In the heady world of tube amplification, no tube is held in higher regard than the ubiquitous 300B triode. The Line Magnetic Audio LM210IA integrated tube amplifier reviewed here basks within its glory. First manufactured in 1933, the 300B tube was used extensively in movie theatres as 'talkies' took over from the silent era of cinema. The military also used the 300B, probably for early 'walkie talkie' type field communications, however it was the audio industry that really took the legendary triode tube and established it as the tube of choice for hi-fi equipment. Today, we review the Line Magnetic Audio LM210IA as the 'rebirth' of tubes for high fidelity sound reproduction has seen the 300B rise from the ashes like an audio phoenix amidst a blitzkrieg of solid-state. Although the last Western Electric tube rolled off the production line in the 1980's a plethora of manufacturers have sprung up offering reproductions of the original WE design.
Manufacturers such as Allnic, Sophia Electric and Audion (to name but a few) have all produced 300B based SET amplifiers and even though the tube is used to produce moderate power (around 10 Wpc max), the parallel rise of high sensitivity loudspeakers in the audio marketplace has made low power SET amplification popular once again. So that's the backstory, my first experience of a 300B based amplifier resulted in more than a few smiles and as I type this, a quite likely case of back strain. Enter Line Magnetic Audio, hailing from China and bold as brass with its LM201IA Integrated Tube Amplifier.
Line Magnetic Audio LM210IA is not your typical Chinese audio manufacturer, this small company is based in Guangdong Province (close to Hong Kong) and is run by two brothers with a passion for Western electric theatre amplifiers. In fact that's how the business started, specializing in the repair and refurbishment of these grand old tube amps, eventually leading to the brothers designing amplifiers of their own under the Line Magnetic audio brand, predominately using Western Electric tubes. The company has also gone on to produce a wide range of amplification and digital equipment (DAC/CD player), and have also produced rare loudspeaker drivers such as the 555W, 597A, 755A, TA4181 and TA4151 and horns like the 22A, underlining their commitment to this sector of classic audio gear.
It's an intriguing direction for a company to head towards, and so my interest in Line Magnetic was piqued. A quick email to Jonathan Halpern of USA importer Tone Imports was followed by a quick reply: "After working with LM for a year or so, they sent an email about the new Silver Series components. LM had been and is still doing lots of OEM work for several Japanese brands and gained a lot of experience with series production. With my positive feelings towards LM, we decided to order a few for trial. They have exceeded our expectations in every way. Fit and finish, build quality and of course really excellent sonics. The Silver and now Gold Series, take some cues from the Western Electric knowledge and know how and combine it in a easy to use, well made package."
I had seen Line Magnetic Audio equipment locally but I hadn't actually heard the product - Neil Young and Paul Turner of Turned On Audio (in Auckland, New Zealand) stock the full range and while the other amplifiers in the line-up looked great, it was the hulking form of the LM210IA in the store that caught my attention the first time I clapped eyes on it. From an aesthetic point of view it hit the mark, its solid aluminum front plate and chunky control buttons/switches and a high quality ALPS volume pot contrasted nicely with the hammertone paint finish chassis. Sitting atop the chassis were a compliment of vacuum tubes including 300B output and 310B driver tubes along with a pair of 12AX7 input tubes, while 4 sets of RCA inputs, a set of pre-in/main out RCA's and a set of WBT-style speaker terminals (4, 8 and 16ohm taps) made up the rear panel. Biasing is a manual affair using a supplied screwdriver (biasing is performed via grub screws on the top panel), but the boffins at the shop had set this up for me perfectly so it wasn't required.
The guys had other LM gear on display, but this beast caught my attention and I really, really had to audition it – in the familiar surroundings of my listening room (aka my lounge). An 8 Wpc SET amplifier couldn't hope to compete with my 250 Wpc solid state mono's in terms of dynamics I thought to myself, but would almost certainly be sweeter in terms of tone and a much better match for my compliment of high-efficiency single driver loudspeakers – was I in for a surprise?
The essence here was of listenability: I listened to the entire album only pausing to turn the 180 gram vinyl pressing over between sides, quite a rarity as the restless side of my psyche usually has me flitting from one album to another without hearing any of them in their entirety. I really enjoyed the reproduction of the percussion (among many other highlights) while listening to "Save The Children"; the hand-struck bongos had real timbre and body, while the massed backup choir provided the canvas for Marvin's voice to soar. "Who really cares, who's willing to try" - indeed! Beck's new album Morning Phase is pretty much a follow up to 2002's Seachange with its collection of acoustic inspired ballads and introspective pop tunes and while ultimately more uplifting, it shares the same time signatures and stripped down recording techniques. The Byrd's-inspired "Blackbird Chain" was a captivating listen, starting with his simple strummed guitar and downbeat vocal. The most impressive aspect of this album while listening to it via the 210IA was the preservation of space around the recording - especially during the chorus where the soundstage just opened up, creating an atmospheric hall of music in my listening room.
Digital sources were equally well rendered by the big Line Magnetic, listening to The Golden Age by the French artist Woodkid was excellent when partnered with my Antipodes Audio DS1/Audiolab 8200CDQ combo, his Phillip Glass inspired modern folk has quite epic scale and the big 210IA was well up to the challenge of reproducing his unique sound. "Conquest Of Spaces" begins with a baroque-styled synthesizer intro, and then follows up with an assault of percussion accompanied by an orchestral brass arrangement – the horn section was full bodied and realistic, while there was a genuine feeling of 'stick on skin' from the percussionists. Once again the soundstage opened up creating a palpable effect of sitting in a rather large hall. Impressed? You betcha.
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