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tokyo sound company
Sound SE 300 integrated amplifier
as reviewed by Lester J. Mertz
"Holy Boy" is a phrase from the movie A Map of the Human Heart. The hero couldn't decide between saying "Holy Cow" and "Oh Boy" when he was excited, just like I am now! The Valve 300 is another great retro-looking amplifier from Tokyo Sound Company. This is a push-pull amp, with two Svetlana 6L6 output tubes per channel, as bulletproof an output tube as you can find. The amp is shipped with NOS GE 5751 driver tubes, a total of four (compared to two in the Class-A SE 100). The look of this amp seems to have been morphed from that of the SE 100 into something almost twice the size and weight and more than three times the output power–a whopping 28 watts per side.
Amplifier classification often confuses people, but it is really quite simple. In Class A, the output devices are conducting current all of the time and getting HOT. Class A-B amplifiers use pairs of output devices (or quads, or octets) that hand off the conducting work to each device in turn. This is made possible by using a split signal made up from the positive and negative pulse of the musical waveform. By doing this, the output devices get brief rest periods that allow them to cool down slightly, but the rest periods are long enough to allow the amp to get a lot more power to your speakers. The electronic hurdle in the push-pull amplifier is that the output devices and transformers have to put the musical waveform back together, believably and without error. This has been done convincingly since the mid-1940s (see the Wireless World reprint of "The Williamson Amplifier," available from Old Colony Sound). To confuse things even more, there are a few push-pull Class A amplifiers that use pairs of tubes running all of the time, but they are not connected in parallel. This is done to get more power (two tubes equals twice the plate current), but these amplifiers don't deliver quite as much as output, usually less than half that of similar Class A-B designs.
All of the Sound Company amplifiers share the same chassis color and layout, with the transformers across the back and the tubes up front, visible through a smoked Plexiglas window. That front panel now has six small brass control knobs, similar in size to those on the SE 100, but the Valve 300 offers an additional knob to defeat the "Hojun" feature. One of the knobs selects the input from the nice RCA input jacks on the back of the amp. The next knob turns the tape loop on and off. The center knob is a smooth volume control, and the next is the one marked "Hojun." Then comes the defeat switch, while the last switch on the right turns the unit on and off. A lamp lets you know that the amp is on. Again, no manual or any other instructions came with the Valve 300, but a tube cage was provided. Hooking up the amp was very easy. Speaker binding posts (8 ohm) are large metal five-ways. There is an IEC power connector, so you can play with power cords if you wish.
Turn this baby on and you won't have to wait long for that beautiful tube sound. The warm-up was quick, and the very first disc sounded impressive. I don't know why, but integrated amplifiers always seem to have great speed and energy, a quality that takes a lot more work when using separate components. Maybe it's the fact that one box eliminates things like component synergy, interconnects, and additional power cords from the equation?
The Hojun control and the defeat switch next to it deserve some of your time. Play around with them and you can hear bass presentations that range from tight and tuneful to overbearing and muddy. You can set it where you like, and don't have to live with what the designer thought was best. I'll bet he doesn't have your speakers!
Music is what tube amplifiers are all about, and the Sound Valve 300 surely makes music. Alison Krauss and Union Station's New Favorite (Rounder) is a great collection of instrumentals and lovely vocals. Krauss' incredible voice had lifelike body, while the soft harmonies of her backing vocalists were shown off in "Let Me Touch You for A While." Her voice can become almost unbearably grainy and thin on lesser equipment, but with this amp there was no such thing. The sustain and the wooden quality of the stringed instruments—guitar, dobro, mandolin, and upright bass—were superb.
Tube amplifiers often get a bad rap in the bass department, but as with most modern tube designs, this was simply not the case with the Valve 300. With only 28 watts, it isn't quite as convincing as the big monsters, but neither is it something to be ashamed of, especially with reasonably sensitive speakers. Try Bill Miller's The Red Road, which has some very powerful group drumming. The impact and dynamics were impressive. I think this is a great recording, and it may be one of the best of its genre.
The Valve 300 has a slightly forward character, with an intensity that the SE 100 cannot match. There is also a lot of definition. My wife commented about this, saying, "I think it's too forward. I had to turn Bach down after you left this morning." She might be onto something (as you know, women have much better hearing than men). The smaller SE amp had a finesse and intimacy on small-scale classical music that the more powerful Valve 300 doesn't have. On the other hand, the Valve 300 can do big orchestral works in a way that the SE 100 cannot, at least with standard-efficiency, ported loudspeakers. Low-powered SET amps beg for high-sensitivity speakers, which inevitably leads down the path of big horns and heaven knows what else. With the Valve 300, you can probably drive the speakers you already own to convincing, near-realistic levels.
The Valve 300 provided the monks on The Age of Cathedrals (Harmonia Mundi 907157) with a vibrant, powerful vibrato that filled the room with sound and reverberation that held me captive for the entire disc. Compared to my regular system (the Blue Circle BC21.1 preamp and Sonic Frontiers Power 1 preamp), the Valve 300 had a little less spit in the group vocals. This was a strong point for me, as it made the lyrics more intelligible and easier to follow. Isn't that what this business is all about? I like massed voices in most forms, and love the jazz chanteuses, and this amplifier delivered all of that on a silver platter. The Valve 300 sounded musically satisfying, especially on large-scale orchestral music and heavier material. Compared to the BC/SF combo, the 300 lacked a slight amount of soundstage depth and separation of instruments. The more powerful amplifier setup gave the instruments and performers a more fleshed out perspective, but not by much! If you remember that the BC/SF pair costs twice as much as the Valve 300, that's saying a lot for the Valve 300!
Compared to the NAD 3140, a 25-year-old solid-state integrated, the Sound Valve 300 was much more open through the midrange and highs, and could almost compete in the bass control department, which could be the power differential showing up (100 watts versus 28). With that much extra power, the NAD had a grip on the woofers that the tube amp couldn't match. Few tube amps could. The 3140 amp seems dated, and is mellow and forgiving, while the Valve 300 is more forward and involving.
If you have a modest starter amp, or an older amp like the NAD, and are thinking of stepping up to something more serious, the Sound Valve 300 would be an excellent choice. The major advantages will be more decisive bass control (especially after adjusting the Hojun control), and then there's that beautiful tonal quality that makes you forget you are listening to an audio system. I heartily recommend this amplifier for music lovers. I think the phrase is, "You can live with it forever." Les Mertz
SE 300 integrated
web address: www.katli.com