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Positive Feedback ISSUE 57
september/october 2011

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sophia electric

Royal 300B Vacuum Tube

as reviewed by Jeff Day

 

300B

 

 

 

JEFF DAY'S

LOUDSPEAKERS
Tannoy Westminster Royal Special Editions.

ELECTRONICS
Leben CS660P KT66 power amplifier, Leben RS100U preamplifier, Leben RS-30EQ phono equalizer.

SOURCE
Vinyl: VPI Classic turntable, Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood moving-magnet phono cartridge, Denon 103 moving-coil (MC) phono cartridge, EMT TSD-15 MC phono cartridge, Auditorium 23 step-up transformer for Denon 103 and EMT TSD-15.

Digital: Apple iMac, Mhdt Labs Havana USB DAC.

CABLES
Speakers: Acoustic Revive Single Core (all interconnects and speaker cables), Locus Design Group Polestar USB cable (iMac to DAC), Acoustic Revive Power Reference power cords on pre-amplification, Sablon Audio 'The Robusto' power cord on amplifier.

ACCESSORIES
Acoustic Revive RST-38 Quartz Under-Board (under USB DAC), Acoustic Revive RAF-48 Air Floating Board (under amplifier), Acoustic Revive TB-38 Quartz Under-Boards (under line preamplifier and phono stage), Acoustic Revive RCI-3 Cable Insulators (under speaker cables), Acoustic Revive RGC-24 Ground Conditioner (preamp), Acoustic Revive Shorting Plugs SIP-8F (preamp), Acoustic Revive Pure Smokey Quartz Insulator RIQ-5010 (under equipment footers), Acoustic Revive Pure Quartz Insulator RIQ-5010W (under equipment footers), Acoustic Revive REM-8 EMF Canceller (on DAC), Acoustic Revive RPT-2 Ultimate Power Supply Box (digital components), Acoustic Revive RPT-4 Ultimate Power Supply Box (analog components), Acoustic Revive Power Reference power cables (all electronics), Acoustic Revive CS-2F Outlet Stabilizer (wall outlet), Acoustic Revive CB-1DB Receptacle Base Plate (wall outlet), Acoustic Revive CFRP-1F Carbon Fiber Receptacle Plate (wall outlet), Acoustic Revive Ultra Low-Frequency Pulse Generator R-77 (room), Acoustic Revive Acoustic Conditioner RWL-3 (3 used in room), McKinnon Furniture Bellevue Symphony media cabinet (walnut); Shine Ola Optical Disc Cleaner, the Acoustic Revive RIO-5II Negative Ion Generator, and the Acoustic Revive RD-3 Disc Demagnetizer (for cleaning and conditioning digital media); VPI HW 16.5 record cleaning machine.

 

1938 was a remarkable year in quite a lot of ways. In 1938 Americans were still enamored with those rash young men & women and their flying machines, and every time a new record was set, cheers from the public went up from sea to shining sea, and people were positively giddy when Howard Hughes set a new record with a 91 hour airplane flight around the world. They even cheered like crazy for 'Wrong Way Corrigan' when he took off from Brooklyn, New York, on his way to California, and ended up landing in Ireland by mistake! It wasn't a mistake; it was a reason to celebrate!

300B

Music lovers had reason to celebrate in 1938 too, for it was the first time a live recording was made of Mahler's Ninth, and by the Vienna Philharmonic with Bruno Walter at the helm no less! Jazz lovers also had reason to celebrate in 1938, for it was also the first time that jazz headlined at Carnegie Hall in New York City, courtesy of Benny Goodman and his orchestra, and that important performance was also recorded live for posterity.

300B

1938 is a year to celebrate in audio too, because it was the year when the iconic Western Electric 300B vacuum tube was introduced to the commercial market for use in the then new Western Electric 86A and 91A amplifiers designed for movie theater sound.

300B

The Western Electric 300B resulted from a slight modification to the Western Electric 300A vacuum tube that was introduced in 1935, which was used in the previous models of Western Electric audio amplifiers like the 92A. The photo below shows a typical commercial installation of audio amplifiers for the time period. Note the pullout turntable in the rack above the 92A amplifiers.

300B

Single-ended-triode vacuum tubes & amplifiers like the Western Electric 300B & 91A started fading from the scene when the higher power Williamson push-pull circuit utilizing negative feedback, and more powerful vacuum tubes like KT66, appeared in 1947. By the middle of the 1970s the world had almost completely forgotten about the Western Electric 300B & 91A. The single-ended-triode fires had burned down to a faint glow and were ready to pass into a state of extinction, but then something wonderful happened: Japanese audiophiles rediscovered 300B directly-heated single-ended-triode vacuum tubes in the late 1970s and resurrected the 300B SET amplifier.

Japanese audiophiles noticed how good the 300B SET amplifiers were both musically and sonically, and they started quietly buying up vintage American vacuum tubes like the Western Electric 300B, vintage American tube amps like the Western Electric 91A, and vintage speakers that were designed to be used with low powered vacuum tube amplifiers (like the Tannoy series of Dual Concentric™ speakers and enclosures, and the Altec Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers (Altec was a spin off company of Western Electric incidentally)).

300B

Once a fire is lit, you really can't keep it hidden for long, and word about the amazing musical realism attained by combining direct-heated single-ended-triode (DH-SET) amplifiers with highly sensitive loudspeakers soon got out. The French enthusiast audio magazine L'Audiophile had discerned the aroma of music wafting in on the breeze from Japan and responded by opening a shop in Paris to do demonstrations of this new-old style of music listening.

In 1986 L'Audiophile demonstrated a 300B amplifier using a Cetron 300B at their store in France that signaled the rebirth of the 300B on French soil. The musical realism and dynamic truths that L'Audiophile achieved so easily in their demonstrations using 300B amplifiers, Altec Onken & Voice of the Theatre systems, and playing records on a Platine Verdier turntable, impressed a lot of people, and the SET, horns, and vinyl approach to musical nirvana started to go viral, working it's way into Germany.

300B

The founder of Auditorium 23 in Germany, Keith Aschenbrenner, told me that after hearing the L'Audiophile system during this period, he thought that what Philippe, Jean, and Gerard were doing was remarkable, and their demonstrations marked a major milestone in musical realism in audio. Keith told me, "It was quite an education to hear that new 300B SET approach to amplification. When we got that first 300B SET amplifier in our shop, connected it to the Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers, it was just like a musical Christmas present. In the beginning, we handled it like Sunday shoes. The harmonic integrity and musical realism were astonishing. We went from using it for special demonstrations only to using it every day. Going back to our other equipment became so hard that we just gave up on it and stayed with the 300B."

A little while later the single-ended-triode virus made it to the North American audio scene when Noriyasu Komuru started building SET amps, as did Gordon Rankin, and Don Garber. The SET fires had begun burning in the consciousness of audio enthusiasts across North America, where whispers from the audio underground were heard to say "SETs live again, and they can bring your music back to life." The SET resurrection fires raged on through time and place to a point where most enthusiasts now consider the SET amplifier to be a normal part of the Hi-Fi scene.

300B

You have to have 300B vacuum tubes to use in your resurrected 300B vacuum tube amplifiers, and there were only so many of those legendary Western Electric 300B vacuum tubes made, and supplies were dwindling.

By 1999 there were a number of manufacturers offering new production 300B vacuum tubes again: the American-made Western Electric 300B had been reissued, the Russian-made Sovtek and Svetlana 300B tubes were available, there was the Electro-Harmonix 300B, there was the KR 300B from the Czech Republic, and there were the Chinese-made Shu-Guang & Gui-Guang 300B tubes distributed under the Valve Art label, for example.

The vacuum tube manufacturing business is not for the faint hearted. There are a lot of considerations one has to make when manufacturing a 300B vacuum tube. Some of those decisions, for example, are to choose a glass bulb manufacturer to procure the glass bulbs from, and to decide on what the glass composition, thickness, and the shape should be; to decide on a design for the stem-arbor assembly and to find somebody to manufacture it for you; to decide on a filament design, the wire to use for it, and the composition of the oxide coating to use on it; to decide on a design for the grid structure, the wire to use in it, and its composition; to decide on the design & composition of the side rods, and how best to attach the grid to it; to decide on the design of the plate and its composition; to decide on the design, composition, and position of the getters; to decide on the design & composition of the internal spacers that position the tube internals in the bulb; to decide on the base design & composition; decide on the pins and their composition; and to decide on the level of vacuum evacuation for your vacuum tube design. Each decision affects the sound quality, and the final assembly of each tube has to be done by hand.

Not only that, but as A. R. Balaton points out in his A.E.S. publication Tube Manufacturing at Western Electric: The WE 300B (J. Audio Eng. Soc., Vol. 37, No. 11, 1989), "Ultimately the quality of the tube rests on the manual skills and experience of the assembly workers." So not only do you have to have the all of the design elements of your 300B vacuum tube dialed in correctly, have sources for the different components that are used in the tube, but you have to have highly experienced workers assembling all the pieces together to make your 300B, and a good quality control program to make it all work.

The view of the cognoscenti in Japan was that none of the neo 300B tubes circa 1999 approached what that original—and the now unobtainable—Western Electric 300B was capable of musically & sonically—so nobody had yet got all the design and manufacturing choices quite as right as Western Electric did back in 1938.

The original Western Electric 300B (manufactured from 1938 to 1988) now enjoys legend status for its sonic and musical prowess, but it is essentially extinct and unavailable, so now there needs to be a new heir to the legend's throne.

The Birth of the Sophia Electric 300B Vacuum Tube

You might remember Richard Wugang of Sophia Electric from my review of the Sophia Electric Model 91-01 300B SET mono amplifiers in Issue 53, whose Model 91-01 300B mono amplifiers caused me to fall in love with SET amplifiers all over again.

300B

Richard's company, Sophia Electric, is a US-based company located in Vienna, Virginia, which designs, builds, and sells a full line of handcrafted high-performance vacuum tube Hi-Fi electronics, as well as several loudspeaker designs that are designed to work synergistically with them.

As I mentioned in that review, Richard is one of us. That is to say, Richard has a consuming passion for great music and Hi-Fi, but unlike most of us, Richard has pursued a special shared dream with his father, Dr. DWU, to design, manufacture, and offer exotic high-end vacuum tubes and Hi-Fi gear to music lovers and Hi-Fi aficionados around the world.

300B

Like the Japanese 300B cognoscenti mentioned earlier, Richard wasn't entirely happy with the new-production 300B vacuum tubes that have been available either, and he decided it was time to do something about it.

Surely it should be possible to resurrect that old black & gold magic of the original Western Electric 300B vacuum tube and maybe even better it? After all, for all its mid-range glory and natural musicality, that original Western Electric 300B was designed for amplifiers with transformers possessing much less bandwidth than is possible today, with even the best of those lovely old vintage transformers being only capable of around 40 Hz to 12 kHz or so.

As those of you who read my review of the Sophia Electric Model 91-01 300B mono amplifiers know, Richard went to great lengths to develop state-of-art transformers for his amplifiers that would easily do 20Hz to 20kHz, with a goal of matching or exceeding the legendary mid-range performance of the transformers used in the Western Electric 91-A, and bettering them in the extension & quality of the bass and high frequencies.

In order to realize the kind of performance that a new state-of-art transformer design like Richard's is capable of providing, the tubes also have to be capable of delivering their performance across the frequency spectrum the transformers are capable of, and not just in the mid-range. Even though the Western Electric 300B is a benchmark of performance in the mid-range, they aren't a benchmark at the frequency extremes due to the inherent design limitations of their times, and they can't demonstrate what Richard's transformers are capable of doing at the extremes in the here and now.

Since Richard could not find a production 300B tube that could match the performance of the WE 300B in the mid-range while providing the kind of performance at the frequency extremes that could demonstrate what his amplifiers are capable of, his goal became one of developing and manufacturing a 300B vacuum tube that could.

300B

In 2001 Richard talked to Mr. Zhe Sheng Liu, a retired Chinese engineer, who had designed a 300B tube that had been manufactured in a factory located in Tian Jin, China, under the All Music label. Production of the tube proved problematic though, with the tubes having a high failure rate, and the production line eventually had to be shut down.

300B

was impressed with the basic design of Mr. Liu's 300B vacuum tube, and thought that it had the potential he was looking for: competitive with the WE 300B in the mid-range, while besting it in the frequency extremes. In 2001 the two of them established a relationship intent on solving the design's reliability problems. Working together, with Mr. Liu providing the engineering expertise, and Richard providing guidance on the voicing of the tube, he thought they could make Mr. Liu's unique 300B vacuum tube a success.

Richard told me "When I visited Mr. Liu's private workshop in Tian Jin, I was impressed with his determination to make 300B tubes." Richard discussed with Mr. Liu the list of issues and solutions he thought would make Mr. Liu's design the success he thought it could be.

Richard told me that "Mr. Liu is a very wise, intelligent, and experienced technician that had graduated from a top Chinese university, Qi-Hua University. Mr. Liu has studied the design of Western Electric vacuum tubes very closely and was determined to make the very best 300B vacuum tube ever designed, and even at the age of 66 he had a desire and determination that is not commonly seen in the Western world anymore."

As A. R. Balaton said in his article on the Western Electric method of manufacturing 300B vacuum tubes, "The proper choice of materials for all components of a vacuum tube is not a sufficient condition for optimal performance. The careful processing of these materials before assembly and the precautions taken during assembly are important considerations in order to obtain the desired performance and long life … Ultimately the quality of the tube rests on the manual skills and experience of the assembly workers. The construction of a large triode tube like the 300B largely consists of a succession of the manual operations described. The enormous amount of labor in the fabrication of a 300B helps explain the high cost of such a tube."

Richard came to the same conclusion as Mr. Balaton and Western Electric: he told me that in order to meet the quality standard he required for Sophia Electric—one comparable to or bettering the fabled Western Electric—the wholesale price of the 300B tubes would come in at over three times the retail price of other typical 300B tubes sold on the market, and that was before the extensive burn-in, testing, and grading process that he would do at Sophia Electric.

Richard told me "In order to help Mr. Liu meet the high quality standard required by Sophia Electric, we invested in the very best equipment for him, and the very best technical experts available to run our Quality Control department for the new 300B tube production. We provided constant feedback to Mr. Liu on tube demand, tube quality, and new product development. Mr. Liu is not an audiophile, he's an engineer, so I worked closely with him to improve the tubes' audio performance."

300B

Richard told me "As we all know, not all tubes are created equal. Just like any complex hand-made product, tube-to-tube performance will vary, so I have established a set of procedures that gives our customers the best-of-the-best in quality and performance: First we obtain the very best tubes they produce at the factory, then we run the tubes in for another 20 hours at our Sophia Electric facility to stabilize the tube plate structure before re-testing & grading, which is based on dynamic GM testing, a static emission test, and a distortion test. Finally we plug the tubes into a Sophia Electric amplifier for another 10 or more hours of run-in, and then re-test them with a scope for output and noise level before the tubes are ready to ship out to our clients. This gives me the confidence to say that we at Sophia Electric offer to audio enthusiasts the very best sounding and the most reliable 300B vacuum tubes available in the world today."

300B

300B

I am impressed with Richard's attention to detail and the level of quality he is striving for in his Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tubes. Starting with the first Sophia Electric 300B that resulted from his relationship with Mr. Liu, I asked Richard if he could tell me a little bit about how the Sophia Electric 300B tubes have evolved over time:

Sophia Electric Globe Mesh-Plate 300B

Richard told me "In the beginning was our globe mesh-plate 300B. I had considered both the ST-shaped glass envelope and the globe-style envelope, but I decided on a unique globe-style envelope for the 300B mesh-plate design because it was so distinctive and beautiful. Word of our new globe-style mesh-plate 300B vacuum tube spread like wildfire, and by June of 2001 the globe mesh-plate 300B was recognized by nearly everyone as something special, with one reviewer even saying it was not only better sounding than other 300B tubes being offered at the time, but even better sounding than the original Western Electric 300B vacuum tube—you can imagine how excited we were!'"

300B

300B

Richard characterizes the sound of the Globe Mesh-Plate 300B as "liquid, seductive mid-range, creamy highs, solid bass, and fast transition." For those who would like to sample the charms of that original globe mesh-plate design, it is still in production and available from Sophia Electric for $350 per premium matched-pair, with a ceramic base and gold pins, and a one-year warranty.

Sophia Electric Princess Mesh-Plate 300B

"Even though we were getting great results from the new globe mesh-plate 300B, I felt that there was still room for improvement. We spent another two years doing research and development to see if we could improve the design, and the result was the Princess Mesh-Plate 300B. With the Princess Mesh-Plate 300B we switched to a new big ST-shaped glass envelope and a new mesh-plate design that offered superior resolution, lower distortion, and a more liquid presentation than that of our earlier globe-shape mesh-plate tubes. The new Princess Mesh-Plate 300B tubes were also an instant hit, and the feedback we got was that their sound was easily better than the vintage Western Electric 300B, the benchmark for all 300B designs. Many of the Western Electric 300B users in North America switched over to the Princess 300B mesh-plate tubes, but there were still a few that claimed the Western Electric had more midrange magic." The Sophia Electric Princess Mesh-Plate 300B tubes are $450 per matched pair with a one-year warranty.

300B

"In response to their feedback we continued doing R&D on the design to see if we could get more of that mid-range magic that the Western Electric 300B was famous for, while maintaining or improving the performance in those areas where we had already exceeded the Western Electric's performance. In 2005, we introduced the Princess Carbon-Plate 300B, a tube that has more mid range magic, and sounded more like the vintage mid-range of the Western Electric than the reissue Western Electric 300B did. The new carbon-plate design also had the benefit of more power dissipation, which means it would have an even longer operational life. This is significant because the new SE Carbon-Plate is still a 300B in the tradition of the Western Electric 300B format, making it fully interchangeable in circuits designed around the 1950's vintage Western Electric 300B, but with the added benefit of an extra 10% in higher current handling and plate voltage through improvements in the materials that are available today. Both the Mesh- & Carbon-Plate 300B tubes have proved to be extremely popular with enthusiasts, and many of Sophia Electric's clients have bought one pair of each so they can enjoy their different sonic characters." The Princess Carbon Plate 300B is $600 USD with a one-year warranty.

300B

The Sophia Electric Royal Princess 300B

"We have been working on refining the design since 2005, and in January 2011 we introduced the Royal Princess 300B which is our finest design to date. From the outside the Royal Princess 300B looks much like the Carbon-Plate 300B, however, the sound is dramatically different. We have combined the best characteristics of the mesh-plate and the carbon-plate designs. The Royal Princess 300B has even more mid-range magic than the Carbon-Plate Princess 300B, combined with the airy top and fine detail resolution of the Mesh-Plate Princess 300B, along with a strong vintage Western Electric-like mid-range sonic flavor. I think the Royal Princess as a new production vacuum tube not only has the vintage mid-range magic of the original Western Electric, but also betters it in the highs and lows. I think with the Royal Princess 300B tubes we have produced are the finest 300B vacuum tubes that have ever been made." The Royal Princess 300B is $1200 USD per matched pair with a one-year warranty.

300B

Those of you who read my review of the Sophia Electric 91-01 300B mono amplifiers got to hear about my first-hand impressions of those amplifiers with the Princess Mesh-Plate 300B vacuum tubes playing the music, and in a moment I'll share my impressions with you about them with the Royal Princess 300B vacuum tubes providing the tunes.

The Royal Princess 300B vacuum tubes, like the Princess Mesh-Plate 300B vacuum tubes, have a very solid and well-made feel to them. The ST-style glass envelope of the Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tubes seems both bigger and thicker than I recall the Western Electric being, with its soda-lime glass ST-19 shaped bulb with its 1/16th-inch thickness, giving the Sophias a decidedly more robust feel. 300B tubes do not have a 'safety key' center pin on the tube to prevent incorrect installation; instead they use two larger pins and two slightly smaller pins for proper orientation. Sophia customers will be pleased to note that the pins on the 'large' side of the Sophia 300B tubes are a bit oversized, making them too large to insert incorrectly into the tube socket holes. This is a nice touch, and it prevents possible damage to the amplifier and tubes that could result from incorrectly plugging in the tubes. Looking at the heavy-duty glass envelope, the nicely made ceramic tube sockets, the design of the oversized large pins, the build of the internal structure of the tube, all suggests a lot of good design choices and a very high level of build quality.

Richard pointed out to me not to confuse the Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tubes with tubes from manufacturers that have tubes with a very similar appearance, as the different tube manufacturers in China spec-source their glass envelopes and ceramic bases from the same sub-contracted suppliers. According to Richard, the higher performance of the Sophia Electric tubes compared to their look-a-likes from other manufacturers is due to Mr. Liu's superior design of the internal structure of grid, plate, etc., and the materials composition choices they've made during the voicing process to optimize the performance of the tubes.

I asked Richard to tell me more about the details of the Sophia Electric filament design, the wire used, the composition of the oxide coating used on it, the design for the grid structure, the plate, etc., and why those aspects of the design have improved the sound of the tube, but Richard was not willing to divulge any details, saying that he was concerned about Sophia Electric's hard-won intellectual property being stolen. Fair enough.

Listening Impressions

alt="300B"

The most obvious visual change when substituting the Royal Princess Carbon Plate tubes for the Princess Mesh-Plate tubes is that with the Royal Princess Carbon Plate (above) you don't get that lovely glow like you do with the Princess Mesh Plates.

What you do get from the Royal Princess is a musical and sonic presentation that is even better than that of the Princess Mesh-Plate 300B. For example, listening to the Analogue Productions 45 RPM version of the Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas with the Royal Princess 300B vacuum tubes in my Sophia Electric Model 91-01 mono amplifiers was a revelation. First off, I noticed a darker overall presentation with the Royal Princess 300B compared to the Princess Mesh-Plate, it seemed louder for the same volume setting, and it was a more dynamic presentation overall. The musical realism of the Royal Princess was breathtaking, with rich and detailed timbral textures, deeply infused tonal colors, and an overall sense of drama with the music playing that just left me on the edge of my seat, listening into the music with anticipation for what was to come next. Sonically, the Royal Princess had more detail recovery, more space around the instruments, more solidly defined images, and the soundstage opened up in depth and height, with width being about the same.

300B

In particular, I was struck with the quality of the bass notes with the Royal Princess, which had a depth, resolution, and a full display of timbral textures through my Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers that easily surpassed the Princess Mesh-Plate on the same music.

300B

With the Royal Princess 300B vacuum tube in my amplifiers I could hear every nuance, every overtone, with such deeply infused tonal color and dynamic contrast, that I was really quite astonished, and it didn't come at a cost of sounding etched like you would expect with a vacuum tube that provides greater detail recovery. In fact, it was quite the opposite, with the presentation of the Royal Princess 300B being warmer, darker, smoother, and altogether more organic sounding, than its sibling Princess Mesh-Plate 300b.

Another example: The touch of brushes on drumheads, or the strike of drumsticks on cymbals, was so present, so natural sounding, so transparent, that I don't think I've heard something so convincing short of a drum kit in a live performance a couple of meters away from where I was sitting. Piano chords were so tonally colorful, notes so dynamic, with a melody line so breathtaking, that the performance sprang to musical life before my ears in a fashion so real, so present, that I must confess that I've never heard anything quite like it before.

The SE RP 300B tube has a transparency, warmth, a resolution in the mid-range—and at the frequency extremes—that once heard, will be impossible to dismiss. As long as your amplifiers and the rest of the system are up to the level of performance that the Royal Princess 300B makes possible, I dare say you will be speechless at the music that emerges from your loudspeakers—I certainly was.

300B

It's been a while since I've listened to Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman. Tillerman is a great record, and to nobody's surprise, it sold more than 500,000 copies within 6 months of its release. When I saw that Chad Kassem was releasing Tillerman pressed at his new Quality Record Pressings operation, mastered by George Marino, I couldn't resist, and ordered a copy for my LP library. QRP is the real deal, and within just a few seconds of listening to Tillerman with the Royal Princess 300B tubes providing the amplification, it was easy to tell that the QRP vinyl is quieter than is typical for LPs. The sound is incredible on Tillerman, although it is also readily apparent that George Marino's mastering leans towards the sonic spectacular for this release (i.e. audiophile-style, rather than the musically mesmerizing music lover's style, which I like better). You know how photos look when you crank up the sharpening on them a little too much? Well, that's kind of how the combination of mastering and super-quality QRP pressings came across to my ears—razor sharp sonics. I'm guessing it got the fully sharpened sonic treatment as a purposeful demonstration of how good the QRP vinyl pressings really are.

But I'm getting off topic—the Royal Princess 300B: The Royal Princess 300B allows you to peer deep into the fabric of a recording and hear what's going on with the mastering and pressing, and more importantly the music. On Tillerman the extra resolution of the Royal Princess compared to the Princess Mesh-Plate was a bit of a mixed blessing, but most of the time that's not the case, and even on Tillerman, I reveled in the Royal Princess' superior presentation of the flow and drama of the music.

300B

The new 45-RPM LP release of Muddy Waters' Folksinger from Analog Productions is also pressed at Quality Records Pressings. The album was cut from the original 1964 Chess analog masters and was mastered by none other than Bernie Grundman, and boy, did Grundman ever nail it! Grundman's 45-RPM version of Folksinger has sound that will not only please audiophiles, with stunning dynamics and an expansive sense of space, but it also has a music lover's balance with non-etched, natural sounding tonality, rich but not etched timbral textures, a natural beat that draws you in, the overall effect is enough to make you drool.

With the Princess Mesh-Plate (PMP) 300B playing the music, Folksinger was really superb, with Buddy Guy's archtop acoustic guitar sounding spectacular, crisp, and with perfect tone. Muddy's voice was incredibly dynamic, with peaks that really test the dynamic prowess of gear: not to worry, the PMP kept up just fine with the startling dynamics, while still capturing Muddy's smoky-rich resonant voice. Willie Dixon's bass playing sounded a little recessed and unresolved through the PMP, although Clifton James drums had a nice crack of stick on drum head with a lot of space lighting up around it. With the Royal Princess Carbon-Plate (RPCP) 300Bs the huge sense of space in the recording becomes more obvious, and there is also a sense of more ease in tracking the dynamic swings of Muddy Water's voice. The tone of Buddy Guy's guitar with the RPCP has more color, and is a little darker, warmer, overall. Dixon's bass sounds deeper, punchier, and more textured with the RPCP.

There are some really interesting presentation effects with the RPCP that once heard become quite addictive: the RPCP is less bright than the PMP, which gives a deeper, more intense, tonal color. At the same time, the RPCP's contrast between the tonal qualities of the instruments & Muddy's voice with the recording's acoustic increases, compared to the PMP, with the instruments becoming darker, more vivid, more convincingly textured timbrally, and more deeply colorful tonally, while the sense of acoustic space around the instruments & voice becomes more transparent, more expansive, with a more ethereal and brighter feel to it.

So compared to the PMP, the RPCP is less bright tonally, has more contrast between the imaging of the instruments and the transparency of the recording acoustic, has more deeply saturated tonal color, and has more structure to the timbral textures. The RPCP also recovers more detail, but not in an analytical sort of way, it doesn't sound etched at all, yet you can hear little instrumental nuances come through in the music that are completely lost with the PMP.

In audiophile terms, this translates into images that are rendered more vividly, and with a lot of body and presence. In musical terms it makes everything feel more like a live performance, more dramatic, more like there's musicians in the room with you. Musically speaking, it also makes the performance more engaging emotionally, pulling you into the performance more easily, and making it more exhilarating to listen to.

So there you have it: the Royal Princess Carbon Plate 300B tube has more for every listener; more sonics for audiophiles, more musical engagement for music lovers, so everyone wins!

Summary and Conclusions

The sort of musical realism and dynamic truths that L'Audiophile impressed everyone with in their Paris demonstrations using 300B amplifiers, Altec Onken & Voice of the Theatre systems, and playing records on a Platine Verdier turntable, I get to hear every day in my 300B SET, Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers, and vinyl system, and I have to say, I am always thrilled and edified by this new-old style of music listening.

My new-old style of Hi-Fi system has never sounded better than it does with the Sophia Electric Royal Princess 300B vacuum tubes supplying the tunes, and in fact, I like the Royal Princess 300B vacuum tubes better than any other 300B I've encountered. The Royal Princess' particular combination of spectacular sonic performance and intense musicality makes it totally unique in my experience. Usually you just get one or the other: the musicality of the ye olde Western Electric benchmark, or the linear 'clean' sonics of the various neo-300B tubes on the market, but with the Royal Princess you get both superior sonics and superior musicality in one package. That's really cool.

The Royal Princess has an overall presentation that leans to the dark, warm, and musical side of life. Interestingly, the Royal Princess is also sonically very spectacular, being detailed, extremely dynamic, providing a huge sense of space, solid & vivid imaging, and a wide and deep soundstage. Usually you don't find dark, warm, and musical combined with spectacular sonics, but in the Royal Princess you do in spades.

As I mentioned earlier, Richard said, "I think the Royal Princess as a new production vacuum tube not only has the vintage mid-range magic of the original Western Electric, but also betters it in the highs and lows. I think with the Royal Princess 300B tubes we have produced are the finest 300B vacuum tubes that have ever been made."

When a manufacturer says something like that, it's easy to dismiss it as hype, but in the case of the Royal Princess 300B I think Richard is exactly right. If anything, I think Richard is actually understating how good the Royal Princess 300B is. For example, I really liked the Western Electric 300B vacuum tubes I listened to in the Fi 300B mono amplifiers back when I wrote about them for 6Moons, but if memory serves me correct (and I think it does), the Royal Princess is much better through the mid-range than the Western Electric was. It's also no contest in the bass, as the Royal Princess has better bass depth, definition, impact, and articulation than any vacuum tube—not just 300B tubes—I have ever encountered when driving my Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers—it is simply incredible! The highs too, are extended, refined, and have a naturalness to them that is breathtaking to hear.

These sonic and musical traits combine in the Royal Princess to deliver a breathtaking musical realism to recorded performances, with instruments displaying rich and detailed timbral textures, deeply infused tonal colors, and an overall sense of drama that kept me on the edge of my seat, listening into the music with anticipation for what was to come next.

The build quality of the Sophia Electric Royal Princess 300B vacuum tubes is impressive, and to see & touch them is to want them. Richard's and Mr. Liu's collaboration on the Royal Princess 300B has yielded a vacuum tube with stunning sonic and musical performance, and I tip my hat in respect to them for a job well done.

The only downside of the Royal Princess 300B is it is shockingly expensive at $1200 per matched pair (one-year warranty), but if you want what I think is the best 300B vacuum tube on Planet Earth for getting the most out of your music, I believe the Royal Princess is calling your name. Very highly recommended to new-old style music listeners everywhere.

Sophia Electric
web address: www.sophiaelectric.com

 

 

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