Publisher’s note: this review of the Audio Space Mini-2SE took place in Hong Kong; the integrated amplifier is not yet available in the North American market.
To Seek Out New Tube Amplifiers
Discovering new audio products is part of the fun of this hobby. Audio Space is one of a very large number of Chinese audio companies that has managed to break through into the U.S. market, offering a line of tube amplifiers as well as their re-imagining of the classic LS-3/5a loudspeakers. Here in Hong Kong, I was able to audition the LS-3/5a speakers with several Audio Space amplifiers. I prefer to audition complete systems that manufacturers put out because they tend to tailor the sound of components to the rest of the chain.
Thus, if a company is selling speakers and they eventually decide to build an amplifier, there is a good chance they voice the amplifier to the speakers that they build. I have always felt that it’s important to listen to what the manufacturer believes is the “right” sound rather than reviewing isolated components in systems that the manufacturer of the speaker would not be caught dead using. Clearly, Audio Space believes that its version of the LS-3/5a needs a good tube amplifier and I had the chance to audition the LS-3/5a with several Audio Space amplifiers in their dedicated dealer showroom. I enjoyed all four amplifiers I auditioned but it was the Mini-2Se EL 34-based amplifier that I preferred.
EL 34-based tube amplifiers have often left me perplexed. They seem to fall into the overly tubey, veiled group, or the lean and somewhat rougher side of the spectrum that I often associate with solid state. Mercifully, the Mini-2 falls into neither of these spectrums. I’ll get into that later.
First, let’s see what you get. Opening the box you get a nicely chrome finished chassis amplifier with point to point internal wiring. Excellent build construction and a nice set of switches and knobs that feel solid. No cheap plastic buttons that adorn almost everything in this price range that make you wonder if you should have just shopped for your hi-fi at Walmart instead. The amplifier offers three switches for maximum and minimum feedback, triode and ultralinear mode, and a direct source switch to allow the integrated to be operated as a power amp. There are three line inputs, no phono stage, and a very good headphone output. There is no remote control. The amplifier certainly provides a high pride of ownership factor in terms of looks and build for this money.
The sound of EL 34 tube amplifiers run the gambit from the rather ruthless to the stereotypical distortion generators. The Mini-2SE is quite a neutral amplifier – solid bass and extended treble. The sound is never thick, or overly veiled or mellifluous. The Mini 2SE reminded me a little of the Antique Sound Labs AQ 1003DT but with deeper bass prowess.
I tried all the various options running the amplifier in ultralinear and triode mode as well as max and minimum feedback. I ultimately found that the amplifier sounded best in triode mode with minimum feedback. For tough-to-drive loudspeakers with rock at higher levels, it is nice to have the ultralinear mode and max feedback mode which effectively doubles the amp’s power. This is a nice option for parties when critical listening isn’t required.
A Serious Headphone Amp
Few amplifiers bother with a headphone amp section and when they do it seems to be a cheap op-amp add on just to advertise that it has one. The Audio Space is a serious tube amp. I own a dedicated Antique Sound Lab MG Head DT as well as a Total Bithead headphone amp and the Audio Space mini-2SE is a significant upgrade to both units. With my HD 600, the Audio Space generated significantly better bass response in terms of depth and drive, and sounded more open and spacious than my other headphone amplifiers. The amplifier was free of noise in either stereo or headphone mode. The amplifier has a hint of softness around the leading edges of notes, which I found preferable to the ultralinear mode where it may perhaps be viewed by some as superior or more accurate but comes across as a little more “glassy.” What is nice about the switches is that they give you the ability to make the subtle adjustments to your preferences and perhaps to tailor the sound to your chosen headphones.
The Audio Space is a clean sounding amplifier in stock form and upgrades to caps and tubes are available. It should be noted that my reference amplifier is the Audio Note OTO Phono SE which is a single-ended design ; the Audio Space integrated doesn’t really capture the gestalt of recordings to that level. Push-pull tube amplifiers seem to pull recordings apart a little bit and there is always some disconnect noticeable on voices. Further, the Mini-2SE has a slightly more washed out presentation and a rougher sound through the treble than the Audio Note. Better single-ended amplifiers simply sound more natural and create a sense of cohesiveness. Now, it should be noted that the OTO is considerably more expensive (more than double the price), so the comparison is somewhat unfair. The Audio Space has considerably more power which means it can be used with a greater number of loudspeakers and is about as good as I have heard under US$2,000.
So good in fact that I purchased the Mini-2SE for my second system.
No, the Audio space Mini-2SE is not a single-ended amplifier – it’s not going to give you that level of articulation or cohesiveness that better single-ended amplifiers possess. Now, Audio Space does make single-ended amplifiers and better push-pull amplifiers but of course they also cost considerably more money.
Keeping apples to apples, I compared the mini-2SE to several other well established tube amp makers around the $2,000 and under price point. The Mini-2SE offers competitive sound but also comes with a very good tube headphone amp section, and the ability to be used as a dedicated power amp, for upgrade purposes, ultimately separating this amp from much of the rest of the pack. I found the Line Magnetic 211ia, another Chinese tube amplifier brand fairly new to the U.S. market, to be the stiffest competition offering excellent sound quality but possessing a different set of features I didn’t require. The Line Magnetic offers remote control but no headphone output and an on-board meter, but no ability to be used as a power amp for future upgrades. Still, they too are worth a serious look.
The Audio Space mini-2SE ranks as one of the best push-pull tube amplifiers you will find under $2,000, offering clean spacious sound with solid bass depth and control as well as exceptional build quality. A great alternative to solid state with well above-average build quality, offering nice looks, and at a reasonable price.
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