A true-balanced integrated amplifier that doubles as a power-amplifier. Plus 16 Ohm taps and piss-easy biasing. There’s a lot to like here…
Alex Yeung and his Eastern Electric brand’s waves now consistently lap Antipodean audiophile shores thanks to local distributor I-Enjoy. His MiniMax DAC and MiniMax phono stage are both pearlers in their respective price brackets. The latter recently drew an unsolicited round of applause at a Sydney hi-fi meet. Thusly, Eastern Electric now stands alongside the likes of Melody, Prima Luna, Ming Da and Audio Space as Asian manufacturers of repute.
Fresh out of the box, Eastern Electric’s M88 (AU$2000) integrated is a chunky-clunky-looking affair. It’s a heavy (23kg) tin shed. Or a scale model of a power station…or steel mill. Unusually, the tube action is parked ’round back. Working each channel: 2 x KT88, a 12AX7 and a 12AU7. There’s a third 12AU7 that handles the true balanced topology. Rating is 40wpc (into 8 Ohms). Those familiar with the tubes will likely know that’s plenty to drive most loudspeakers; the return on a tube watt is (I’m generalising here) greater than that from a solid state watt.
Biasing is a snap. Rotate the switch from “Play” to “V1”, adjust the bias with a screwdriver until the needle sits within the clearly marked limits on the meter. Repeat for “V2”, “V3” and “V4”.
Connectivity – there is an abundance thereof. Inputs: three single-ended and one balanced. Nice. Speaker outputs: 4 Ohm and 8 Ohm. AND 16 Ohm. Nicer. A turn of a front-panelled switch and the M88 can be used as a power amplifier (using the “pre-in” RCA connector on the rear). Super nice. Also on the front panel are source selection, volume pot and phase (in-)version. With such flexibility at such a price, it’s hard not to feel spoilt.
The remote control is a heavy, perfectly utilitarian affair; typical of the solid-aluminium-billet type that are popular with aforementioned Asian manufacturers.
Hello Zu Soul Superfly. Zu’s Australian handler had sent a pair up to Sydney from Adelaide “…just for you to listen to, John.”. I’d been forewarned me of their fickleness with amplifiers (due to their nominal 16 Ohm impedance). If any amplifier promised a chance of unleashing the magic from the Superfly, it’d be the M88. Right? Wrong – musical output sounded uptight and rigid. The Eastern Electric failed to seduce the fussy(-er) Superfly. Superfly guy didn’t take me higher. Not a criticism of each component in their own right, just a comment on the absence of synergy.
The KT88 tube-r faired MUCH better with the more easily driven (and rambunctious) Zu Omen. At AU$2300, the Omen are also the more price-appropriate pairing. I played the Twin Peaks Archive that’s trickling out (for $) via David Lynch’s website. That day’s listening notes read: “swift-swoosh”. Then Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter (about which I’d penned a comment about the M88’s lightness of touch). Later, something with more electronic bounce: Robag Wruhme’s Donnerkuppel EP; this lacked the emphatic density and punch of the REDGUM RGi120ENR. If it were a drummer, the Eastern Electric would show the very occasional urge to play with brush instead of stick. Like a young wine, its sound punches with flavour and fruit on the front of the palette. However, it can’t quite attain the deeper taste satisfaction of my Audion EL34; which subtly beautifies everything it touches. In Alex Yeung’s favour, hit KT88-er isn’t as pricey as the Audion or the REDGUM.
When later compared more directly with the REDGUM, the M88 was found to be airier, causing music to travel with a higher centre of gravity. The M88 leads with mids but lacks the weighty conviction of the Australian solid state unit. However, the M88 ain’t no sloppy bass slapper. With those lower frequencies, it’s lean, tight and (sometimes) dry. At least, this is how it went down in Zu territory…
…the ProAc Tablette Reference 8s revealed a far more agreeable side to the Eastern Electric beast. The delicacy and care (heard via the Zu Omen) stayed put. Into the mix came a neat crisp-crunch to upper mids. Entrusting Momus’ moody synth-plod “Streetlamp Soliloguoy” with first a Leben CS300XS and then the M88, the latter’s coolness and cleanliness stood it apart from the Japanese unit. Its KT88 juice was more effective (than the Leben’s EL84) in tempering the ProAcs’ tendency to show off their mid-bass hump. The Leben pours music as a thicker soup. Tomato perhaps. The Eastern Electric is more minestrone: thinner, more translucent with the occasional solid.
Yet more Momus. Hearing his Creation Acoustic EP’s fretboard squeals exposed the M88 as the server-upperer (sure, it’s a word) of more inner detail and overall insight than the Leben. The M88 shines stage lights from front to back, leaving the rear unlit darker and blacker. This front-to-rear tapering suggests reach-out-and-touch possibilities. Intimacy that’s not too cosy or too cloying – standoffish at times. The Leben’s stage depth illumination is more uniform, the Eastern Electric better separates players and sounds cleaner.
Even inside the ProAc mini-monitors the weighty bass notes of Modeselektor scaled up and down with alacrity and definition. And speed. The vocal snappiness of Brian Eno’s (remastered) Before And After Science was a the standout moment of the M88/TR8 review pairing. To this reviewer, KT88 tubes sound scienc-y: more honey-buzz than butter smear. The M88 doesn’t challenge that assertion. Sonic vapour trails are few and far between. This KT88 implementation is more straight talker than effusive seducer but it still brings the grin.
Another way to think of the M88 sound is as a firm chocolate shell that encases a small caramel centre. The feistiness rides up front and under the bonnet, the caramel in the boot. There’s enough power to juice more challenging loads but enough occasional elegance to reveal textural subtleties. These qualities mark the Eastern Electric as a well-defined tipping point for those about to take their first foray into tube-ville. Crossing over from the likes of a Naim Nait 5i or Exposure 2010s2 integrated would be cinch. The rear-facing tubes will probably be a turn-off for those that like to admire and/or show-off their acquisition but, on the other hand, it may be of significant interest to young family ‘philes; tougher for inquisitive little fingers to get burnt.
If you peg flexibility and functionality above aesthetics, the M88 is your guy. If you dig tubes that say what they mean and mean what they say, the M88 is also your guy. Go forth.
- MacMini 2010 + JKSPDIF MK3
- PS Audio PerfectWave DAC (MKII)
- Rega RP1
- PSAudio GCPH
- Leben CS300XS
- REDGUM RGi120ENR
- Audio EL34 Sterling
- Sansui AU-417
- Zu Omen standard
- Zu Soul Superfly
- ProAc Tablette Reference 8
- Brian Eno – Before And After Science (2004 Remaster)
- Momus – The Poison Boyfriend (1987)
- Momus – 20 Vodka Jellies (1996)
- Modeselektor – Monkeytown (2011)
- Nick Drake – Bryter Layter (1970)
- Robag Wruhme – Donnerkuppel EP (2011)
- Angelo Badalementi – Twin Peaks Archive (2011)