Product: Basic 45 Single Ended Triode Amplifier
Manufacturer: Handmade Electronics
Approx.cost: Price $675 w/o tubes
$895 with NOS 45's
Reviewer: Scott Faller - TNT USA
Published: November, 2003
Here we go again. I'm going to have you step into the way back machine again. A while back, I did a review of the Deluxe Midwest Classic 2A3 SET amplifier. If you remember, I wrote raves about this fine little, flea powered amplifier.
Unfortunately, early this year the gentleman who ran Midwest Audio pasted away. Patrick Cunningham and three others were struck down in their prime in an automobile accident. It's a damned shame. Patrick was one of the good guys.
As part of that review, Patrick shared with me the name of the guy who built the amps for him. It was Anthony Cirella of Handmade Electronics. Patrick had Anthony build a souped up version of Anthony's 2A3 Simple. It used all kinds of premium parts. After Patrick would receive the amps from Anthony, Patrick would wrap the raw amps in fine wood and other finish products. Now the amps would look as great as they sounded.
After Patrick's passing, Anthony and I would talk off and on. He had mentioned that he was about to start production of a Basic 45 amplifier. I had mentioned that when he got it ready, I'd really like to give it a listen. It goes without saying, when he got it done, he dropped me a line and shipped one to me.
For those unfamiliar with Handmade's designs and amplifiers, Anthony builds several different amplifiers. All of them are SET's. Anthony builds a 45, a 2A3 and (on occasion, if you ask really nicely) a 300B. He offers a variety of different upgrades for each. The upgrades vary, but are all associated with “better” parts.
Handmade also offers a complete line of standard and premium parts for the DIYer and they also have a modest tube selection on the website. All of his amps are “handmade” to order. No huge production runs, no offshore assembly plants with people working 6 days a week for $2 a day (or what ever it is) churning out amplifiers. Nope, Anthony builds and tests everyone of his amps in house, over in Pennsylvania.
Anthony uses good quality parts incorporated into established designs and produces some very affordable and really good sounding amplifiers. One thing Anthony does that goes against the grain of the common manufacturers is he uses a rather inexpensive housing for his amplifiers. It's a standard Hammond steel enclosure. He likes to refer to it as Eico/Heath chic. He paints it with a “crinkle” or “hammered finish” paint to give it a nice finished appearance. Anthony doesn't buy into the machined, armor plated casing concept. In turn, his pricing reflects that same philosophy. If you want to make your Handmade amp have a “spiffier” appearance, you can always do just what Patrick at Midwest did, wrap it in solid Cherry or some other wood of your choice.
Inside the Basic 45, Handmade has used good quality parts. In the signal path Anthony has used a variety of industry standard resistors and capacitors. These aren't the spiffy (Black Gates, Solens, etc.) ones that distinguish the Basic amp line from the Deluxe line, these are above average quality, good sounding parts. The output transformers are custom wound Hammond's. The power supply filter caps are nice quality F&T's made in Germany. Again, the RCA inputs are decent gold plated ones and the binding posts are WBT's.
The circuit design uses no feedback. Anthony's choice of the 6C45Pi driver tube is pretty good actually. When you think about, he could have gone with a 6SN7 (or some other tube) but that would have meant significant changes in the gain circuit plus higher costs. Not only higher costs in the octal bases but the raw tube itself (if you are buying most NOS 6SN7's). The 6C45Pi is a very affordable, current production, 9 pin miniature tube. It runs between $15 and $20 US, depending on where you buy it. It provides plenty of gain for the circuit, it has low distortion characteristics and is very linear, plus it sounds good too boot.
If you weren't aware, the typical 45 amp design is usually good for about 1.5 wpc. All in all, no big deal. Anybody looking to buy a 45 knows they need super, high efficiency speakers. No secret there. A nice pair of Lowthers, Fostex, vintage Altec's (or many other brands) will do just fine.
Anthony (as always) includes a copy of the schematic in case you want to willfully void your warranty. In it are instructions on how to change the secondary taps so you can play lesser impedance speakers. That, or if you're just curious to see what an amp looks like when it goes up in smoke. It's pretty. You sometimes get this loud popping sound and the tubes start to glow this bright blue. Then a wispful, aromatic grey smoke rises, but only once (per repair).
For those not familiar with the sound of a 45 let me give you this analogy. A 45 is to a 2A3, what 2A3 is to a 300B. Wait, before you go searching for my email address, play along with me for a minute. Much like a 2A3 compared to a 300B, a 45 (being a 2A3) has a slightly more textured presentation to the music. Where a 2A3 (being a 300B), is slightly more detailed and surgical (if you will) in the way it approaches the music. Confused?….good, you're supposed to be.
OK, so here is where things get a little hairy. I've been zapped and burned before, carelessly working on and around tube amps. The delay switch is right next to the rectifier tube making a hot swap of the rectifier tubes just that….a hot swap. So, since I am accepting hazardous duty pay for this article, I put on my rubber lined, asbestos gloves and started experimenting full well knowing I could be sacrificing my person for the greater good of audio.
Well, I've got an OK selection of rectifier tubes that I've collected over the years. Here's what we'll be playing with today.
Sovtek 5AR4 General Electric 5U4GB Zenith 5U4GB smooth plate Sylvania 5U4GB ST type, big bottle Chatham Electronics JAN CAHG 5R4WGY industrial strength Raytheon 5U4GB ST type, big bottle Mullard GZ34 (Great Britain)
After rolling the seven of these tubes into and out of the Basic 45's circuit, I can tell you first, this switch is handy as can be. You are able to experiment with different sounds without sending those NOS RCA's you just bought on eBay into the Netherworld by slamming 350 volts across the grid.
If you weren't aware, switching rectifier tubes can have as much sonic impact as changing driver tubes or power tubes. The tube that I ended up settling on was the Mullard GZ34 that I was using in my Deluxe 2A3. It's a great sounding rectifier tube. It's full of body and adds great dynamics over the much thinner sounding Sovtek. My second choice was the Raytheon 5U4GB. It came really close to the Mullard sound.
On the output side, I'm listening to a pair of 15 ohm Lowther PM2A's purchased from “The Man” himself, Doc Lowther, Jon Ver Halen. I haven't had the time to build my Medallions, so I turned the plans over to a local cabinet maker to make my life a little less stressful. Unfortunately, those won't be here for another few weeks. So, what I did do, was build an interesting cabinet (and design) by Martin King. These are the MLTL's or Mass Loaded Transmission Line's. I won't go into any great detail here because I plan on writing an article about them and the Lowthers. Let's just say they sound pretty good, not quite the medallions (and not meant to be) but pretty darned fine sounding none the less. Out of these transmission lines I'm getting a solid 38Hz in room (officially verified with my geek-o-meter). After that the bass drops off like a rock, but when you think about that kind of output out of a single driver that's pretty amazing considering the cabinet design. Well….maybe not, there was a lot of engineering that went into the cabinet design. Oh, I'm also using the “new” Lowther whizzer design. Much, much better than the old but I'll cover that in the MLTL and Lowther review too.
As many of you are aware, the Lowther PM2A is a brutally revealing speaker. It hides absolutely nothing. Nothing to the point of being able to here the difference in solders, seriously (providing your front end is up to it). Needless to say they provide a very good reference for comparing amps.
Listening to loads of different music I found the Basic 45 a very nice all around amp. It provides a plenty of detail as you would expect. One of my favorite discs to use (of late) is the Tord Gustavson Trio, Changing Places. I found out about these guys on one of my Jazziz sampler CD's that I get each month with the magazine. They are a simple piano, bass and drum acoustic trio. They hail from points north in Europe (Norway I think). Very cool, very simple jazz with no (or very little) studio effects. It's one of those You-R-There recordings.
The texture of the music created by this little amp is very inviting. There something very seductive about the presentation of the music that comes though this little amp. Although the mid's and highs are slightly more laid back than my 2a3, in some respects the Basic 45 sounds more “right” than the 2a3. Especially on female vocals. The dynamics seem a bit better too but that is could be a psycho-acoustic byproduct of the 45's slightly laid back and less aggressive sound compared to the more refined sound of my 2a3 Deluxe. I haven't quite wrapped my mind around that one yet. Did you read what I just typed? I said a 2a3 was aggressive sounding…..jeez, that's scary.
As I swap the two of these amps back and forth (the 2A3 and the 45) there are a couple of things I notice (besides tonality and dynamics). The Basic 45 does a nice job of imaging, not great like the 2A3, but very nice none the less. The performers and instruments are well placed but seem just a tad wider than my 2a3. This isn't anything you would notice on a casual audition but when you do an a/b, there is a slight difference.
The next thing is sound staging. Again the Basic 45 does a nice job but it's not quite on par with the 2A3. The soundstage depth on the basic seems to be a bit deeper. Here I'm not talking about the “back wall bounce” I'm talking about the main performers. They seem to have taken a step backwards in the stage. I really think most of it is attributable to the laid back nature of the 45. When you are talking about the “back wall bounce” and stage width, the 2a3 definitely has the edge. It is far more detailed in it's presentation. The Basic 45 still hangs in there pretty well though.
The presentation of the amp (as I mentioned) is a tad bit warmer than the 2A3. The bass is slightly softer and the highs are just a bit rolled. This is the sound that Handmade was aiming for exactly. Anthony built this one with his musical tastes in mind. Slightly rolled at the extremes. When I type slight, it is just that, slight. Nothing too major. After spending a lot of time with the amp I've found it's sound very non-fatiguing and very inviting. It's the type of amp that plays all kinds of music well. Sometimes SET's can get a bit analytical. The designers try to squeeze every last Hz (at the extremes) they can out of them, in turn it can really screw up the warmth and dynamics of the midrange. That isn't the case here. Anthony has allowed the tube and design to shine on it's own merits. The Basic 45 provides a very seductive midrange without being overly detailed or fatiguing.
Look at the Basic 45 amp this way. If you are looking for a really inexpensive way into SET Kingdom, this could be your ticket. Build a pair of Martin Kings MLTL's to house a pair of Lowther DX drivers or Fostex 208e's and you have just gotten into a fine sounding SET and High-E rig for about $1400-$1500 (assuming you have a decent pre-amp and CD player already). That's damned affordable no matter how you look at it. Believe me on this one, you are getting really close to 85%-90% of the upgraded Deluxe versions sound quality. You do sacrifice some openness and sound staging but it's not as much as you might think.
If you are looking for the most refined 45 in the world, you probably need to look elsewhere. But wait! That statement needs an explanation. As good as the Basic 45 sounds, it's not going to win “best sound” awards. Why? Simple, this unit was constructed with the budgetphile in mind. It uses good quality parts not the ultra-expensive, great quality parts it's big brother the Deluxe uses. The Basic 45 is built for a guy that wants to get that first 90% of a 45 and doesn't want to pay for that last 10%. And we all know just how expensive that can be.
Now, if you want that last 10%, Anthony will certainly build it for you, not a problem. Want special wound Lundahl output transformers, he'll do it. Want Black Gates as the filter caps, want Solens or some other exotic caps installed. No problem. You're just not going to get that ultra-refined sound out of the Basic amp. What you do get is a fine sounding 45 that is worth every penny. Point to point wiring, no circuit boards, decent parts and a circuit based on a proven design. What more can you ask for?
Besides, with this amp it's completely upgradeable for you chronic tweakers (and cheapskates). You know who you are. Plus you guys are always looking for a good deal anyway. You approach gear with the thought of modifying it anyway. First thing you guys do (even before you turn it on) is open the case to see what parts you will be changing down the road. And don't try to convince me otherwise, cause it's the exact same thing that I do.
Bottom line, if you are looking into your first foray into the SET world and you enjoy a non-fatiguing sound, you may want to give Anthony at Handmade a call. If your existing SET happens to be a bit too clinical for you and you are looking for a fuller, richer sound, the Handmade Basic 45 might be just what you are looking for.
© Copyright 2003 Scott Faller - http://www.tnt-audio.com