Single Ended eXperimenter's Kit for Headphones And Efficient Speakers
Enjoying superb S.E.X.!
Article By Jeff Poth
indeed folks, I am a very SEXy man. I am the happy owner of a lovely Single
Ended eXperimenter kit amplifier, from Bottlehead Corp. I built this some years
ago, but it's still an active product and long overdue for a review. My
particular unit uses Magnequest upgrade iron, and then sold as a standard
package direct from Bottlehead but now you order separately from Bottlehead and
Magnequest. Thank you VERY much to my Bottlehead friend in Jersey, who
generously provided the kit some years ago.
What's a Bottlehead?
are affectionately referred to as "bottles" in some circles; hence a Bottlehead
would be a tube aficionado. More specifically it refers to the Bottlehead Corp,
a Washington based hi-fi kit supplier. They really made their name with the "Foreplay"
preamplifier kit, a minimalist 12AU7 linestage that was initially a whopping $99
(now, the third iteration costs quite a bit more), and didn't even include a
chassis, only a top plate (where all the hardware mounts, the rest of the
chassis is just a platform for the plate). There were other early products,
including the first iteration of the Single Ended eXperimenter's kit, but the
Foreplay is really what made them a "mainstream" supplier in a specialized
subset of hi-fi.
Oh, and the Foreplay is also one of the things that got me off
my butt and behind a soldering iron. I learned a huge amount building,
modifying, and adapting the Foreplay to my rig. This taught me a lot about
layout, assembly, and minimizing noise. My early rig had this pre running into a
sensitive Acurus amplifier with moderately (91ish) sensitive B&Ws. Being an
idealist I didn't want to pad the output (the easy way to help a circuit like
this with signal/noise), so chased it out of the circuit via the power supply
and build details. Thanks to VoltSecond and the other prolific bottlehead types
who helped me with some of these things.
The Good S.E.X.
The current iteration of the SEX amplifier kit is a
6DN7 based integrated amplifier, with a single input, a volume control, and a
headphone jack. The 6DN7 is one of a family of octal socket dual triodes, with
dissimilar sections. In the SEX one is used as a gain stage, and one as an
output stage. They are cap-coupled. This arrangement is fairly minimalist,
though the Parallel Feed (aka Parafeed in bottlehead circles) arrangement adds
an extra choke and capacitor to the circuit. The upside of this is that you get
to keep DC out of the OPT (OutPut Transformer), and thus can use an un-gapped
OPT. A parallel feed OPT can have better performance in several key ways,
including higher primary inductance and a smaller overall package for fewer
As far as amplifiers go, circuits don't get much simpler than
the SEX amp. It'd be typical to see similar circuits the driver stage for a
larger tube, like an 845, rather than driving a loudspeaker via OPT. One of the
major compromises of this simplicity (and the small size, and low cost) is that
the amplifier is only good for just over a watt.
Yep, it's a baby. This is not going to drive Paradigms
in a home theater, or make deep bass with nearly any loudspeaker. It will,
however, drive the right loudspeaker to a very reasonable level, and headphones
are no problem so far as power is concerned (with a few watt-sucking
exceptions). Mid to high 90s efficiency are a requirement for even reasonable
levels and rooms. Lucky for me, I'm constantly building and as such got to try
this with a number of different arrangements. I used it with Rethm "The Second"
cabinets, loaded with Fostex FF225k (a superb driver, but can't give much
output, similar to a lowther but without the last edge in transparency and
dynamics OR the nasty "lowther shout") with a ribbon supertweeter. This
arrangement was excellent, very quick, clean, and smooth, but naturally limited
in bass extension and maximum output. I always use a sub or two anyway. With my
current 2 ways, the SEX amp is serving fine duty, with its limits having been a
non-issue thus far.
The kit comes with a thorough illustrated instruction
manual on CD, labeled parts, and is extremely easy to build. An experienced
builder will get through the soldering and assembly in a few hours, but however
much attention to finishing you wish to take will largely define how long the
project takes. I'll not belabor the details, it is a beginner-appropriate
project and should not give anyone much difficulty. The layout is simple and
easy to work with.
There are also upgrades available. Mine of course utilizes the
C4s (constant current sources) upgrade along with better capacitors and upgraded
transformers and inductors, available from I assembled, used a simple wipe-on
oil finish on the base, and had ‘er singing over the course of a week or so
(finish had to cure). I used a hammered finish for the top plate and power
its limitations this is a superb little amplifier. I compared it to a
Transcendent OTL-SE, and a Fi Super X running 45s. It's, not surprisingly, more
like the Fi than the OTL. The Bottlehead didn't quite reach the qualities of the
Fi with 45s, which is a much pricier amp, particularly with the Emission Labs
45s I preferred. The amps were very close, and the Bottlehead had the slight
edge on resolution, but the 45s sounded fuller and a fair bit more dynamic. This
shouldn't be surprising- a good 45 amp is very difficult to beat for dynamics,
so long as the tiny power is sufficient. The Bottlehead does have a headphone
output that the Fi lacks, and the headphone output is superb. It's also
extremely quiet, beating the Fi in that regard as well. To my ears the
Transcendent beat the SEX in speed and resolution and seemed to be the better
overall amplifier to my ears, but my good friend preferred the SEX for it is
more full-bodied presentation.
Sounds negative eh? Not really. The S.E.X. is a SUPERB
amplifier, extremely quiet, has great tonal definition and imaging, and a listen
all day quality that's very beguiling. The other amplifiers are also excellent,
and anyone with an extreme high efficiency system would be well served trying
all three- they represent 3 different takes on the flea power amplifier and any
of them is a truly high-end amplifier and a bargain due to the reasonable prices
made possible by extremely modest power requirements. Using 2A3s in the Fi
changed the package a little bit, giving the SEX a little more resolution edge,
but having better loudspeaker compatibility due to 3dB more output available. If
1.25-1.5W got you there, I'd take the Bottlehead over a 2a3 loaded Fi X (both
used the excellent Magnequest Iron). The ratings below reflect this, as used in
an appropriate system. A fleapower amp will never truly do Sub-bass properly,
hence the low rating. The rest are 4/4.5, and deservedly so. Value is a 5. There
are, of course, better amplifiers than this and the Transcendent or Fi. But they
are typically hugely more expensive (these three range from a $699 or so
Bottlehead kit (with upgraded iron, caps and constant current sources at the
time of building) to a $1350 to $1500 range for either of the others pre-built
(the Transcendent is available as a kit, with tubes, for $1000), and the three
listed above all are very close in
quality, and I'd expect three different rankings of the amps from three
different people... or even on three different speaker sets. But I'm the
reviewer and this is where the chips fall. Highly recommended!
Type: Stereo single-ended vacuum tube kit
Tube Compliment: Two
Price: Kit $469, fully assembled version adds $295.
Stock kit is designed for 120VAC mains, those needing 240VAC add $25
Voice: (206) 451- 4275