Product: Shuguang Treasure 'Black Bottle' 300B-Z
Distributer: Grant Fidelity - Canada
Cost, approx: 600 US Dollars/pair (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: April 2010
I've said it before, but boy are we 300b valve addicts lucky. 30 years ago you'd be one of an obsessive minority hunting down NOS valves, and paying exorbitant amounts for ancient Western Electric originals. Then just when we feared supplies would run low along comes first the Russians/Eastern Bloc and then the Chinese with what has become a deluge of 300b valves, hell even Western Electric got the message and finally started making the things again.
In the past I've done a comparison of these valves in a couple of articles and come to some perhaps unsurprising conclusions.
The first is that not all valves are created equal – just because a valve 'looks' like a WE 300b doesn't mean it's going to sound the same. The second and perhaps most important is that a valve that works in one amplifier, or indeed system might not work in another. In my system the very open clear and bright sounding JJ 300b's won the day in my old AudioNote Quest Silver monoblocks, but I can quite imagine that in a more edgy system they'd really push things over the top. The other blurring of such reviews is that not all 300b's are perfect copies, and some, like the JJ's are quite different and designed to be compatible rather than 'identical'. And of course anything that strays from the standard 300b is going to sometimes have a different effect in on amp compared to another. I found the TJ Gold Meshplates – another 'compatible' to sound rather woolly and vague in my amp, Scott found similar valves open and revealing – you get the idea. Lastly of course, there is the physical size of the things - the glass of these valves varies in size and the JJ's in particular might be big enough not to fit under the protective cage, or casework of some 300b amplifiers.
So that's always going to be the problem with any such valve review – if you share my taste and equipment (all of it) then you can happily follow my recommendations:-)
Which of course is a great cop-out on my part for this review, but I'd be lying if I told you otherwise...
Which brings us in my normal rambling fashion to the valves in question. They form part of Shaguang's 50th Anniversary series and are their 'flagship' valve. Interestingly, though Shaguang is a new name for me, they claim that they produce 40% of the world's valves. If true that means that it's quite likely that they may have made some of the 300b's that have passed through my hands. The Shuguang Treasure 300b-z are I suspect pretty much 300b's rather than simply 'compatibles' as their electrical characteristics seem the same and they are 'standard' WE size and shape. As for the internals I was left guessing because these valves have an internal black coating that totally obscures the guts – the idea that the carbon coating absorbs stray electrons – an idea that goes back 50 years or so, but not one I've ever seen applied to a 300b, and Shuguang claim their High Polymer Compound Carbon (HPCC) coating is rather special. It also makes them look extremely boring to look at - no mesh-plate glow, but then you don't buy a 300b for the glow - if you want to read by your amp you need a 211/845:-)
So I'm reduced to merely judging the exterior. As far as build quality goes, the world champs (by some distance) are the KR 300bs I tested a couple of years back. In comparison the Shuguang build quality was adequate, certainly on a par with most 300b compatibles (and WE 300b re-issues). The glass envelope was well formed and firmly fastened to the ceramic base, but lacked the 'plate-glass' feel of the KR's. The gold plated pins weren't parallel, a feature of most 300b's you'll find, again KR's excepted. They weren't crooked enough to cause difficulties or damage on insertion like the Meshplates, but for what is a premium valve I guess I'd hoped for better.
Anyway, once slotted into my Opera Cyber 300PSE monoblockes the four valves (it's a parallel single-ended amp) powered up without flashes or other drama and quickly got down to the job in hand.
And here I hit a snag... The Opera PP 300b amps I planned to use for the review (using two 300b's each) decided to eat their 'Full Music' 274 rectifier valves. Of course this meant getting replacements and two weeks later I received a pair of 'Golden Dragon' 274's and began to run in the Shuguangs. A week later one of the Golden Dragons went 'pop'...
Now losing the will to live I got sidetracked into another amp review – the Shuguang's review was put on the back burner whilst I reviewed another amp. In the end Ian Large of Alium Audio (Shuguang UK distributors) came to my rescue and sent a pair of Raytheon 5R4WGB "Potato Mashers". I have to say that these worked beautifully and are remarkably cheap – highly recommended...
Well with all the caveats from the intro, here are my thoughts on the important thing – the sound... The initial impression is that the balance of the Shuguang's is very much to the middle of the spectrum. Like the KR's they manage the difficult balance of being open but not overly bright. In fact they reminded me strongly of the KR's – high praise as the latter have been my favourite allrounder for the last 18 months. They lack the incisive qualities of the JJ 300b but that, as mentioned before, is very much a double-edged sword. The Shuguang show a clear superiority to the cheaper valves available – the various carbon plate and even the better Sovtecs.
In fact listening hard I began to prefer the Shuguang even to the KR's – there's something very unforced about them, and an openness and lack of the 'bloom' that some 300b's can exhibit. The difference is subtle, but in my amps enough to just swing the balance. I bang on about transparency nowadays, but why not – it's what Hi-Fi is all about and the Shuguang seem to be pretty good at it.
This ability is quite evident, lesser valves sound veiled in comparison – and valves which have a noticeable tonal shift like the Mesh Plates and the JJ's are never going to be perfect allrounders.
But the Shuguang's are most definitely classic 300bs – all (JJ's excepted) seem to display a very slight warmth, not the warmth of a class A transistor amp like one of the Old Musical Fidelities, but just a sweetening of the sound – you can tell I'm struggling here, but if you compare a Single-Ended 45 amp with a 300b you'll see what I mean. The Shuguang's do this too, and for many it's one of the things that makes 300b's special. That means that if you have built your own system around a 300b amp using 'typical' 300b's you will be able to slot the Shuguang's in without unbalancing the sound.
But if the JJ 300b's are a physical fit in your amp (they're big), and you need that bright open sound then then they would be my choice. If you are looking for a more even performance then the three candidates are the KR's, the Shuguang and WE re-issues. The latter are very expensive, and to my mind offer nothing over the other two. The Shuguang and KR sound very similar, but the Shuguang build quality is inferior to the KR's. The decision then comes down to availability and price – the KR's are more expensive but beautifully made, but not always available. The Shuguang on the other hand are less well made, but at least as good sonically and, depending on market, cheaper.
So Shuguang have been making valves for 50 years, and supply 40% of the world's audio valves Most as OEM production. With that sort of background I suppose it's no surprise that they've produced some pretty spectacular valves under their own 50th Anniversary Treasure range and the 300b-z is a worthy addition. I've felt it necessary to compare it to the best of 300b's you can buy and it's certainly held it's own and ranks right up with the best currently available.
© Copyright 2010 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com