Audion’s Australian distributor has been bugging me to check out their Silver Night 300B ever since I unearthed the drive and beauty found at the heart of the EL34 Sterling Anniversary amplifier (reviewed here). “If you think that’s good – you wait till you hear the 300B!”, enthused Kirkham, echoing the sentiments expressed by Audion’s US importer Gary Alpern.
A KT120 model has recently been added to the Audion range. I saw/heard it briefly at T.H.E Show in Newport Beach this year after which I thought it high time I heard both the new kid on the block and the 300B side-by-side in less hectic surroundings.
When I last caught up with Cameron Pope of Krispy Audio he was demo-ing Zu Union loudspeakers at Sydney’s Audio Club. Pope is now also the Sydney agent for Audion – I stopped by for lunch and a listen. On the menu: the Super Stirling 120 (AU$4000) and Silver Night 300B (AU$5360).
Audion chief Graeme Holland doesn’t present as a man over-burdened by the pressures of brand promotion or production deadlines but he is very particular about how his amplifiers get made. At his farmhouse workshop in Le Haut Mon (near Bordeaux) traditional production line workflow is eschewed in favour of a simpler methodology: a single employee builds each amplifier.
Don’t be misled by the numbers on the spec sheets. Not all watts are born equal – Audion’s get the silver spoon treatment. A tube amplifier’s sonic prowess correlates directly with the quality of its output transformers. Melbourne’s Earle Weston knows this. Ditto Serbia’s Sasa Cokic. Like Trafomatic and Weston Acoustics, Audion hand-wind their own; a time- and labour-intensive process. Capacitors aren’t bought off the shelf – they are made to Graeme Holland’s exact specifications.
Ordinarily, a need to drive lower efficiency loudspeakers with tubes demands a push-pull amplifier. These see-saw circuits are able to deliver more power than their single-ended counterparts. This is why most single-ended owners pair their amplifier with high-efficiency loudspeakers. However, Audion’s single-ended amplifiers are punchy and dynamic; they often exceed expectations when called upon to drive tougher loads. Such was my experience with the EL34 model, even at 12pwc.
My afternoon listening session at Krispy Audio started like this: Zu Omen Definitions (AU$5100) driven by Audion’s Silver Night 300B, its 7 wpc a paper-perfect match for the 100db transducers from Utah. Out in a real-world room the sound is as propulsive as it is expansive. Sweet-talk and physicality – the perfect date.
The Super Stirling 120 doesn’t fare as well as the 300B with the Omen Definition or – later – the Zu Union (AU$3700). It’s not as grandiloquent and it’s less effusive. The soundstage seceded somewhat and I was left wondering where the 300B’s beautiful bass texture went.
For Zu Audio’s coaxial designs I’d personally opt for the 300B ringer. Pope and I found ourselves in firm agreement that both the Union and Soul MKII sound good with solid state juice but they really come alive with tubes. At DAR HQ I run the Soul MKIIs with Weston Acoustics’ EL34 Topaz (AU$1800) – bottled harmonics result in tons of tone and spooky holography. The Topaz is a push-pull design but I’d bet a thousand sheets of green that the single-ended Audion 300B would be better still.
The Super Stirling 120’s brief is to deal with diminished sensitivity. “The sweetness of the EL34 with twice the punch of the KT88”, runs the rubric.
The KT120 model was the brain-child of the aforementioned Gary Alpern. It’s the world’s first single-ended KT120 amplifier and it is promoted loud and proud as such; an amplifier than can take 86db standmounts by the scruff of the neck. Twin KT120 output tubes joyride 24 Class A watts per channel (into 8 ohms).
At 91db, the Verity Audio Finn (AU$6500-7500) aren’t the least efficient speaker around but the 300B struggled a little. Not so the KT120 – it marched into the wilderness, unflinching in the face thicker brush. Witnessing the KT120’s talents here had me wishing I could drive it home for playtime with the KEF LS50.
Some audiophiles relish the pre-cognitive way single-ended amplifiers seemingly extract a vocal and suspend it in mid air but despair at their low-power output, locking them into a narrower range of loudspeaker choices. Audion’s Super Stirling 120 unshackles them from such constraints. A win-win that recalls Lou Reed’s “Power and Glory”:
“I was visited by the power and the glory
I was visited by a majestic hymn
Great bolts of lightning lighting up the sky
Electricity flowing through my veins”