Tube Newb

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jnschneyer

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Tube Newb
« on: 23 Sep 2022, 07:41 pm »
Lately, on this site and elsewhere, there’s been a lot of talk of and praise for Class D amplifiers and GanFet amplifiers in particular.  Having little experience with Class D and no experience whatever with GanFet, I have no reason, outside of a general and entrenched suspicion of novelty (I know that Class D is not novel), to doubt or dispute any of this talk.  However, while I theoretically applaud most technological advances, I somehow often find myself swimming upstream, and this instance is no different.  While I was interested in the class D amps of Mark Rowland and the GanFet amps of AGD, both highly touted by the kooky but entertaining and seemingly, at least to a comparative neophyte like myself, knowledgeable OCD HiFi Guy, in the end, in true Luddite style, I went backwards and chose tubes; specifically, a Don Sachs Valhalla.  The Valhalla, as most of you know, is an integrated amp producing about 30 watts per channel.  Mine is powering a pair of SA X5s purchased last May, and these are my first impressions.     


Put simply, I love the Valhalla.  However, as I’m never content to simply put things simply, well, I press on.  My frame of reference for knowing the comparative worth of that which I love is limited, but I’ll offer it in brief.  My first amps were Rotel 1091 Class D mono blocks at 500 wpc.  I then moved to a Classe CA-5300, then cut down to a 2-channel Classe CA-2300.  I briefly demoed a Mac MC-275, which was sweet in the midrange and showed some of the characteristics vaunted by tube lovers, but in the end wasn’t powerful enough to drive my B&W 802Ds.  Sometime later I tried out a Prima Luna Evo 400 Integrated with my (having ditched the B&Ws) lovely sounding but insensitive Dynaudio Heritage Specials. The Evo 400 sounded good but, really, no better or different than my solid-state Classe.  This brings me to (having ditched the Dynaudios) my current X5s powered by the Valhalla, which was immediately both better and different than the X5s powered by the Classe.  I had heard the X4s and X5s driven by the Valhalla at Spatial’s shop when I was first auditioning the speakers, so I had an idea of what the Valhalla could do, but, until I hooked it into my own system, I had no real notion of how much better and different it would be. 

I received the amp only a little over a week ago, so these are truly early impressions.  As good a first impression as the Valhalla made on me - and I don’t know if it’s the amp or me that’s breaking in - it seems to get better every day.  In listening to new gear, there’s always, I think, a bit of intensified focus that can make a new speaker or component seem to do more or other things than one is accustomed to, qualities that may in fact exist in the older gear but that possibly have gotten taken for granted over time.  I suppose it would be easy enough to conduct an experiment of sorts and plug the old gear back in to see how it compares, and I may do that, just for the hell of it, but I think I know my old gear well enough to know that what I’m now hearing from the Valhalla is appreciably better in every regard compared to my Classe.  To begin with, the soundstage is bigger in all directions; the separation between the instruments is both (in that illusory way of stereo imaging) greater and more distinct, that is, there’s both more distance between the musicians and greater delineation of the sound of the individual instruments; the sound of the instruments is somehow more solid (if an invisible picture of a sound can be solid), more, what? three dimensional? holographic?  I know I hear people refer to the holographic sound of tubes at their best, but I’m leery of using the term as I have no frame of reference.  It isn’t holographic in the sense of conjuring a complete visible physical image of a musician at his or her instrument (close, though), but the sound has depth, dimension, solidity (again), and gives the impression of space around the sound of the instrument, as if you could walk onstage and walk around each musician.  The Classe had some of this.  Depending on the recording, you could locate where the individual instruments were, but it was flat, both the soundstage and the individual instruments.  More like looking at a 2-dimensional drawing of musicians on a stage rather than being a stage you could walk on and into.  Soundstage and imaging are funny things.  In a way, they seem like parlor tricks, effects separate from the music, showy and almost distracting from the music itself.  But, when the music is rendered right, is moving, compelling, true, the illusion of the soundstage and dimensional quality of the instruments and musicians adds to rather than detracts from the emotional, visceral impact of the music.

The Valhalla, at least in my comparatively limited experience with amplifiers but extensive experience with listening to and performing live music, does music right.  Tonally, it is rich, round, smooth, whole, lifelike.  It has body.  Not that it sounds like an actual person or band or orchestra in the room - though closer than any bit of electronic kit has any right to - but it communicates whatever that ineffable quality is in music that moves us, that makes us feel, that possesses us.  This has nothing to do with precision.  Don’t misunderstand.  The Valhalla is accurate, it is on time, it is detailed, highly resolving, more so than the Classe, which is no slouch, but it is in no way clinical.  I’ve read and heard of tubes being dark, soft, hazy, smoothing over details, of requiring a trade-off between the resolution of a solid-state amp and the more blurred but “musical” sound of tubes.  I find absolutely no loss of detail in moving from the 300 wpc solid-state Classe to the 30 wpc Valhalla.  If anything, with the increased breadth and depth of the Valhalla’s soundstage, along with its greater separation of individual instruments, the detail is increased, the sense of detail heightened, but the tone remains true, gratifying, never etched or strained or overemphasized.  The voices and instruments sound and have the impact more of actual voices and instruments than of recordings of voices and instruments.  When a string of Chris Jones’s dobro is plucked on Allan Taylor’s Behind the Mic, the rough metallic twang and reverberation is there informing the note.  When the string section of an orchestra swells behind Melody Gardot’s diamond-pure tone, corny as it sounds, your heart swells with it until you feel full to bursting.  When Jeff Buckley holds out the near final note of Hallelujah, you hear the control, the slight wavering of the breath as the note diminishes, and the ache of loss embodied in the song.  No doubt, if you are moved by music, hearing these things through a clock radio will still move you, but the experience is enlarged, deepened, heightened, in all ways made greater by a true, human rendering, and the Valhalla does a better job of this than any amplifier I’ve ever heard.

I know none of this is technical or scientifically measured or anything other than anecdotal responses, but I find these specific musical instances and responses to them far more useful than any measurement.  I could always resort to the commonplaces of describing a component’s effect on the music, say the highs are liquid or brilliant or even strident as the voice or instrument requires, yet never uncomfortable or fatiguing; the mids are gripped in a velvet glove, always secure but flowing, never squeezed or suppressed; the bass is tight and rich, never boomy or sloppy, spilling into the following note; all of these together giving the impression of security, allowing the listener to relax, as when listening to a singer who you have no doubt will hit each note dead center and with ease.  If you’ve ever listened to a singer in whom you don’t have this confidence, you know how distracting and unsettling it is.  I could say all these things, and they would be true, but such faux specifics miss the mark of the music’s effect on the listener.  When I listen through the Valhalla, I have this same confidence, that I’m hearing and going to hear music rendered as smoothly or harshly as it demands, but, more importantly, whatever the style, whatever the music’s tonal and rhythmic requirements, it will be human, it will have that ineffable quality we often call, for lack of a better word, soul.  As I said in the beginning, I can’t speak to sound of the newer Class D or GanFet amplifiers, but this, my first experience with a tube amp that seems to have all the qualities people who favor tubes claim they possess and then some, this venturing to the past is a huge leap forward.     

musicdre

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Re: Tube Newb
« Reply #1 on: 23 Sep 2022, 08:59 pm »
thanks for your detailed impressions and the thorough post. 

tube amps generally sound great with spatials.


Tyson

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Re: Tube Newb
« Reply #2 on: 23 Sep 2022, 09:12 pm »
I'm with you.  Every time I try a SS amp in my system, it sounds good but not as good as my tube amps.  In fact I'm on the verge of selling my (very beautiful) Odyssey Kismet monoblocks because I'm just a tube lover through and through. 

The Valhalla you have is very close to a KT66 amp I built out as a custom job (with Don's help/guidance) and it's absolutely phenomenal sounding.  Great tonality and really nice soundstage. 

jnschneyer

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Re: Tube Newb
« Reply #3 on: 23 Sep 2022, 09:37 pm »
I'm with you.  Every time I try a SS amp in my system, it sounds good but not as good as my tube amps.  In fact I'm on the verge of selling my (very beautiful) Odyssey Kismet monoblocks because I'm just a tube lover through and through. 

The Valhalla you have is very close to a KT66 amp I built out as a custom job (with Don's help/guidance) and it's absolutely phenomenal sounding.  Great tonality and really nice soundstage.

I was really surprised by all that and more.  I loved it when I heard it at the Spatial shop, but in that room it didn't come close to throwing the same stage or resolve half as well as it does in my own, admittedly still less than perfect, room.  Don included a quad of Russian 6n3cE with the Valhalla, which I briefly tried and really liked.  I was again surprised at the difference in the sound of the tubes.  Of course I've heard of tube rolling, but I hadn't experienced why people do it.  The Russian tubes were considerably darker than the KT66s, but not veiled.  The top seemed slightly more rolled-off, but Don said they would open up in 100 hours or so.  Anyway, I swapped them back out for the KT66s and am resisting going back and forth or trying any other tubes until these and the amp are fully broken in.  Patience is a virtue; it just isn't mine.   

jnschneyer

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Re: Tube Newb
« Reply #4 on: 24 Sep 2022, 05:21 pm »
thanks for your detailed impressions and the thorough post. 

tube amps generally sound great with spatials.

Ha! You're welcome, and, when it comes to writing, thoroughness is practically a vice with me.  Others might not give it such a virtuous name.  No doubt the higher sensitivity of the X5s, along with their powered subwoofers, has something to do with the Valhalla's outstanding performance.  Though, to be fair, I first heard the Valhalla with a pair of X4s, which are lower sensitivity and 4ohm impedance, and it really caught my ear even then.  For its output, it's a mighty and beautiful sounding amp, and, considering it's a pre and amp together, what you get at its price, I can't really imagine doing better.  My Classe pre and amp together were easily three times the cost, and, good as they are, they aren't nearly exciting or fun to listen to as the Don Sachs.  I don't have the savvy to know what makes it so, but the combination of the Valhalla and X5s is as good as I've heard and easily bests anything I've owned.