World Premiere Review!
Until last week, I had in my possession one of the best sounding tube amplifiers in the world (from my small world view). Even better, I was fortunate enough to have this amplifier mated with a pair of the most recognizable speakers in the world (Avantgarde Uno Fino). On top of that, my wife joined me in the Audio Room for two(!) listening sessions with drinks in hand. It's true what they say: You never know a good thing... until it's gone.
While some of you may be rolling your eyes at my (admittedly) verbose bluster; I submit this to you:
Have you auditioned the Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier (with outboard power supply)?
I didn't think so.
And that's a shame. You really should. Let me back up a bit.
The Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier is the creation of Aric Kimball, of Aric Audio. Aric Kimball builds this wonderful tube amplifier (as well as other high-end audio products) in rural New England. That's rural New England, as in America. You've probably never heard of him or his audio products either. Until five months ago, neither had I. Again, that's shame.
Was first introduced to Aric Kimball several months ago when reviewing a new product he was releasing. Unfortunately, as I was starting to write up the review, he informed me that he decided not to release this product. To be honest, I was bummed. Really liked the product and was prepared to submit a very positive review. Aric then offered a serious upgrade to the entry-level product. That offering was the Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier with outboard power supply, and the subject of this review. A few weeks later, two Home Depot medium-sized boxes arrived at my door.
Born In The USA
Full disclosure, I'm not a tube expert. Still get a little nervous plugging in all the tubes of various sizes and shapes. With the Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier you have many tubes to unbox and plug in. A lot, as in eleven! As in "...but my amp goes up to eleven"! The amplifier chassis has four Genalex Gold Lion 300B's tubes and three Tung Sol 6SN7 tubes. The outboard power supply chassis has two NOS 5U4GB tubes and two OB3 regulator tubes. The outboard power supply is connected to the amplifier via dual umbilical cables. Taking my time and wearing lint-free white gloves, the amplifier and outboard power supply were ready to be powered up within an hour. Pulling my pair of VTI amplifier stands out of storage, I now had a resting place for the dual-chassis system.
Originally placed between my old Martin Logan Summit speakers, the Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier system looked right at home. The short dual umbilical cables forced me to slide the amplifier section closer to the outboard power supply. I didn't really notice until it came time to take pictures for the article. Longer umbilical cables are available if requested. I didn't request longer umbilical cables as am not a prima donna. The simple toggle power switch is located next the power cable. A quick flick and we were in business!
Ohhh... You Glow
Both chassis are milled from thick aluminum. On the front face of the amplifier chassis you will find two cool, blue analog power/voltage meters, separated by an Alpha 300B label (made of soft metal). On the top of the amplifier chassis are the four tall Genalex Gold Lion 300B's tubes and three smaller Tung Sol 6SN7 tubes. Towards the rear, are two large, square output transformers that are made by Hammond in Canada.
The outboard power supply is almost as large as the amplifier, but more basic in appearance. A lone model label is mounted on the front face, the four tubes on the top (two NOS 5U4GB tubes and two OB3 regulator tubes) round out the power supply components. Taking up the entire rear surface of the chassis, is a large, vented rectangular box. This is the dual power transformers that provide the power for the 300B and 6SN7 tubes respectively, as well as a dedicated filament transformer for the 6SN7's and a small choke. Inside of the power supply are two more filament transformers for the 300B tubes, and four more chokes for the power supply.
The power switch has a circuit breaker built-in and is a "rocker switch" (as opposed to a toggle). This medical grade switch will trip off in the event of a fault. Together, the Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier gives the appearance of something out of an old Buck Rogers movie. Beautiful in its functionality and simplicity. Not over the top, shiny, just to be shiny.
Making The Connection
I wanted to leave the amplifiers on to break in a bit and test for any issues, yet was a bit perplexed as to the length of time for burn-in. Tubes have a limited shelf life. They have a limited lifespan, measured in hours. My usual burn-in time is measured in weeks. Aric recommended a warm up time of 30 minutes, so I left the amplifier system on for 48 hours to test for any anomalies. After that, I always tried to turn the amplifier on, at least an hour before any critical listening.
Both Aric and I were a bit concerned about my choice of speakers for this review. As many of you know, my personal speakers are the Martin Logan Summits. These electrostatic speakers love power. They crave it big time! They eat it for breakfast and have humbled many a weak amplifier, as is their nature. My personal amplifier is the venerable Bryston 4 B SST2 . The Bryston 4 B SST2 outputs 300 Watts RMS stereo @ 8 Ohms and 500 Watts per channel @ 4 Ohms). The Martin Logan Summits impedance is 4 Ohms. They have been receiving upwards of 500 Watts per channel on the daily. The Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier system is rated at 25 Watts per channel of Class A output.
Needless to say, we were a bit concerned.
Worst case scenario, I would start the review with my Jamo Concert 8 bookshelf speakers or the little Martin Logan Motion 2i speakers (under review). It turned out that we have nothing to worry about. The Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier system powered the Martin Logan Summits just fine.
Better than fine, as they sounded... good.
While writing this review, I was actively looking through a thesaurus in search of other words for "warm". When you describe what a tube amplifier sounds like, the first words will be usually be warm. They look warm. They make the room warm. They sound warm too!
During the extended review period with the Alpha 300B, my audio room was filled with turntables from Pro-Ject. Writing a feature piece on setting up an analog turntable system from scratch, I was flush with three Pro-ject turntables, a phono preamp, and record cleaning machine. The gear list is long and consists of the Pro-Ject RPM 5 Carbon Turntable, Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Record Master Hi-Res Turntable, Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC Esprit SB Turntable, Parasound JC 3 Jr. Phono Preamplifier, and OkkiNokki Record Cleaning Machine.
Since I had warming tubes in front of me, and a room full of vinyl, my choice was obvious. A quick cleaning cycle on the OkkiNokki Record Cleaning Machine and Beth Hart's "37 Days" album was ready for a spin. It was time for my favorite choice, and of the three turntables the Pro-Ject RPM 5 Carbon gets the nod. Have spent the past several weeks with a turntable / preamp / amplifier setup I enjoyed via the Pro-Ject turntables, Parasound pre-amp and Bryston amp. Swapping the Bryston amplifier for the Aric Audio amplifier was the most logical way to begin the review session.
Connections from the Pro-Ject RPM 5 Carbon turntable to the Parasound JC 3 Jr. Phono Preamp were completed with the Audioquest Big Sir RCA cables. The Audioquest Mackenzie (XLR) balanced cables fed the signal to the balancing inputs on the Audio Research LS27 preamplifier (coming from the Parasound JC3 jr outputs). Normally, I would connect to the Bryston amplifier with Audioquest Mackenzie (XLR) balanced cables. As mentioned earlier, the XLR's were swapped for the Audioquest Big Sir RCA cables.
One final connection worth noting. Power.
Honestly, I have been slow to upgrade the power leg of my audio system. Outside of several Audioquest wall sockets, my Furman Elite ELITE-20 PF I surge protectors have been on duty for some time, now. I have been eyeing the Audioquest Niagara 5000, but this purchase seems to keep slipping from my grasp. While checking the connections on the back of the Alpha 300B chassis, I rested my hand on the power supply cord. It felt a little warm to the touch. I wasn't alarmed, as the entire Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier system was comfortably warm to the tough.
As a precaution, I swapped out the power cable that came with the system, with another cord. I checked it a day later. The replacement cord felt the same. As luck would have it, I had a box of reference cables to review from Vermouth Audio (coming soon). Included in the assortment, was their Reference Power Cable (2-meter). This cable was the size of a baby's arm (10AWG UP-OCC copper conductor, braided shield, Furutech FI-28 Rhodium with special carbon fiber shell). Cautiously moving this anaconda-sized cable behind the outboard power supply chassis, I plugged it in. As the tubes began to glow, they appeared to be a bit brighter? Reluctantly, I removed the snake (Vermouth Audio Reference Power Cable) and plugged the (included) power cable back into place. The tubes (again) began to glow, but not as brightly as before.
I repeated this process twice. In the end, the Vermouth Audio Reference Power Cable remained in place, for the duration of the review period. I will not try to explain the pros/cons of what (perceived) tube brightness levels mean. I can only say that the Vermouth Audio Reference Power Cable never got hot. Take from that what you will.
The live version of "L.A. Song" started with the usual crowd noise followed by Beth Harts piano cords. As I anticipated, turning the volume up on the Audio Research LS27 preamplifier increased the sound level to my normal threshold of comfort. Assumed I would need to really crank on the volume control, yet with only 20 Watts available to feed my Martin Logan's this did not prove to be the case. The typical volume level was only six clicks above my normal setting. Impressive! I sat back and listed to the remainder of the side.
Fresh off the OkkiNokki Record Cleaning Machine, I then lifted the dust cover on the striking red Debut Carbon DC Esprit SB turntable and clamped down "Queen Made In Heaven". This was my latest purchase and was eager to put it through the review process. This release was Half-Speed Mastered under the supervision of Bob Ludwig, with the lacquers from Abbey Road Studios. "It's A Beautiful day", "Made In Heaven" and "Let Me Live" flowed easily through the room. I didn't stop for a break until the end of side two "Heaven for Everyone". This had become my routine process for this album. I spent the next week switching from LP's to my streaming sources. The Martin Logan/ Aric Audio amplifier combination never faltered once. But it was time to move the 'logan's over.
Avantgarde Uno Fino Speakers Arrive
"Prince: Piano & A Microphone" has a lot of solo piano sessions, so I started with that. "Prince: Piano & A Microphone" is actual excerpts from studio sessions recorded during 1983 at Prince's Kiowa Trail home studio in Chanhassen, MN. Side A is one long melody "17 Days / Purple Rain / A Case of You / Mary Don't You Weep / Strange Relationship / International Lover / Wednesday". Prince plays the piano alone in the studio. Other than requesting a few board changes from the engineer, it's just an artist and his piano. After a few moments, I too was sitting in the corner of Prince's studio listening.
I spent the next five sessions doing just that... listening. I wrote very few notes, yet on the final page of my notes written on the final day of my five day marathon I simply scribbled a question. Have I found "it"? As most audiophile know, the "it" is an allusive creature. Most of us never find "it". Some of us come close. Some of us never want to find "it". Some of us don't know what "it" is? For me, the "it" is that moment, where you truly become part of the music. It's is usually a fleeting moment. It can last a few seconds, or a few minutes. Almost never longer than that. Something, anything can rip you from that moment. I've had that "moment" several times in my life.
When I listened to strange type of music "Into the Labyrinth" by Dead Can Dance through a DAC for the first time, via Wadia 121 DAC... My final live tympani solo during "War" from The Planets by Host (during my senior high school performance). Laying the first tracks of my first solo album in a 1am recording session at Breezeway studio (home of the BoDeans), and this was during a record breaking snowstorm! All of these rare, fleeting musical moments that keep us searching for "it".
Truth be told, since building my (long awaited) Audio Room the "it" moment has alluded me. I was sure that the next little tweak or the day when my dream speakers finally arrived, would be that perfect moment. If that is true, then what was I experiencing over the past few weeks?
As the Avantgarde Uno Fino speakers were slated to be one of the demo speakers for the Avantgarde booth at AXPONA 2019, my time with them was shorter than normal. Therefore, I crammed in hours upon hours of listening sessions into just a few weeks' time (53 days).
Over the span of a few months I had the pleasure of auditioning two very different speaker technologies (electrostatic versus horns). With either speaker platform, the Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier was a rock star. Very strong midrange. Bass, both mid and low, were solid, solid, solid! Mid to high range was strong as well. Perhaps a cable change was in order as sometimes the sound was a tiny bit bright with the horns. The mid to upper highs were more pronounced overall, yet both male and female vocals were the Alpha 300B's sweet spot.
Tubes sometimes suffer from a slight delay or sluggishness during a rapid, staccato performance. I never experienced this with the Alpha 300B's. Attacks were punchy and felt in your chest (at volume). Delays were long and predictable. The overall soundstage? My Thesaurus failed me. Warmth: balminess, temperateness, cordiality, ardor, fervor. I give up. The Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier has a warm sound, Dude! (sorry).
All Good Things...
What is my final word on the Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier? A brief story.
In a last minute reprieve, I received a call from the Avantgarde rep. They informed me; that they had a replacement pair of speaker for AXPONA 2019!! I could keep the Avantgarde Uno speakers for a little while longer. But the Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier was gone? My Bryston 4 B SST2 had been benched long enough. A short time later, the Bryston 4 B SST2 was warming up.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, my wife joined me in the Audio Room for two listening sessions while I had the Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier / Avantgarde Uno Fino speaker setup. It's a particularly poignant moment for me, as she rarely joins me in the Audio Room. She wasn't that keen on me turning the Home Theater into the Audio Room for reasons I still do not fully understand. We also have conflicting schedules, so our times together are few and far between. Reviewing equipment can sometimes be a lonely task, so I relish the times I get to share this awesome task with others. It's extremely fulfilling when I get to share a new discovery with my wife.
As I starting playing "Going Down Slow" by Tom Jones and Jeff Beck: Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: Red, White & Blues [ASIN: B001O3RDDO], a song I know very, very well. My wife came into the Audio Room and sat down. After a few moments she turned to me with a puzzled look on her face.
The Wife: "What did you do?!"
Me: "Nothing, Why"?
The Wife: "It sounds different. Bad"
Me: "Oh. I had to return the tube amp. That's our amp, the Bryston"
The Wife: "Oh....huh"
She left the room a few minutes later. I wanted to leave as well. It took two days of tweaking to get an acceptable sound from my new setup. With the Alpha 300B tubes I had "it", then I lost "it". The Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier is one of the best sounding tube amplifiers you have (probably) never heard of. The Aric Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier retails for $7500, and yes, that's a little chunk of money. Perfection isn't cheap.
Do yourself a favor. Contact Aric and get a demo Audio Alpha 300B Push Pull Amplifier as soon as you can. You will thank me for "it".