I have a soft spot for tube integrated amps. Some of the smoothest, hassle-free setups I’ve had have been around a classic tube integrated. At their best, they can totally beat a system based around separates in terms of transparency and dimensionality. At their worst, they’re overly warm, rolled off at the extremes, lack grunt and have too much cross-talk, which is to say they sound like classic tube integrated amps, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’d rather have “classic tube sound” than unemotional, ugly, uninvolving sound. Some of my favorites are the golden age classics from Eico, Fisher, Scott and Dynaco. After a careful rebuild, they still don’t have the bandwidth or transparency you’d want, but they are pretty sounding. This is all to say that I welcomed the chance to review the Grant Fidelity RITA-340. It’s an integrated built around all octals: two 6SL7, two 6SN7 and four EL34. The tube complement is even more classic-er than the classic pieces I’ve had over the years, most of which used 9-pin miniatures.
Not Your Father’s Integrated Amp
The only similarity between tube integrateds from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the Rita-340, is that it uses tubes. The Grant Fidelity products are thoroughly modern designs; is it an oxymoron to call a tube amp a modern design?
The RITA-340 has a remote control that works inputs (five of them), volume (relay switched) and muting. Operation was easy to figure out and made listening easy. One thing that kind of bugged me was that the volume control steps are very close together, which is not a bad thing in itself, although it takes a tad longer to go up and down than some other products I’ve used. It’s not much of a criticism. (And if you make a volume control with larger steps in between, we’d complain, too. Just so you know. –Ed.)
The power switch in on the front of the unit—the remote does not switch off the power. On the front of the amp, there are buttons for volume, input and mute. One of the five sets of inputs is balanced. All the input and output jacks are of high quality, and are connectors you would see on higher priced separates. There is a back-lit window, which illuminates a pair of VU meters. A switch is provided on the rear of the unit to turn off the lights and meters. An LCD display that shows the selected input and volume level stays on, whether the light show is engaged or not. The power input uses an IEC jack. Fit and finish of the unit are well above average, with high quality CNC work. I couldn’t find any machining or handling marks. All corners and edges that a consumer would regularly encounter were deburred very carefully. I believe the unit’s face plate and top cover are electroplated and the chassis is painted.
The first thing I did when I hooked up the Rita was run for my stash of 6SL7 and 6SN7. It seems that high-end designers are stuck on 6DJ8s these days. The sound of a 6SN7 is about as different from a 6DJ8 as analog is from digital, and it’s nice to see Grant Fidelity use these octal classics. Not only do octals sound good, they also look better than 9-pin miniatures. Looks count for something. I’m not going to say the supplied input tubes were bad, but they didn’t do justice to the circuit.
The sound with the stock input tubes was a little aggressive, slightly veiled and lacking impact. In my experience, any NOS, or good, tested used tube will be an improvement over virtually any current 6SL7 or 6SN7. I tried a variety of RCA, Sylvania and others (others that I won’t mention because they are still affordable). After some experimentation, I found a combination that seemed to ameliorate the problems I first heard. I’ll touch on it again later, but I want to state that there are very good sounding output tubes available. The big difference between a modern output tube and one produced 40 years ago is longevity. Yes, a NOS tube might sound a little better, but the differences are much smaller than when comparing modern and NOS small signal tubes, such as 6SN7, 6SL7, 6DJ8, 12AX7, etc…
The Sound of Two EL34s Clapping in the Woods
(If a Needle Drops and No One is There to Hear, Does it Make a Sound?)
I’ve been on a steady diet of 6550, KT88, 6L6 and 300B the last few years. But at one time, my tube of necessity was the venerable EL34. I say “out of necessity” because I was on a budget (still am really). I used modified Altec Lansing 1569A mono blocks, and the occasional Dynaco ST70, both of which used the EL34. The ST70 had ultralinear output transformers and the 1569A was a true pentode arrangement with a screen grid supply. Though both had a totally different sound, you could still hear the distinct sound of the EL34. The same is true with the RITA. Think of it as a voice that you know. It can be on a telephone, or in person, but you still recognize the voice.
The KT88 and EL34 seem to be polar opposites. Where the KT88 is slightly forgiving and laid back, the EL34 is aggressive and unapologetically revealing. With the RITA-340, the pairing of the 6SL7 and 6SN7 with the EL34 helps to moderate the aggressiveness of the EL34. That kind of makes the RITA-340 like a BMW M5: not as soft as a pure touring car and not as tightly sprung as a pure sports car.
The associated equipment for the RITA-340 review was a BlackNote CDP300 tube CD player (see this month’s reviews), my trusty Denon DP80/SMEV/Lyra front-end driving an Art Audio Vinyl Reference, Jaton Audio REAL A&V-803 speakers (under review), with cables from Clarity Cable, Purist Audio (Proteus Provectus) and XLO (Reference 3—under review). The Jaton speakers proved to be a friendly load for the RITA, with an efficiency of 91dB per watt and a four ohm load. Efficient speakers will be important for maximizing the performance of this amp—it did not like my Maggies all that much.
After breaking in the Russian output tubes (they evened out after two listening sessions or about six hours), and settling on a complementary set of input tubes, it was immediately apparent that the RITA-340 excelled at imaging, detail retrieval and speed. The pairing of the RITA with the Jaton speakers had an uncanny ability to make heretofore muddy recordings sound intelligible. After comparing the RITA to other combinations of separates, it was apparent the RITA had more to do with this than the speakers. Vocals were always well placed and separated from the backing tracks or other musicians (who occupied their own space).
It’s a combination of excellent detail retrieval, very good tonal balance and first-rate imaging. I understood lyrics that had always been lost in the mix. In this regard, it shows just how good an integrated amp can be. It easily beat more complicated and higher powered separates in detail retrieval. Furthermore, the detail was presented with an equal amount of musicality. Like I said though, you will need to find a friendly speaker that gives the amp a chance to do its thing. Driving the Maggie’s unfriendly sensitivity and load, the RITA was pallid and often suffered from compression.
After the fact, after all my listening, I realized that I hadn’t taken any listening notes. The combination of user friendly operationality and good sound made listening to the RITA an exercise in “stream of consciousness”. One musical selection would make me think of another, which led to another, and so on… Listening was never analytical. Perhaps the wealth of detail allowed for suspension of disbelief, and for greater immersion in “the moment”. Regardless of listening notes, or not, the RITA struck me as an extremely musical component that left a number of strong impressions after the fact.
Speed and/or transients was well above average, perhaps due to the absence of overall negative feedback. Drums and plucked strings had very clean attacks that were as fast as some single-ended zero feedback amps, but with more guts to back it up. Along with the speed, there was an absence of overhang and slop that I’ve heard with affordable push-pull tube products, especially integrated amps.
The speed was backed up with a power supply that seemed to be as good as one could want in a product of this size and cost. There was plenty of grunt for a 35-watt amp. Subjectively, it sounded like a 70-watt amp on dynamic and highly modulated tracks. I discovered that the amp’s power supply would take up to 10 seconds to discharge sufficiently enough to allow me to pull a tube or change a connection. That’s very good. It means that though the amp is only rated at 35 watts, the power supply is over built. It’s been demonstrated quite often that the limiting factor with most audio products is the quality, or lack thereof, of the power supply. This unit has a good one. I’m not saying it never runs out of steam. When playing compressed pop tunes I could hear power limitations. On the other hand, it might’ve been the crappy quality of today’s pop tracks that I was hearing. I managed to push the amp into soft clipping while listening to heavy rock and romantic classical works. It still sounded more like 70 watts, but 70 watts isn’t 700 watts; it’s the trade-off you make. If you listen loud all the time, you will want to consider a more powerful product.
Though bass was above average, it seemed to be slightly lacking in the bottom octaves. It didn’t sound like it was running out of current. Rather, it sounded like there was a 1dB (or there about) drop from sub bass to around 35 Hz. I didn’t experiment with output tubes and this perceived low bass deficiency might be attributable to the stock output tubes supplied with the RITA. At the other end of the spectrum, the highs seemed to go out quite strongly to the top of my hearing range. Consequently, on thin or bright recordings, things could get a tad bit too aggressive for my tastes. Of course, with careful tube rolling and cable selection, this issue could be completely negated. It would be very interesting to hear how the RITA-880, a similar design, but using KT88 output tubes, compares with the RITA-340. Might it have better bass performance? Would it give up detail and speed in the process? As it is, the RITA-340 has a very nice tonal balance, with just a tiny hint of tube lushness that never gets in the way of imaging, detail and dynamics.
This issue of tube rolling and experimentation brings me back to an observation that I made at the top of this review. Modern output tubes can sound very good, and, unlike NOS Mullards, they’re dirt cheap. Unfortunately, they don’t stand up to hard use like old production tubes. Because the RITA-340 is biased class A, it’s rather harder on output tubes than some other amps I’ve used.
Wanting to know how the tubes would hold up to class A service, I simulated an extra several months of listening by letting the RITA idle for 48 hours for four consecutive weekends. That idling puts almost as much wear on the output tubes as playing music since they are biased class A: With class A biasing, the tubes are conducting almost as much current while idling as during normal listening.
After about seven weeks, I check the tubes. I noticed some fading of the getters. If I had to look at an output tube and guess how much they’d been used, I would’ve guessed that they’d been in service for eight months to a year. I would point out that running the amp in class A makes for a smoother sounding amp with better imaging and depth. Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with replacing tubes every six to eight months. Considering the good sound this amp is making with Svetlana output tubes, I think it’s a good trade-off. As a last note on this issue, one of the output tubes started to glow cherry-red a few days after I checked them out. It’s not uncommon for new production tubes to die a sudden (and spectacular) death. The amp didn’t seem to suffer any damage. A new set of tubes was installed and all was well. I do have a couple recommendations.
First, don’t use NOS output tubes. Yes, they will last longer than new production, but they still wear out. It’s a waste of money. These Svetlana tubes, not the best available, sounded really nice. Instead, spend the extra scratch on NOS input tubes that will last much longer. Also, I’ve noticed better longevity and sound with the Winged C/SED output tubes. These used to be branded Svetlana and have the reputation as being a good tube for the money (Svetlana and Sovtek are just Western marketing names—not an actual Russian tube manufacturer). Another output tube that seems to take a ton of abuse is the JJ EL34. Unfortunately, I don’t care for their sound that much, although you may love it.
Listening to the RITA-340 integrated amp was a pleasure. It had great clarity, imaging and speed. Individual musical lines were always easy to follow. Dynamics were way better than I was expecting for an amp of this power rating. Subjectively, it always sounded more powerful than its 35 watts. Tonal balance was very good, with a touch of tube warmth, and lacking just a touch of the last octave in the low bass (again, something that might be fixed with careful tube and cable selection).
The RITA never went out of its way to sound analytical or ugly, though it did reveal ugly sounding recordings for what they were. I wouldn’t look at this amp as a step down from separates. If detail and clarity are very important to you, I can recommend this amp. If you have a room on the small size, or relatively efficient speakers (or both), this could be a pragmatic choice that gives you the power you need in a convenient, attractive package. The RITA-340 has a lot of strengths for the price and is an easy recommendation.
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