The sound of an output tube is a function of the circuit in which it is employed, the tube which drives it, whether rectification is solid state or tube (and if tube, the tube used), the design of the output transformer and the metal from which the transformer is wound. All else being equal, the less complex the circuit, the more the sound will be affected by the choice of parts and their quality. This is particularly true with respect to single ended tube amps with little or no overall loop feedback. Here, the sonic performance of each tube and each passive part is laid bare. There are fewer circuit mechanisms to hide or compensate for tube performance. In particular, there is no negative feedback to increase the bandwidth of the tube or balanced operation to cancel out even-order distortion products.
For this review, I compared the Takatsuki TA-300B tubes primarily with two other tubes, my long term reference Western Electric tubes and the Shugang Teasures “black bottles” in my Audio Note UK Kegon Balanced amplifiers. The Kegons employ only nine parts in the audio circuit path: three transformers (input, interstage coupling and output), three tubes (a driver and two 300B’s), and three passive components. Notably, there are no capacitors in the signal path.
The Takatsuki tubes require a rather significant break-in period. In my system, they continued to improve until they reached 250 hours, after which I noticed no further change. Even straight from the box, the Takatsuki’s were never harsh or unpleasant, but the midrange was initially a bit recessed and required significant break-in before it seemed correctly in balance with the bass and treble. The same can be said for the crystalline clarity and dimensionality, both of which took time to properly develop. Given that the Shugang Treasures are recognized at their price point as a best buy and that the Western Electric 300B had, at least in my prior listening, trounced all comers, I saw little point in repeating exhaustive listening comparisons involving a large number of other 300B’s, and instead focused on comparing the Takatsuki’s with the Shugang Treasures and with the Western Electrics.
I invited one of my audiophile friends, the “Evil Weed,” over to assist in these comparisons. The system was fully warmed up, with the Shugang Treasure tubes in place. We decided to concentrate our efforts on vinyl playback, since in my system that is the source component which offers the best resolution. The system comprised a Rockport Sirius turntable, an Ortofon A-90 cartridge, Ypsilon phono stage and step-up transformer and Nordost Odin phono cable.
We began with a promo copy of the US pressing of Donald Fagan’s 1982 solo effort, Nightfly. Fagan, as always, clearly put a great deal of effort into obtaining excellent timbral definition of the instruments, appropriate balance among them, with considerable attention to the smaller details. The slight growl of the Fender-style bass was evident, and satisfying, in several of the tunes. The album serves as almost a lesson in spacious and detailed recording of background voices and winds. And, even being an early digital recording, the overall effect was quite musical most of the time. However, in the last cut on the first side, “Maxine,” we noticed a slightly odd effect — although Fagan’s was the only voice, albeit extensively overdubbed, in the thick, jazzy harmonies, there was just such lack of clarity as revealed by the system that it was not clearly all Fagan and no one else.
Next up was Steve Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, played by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Edo de Waart, an early Phillips digital recording. This piece is in some ways very dense, combining a complex chiaroscuro of woodwind and percussion patterns against slowly moving chordal commentary of predominantly brass choir and bass. The brass/bass parts provided strong and powerful underpinning and highlighting as the piece progressed, which was satisfying, but tended to have a bit of a monolithic sound. The voices of the restless wind/keyboard/percussion patterns were sometimes vague, again as revealed by the system. I must confess that I found myself eventually becoming bored by the repetitiveness, which can happen with Reich — but was this problem all Reich’s?
Finally, we tried a pure analog recording — again, Phillips — this time of Michael Tippet’s Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles, written at the time of the Prince’s birth, conducted by Colin Davis with the London Symphony. Phillips’ recordings, in my view, tend to be inappropriately underrated. However, when we set the stylus onto this LP, I could not help but think that this one was another unfortunate issue. The strings were quite strident — practically leaping out of the left speakers — although the brass, winds and lower strings were fine. Not far into this record, my friend, who knew the recording well, suggested that we see if the irritation was caused by the recording, or if the Western Electrics would bring some relief. So we took a break, let the Shugang Treasures cool, installed the Western Electrics, and gave them a brief period to warm up.
The difference in the sound of the tubes was apparent immediately, even without a lengthy warm up period. The strings in the Tippet fell back into the soundstage and, though still with an edge, sounded substantially less “etched” and more like a section of violins. The soundstage was larger and the overall timbre of the instruments was richer — for example, a brief clarinet solo emerged from the string passages with a woodiness we hadn’t heard before, and the prominent lower brass was more burnished and full.
We moved back to the Reich next. Somewhat to the surprise of both of us, we listened to the entire piece again, never fatigued for a moment. The busy wind choirs with percussion became more distinct timbrally, such that the lines, rhythms and counter-rhythms became more distinct, requiring less effort to follow. And, as in the Tippet, the brass commentary gained in richness and roundness. The bass may not have been quite as prominent as with the Shugang Treasures, but the difference was lost in the overall effect of a more distinctive group of diverse instruments, as opposed to a low-end monolithic line. When it was over, my friend summed it up very simply: “I don’t fully understand why, but this time the Reich was simply more absorbing to hear; I just didn’t want to stop — and it seemed shorter.”
Last, we revisited Donald Fagen and Nightfly. In some ways, I would say the Chinese tubes provided nearly as satisfying a listening experience with this masterful pop/jazz recording. However, we both noticed a new fullness to the vocals and the brass. This came out most noticeably in Maxine — there they were, five or six Donald Fagens, in their dense harmony — no mistaking the voice. And at the end of “Ruby, Ruby,” which devolves into a crowd scene of clapping, shouting, talking, etc., the air and spaciousness were vivid and outstanding.
Having now listened to the Shugang and the Western Electric 300B’s, it was time to audition the Takatsuki’s. We listened to the same music in the same order with results that were while closer to the Western Electric, the tubes were clearly differentiated.
Compared against the black bottle Shugang Treasures, the Takatsuki TA-300B tubes were easily 25% better. Every parameter was markedly improved. Dynamics was astonishing, the bass went deeper with added power and control, and the highs were airier and more extended without ever becoming bright or irritating. In addition, the Takatsuki’s were extremely detailed and open. They were, if anything, brutally accurate, so you must exercise care in choosing other tubes in the system as well as components.
In comparison to the Western Electric reissues from the last production run prior to shutdown of the plant, to me it comes down to a matter of taste. The Western Electric clearly has less bass, and bass is overall less controlled. Some might say the WE’s bass is looser or more natural, others might say that the tonal balance of the Western Electric tubes is shifted up. Psychoacoustically, the midrange seems more prominent. While this is extremely pleasant, strictly speaking it may not be accurate, though extremely euphonic.
In my particular situation, having both Takatsuki TA-300B and the Western Electric 300B, the type of music to which I am listening dictates which set of tubes go in the Kegons. For classical and jazz, I find that I prefer the Western Electric tubes in my system, but for rock, the Takatsuki’s edge out the Western Electric’s. Both are excellent, and in a different amplifier or for someone with somewhat different tastes, this might be the ticket. The Takatsuki’s are the only tube which I would consider using in place of the Western Electric 300B.
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