“I’d rather trust a country man than a town man. I’d rather trust a man who doesn’t shout what he’s found.” – Peter Gabriel (Genesis)
I don’t know much about Earle Weston but his very grand sounding name – like that of a English Lord of the Manor – implies a majestic back story about which I wish I knew more. Alas, Weston and I – we’ve never spoken on the phone, nor have we met. A short email to and fro and forum chatter is all I have to go on before the trail runs cold. In some ways, that adds to the magic of his hand-made amplifier business.
My imagination pegs Weston as a country fellow. His grotto located on the south east Australian lip of the Pacific – some way from the cultural melee of the most European of Australian cities, Melbourne. I like to imagine Earle Weston as a the red-headed Santa Claus of down under audiophillia. I picture him at work inside a shed at the end of a very long garden, instructing mini-Weston elves in the dark arts of tubes, chokes and transformer winding. Outside in the brilliant sunshine, I imagine the Weston workshop to be obscured overhead by substantial leafy coverage, lest its GPS location be revealed to the prying eyes of Google Earth. Inside, a man marches to his own drum and to his own agenda.
From the little I know – and by all accounts – Weston possesses talents beyond his years. The aesthetics of his amplifiers speak of a golden age now gone, where all tubular denizens once wound their own transformers. Weston Acoustics is a business seemingly untroubled by fads and fashions of mainstream hifi-land. Weston himself seems rightly happy with his steady and quiet way with product development and unit building. He doesn’t shout about his talents; in fact, Weston seems to be the epitome of modesty. I imagine he wouldn’t dream of telling anyone that his products are ‘amazing’ or ‘best’ – the way of country folk perhaps? Lest readers think I’m taking the piss here, be assured I’m not. I’ve met too many audio chaps who just don’t know when to stop talking and start listening.
You want an Earle Weston amplifier right now? Get in line, buddy – increasing demand has blown out wait times from weeks to months. That in itself speaks of something magical at work.
Like Sasa Cokic of Trafomatic, Earle Weston’s way with transformers is to hand-wind them. That’s something the Chinese can’t compete with. They might have the cheap labour feeding lower sticker prices, but they don’t imbue their products with the old-world romanticism – and attendant realism – of doing things *by hand*. At AU$999, the Troubadour sits squarely and stubbornly in Chinese integrated price territory. Even Weston himself admits, “The Troubadour is my attempt to lure people away from some of the cheap imports.”
“The output transformer is the single most important component in any tube amplifier. It’s very hard to get good bandwidth (frequency response) out of an output transformer. This is why good output transformers cost big dollars, and this is also the reason I wind my own, to keep costs down. To purchase quality output transformers would add close to $1000.00 to the build cost of each amplifier.”
“Depending on the model of amplifier, transformer winding can take anything from one hour each…up to 8 hours each. The Troubadour takes around 2 hours to wind the pair, the Time Machine: close to 16 hours.”
“Transformer frequency response, (measured out of circuit, loaded with 8 ohms)
Troubadour 20hz –0.28db, 20khz –0.17db, 50khz –0.82db
Time Machine 20hz –0.15db, 20khz –0.05db, 50khz –0.1db”
“As you can see even the troubadour performs very well. I have measured other brand output transformers some are 7db down by 20khz. (BTW, I could wind transformers like that in 5 minutes). Using such output transformers forces the designer to make compromises in the circuit design to achieved even barely acceptable specs. Not a good place to start.”
“The transformer winding and tube part is mostly self-taught. However, I was lucky enough to have an old, retired, and slightly crazy engineer give me a few tips on transformer winding. His sentence started like this and immediately got my attention. ‘Back when I was winding for Western Electric…………’ “
“I also studied electronics and digital circuits at Chisholm for two years of a four year course, unfortunately, due to a death in the family I was forced to find work. (but I did manage to finish the course some 14 years later!).”
“I had been working part time sales at DSE, and was lucky enough to land a position in their service department. After a couple of years working for DSE repairing answering machines it dampened my desire to continue with electronics; that and the fact I was still at night school and it was also my hobby – a bit of an overload me thinks.”
“I’d also purchased a Ducati and was enjoying any spare time I had taking it down the Great Ocean Road. So, I ended up drifting from job to job for a while until a stint in the building industry, and eventually started a small, home-based business repairing and upgrading computers and other electronic components. It was when 386sx16’s were still regarded as quick, so it was a while ago…”
“…reading a Hi Fi World mag – a pretty early one – about 18 years ago, there was an article about an English gent who hand made 211-based single-ended amplifiers. THIS was when the dream started. From that moment on, I wanted to design and build valve amplifiers.”
“The philosophy behind the Troubadour was simply to offer a good quality, Australian, hand-made valve amplifier at a price (under $1K) that will draw potential purchasers away from cheap imports.”
In the Troubadour, a pair of Jan Phillips 12AT7 (twice) manage input signals, a quad of Chinese 6L6GC run the power show and a Jan-Cetron 5R4WGB – an industrial 5R4 – supplies the DC. The latter has a visual appeal that adds to the steam-punk vibe. On the rear, we get four inputs and a two pairs of 8 Ohm speaker terminals. On the front: a a name plate, a volume pot and source selector switch. All up, no more than you need to get up and running with tubes. Entry-level price, entry-level deployment. Of course, personal tweaks can be had with negotiation and for appropriate fee. In dealing with Weston direct, customer service is – err – amplified. The Australian box might not meet everyone’s aesthetic ideals, but having local support from the man himself – should you need it – gilds the lily. Weston Acoustics amplifiers aren’t just a product, they’re a service too.
How does it sound? Want me to thrice slice the frequency range for traditional analysis? Nope. This ain’t that kind of box and I ain’t that kind of guy. You want to know if bass is tight or treble extended? How does one say so with certainty and fortitude? Such qualitative judgements are as relative as one’s moral code. If you want measurements – puh – this isn’t your website, big fella.
I’ve always found the 6L6 tube to have a better handle on the crisp-crunch of — say — Byrne and Eno’s “The Jezebel Spirit”, within which the found sound samples are cleaner than via the sometimes more buttery EL34. Comparing apples with applies…bite a Golden Delicious, it’s sweet and little soft in the middle – that’s EL34. Bite a Royal Gala and it’s firmer, crisper and not quite as sweet – that’s 6L6.
Having spent considerable time with the velvet-walled seduction of Serbian Trafomatic Experience Two (300B, SET), the Troubadour brings music down to earth: it lowers the centre of gravity presents as cleaner and faster. It’s less languid. The push-pull tubular weight gain is fleshier than its solid state rivals. Weston’s integrated is no midrange lard-arse. Musical body is well-toned but it doesn’t overdo morning workouts (leading to muscularity). No part of the frequency range stands out as particularly strong or weak. Nothing is emphasised or underlined. At first blush, the Troubadour’s sound is plain, its personality aloof. With the long-game in mind, these are attractive traits.
When partnered with 47Labs’ Lens, there’s enough Aussie power on tap for it win out over another Trafomatic (the Aries) – the Australian is tighter, sharper, faster. Whilst the Aries is a MUCH better match for the Hoyt Bedford Types 1 and 2, the Japanese monitors are deceptive little suckers. You think full-range, you think SET? Not here. That three inch driver doesn’t want love or affection as much as it demands a firm hand. Via Lens air movement, soundstaging isn’t noticeably wider or taller than other integrateds at hand – Exposure, Dayens – and inner detail immersion doesn’t standout as anything more than with those solid statesmen. The Troubadour’s major strength is its modesty – a reflection of this Geppetto? Stock form means nothing overly sparkly or attention grabbing to wow — then, later, annoy. It’s a delicious home cooked meal, 20wpc a satisfactory portion size.
Ruh roh. Dropping nominal loudspeaker sensitivity like a stone, the Usher S-520 kills the party dead. Yes, the Troubadour behind Ushers makes reasonable noise for closer quarters, but bass rounds/rolls too early and it lacks texture – overall, a tamed outward exuberance that won’t fill larger spaces. For Usher demonstrability proper, I call upon the Exposure 2010s2 or REDGUM Sonofa’GUM. The latter is c-leaner with vocals. Smooth and matter-of-fact narration is how the Exposure baby rolls.
Closing the door in the face of the Usher standmounts, the Troubadour clearly prefers less of a physical challenge: the Lens and Rogers LS4a are where it’s at.
Starting from the neutral slate of the stock sound, I look to chisel the sculpture’s finer features — I tube roll. My intention: to inject some vibrancy, some rollmo. Out go the Chinese 6L6GC and in come a quad of Tung-Sols. The result? Nothing I could finger with certainty, but something just didn’t feel right. A reminder (yet again) that music (for me) is as much about feeling as it is sound. The Tung-Sol sound is smokiness with an (unwelcome) hint of burnt coffee. The unpleasant after-taste hangs in the air. The Tung-Sol 6L6 in the Troubadour leads to a dissatisfaction that’s three-second delayed.
My mind wandered to Genalex Gold Lion KT66…until a friend hollered “Penta Labs all the way, John”. Fair enough – I’m open to suggestions. Five days from the USA to Darko door is all it took to push a quad of Penta Labs KT66 and a pair of similarly branded 12AT7 into place. (A shout out for Doug’s Tubes is warranted here – his service is exceptional and speedy enough to bother local tube suppliers). In for a penny, in for a pound: the Jan Phillips 5R4WGB rectifier was substituted for a NOS GE Brown Base 5R4GY. Total tube spend: AU$200. A further $100 on Herbie’s Tenderfeet completed the user-servicable parts overhaul. The Troubadour had a shiny new engine and better suspension. Ride = pimped.
USA’s Penta KT66 peppered proceedings with pep and alertness. Music awaken. This pimped ride was a top-down coupe, whose top-end exposed greater recording ambience and inner detail swirl. Earle Weston’s amplifier was now faster, cleaner – closer to the Exposure, but without the Brit’s power. 20wpc is still 20wpc.
The 5R4GY rectifier tube revs the engine harder: here was a tubular sound that was better attuned to the quick smarts of Russia’s Fizarrum (IDM) or the UK’s more soulful Fila Brazillia (ambient funk). When running bottles, I prefer speed and bounce to seduction and romance; it simply gels better with my musical tastes. However, it wasn’t win-win: the Penta Labs tubes bring some glassiness to vocals.
Everyday from March until June, I just listened. Or rather I didn’t. Not critically anyway. The Troubadour is what I would go back to after dispensing with the review hat for the day. The review process was sidelined.
I once read a short, simple book about the psychology of tennis. Its broad message being that to become better at tennis (like golf), one had to eliminate playing against one-self. The conscious brain (Self A) had a tendency to tell the subconscious brain (Self B), despite Self B already knowing what to do. In short: don’t think about hitting the ball, just hit the ball! George Clinton said it better: free yo mind and yo ass will follow.
In living with this Penta-powered Troubadour for several months, my conscious brain rarely critically listened, allowing my subconscious to just dig some tunes. On more than one occasion, Self A caught sight of Self B’s most satisfactory aural diet – vitamins from A to Z. This occurred equally frequently with both Lens and LS4a. The Troubadour is high sound quality by stealth, every so often tapping you on the shoulder to remind you of its down-to-earth quality. It’s strong in communicating the emotion of music. Looking at it via a culinary analogy, your speakers provide the flavour but the Troubadour provides the nourishment and goodness.
In stock form, here is an amplifier that’s impressive as much for what it represents as what it is: handmade, bespoke, wholesome…dependable – never a ‘sick’ day taken or an off-day had. An extensive tube roll and Tenderfeet appendage takes the Troubadour from a home-cooked meal to the family Christmas dinner (with all the trimmings): quite fitting for the Australian Santa Claus (of amplifier manufacturers).
You’d have to do some hard yards on Cattylink to find a cheaper tubular integrated that didn’t look gaudy or cheap. Finding one rated for 230-240VAC might be tougher still. My experience with an eBay-purchased 220V Yaqin saw it run hot, hot, HOT! Little wonder Joe Rasmussen mods ’em. Even entry level amplifiers from proven Pacific-rim brands – Cayin, Melody, Consonance – all skirt the $2k boundary. Ming Da might be the only Chinese brand with bona fide local distribution (and the corresponding mains power rating) that’ll get you humming along for less than a grand.
Finding a home-grown, quality integrated with hand-wound transformers for a grand? That’s Hobson’s choice. This is Aussie-pride (“maaaaaate“) without need for bogan cliche or southern cross tattoo. Earle Weston’s Troubadour will leave its own indelible (mental) mark for those willing to invest in a long-term relationship. Fear of commitment will only lend weight to stories of “the one that got away”. Three words to summarise: hearty, healthy, unrivalled. Down under – and without fanfare or fuss – the Troubadour has become the benchmark of budget tube-rs.
- Mac Mini 2010
- Anedio D1
- Audio-gd Reference 7.1
- Usher S-520
- Rogers LS4a
- 47Labs Lens
- Hoyt Bedford Type 1
- Hoyt Bedford Type 2
- Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)
- Robert Hood – Omega:Alive (2011)
- M.A.N.D.Y. – Body Language Vol. 10 (2011)
- David Byrne and Brian Eno – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981)
- Talking Heads – Remain In Light [24-96] (1980)
- Fizzarum – Monochrome Plural (2000)
- Fila Brazillia – Maim That Tune (1995)