Published On: January 11, 2009

EAR V-20 Amp Reviewed

Published On: January 11, 2009

EAR V-20 Amp Reviewed

Amps don't have to look boring. The V-20 from EAR, for example, puts out its 24 watts per channel with a visual aplomb hard to find elsewhere in the AV world. Built to look like a V-12, and perform like one as well...

ear_v20_amp.gif

Leave it to Tim de Paravicini to come up with something so deliciously twisted that no tube crazy can resist it. The new E.A.R. V20 integrated amplifier, despite costing a not-unreasonable-by-today's-standards £2495, looks like nothing else and sports a quantity of tubes rivalled by few. Hell, the only items I can think of off-hand with similar numerical appeal - i.e. more tubes than any sane person would deem necessary - are high-enders like the GRAAF GM200OTL with its 16 output tubes per channel, and the recent Silvaweld design with 48 per monoblock.

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Now the V20 isn't quite up in that league in tube count, but neither is it in price. Better still, its profusion of glassware is of the common-as-muck variety, so here's a rare chance to have a plethora of tubes without living in fear of the cost of re-valving the beast. That's because Tim has chosen to use ten ECC83s per channel - hence the model number.

Actually, the name 'V20' was inspired by Tim's passion for cars (he is known to drive in a 'spirited' fashion), in particular the V12 Jaguar engine. The original prototype had a dozen output valves, and the company was tempted to call it the V12 Amplifier Engine. However, Tim decided to uprate the project the present V20 specification, with no less than twenty output valves. But then it's also known in-house and among cultists as 'Mickey Mouse' because, when viewed from the front at eye-level, its volume and source controls look like a pair of eyes, with the half-cylindrical tube covers looking like that famed rodent's ears. Or, E.A.R.s, if you prefer.

And it's a gorgeous, covetable little thing, measuring a tidy 427x426x139mm (WDH), weighing a chunky 20kg, and sporting steam-punk looks through a mix of materials. It's that Victorian Modernist vision which makes this look like a prop from Nemo's Nautilus, gold-plated knobs and connectors, chromed fascia and transformer caps, black cages over the tubes and wooden end-pieces in what looks like a very dark rosewood. The left-hand knob selects one of five inputs, the right takes care of level, while at the extreme right-hand 'point' is a large on-off button which glows orange-y yellow, as per earlier Yoshino products.

Neat touches abound, like a chrome rail protecting the CE-approved, yet multi-way binding posts mounted on the top, at the back of the row of transformers. Deft use of a screwdriver removes the safety caps for those who still use banana plugs, in defiance of the cretins in Brussels. Output terminals are provided for 4, 8 or 16 ohm loudspeakers, and you'll want to optimise the impedance matching because this is, after all, a mere 24-watter. The rear panel itself contains gold-plated binding posts for the five line level sources and tape-output.

Part of the Yoshino DNA chain, the V20 amplifier is a break away from what Tim describes as 'the currently fashionable approaches of pentodes and tetrodes in ultralinear configuration and of large direct-heated triodes'; remember, though, that Tim was one of the first in the West to get involved with the S.E.T. revival. Instead, it uses parallel-connected ECC83 (a.k.a.12AX7) indirectly-heated double triodes in the output stage. Now most of us think of these only as pre-amp tubes, or drivers, or other considerations where sheer power isn't an issue. Even so, Tim set them up to deliver just under 2.5W each, for an integrated amplifier rated at 24W/ch, in push-pull, pure Class-A mode. A further five tubes per channel complete the line-up, including three more ECC83s for the input drive and a pair of ECC82 driver tubes. Again, I wish to repeat: this amp ain't gonna break its owners when re-tubing time comes around.

For those of you who recognise the Yoshino line as a source of iconoclastic treasures, the V20 will prove to be as much fun and as much of a challenge as the still-hard-to-beat E.A.R. 859. That 13W single-ended triode design will be looked upon by anachrophiles of the year 2025 as the same calibre of pioneer in its genre as the Krell KAV300i and the Audio Research CA-50 are regarded in theirs. This whole back-to-integrateds revolution is far from over; what's so refreshing is that it has yet to impose design limitations, especially in terms of overall topology, enabling a firebrand like Tim to come up with such dazzling, innovative gems.

And a gem it is, a bijoux which confuses you thusly: does one take it po-faced seriously, or treat it as one would the EarMax or an X-Series module - as a source of grinning-ear-to-ear fun? However funky the styling, however much you want to cuddle it and give it a nickname and festoon it with white gloves, yellow shoes and a girlfriend named Minnie, something keeps telling you that you're in the presence of a radical new listening tool. And that something is a freedom from coloration, nastiness and grunge which you simply do not associate with 20 tubes of the most blindingly ordinary variety.

That car analogy of Tim's is perfect, because the way he's transformed the ECC83 into an output tube of note recalls a point raised in Richard Williams' stunning story of Damon Hill's championship year, (Penguin paperback, £7.99). Williams reminded the reader of geniuses such as Colin Chapman, who took a complete piece of shit - the ludicrous and overrated-by-jingoists Austin 7 - and turned it into a world-beater. Not that the conditions are the same here: Chapman was working in shortage-riddled post-war Britain, whereas Tim and other modern tube designers are now spoiled for choice. Hell, they can even buy brand-new 300Bs made by Western Electric if they so desire. But nearly the same spirit which inspired Chapman has been employed by de Paravicini, that of turning something intrinsically common and cheap into something truly wonderful.

Read more about the EAR V-20 on Page 2.

ear_v20_amp.gif

Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that the ECC83 is anything less
than an all-time classic tube...but for pre-amp usage. Who'd've thought
that it could 'out-sweet' an EL34? That it could match a KT-66 for
mid-band warmth, or a 6550 for speed? And without a single trace of
edge, nastiness, grit or any other artefact you might correlate with
being over-driven? But that's precisely the point: ten ECC83s per
channel seem perfectly capable of delivering what must be remembered is
double the amount of power deemed acceptable by S.E.T. standards.
Over-driven? Into clipping? I don't think so.

But let's get real: two dozen watts is still only a smattering of
grunt, just right for 90dB-plus loads, or oddballs like the 15-ohm
LS3/5A with its narrowly defined power handling, or the original Quad
ESL designed to work with 15 watts' worth of Quad II juice. So although
the V20 is far more generous than the average S.E.T., it still imposes
restrictions on the choice of speakers you may use.

But why worry? Turnabout is fair play, and the V20 user is just as
entitled to creating a system with horns or other high-sensitivity
aberrations as would any S.E.T. user. But don't confuse the V20's
performance with that of a typical S.E.T. just because it shares the
latter's power limitations. The V20 assiduously eschews the very
elements of S.E.T. sound which undermine those undeniable S.E.T.
strengths. Where an S.E.T. is sweet but soggy, the V20 is sweet yet
controlled and precise. Where an S.E.T. is so warm and forgiving that
you feel something have been sacrificed, the V20 is equally emotion-laden and life-like, but also detailed, dynamic and commanding.

Listening to the V20 is very much a case of experiencing the same
delights which make caviar more delicious than a pickled egg, a
wristwatch more covetable than a wall clock, a Lotus 7 more fun to
drive than a Sierra (bad analogy: a rickshaw is more fun to drive than
a Sierra): quality over quantity. The V20 somehow manages to deliver
the high-end virtues of a big sound stage and terrific, layered 3D,
fast dynamic swings, low coloration, natural timbre and everything else
we crave, but in a package shorn of excess. If only to explain my
indecision - is the V20 a novelty or a revolution? - the listener has
to be re-educated to accept that you have all of those highly
desirable qualities in a package which doesn't happen to include an
overabundance of power as part of the recipe. The only sacrifice you
have to make is to stick with whatever high-sensitivity speakers which
suit your budget.

Which is my way of saying that, alas, one of the dream speakers for
mating with the V20 in a small-to-medium room is the Wilson WATT/Puppy
System 5.1: possessing high-sensitivity yet betraying none of the
compromises associated with most speakers of that ilk. But the price is
way out of the V20 ballpark, so it's back to old Quads, LS3/5As and
horns which don't make you want to pour molten lead into your ears. Why
worry? However much harder is your task for finding the right speakers,
the V20 is worth the effort because what I think we're witnessing here
is Tim de Paravicini's finest moment. And that's scary, when you
consider that even his disasters are better than most designers'
triumphs.

Buy one now, before E.A.R.'s tube supplier puts two and two together, and starts pricing ECC83s as if they were KT88s.

Yoshino Limited, Rectory Farm, Cambridge Road, Godmanchester, Cambs.
PE18 8BP. Tel 01480 453791, FAX 01480 432006, e-mail: [email protected]

SIDEBAR: In Tim's Own Words...
Given the oddball nature of the V20, it's over to Tim for a succinct
description of the circuitry: 'The output stage is unique in several
respects. First, it uses 10 ECC83 'small-signal' triode valves, with 10
triode sections in parallel per phase. Although this valve is normally
only capable of passing small currents, it is used in E.A.R.'s Enhanced
Triode Mode (originally applied to triode-connected pentode valves),
whereby the grid is maintained positive with respect to the cathode, so
that the grid current normally flows. Under these conditions the valve
behaves effectively as a current-controlled device, rather than the
more normal voltage-controlled mode.'

Another of Tim's signature features in the output stage is the use
of his 'Balanced Bridge' connection. 'Unlike the more common push-pull
output, in which signal is taken only from the anodes of the output
valves, the transformer windings are split equally between the anode
and the cathode circuit of each phase, and opposite anodes and cathodes
are coupled via a capacitor to ensure symmetry - especially at high
signal levels where one phase turning on hard forces the opposite phase
to turn off correctly.

'Additionally, 'Balanced Bridge' output connection provides, via the
various primary windings on the transformer, signals suitable for the
application of nested feedback and bootstrapping to earlier stages in
the circuit. Because the output stage has only unity gain (referred to
the grid of the output valves) and draws significant signal current,
the second stage and the cathode follower stage (which provides the
necessary current) must swing high signal voltages and so their anodes
are bootstrapped from the output transformer to ensure linearity.
Signals are also taken from the transformer to provide "nested
feedback" to the cathodes of the input and second stages. Both of these
stages are differential (balanced) for optimum symmetry and noise
rejection.'

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo amplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an AV receiver to integrate with the amp.
• Discuss audiophile equipment on AudiophileReview.com.

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