Without fail, each and every valve amplifier that has passed through the Darko doors has been christened (by my wife) with an all-too literally descriptive name: the Consonance M100+ was referred to as the “Prison Amplifier” (due to its tube cage), the JLTi EL34 is the “Power Station” and today I can reveal unto you “The Ridiculous Doctor Who Machine”. Not a bad way at all to describe the Trafomatic Experience Two on looks alone.
Trafomatic are a Serbian company who are integral part of a re-awakening in the Eastern European commercial hifi sector. At the core of their amplifier design philosophy is the idea that the transformer is king – they wind their own (which is no small deal).
Part American post-war optimism, part British post-war austerity, the aesthetics of the Experience Two are striking. It’s of single-ended topography and rated at 8wpc. If you’re already a tube lover then the bulbous 300B output tubes and the direct-heated 5U4G rectifier will undoubtedly float your boat. The information sheet that accompanied the review model tells us that Mundorf capacitors reside within and 6SN7 triodes (that interestingly pre-date the now-ubiquitous 12AU7/ECC82) are the driver tubes of choice. Each tube’s type code is neatly engraved into the brushed aluminium top-plate and the side trims are (what appears to be) black oak. If you hang on every word of the specification sheet, you should know that the output transformers are wound on Double-C cores. Trafomatic also supply a remote control that mirrors the amplifiers wood/metal juxtapositions.
Build quality is exquisite. The ALPS volume pot has that solid Aluminium surety that just begs to be turned, and in doing so one gets the strange sensation that the amplifier is somehow attached to the core of the earth – again, redolent of 1960s science fiction. There is no hint of on/off speaker “thumps”, the machine itself is tomb-silent during operation and there is absolutely zero evidence of any transformer hum at all but the highest of volumes; I had to push past 3am to hear it. With only a soupcon of nostalgia, the Trafomatic’s clothing is both traditional and future-facing. It is 75% H.G. Welles, 25% Orson Welles.
Some practicalities of audiophile time-travel: Red House Painters, Cocteau Twins and The Pale Saints sounded too skeletal with the Trafomatic teamed up with a pair of PMC DB1i. The brain was present, but the body missing. More endomorphic satisfaction was had with a pair of Omegas XRS 6. Here, music had fullness, dynamics and ladder-to-the-sky treble extension. This amplifier-speaker pairing was maintained for almost six weeks.
Suede are one of the great lost bands of the 90s Britpop era. Nothing shows off the emphatic Andersen/Butler songwriting synergy better than the B-side compendium Sci-Fi Lullabies. Team Trafomatic-Omega bring the retrophile sass and confident swagger to the fore. When Killing Of A Flash Boy shows its teeth, we see they are as sharp as ever. Who says tube amplifiers can’t do rock n roll? If valves strip none of the mayhem and chaos from Les Savy Fav’s Inches, we know we have a winner. The Experience Two’s 40-minute riposte was short and oh-so-sweet: we have a winner.
I tried to challenge this 300B’s ability to drive tougher loads. Everything has a weakness, right? I thought I’d bring it back down to size with some 85db ATC standmounts. It just laughed in my face and sounded utterly wonderful. Shit. OK then, how about Grinderman II tearing rock n roll a new one? But even with 8wpc, the Experience Two’s volume control refused to relinquish control; I backed down before it did. This was a nervy but impressive experiment: a noisy guitar charge led by Nick Cave (the lustiest rock songs he’s written since The Birthday Party). Not optimal, but not terrible. I emphatically proved (to myself) that you don’t have to be a lover of chick-with-acoustic-guitar music to dig this amplifier.
John Digweed’s latest installment in the Bedrock compilation series (we’re now up to Volume 12!) shows off the Experience Two’s biggest surprise/success: bass control. 4-4 kick drums sounded lean and tight. Although, it should be noted that I have a penchant for diminished bass slam (I find it crude and unnecessary). Richie Hawtin’s Plastikman techno revival brings with it the resurgence of the 909 drum machine. With poor-quality amplification, it can sound over-bearing. With an an el-cheapo EL34 integrated, it sounded over-sized, bloated…obese! The 300Bs cut away the excess fat and make room for the wobbly 303 groove to worm its way into my brain. Impressive.
Some amplifiers anchor the song to its bassline with magical results (hello Red Wine Audio). The Experience Two has a stronger melodic focus, one that – whilst not obvious – seeps into the listener’s consciousness. A Jedi mind trick for sure. It allows the listener to dream, to ruminate. Music floats and thoughts drift. Time passes. This is a valve amplifier that holds strong to the values of detail retrieval and the delicacies of micro dynamics, but it does so more with effortless ease than with military precision. You get more by licking than biting. Notes linger, voices dissipate. More time passes.
How does the Trafomatic Experience Two compare to other amplifiers? It’s not as commanding or as brutish as the outstanding Aaron XX, but it does sound more other-worldly, more epicurean. It’s not as definite or as precise as the Red Wine Audio 30.2 (AU$3000), but it benefits from being more transient-lush. Whilst the Red Wine integrated offers more bass punch and inner detail, the Experience Two is the more captivating of the two. The Trafomatic is fleshier and more extended in the top end than both the aforementioned Red Wine Audio and the excellent Virtue Sensation M901 (AU$1200). Moreover, the Experience Two offers clean and diaphanous sonics. Picture a fast-running stream or brook, the water fresh from the stones beneath.
The Trafomatic Experience Two is a valve amplifier for those that don’t like the idea of valve amplifiers. It doesn’t sound overtly “tubey” and there is little-to-no hint of syrup in vocals. It possesses many solid state traits and – above all else – is exceptionally transparent. It doesn’t suffer from the muddied waters of some EL34-based machines and – in this context – bass grip is truly excellent. Its midnight black operational silence is a real boon in a world where tube amplification and 95db+ speaker efficiency usually means tolerating “hum” or “hiss”. You don’t have to make such compromises with this 300B. The Trafomatic’s ebullience with nearly all musical genres and ability to drive some (but not all) more inefficient standmounts loudspeakers lends it an “everyman” vibe. Its euphony is not overcooked and it looks utterly fantastic; especially if you’re into the past-as-future posturing of steampunk. If Jules Verne had designed an amplifier, it would probably look and sound as mesmerising as the Trafomatic Experience Two.
Meanwhile, back on earth, this machine will run you AU$4000. Not exactly small change and certainly sufficient wallet damage to take the sheen off the Trafomatic’s sonic seduction for all but those with the biggest wallets. I’m not saying the Trafomatic isn’t value for money (it is), I’m simply saying that quality like this doesn’t come cheap. Judged on sound quality alone, the Red Wine Audio 30.2 offers greater bang-for-buck, but ultimately lacks the intangible seduction and swing of a 300B machine. The Trafomatic Experience Two is abundant in first-class engineering and sonics but reinforces the maxim that you get what you pay for.
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- TeraDak Chameleon
- Maverick TubeMagic D1
- Wyred 4 Sound DAC 2
- Aaron XX
- Virtue Sensation M901
- Red Wine Audio 30.2
- Grinderman – Grinderman II (2010)
- Les Savy Fav – Inches (2004)
- John Digweed – Bedrock 12 (2010)
- Suede – Sci-Fi Lullabies (1997)
- Cocteau Twins – Victorialand (1986)
- The Pale Saints – In Ribbons (1992)
- Red House Painters – Down Colourful Hill (1992)