In snooty real-estate parlance, they have one colloquial term for the Sophia Electric 300B MkII's stunning looks: Curb appeal. What's more, its choice of output tubes -- specifically their intricate mesh plate construction -- has this audiophile property face Central Park of Triode City for that perfectly posh address to hang your rakish hat of 300B supremacy. In my mind's ear, I could just hear the phone calls.

"Yeah, this is Superior Sound. Whaddya want?" (Some flustered reaction on the other end.) "Hey, priced at $5,000, this will sell today. If you're serious, better say so right now." (Some hesitation and arguments.) "What, you need to hear it first? Consult with your wife? Hey mister, this is New York, I haven't got all day. At that price, I'm not even gonna show it. You want it or not?" (Apparently no go.) The receiver slams into its cradle. "F--cking shmuck." The agent groans while tearing into his Nova Scotia lox bagel loaded up with extra onions and capers. Then he complains to an imaginary sycophant in his dim windowless office. "Audiophiles. They don't know what they want. They can't make up their minds. Underneath all that, they ain't got no money. Shoulda stuck with selling illegal cable descramblers. Bah!"

He shoulda. Cardinal rule number one in High-End audio sales? Don't insult or intimidate your audience. Live, breathe, sleep and dream the service credo. Cardinal rule number two? Now give great -- no, make that friggin' awesome -- demo with real music, not audiophile caca. But before we get into that, some pictorial explanations (not justifications), why our fictitious audio telemarketeer acted so cocksure that aesthetics and price would move this piece of audio jewelry without listening to it first.

You see, from Shanling to Dared, Opera/ Consonance to Xindak, Jolida to Antique Sound Lab and Philly Audio, the current influx of Chinese tube products to the US market runs the gamut from the simple to the lavish, from the outrageously affordable to the authentically expensive. Regardless, it nearly always seems a superior value when compared to the higher labor rates embedded in US or Euro-manufactured equivalent product.

As the Shanling products in particular proved, industrial design and high-level fit'n'finish are no longer the sole province of "proudly made here" origins. Where popular notions still hesitate? Does performance and reliability match these outer trappings?

Enter the Sophia Electric 300B integrated. Its mirror-finished Japanese stainless steel chassis with Titanium/nickel-coated corner pillars and 24-carat, protectively coated gold tube rings, name plate and front-mounted controls are sure to trap even the most casual onlookers. At 70 pounds and 18" x 15" x 9.75", this integrated is also quite the Armani-threaded, Patek Philippe toting Yakuza heavyweight - without tattoos, clearly, but carrying some serious concealed hardware in the form of four large, high-value paper-in-oil capacitors that need serious break-in (that's what bouncers and tough guys call it, too).

Offering 9 watts of zero NFB, single-ended go juice that's capacitor-choke-capacitor-filtered, the firm's own Sophia Electric 300B output bottles use triode-connected EL34s as current sources. Octal dual-triode 6SL7/6N9Ps act as input/predrivers and generate abnormally high 250mV input sensitivity. This can be reduced to the power-amp version's more standard 800mV. Simply use its lower-gain 6SN7/6N8P valves instead. 5Z3/5U4s serve as rectifiers. 8/4-ohm taps and two coaxial inputs make up the business rear.

Using my ultra-efficient DUO hornspeakers, the amp produced what sounded like mildly surfing power supply noise with the Alps pot opened to 8:30, i.e. regular listening levels. Fully opened, the ocean spilled into my room and roared. I requested a pair of 6SN7s to experiment with lowering the amp's gain structure. With its de rigeur but tastefully subdued blue indicator lit up, I gave it ten minutes before sneaking a hasty first impression. The amp quickly pleaded for serious break-in - definitely not love at first sight.

Why? Things sounded terribly wrong - slow, without spunk, drive or control but a fat mid-bass, no sub-bass, a hooded top and swimmy overall demeanor. To those who claim that the midrange contains most the musically vital information, I offer just the perfect recipe for eternal bliss. Rotate the treble and bass controls in your car radio as far counterclockwise as they'll go. With evil bass and treble curtailed, glorious midrange rules. Really?

While the amp was cooking, I made some phone calls, in particular to a maker of tube amps using Sophia's 300B tube. I learned that all QC for the glass bottles is done in Japan, to such tight tolerances that they will measure to spec, without drift, even many months after continuous use. This reassuring report meshed with my initial impressions of obvious care that had gone into the cosmetics and build quality of this amp.

As any wife will tell her hubby, looks ain't everything though. Does he cook, do the dishes and trash, fix the car and leaks in the roof, pay the bills and remain fun throughout it all? That -- and not Hamlet's famous tube inquiry-- is really the essential question. Or as my audio buddy Chip Stern would put it: "Is this an all-singin', all-dancin' kinda gig, pilgrim?"

I don't know yet. The reason for that's simple - the amp went back to Virginia. Sophia's main man Richard was suspicious when notified about the noise level. Shop owners of his use this 300B integrated with Avantgarde TRIOs. At >110dB sensitivity, they're more merciless even than my DUOs when it comes to revealing noise problems that someone with 80dB speakers would remain utterly in the dark about. Checking with both Avantgarde's NYC dealer Bob Visintainer and Swiss dealer Tibor Sole, I received confirmation that their Sophia 300B/TRIO combos were indeed utterly free of noise. In fact, Tibor was highly complimentary of his while suggesting that some tube rolling, especially with the EL34s, was in order to transcend the slight murkiness of the stock drivers.

Before shipping all 77 lbs of the amp-in-its-box back to Richard today, I had done some follow-up listening. The sound --post break-in and capacitor forming -- had clearly normalized to reveal a 300B amp with surprisingly good frequency extension, better than what the Western Electric archetype would have predicted. However, for my taste, dynamics and transients were still hampered by a minor thickness of euphonic texture. It overlaid the music with a cherubic tint - ruddy and rotund, suggesting the complexion and gestalt of a Bacchus type who enjoys the food and wine but not physical exercise. Musical movements exhibited a pervasive element of languor rather than energetic readiness, a sense of innate relaxation rather than pep. When Richard's recall request arrived, I was honestly relieved. You see, the fit'n'finish, built quality and retail price of the Sophia Electric S.E.T. 300B MkII make for such an attractive proposition that one good-naturedly wishes for stellar -- and not just okay -- sonics to close the deal and write home about it. With such a potentially tantalizing prospect waiting in the wings, it's cliffhanger time until a replacement arrives. Those readers with a local dealer nearby might want to preempt Part II and listen for themselves. I would love to hear back that my less-than-enthusiastic first impression was indeed merely the result of an out-of-spec unit as its jovial maker indicates.

Manufacturer's website