by Noam Bronstein
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I love the 2A3 power tube. With appropriately sensitive speakers, I’ve long found that this tube just gets me a bit closer to the music than anything else. I’ve felt this way about every 2A3 amp that ever crossed my path – and fortunately, I’m not alone in this regard. So when Carl Ng asked me if I’d like to be the first to review Triode Lab’s new-for-2015 Parallel Single Ended 2A3 amp, I had to think about it for all of maybe 0.003 seconds before answering, “YES!”.
For those who can’t stand the waiting, I’ll let you in on the conclusion: the Triode Lab 2A3PSE is the finest amp I’ve ever had the pleasure of using in my home. It makes around eight, maybe nine, of the most glorious watts I’ve heard, or dreamed of hearing. It has no obvious weakness. Is it the perfect amp? Probably not. But for me, it’s very, very close. And so I’ll heap a lot of praise on it before anyone can tell me to shut up. (*in fact this may not be the perfect amp for propulsive electronic music, but for classical, jazz and folk music….Wow)
The amp you’re looking at uses two paralleled 2A3 tubes per channel. Those power tubes are fed by 12AX7’s on input and 6SN7’s in preamp duty. The circuit is fully dual mono on a single chassis, with dual 5U4GB rectifiers and two massive power transformers and chokes. With six transformers and the huge Mundorf on top, the chassis itself is very large and heavy. The visual design is as “open” as they come – there are no tube cages, transformer covers, or other concessions to children or pets. Wife acceptance can take a hike. This is a ‘beautiful’ amp only in a decidedly industrial design way, so if you’re drooling, it’s only because you’re a hardcore triode ‘phile.
(It should be mentioned that while my sample was flat black, TL offers the option of real automotive grade paint finishes on all its’ amps. You can have Porsche Blue, or Audi Misano Red, for approx. $300. We saw this on the Finale F-208S amp that Scott had for review last summer, and it was indeed stunning)
Carl delivered the amp in base livery – with American transformers and all-Russian tubes except for the RCA cleartops. In this form the PSE retails for $5999 USD. Triode Lab offers two levels above this, based around either the James or Hashimoto transformers; plus tube upgrades and the aforementioned paint options – basically they’ll customize the build to what the customer wants. I really should say here that in all my years in this hobby, I don’t think I’ve met a more amenable gentleman than Carl. We’ve traded gear several times over the years. Carl’s love of audio is infectious. He’s a true enthusiast, in the best sense, and a pleasure to work with.
So, you ask, how does this amp sound??
In a word, it sounds BIG. It plays with authority – it sounds like a big power amp, one that has an effortless ease – and also tremendous finesse. For gain attenuation I used my DACT CT2 – it’s essentially as transparent as a straight wire through, which makes it easy to evaluate a power amp on its’ own merits. The PSE tore through every type of music I threw at it, and drove all the speakers in the house with equal aplomb – including my 4 Ohm, 86dB Gradients. At no time did it strain to deliver, or even break a sweat. At no time did I think, “Oh, well of course, this is only an 8-watt amp.” I’ve never found 2A3 based amps to be romantic-sounding, or coloured. While the PSE does employ feedback, its’ sound signature is true to form. Like every good 2A3 design that I’ve heard, it sounds spacious, detailed, with depth and tonal richness. It never sounds slow or dull.
As the photos don’t seem to do justice in representing its’ physical presence in my room, I wonder if words will do justice to the way the PSE presents itself sonically. This is an amplifier that needs to be seen, and heard. To reduce it to the essence – this is a wonderful 2A3 with “more” – of everything. More power, more depth, more scale, more refinement. Just more.
The PSE didn’t seem to favour one type of music over another – it simply delivered everything on the disc. It was fun listening to audiophile classics like Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz For Debby (Analogue Productions) – a recording that reveals insane amounts of detail with any major upgrade in equipment. I used to scowl at the club goers’ chatting, but at one point I read something by Lester Koenig (in the liner notes to Ben Webster At The Renaissance), basically lamenting this golden age period of jazz, when people loved to go out on the town and have fun – and be entertained. The musicians knew this and didn’t care – they were by and large happy to be busy and making money. That put it in a different perspective for me, and now I can listen to something like Waltz for Debby and smile – when I heard the busboy move the rack of glasses on the title track, it was so startlingly clear I felt I could almost count the number of glasses. Speaking of sparkle, this amplifier, like most DHT amps I’ve heard, is slightly dark. But I mean ever so slightly. It doesn’t have the sizzling top end you’d expect from, say, a Bryston power amp. And that suits me just fine(!). From Beethoven to Bruce Cockburn, from Miles Davis to Bob Dylan, my records and CD’s were consistently entertaining and enjoyable. This is what matters.
The PSE, as I said, played well with all the speakers I had ancillary gear in an exemplary way – the amp never made my system sound bad, but it shone a light on my other gear, and the source material. For example, the Devine monitors performed most beautifully while driven by the PSE, and with real synergy – both with and without bottom end help. For the few days that both the SSIII’s and PSE were both here, wow….an absolutely magical high-end combination that I won’t soon forget.
Complaints? Criticisms? Nope, not really. Just a couple of comments. The EH 5U4 rectifiers were noisy, physically. I experienced the “water pipe” phenomena that indicates they were coming close to their expiry date. When back with Carl, he replaced them with Mullard GZ32’s and it was all quiet again. Perhaps I “only” heard 90% of the PSE’s capability, I don’t know. Come to think of it, it’s proably a good thing I didn’t hear this amp at maximum performance; I might have had to mortgage my house to buy it (it’s well beyond my budget at this time).
Anther issue – not really an issue, it’s just “me” – I like to be able to put a tube amp on its’ side and open the hood for a look inside. This is pretty difficult to do with the PSE, as you can imagine. Again – hardcore design choices, the binding posts are located on the sides of the amp, as close as possible to the output transformers; likewise the input jacks are on the left side, located right alongside the input tubes. Add to this the fact that this amp weighs somewhere in the range of 65 lbs., and turning it over is no small feat. So I didn’t. And most people like me probably shouldn’t, either. One should perhaps consider if having taps on the sides of a big, deep amp will pose an issue, i.e. if placing it into a cabinet of some kind.
Lastly, and this is again very personal: if it were me buying the PSE, I’d probably add some transformer covers. This amplifier at $6-8k is a considerable investment, and I think it could (and should) look a bit more….sexy. It might be addressed by the James/Hashimoto upgrades, but Hammonds, EI’s, One Electron, none of these look particularly attractive. I didn’t ask Carl about this, but I know there are good DIY options out there (like vt4c.com) and they don’t have to cost a small fortune. Again, this is purely aesthetic, and subjective…it’s just my two centavos.
I’ll finish this review with some off-the-cuff comments. Having the first Triode Lab 2A3-PSE stereo amp was an honour, and using it was a joy. The amp consistently made me smile; it made me want to rifle through my records to find more music to play. I enjoyed every aspect of this amp, and I’d consider it a worthy addition to most any high-end domestic audio system. I was sad to see it leave – I don’t know when another component of this caliber might grace my room. Very highly recommended.