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The Good Doctor Takes the Road Less Traveled… Again… The Tektron TK 211S Single-Ended Tube Integrated Amplifier, and the Robyatt Audio "Ridge" loudspeaker
Preface: Remember, all my pieces are in the "Audio Discourse" section for some very good reasons… so, if you want to skip down to "Ok, I am done now," where the review actually starts …please, be my guest.
Some types of audio equipment are sui generis, a thing unto itself. I count single-ended tube amplifiers and single-driver speakers in this category.
Over the years, we have all read and heard about what SE tube amplifiers are …and what they aren't. What they aren't, is they are not very linear, and they are mostly not very powerful… but what they actually are is a much more hotly debated topic; a debate often more informed by obdurately held positions and rancorous, irresolvable arguments, than rationale discourse. Such is the nature of departing the beaten path.
Perhaps the most useful thing to say is that, apparently, either you get them, or you don't. But the truth is that some are easier to "get" than others.
I guess I have become an unwitting apostate within the general category of "tube" audio, because I (apparently) never really was officially allowed to join to begin with. Because of this obvious lapse, and some meetings I guess I must have missed along the way, I have been periodically thwacked with remonstrance from various sources that I "just don't get it."
One well-known manufacturer's retail rep actually brought what was going to be a very glowing review on a pair of tube monoblocks to an inauspicious end by stating that, had he known where the amplifiers I had received were going, he never would have allowed it. I guess even a positive review can only come from the appropriately anointed. But to answer your next, obvious question …no, of course I am not still annoyed by that experience…
Apart from it being just plain obnoxious, this phenomena has always struck me as odd, because I have always used tube pre and phono stages, and I also own a nifty little EL-34 integrated of which I am deeply fond, and I have reviewed as much tube-based gear as I have solid-state.
And while I have apparently not ventured far enough into the deep end of the pond (say, to a 2A3 amp) to be accepted among the self-appointed cognoscenti, I certainly have taken sips from 300-B, EL-34 and a few of the larger, transmitter type tube-based SE amplifiers.
But more to the point …whatever I may be accused of knowing or not knowing about tubes, I bloody well know what actual music sounds like (all kinds, and all perspectives …performer, audience, recorder, etc, etc.) …and, about as well as one could possibly require of an audio reviewer.
I played five instruments (two of them professionally for twenty years); was all-state, all Northwest choir, and performed in just about any configuration of band, orchestra and vocal group (yes, including a cappella) you can name; did musical theater, wrote original music for theater; and I have been on both sides of the recording glass for both analogue and digital productions. And, I spent a significant part of my youth trying to go to every concert in a four-state range of where I was born.
And after all, boys and girls, lest we lose our perspective …this is all supposed to be about what music sounds like, no?
I realize that this probably sounds like one of my rants, doesn't it?
But, let me continue …of late I have grown increasingly weary and progressively intolerant of the religious cult aspect of audio, where you are not-so-politely asked to leave the congregation if you even ask questions or express doubts or concerns about dogma masquerading as fact … and please pass the Kool-Aid. It is simply audio equipment, ladies and gentlemen. It is not a piece of the true cross.
What sort of thinking people can only tolerate those who already absolutely agree with them? And if you only can comfortably experience some variation of what you already know and believe …how can you ever learn anything new?
I remember walking out of what is probably my last "church" experience, because while there was a lotta' preaching goin' on about whom to hate and why …there was nothing said about love and tolerance. I just shook my head and left.
Few things in life have the black and white clarity people seem to need to manufacture.
So, here is the branded apostate writing about a single-ended amplifier I am not supposed to be able to understand. What a predicament!
Ok, I am done now …
Robin Wyatt (an affable fellow and more patient than most) brings these hand-wired Tektron amplifiers in, not from China (which is so common now as to be unremarkable), but from sun-soaked, romantic Italy … and if the Italians are capable of making anything ugly, I have never seen it.
His source, Tektron, apparently began life as a specialty business, restoring and repairing antique radios, but they have been making amplifiers for some time now. Tektron designer, Attillio Caccamo makes some right purty stuff!
I am not sure why you won't see this particular model on Robin's website (see www.robyattaudio.com), but as I started this article, I could find no mention of it. And it is sweeeeeeet! It is, however, featured prominently on the manufacturer's website (www.tektron-italia.com).
The one I got came with a veritable history lesson in NOS vacuum tubes (the stock model comes with Chinese equivalents). Jennifer Crock of JENA Labs, and also PFO Senior Technical Editor, actually coo'ed as she opened the tube boxes. Basically, her read was that the NOS tubes in the Tektron are about as good as you are going to come across. Someone knows their stuff, for sure.
Robin packed the whole thing in a most impressive shipping case, and sent me a photograph-enriched manual for taking the stuff out of the boxes! Whooee. His attention to detail also impressed Jennifer (he shorted the speaker terminals for shipping ...nice touch that).
Be Afraid, be Very Afraid…
I make this point because, lo verily …hearken unto me when I say it is a veritable wasteland out there of unpredictable shoe-string "manufacturers," trans-shippers and "distributors" …and such attention to detail as Robin shows, speaks to an ordered mind and a knowledgeable vendor.
When you are going off the beaten path, trust me …this is a signpost you want to heed.
Just read the blogs about this and that supplier or small manufacturer who self-destructs and beaches their customers high and dry, sans paddle …it should provoke caution. And just like in dating, caution starts with you paying attention to the little things. Whackos abound.
I could tell you stories … but they know where I live..
Now, that being said, this amp is a jewel …and not because it is tarted up, but because the designer has that ineffable Italian flare for color, proportion and line. It is hefty, but not unmanageable; pretty, but not gaudy, and very intuitively functional (which is good, because as far as I can tell, there is no owner's manual yet).
I found myself thinking …if it sounds as good as it looks…
But Doc, How Does it Sound?
Well, first things first, the 211's produce about fifteen solid, usable watts.
This means you can actually have a range of choices for speakers. I used the 211-S on my VMPS's, the very nice SLS 2-ways I wrote about earlier, and the single-driver Audio Ridge speaker Robin provided for the review, and it did just fine on all of them, within rational expectations.
Of course, the more efficient the speaker is, and the more benign its impedance behavior, the better the amplifier will perform technically. But again, SE's are not about conventional performance; they are about finding a match (however improbable) that fits your tastes. I don't think you would have much fun trying to drive a pair Maggies with fifteen watts, but then, I am sure someone would vehemently disagree.
I suspect most people who spend nine grand for a fifteen-watt amplifier are going to have horns or esoteric single driver speakers-of-choice already in mind, or in hand. This is definitely NOT a starter SE amplifier..
So, let us take this charming amplifier to task.
One often assumes a sense of liquidity and sugared sweetness with SE amplifiers, as well as somewhat unpredictable behavior in interaction with various speakers. In truth while I was never unaware that I was listening to a version of the "classic" tube sound, the amplifier was not overly sugary. Yes, it was a bit soft on the bottom and perhaps a little recessed at the very top …but not distressingly so.
What I found most appealing was the muscular dynamic ability of the amplifier. In comparison with most amplifiers of this type, those extra watts (and probably a good power supply) mean the amp can provide a lot of punch with a reasonable load before it softens out and compresses in clipping.
In my system this "muscularity" was expressed as a presentation that was less constrained and having more snap than with most SE's, which I found quite appealing. In some ways it reminded me of my Ming Da EL-34 integrated, which acts more powerful than it really is.
I am used to my reference system sounding very big and dimensional …and although the Tektron's presentation was a bit downsized from my endless current-producing BAT VK-600-SE, this diminution was less so than I might have reasonably anticipated.
But such considerations aside, the real question probably is, does it deliver in the magic mid-range And the answer here is an unequivocal you betcha! Between the silkiness of the Marantz SA-7 SACD player source and the 211-S amplifier's controlled sweetness …there was very much prettiness to be had.
From string tone to the sound of a woman's voice, even less-than-stellar CD recordings were quite pleasing. Move to vinyl and the result can only be described as lushly verdant. John Klemmer's Touch on MOFI vinyl had me shaking my head and smiling …it was much like the experience of eating a perfect German Chocolate Cake; unctuous (abundant in organic material), buttery smooth, and rich as hell.
Mostly, I ended up playing things like: this old Eugene Fodor LP, John Fahey's s Of Rivers and Religion, Cassandra Wilson, Stacy Kent romantic love songs, Tuck and Patti, and Stan Getz on SACD. Solo cello was particularly delicious.
I guess this is why that, ultimately, I always return to my large, full-range system, because this music is just a little slice out of my eclectic whole. Remember, audio equipment is a tool, and we aren't all the same final product.
But, this sweetie pushes my longing …if I won the lottery, I would have a house that would accommodate a number of systems. In an intimate room, with antique furnishings …some ancient brandy, and perhaps a little fireplace …one would have to play romantic music and the TK 211-S would be just the ticket. Intimate.
To date, having had several SE amplifiers in over the years …along with the scrumptious Wavac integrated (at about $4k when I had it in, some seven years ago …I am sure it is mucho more expensive now, if it is even still in production), the TK 211-S joins the Wavac as my tie for favorite SE amplifier. It really is that toothsome.
From the beautiful construction to the ability to give the prospective buyer more speaker choices, and the amplifier's ability to still provide that ineffable SE E glow …if you have the lira, this fine little amplifier should be on your short list for consideration.
And don't discount the apparent fact that the distributor seems quite sane.
Specifications mostly taken from Manufacturer's Website
MSRP: Base $9550 US, $9995 (as supplied)
The Robyatt Audio "Ridge" Loudspeaker
Robin sent the Ridge (MSRP of USD $2000) along, just in case I had difficulty with speaker matching for the TK 211-S review.
Bless his heart, he sent the two pieces, each in their own custom made wooden cabinets; as I said, attention to detail.
As you can see from the picture, the Ridge is a smallish floor stander. It uses a single Jordan JX92S driver in a ported enclosure.
The speakers are US made, and feature real wool felt behind the drivers. Cabinets are MDF on the sides, top and back, with 3/4" furniture grade Baltic plywood baffles. The speakers are assembled with no screws or opening joints. Connection is via five-way gold binding posts.
With only the one driver there is a short (5") internal wire from posts to driver (the wire is copper litz). Standard finish is black back and sides and Ash or Walnut front. Other colors are available as $100 upgrade. Custom veneers are also available, and priced accordingly.
The speaker is poised on three points, which I found to be frighteningly unstable on carpeted floors. With the driver in the top part of the speaker, these things are really tipsy. You are warned.
And Along the Path we Go
Over the years I have had experience with various single-driver units …and some very expensive ones at that …mostly Lowther variations. I have been unmoved.
But everything resides within a context, and in my main system I have three powered HSU mid-bass and sub-bass units (soon to be 4) …confidently taking my system down to the stygian depths of 14Hz (if that sort of information is on the recording) and my primaries have true ribbon tweeters extending out to <35kHz.
Why some sniffily dismiss this, eludes me. One might reasonably think that linearity and extension in an audio system are basic conditions of fidelity, but again, I am an apostate.
So …for a longish time, even with Robin's gentle prodding I resisted putting the Ridge speakers in play …I just figured they would sound like radio speakers in a Suzuki Samurai and then I would annoy yet another supplier, who would then question my "aesthetic." Sigh.
I also know from Jennifer Crock that the Jordans in the Ridge have some issues even within their operating range (she worked with another designer to try to incorporate this driver into a loudspeaker project and ultimately abandoned them).
But try them I did, although I insisted on running them with the little Hsu 8" powered sub. I put them in my "torture" location, which gets used daily for both music and video.
I was quite pleasantly surprised. They did not sound like a bad car radio at all. No, there is no real bottom end (but the HSU neatly solved that issue) and no real high end …but the obvious lift in the upper midrange gives the subjective impression there is …some.
Perhaps it is the non-linearities, but this is the best TV combination (the Ridge/Hsu) that I have had in this secondary system …for one very significant reason …dialogue intelligibility.
As with my taste in music, my taste in movies is wide, wide, wide …and often I am trying to discern what some muttering Emo, or heavily accented protagonist is saying, against the hail of automatic weapons fire, rage of wind, braying of camels, Marshalls a'leaping …or the clank of Cylons.
Like the revolutionary Wonder Bra® of the 1960's …the Ridge speaker, "lifts and separates" the spoken voice from its background, and it is way less peaky and sibilant than a similar sized Lowther driver I heard and declined to review recently.
The match with the Tektron amp is actually quite nice, and at $2K they seemed to be priced pretty competitively for this market.
The TK 211-S amp softens some of the upper midrange forwardness of the speaker, and makes it more palatable for music, but I still prefer it for video sound application.
On music, I still like it significantly better than the Lowther versions I have heard.
Should I say I have found the light in limited bandwidth electronics and speakers?
I guess, in the final analysis, they were right. While I could live quite comfortably with the Ridge on movies and television …ultimately, I came to pine for the high-end extension in music that was just never going to appear.
The TK 211-S amplifier is another matter. Again, while I could not live with its limited power and non-linearities in my main system, I could certainly come to love it in a more intimate setting, with romantic music…
Both the TK 211-S and the Ridge appear to be well made, and both functioned without incident in their time here.
And, again …if you are going to go off the beaten path, I think Robin Wyatt would be a good guide and a reliable source.