy despite being really cute as sin. To make a complete system, Luxman offers the matching €1,200 D-N100 CD player with top-suspended transport.

The SQ-N100 has low power but not only does that go with the turf, it's higher than standard 300B SETs and leaves 45 and 2A3 SETs completely in the dust. It also flaunts a very long-lived famous brand name going back to 1925. Inspecting the machine without knowing any of this history communicates exceptional build quality without fail. The finish, the compact 25lbs mass, the feel and operation of the controls - it's all top drawer and as such, self-authenticating. The logo merely explains it, then adds perspective, market value, engineering maturity and customer support confidence.

(A bit of history. The above photo from Luxman's website still stated "designed by Luxman in Japan, assembled in China" whereas the review loaner below said "Made in Japan". As their US importer Philip O'Hanlon confirmed, Luxman's selective prior outsourcing is a thing of the past. All manufacturing has been returned to home base Japan since.)

When the opportunity arose to raid the Luxman catalogue for reviewables, I deliberately earmarked this model. It's priced within reach of many. It's small, cute and friendly. It's full-featured. It does headphones. It's safe. And it runs tubes to introduce the technology to newbies in a non-threatening, self-biasing, relatively cool-running package. The tone controls in particular are non-conformist and anti elitist from the hifi perspective. They are recognizable to and perhaps even expected by an audience likely more familiar with mass-market receivers. They're very practical particularly if you must listen at low volumes. Naturally, two fistfuls of 8-ohm watts won't jailbreak speaker monstrosities. Level-headed selection and certain limitations implicit in the entire concept of such an amp need to be considered. Unless you look at it exclusively as a headphone amp. Which you could. After all, a headphone amp with phono stage, tone controls and remote is not an every-day find.
But which headphone amp can really drive speakers? Yamamoto's HA-02 claims to but its power rating is really marginal. In this precise feature package then, the SQ-N100 is actually quite unique.

As you can see, the tube cage comes off easy, sporting bananas in the back and solid shafts in the front which—unusually thoughtful—can be locked with little set screws so intrepid or impertinent little fingers will have an even harder time getting burnt. The tone controls are defeatable with the 'direct' button and the uncomplicated single-tap posts are likely optimized at 6 ohms. Then there is the front-facing labeling of the sockets right behind the output transformers. Anyone who ever installed audio kit in confined spaces while fumbling the wrong plug into the wrong socket will appreciate that friendly detail. And instead of the usual transformer bells, Luxman went with tasty aluminum Ls which screwlessly tart up fronts and tops while leaving sides and backs a finely textured gray for a classy two-tone scheme. By Job, this petite amp is one class act. Considering what you get and who and where from—Japan—it is indeed very fairly priced.

Rather than the ubiquitous blue, Luxman chose yellow for the small power LED and attenuator setting confirmator and the small credit card remote adds a useful mute function to the expected volume up/down.

Fine workmanship continues inside and rather than the never perfectly duplicated point-to-point wiring most Chinese valve gear adopts, their Japanese peers rely on tidy PCB construction.

With the present Luxman catalogue focused on class A transistor amps and integrateds both class A and class AB, it's easy to forget that this firm is one of the oldest valve amp manufacturers remaining.

Luxman's private listening room

Rather than join a recurring valve fashion craze because everyone else did, Luxman simply returned to never abandoned roots to remain in the tube business with two push/pull pentode integrated amplifiers—the EL84 SQ-N100 and the EL34 SQ-38u—and the aforementioned separates.

Headfi fanciers will be excited to learn that their ¼" socket taps directly into the SQ-N100's main valve output stage. For ear speaker purposes, the output voltage simply couples through a pair of 470-ohm load resistors to attenuate its strength. Unlike op-amp powered 'afterthought' sockets elsewhere, it turns this model into a dedicated headphone amp (some of Leben Hifi's tube integrateds are sought after for the same reason and Japan's Triode Corp. outfits their €2,150 TRV-88SE KT-88 integrated with a headphone socket). The tone controls hinge at 300Hz and 3kHz respectively to tweak the response up or down below or above those points.

For comparisons over both speakers and headphones, I had just the things: WLM Acoustics' EL84 Minueta integrated amplifier* for the former, Trafomatic Audio's revised new 6S45P-powered Experience Head One for the latter. For proper house keeping, I also must mention that the first Luxman amp sample suffered one intermittent channel regardless of tube swaps. French importer David San Emeterio confirmed that it was a dealer sample. It had undergone a brown-out store disaster and subsequent repairs apparently hadn't resurrected it 100%. I packed up the first sample and waited for the next European shipment from Japan.


* Prior to any comparative listening, there's price. The €2,590 Minueta (add €180 for remote) is designed, assembled and built in Serbia. The only Austrian parts are the metal top plate, front inset and wooden enclosure. Given that it's surely not more expensive to manufacture in Serbia or Austria than Japan, the SQ-N100's additional feature set over the Minueta—phono stage, tone controls, headphone socket, standard rather than optional remote, tube cage—becomes thrice impressive. Calling the Luxman a high-value proposition isn't farfetched. It's good common sense. Bravo!

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