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Psvane WE 1:1 Replica 300B Review

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Big Es?

Yes. It’s Audio Note’s working title for a new speaker that if development goes according to plan will be available by the end of this year. The prototypes use a 10” mid/woofer and a silk domed tweeter in a cabinet that to my eye looks to be about a third larger in volume than the 70 litres of the E, but which retains the E’s familiar height, depth and width ratio, and a rear mounted port; in other words to all intents they are Es on steroids able to drive larger rooms.

Those readers who have visited Audio Note’s premises in Hove will now be picturing the venue in their mind, but for those that haven’t, a word or two of scene-setting is in order. The room is approximately 20ft square, lined floor to ceiling on three walls with part of Peter Qvortrup’s huge record collection. Curtains cover a bay window that forms the fourth wall. Fitted floor carpet, soft furnishings and the record sleeves all contribute to making the space extremely well acoustically damped.

The Quest monoblocks were playing when I arrived, Dale still being in the throes of demonstrating the system to a prospective customer. The Quests were fitted with Sovtek 300Bs, so after the customer had left we four listened to the system as it was for a while to sharpen our appetites before diving into the main course, so to speak.

The big Es sounded promising, clearly able to move a remarkable volume of air, but also clearly still a work in progress. Was it a unanimous decision? I can’t remember, but after a short while we agreed to swap out the Big Es for a pair of E-Ds, this being a reference speaker we were all familiar with and which would enable us to concentrate just on the differences between the tubes.

First disc on the CD player was Pure Maria Callas, a selection of re-mastered arias released by Warner Classics. My notes on the Sovteks during La Habanera from Carmen, and then when we swapped to Joy Williams’ solo album Venus and the opening track “Before I Sleep”, say ‘powerful bass, dry midrange, restricted top end – rather grey and dead sounding.’

We then changed to the Psvane WE Replicas, played the same tracks and were rewarded by a much more enhanced sense of dynamic flow, of micro dynamics and openness. My notes say: Voices comparatively glowing’, strings have a better sense of wood and gut.’ It was clear to all of us that the Psvanes were in a different league to the Sovteks. Still, it was confusing material to my ears. I felt we needed something simpler, primarily acoustic, and unprocessed, in order to make a meaningful evaluation of the abilities of the replicas against the real deals.

This is a personal prejudice but I fancy it is shared by a lot of Dagogo readers: first and foremost I want an audio system to reproduce as accurately and entertainingly as possible the sound of the human voice and of acoustic instruments. If a system can nail those well, then as far as I am concerned it can take its chances with electronic instruments. They’re not real and therefore I care far less for how they are reproduced.

Peter obliged by handing over a copy of the Saturday Sessions 2011. I’ve referenced this compilation previously in reviews and do so again here because it contains stand-out live performances, some of them purely acoustic, that are simply well recorded and which, unlike much modern output, have not been processed to within an inch of their lives.

Know Adele’s “Rolling in The Deep” in her studio album 21? She sings the same song on The Saturday Sessions 2011, but does so live and against the simple backdrop of a gently strummed, acoustic guitar. Partly because of the simplicity of the arrangement, and partly because of the truly excellent recording, it could be a different song to the version on 21. The Psvanes gave a good account of themselves, showing the power and weight of Adele’s voice and leaving us with a good impression of the acoustic of the space in which the track was recorded.

Track six on the same CD is Florence & The Machine’s “Cosmic Love”, a much busier song which, again, the Psvanes coped with well, in particular portraying the acoustic guitar with a very satisfying weight and tonality and Florence’s curious vocal style to good effect. Further on still, on the same CD, Foster The People deliver an entirely acoustic version of “Pumped Up Kicks” – a somewhat controversial ditty whose lyrics, set to an infectious guitar rhythm tell of a kid planning to shoot up his classmates. Foster’s vocals are given a touch of reverb and backed with an acoustic bass guitar, as well as the choppy six-string. The Psvanes had all four of us nodding and foot tapping to the track, even if at the same time we were wincing at the lyrics.

I turned the Quests off and allowed the Psvanes a few minutes to cool before removing them and inviting Peter to choose and load up the first of his WE originals. My reluctance to get physically involved with the WEs caused some mirth, but having seen the prices they now fetch I really did not wish to be responsible should something let go with unfortunate timing. While Peter was doing this, I asked him how many pairs of WE originals he owns. “Let’s just say that I have a suitable selection of various vintages” was his enigmatic and smiling reply.

Peter stepped back from the Quests and said he’d chosen the 98s, so we were going to hear the three pairs of WEs youngest-to-oldest.

The 98s were, as students of Western Electric history will know, manufactured by the resurrected brand using original machinery and know-how after it was bought by American investor and audiophile Charles Whitener. I had encountered so-called re-issued WEs before – my pal Malcolm is banking on multiple pairs delivering his pension income in France. While I applaud Malcolm’s enterprise and I am confident that he’ll get his money back in spades, each time I have heard the reissues I have thought them to be rather ho-hum.

In the Quest amplifiers and in the rather sweaty heat of the Audio Note demo suite, the 98s sounded very different to the Psvane 300B replicas. The WEs struck all of us as being smoother and less granular, with a richer tonality in the midband but with less bite to the leading edge of notes, and less top end, too, than the Psvanes.

Before switching back to the Chinese tubes we put a Psvane and a WE side by side for physical comparison. The Psvane’s plate is shorter than that of the 98 WE by some four to five mm, and the glass envelope is shorter too by a similar amount, but in every other respect the construction of the two makes looked very similar.

I returned the Psvanes to the Quests and we played the same tracks again. My notes say: “More air. Much more. Greater sense of recording space. Greater separation between instruments. More transparency. More bass too. Greyer than the 98 WEs. They sound more hifi.”

Andy turned to me. “Hmmm. These might become a bit wearing after a while in comparison.”

As he stepped forward to swap out the Psvanes for the 88 WEs, Peter observed that the curves on the Psvanes are hard to distinguish from those of the WEs. “It’s not a curve trace issue. There is something else. The old 4242 and the 211 with its carbon anode sounded so different. When Western Electric stopped 300B production in 1988 they had exhausted their stock of original grid wire.”

Peter was not necessarily asserting that materials are everything, I am sure. But, and having heard so many more tubes from different sources than most of us will in a lifetime, he was voicing the obvious question of what is it that makes one tube sound so very different from another. They can measure the same or similarly, but they sound very different. How so?

Wrapped in thought, we settled back to listen to the 88s. I felt they were different to the ‘98s, but the differences were less so than those between the 98s and the Psvanes. I heard a slightly richer and more fleshed out midband than delivered by the ‘98s, but voices were smaller, as if the sonic picture had been through a too-hot wash cycle. They were very smooth and a bit recessed.

Of the four of us, Dale was least impressed. “They sound quite artificial. I preferred the ‘98s.” I looked at Andy, but he just sucked his teeth, and Peter simply smiled his enigmatic smile.

Our expectations of NoS tubes are often tempered by experience. How many are truly new old stock? Are we buying tubes that really have never been used or are we buying tubes that have been pulled from equipment that has seen some – perhaps a lot – of service? While I am not particularly wishing to advertise for Peter and big-up the provenance of his tube collection, if there was one person I know of that can be pretty much banked upon to buy right, it is PQ.

I didn’t think Dale was wrong. I thought the ‘88s sounded tight, as in virgin. Having heard the Psvane TIIs take some 200 hours to open up, I felt that with some mileage on them the ‘88s would likely sound a lot more entertaining.

I turned the Quests off and again we left the tubes to cool for a few minutes. There was more mirth while I stepped back and invited Peter forward to effect the tube change. The ‘78s went into the sockets (oh Lordy, how much are they worth?), the Quests were flipped on again and we again sat back to listen.

This was a key moment in the afternoon and, for me at least, wholly unexpected. My notes (and my overuse of exclamation marks): ‘78s. Air! Attack! Bigger voice! Bottom end weight and lovely top. Really quite wonderfully lovely. Much more like the Psvanes than the other two WEs” (my original underlining).

Yes. You read it right. The Psvanes were most like the ’78 WEs. At least that’s what I thought.

Startled by what I was hearing I looked at the other three and said: “These have all of those things, but more richness and colour, too, than the Psvanes. They are very good.”

Peter, smiling still more broadly, and said rhetorically: “Assuming the ‘88s and ‘78s use the same grid wire, why would they sound as different as they do? And would the 88s and 98s sound as good as the 78s if they were aged for as long?”

That is an apposite question indeed. And one might add: “How would Psvane’s 1:1 Replica 300Bs sound given 37 years of maturation, too?”

Let me be clear about this as I wind towards the conclusion of this review: I am not saying that we four thought the Psvanes to be as good as the ’78 WEs, but, and my word, for the money the replicas made a damned good fist of getting close. We all thought the Psvanes to be more granular and lacking, too, in the WEs’ nth degree of glorious tonality. But in many other respects, and given the price differential, they came commendably close.

My own view is that the Psvane WE 300B 1:1 Replicas might be classified as more ‘modern’ sounding than the WEs. They don’t deliver the dry, bright and pushy sound of the current crop of eastern European tubes, but at the same time neither do they have quite the midrange lushness and sophistication of the real deals that we compared them with on that warm afternoon in Hove.

If you can afford to own original vintage Western Electric 300Bs, then may I be allowed to salute you for your hard work and for your good taste? The WEs are what I would buy, if I had the money.

Alas I do not. If you, too, have a similar cost-conscious relationship with the 300B – loving it for its sometimes sublime musicality but hating it for the damage it can do to the household budget – then the Psvane 300B 1:1 Replicas may suit you very well. In my view, the Psvanes give those of us in the cheap seats a much more affordable alternative to the Western Electric 300B, and one that, within its limitations, is still eminently musically satisfying.

In closing, I extend my thanks to Peter Qvortrup for the trusting and generous loan of the trio of Western Electric pairs, and to Dale Linzey for tolerating with good humour our temporary occupation of his demonstration environment.

3 Responses to Psvane WE 1:1 Replica 300B Review

  1. Ostap says:

    If ” the Psvane TIIs take some 200 hours to open up ” then an ” apples to apples ” comparison might be more attainable and realistic after 400+ hours of use. A tube dating from ’88 would surely have at least twice that many hours of use on it. Another thought – if the original WE units were meant to last 40,000 hours of use would they reach a point where their ” sound signature ” had ” aged ” , like a fine wine, to their ultimate point of enjoyment?

  2. Dave Smith says:

    I recently installed a matched pair of the Psvane WE 300b tubes in my Chalice Audio ‘Grail’ monoblock SET amps . About 2 months prior i installed 2 matched pairs of the WE 845s and were very happy with their contribution to the improvent in my system’s sound. The 300bs have improved the sound even more … even at only ~ 100 hrs. They are great tubes..

  3. Richard Fielding says:

    I have just installed a pair of Psvan 300B WE replicas in my Quest Silvers (M3 pre, AN/E, Voyd “The Voyd”, Graham I, Transfiguration Phoenix, ANS wiring throughout). Have to say noticeably different from the old AN 300Bs that came with the Quests that died after a cap blew in one of the Quests. Fresh from the box they seem slightly hard in their sound, but great upper extension (I’m going deaf so upper ranges are harder for me to discern but there is a clarity to the upper range that is refreshing to me (after listening to Spendor SP1s for many years, I realised with the AN/Es how rolled off at the top are the Spendors). The imaging is now much improved as is the space around the instruments. Bass isn’t as forward as with the AN300Bs. The music seems to have more “mood” – Prokofiev’s Autumnal Symphony has a brooding feeling that makes me want to reach for a sweater (despite it being 26 degrees). Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “This Bitter Earth”, (After Hours, Columbia 40708) small room intimacy has superb string projection, while “Once in a lifetime” has me choking on the cigarette smoke of the humid evening atmosphere of a nightclub. Did I say the bass wasn’t as forward? Much tighter and with more punch on this record. As with all AN kit it is the software that is so varied each record has different recording characteristics – more or less compression. Then Misty…oh lordy Aretha. I think I’ll stop here can’t concentrate.

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