While there were an awful lot of high-ticket items at this year's CES show in Las Vegas, it was the event's more affordable offerings that really caught my eye. As luck would have it, two of the CES' biggest values were actually exhibiting together: English speaker manufacturer Wharfedale and newcomer Napa Acoustics. While currently an Internet-direct company, Napa Acoustic used this past CES as a sort of coming-out party, not only for the press, but for dealers as well. While I hope they don't abandon their Internet-direct business model, and with it their low, low prices, I will tell you this much: at the prices at which they sell their audiophile integrated amps and CD player, they have no right to sound as good as they do. Case in point and the subject of this review, Napa Acoustic's MT-34 tubed integrated amp, which at $1,199 is the most expensive product Napa offers.
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The MT-34 is clearly a product made overseas, though that doesn't mean it's built cheaply or even looks cheap. Its visual appeal is evident in its high-gloss, piano-black aluminum finish with brushed aluminum accents. The front features a large, gloss-black volume dial that is accented by a polished silver ring, which is a nice touch. Atop the brushed aluminum plinth rest the MT-34's eight vacuum tubes, four 12AX7s in the front and four EL34s in the rear. A tube cage is offered as standard, though any real fan of tubes will most likely leave it in the box - I did. Behind the last pair of EL34 tubes are the MT-34's torrodial transformers, which are concealed inside a pair of polished aluminum housings that also happen to be black, matching the rest of the amp's bodywork. The sides of MT-34 slope downward, giving the amp a very streamlined and elegant look, as opposed to the retro one sported by so many other tube-based products.
The amp itself is rather large compared to the other products in Napa Acoustic's stable, at nearly 13 inches wide by 20 inches deep and eight inches tall. It's also quite heavy, though Napa doesn't list the MT-34's weight. I found the MT-34 to be every bit as heavy as a vintage McIntosh MC225 I had on hand, which puts it in the roughly 30-plus-pound club. The back plate features two pairs of gold-plated analog inputs, one for Aux and the other for CD, both selectable via a small toggle switch located just to the right of the inputs. There are six five-way binding posts, three per side, with taps for both four- and eight-ohm speakers. A detachable power cord and a master on/off switch round out the MT-34's connection options.
Like I said earlier, the MT-34 is a tubed integrated amplifier relying on four 12AX7 input tubes, two per channel, and four EL34 for the amp's output stage, also two per channel. All tubes are auto-biasing, meaning the amp is plug and play, with no additional tube maintenance required once you've placed the included tubes into their respective sockets. I love auto-biasing tube amps, for they afford you the sound of tubes without any of the hassle. Another nice feature that I like about tube amps with auto-biasing circuits is that they make tube rolling that much easier. Tube rolling, for those who may not be familiar with the term, is a way in which you can voice your amplifier by using different makes and/or styles of tubes. Tube rolling aside, the MT-34 is rated to deliver 35 watts per channel into four ohms. Frequency response is listed at 20Hz to 25kHz, with total harmonic distortion less than 0.1 percent. Outside of those few specs, not much other information is given regarding the MT-34's performance specs, makeup, etc. Honestly, at its price point and target market, I'm not certain more information is needed, for the typical Napa Acoustic customer is probably going to be more concerned with how the music sounds, rather than why it sounds that way.
Integrating the MT-34 into one's system is about as easy as 1-2-3. I actually installed it in two different systems, the first being my bedroom, which consisted of the MT-34 driving a pair of Wharfedale Jade 1 bookshelf speakers ($1,199/pair), with source duties falling to Napa Acoustic's CD player, the NA-208C ($399). Speaker cables were from Binary Cable in the form of their 14-gauge CL2-rated bulk speaker cable, terminated with Planet Waves banana adaptors. Interconnects were the generic RCA cables that came with the Napa Acoustics CD player. Total system cost: just under $2,800 all-in.
The second place I installed the MT-34 was into my reference system, where it replaced both an Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp and a Parasound 5250 v2 multi-channel amplifier. The MT-34 drove my Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers ($24,000) full-range via the same Binary Cable from my bedroom system. Source duties fell to my Dune HD Max Blu-ray/Media Player ($599), which streamed music and movies off of my home network. Since the Dune HD Max has a digital volume control, I set the MT-34's volume to just under max and controlled the system volume via the Dune, which gave me remote capability -something I was unable to enjoy in my bedroom setup. Minus the speakers at $24,000 per pair, the two systems were somewhat comparable in price and mated well with the MT-34.
Tubes do sound better with a bit of warm-up time, so before I did any critical listening, I let them heat up for a good half hour in either system. I also didn't have any alternate tubes on hand that would've worked with the MT-34, so all of my performance observations were made via the stock tubes that come with the MT-34.
I began my evaluation of the MT-34 with Amos Lee's self-titled debut album and the opening track "Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight" (Blue Note). The track's opening guitar and accompanying piano sounded fleshed out and weighty, with a deft touch up top. Lee's vocals were firmly placed within the soundstage and, like his guitar, carried with them a very palpable sense of weight and presence, despite the Jade 1's diminutive size. There was an organic quality to both the instruments and vocal texture, something that I find is one of the intrinsic qualities tubes bring to the table. Instead of smoothing over or imparting an overly enhanced sense of warmth that some may regard as seductive, the MT-34 was surprisingly articulate, bringing out nuances in the music that many amps twice its price often gloss over.
Read more about the performance of the Napa Acoustic MT-34 on Page 2.