Product: Audion Sterling ETSE (Extended Triode Single Ended Stereo).
Manufacturer: Audion - UK
Approx. price: 600 UK pounds
Reviewer: Geoff Husband
Last year I set myself a little target of trying as many different cartridges as I could so I could get a handle on what worked with what and how much to pay. This year I've promised to try to do the same with amplifiers, particularly the less common types, hence the 47 Labs review a couple of months ago.
One type of amplifier I've had little experience with is the Single Ended Triode valve amp - 20 years ago a type almost forgotten by all but a few addicts. When transistors swept valve amps from the marketplace, watts became cheap, loudspeakers less efficient and the feeblest of the valve brigade - the SE amp vanished.
Now the mere mention of SE amps instantly means "high-end", and most have a high-end price to match. Expensive valves, transformers and laborious hand construction put most well out of reach of mortals with a mortgage.
So I searched for an "entry-level" model that wouldn't break the bank. A few came up, some were based on the 2A3 valve and were said to sound superb. The problem being that these beauties put out about 2.5 watts which meant only horns would produce realistic volumes.
With battered, 30-year-old Lowther Acoustas fetching 500 pounds+ and the cheapest new horns around the 2000 pound mark the 2A3 couldn't be said to be entry level.
What caught my eye were a few SE amps based on the old EL34 valve running in triode mode (it's actually a pentode). Apart from being very common this valve is also cheap, priced from under 10 pounds. Compared with the 60 - 600 pounds asked for 300B's, that adds to the EL34's appeal!
One of these EL34 amps, the Unison Research "Simply 2", cost about 1000 pounds and produced enough watts to be used with efficient "real world" speakers in small rooms. Then I found that Audion (who's amps I use at home) produced a one-input, Single-Ended, EL34 amp giving 12 watts a side for 600 pounds - the Sterling ETSE.
I know this isn't bargain basement, but it's the cheapest SE amp I could find, so swiftly getting in touch with Audion I had one sent for test.
So what do you get for 600 pounds? Firstly it's in Audion's standard casework (see pic - note this shows 300B valves which aren't correct!) which is pretty well put together and certainly belies the price.
For an extra 150 quid or so you can have wood side cheeks and chrome finish as on the test sample and then you have a seriously handsome piece of kit! The standard finish is stainless steel, a little more prosaic but good enough. Again on the options list you can specify a four-input + tape-loop model but this pushes the price towards 800 pounds and here I wanted to stay cheap...
Picking up the amp it's noticeably lighter than some valve amps and it lacks the big transformer housings usually seen. Both these can be explained by the use of a toroidal mains transformer of the sort more usually seen in transistor amps - nothing inherently wrong in that and a growing trend.
At the back are two pairs of decent gold plated speaker outputs - only 8 ohm taps available - and gold plated phonos for the only line input. At the front you find just one control - a single volume knob, no balance, no tone controls, no switches not even an on-off switch. This switch is hidden at the back as is normal for equipment designed to be left on.
In the Audions case this appears to be for cosmetic reasons only as the amp should be switched off when not in use. This will extend valve life. Also the valves and case run very hot so leaving them unattended is unwise especially as there's no valve cage. The combination of red-hot valves and an awkward rear mounted mains switch meant singed wrists on several occasions...
I make no apologies for choosing the single input version - cost was an important factor. The thinking being that for many audiophiles there is only one source used, CD can be used direct and a phono stage (30 - ?000 pounds) added for phono - make sure the stage uses the RIAA curve or similar with warp protection otherwise many of those precious watts may be employed in useless flapping.
If you then feel the need for extra outputs there are several simple passive pre-amps available including sub-100 pound examples from companies like QED.
Point one - you have but 12 watts. Point two - current delivery is pitiful by budget transistor amp standards. So you have to be realistic.
So I wasn't. First I wired the Sterling into my IPL's. These are about 87 dbl efficient but an easy load. They showed the little Sterling's strengths and faults to perfection. Volume was pretty limited, the minute I went past "gentle listening" to "serious" levels the Sterling began to run out of steam, images collapsing, complicated passages blurring together.
At the bottom end, the IPL's have massive bass, but with the Sterling they lost much of their bottom register giving a much woolier rendition than my normal 30 watt Audion PP monoblocks, devoid of the notes that rattle your diaphragm.
All-in-all a bit of a disaster. But further up the scale they sounded good, even excellent, with a fluid and natural midband. Sadly this was lost in the mush below.
And no I wasn't surprised. Doing some heavy lifting I brought down the Cabasse Sloops and installed them. Straight away the Sterling seems to sigh with relief and got on with the job.
The Sloops are 94.5 dbl efficient - a lot for a box speaker of any type. With these the Sterling easily filled my 6 x 5 m listening room to party level. Though the Sloops dip to 4 ohms, they're so efficient even this didn't seem to bother the Sterling.
The Sloops lack the ground shaking bass of the IPL's and have a mid-forward balance that can be harsh with unsympathetic ancilliaries, cruddy CD players and budget tranny amps in particular. They dovetailed with the Sterling perfectly. The bass became much tighter as the Sterling found controlling the cones much easier than with the IPL's.
It danced along happily, the lovely bouncy bass on Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" being lithe enough to make you smile. Imaging was good without being spectacular, my own Audions being better and much more powerful sounding to boot.
But the "raison d'etre" of single-end amps is their midband. Here The Sterling clearly showed it's strength. Nothing tests midband tone and texture like female vocal. The combination of Sloop and Sterling brought out the best of recordings like Billy Holliday's "Porgy". The sublime moment when she sings "I love you Porgy" followed by four descending notes on the plucked double bass sent a shiver down my spine - just as it should.
Here I was using the Roksan Caspian CD, another smoothie and an excellent match. And whilst we're on the subject of sublime moments there was the "Chucky's in love - with me" at the and of Rikki Lee Jones' "Chucky's in Love".
Best of all, Arethra Franklyn's understated vocal pyrotecnics and breathtaking timing (listen - you'll understand) in the last verse of "I'll Say a Little Prayer". By now late into a listening session, I listened to the "Lounge-Lizard" persona of Bryan Ferry's "Jealous Guy", wonderful but just ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek.
You'll notice I've stopped writing about the Sterling as a hi-fi component and started to talk about great music, and that is what the Sterling makes you do. Forget that last ounce of detail or how holographic the imaging is, it just doesn't seem to matter any more. That said, I suspected it was so easy to listen to because it was doing a fair bit of "editing" in the detail and "leading-edge" department, but when I'd finished "listening" and began "testing" there was little evidence for that - nothing seemed to be lost, it's just that detail wasn't thrust out at you.
The top end was notably sweet, Morello's Cymbals on "Take Five" showing both the strike and the "shimmer" very well.
In my opinion really good hi-fi components should do something - anything, better than similarly priced components, this the Sterling does. But as I said earlier - be realistic. If you give it easy, efficient speakers and the sort of music it excels in, it will show up any 600 pounds transistor integrated.
Stick to a diet of female vocal, lighter jazz, blues, chamber music, folk etc at a moderate volume and you'll really wonder why anyone should spend more. But ask it to produce crashing "grunge" of Nirvana, the cannons of the 1812 or the synthesized dynamics of Massive Attack and it will struggle.
It'll play them, but it'd be like buying a Rolls-Royce and taking it hill-climbing, it'd get to the top but not without a lot of wallowing and tyre screeching.
As for it's overall balance I'd say it was quite lean and "modern" sounding for an SE amp. There wasn't an impression of a warm glow over the music that some valve amps give - this can be beguiling, but can irritate (me) over time.
I've begin to see this as an Audion character and if you are looking for a "vintage" type valve sound than you'd be better off looking elsewhere. In operation is was as near silent as makes no difference, again an Audion trait.
This is the cheapest SE amp on the market capable of driving box speakers. It's not an all-rounder, being even more fussy than the Lab 47 Gaincard, but then it costs a lot less. Some SE amps can really "rock" and shake the walls with fast punchy bass (811SE's for example) but their price starts at well over 2000 pounds and heads for six (yes six!) figures.
At this price the little Sterling might well be a candidate for bi-amping, which would be very interesting - imagine, you could use it with one amp per channel to give a balance control, or use one amp for the tweeters and the other for the woofers giving complete control over relative output (though you'd need a pot for overall volume) could be fun...
As for compatability, I said I was trying to stay budget and then ended up using it with 1500 pound speakers, but other much cheaper speakers are efficient enough and light enough in the bass not to trip the Sterling up.
As always my advice would be to think "second-hand"- old Snells and Audio Notes are around at well under 500 pounds as are some of the older Cabasse models. At the cheaper end something like Missions old "770 Freedoms" for a couple of hundred would be fine. I'd even hazard a guess that Hebrook HB1's might fit the bill as long as the room isn't too big - they fetch 100 pounds or less.
Be careful over placing too much trust in bare efficiency figures though. For example some, like Tannoys old 1000 series, have wicked impedence curves that the Sterling will hate. Whether second-hand or new, you should take the amp with you when you buy to check compatability.
That the Sterling helps smooth out budget CD players means that a decent system aught to be possible for well under 1000 pounds. If you want SE valve sound at this sort of price you have no other choice and Audion are to be congratulated on making it not only possible, but a pleasure.
© Copyright 2000 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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