SuperBAF Cheap Tube Amp Guide ~$1200 or less

Discussion in 'Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by Marvey, Sep 13, 2016.

  1. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    I’m finding that over time, I’m having fewer words to say. Probably the result of the heptagon spider charts, brain damage, old age, or crankiness from running a forum. So I’ve asked @Hands to help with me this. This guide is really his effort with a few notes from me where I could fill in the blanks. I’ve also removed some of the more damning comments made by @Hands to make this guide palatable to everyone. This is an evolving document.

    Oh, and I forgot: Hi Jude!
    Jude is an avid SuperBAF reader. He will deny it, but he loves reading this site to get good quality information.



    IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER

    Schiit Valhalla 2 (OTL White Cathode Follower)
    Neutral, fast, clean, detailed, good staging, good air. A bit lean and lacking in macro-dynamics and slam found in the TOTL tube amps. Can be a bit dry sounding and have a sandy quality to the upper registers. Warmed up tubes, laid-back sounding tubes, and a good source (R2R / 2R) can alleviate these characteristics, but it never totally goes away. The Valhalla 2 is good introductory tube amp that pairs well with higher impedance headphones and efficient orthos, but may still be too solid-state sounding for some people. Because of its topology, rolling tubes doesn’t affect the sound as much as it would on a top-notch phonostage. In other words, don’t spend a lot on tubes - buy a better amp instead.

    Measurements: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/schiit-valhalla-2-measurements.2820/


    Laconic Night Blues Mini (Transformer Output Push Pull)
    Worth it if you can find a native 120V version, or use a step down transformer. You’ll need to smuggle it in from Russia. Best described as a Super 7 junior. Like the Super 7, The NBM is transformer coupled. Also fairly neutral like the Valhalla 2, but more dynamic, sweeter, lusher, smoother, and more liquid. The high end is fantastic on this amp. Good speed, resolution, and staging. Loses out a little bit in the bass region which is slightly blurry. The volume pot is cheap and may not track well. Moving up to the TOTL tube amps will gain you further dynamics and refinement across the board, but this one of the best sounding amps for about $250. The value perspective is insane.

    Measurements: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/microzotl-2-0-measurements.1724/#post-43543


    MicroZOTL w/ LPSU (ZOTL Push Pull)
    Sounds pretty decent with good tone and timbre – harmonically rich sound. Main issues are mushy, bloomy, ill-defined bass and a flat 2D stage. Has a full and powerful sound, yet is flat sounding (think a commonly loud CD these days - powerful but lacking in dynamic depth). With extended listens, an underlying prickly sound in the upper registers becomes apparent. Tube rolling helps a bit, but two pairs of quality 6SN7 and 12A_7 tubes don’t come cheap these days. The dozen or more screws on the top plate discourage tube rolling. Where the MicroZOTL excels is flexibility, being able to power moderately inefficient orthos, highly efficient speakers, and traditional dynamic headphones.

    Measurements: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/microzotl-2-0-measurements.1724/


    Feliks Elise (OTL SET)
    Mostly neutral, fast, resolving, and has good staging and layering abilities. Has a bit of softness and a good amount of bloom to the sound that can be addressed with the right tubes – to a limited extent. The Elise is the most “wet” sounding amp in this list. The main issue is a noticeable roll-off in the lowest octave with some headphones, and thus it can suffer from a lack of slam, dynamics, and sense of foundation. The bass is more rounded, murkier, and bloomier than the NBM or Valhalla 2. This is not unexpected of an OTL with 45 ohm output impedance. Responds well to tube rolling, but don’t think turning it into a Christmas tree of glowing filaments is going to make this amp competitive with TOTL tube amps. (@Hands opines that this amp is a tier below the NBM. @Marvey opines that the Elise is a tier higher, but different sounding).

    Tube rolling notes:http://www.superbestaudiofriends.or...se-tube-amp-review-not.2260/page-9#post-59474
    Marv totally flips out and warns against the sport of extreme tube rolling: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.or...se-tube-amp-review-not.2260/page-3#post-57578


    Bottlehead Crack (OTL SET - DIY)
    Needs speedball. Lots of modding options. Worth pursuing if you want a warm, dynamic, bassy, and fun sound that will give you shits-and-giggles. Pop in a Tung Sol 5998, a fairly neutral 12AU7 tube, good quality output caps, a PSU choke, and a better volume pot, and it's competitive and worth considering over some amps on this list. Once you "max" it out with mods, it only really suffers from a close-up small stage, lack of bass definition and tautness, and lack of ultimate resolution. Fully pimped out, the Crack is worth consideration over the Elise, MicroZOTL, Lyr 2, Valhalla 2.

    Crack resources here: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/bottlehead-crack.120/


    Schiit Lyr 2 (Hybrid)
    Powerful, thick, warm, cozy, and intimate. The stage is small and close up. More dynamic and full sounding than Valhalla 2, but somehow less emotionally engaging. Less nuanced and articulate from top to bottom, especially on the lower end. Well worth considering if you like warmth and slam and cheap.


    Schiit Vali 2 (Hybrid)
    The Vali 2 is tonally laid back. A step up from Magni 2 in terms of musical involvement stemming from better microdynamics and resolution. Might actually equal or exceed Lyr 2 in these regards, but the Lyr 2 is still superior in macrodynamics and slam. The bass is slightly soft like the NBM. Having only one tube to roll means tube rolling can be done at a 50% discount (or more because we don’t have to obsess about matched tubes.) This is Schiit's answer to people who bitch that Schiit amps are too aggressive sounding.

    Measurements: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/schiit-vali-2-measurements.804/

    Schiit Mjolnir 2 (Hybrid Circlotron Output)
    Sounds more like a souped-up Valhalla 2 combined with good traits of the Lyr 2. Very dynamic and powerful sounding, sometimes in ways we've never before from a headphone amp. Maybe the slightest U-shape to the signature, but tastefully done. Rather articulate, resolving, and micro-dynamically nuanced with the right tubes, or it can be rather fun with other tubes (or a mix in between). The only way it falls short from TOTL tube amps is a lack of stage depth and expansiveness, which hurts 3D layering and separation. Can bit a bit etched or dry sounding in the upper registers depending upon tubes, but a marked improvement from the Mjolnir 1. An extremely solid choice under $1K. Can power almost anything, but don't do what Marv did with the Mjolnir 1 and power speakers with it.

    ECP Torpedo III (Hybrid Parafeed Transformer Output)
    This is a DIY amp, so opinions will vary based on tubes, caps, transformers, current sources, and other mods and tweaks. It's comfortable around TOTL tube amps. A good build will have good staging and layering, albeit a bit more condensed than the best amps. Slightly lush, slightly euphonic, and slightly bloomy. Maybe not quite as dynamic and hard hitting as some amps, but very resolving. Very even and very solid in the bass and the mids. Some builds lacked treble refinement with a brittle high-end, but it’s possible to tweak around this. These nitpicks are relative to TOTL tube amps. As we move up, we get tougher with criticisms. A maxed out Torpedo III is in a higher tier compared to all the amps above.

    Torpedo III resources: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/ecp-torpedo-iii-indexed-in-first-post.434/


    Eddie CurrentSuper 7 (Transformer Coupled SET – OOP)
    Mk1 with the EI core output transformers has a thicker, more powerful, more organic sound. The Mk2 with the double C-cores is more neutral / brighter, smoother, but with less open and airy stage. Both versions are responsive to tube rolling. Replacing the interstage and electrolytic feedback caps with boutique parts will push the performance up to a high ceiling. The sense of dynamics, slam, and overall bass quality outperforms almost everything on this list. Staging can be wonderfully dimensional, layered, and airy. Tone and timbre is spot on. This is on the level where TOTL tube amps offer only extremely diminishing returns. Once a bastard child going for less than $1000 in the used market, used prices have since recovered and units are now hard to find. Sound quality depends highly on tubes. We can mix and match tubes in the three pairs of the output section to tailor the sound to our preferences. Be prepared to shell out money for 7 NOS 6SN7s, which aren’t cheap anymore.
     
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2016
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  2. Madaboutaudio

    Madaboutaudio Friend

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    Last edited: Sep 13, 2016
  3. Wilson

    Wilson Friend

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    Thoughts on Garage 1217 amps? Sunrise and Ember seem to have a following here.
     
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  4. Griffon

    Griffon Portable prince - Friend

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    Elekit TU8200DX should get a place. I think @JK47 would concur.
     
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  5. JK47

    JK47 Friend

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    I haven't listened to any of the amps on the list other than the Valhalla 2 a long time ago... I'm also probably biased since I built the kit, so it wouldn't really be fair for me to compare.

    If I'm able to get to the Nov 5th meet (I can make it as of now, but I exepect my work schedule to change in the near future), I'll bring mine so others Friends can check it out if I can squeeze it onto someones table (I really don't want to baby sit the amp the whole meet), or put it into a room somewhere so it can power speakers.

    @Hands has heard a TU8200DX from another fellow.

    @shaizada asked me to bring it over to his place next time I visit, which I will.
     
  6. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Hands has sort of positive comments on it, but I wanted to listen first. I generally try to avoid DIY, but let Crack in because they are everywhere and not difficult to obtain used. TIII can be purchased pre-built.

     
  7. JK47

    JK47 Friend

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    @Marvey If I can't make the meet, I would be willing to get it to you for a listen, and you could bring it to the meet if you're interested. I should know my schedule by mid October.
     
  8. Dino

    Dino Friend

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  9. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    I've tried to refrain from commenting on the Garage amps because I know they have a following and I didn't want to be seen as a Schiit shill. But since you directly asked, I will oblige. I have not heard Sunrise, but I have had Starlight in my possession and also Ember, where I played with all the switches to try to get the sound that I wanted. I don't recall the tube, but it I'm pretty sure it was a 6V type. I compared the Starlight to the Vali 1, and the Starlight was un-competitive against the Vali in every aspect with the exception of timbre which the Vali 1 sucked at because it has a strong sound signature that imparted itself on everything. The Ember was overly warm, polite, forgiving, veiled, rolled and boring. Just not my thing and I'll leave it at that. Recent competition is also tough, e.g. Vali 2, NBM, etc.
     
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  10. Wilson

    Wilson Friend

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    No Schiit shilling...the products combine so many desirable elements. I am floored by the Vali 1 especially given the price point.
     
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  11. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    The Force tells me it probably sounds like shit. I've heard way too many Chi-Fi tube amps by now. Although I wouldn't be surprised if Monoprice made an HE1000 type clone that sounded just as good as an HE1000 type clone.
     
  12. FlySweep

    FlySweep Friend

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    The TIII is now only available as an assembled unit due to obsessive SBAF tweakage that was generously accommodated by Beezar & ECP.
     
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  13. Marvey

    Marvey Loves sex and records

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    Yup, that's why I had no concerns putting it in the list.
     
  14. zerodeefex

    zerodeefex Unpaid LH Labs volunteer - Admin

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    Missing used ZD, not ZDSE.
    What? Are there any plans to have kits available again? Was going to make one for a buddy.
     
  15. Huxleigh

    Huxleigh Wow, I made it this far without being a friend?

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    Although it originally retailed for $1.2k, the DNA Sonett can typically be found used for roughly half that. I imagine the same's true of the Sonett 2, but I've never seen one go up for sale. IIRC that went for $1.4k, so I'd think it also meets the criteria for this list.

    That said, outstanding work by @Hands & @Marvey! :bow: Super helpful resource, here.
     
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2016
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  16. Dino

    Dino Friend

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    Bottlehead Crack can be purchased new and pre-built. Not directly from Bottlehead though:

    "We [Bottlehead] are happy to announce that we have formed an alliance with our good bud Shawn Phelps, aka Scratch_P, and now aka hifibuilderguy. Some of you know that Shawn was our assembly tech here for several years, and he knows how to assemble our kits as well as anyone on the planet. ...This service is independent of Bottlehead Corp. Bottlehead guarantees the parts used in the kit, and hifibuilderguy guarantees the assembly service. "

    http://bottlehead.com/smf/index.php?topic=4783.0

    The used Bottlehead Crack I bought on ebay was built by hifibuilderguy.
     
  17. Dino

    Dino Friend

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  18. TRex

    TRex Wow, I made it this far without being a friend?

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    Does anyone know how far pre-built TIII from maxed-out TIII (costs, components, work, etc)?
     
  19. bazelio

    bazelio Friend

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    Just a clarification... The MicroZOTL2 is $1100 with SMPS, and $1695 with LPS.

    @TRex - I'm not sure what your question is, but the important upgrades are Cinemags, Mundorf caps and output CCS boards, which combined are about $400 in component cost. I'd suggest adding a pair of orange globe Amperex 12AT7 tubes for about $40 as well.
     
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  20. TRex

    TRex Wow, I made it this far without being a friend?

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    Sorry, let me rephrase. How much does it cost & how much work needed (just a couple hours of simple DIY or many hours of complex DIY) to max out the pre-build TIII besides tube rolling?

    Edit: I'm asking because I have limited DIY skill, so Mjo 2 might be better for me if pre-build TIII is far behind maxed-out TIII.
     

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