Finalé’s F-300B EVO Amplifier – One Triode To Rule Them All?
Review by Noam Bronstein
The 300B is the most widely-known of the triode tubes, at least in hifi circles. Its popularity is well deserved. Following the 300A (1935), the 300B tube was introduced in 1938 by Western Electric for use in movie theater systems, and while in its original production it gained a great reputation for quality and longevity. Now in its third iteration, the Western Electric 300B tube (made in Rossville, GA) is sold with a five year warranty, something that’s unheard of in the industry.
Copies of the 300B tube are made in China, Russia, Czech Republic, Germany, and Japan. Some are quite high spec, and some relatively affordable (I didn’t say cheap). They all attempt to deliver on the original WE’s lucid, holographic midrange. This is the signature sound of the 300B. We compared some of these tubes in a shootout here several years ago. But it should be noted that the 300B’s stellar reputation is based in large part on the Western Electric original. Its tooling, metallurgy, and the vacuum pressure achieved were what made it special, both in performance as well as reliability.
300B single-ended amps can make around 7.5 watts of output power per channel with acceptably low distortion, so not all speakers need apply. But in the world of single-ended triode (SET) amps, this is a decent amount of power for many domestic situations. The 300B tube is considerably more powerful than the 45 or 2A3, for example, and this has helped it remain relevant and at least somewhat versatile, even as average speaker sensitivity has gradually decreased over the decades. This type of amplifier will generally drive speakers of 90dB+ sensitivity quite well. If your speakers are 94dB or more, so much the better. More on that in a moment.
Finalé Audio (and sister company Triode Lab) have been producing tube amplifiers in the Toronto area for some twenty years. They’ve built quite a few 300B amps – most of them single-ended like this EVO (one 300B per channel in this case). We’ve reviewed several here on WoS. Their EVO triode amps represent Finale’s ongoing effort to bring high end performance to a relatively affordable price level. These integrated amps are generally upmarket in terms of their transformers and parts quality, while the chassis are somewhat utilitarian. There are no extra bells and whistles here. Two inputs (a third is optional), a selector switch and a volume knob. Hook up your speakers and listen.
Build quality is very good. For a number of reasons, Finale use circuit boards instead of point-to-point wiring. Layout is optimized for a short signal path and low noise, the parts are better than average, the amp is functional and looks good. Admittedly, the Hammertone finish on this unit isn’t my personal favourite, but a lot of folks seem to like it. When my 10-year-old nephew visited, he said “WHOA….that is cool. It would take me like a year to build that.”
The ‘magic sauce’ in Finalé SET amps is two-fold. Use the best possible transformers, and pay extra attention to grounding – and the power supply in general. The latter is especially critical. With low to moderate voltage gain and thermionic devices, the goal is to have the lowest possible noise in the audio signal. Finalé invests a lot of effort there, and do this better than most. The result is an amp that’s subjectively nearly as quiet as some solid state designs, with speakers up to 97-98dB. With its power tubes heated by direct current (DC), tube hum in the F-300B EVO is basically non existent. The lack of background noise is a crucial part of how an amp like reveals its inherent musicality. It’s a cliché, but music emerging from a black background just sounds “more live” and less like a reproduction.
The EVO in my possession uses Japanese made Hashimoto transformers in the power, output and choke positions. Finale has developed a relationship with Sansui-Hashimoto, and is committed to importing these high spec, high quality units. They normally are wired for 8 and 4 Ohms, but the transformers also have 16 Ohm secondaries which can be employed. My sample has TJ Full Music “mesh plate” 300B’s.
Finale Audio are a great example of a small Canadian audio outfit for whom the products they make are a labour of love. They stand behind them with a three-year warranty (excluding tubes).
The major caveat that applies to all SET amps is that their performance is speaker-dependent. Triode tubes have a high-ish output impedance (low damping factor). So an amp like this can’t control woofers with an iron fist. If your speakers and music demand that type of start-stop grip or muscle power, a different type of amp will outperform the EVO. I’m not saying the EVO sounds soft. Paired with the right speakers, it is plenty incisive, and capable of great dynamics too. I achieved that kind of synergy with the Schmidt Audio Ubiquitous V.2 (review coming soon), rated at 95dB; and also with the mighty XAVIAN Concerto, rated at 94dB – a large, 80lb three-way which the EVO commanded impressively. With less sensitive speakers like the XAVIAN Aria, the EVO could strain to make its presence felt; it just sounded too soft and rounded. And that is not what this amp sounds like! With the legendary Quad ESL’s, this amp was “close” – initially I thought wow, there’s enough gain here. Detail is sublime, it’s so warm and lovely. But a few hours of listening told me the Quads needed more. A few more watts, and more damping. Again, ‘soft’ is okay if that’s the sound you want – it could serve perfectly as a late night companion in a small den with the ESL. Speaking for myself though, I’ve had enough SET amps around over the years to know what they can do, and it’s a whole lot more than playing soft and sweet.
There are some other exceptions, or “outliers”, worth mentioning. Horn loaded systems with very high sensitivity (99-110dB) – in these cases Finale tend to recommend lower tube power, such as the 2A3, or 45 triodes. The 300B will work fine, but may tend to be too much of a blunt instrument, when you want subtlety. Of course it will also depend on the room and the sort of SPL’s you desire. And then there are the single-driver, crossoverless speakers, which often appear as back loaded horns, transmission lines, quarter-wave pipes, or traditional bass reflex designs. These are the speakers which naturally enjoy the higher impedance of a triode, and their sensitivity rating matters a lot less. For example, a BK12 horn with a 4-inch Fostex driver may be rated at 90dB – but by virtue of their design they can easily be driven with a watt or two. Finale’s own Vivace Mini speakers fall into this category. Speaker systems using very minimal crossovers can also be recommended, for example Reference 3A, and Gallo. To sum up, there are a good range of speaker systems that can work very well with a 300B SET. You just won’t find them in every hifi salon. (back when 300B tubes ruled the world, all speakers were designed for this kind of power. But over the decades that has been reversed, and most speakers need more)
Thanks for allowing me that little detour. For anyone in the market or curious about SET amps, speaker matching is very crucial and worth spending the time to explore.
So how does all this sound?
In a word, it’s beautiful. The EVO amp has amazing focus, and that focus always seems trained on unearthing the beauty in music. Not on frills and flourishes. There are some caveats, and they’re generally the same ones that apply to all single-ended triode amps. This amplifier isn’t the most rhythmic or propulsive. It doesn’t have super extended frequency response in the bottom or top end. And the midrange is given to a bit of bloom, a dosh of extra warmth, that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but will satisfy many of us who gravitate toward directly-heated triode amps. These are all traits of the 300B tube itself, which the EVO does a great job of presenting for what it is – an excellent, linear power tube with a proclivity for midrange audio magic.
The EVO is a classic 300B SET amp. The high-end transformers enhance its characteristics – they don’t transform the amp into something different. This means that if your musical diet consists of pumping Biggie Smalls and Nicki Minaj until the neighbours call the police, this amp likely isn’t for you. The Finale excels with vocal music, dynamic jazz and classical recordings, and other genres that live in the midrange – folk, country, Americana, and so on. Recordings that don’t demand massive power just to decompress them enough to be fun. Your mileage may vary, if you have large horns.
I’ve been listening to several releases from Blue Note’s Tone Poet series lately. The record that spawned the name, Charles Lloyd & The Marvels Tone Poem, is a good example. The instruments are well-recorded and very expressive. Listening through the EVO amp and Schmidt speakers was a revelation in how musicians communicate mood and texture, through intonation and microdynamic phrasing. In the same way Miles Davis could create an atmosphere with a sustained note, you can hear Lloyd’s genius on the saxophone in a single note here. You can follow the lines of his compositions and be transported to where your entire focus is on the music.
Grant Green’s The Latin Bit was another fine example (thanks Andrew for the reco!). Here’s a classic that benefits from having good instrument separation. The ensemble playing and punchy, interwoven percussion sounds can get quite dense on this album. Everything was still intelligible, and fun. An amazing record that will make you smile when reproduced this way. Drums are actually a specialty with good triode amps! Cymbals too.
Vocals – from Shirley Horne to Norah Jones to Nick Drake – really shine on the 300B EVO. The amp brought those recordings into the room, like flesh and blood. The better orchestral recordings were also remarkable, like Chesky’s reissue of Beethoven’s Pastorale (Sym.No 6) from the famous RCA Living Stereo recording with the Chicago. Bring on Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Radiohead, Mazzy Star, and many more recent artists. The EVO doesn’t discriminate against genre. It just doesn’t quite have the damping you might want for Rage Against The Machine.
Having had the pleasure of a few months with this fine amplifier, I could go on and on with many examples. Really, I could. There is something magical with these triodes. If it suits your budget and speakers, an amp like this can give you a lifetime of musical rewards.
As with everything else, the prices of Finale amps have risen. The EVO lists for over $9k, not chump change for the vast majority of us. However, it is in line with comparable products that are built in the West, and Finale have proven their commitment to serving their many loyal customers. People should be compensated for good work like this.
Finale Audio F-300B EVO Reference Grade Integrated Amplifier
$9500 list price USD/CAD
Disclosure: Noam Bronstein (reviewer) is also a dealer for Finale products, since Nov.2018.
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