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Dr. Sardonicus and his Fish Story - The Ming Da MC34AB Integrated Amplifier
You know how they always begin, these fish stories …
"You guys are never going to believe this …BUT …"
…and we steel ourselves for Billy Bob's wild story of the thirty-pound bass that got away, or the hushed account of that early misty morning sighting of the ten-foot dorsal fin in the mountain lake …or the much dreaded, alien "probe" story.
We give the poor miscreant a fixed smile, sigh internally, nod periodically …and just hope that if we don't interrupt with stupid questions ("You say the alien wanted your DNA to repopulate their world? Why? Didn't they have any native species without cerebral cortexes?") he or she will finish quickly and be on to the next hapless victim.
Then it happens. A lonely drive in the mountains …an isolated fishing spot …the unfortunate ingestion of questionable fungi …a bottle of bad mescal …then before you can say, "There's always time for lubrication!", we ourselves are subjected to the tender ministrations of an extraterrestrial, and the dawning of the new day has us telling our fish story to anyone who will listen and recognizing the futility of it, even as we do.
"You guys are never going to believe this, but…"
…there is so much wrong with this next sentence, I don't know where to begin…
I have been having an absolutely terrific time driving a huge pair of $40,000 full-range medium efficiency speakers with a brand new to the market, seventy-five watt (in ultralinear, 40-watts in triode), tubed, integrated amplifier of Chinese manufacture, which will initially sell for between $1000 and $1600.
Now, what is wrong with this sentence? Where, oh where do I begin…?
First, I have not had a double-digit power-output amplifier in my main system since my ill-fated visit to Single-Ended land. My philosophy has long been there is no such thing as too much power. From doubled Ampzillas on my Infinity Quantum Line Sources back in the seventies to my current reference, the BAT VK-600 (300-watts per side into 8 ohms), coupled with my penchant for large full-range speakers, and my unfortunate tendency towards realistic volume levels …well, you do the math. I like big amps that don't turn all wussy when actually asked to perform.
Secondly, the full-range speakers I am currently using (the phenomenal ESP Concert Grands), while not brutal, are certainly a handful to drive. No reasonable person would try to drive them to head banging levels with a double-digit tube amp. But then, of course, no one ever accused me of being reasonable.
And this is pretty typical for me. While the XLH - Reference 1812s convinced me that a properly executed horn can be sublime, at least in some frequency ranges, for the most part I am not enamored of the high efficiency speakers I have heard. I gravitate towards large, full-range, dynamic speakers.
Next, there is the whole issue of tubes. Something I need to address here, apparently I have developed a reputation for being anti-tube, which is ridiculous. I have had tubes in my reference system continuously for over a decade. It is true I have struggled with finding a tubed power amplifier I can live with, but that struggle hardly translates into being "anti-tube," unless you are some sort of gung-ho zealot, who is launched into a mouth-foaming, microcephalic frenzy at the mere mention of transistors (Whoops, did I say that out loud? My bad).
That being said, the chances of me finding a love-match with a small, inexpensive integrated, tube amplifier are about the same as Ashley Simpson finding romantic bliss with an middle aged, overweight Arkansas bus driver.
And while I can appreciate the virtues of affordable integrated amplifiers, I am by nature, a sniffy separates guy. Sue me.
So when you put it all together, well…
Moving Right Along…
So I unpack this thing from a tattered box that looked like it had ridden all the way from China in an unsprung ox cart, and decided that I better find out if it worked before I passed it on to a more appropriate PFO reviewer.
Quite on a lark, I hooked it up with the incredible Lindemann 820 SACD player, the new Jena Labs Jazz™ cables (such a great cable for minor ducats), and by-passed those @#%&&*#! EU speaker terminals with George Cardas banana/spade adaptors.
It actually is sort of interesting. First thing you notice is that the Ming Da is quite nice looking in clothing, very similar to a host of other Chinese sourced tube amps, and it is heavy as hell …lots of iron …AND it has an external power supply with heavy dedicated umbilical cords, marked specifically for each channel …hum, don't see that every day in a sub $2k tube amp.
It is self-biasing. You just flip the side switch and it comes slowly up to power, auto rotating the volume pot to a modest playback level. The remote control is cheesy and rattley, but it works; just volume, no input switching. This is very easy. Tubes are the ubiquitous and classic, EL-34 (8) doing power duties, and 6SN7s (2) and 12AT-AUs (2) as supporting cast.
Inputs and outputs are all single-ended and somewhat limited in number. No pre-out or tape out, for example, although you can use an external pre into the power section. I guess you can't have everything at that price.
The Cruel Doctor
See, I figured the little thing would cough up its guts or go all foofey and distorted on the 300 pound, 20-driver Concert Grand Sis. Should be good for laughs, right? More grist for the mill about what a "tube hater" I am, grrrrrrrr.
I listened for about fifteen minutes and started making phone calls and emails. I needed someone to come out with me to the field and see the crop circles. I needed independent verification that I had, indeed, been probed.
Let me state this succinctly …this amplifier is far from perfect, and it cries out for modification, but just as it is, it is incredibly, wonderfully MUSICAL. From heavy rock to chamber music …it drove the massive Grands so well most people would never guess its output rating.
So, how does it sound?
I am absolutely sure I am routinely driving this little lady into clipping at times, but I am also sure that I even like how it sounds when it is clipping.
It sounds pretty much like everything you are supposed to love about tubes, but with very little downside.
Big, dynamic, wide-bandwidth, quiet (no hums, buzzes or other extraneous noise so common in tube gear), powerful, excellent extension with a lot of air and still with very good bass control (with the Grands six long-excursion, Scanspeak woofers, this is no small feat).
It is thick, meaty and substantial in a way that shames many a "transparent" high-end piece (where you get the outlines, but little substance). Like the food in City Slickers, the sound it produces is "hot, brown, and there is plenty of it." This is reproduction that will stick to your ribs and nourish.
And yet, it is open, relatively well resolved (changing the tubes will make a big difference here), and quite extended on the top end.
Make no mistake, this is a music-making machine at a price that defies explanation. Hell, the transformers should cost more than the entire amp sells for.
An expert opinion
I think that when it comes to tube amplifiers, Jennifer White Wolf-Crock has very few peers and no master. I am not alone in this opinion. What does the Guru of MU think about this diminutive missy? She loves it. She does suggest that if you get one, you send it to her for modification, however….
I used both the Critical Mass and Billy Bags amplifier stands during this review. Alone, the Billy Bags stand produced a bit more lively presentation, with the Critical Mass more suave and focused. My ultimate preference? I like them together.
Distribution and product support are not always clear for Chinese-sourced audio products at this point in time. As most audiophiles are aware, a great many of the Chinese manufacturers have been quietly supplying OEM pieces to, ahem, more domestic sounding Marques for years, but very few have been distributed under their own labels in the US until relatively recently.
Most of the current, clearly identified Chinese brands readily available in the US are bought over the net, so there is no brick and mortar store for returns. However, this business model is increasingly in use throughout the economy, so it is much less noteworthy than it would have been even five years ago.
In terms of practical customer assurance …as you might suspect, a great deal depends upon the Chinese manufacturer's commitment to the US market, stability and financing of US distributorship, etc.
If the line has solid commitment and good distribution, you are in good shape. If not …well. My frank suspicion is that they probably see the audiophile market as a means to an end, getting their equipment in large volume chains.
However, in the case of Ming Da, things are a bit murky.
Nirvana Trading (sourced the review piece) is not an exclusive distributor in the US. They appear to be pursuing a "one piece at a time" import strategy, which is shared by New York Sound, an apparent gray marketer. ORNEC also ships the unit to the United States, as does Caddylink. My emails to New York Sound, and ORNEC went unanswered.
Since it appears that the Ming Da products can be ordered configured properly for US power supply from the factory, the gray market issue here is …grayer.
You can also find various new Ming Da products being resold on Ebay, (although I did not see the review piece, probably too new) often at startlingly low prices.
There are persistent rumors and denials on the net about Ming Da withdrawing from US distribution because of difficulties in filling their domestic orders.
"MeiXing Electronic Factory: Chinese manufacturer of valve amplification, its wares are usually distributed in the west under the Ming-Da brand name although the company is primarily occupied as an OEM producer for a number of western companies and the company has recently withdrawn from selling to a number of markets since it cannot produce enough to supply the Chinese one." http://audiotools.com/m.html
In aggregate I think this forms up into a "pays your money and takes your chances" situation.
But …the piece is shockingly good and priced very keenly. It did not misbehave during my time with it; beyond that …caveat emptor.
One day when I sauntered into my freshman high school biology class, something significant had changed. There was a new girl. Her name was Beverly and she was …enhanced …she was just a bit … too much. Not vulgar, mind you, far from coarse or cheap …just …a bit too much.
Her skin was a bit too white and without discernable blemish, her eyes just a tad too blue, her shirt a half-inch too short, her pants just the slightest bit too snug, her lips just one shade too red and one drop too moist. Her smile …well, if I still remember her smile some forty years later, you have to know what her smile was like.
THAT is the Ming Da MC34AB!
If the Boulder is audio truth incarnate and at a price beyond mortal man (as is most often the case for truth), then the Ming Da is romance you can afford.
It's a lot of fun …a snap to operate, cheap to re-tube, and positively cries out to be modified and customized to your specific fantasies. It is that cheap-date, low maintenance, lewdly grinning teen-age fantasy we all harbored.
If I ever decided to get me one, I would give it to the Guru of Mu (Jennifer Crock, of Jena Labs) to hot-rod (transformer-coupled balanced inputs, capacitor changes, Jena Labs wire in the point-to-point applications, all JJ tubes - KT-77s in place of the EL-34s, socket adaptors to allow use of the EC-99s in place of both the 12 AT and 6SN7s), etc.
Street Price: $1600.00 (Nirvana) …lowest Internet price - $648 (ORNEC) (assume $300 - $350 one-item shipping in Continental US)