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.
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.
While not a bass-head's paradise, the MT-34's bass performance on the track was quite remarkable, possessing much of the same qualities found elsewhere in its peer group, with only a slight bump in the lowest octaves. While the Jade 1 bookshelf speakers' bass capabilities were surprising, I did find the MT-34's modest power output to be somewhat insufficient when asked to control my Bowers & Wilkins' bass drivers. With the right speakers, I can't imagine the MT-34 leaving much on the table in terms of its low-end performance -evident in my experiences at two vastly different extremes. Dynamics were solid, as I found the MT-34 to possess startling speed for a tube amp of its ilk and modest asking price. My go-to reference when it comes to agility from a tube amp is still the Decware SE84C+ single-ended triode amplifier, which the MT-34 wasn't quite able to match, though it more than made up for this in its ability to power a broader range of loudspeakers, as well as sounding good with a wider variety of music. Where the MT-34 brought it home for me was in its soundstage performance, a performance that was not only cavernous but rather acutely defined. Obviously, I've heard better performances of the track via much costlier tube components and loudspeakers, a demo via a pair of Wilson Alexandria X2s and a full array of VTL tubed electronics comes to mind, but my takeaway from the two systems, as different as they may have been, was largely the same - I enjoyed it.
Moving on, I cued up an old favorite in the form of Dave Matthews Band's album Before These Crowded Streets (RCA) and the single "Crush." As with the Amos Lee track before it, the MT-34's tube DNA imparted a greater sense of the organic, which made "Crush" sound all the more sticky. Tube fans will know what I'm on about, while those who attend the church of solid state are probably rolling their eyes. The opening bass guitar was plucky and nuanced, giving a clear sense of the fingers actually pulling at each string. The drum kit had surprising depth and impact. The definitive snap one would expect from a more powerful solid state amp was somewhat smoothed over via the MT-34, though it didn't come at the expense of its bass performance, which sounded entirely natural. The cymbal crashes were textured and airy and the midrange, especially throughout Dave's vocal track, was warm, inviting and smooth, though not so smooth as to gloss over his trademark character. I did notice that, at high volumes (101dB peaks), the MT-34 would compress and lose some of its soundstage definition, replacing it instead with a sort of wall of sound. It wasn't that the sound the MT-34 produced at high volumes was unpleasant, quite the opposite, it just lost some of its focus - focus that is quite remarkable at this price point. Bringing the volume back within reason, the violin solo was reproduced with such vigor and attentiveness that it leapt out at me and was among the first musical elements that stepped forward in the soundstage, as opposed to remaining in line with the front baffles of the left and right speakers. Subsequently, the flute followed suit and it too was brilliantly rendered. The MT-34's high-frequency performance is among the best I've heard and that one could hope for at this price.
I ended my evaluation of the MT-34 with a movie. That's right I said movie. I don't often get a chance to watch films on tube-based rigs, so every chance I get, I leap at it. Wanting to stick with the musical theme, I cued up Moulin Rouge! (Twentieth Century Fox) on Blu-ray disc. With my Dune HD Max handling the Dolby TrueHD downmix to stereo and the Jade 1's running full-range with no subwoofers, the presentation during the "Roxanne" scene was positively brilliant. While not what I would call explosive, as the MT-34 simply didn't have the horsepower for the speakers I had on hand, the performance was a beautiful dance of both understated power and delicate nuance. The foot stomps and body on body contact sounded entirely realistic and were fleshed out in ways many setups, regardless of their price, don't really get. All too often, the hits I described are buried in the track's otherwise explosive dynamics, though when you turn the volume down a bit and let the sound develop, rather than envelop or overtake you, there's a lot more to appreciate, and this is where the MT-34 shines. The various vocal tracks were well-defined, separate from one another and presented with staggering precision without sounding artificial or enhanced - but, above all, they were sounded real. I don't know how else to describe the natural sound that tubes manage to impart to a performance, other than to say the MT-34 has it in spades and, while it may not be the most extended or dynamic, it's nevertheless present and a thing of beauty.
In the small confines of my bedroom, the combination of the MT-34 with the Jade 1's being fed source material from the Dune HD Max was a match made in audiophile and even two-channel home theater heaven. Slightly more efficient loudspeakers would've brought the MT-34's cinematic performance up a peg or two, but overall, I must admit, as the engine behind an affordable setup, the MT-34 is rather remarkable. For less than $1,200 today, you can achieve a level of sonic purity that would've been unfathomable ten, even five years ago, and yet it exists within the MT-34. I'm blown away.
One of the drawbacks to the MT-34 was its lack of a remote, which isn't uncommon among tube-based products, though it would've been nice to have. Thankfully, both the Napa Acoustic CD player and my Dune HD Max have digital volume controls, so I was able to work around the issue, though had the MT-34 had its own, it would've potentially allowed for source selection, too.
Speaking of source selection, some may find the MT-34's two options a bit limiting, since it's being sold as an integrated amplifier solution. Truthfully, Napa's smaller integrated, the NA-208A, has more options in this regard and costs less, but then again, it doesn't sound as good. While I would still classify the MT-34 as an integrated amp, it could definitely benefit from an extra input or two and perhaps a front mounted input selector as well.
While the MT-34's 35 watts was technically enough to drive my large Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamonds to modest levels and even a few clicks above, it really should be paired with more efficient speakers. It performed brilliantly with the Wharfedale Jade series speakers, as well as a few others I had on hand, provided they were placed in small to medium spaces, which my reference room is not. If you have less than efficient speakers, you need to be content with lower listening levels or perhaps replacing them with ones more suited for a tube amplifier. Speakers with higher efficiency and a simpler crossover are going to be ideal.
Competition and Comparisons
There are a number of affordable tube amplifiers out there, so long as you know where to look. A few brands that spring to mind are Vincent Audio and Peachtree Audio, both of which have garnered a lot of praise for their high performance and value - two areas where the MT-34 excels as well. Of course, should you not want to go with a tube-based integrated amp, there are a number of affordable options to choose from. NAD has always been an overachiever in the integrated amplifier arena, as have Rotel, Cambridge Audio and Musical Fidelity. All offer products at and around the MT-34's price point and often include more features, such as a greater number of inputs, remote capability and even bass management in some instances. While that is all well and good, and the aforementioned solid state integrated amps are good, they lack the MT-34's organic beauty, which seems to be derived only from using tubes.
For more on these amps and others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's Stereo Amplifier page.
I don't wish to come across as jaded, but there really isn't much that shocks me in the world of audio/video any more, because the baseline has risen to such a high level that the difference between entry level and so-called audiophile or cost no object is getting smaller every year. Proof of this is found in Napa Acoustic's MT-34 tube integrated amplifier. The MT-34, with the right pair of speakers, source component(s) and room, is as good as one can hope to get without having to risk financial ruin. Unless you have a deep-rooted desire to spend oodles of money obtaining that last ten to maybe fifteen percent of performance so many audiophiles chase, then get the MT-34 and be content. If you've never owned a tube amplifier, the MT-34 is a great place to not only start but quite possibly end your journey as well.
The MT-34's only limitations are its power output and lack of inputs, though both can easily be overcome for not a lot of money, with proper speakers and/or choice of source component, which I demonstrated in this very review. In all seriousness, the sub-$3,000 system I put together for the purposes of this review using a pair of Wharfedale Jade 1 bookshelf speakers, a Dune HD Max Blu-ray/Media Streaming player and the MT-34 was so ridiculously good that, had such a system existed when I was first starting out, my audiophile journey might have shaped up to look a little different. I know my bank account and credit card statements for sure would have. If you value musicality, natural timbre, extended highs and smooth but slightly warm bass and aren't too concerned with ear-busting SLP or pants-wetting dynamics, then the MT-34 is tailor-made for you.