11 June, 2021

More thoughts on Emerson Wattson Analog

More on Emerson Watrson Analog Streammer /DAC by Eric L

Edited 6/15/21


I have been using Emerson Wattson Analog (EWA) for many months and the more I listen with EWA, the more it has become indispensable to me.

It is so compact that it disappears in my setup nicely (behind my TV); I like that since I'm a minimalist and size matters in an opposite way to the majority of hifi enthusiasts.

Since I don't have an iPhone which supports EWA's own App, I have to use a uPNP app by MConnect (free Lite version). It is a bit inconvenient: once listening to Tidal, the music will not continuously play even if you have selected it; the App will pause as soon as the phone is in lockscreen mode. That forces me to unlock the phone and select the App again and it will automatically play from my selected list again. This will not happen when I open the Tidal App to directly play through my BT device. It's just that the sound quality of EWA is so addictive that I'm willing to go through the extra hassle.

I have read a lot of reviews on the internet, ranging from with lukewarm to enthused, but there are some virtues that it has which has not being mentioned and I would like to point out a few based on my extended listening experience.

First of all, I have been spoilt by the natural presentation of EWA. I have never sensed even a bit of digital hardness and congestion, except on a few really shitty recordings, which only happens rarely. Whereas, I often sense congestion playing through my Sparkler CDP with some lesser CDs. To me, the term "sounding analog" cannot fully describe the sound of EWA. There's a kind of rightness and pitch perfection that makes music very very easy to follow. Phrasing of passages become more easy to identify and appreciate. One can effortlessly clearly hear the difference in playing with different pianists playing the same tune: whether the right hand or left dominates, the interpretation more dramatic or poised, more passionate or cooler in presentation etc. EWA just reveals effortlessly and matter-of-factly. Details never sound forced, simply proferred in a relaxed yet precise way.

With EWA, I hear more essential details to help me understand the meaning of the song and different interpretations. I tap my feet due to the assured pace and tempo. To be honest, the music style of EWA is not hot-blooded (usually when something is played in a faster tempo); EWA just displays whatever there is in the recording, and yet it never fails to be uninteresting or lacking in beat and foot tapping elements !

Is the setup musical, engaging and involving? This is the most important question and prerequisite for me! The answer is a big YES!! Its slightly detached style works in really beneficial ways: absolutely no coloration added; harmonic and instrumental decays nicely portrayed; good sense of tempo; analog sounding; and most importantly, allowing one to relax and yet be involved and immersed in the music. What more can one ask for? And yes, sound is free from even one bit of grain and compression; highs are airy and pristine, with top class dispersion and extension; mid's have the right intensity, yet never overdone; low end is rock solid. It played in temp and with authority, providing a solid foundation few equipment at this price point can match.

Yes, I may not be drawn to it every moment while playing music, but it's so effortless it kind of feels like BGM, but in a good way - I still immensely enjoy all the details and inner messages of every piece of music. Its never fatiguing nor in-your-face style allows me to keep on listening. Come to think of it, I have never come across a piece of equipment of this price point that can come close to its performance, period!!

I'm using it with the iFi powers supply that came with the package. As I am so content with the current music performance, I just do not have the urge now to try out a nice LPS.

For anyone who is looking at a simple one-stop solution and not listening much to CDs and want to stream music through Qobus and Tidal, this is definitely worth an audition. For $1600USD, it is not cheap but in terms of quality it far more than satisfactory!

Music recommendation:

Nubya Garcia. Tiny Desk Concert.


Kat Edmundson, When you wish upon a star

Vladimir Horowitz's Artist Radio

Some recent yummies:

Whiskey 30-day dry-aged USDA Ribeye

Fresh uni from Hokkaido

01 June, 2021

An ode to the EL84

By mrgoodsound

A friend recently asked me about my experience with EL-84 amps and I decided now was as good as time as any to document them in an article.

The ubiquitous EL84 (American designation 6BQ5) was developed by Philips in 1953 and introduced to market by Mullard by 1954. The latest in a series of miniature output pentodes developed by Philips, its lineage stems from the superb EL11 and EL3N tubes of the pre-war period. Indeed, at that time Philips was the largest patent holder in Europe, and their engineers were on the bleeding edge of advancing vacuum tube technology. We still see plenty of the EL84 today, likely due to its introduction at the beginning of the 'golden era' of hi-fi, as well as its popularity in guitar amps dating back to the 'British Invasion' of the 1960s.

Readers can enjoy an entertaining although politically incorrect commercial from Telefunken below, where the pre-war output pentodes are depicted as sickly and distorting the sound, while the brand new miniature finger lamps such as the EL84 and its cousin EL95 make sweet music.

My own experience

I can safely say I have never heard an EL84 amp I didn't like (at the least). Within its power envelope it bridges the gap nicely between flea power triodes and beefier output pentodes such as the EL34 and 6L6. A pair of original Telefunken EL84s reside in my 1956 Opus 6 radio. In general, this tube can be characterized as having a sweet and honest tone, plenty of 'snap', and pretty good bandwidth. It does not sound as 'big' in scale or dynamics as larger envelope pentodes such as the EL34, but with efficient enough speakers it certainly gets close.

Speaking of power envelope, here are some examples of what this tube can do in common configurations:

  • Class A SE (triode-connected): ~2 watts
  • Class A SE (pentode-connected): ~4 watts
  • Class AB PP (pentode-connected pair): ~10 watts
  • Class AB PP (ultralinear connected pair): ~8 watts

Eico HF-81

One of the first EL84 amps I owned was the integrated HF-81 by the American firm Eico. This amp was a sleeper in the early 2000s as collectors and vintage audio enthusiasts would often overlook Eico in favour of more prestigious American brands such as McIntosh, Fisher or Marantz. The fact is this amplifier simply sounds excellent, thanks in large part to the Heyboer manufactured output transformers. Prices have steadily risen since a review of it was published in Stereophile a few years ago, and now even so-so unrestored examples can be priced sharply.

I have actually owned two HF81s, the first one I kept original but it always had some sort of hum or noise issue so I eventually sold it. The second time around, I decided to go 'all-out' and send the unit in for a 'restoration'. This was a painful lesson learned as after I got it back it never quite sounded the same, most of the magic was gone.

Pros of the Eico include an excellent line and phono section. Cons include a poorly implemented balance control and flimsy RCA input jacks. Build quality will vary depending on if the unit was factory-assembled or made from a kit. With 4 EL84s, 4 12AX7s, 2 12AU7s and 2 EZ81s, the unit is also very costly to refit with tubes. The original Eico labelled Mullards are sublime but difficult to come by. I mostly agree with the rave reviews this amplifier receives, it has presence and tone in spades.

Grundig NF-20

This is (was?) another sleeper amp found in Grundig stereo consoles of the 1960s. It is a simple circuit with high quality parts, including German-made transformers of outstanding quality. More information can be found on the Tube-Classics site here. 

Grundig NF20 sits atop EMI 319 speakers

It will require at the minimum some work to incorporate into a modern system. I have seen some add RCAs and binding posts, while others made pigtail adapters to use the existing German DIN connections for signal in & out. Restorations should be conducted with careful selection of parts to not disturb the sound character of the amp. 

I managed to find one of these that had already been restored at a very good price, including a contingent of original Valvo EL84s and 12AX7s. While it was modified to include a volume control, I find it sounds best with an active pre-amp to provide more drive. This amplifier does sound a little better than the Eico, but it is an apples to oranges comparison.

Chapman Model 305

Chapman 305 Stereo Amp
Chapman is a little lesser known British manufacturer of hi-fi electronics from the 1950s and 60s. The model 305 amplifier and pre-amp work as a pair, as mains input and signal are passed to the amplifier through an umbilical cord.

The 305 employs the EL84s in an ultralinear configuration, using transformers from the British firm Partridge. I was very lucky to find an export version of this amplifier that has a 120V mains transformer, as the very few I located through online searches always showed a 240V primary. 

This is, overall, the 'finest' amplifier I have yet owned. The Partridge transformers deserve their reputation as this amp delivers a very open and honest presentation of music. Because of how rare it is, I am not sure how much good it will do to heap sonic praise upon it. I will just say that the gentleman I purchased the amp from said this: "Leak had the name, but Chapman had the sound".

Other choices

A very cute RH-84 build
This is just a small sampling of EL84 amps I have owned. There are of course many excellent vintage choices including but not limited to: Acrosound 20/20, Pilot 232, Leak Stereo 20, Fisher SA-100, Fisher X-100, Eico HF-14, Dynaco Stereo 35, the list goes on.

There are a few more modern examples, such as the Music Reference RM-10, Quicksilver Audio Integrated and Leben CS-300, though my gut tells me they won't hold a candle to the vintage amps. I also had the opportunity to hear a Beard P-35 which can still be found second-hand in the UK/EU sometimes. The Beard is nicely made and has multiple push-pull pairs of EL84s for less efficient speakers.

People also discovered the EL84 amplifier circuits from Akai and Sony reel-to-reel machines. While the transformers from these machines are often harvested for other SET builds, many have found success creating modern SEP amps around them, such as the RH-84. Other single-ended examples include the Decware SE84 and Almarro A205A. I know doctorjohn has a lot of EL84 experience so hopefully he can chime in with some models I missed.

In terms of the tubes themselves, the answer of the 'best' is quite simple, West European made in the 50s: Mullard, Telefunken, Siemens, Valvo, Philips Miniwatt. Perhaps not worth splurging on these for a Magnavox console amp, but something to consider if you have one of the amplifiers listed above.

31 May, 2021

Memorial Day

Letter from Shenzhen (21-14): In Memoriam

Memorial Day. No American would have no feeling about this day. Memorial Day first gestated as Commemoration of the American Civil War, but subsequently developed to embrace remembrance of all who have sacrificed for the Country. Even more than Independence Day, I think this day has a special aura about it (which continues to generate controversies). On this most American day, I'd like to relate to you stories about the roles Chinese Immigrants (or Adoptees) played as early as the Civil War. This is for sure not known to the general public, even to this relatively studious student of Chinese American history.