If the whiff of 'retro' assailing your nostrils seems stronger than has been the norm for the past decade, your sense of smell is working properly. We've just witnessed the launch of three new turntables from brands not known for making said backward-glancing device: Musical Fidelity, Audio Analogue and T+A. Now the last-named has released its first, all-valve integrated amp to mate with the record deck. While both devices are part of the company's 25th Anniversary celebrations, there's more to it than simply launching products that recall the era of the company's birth.
For one thing, T+A has been making valve amplifiers since 1984, only not so you'd know: they fit a dedicated valve amp to the TCI 1RE speaker to power its electrostatic tweeter. For another, the ampheralds more than just a birthday party. The V-10 and the G-10 turntable are the debut products of what T+A's Siegfried Amft calls 'a High End series for audiophile fans of classic two-channel reproduction.' It's T+A's way of saying, 'We may be committed to solid-state and multi-channel, but we haven't forgotten our roots.'
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Being Germany's largest specialty audio brand, and oozing pride from every pore, T+A wasn't simply going to wrap new clothing around old technology. A design team headed by the boyish Lothar Weimann came up with a bursting-at-the-seams bag of tricks, much of it devised to prevent any reverse techno-fear. If ever a valve amplifier was designed to wrest people back from the grip of solid-state, it's the V-10. This thing may glow, and it may generate heat, but it acts like a 21st Century Boy in more ways than one. It's remote-controlled for starters, it can integrate with T+A's multi-channel and home theatre packages (a matching universal player is on the cards) - it even looks like a modern design, owning nothing to the past. And it boasts more safety features than any amplifier this side of the other Siegfried, the one from VTL.
For one thing, it's the first amplifier to employ the new EL509/II power pentodes in its output stage. Unlike the '509 made high-end-friendly by Tim de Paravicini, this one doesn't use an anode cap, and it purports to be more reliable and more linear. The quartet of 509/IIs endows the V-10 with a conservative 80W rms per channel; the amplifier certainly had no trouble with any speakers I asked it to drive, and it positively adored the Wilson WATT Puppy System 7. The rest of its carefully selected and tested valve complement consists of two ECC83s in the pre-amplifier, two ECL82s for the power-amp input stage and two ECC99s for the driver stage.
Speaking of valves, one particular aspect of the V-10's design will appeal to the most paranoid of audio victims: a micro-processor monitors all of the system's operational parameters, keeping an eye on signal levels, current and overload margins. Cleverly, the V-10's valve usage is recorded by a 'dynamic' counter. Unlike a straightforward clock (I recall one accessories brand once marketing a tube timer...), this information is used to calculate valve life and usage by factoring into the computation variables such as hard use or idling. Thus, the valves are replaced when necessary, neither too early nor too late. T+A feels that, 'The normal useful life of the valve set is in the range 3000 to 5000 hours, depending on load and stress levels.'
Other details include special high-voltage capacitors in the mains power supply, with their own impressive housings on either side of the mains transformer, external aluminium components made of sandwich construction (said to provide 'better damping of body sound', and a thick acrylic upper panel to suppress and absorb vibration and prevent microphony; T+A clearly believes that, 'Any hint of mechanical jolting or vibration has a significant adverse effect on sound quality.' The 17.5x15x8in V-10's 'basic cradle' is made of steel, mounted on four shock absorbers fitted in the case's feet, while the audio transformers and the main power transformer, like the output stage capacitors, are encapsulated in solid aluminium enclosures, further to prevent any effects from resonance and to disperse heat. And the tubes sport the neatest cages I've ever seen.
Once you get past the realisation that this is an amplifier so beautiful that it ranks up there with Wavac and Unison Research, you'll see that the front panel contains source selection and volume adjustment via rotary controls, the latter a high-quality quadruple ALPS motorised potentiometer. The remote control covers all of the usual actions except main on/off, which is accomplished with the source select rotary. The settings start at the 7 o'clock position with OFF, followed by STBY, from which the unit can be switched on through the remote, then HEAT, which fires up the valves while the amplifier circuitry remains off. Moving to HV switches on the valve heating, and T+A recommends reverting to this for short breaks in your listening sessions. Then you come to the sources of tuner, disc, aux, aux/ph and recorder; the review unit was line level only.
In-between the knobs is a display above six press buttons, and here's where you really know you're playing with a tube integrated that was designed with a lot of lateral thinking. The six buttons, left to right, deal with tape monitoring, speaker-off for headphone use, 'PHO' which switches the rear-position headphone socket on and off, and a button for choosing between normal and raised bias. The latter position lowers total harmonic distortion and is recommended for listening at low levels, while normal bias is used for regular listening.
Next is a button labelled 'INFO'. Tapping it calls up the remaining time left on the valves, and bias check for the right and left channels. Finally, there's a button labelled 'BAL' - press it and out pops a knob for adjusting balance by a few dB in either direction. But the real kicker is the display, which might confuse you into thinking that you bought an A/V processor in error. Its myriad icons announce the use of every button, when the safety circuitry has been activated, which source is in use, when the valves are heating, when the amp is ready for use, which bias mode you're in and more. T+A thought of everything that might make valve virgins more comfortable.
Viewed from the back, the V-10 is no less impressive: six pairs of rugged, gilded phono sockets, multi-way binding posts for the speakers, 4/8 ohm impedance selector, 1/4in headphone socket, IEC mains input, a mains fuse holder and a data port that will link the V-10 to other T+A device. Here you find my ONLY ergonomic complaint. The speaker terminals are an absolute bitch to access, especially if you use beefy cables - too close together, and shrouded by the Perspex top plate.
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