17 January, 2012

Western Electric, Mount Everest

Click pics to enlarge.

Western Electric, Mount Everest


Addendum added Feb 23, 2012; see visitors' comments below; I think icefox' comment goes straight to the nature of the WE. All of them are old friends. Do uou know old friends are particularly tough guests when it comes to audio. Why? Because there is no need to be polite!

In the audio pantheon, Western Electric (WE) not only has a place, it occupies the highest ground. Well, WE is God, or worshiped like one. Nothing in audio is more sought after, or increases in value faster.

The Western Electric Explosion
Up to the eighties, aside from a few in the know or in the business, nobody in the West knew much about WE, while the Japanese have long been mopping up WE in wholesale fashion. For decades, while America slept, the Japanese buyer would go to the tube warehouses and literally spend months going through them for valuable WE tubes. The Japanese were the first to appreciate WE, and use the huge WE horns and amps outside the theater. Hence, demand for anything WE had long been enormous in Japan.

A big factor that fueled the explosion was the second coming of the Single Ended Triode.
Japanese SET designers, and a lone soul or two in the west like Jean Hiraga, revived use of many of the triode tubes, including the WE 300B, which the Japanese called 夢幻之球, "Dream Tube". Aside from the 300B, the Japanese brought back use of many of the WE tubes, including the fabled 205D, which yields 0.5 watt in an SET amp. Talking about flea power! Slowly, the SET movement became worldwide, and now shows no sign of abating.

With the immense popularity of the triode tubes like 300B and 2A3 came a renewed interest in WE and other treasures of an earlier era, like the Brooks 2A3 amps. Afterall, WE was the grand daddy of them all, having invented the 300A/300B and made legendary amps that use them, the 91A and 86A. The WE 91A circuit is still used widely by DIY people, though often in modified fashion (necessary).

Then Ebay brought everything, including WE, to the world. Now the little that remained in the US were suddenly fought for. First, the Japanese dealer outbid everyone. Then people from HK and Korea. With the emergence of the Chinese economy, all of the sudden, the mainland Chinese became big players, and prices went into the stratosphere.

What's in the Western Electric name
If you read Western Electric history, you'll know WE became AT&T, which became Lucent and got lost. It is not clear who owns the name now, and this may potentially be a problem for the uninitiated.

pic of the "Western Electric" amp.

The name now is being used by at least two companies that I know of. The first is the company that markets (note I don't say "make") over-rated "re-issue" WE 300B, 274B tubes with the WE name (even if many of the internal parts look Chinese). Although visible to all, if you browse the website it is not at all clear who owns or are behind the company.

The second has even more of a stealthy presence. In NYC I have come across not one but two pairs of the 300B monoblocks shown in the pic. These have huge meters with the words "Western Electric" on them. There is no indication of a brand name, but they look uncannily like Canary Audio 300B amps with re-vamped front panels. The owner and his friends told me they are indeed made by Canary Audio, a company with strong Chinese ties. I cannot find anything about these amps on the internet.

Why so little info on the company? Why such a stealthy presence? In general I don't trust companies like these.

Western Electric Clones
There are now many people specializing in replicas, and one must take care in buying their products.

Mr "WE" Wu 西電胡 The most famous of them all, and probably still the best person. He used to have a shop in HK and sold quite some real WE tubes and gears during his time there. I think my 133A was originally sold by him. After WE's price sky-rocketed and supply dwindled he turned to cloning. He and others have re-used the laminations of non-audio WE products to make replica transformers, like the 171C. If implemented well, this practice can yield good transformers (like those on my 偉利 Wai-Lee amp), but then the making of transformer is fraught with difficulties, and that's not a topic we shall cover here. I am not sure at all how close to the originals the replica transformers sound.

Mr Wu started with straight-forward clones of the well-known WE amps, like the 91A, and used as much original WE parts as possible. But as price of tubes went through the ceiling and parts more difficult to source (mainland China followed him and now has a huge replica industry), he has turned to some older WE designs as well as new modified circuits of his own using less known and somewhat less expensive WE tubes. Click here for pictures of some of his products. In a nutshell, Mr Wu is quite resourceful and more of an artisan than most people who followed him.

I have heard quite a few of these products by Mr Wu, including one of his earlier 91A. While they could sound good and one could definitely hear the sonic signature of the WE tubes, the systems I had visited to my ears were not quite balanced, but I look forward to hearing more of them.

Chinese companies cloning WE amps Now, there are many. Most well known are probably 新時 and 志平。All claim use of WE laminations in their trannies; all claim use of WE and vintage parts. Some of these, like 新時 , look very good (you can see some here), even close to the real thing, but sonically it is another story, as most of these do not sound quite right to these ears. These clones are not cheap either, but they cater to many audiophile's unfulfilled dream of owning WE. Many buy these amps and use real WE tubes in them, another reason why WE tube prices are what they are. If you are considering a mainland Chinese cloned amp/preamp, think twice and audition carefully; IMHO, you should audition first Mr Wu's more innovative products and see if they are to your liking, and make comparisons.

WE 133A Amplifier
There is not much info on the internet. The 133A is much less famous, or common, than its brother 124 (which has several versions). Both use the same 171C output transformers. A schematic is at the bottom of the page. The signal first gets amplified and phase-split by the input transformer 618B, then through the 348A (6J7) driver tubes before going to the 349A (~6F6) output tubes, yielding just a magnificent 8 watts. The power supply of my unit is not by WE; it uses a beefy ACME KS-9441 power transformer and 5U4/274B type rectifier. For a WE power supply and nice pics, see this Japanese user site (original in Japanese).

Many WE connoisseurs, like Master Huang of Taipei 臺北黃老闆 regard the WE133A to be at least the equal of the better known 124. One interesting thing he 臺北黃老闆 told me (also mentioned by pilotrol below) is that the 133A can be configured as a preamp of even higher quality (it comes to mind that Shindo uses the 349A in its top preamps). It is my dream one day to do this and use it as preamp for my 124! It would be fun to compare the 133A preamp against the magnificent 106.

Food for the body, Food for the Soul
This article came by because of a recent visit by my friends, all experienced but jaded audiophiles and classical music lovers, and two of the four play the violin. I had long promised BenYC to showcase the real WE sound. Unlike my friend whlee and I, he found nothing to like about the sound of a replica system when we together heard it some time ago. I had him to thank for firing up my WE133A again, and what have I been missing!

The evening began with my various setups. They went through some Leben, Kondo, Wavac and JC Verdier gears while I was cooking. To save time, I decided to eat at home and made a simple meal of braised chicken with fermented rice 紅糟雞 (福州菜), eight delicacies in hot sauce 八寳辣醬 (上海菜), pork and bean curd with home-made pickled vegetable 家鄉咸酸菜豆干肉絲 and sauteed vegetable 小唐菜。 As I didn't have a dining room, they had to serve themselves and all the food were kept in the kitchen. All washed down with wine of course! I thank Jeff for his nice bottle of Saint-Estephe. Gears used for the WE133A:

Digital: Sony CDP/DAS R1
Analog: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi, Ortofon Kontrapunkt C, Denon AU-1000 step-up
Preamp: Leben RS-28CX
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Canterbury HE

Sonic Bliss I don't want to go into details but, difficult in words as it is, I will tell you what I think WE ought to sound like: to me, the real WE sound is quite neutral, possessing transient speed, refinement and detail of the utmost order, fully up to par with modern gears. The WE has superior PRaT and conveys like nothing else the leading edge, phrasing and articulation of music. And all of this in a balanced whole.

On this night, I am not sure how much of the WE sound I have achieved, but my friends sure seemed completely bowled over. Mind you, only the 349A were real WE tubes. MOV EF37A were used in lieu of 348A (don't have them in HK) and rectifier was the humble EH 5U4. The next day, my friends called me and talked at length. I shall convey an approximation of what they said:

BenYC: "... I have to thank you because the experience has re-kindled my interest in audio...for too long I have been sort of...but now I think I have some new ideas and direction...";"...I think Tannoy is not the best horn for 配不起 WE (editor: he means the horn is small and I should go for much larger horn systems; I agree, when I have the space I will do that; too bad I cannot afford real WE horns...)..."

Tony88: "...what a big surprise...previously I had heard some forgettable "WE" systems but this is something else...for a change we listened to complete numbers...even with the low wattage, the Shostakovich (5th, Haitink/Decca) was delivered with exceptional punch and power...";"...why not clean out everything and just have the Tannoy + WE133A?..."

whlee: "...what magnificence...the purity of the sound was really something else...the rhythm and pace was like nothing I have ever heard..."

Addendum: On Feb 21, one of the few days I was in my place, my old friends icefox and oozz (both 惡客) came by. This time I had no time to prepare dinner, but we did have wine and a jolly good time. Most of the time I was in the next room doing something else, just letting them be. I first offered them Kondo, but that didn't quite appease them. After I switched to WE, I could hear their chatter turned into silence. They were very well behaved from that point on. The next day I had a long chat with icefox: "...the WE just illustrates what is wrong with hifi...usually we spend all our energy listening very hard trying to identify what is good or bad about the system, fixating on one or two particular qualities...not so the WE experience; with WE we just listen to the music as an organic whole, relaxing and enjoying the experience...the WE goes straight to the essence of every type of music played and draws you in...it may not casually seem the most detailed at first listen, yet you find everything is there... "

Pilotrol: Searching the net I found one of my acquaintances, the vintage expert Pilotrol, actually has a 133A with the WE18A power supply. He had just fired it up on the last day of 2010. Here is the nicely written bit he posted in Review 33:

"...家中的WE133A很久沒有出來運動,難得有半天假期,於乎下午和她出來做做運動...

1945年才開始生產的WE133A可算是西電最後一 代的電台和錄音室專業用的多用途放大器。WE133A本身可用作Line Amp前級、Isolation Amp前級和Monitor Amp後級等等同用途,是西電少數專業用的萬用放大器。基本放大工作由兩支WE348A和兩支WE349A負責,信號先經由WE618B輸入牛昇壓分 相,再由兩支WE348A作初級放大並推動兩支WE349A推挽經WE171C輸出牛8 Watts輸出。在輸出段有兩級負回輸返回初級放大段落。

WE133A有趣的地方是作為前級使用,她的聲音動態較強而且十分生動,但作為後級使用聲音卻變得很柔潤甜美。WE133A用於中低效率喇叭感覺上推動力和低音量感較為有限,不過中音和中高音卻是非常甜潤耐聽,音色細緻優美,音樂感相當豐富!

最 近詢問日本Dealer才得知,現時在日本一對WE133A加上WE18A電源叫價已上升至300萬日元以上,連小弟自己也覺價錢貴得近乎不合情 理...!怪不得近來有朋友在未親身聽過的情況下出價十多萬要求小弟割愛。不過在大量韓國和大陸富豪熱烈追捧下,再加上西電產品貨源供應稀少才引致供不應 求,價格長期高企的現像。

個人覺得近年不少寫手都把西電「神」化了,把西電器材說成是天下無敵的音響利器一樣,只要是西電就一定好聲,而價錢也一定是天價了。說老實話,經驗告知小弟不同西電器材在音色上也可以有很大差異,而不同的西電器材也不只是有單一種「西電聲」。

小弟個人不同意能付出購買西電高昂的價格就一定等於擁有天下無敵的聲音,因為價格是由供求決定而不是由聲音質素去決定。不過小弟卻很同意西電器材的音色的而且確是有其獨到之處,但不代表她的聲音一定合乎全世界人的口味..."

I must audition Pilotrol's rare unit one day! And it is about time I re-invite him to my place again. Last meeting several years ago was quite a bit of fun.

4 comments:

  1. my email is jcmisshome@hotmail.com Plz let me know if u have time thank very much!

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  2. ??? What is this in reference to?

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  3. No doubt wonderful amps. Would love to hear them some day. But the chances of a) finding any, or b) affording them when found?

    What's the next best thing for normal music-lovers?

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  4. Indeed, in terms of availability and price, WE is out of the question for most people.

    If you're technically oriented, or have access to a good tech, many amps of that era are worth trying out. If you have horns, two names high on my list would be Motiograph (6L6) and Brook (2A3).

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