The great audio hobby is not like any other. Yes, it can very easily deplete your lifelong savings and drive you mad in finding the best that you can afford, but it is also the only hobby I know of that can induce a state of nirvana via beautiful sound and heavy use of electronics. Many people are not as attuned as we audiophiles are toward music via high-end audio systems, and inspired we surely are. Those among us who can afford anything they hear are truly fortunate, for after hearing the Win Analog Z845 vacuum tube preamplifier and the S Series vacuum tube monoblocks, I begin to understand how objects of desire can drive men to have long periods of brown bag lunches, to live in an empty apartment, drive a run-down used automobile, wear the same cloths without regret, so that he can afford a grand Bӧsendorfer piano in his bare living room.
If you are not a tube audio equipment fan, you will not find these equipment relevant. But if you are, I’ve got to tell you that the vacuum tube audio equipment from the Milpitas, California company are one of a kind. They are huge, much bigger than anything of its kind I have encountered in my reviewing career. The form they are given serves not only visual disposition, for it is resplendent with a rare fusion of force and magnificence. Win Analog deserves recognition, for it spends tens of thousands of dollars to develop statement products in this day and age when most companies in the similar stage of infancy would either conserve or spend money on publicity campaign, instead.
Vacuum tube amplifiers have their naysayers and aficionados. If you live in small quarters and have inefficient speakers, you will not want to sit several feet away from one or even two high-output heat-generating vacuum tube amplifiers. This is true for all vacuum tube amplifiers, but even truer for the Win Analog products. Generating a hundred watts, radiating considerable heat, these are the company’s statement products retailing at $75,000 a pair for the S Series 833 monoblocks and $45,000 for the Z845 preamplifier. You have to be a wealthy audiophile with large listening space and large, efficient speakers, and a knack for the ultimate to feel comfortable using them.
Just consider the following about the designs and you’ll know what I mean. The Z845 stereo linestage uses two 845 tubes for signal amplification, an ambitious feat attempted by no one else I am aware of. When respected design houses use the 845 tube for power amplification, Win Analog sees fit to make the tubes perform preamplification duties. What gall. In addition to a whole sleuth of ECC83, EM84 and a 5R4 GW tube, the Z845 features 24-position Swiss-made Elma attenuators, point-to-point wiring with Teflon-coated silver wires, hand wound M6 material silver transformers, automatic biasing circuit, etc. Even more exotic in its creation is the use of ceramic tube sockets and 24-karat gold-plated pins made of phosphor bronze which prevents signal deterioration. Per Win Analog, this beauty of a beast is direct-coupled, designed to deliver high current output that can drive low-impedance cables. Eight WBT connectors are fitted for the Input, while another four are for Output. The entire physique is of heavy duty CNC milled aluminum. Power consumption is a staggering 85 watts for a preamp, and the thing measures 15 inches wide, 13 inches high and 20 inches deep, and weighs 130lbs. Bandwidth is stated as plus/minus 1 dB from 10 to 80k Hz.
The Z845 preamplifier has a lightshow of its own. The two EM84 tubes perform the function of a voltmeter. The instance you flip the ON switch on the front panel, 250 volts courses through the EM84s and the tubes discharge a shade of jade green. Spectacular. Even majestic. My favorite turn-on ritual. The use of the 845 tubes for output in a preamp is unprecedented. According to Andy Ton, Win Analog’s chief engineer, the Z845 features a 550 volts-plus plate voltage, whereas all other tube preamps range from 150 to 300 volts. He claims ultimate dynamic stability as the foremost virtue of the Z845.
The complimentary S Series monoblock amplifiers are even larger, measuring a voluptuous 18 inches wide, 19 inches high and 24 inches deep, weighing in at 200lbs. Each one consumes 500 watts to create 100 watts of output, employs one RCA833A NOS tube for output, one GEC KT66, one RCA 12AY7 and two 3B28 for rectification duties. The S Series’ class A operation centers around a transformer without using condensers, thereby forming the most direct connection that preserves dynamics. For the first time in audio design, the choke filter is DC-ignited by use of large volumetric condenser for minimal noise. In addition to WBT RCA connectors, Edison Price Music Post, red copper binding posts and silver transformer, the S Series employs the highest grade capacitors and military-grade components. This time, 24-karat Teflon tube sockets are used with gold-plated round pin made of phosphor bronze.
The S Series are to be unplugged entirely until the time of actual listening, for the machine charges the RCA833A NOS output tubes once power is provided even prior to full power-on via the power rocker switch at the back. Flipping the Power switch on literally ignites the RCA 12BH7 input tubes, and again, a miniature lightning show flashes inside the glass before your eyes.
Both the Z845 and S Series are directly-heated single-ended in topology with zero feedback.
I reviewed the $90,000 Ypsilon SET 100 hybrid monoblock amplifiers in July 2009, and that experience raised the bar for all others who claim to be the ultimate in amplification, including the Win Analog system. For the months the system was in my house, the $35,500 Rockport Technologies Mira Grand II that I reviewed earlier this year was the primary loudspeaker system, as driven also by the $16,500/pair Pass Labs XA100.5 solid-state monoblock amplifiers. The $29,000 Ypsilon DAC 100 and the new, $76,500 Audio Note DAC5 Signature alternated with the 47 Lab PiTracer CD transport. The Aural Symphonics Echelon Digital coaxial cable that Ed Momkus recently reviewed served as the reference digital cable. Single-ended interconnects used between the DAC and preamp, were the Audio Note UK AN Vx, while the SOGON served to bridge the Z845 and the S Series monoblocks.
The Z845 preamplifier has a default input impedance of 150-ohm, thus immediately suitable for use with CD players and DACs with an output of 2 volts and higher. The Ypsilon DAC has a rated output of 2 volts, whereas the Audio Note DAC boasts a 3.2V output. If you plan to use the Z845 with a low-output phono stage, Win Analog will adjust the preamp accordingly before releasing it to you from the factory.
Every time I inserted the Z845 into my system during the auditioning of equipment and speakers, I heard the most complete and encompassing audio presentations, with the most meticulously recreated tonal characteristic of musical instruments and vocals. From a mid-90 BBC recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20, by Mark Ermler and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to the same music by conductor Ansermet and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande more than thirty years earlier in First Impression Music’s This Is K2 HD Sound! demo CD, the instrument groups from each recording sounded more developed and varied with a spectral completeness that benefited even smaller instruments within the respective range they were playing, a feat the extend of which no other preamp had achieved.
Most noteworthy is how the massive strings were reproduced with the clearest depiction of the individual pieces amidst the whole, which is literally an anti-thesis to tube amplification design in general. The brasses sounded even bolder with a newfound upward extension that fully exploited the potential of the Rockport speakers, allowing the speakers to procure a fullness in their specific ranges that was convincingly real. Even the dimensionality of smaller woodwinds was projected completely onto the soundfield amidst all the actions on stage.
The Z845 expressed itself as being the most dynamically powerful preamp I’ve experienced. Whether it was paired with the Pass Labs XA100.5 solid-state monoblocks or Win Analog’s own S Series 833-based tube monoblocks, the Z845 brought out the soul and flesh of the music consistently in ways subtle in mannerism and yet powerful in the presentations. Even in rendering the female vocal in First Impression Music’s same disc, track 13 titled, “Kinderpiele”, there were contrasts previously unheard of that conveyed the liveliness of the singer.
Had I decided to approach this review from a more detached mentality, I would’ve written about the separate sonic parameters of the Z845. But the preamplifier would not be served justice if its colossal greatness was broken into pieces and described as such. I could pick apart individual performance parameters of a $10,000 preamp, or even that of a $20,000 one, for all preamps in those ranges excel in certain areas. But the Z845 is different. As soon as you focus on one criteria of the performance, you soon realize there are plenty more pieces to the whole picture.
Forget about textural fluidity or smoothness of the midrange. Throw your notions of levels of resolution and degrees of dimensionality out of the window. This preamp is about all that, and yet again it is not what this preamp intends to impress you with. The assurance this level of performance provides cannot be understated. In my audio experience, the Audio Note UK Ongaku was the first amplifier that made me feel I didn’t need to look for all the sonic parameters of performances it was providing, for they were laid plainly in front of me, which in turn made me feel relaxed and assured that I could just sit back and enjoy the sound. That, of course, is something I can only do when the review is done and published.
I wonder if the bar of performance for a preamp can be set any higher.
The S Series was conceived as a whole with the Z845, and in doing so Win Analog spared no expense and created a singular achievement even greater than the preamp preceding it. Those of us familiar with tube amplification designs, whether it is the $79,000, Audio Note UK Ongaku 211-based directly-heated single-ended triode stereo integrated amplifier I reviewed in November 2006, or Rocky Mountain Audiofest’s late founder Al Stiefel’s $38,750/pair Red Rock Audio Renaissance SV572-10-based parallel push-pull monoblock amplifiers, or even the $25,000, 7-watts Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777, the warmth and musicality of the tubes is more than just alluring. It conveys the very essence of emotions expressed by the artists. Of course, there are performance parameters that can only be traversed by the solid-state designs, such as the instance where an overriding damping factor and staggering current output is required.
For those applications, we turn to the pure class A-biased, high-output solid-state sonics as expressed by designs such as the Pass Labs XA100.5 monoblocks, for the impeccably balanced presentation of power and level of refinement. But the Win Analog outputs one hundred watts as well, and in do so it stands apart from them all.
In conveying power and weight, I have consistently found the Pass Labs as the finest amplification in deliberating the most layered and powerful bottom-end from the Rockport’s, the amplifier company’s more powerful monoblocks not excluded. The Win Analog S Series’ one-hundred-watt per chassis turned out to be more than enough to compel the 90dB/4-ohm efficient Rockport Mira Grand II to even newer heights, and was easily the equal of the Pass Labs in terms of power and then some. For one, the Rockport’s bottom-end when driven by the Win Analog monoblocks retained the very fine separations of instrument shadings, at a level not touched by solid-state designs. Whether it was the pipe organ in the Lasting Impression Music K2HD version of Cantate Domino or the pulsating synthesizer bass from Herbie Hancock’s “Future Shock”, the Rockport was in every way superior in bottom-end rendition than when used with the Pass Labs. Dynamic transients and tones were the most natural and unimpeded, conveying the air funneling prowess of the church organ with awe-inspiring realism, while still being able to give the pitch-perfect, mathematically perfect computerized notes an artificial sensibility quite bedazzling to behold.
Scarcely few solid-state amplifiers are as fluidic and resolving as the Win Analog as well, the Pass Labs XA series being one of the rarities, but none of them can yet approach the tonal totality of instruments rendered by the Win Analog. Only one other amplifier in its use of a lone, colossal output traverses the same high-profile path, and that is the Audio Note UK Ongaku with its NOS GE 211.
Naturally, when one contemplates the use of a single-tube amplification, choice of loudspeaker is critical. The single-driver high-efficiency design is almost mandatory if one does not want to surrender the pursuit of dynamic transients. Yet, such design can never match the scale as produced by the multiple drivers of the Rockport Mira Grand II. Still, with the Rockport, one accepts the only trade-off that I’m aware of, namely the ultimate in dynamic transients. Yet, one gains much more using the Rockport with the Win Analog. After spending months with the system, I was consistently experiencing the finest rendition of spectral extension, textural realism, dynamics and tonal resolution. The Win Analog’s unparalleled mannerism in preserving the intrinsic delicacy of instruments via the single 833 output tube is wonderfully complimented by the Rockport’s MTM D’Appolito Driver Configuration, which additionally also serves to project a convincing soundfield. For this very reason alone, I considered myself lucky having stumbled upon this exuberant a match.
I wanted to convey what the Win Analog system did for me at this point in my review career. There was no doubt that my sensibility was thoroughly spoiled by the $90,000-per-pair Ypsilon SET 100 monoblocks that I reviewed a year prior, and the $79,350 Audio Note UK Ongaku in 2006. But the Win Analog system’s handling of the subtlety of each instrument group’s tonal and textural uniqueness was on par with both the Audio Note UK Ongaku and Ypsilon SET 100, while at the same time through its single-tube amplification providing the most true-to-source handling of the varying dynamic interplays within an ensemble, on top of the most truthful presentation of the sound of individual instruments and vocals. There are preciously few products on the market I’ve heard of that can carry the full sound of an instrument or that of a large orchestra. The Ongaku and SET 100 are the forerunners. The Win Analog system now has become one of the three systems on my list of most exalted tube amplification systems.
The Win Analog system is not about rendering dynamic transients in jazz or rock ‘n’ roll music like certain solid-state preamplifiers known for their fastness, nor is it more adept at reproducing a lush midrange like some tube designs. It does all that, but the most important point about the system is its fulfillment of the audiophile dream for excitement and supremacy. For systems like the Ongaku, SET 100, and now the Win Analog Z845 plus S Series monoblocks are made to be treated as the anchor of a system around which everything else evolves. Anything less simply won’t cut it.
For decades we had to look beyond the Atlantic for the ultimate in tube amplification. The people of the Kingdom of Great Britain has Audio Note UK, and recently the citizens of the Hellenic Republic have Ypsilon. Now finally, America has a mark that is no less inferior and just as superior: Win Analog. It is an American treasure. Let’s celebrate.
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