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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, RB1000, Rega Super Elys & Shelter 901 cartridges
Digital source: Accustic Arts Drive 1/Bel Canto DAC2
Preamp: Shindo Partager, Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Art Audio Carissa, Bryston 7B ST monos
Speakers: Hørning Perikles
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, Furutech Digi Reference digital
Power Cords: JPS Labs Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords, ZCable Heavys & Black Lightnings
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Heavy Power Cord
Sundry accessories: Viablue QTC cones under speakers, Vibrapod Isolators and Cones under components, Ultra & Heavy ZSleeves, Auric Illuminator
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: $1499
Like all of the Eastern Electric MiniMax series components, the MiniMax vacuum tube phono preamplifier (henceforth MiniMax for short) is of fairly diminutive proportions. Standing 12.5 inches wide by 8.5 inches deep and 4.9 inches tall, it weighs in at about 15 pounds. Build quality is substantial -- particularly for this price class -- with sturdy high-quality connective hardware, a very solid chassis and a high level of fit and finish. Attractively and neatly laid out, the front features only a power on/off toggle switch, a blue LED power indicator and a rotary play/mute switch. Around back you'll find a single set of sturdy RCA outputs and three sets of identical looking inputs. Here a toggle switch selects the moving magnet (MM) input or one of two sets of moving coil (MC) inputs, one for higher output cartridges, one for lower. Also located on the rear apron are a grounding post, a user replaceable fuse and the IEC power inlet. Power cord rollers go wild!
Eastern Electric rates the MiniMax with the following specifications: Nominal input sensitivity 15 mV/MM and 4mV/MC. Maximum input 150 mV/MM and 40 mV/MC. Nominal output is 2000 mV and maximum 20V. Gain (1kHz) is 42dB/MM and 58dB/MC. Load resistance is 47k Ohms/MM, 100 ohms/MC High and 47 ohms/MC Low. Signal to noise is rated at 90dB and 87dB for MM and MC respectively. Distortion is 0.1%. Frequency response is given as +0/-.25 dB from 10Hz - 25kHz and power consumption is 15VA.
I'm told that the MiniMax phono preamplifier spent a full year in the design process. I asked them to comment on their choice of tubes and designer Alex Yeung responded: "The MiniMax phono circuitry is very similar to the Marantz 7 design. Of course I tweaked this circuit using the 6X4 rectifier - the Marantz 7 used a selenium diode as its rectifier. Although MC capability was never in the original design (they weren't in use yet), the expensive and rare Permalloy core step-up transformers we employ in our design accommodate the use of low output moving coils. A triple layer of shielding [with mu metal] was used for the transformers to produce the ultra quiet noise floor. The 6X4 rectifier was chosen for its sonic signature. There are many choices of 6X4 NOS tubes that sound great, are inexpensive and abundant. There are many choices to shape the desired sound. The 12AX7 tubes have enough gain to magnify the small signal coming from the cartridge while also being low in noise so that choice was an easy one, especially with so much current stock being available as well as NOS."
As can be seen in the photos, the MiniMax comes with additional shielding over one of the 12AX7 tubes. When I asked importer/co-owner Bill O'Connell about it I was told, "that's a tube shield on the middle tube, this being the most critical first-stage position. Alex put it there just to make sure that no stray RFI or anything comes into the tube. If you do not have a radio station or anything that can pick up stray signals, you can remove the tube shield if you like. I remove it in my own system but some others might be close to a tower or station and this helps eliminate any interference." I left it in place.
Eastern Electric's US importer Morningstar Audio warrants (parts and labor) that the MiniMax shall be free of defects for a period of 24 months (60 days on tubes) from the date of purchase, providing that the purchaser fills out and returns the warranty card.
Slipping the MiniMax into the system was simple enough and went with but a single hitch. The MiniMax's four footers are terminated with smallish semi-spherical rubber footers attached with adhesive. As I slid the MiniMax into place, I dislodged two of 'em. All that was required was a repressing into place. After that, no more sliding, no more problems.
The two cartridges used for evaluation of the MiniMax were the Rega Super Elys (a moving magnet cartridge with a high 7.2 mV output) and the Shelter 901 (a low output .5mV moving coil). Most of my time spent with the MiniMax saw it plugged into a line level input on either the Bel Canto Pre6 or Pre2P. Note that the speakers used were the 98dB efficient Hørning Perikles - the better to sniff out noise problems, my dear!
Off to the races... almost
After a four-day burn in, I started on the Rega cartridge with great success. Despite some heavy grooving on my part, I had two quibbles. The bass was a little soft and image specificity wasn't quite what I suspected it could be. I sat through one more LP before I was struck by the fact that I'd observed this combination of audible foibles before. In went a trio of Vibrapod #2 isolator pods underneath the MiniMax, capped off with three of their new cones. Then I sat back for another listen. Voila! Success! Aforementioned foibles were eradicated. For the duration of the review, I used the MiniMax in conjunction with the Vibrapod products. Representing an investment of only $42, I highly recommend the Vibrapods/cones in order to get maximum MiniMax.
|And they're off
The MiniMax is smooth, neutral and listenable. It's well balanced and nicely textured, revealing all manner of musically significant detail. It sounds tubed only in that it produces a harmonic richness and image density that often eludes solid-state. It has no overt softness at the frequency extremes that some may fear a tube preamplifier in this price range will display. Noise levels with either cartridge were non-existent and details bloomed from the MiniMax with surprising fluidity and a complete lack of glare. The MiniMax's transparency and lack of coloration made easily observable the performance disparity between the excellent Shelter 901 cartridge and the economical Rega Super Elys, demonstrating that the MiniMax is a phono preamplifier that can keep pace with an evolving system.
The MiniMax throws a nicely defined soundstage with solid images. If I had to pick one nit, I'd say that image specificity and focus were pretty good though not great. Well, considering the price class of the MiniMax and the much more expensive Shindo phono stage that it replaces, maybe I should say that image specificity and focus are very good, just not fantastic? In any case, it's nothing to quibble about and some may even find the MiniMax's less than razor incisiveness more musically natural.
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