Although there is no detailed research to back up my guesstimate, I'd hazard that, based on my limited attendance at hi-fi shows, at least 50 new audio brands appear every year. Ordinarily, seedling brands are at best curiosities with the shelf-life of a fruit fly - here today, gone tomorrow. Unless, that is, they have something in the way of a pedigree.
PrimaLuna, a new valve amp from Holland, is immediately hamstrung in my book because of its absurd name. That's Italian for 'First Moon', which strikes me as a particularly ludicrous moniker. But there have been worse, of course - 'Anodyne' was a pip - and the name will pale (geddit?) into insignificance when you see the product that wears it.
Readers may recall a Dutch brand of hot-rodded Marantz products called AH! Njoe Tjoeb (speaking of daft names...) that offered ridiculous value for money, truly superb performance for negligible outlay. The new company, part of high-end distributor Durob Audio's empire, represents all-new tube-related products - as opposed to modified components - of which 'extremely good quality and [an] extremely good price/quality ratio are the main features.'
Durob's Herman van den Dungen, the closest that audio has come to producing its own Keith Richards, has applied over 30 years of high-end experience into the PrimaLuna project. His track record is impressive, having distributed extreme high-end components in the Benelux territories while playing an active role in the creation of Kiseki cartridges and tone-arms, Milltek cartridges, PinPoint cones and other accessories.
Herman's team of fellow high-end veterans includes Marcel Croese, who designed for Swiss brand Goldmund, along with Dutch designers once involved with Sphinx. Croese co-designed PrimaLuna's custom-made transformers with 'one of the most experienced transformer designers in the USA.' Uniquely, PrimaLuna also includes as part of its design team a group of local high-end dealers and consumers 'who judge every step taken by the design group. Prototypes, in-between-products, final products are tested in the field before going into "real" production. Direct comparisons with other brands' competitive models of the same but certainly of much higher prices is an important part of the judgement.'
So, before we even get into the product, you're going to wonder how a European brand, saddled with typically high EU operating costs, can offer bargain products. Simple. Like savvy brands of far greater size, PrimaLuna has turned to China. According to Herman, 'The design-people teamed up with two Chinese companies to build the products as economically as possible, without forgetting our strict tolerances of quality. The companies were chosen after serious and intensive studies and visits to China. A very important factor for the final choice was the proven experience and excellence of these manufacturers in the past.'
Herman is adamant that the PrimaLuna amps must not be mistaken for the earliest valve amplifiers that came flooding out of China. Reliability and build quality have improved logarithmically over the past decade, to the great distress of Western manufacturers not using Chinese manufacturing. Factor in the costs, and the results can border on the unbelievable, as you will see.
In unleashing this Sino-Dutch product on the West, Herman insisted that after-sales service would be a of the fundamental electrical design. 'Distributors, dealers and consumers should not waste their time and energy in difficult repairs. A faulty tube should never damage a circuit. The maximum replacement in the field, by the owner is a tube or a fuse. If an owner wants to replace his tubes - as several audiophiles like to do - no re-adjustment of the bias should be necessary. That is why we designed our "sustained auto bias" servo circuit with plate-fuse protection.'
PrimaLuna's first product is the ProLogue One, an integrated stereo valve amplifier delivering 35W/ch from four EL34s. Its front-end employs two 12AX7s and two 12AU7s, the design featuring automatic biasing and protection circuitry. It offers four line inputs served by gold-plated sockets, but has no line outputs, so recordists are not going to be too happy. Speakers are connected through lavish multi-way terminals with separate posts for 4 and 8 Ohms.
No matter where you look, the 7.75x11.5x15in (HWD), 33lb ProLogue One oozes quality. If your only experience of Chinese-made valve amps were the early 1990s efforts that suggested that every day was the 4th of July, you're in for a treat. Starting at the front, the knobs for source select and volume have the feel of something with a price tag to match a decent 42in plasma screen, and they rotate concentrically. The black front panel is finished to perfection, the power on LED fits its aperture snugly, the side-mounted power on rocker switch has no free play. The rest of the case is enamelled in a dark sapphire colour, including the valve cage, which was a particular delight: instead of screw fitting, it snaps into place using...banana plugs! Beneath it, the four input and driver tubes are arrayed in front of the four output tubes. Behind them are the massive transformers.Read more about the Prologue One on Page 2.