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Consonance Cyber 100s signature

World exclusive first review

[tum-te-tum]
Return of the Cybermen
[Italian version]

Product: Consonance cyber 100s signature integrated amplifier
Approximate cost: 1595 with Shuguang 300B;
TJ meshplate 300B 440 per quad (see text)
Ella baby mains lead: 125(1m); 150(2m)
Billie interconnect: 140
Supplier: Alium Audio - UK
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: January, 2006

Yet more audio equipment from China. Consonance (a.k.a. Opera) seem to release new products as frequently as Musical Fidelity. The Consonance range does not seem to subscribe to any particular exclusive creed like single-ended triodes, push-pull tetrodes or solid state as all these appear in the range in various guises. Consonance are representated in the UK by Alium Audio, who are Ian Large [+44(0)1273 325901] and Peter Richards [+44(0)1273 608332] and Consonance are represented widely in Europe and two of their very different amplifiers have already passed through Lucio's hands and another passed Stefano's ears, here at TNT-audio, while Hartmut has been busy auditioning Chinese rivals Minimax too.

Manufacturers specification

Ian Large is an enthusiastic advocate of the Consonance range, believing it to represent unusually good value for a taste of high end at real world prices. The recent revaluing of the Chinese currency Yuan (a.k.a. RMB) had a modest effect on the UK price structure, but a recent change of Consonance policy does mean that valve options described in recent reviews in cellulose based comics is now out of date. The amplifiers now come with Shuguang power tubes as standard and the TJ meshplates must be bought as a separate purchase. This pushes the total price of a TJ meshplate equipped Cyber 100s signature (yes it is all lower case font) to 2035, breaking the magic two-thousand price ceiling for UK buyers and raising the game with regard to the competion.

Ian arrived at my house with the amplifier, an accessory mains cable, an interconnect (Billie 140) and a tuner. He also brought the 1995 enormous 14kg Droplet CD player, but I simply do not have enough space for that beast this time around, so that had to go to HiFi News instead.

I did tell you that Ian is a believer in the Consonance range and makes it clear he's willing to face it against any competition. The Ella Baby mains wire adds another 125 (2metres 150) to the package making the ultimate incarnation of the cyber 100s signature a 2160 purchase with mains lead and upgraded glass. Ian also suggests some NOS (new old stock) input & driver valves. I have therefore no qualms about pitching the cyber 100s signature against two serious contenders:

Two very different monsters providing two very different experiences. How will the class A push-pull 300B Consonance measure up against them?
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Good Layout of fair quality parts

For a week I listen only to the Consonance fitted with the Meshplates, that Ian large said already had some mileage on them. Then I install the brand new Shuguangs and leave it running for a week, mostly via the Consonance tuner. First impressions are favourable in both configurations, and if anything, the push-pull output stage topology minimises the difference between the different brands of output valve. Push-pull is a symmetrical output stage where a pair (or pairs) of valves (or transistors) are working over the cycle, but out of phase with each other. In class A a push-pull amplifier neither phase of output device (tube or transistor) reaches zero at grid or plate so crossover distortion is not an issue. The original Krell KSA50 is an example of a transistor push-pull class A amplifier. Because the output valves are working in opposite directions they tend to cancel even harmonic distortion (I write "tend" because there is no such thing as a perfectly matched pair), and it is even harmonic distortion (especially 2nd harmonic) that give valves their characteristic warmth and euphonic colouration. So push-pull operation might be expected to reduce the characteristic midrange bloom of the famous 300B triode. This deserves more consideration after some familiarity with the amplifier.

The amplifier comes with a neat solid-feeling aluminium remote control that fits the hand and selects input and volume via a motorised volume pot, that also turns smoothly manually. The appearance is good with Consonance's trademark cherrywood strips accross the transformer cover and neat layout of the glassware in front:

I was supplied with a circuit diagram and note that the global feedback is taken off the output transformer secondary, thus including it in the feedback loop and therefore lowering output impedence as well as distortion. I also note local feedback around the input phase-splitter stage. I do not take a faith position on feedback, the sound is the only arbiter.

The power supply consists of a solid-state diode bridge whose output is smoothed by a proper CLC (capacitor-inductor-capacitor) Pi filter, rather than the low-rent alternative CRC (capacitor- resistor-capacitor) filter; the CLC should provide better regulation and lower source impedence leading to better dynamics and tighter bass, all other things being equal. The valve heaters are all ac supplied, which tends to sound more musical than the common lm317 voltage-regulated dc alternative.

The valves out front and transformers behind is a much more attractive layout to my eyes than the reverse arrangement as seen on those models Lucio tested. There is a metal cover for the valves for those customers with particularly stupid relatives who might burn themselves on obviously glowing hot things, which is fitted with irritating screws rather than Prima Luna's more elegant 4mm plug arrangement, and I never used the cover. Finish is good so all first impressions are favourable.

The Sound of music

The Consonance cyber 100s signature sounds good. Pace, rhythm and Timing are intact; it doesn't boogie like a Naim, but it's not turgid like some high-end pretenders. Musical qualities are present, as one would hope. Instruments seem to have their natural timbre with no undue emphasis on any partcular aspect of performance or frequency band. Some amplifiers seem to favour certain parts of the spectrum, like obvious bass or beguiling midrange, but this amplifier seems even handed in its presentation.

This renders the soundstage illusion placed in the area from the plane of the speakers backwards. Boosted upper midrange (the 'presence' knob on guitar amplifiers) tends to shift persepctives forward towards the listener, while scooped midrange (popular with bass guitar players) moves the perspective back. Good depth of sounstage depends on flat frequency response and minimal phase shift (often a problem when juggling output transformer design goals and coupling capacitors and feedback bandwidth); the cyber 100s clearly manages to pull this off successfully; there is a definite and consistent impression of depth and some illusion of height too. Pinpoint imaging does not exist in real life so I'm not going to tell you whether this amplifier subscribes to that delusion.

Valve amplifiers are often criticised for their handling of the lower octaves. The cyber 100s manages simultaneously to sound warm and tuneful without undue emphasis on the cellos. Pizzicato cellos do not sound sound loose and flabby with the cyber 100s as they do with some single-ended designs. Using the 4ohm connection helps here as most so-called 8ohm speakers spend much of their badwidth about the 6ohm mark and some even plummet as low as 3ohms (despite this being non-compliant with 8ohm spec) in an impedence curve trough between the bass resonant peak and the inductive rise toward the crossover frequency. Firtst I use my familiar 90dB for 2.83V (a theoretical 8 ohm watt) Rogers Studio 1a without any difficluty (lowest R=6ohm). They do sound much better defined on the 4ohm output transformer tap. The Consonance Cyber 100s has the two impedence choices mounted on the rear panel for easy selection; all this costs them is an extra pair of sockets so every transformer coupled amplifier should be thus equipped. Using the 4ohm tap works better on many push-pull amplifiers (even ultralinear tetrode output stages) and I have been trying this option ever since it was suggested to me with my old Quad II as a schoolboy; the only downside is lower maximum power headroom before clipping, but even clipping is also likely to be a much tidier experience with better impedence matching. If you use a valve amplifier with selectable transfromer secondaries I urge you to try the alternatives while listening to some bass-heavy music.

Bass guitar and kick-drum are not as tightly defined as class AB transistor designs. If you want chest thumping bass impact you'll have to look to silicon rather than glass. The bass is there and it is good and I'm sure if I plugged my bass guitar through it my loudspeaker cones would complain before this amplifier does. So triamped active Naim bass it ain't, but we are listening to a 1595 integrated amolifier here, with 300B triodes not bipolars.

The other end of the frequency pallette is not as warm or sweet as a single ended 300B design, but has that sparkle and clarity that tends to come from triodes. It is here that the limits of the budget are probably most distinctly heard compared to much more expensive opposition, but at this price-point it is probably as good as it gets for a push-pull design.

The midband is what 300B are famous for. This directly heated triode (there is no separate cathode heater supplied as there is on indirectly heated triodes), ranks alongside the equally loved but even less powerful 2A3 directly heated triode, as the ne plus ultra midrange magician. Does the push-pull circuit diminish that magic? Not enough to lose any sleep worrying about it; the handling of voices (from the depths of John Lee Hooker and Keb Mo to the heights of Flora Purim and Joni Mitchell) is sublime. Sure, my highly refined kit built single-ended 300B fitted with genuine Western Electric 300B, NOS (new old stock) black Brimar 6SN7 and NEC 6BX7 goes further... but the parts alone will cost you double the cyber 100s.

The Consonance cyber 100 signature, like all valve amplifiers, is very sensitive to the surface it is placed upon. Like much valve equipment I have tried, it performed most musically when placed on an ERAUDIO spaceharmoniser platform mounted on its steel spikes on my sand-filled stand. It was also better on Brightstar Isonodes than on its own rubber feet when on a conventional shelf. Try whatever alternatives you have available and remember this will make more difference than couture cables compared to mid-price wire.

[Cyber100s rear inside]

A change to my new larger listening room and some high sensitivity speakers (the Magna Acoustica) brought more of the qualities of the cyber 100s to the fore. Dynamic shading (I mean the audio equivalent of tonality in a photograph) is good enough, but not quite up in single ended triode territory. Vocals remain the strongest feature, but this push-pull design does fare better with big orchestral works than most single ended designs.

Extended listening with my SET300B after the long exposure to the Consonance enables more differences begin to emerge. The single ended amplifier has a more easy going presentation; not because it misses anything but because it handles everything with consumate ease. I try to avoid the tenuous flowery language of the paper comics, whose purple prose equals that of wine writers, but it is difficult to describe the differences without plumbing those literary depths. The differences are not subtle in terms of magnitude, but are elusive in terms of description.

The Consonance push-pull and my single-ended both present valid versions of the musical truth. Both are objectively reasonably accurate, and both are subjectively reasonably accurate for entry level high-end audio. The Consonance presents on the lean end of the span of triode experience; a lower fat option than my modified Asemblage. My Assemblage is more full bodied, but drinking just as quickly, with a good clean finish...I did warn you that winespeak is becoming the model for audio journalism. The SET manages cleaner more transparent high frequencies, I suspect more consistent phase perfomance from the output transformers might take the credit (the glass is only there to drive the iron). My homebrew 4Wpc SET also managess this trick, and I know its output transformers are well over-specified, and eliminating all global feedback improved that design even further.

The Consonance Cyber 100s is a remote controlled 22W integrated amplifier costing 2170 with these output valves and mains lead. I am comparing it with tuned-to-my-taste power amplifiers whose parts cost 500 (4W SET); 700 (100Wpc push-pull solid state); 2000 (modified SET300B), all of which need a pre-amplifier to make them work. My power amplifiers look like they were born on my workshop bench; The Consonance Cyber 100s mixes solid cherrywood and machined aluminium. You pay your money and you take your choice.

The TJ meshplate option & tube-rolling

The original supplied valves are convincing looking replicas of reissue Western Electric 300B. A second getter and slightly different mounting arrangements are all that's obvious to the naked eye.

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from top left
Western Electric 300B - TJ Meshplate300B
Shuguang 300B - Valve Art 300B
Chinese 300B (left) Western Electric (right)

The initial impressions of the differences between the two valve brands were confirmed when I returned to the TJ meshplate 300B option, after two weeks with the standard Chinese 300B set. Settling down to some serious listening, the TJ meshpaltes offer immediate gains in a sense of natural timbre to voices and instruments. Keb Mo's voice and guitar sound more realistic. Rhythm and pace are unaffected. The sounstage gains in every dimension, and seems more convincing.

The only downside is a slight loss of transient bite and less thwack to snare drums (regardless of 4ohm or 8ohm output setting). Bass seems warmer and more fluid but also slightly woolier and less well defined. A useful analogy might be that the chinese valves have the sort of tight punchy but rather bleached out sound of regulated power supplies compared with the warmer, softer but more musically flowing sound of very big unregulated power supplies (these differences are really obvious when playing with bipolar transistor circuit designs).

The difference is greater than a serious cable upgrade of a similar price magnitude, but not as great as good vibration isolation of that order of cash. The push-pull circuit will reduce the effect of tube rolling (substituting different valve brands), as noted above, tends to cancel out the even numbered harmonic distortion. Valves are never identical, so this cancellation is never complete, but the principle character of any valve tends to be dominated by the even harmonic distortion artefacts, especially 2nd harmonic distortion. This is also the harmonic most effectively cancelled by the push-pull circuit, which is why single ended designs exhibit far more of the creamy smooth valve character than push-pull designs with similar valves. Various valve choices are therefore less obvious in a push-pull design. Out of curiousity I tried a matched pair of TJ meshplates in my SET300B to exagerate the differences compared to the push-pull application. The TJ meshplate seems more microphonic than the Western Electric; the TJ rings at higher frequencies and rings far longer, but actual musical differnces are much more subtle. The snare drum on Little Feat's Waiting for Columbus sounds snappier on the TJ with explicit skin-thwack but the actual snares are much clearer on the WE. The WE sounds fuller and warmer. The WE rhythm is more coherent and it seems to have slightly more gain. The TJ has well paced midrange but the high-frequency timing is not equal to the WE. But a set of four TJ Meshplates costs less than ONE PAIR of Western Electrics and the TJ are good enough.

[More similar than TJ]

Even at that price, the TJ meshplate option is serious money at 440 for a set of four and in terms of the pleasure available for that kind of money I would expect 50 lps or mid-price cds to be better value. But I wouldn't drop 440 on an interconnect cable and a lot of people do, so who am I to judge. The TJ 300B would be better value than the couture cable! Your choice.

Ella Baby Mains lead

Speaking of cables, I used the supplied Consonance Ella baby mains lead during the test period. I imagine many users will buy this 140 wire along with their amplifier, so it seems a reasonable approximation of readers' potential experience. Personally I don't own a mains cable that cost that much but trying my own home made cable as a substitute produced very similar results.

The fashion among Chinese cables seems to be for large diameter hawser like mains wires. The Shanling CDT100 comes suplied with an equally fat bit of wire, but the Shanling freebie is actually a poor performer easily outperformed by inexpensive aftermarket alternatives. The Consonance cable is an extra cost option and aimed at buyers of any Consonance products as well as those from other manufacturers. The UK versions has a massive Clipsal transparent 13A plug, and a 10A IEC connector at the other end; it alsosports a potentially very useful 25cm flying lead terminated with a crockodile clip for attaching to a chassis earth if this helps keep hum lower. Neat idea. The Ella Baby does deliver the goods with their own Cyber 100s, but I don't review wires so I'm not going to tell you whether it worked with anything else. With the Cyber 100s it had identical PRaT to a standard high-street kettle cable but has a lower noisefloor, better retrieval of ambience and a spacious open quality and equalled my own hand-made super-cable in every respect.

Music & Sound Quality again

During the Consonance cyber's sojourn in my system a musician friend called round. He plays Cafe de Paris style violin, but listens to a lot of dance rhythms and arrived clutching the latest Talvin Singh disc. He wasn't too happy with the rhythmic presentation and plonked another of his discs into my hotrod Rotel RCD965 BX discrete player. He felt the system lacked punch so we substituted the 100wpc push-pull class AB monster. Now he was happy and I too could hear what he had been missing with the Consonance Cyber 100signature. While the Consonance had been able to portray the rhythms of Keb Mo and Billie Holiday, and deftly handled the timing of Walk on the Wild Side, it couldn't handle the slammin beats of more modern production values. I suspect my friend would be more of a Naim man than triode lover.

Switching to vinyl, I give the latest Future Sound of London presentation The Amorphous Androgynous Alice in Ultraland issued on vinyl by EMI Harvest. This was a risky purchase as the worst pressings I have ever owned were six consecutive pressings of Pink Floyd's Wish you Were Here, bought the week it was released an exchanged regularly the weeks thereafter. It wasn't until I bought a cheap grey-import pressing a couple of years later that I was able to play that album. The FSOL pressing is fine, but it's the music that comes as a surprise. In contrast to my last FSOL purchase, far-out son of lung and the ramblings of a madman, this sounds more like the self-indulgent noodlings of The Enid or Tangerine Dream! I'd hoped for some lethal breakbeats to test the rhythm & timing to the full and check the pace under arduous conditions. Instead it becomes a test of the Consonance's ability to unravel dense textures in the mix. The Consonance excels at this quality, almost equalling my single-ended 300B.

A 'digitally remastered for compatible stereo' copy of The legend of Billie Holiday (originally a TV promoted lp), bought for 1.99 from a charity shop, might not be expected to produce the goods in the context of hifi, but that would be to underestimate the power of ms Holiday's voice. This voice could cut through the background chatter and clatter of smoky nightclubs to touch the hearts of those who heard her. Here the single-ended 300B has the edge for vocal richness but again, the Consonance comes close. And remember, the consonance is an integrated amplifier whereas the SET is a dedicated power amplifier.

Conclusion & Summary

In basic 1595 form the Consonance cyber 100 signature represents excellent value for money, continuing the present trend for bargain Chinese audio. This amplifier hints at many high-end qualities, that become more apparent as the upgrade path of Ella Baby mains lead and TJ Meshplate valves is followed by the proud owner.

Flat earth attributes are seriously patchy and pace & rhythm is too dependant on the music being played to suit anyone who has been happy with a big solid state amplifier with a well regulated power supply. This is not an amplifier for power hungry speakers, or speakers with wild impedence curves, but you would not expect that from any directly heated triode (DHT) amplifier. Even the high power push-pull DHT monsters using big transmitter valves in their output stages do not work well with steep impedence curves, especially those that lurch from inductive to capacitive within an octave. Sensible matching is needed with speakers of 92dB sensitivity plus.

What this amplifier does offer is more than double the power of a single ended 300B alternative. It does so for much less money than most of those SET competitors. While it is not the last word in DHT refinement and warmth, it is only 1595 which looks like a bargin to me. It comes very well presented with well-finished aluminium casework, trimmed and damped by cherrywood strips. Those readers who are happy to wield the soldering iron would enjoy playing this amplifier as it is for a year, then substituting different valves, upgrading passive components, playing with the feedback quantity & bandwidth, etc., after paying attention to good isolation from vibration.

At this price the hardware is worth the money alone to those of us happy to rip half the parts out and gradually upgrade with our own favourite flavours of passive component. The transformers are up to the job, the ceramic 300B valve bases look good, many of the capacitors needn't be changed...hours of fun can be had swapping valves, changing local degeneration quantity (aka feedback) eliminating global feedback. And straight out of the box it's already a good performer.

The Consonance Cyber 100s is a remote controlled 22W integrated amplifier costing 1595 and competes with anything comparable in such terms. The Consonance is also a push-pull 300B directly heated triode amplifier and punches way above its weight in those terms; it looks like high end, sounds good enough, but is priced like a kit.

Some Music enjoyed during this review:

Copyright 2006 Mark Wheeler - www.tnt-audio.com

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