Review by Noam Bronstein
OK, I’ll lay it on you guys right now. The answer to my provocative subject line question is, in my opinion, a resounding “Probably”.
Let me qualify that, in a couple of ways. If the prospective buyer is looking for a powerhouse amp to recreate bomb blasts and shake the walls of his home theater, keep looking. This thing doesn’t even have a remote. If you want to impress your audio pals with the latest 150-lb slab of billet aluminium-encased turbo powered madness, please move along, nothing to see here.
But……if you primarily want a 2-channel music amp, and IF you can solder, and IF your speakers are reasonably sensitive (let’s say >89dB), then I think this single-ended 300B integrated amp kit should be at the top of your shopping list…assuming you’re ‘in the market’. I’ll go one step further and say this unequivocally: for $1000, and a bit of sweat equity, there is simply no other amplifier I would even consider buying new right now. And if by some strange fate I found myself with a $4000 amp budget, I’d most likely still buy the Elekit TU-8300R, and put the rest of the money somewhere else.
Yes, it’s that good.
No, $1000 is not going to give you the state of the art, but in kit form, you’re getting so close with an amp like this, that the amount of (incre)mental money required to inch you a little closer might be aptly described as “stupid”.
YES, IT’S THAT GOOD.
Elekit (EK Japan Co) is a Japanese firm that’s been supplying electronics kits to DIY enthusiasts for decades. Since 1973 in fact. Elekit is based in Fukuoka prefecture, close to the southern tip of the country and far from the busy markets of Akihabara in Tokyo. The company is gradually gaining recognition on our shores – their kits have been well-reviewed, but not widely reviewed. Wall of Sound has reviewed the 6L6-based TU-8200DX kit, and another of our reviewers owns (and loves) the TU-8230 (2A3 SET). In North America, Elekit hi-fi gear is available from VK Music, and the TU-8300R under review is now also being sold through thetubestore.com – our neighbour and favourite tube supplier. I’m told that thetubestore bought “the remaining supply” of these from Japan – I don’t know if that means they won’t be available after these are gone. I hope not!
First things first, let me acknowledge that I didn’t build this particular kit. Going back several months, Daniel Koetsier (owner of thetubestore) had planned to build it, but then decided to allow a friend with no experience do it. That friend, Larry Kennelly, completed the build and detailed his experiences on thetubestore’s blog, here. I have built several kit amplifiers before, and knowing a little about the Elekit offerings, I’m comfortable recommending this unit to anyone with the enthusiasm and basic tools needed to get started. It’s not rocket science and there’s nothing particularly scary about it. Just take your time, check your work carefully, and have fun. The instructions are excellent and you can always get someone more knowledgeable to check it over before you plug it in.
On to the details. This is a pretty basic amp, by ‘modern’ standards – a single 300B output tube per channel, driven by a single miniature triode 12AT7. The power supply transformer is a Japanese R-core unit, and the ps is regulated and rectified by solid state diodes. The amp is built up from circuit boards – this makes assembly and soldering more or less boner-proof, but makes serious modifications pretty difficult. In keeping with the minimalist approach, the amp has a single input for a line-level stereo source (unbalanced), and has output taps for 4 and 8 Ohm speaker loads. The weight is reasonable, with appropriate heft. Definitely not a back breaker. The hardware, connectors and overall form factor are understated, and again, perfectly adequate. An IEC power inlet completes the back panel, so you can experiment with power cords if you’re so inclined. The front panel has a power switch and volume control. The amp is self-biasing. Something not seen on many SET amps: flashing diodes indicate a muted state, slow-start power-on sequence; this lasts for around 20 seconds, the lights go off and the amp is ready to play. Classy. The diodes also light up to indicate any fault that might interrupt the circuit (this happened to me once – a faulty tube was the cause). There is a generous-sized cage to cover the exposed top, and the chassis is finished in a generic, basic metal (beige) look that almost begs to be painted in a sexier colour. Like the candy apple red sparkle you see here.
Looking for unusual features? There is one, and it’s quite remarkable. Beside the 300B sockets are a pair of octal sockets, which are covered when not in use. Remove the 300B’s, spin the covers 180 degrees, and voila – the Elekit is transformed into a single-ended pentode amp, which can accommodate the EL34, 6L6/5881, KT88, and other common power pentodes! I’ll touch on this a bit more, but I think it’s pretty damn cool.
Let’s get on to talking about this amp’s performance.
I’ve listened to the TU-8300R with several speakers. My first exposure was at Frank Fazzalari’s place, we spent a couple of hours listening with his amazing Coherent Model 15’s. I was impressed enough, and Frank kindly arranged with Jon at thetubestore for “the red amp” to come to me next, for review. Frank is also in love with the red amp, and it was hard to pry it away from him, but he finally brought the Elekit over, and I’ve been listening to it with my Radian coaxials (somewhat similar to the Coherent speakers), as well as with the Devine Audio Sound Stage III’s, over the last couple of months. All of these are full-range speakers with sensitivity in the 95-98dB range, and all have demonstrated a great synergy with the Elekit.
One thing really needs to be highlighted here: the Elekit is dead quiet. It’s so silent that some of my concepts have been turned on their heads as a result. The level of the noise floor (background noise) and self-noise that it does generate is so low that it’s less than most of the solid state amps I’ve used. For a directly-heated triode tube amp, it is astoundingly quiet. Many of us SET enthusiasts, myself included, have been guilty of making subjective statements like, “yeah, my amp has some noise, but once music is playing, it’s not noticeable.” Hmmm. But is this really true?? After spending time with the red amp, I’ve had to really step back and reconsider. There are many factors contributing to this amplifier’s outstanding sonic performance – audio circuit design, tube choices, quality of output transformers – all playing a major role. But if we come back to even more basic design objectives in terms of power supply filtering, noise rejection and low distortion, it makes me think that achieving a quiet signal path has just as much to do with the quality, and quantity of musical sound the amp is able to produce. That it was able to demonstrate this with speakers in the 98dB sensitivity range is even more remarkable. Food for thought….
Musically, wow. What an absolutely beautiful sounding amp this is. Yes, you have the famed 300B midrange in all its glory. But there’s so much more. In fact, this amp doesn’t whisper “300B” at you constantly – unlike most 300B SET amps, it calls very little attention to itself. And if it isn’t the creamiest or most traditional sounding 300B amp, the TU-8300R is surely the best overall for my money. It just sounds right: balanced, clean, always willing…always so musical. It sounds composed with orchestral music, rendering subtlety and tonal beauty right alongside dynamic swings and bombastic attacks. It’s intimate with jazz. It conveys the raw emotion of vocal performances. This amplifier does it all. The bass performance is excellent – deep, tuneful and present. Upper frequencies have plenty of shimmer and shine, enough for my liking at least. Although the 300B tube (after all a product of 1930’s radio broadcasting) has its bandwidth limitations, I never felt this amp sounded soft or rolled off. It was as incisive as the music on my discs. At the same time, I never found the sound glaring or fatiguing, at least not in my setup with my music. I guess the best way to describe my feeling on the sonics would be to say that music played through the Ellie made me smile, time and time again. Is there any higher praise?
Soundstaging, you ask? Holy.Mother.Of.God. I thought I knew Enya’s Watermark CD pretty well, but the Elekit unraveled layers of detail I hadn’t even heard before. This amp really throws a deep, wide, realistic soundscape that needs to be heard to be appreciated.
For me, this amp was simply a joy to use, and wait, there’s more great news. The tubes that ship with the US$999 Elekit sound very good. Yes, you can improve on them, but I’m happy to say that the base Chinese triode tubes have come a long, long way in recent years. The Shuguang 300B-98 is no exception. Again thanks to thetubestore, I’ve been reviewing 8 pairs of 300B tubes lately, via the Elekit and a pricier amp from Finale Audio. I don’t want to give anything away prematurely, but suffice it to say, the Shuguang 300B-98 has been a very pleasant surprise for me. In fact, if it were me I’d probably look to upgrade the 12AT7’s before worrying about replacing the Shugs. These are good tubes.
Having said that, the Elekit definitely responds well to tube rolling, and God only knows how great it could sound with some of the premium tubes available out there. Go nuts if you like. Or not. I’m just saying that the stock amp will not be embarrassed, I believe it’ll hold its own – even in much pricier company.
And what about those pentodes, you say? Well, I’ll be honest. I really didn’t give them a ton of airtime, given the sheer goodness in 300B mode, and the number of 300B tubes that I needed to listen to. However, when I did swap to SEP mode, I was amazed! Nearly all the great characteristics of this amp are preserved. Reflektor’s EL34 “Mullard” reissue surprised me, with excellent depth and focus; I’ve never been a huge fan of the EL34 tube in push-pull mode, but in single-ended mode it was a completely different story. And when I put in the Chinese KT88’s now being marketed under the Northern Electric brand name….wow. They came really close to sounding just like the amp does with 300B’s(!). I think this is partly the quality of the output transformers, but also, the aforementioned fact that the Ellie doesn’t editorialize much. It doesn’t try to cast a “300B glow” on everything to begin with. It’s really not so much “a 300B amp”, as it is just an excellent-sounding amplifier, and this consistency held true with the pentode tubes that I tried.
We need to conclude, because I could go on for many hours. Is this the right amp for you? That depends on your priorities. With a maximum of 7-8 watts per channel, you will need speakers that can give their all with just a watt or two of power. The other issue is that the amplifier needs to be assembled. You don’t need electronics knowledge to do this, but you will need some patience, common sense, and if you’ve never soldered, you’d be advised to look at some tutorials and get some practice time. Most audiophiles aren’t metalheads, but if your taste runs to heavy rock, rap, or other music that tends to be heavily “produced” (including most modern pop music), try to be sure that a single-ended triode amp is really right for you. With some Klipsch or JBL horns, there’s no reason it can’t be, but do your homework anyway.
Summarizing – this is truly one of the easiest reviews I’ve had to write. Elekit’s TU-8300R is a flat-out spectacular bargain. I wholeheartedly recommend it, and giving it our Gold Star Award is a no-brainer. Many thanks to thetubestore for the chance to have “the red amp” on extended loan. Save one for me!
ELEKIT TU-8300R Amplifier Kit, $999.95 USD
Upgrades available at extra cost. Paint finish of the review sample was custom.
Review Source: The Tube Store
Web site: www.thetubestore.com