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A new CD that's spending way too much time in my player is Tokyo by Guitar [monitor 51]. Consisting of sampled Japanese string instruments like the koto and pipa and with vocals by Ayako Akashiba, this minimalist melodic beat-trippy music has me using the repeat button more than ever. And this disk paints its beautiful landscape with few elements. Think delicate. While the NOS 45s in the Tektron separates made for a wonderfully soft presentation, with the Cain & Cain Abbys the Sophia SET Princess tubes ultimately won me over as the best mix of rich midrange, a nice tight grip on the beat and sparkling notes from the pipa and koto while throwing an airy and relaxed presentation. The Princess tubes were actually the surprise favorite of the valve bunch on the separates as they seem to gather the most favorable characteristics from all the other triodes to deliver a near best-of-all-worlds presentation. For example, my least favorite of the bunch, a 300B, has a midrange that brings home the lush life. The Princess manages to deliver nearly identical richness while bringing along a tight-fisted control of the bass like a 2A3 and the sparkle and delicacy of a 45. Nice tube, that Princess. Even through the ultra-revealing Lamhorns, not a pea prick was to be found.

On the subject of the Lamhorns and for large-scale classical music, the NOS ST-50s were glorious. Think big physical sound with more drive and grab-you-by-the-collar physicality than I'm accustomed to. Peer in too close and you may get slapped back a few paces. On vinyl and classic jazz however, the 45 still had me in the grip of the
beat the mostest. I was surprised to find a preference for the NOS Cunninghams on the Lamhorns, silky and dreamy. But as with the Abbys, the Princess ultimately won me over as the everyday tube of choice which excelled on raucous fair as well.

One holiday gift I gave myself last year was a subscription to The Wire magazine (Adventures in Modern Music). Each issue arrives with a sampler CD and these CDs are as tremendous as is the magazine. For an exploration of alternative music, I highly recommend picking up an issue. And while not inexpensive, I'd also recommend going for the subscription if you have any interest in exploring music off the beaten path. These compilations are varied and include electronica, world beat, avant rock, dub, hiphop, contemporary jazz and modern composition (classical). And if I wanted to pick one tube to serve them all up, the Princess is the pick of this litter. Another tube surprise was the 2.5V Sophia 300B. It exhibited the richness of a traditional 300B with a bit more refinement. This tube also makes for a nice option in the Fi X since it operates on the same voltage as a 2A3.

But wait, there's more!
The first big surprise of a few to follow was that I preferred the TK2A3/50S-I integrated over the separates. There's a slightly softer, fuller and rounder presentation with the integrated that sounds more natural to my ears. Notes take longer to decay and there's a wonderful float to musical images that makes for captivating events. By contrast, the Tektron separates are comparatively on the analytical side, cutting cleaner lines but also feeling a bit flat by comparison. My EML solid-plate 45s were a bit too hot in the Tektrons and overly analytical for my tastes especially on the Abbys. But as one moves to the integrated, the sound rounds.

I thought about dragging this out for effect but what the hell - the NOS balloon Cunningham 50s in the Tektron integrated made for some of the sweetest music I've yet heard on the Abbys - comfortable and warm like your bed after a cold late-night walk in the snow. If we can forget about the julienne fries for a minute and take the Tektron integrated delivered with a pair of Cunningham balloon 50s as the end and climax of the story, you'd have yourself one musically satisfying combination with the Abbys. This sound is less detailed than any other tube in this stable yet I'd describe it as ultimately more musical - a velvet curtain of sound, a cohesive whole. Mississippi John Hurt and his guitar are open for business right there with you and as close as you care to get.

But -- and there's always a few buts around -- keep in mind the cost of these wonderful tubes as approaching $700/pair. If you can find them. And then they're delicate. Finicky. They have to pampered and don't like to be played hard. I've also been told they're gassy but seeing as the pair I had on loan was over 70 years old, who can blame 'em? Think of the 50s as you would of your granny (if you had the kind of granny that smelled sweet and treated you sweeter). Those CV-181s drivers can run $200 apiece. Add in the $60 rectifier, an NOS RCA globe 80 and we've got roughly $1,200 in tubes gracing our tube-O-matic. Now you may cry foul but I think it's worth noting that the Tektron integrated will give you back what you plug into its sockets, right up to some cream-of-the-crop classy old glass.

So let's stick a new pair of tubes in the integrated tube-O-matic and see what we get - a tube you can easily buy whenever you want. First up on that front was the Sophia 300B at 2.5V. Compared to the NOS 50s, a bit of that magical sweet mist was removed. In its stead, I got more bloom in the mids and boom in the bass. And I don't mean flabby or overly emphasized bass at the expense of all else. There was more separation and detail like a 45 but unlike a 45, the sparkle was toned down a notch in favor of that rich midrange. So it was 300B-ish although the actual 300Bs on hand tipped the mids even more for that moist garden sound. The Full Music 300Bs give you steamy. I'm just not a huge fan - through a glass darkly in order to make things bigger and fatter and lush. It's simply too much of a good thing.

The Sophia SET Princess was up next and as the winning all-'rounder in the separates, I was curious to hear if the 6SN7/CV-181s-endowed integrated (the latter isn't a direct replacement for the 6SN7 btw) would add a tad more air to the drive and become the clear favorite for sensible everyday use. Price on a SET Princess pair runs from $400-$600 (depending mainly on length of warranty). Sophia describes the SET Princess as a 205D/300B hybrid, with three times the plate size of a normal 205D, operating at 5V and putting out 5-6 watts. This is not a drop-in replacement for a 300B or any other tube and I'm not aware of another production amp that can play it without modification. This Princess got power. And drive. And detail. Once again, she was able to bully the Abbys into sounding more muscular than I'm used to. So I'll stick with the previous observations with the separates: if you like your music raucous and rowdy, try a Princess. For something like the Doors' Soft Parade on vinyl, she's a match made in Rock'n'Roll heaven. And you know they have one helluva band.

I know I've neglected the Tektron preamp. It's by far flashier mates stole the limelight. That's not to suggest it's an underachiever. As a matter of fact, the Tektron preamp was a very capable performer. But for my Tektron take, I've found my favorite - and that happens to already come with a built-in preamp. Also absent was a VT-52 since I couldn't get my hands on a review pair.

Get it and forget it
If you haven't noticed, I spent a lot of time listening to tubes and music, not amplifiers. Maybe that's the most important thing I can say about the Tektron gear. Its sonic signature is the aural equivalent of the chameleon. It adapts to the tube. Is the Tektron the best 45 amp I've ever heard? Well no, the Fi 45 bests it in overall musicality and I have to think that the Fi's direct-coupled simplicity is part of the reason. But anyone seriously considering a Tektron isn't buying it to play a 45. The Tektron customer is a spice-o'-life kinda guy, with variety something to be explored whenever the mood strikes. If you're a Tektron owner with an itch, you just power off, out with the old, set the switch, in with the new and you're rolling. Tube swappers and sound swingers may have found their perfect mate. Seven-year itchers can stay home and be faithful. Detail and delicacy? Try a 45. Feeling bombastic? Go Princess. Tough day at the office? Relax to a warm 300B. More power, less power, anything in-between? You Tektron types know who you are. The Tektron is a lifestyle amp. Why fret, have it all.

But what if we forget about that ABC switch for a minute? The integrated Tektron TK2A3/50S-I with the Cunningham balloon 50s was magical. How much magical? Only my Fi 45 and 421A have matched it on the Abbys. And for certain types of music -- small and intimate -- I'd actually give the nod to the 50s. The Lamhorns proved to be more demanding and less forgiving. But once again in the Tektron camp, Id opt for the integrated as the partner of choice. For the Abbys and new production tubes, I like the Sophias, either the SET Princess or the 2.5V 300B. Then again, the Full Music 50s were very intriguing. Their mesh 45s and 300Bs all contained qualities I could see sampling over time. And that's really the Popeil point to drive home. You don't have to settle. You don't have to choose. The Tektrons are magnanimous. These are amplifiers for the amplifier collector who only wants one amplifier.

If you've been on the fence about Tektron because you thought "that's too good to be true, sounds like an infomercial for TA - tuboholics
anonymous"... well, in a manner of speaking, it is. For anyone with a stash of NOS triodes of the 45, 50, 2A3, 300B and VT-52 variety and nowhere to plug 'em all in, Tektron has two sockets with all those names on it. It's ready to roll. While it may not be the very best for any one particular tube type, you'll just have to be able to live with the fact that you can spend your time trying to find that perfect tube for you. These are well-built pieces with quality parts wrapped in handsome packages. And they sound about as good and varied as your tube stash will bear. The hand-wired design also lends itself to some tweaking if you're so inclined. But which to pick, the separates or integrated? To my mind, the integrated TK2A3/50S-I is the no-brainer choice of the bunch. My rationale here is that if you're willing to accept that you're not optimized for a specific tube but rather relish the ability to swing, you'll want the no-fuss convenience of the integrated. Besides, it sounds better. And with the money you save, you can start or continue to build your triode tribe collection to match any and every sonic mood you find yourself in. And boy does it catch fish.

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