WAVAC Amp Reviewed

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Thus, like every amp in the Wavac range up to the 31,250-per-pair HE-833, the humble MD-811 is single-ended and employs Shishido's proprietary IITC interstage transformer coupling circuit. Its per-channel valve complement is made up of one 811 transmitter triode, with the front end consisting of a General Electric 6Y6GT and a Philips 5814. The valves are fitted to custom-made porcelain valve bases mounted on elastic supports to minimise microphony; even the anode cap attached to the 811 is porcelain. It screams luxury - you can only marvel at how such a classically simple and plain device can have so much over which to ponder, wonder and enthuse. Then again, this comes from the land of bonsai.

Although specifications are meaningless once you enter into the realm of oddball tubes and arcane circuitry and the kind of power bettered by any respectable boom box, Wavac does describe the MD-811 as delivering 15W/ch over a 30-50kHz frequency range. Input sensitivity is 2V, and input impedance 100k ohms, and the S/N ratio is 75dB. The review unit arrived in 8 ohm form, though 4 and 16 ohm settings are optional. And it speaks volumes for the driving ability of this amplifier that it coped with Wilson WATT Puppy System 6 - a 4 ohm load with peculiarities - without self-immolating. It almost went loud enough to rock. With reservations down below, that is.

In the absence of horns, and wanting to check the range of its capabilities, I also used BBC LS3/5As, old and new Quad ESLs, Martin Logan Scripts and - foolishily - attempted to drive the hungry Avalon Avatars. Big mistake. What quickly emerged is that, while all the SET cultists have been chasing horns, they could be wallowing in the bliss of, say, electrostatics. But who am I to suggest that they swap the aggravating, piercing top end, the mid-band nasality and the low-end honk of horns for the transparency, airiness, speed, openness, warmth and clarity of ESLs? How dare I try to suggest to a masochist that there are alternatives to pain? For it was only by experiencing the Wavacs through real speakers that I could appreciate its main strength: what goes on in the middle.

Categorically, this is not the amp to consider if the your musical preferences are concentrated on that which is found below 80Hz. After auditioning this side by side with bass-masters like the Trilogy RC211 monoblock and the Krell FPB600, you realise just how soggy and limp small valve amps can sound. Which immediately leads you to the sensible conclusion that maybe this amp is crying out for the natural high pass filtering of a small monitor. If you can address that one constraint, then you're in for a treat.

However much we believe in our heart of hearts that all systems should work well with all kinds of music, however much we fear a reversion to those days when the lizards in hi-fi stores could sell you a "jazz system" or a "classical system" or a "rock system", there are, alas, instances when it does apply. Undeniably, the MD-811 excelled with primarily unplugged material like the blues of Keb' Mo' or Eric Bibb, a cappella vocals from the Persuasions and the Mint Juleps, and even some orchestral; much of the power from soundtracks such ascame through quite convincingly. It just cannot handle thrash, hip-hop, kick-ass funk, Kodo drummers and the like.

It just will not rise to the sledge-hammer occasion, no matter how much you help it along. I fed the Wavac with the Krell KPS25sc, not a shy source component. I used short cable runs, tried all four of my mains rings, speakers with impedances ranging from 4-15 ohms, and sensitivities as high as 94dB/1W. If you wish to anthropomorphise this amplifier, it is Gwyneth Paltrow, not Bette Midler, a geisha rather than Maggie Thatcher.

Within these bounds, though, it delivers magic moments in abundance. The way it separates the Persuasions' or the Judds' voices, its absolute freedom from sibilance, and the detail in every textures will have you reaching for a wide array of vocalists with which to challenge it. From Nat "King" Cole to Neil Young, it respects every vocal type. And for instruments - you want to hear the difference between Ovation and Martin acoustics? A Steinway and a Yamaha? Any musician can hear that, even if it's a crappy cassette played through a Walkman. Now, mere mortals can, too.

Never equate a small amp with a small sound or soundstage. The wee Wavac copes with large vistas, and can resolve the air between instruments. There is no better test than the original Vanguard pre-recorded open-reel of via Nagra 4S and Revox G36. That hall sound is enough to transport you, but the failsafe giveaway of the sound of applause puts you there. Delicacy, detail, warmth - the bottom line is a naturalness we've almost forgotten as digitisation takes us further and further away from the analogue original.

I admit to much puzzlement over the years, as colleague after colleague in the USA would rave to me about the magic of Shishido amplifiers. Now that I've sampled it, I can only come up with one thought: if this is what he did with a humble 15-watter at a sensible price, then, please, keep me away from the top of the line. I already have enough on my wants list to bankrupt a small nation.

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo amplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an AV receiver to pair with the amplifier.

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