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July 18, 2011: "Your Aries loaner will finish this week and probably ship out the beginning of next. It probably will have a 50Ω headphone output with a dedicated secondary output transformer winding. It should sound very good. We'll see. If it won't perform as predicted I won't add the 6.3mm socket. - Sasa Cokic"

As a headphone slut this had my attention to start a brief dialogue. "I already wound the first new Aries transformer with the added 50Ω tap but didn't yet try it. If it gets the okay the retail price will increase by about €140. My audiotechnica W-1000 are so easy to drive that I expect them to work very well. The real question is how something like your Audez'e LCD-2 will work or some of the other more challenging loads in your stable. The Audez'e is 38Ω. That means the EL34 will see a somewhat lower impedance than a true 50Ω load. I shall put a little more impedance on the headphone winding. Now the 38Ω load will meet the output tube exactly where it works best. Incidentally when the output transformer increases its impedance on the primary we get less power but also less THD - plus the amp will sound more relaxed. How's that for a joke? - Sasa Cokic"

August 18, 2011: "The headphone feed was so promising that I decided not to add it to the Aries. Instead I'm considering launching a dedicated EL34 headphone amplifier with C3m drivers. That would be a logical step-up from our Head One. I'm still contemplating various details but want to leave the door open for such a product. Adding a 6.3mm feature to the Aries would confuse the lineup. It would make a dedicated headfi amp too similar to the Aries whereas the Aries as headphone amp must drive speakers too which reflects in the price. Sorry for the false alarm. - Sasa Cokic"

I'd previously reviewed Luxman's SQ-38u integrated amplifier. That combines an EL34 output stage with a headphone jack for very good effect. With the excellent Siemens C3m pentode wired for triode as Yamamoto does, I could appreciate Sasa's concept. But back to the Aries just as John Darko already introduced it. Except for a significant difference. John reviewed it with a price-matched speaker. Rather than revisit that turf, I'd focus on a copasetic state-of-the-art speaker. Enter the €20.000,- Voxativ Ampeggio. A friend and audio benefactor recently gifted me with a brand-new pair. It features a revised driver over what I reviewed a year ago. Inès Adler went back to a foam surround because it offers greater peak excursion and due to its innate elasticity creates softer limiting than goat leather; a more powerful magnet; and a deeper-set phase plug with a new profile and "absolutely perfect centering down to 1/100th of an inch". Comparing Dan's older to new Ampeggio, we both heard marginally lower bass extension but a clearly fuller richer response across the board and an even smoother upper band. Dan thus had Inès replace the drivers in his office pair to match the new ones in his and my main systems.

Playing my Aries sessions deliberately upscale, sources would be Simon Lee's new April Music Eximus DP1 DAC/pre or Mark Mallinson's full-production Resonessence Invicta with remote upgraded since my review. To determine triode worthiness, I pitched the Aries against my $4.000,- fully optioned-out Woo Audio Model 5 SET integrated fitted with all Synergy Hifi glass (1st-gen 300Bs). For a transistor equivalent—single stage/ended, zero feedback/degeneration—I had the 10wpc FirstWatt S2 in prototype form. It's the world's first amp to run Nelson Pass' new silicon-carbide static induction transistor with true triode curves. Because both DAC/pres have volume control (analog in the Eximus, digital in the Invicta), the S2 power amp wouldn't require a preamp like the two valve integrateds to keep the comparison even.

QuikCheck: Noise - With the Aries attenuator at 10:00 for standard room levels with a 3V-max source (Eximus), the 100dB/1w/m driver exhibited zero noise with the ear against it. 12:00—louder than I'd listen—betrayed the first onset of very mild hum. That was shockingly good performance. In fact it was far better than the CHF 28.000,- Colotube 300B monos I'd recently reviewed and subsequently heard on Dan's Ampeggio. It was equally better than my Yamamoto A-09S.
Cross bleed - Switching inputs under signal netted zero signal leakage. Because the remote control offers ± volume only, turning the input selector from active to unused input creates instant mute.
Remote volume - Tapping the volume-up button quickly, I could advance from zero output to 9:00 in 15 discrete and repeatable steps in both directions. Each prompt netted an about 2mm advancement of the red marker. Even on hyper-efficient speakers these adjustments were a lot finer and thus useful than those clumsy coarse remotes and steep volume tapers which over/undershoot unless one manipulates the volume knob by hand to render the remote redundant.
Remote reach - Here one can sit two seats away from the sweet spot and the remote aimed clear at the middle of the fascia will track without fail. This wand is quite unfussy about aiming the infrared beam at the component's eye even from well off axis.
Fit & finish - Trafomatic has come far since its beginnings prior to the well-publicized WLM Acoustics collaboration. For its €2.000,- sticker the Aries gets an A minus for very minor nits around the metal/wood edge of the curvy front panel inset.
Useful power - In my 5.5 x 12m room and with 100dB speakers, high noon on the dial with most recordings got louder than I wanted. On speakers like the Ampeggio, the Aries is plenty of Humvee.

EL34 faux triode vs. 300B direct-heated triode vs. triode transistor: To kick off and remain with the upscale theme I cued up a 24/96 file of Lang Lang's My Piano Hero tribute to Liszt. Then followed the brilliant 30 Years' Fidelity from norse label Kirkelig Kulturverksted, home of Kari Bremnes. The verdict was pretty instant. Compared to the latest-gen transistors which put out double espresso with sugar—potent, slightly sweet, supremely direct and exhilarating—the tubes were latté with cream. Their higher THD and slower rise times meant an intermediate layer of cotton batting that softened, blurred, slowed and distanced.

The SiC SITs—no contest!—out-trioded the real and faux triodes for directness, purity, harmonic realism and lucidity. The actual delta (not even close) suggested an altogether unfair comparison. It juxtaposed devices from the last century against ultra-modern bits endowed with government-funded radar technology R&D which then were stuck into an ultra-minimalist circuit even simpler and purer than the valves. With such instant superiority established, the S2 proto had to exit the scene and be categorically banished from memory lest I fail the actual assignment. Obliviate!

The 300B vs. triode-strapped EL34 comparison was even-keeled. In keeping with established expectations, the pentode had superior bandwidth particularly on top and a tad more impact though not extension down low. Contrary to expectations but perhaps due to more exotic parts—the surcharge VCaps in particular came to mind—the costlier 300B amp actually was the more incisive and quick. This factored on the violin and muted trumpet of Miguel Poveda's gorgeous Coplas del Querer (a quasi homage to El Cigala's Lagrimas Negras canon), the fine embedded percussive details on Lynne Treekrem's "Det Syng" and Lang Lang's powerful attacks on the ivories. I pegged the Woo amp as slightly superior in raw resolution and just a tad more quicksilvery on transients.

Where the Model 5 might be said to underplay certain telltale 300B attributes, the Aries could be said to deliberately clone some of 'em whilst retaining greater treble sparkle. When Inès Adler delivered Dan's Ampeggios, we quickly compared new and old pairs on the S2. Afterwards we reverted to Dan's Colotube 300B monos. I noted how the Voxativ designer asked about them but skipped over the FirstWatt. For her the ultra-fast transistor amp with these 'supercharged' (high-efficiency zero crossover) speakers was too fresh or snappy. She preferred softer, i.e. the valves. And that's exactly what the Aries would have delivered had it been present for that occasion. A well-worn thing is to refer to the effect as a leading lady's glamour shot. It's deliberately soft in focus to beautify and suggest more romance. It's all been said many times before. Routinely about 300B SETs. It tends not to come up with EL34s. Those typically don't arrive singly. Unison Research's S6 SEP for example parallels them thrice and in pentode for 35wpc [left].

My class A p/p EL84 Kaivalyas have deliberate pentode bite. This gives sharper separation which benefits depth layering; and a bluer edgier tone. They also have some very low feedback for added control and a strategic reduction of THD between driver and IT-coupled output glass. The EL34 Aries is mellower. It's more billowy and fluffy than taut/driven. In tone it is more autumn burnished. It's not farfetched to call it a 300B-ish sound of the advanced sort, albeit with a lower noise floor than most. Good rather than beginner's 300B SETs for €2.000,- are bird's milk. That's the particular niche the Aries carves for itself. Being quite the looker in fashionable gloss white and with retubing peanuts compared to designer triodes - that's the cream in the bird's milk. Those are the basics. How about specifics?