It’s been a long wait for the third installment of building a musically rewarding system without breaking the bank, but I wanted to be sure I was pleased with the results.
Living in Hong Kong means that apartment sizes are quite small compared to North American standards. Therefore, purchasing hulking, Krell boat-anchor-sized amplifiers and 8-foot tall line arrays or electrostatic panels is out of the question. Impressed with the Line Magnetic CD 215 and fortunate enough to be reviewing other pieces of equipment, including amplifiers and speakers, I was able to buy the CD player first before making a decision on the backend.
While reviewing the very nice sounding Audio Space LS-3/5a and matching subwoofers, I was able to spend a few hours at Audio Space’s main dealer in Hong Kong, where I tried out four of their tube amplifiers priced nicely around US$2,000 or less.
With the excellent Line Magnetic LM 211IA integrated amplifier as my front runner I was certainly interested to audition a competing Chinese made integrated amplifier. I had auditioned similarly priced amplifiers from Rogue Audio, Cayin, Spark, and of course the recently reviewed the Roksan Kandy and Trends Audio amplifiers, as well as several SS integrated amplifiers from Rotel, Arcam, AudioLab etc.
My Audio Space audition pitted two of their EL34 based amplifiers against two of their KT88 based amplifiers. Of the four the most musical to my ear was their Mini-2 SE. I say the word musical and I can almost hear a chorus of groans from some readers in cyberspace (ok my ear isn’t golden enough for telepathy).
The KT 88 versus EL 34 debate probably rages in some corners of the tube forum world and I am certainly not going to get into that. I have heard some shockingly muddy EL34 amps over the years and if you have as well, then clearly KT88’s are the way to go. After a mild debate on an internet forum over EL34 and KT88 I would suggest to EL34 haters to make the attempt to audition the non blurry variety of EL34s amplifiers.
I reviewed the excellent Grant Fidelity Rita which is a robust beast of a KT88 amplifier that sounded excellent. Unfortunately, it’s one of those Krell sized beasts that is overkill for my apartment (and it’s considerably more expensive). So I don’t have a bias in either camp when it comes to tube types.
During my auditions I found the Audio Space KT88s to be spacious, informative and toe tapping — Certainly some of the best KT88 based amps I’ve heard for anything around the price. The Mini-2 SE EL34 possessed a little more three dimensional space and a richer bottom end albeit at the expense of what some audiophiles refer to as air. The KT88s are probably more truthful while the Mini-SE leans a little more to the refined and beautiful.
What about the Line Magnetic? To be blunt it is every bit the equal, though I feel it leans a touch more to the valve (tubey) side of the spectrum. That is fine by me. My choice for the Mini-2SE didn’t come down to either price or sound. Both Audio Space and Line Magnetic amps are around the same price, both look nice, both have excellent build quality. Compared to the plastic knobs and cheap metal of most of the SS amplifiers in the price range the Audio Space and Line Magnetic amplifiers give the customer a strong sense of pride of ownership and generally sounded considerably better.
Why then the Audio Space Mini-2SE over the Line Magnetic 211IA?
It came down to feature sets. The Line Magnetic has an on-board a voltage meter for biasing the tubes, and comes with remote control and a tube cage. The meter is less important as you can purchase an inexpensive voltmeter and simply use the meter on that device. To many of you, those will be priority features, and if they were to me I would have bought it.
The Mini-2SE does not have remote control and does not have an on-board voltage meter. However, The Mini-2SE offers a first rate true tube headphone amp output, a preamp input allowing the Mini-2 to be used a dedicated power amplifier which allows the preamp to be upgraded at a later stage. Last, it has a feedback control switch for both maximum and minimum negative feedback. This last feature is less important to owners of reasonably efficient speaker as minimum feedback in my auditions was where the switch tended to stay for better sound quality, though there may be more oomph and superior frequency response behavior when driving tougher speaker loads with the switch engaged to maximum feedback. Both the Audio Space and LM211IA are switchable from Triode to Ultralinear mode. The latter effectively doubles the amps power output at the expense of a coarser presentation but if you listen to Guns and Roses that may not be a bad thing.
Stay tuned for Part 4 – the speakers as well as a future review of the Audio Space Mini-2se.
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