Jadis SE300B monoblock amplifier A Brace of Bs
It was a great pleasure auditioning so many 300B tubes. Here are thumbnails of our experiences with them.
Western Electric 300B: In the way that audio can be anthropomorphic, I'll say these guys are suave, baby. Dean Martin, Sammy, and Frankthe rat pack. The Pierce Brosnan double-oh seven of 300Bs. Or a Ralph Lauren Polo type. Older guyan arbitrageurwith impeccable style and the cash to indulge it. The tubes are beautifully made and presentedcheck the serial number on the tube and its box for authenticity. (This is one tube sure to be knocked-off.)
I'd characterize this tube as extremely balanced in all sonic qualities. It's powerful and strong-sounding, without getting overboard about it, never falling crude or rough. On the contrary, it is as refined as it's possible to be. It does excellent-quality bass, evenly distributing energy from the bottom to the upper midbass. The midrange abilities are at the top of the 300B heap, bar none. The highs range from transparent and neutral to warm, burnished, and so seductive you'll hock the house just to keep them going...depending on the front-end and source material. The 300B was very quiet, perfectly behaved, and reliable. It was also extremely and delightfully ambientthe air was extraordinary.
The build quality is obviously first-class. For instance, Westrex even uses the same melt from back in 1987 for the filament material! As for the time it has taken to make quantities available, be aware that AT&T owns a stake in the company, audits their output, and insists on a particular percentage yield before the Bell Labs guys will release the tubes to the public. Color me reassured. The Western Electric 300B retails for $700/pair (footnote 1). My highest and most enthusiastic recommendation for this classic American tube.
VAIC VV30 & VV300: I first heard a VAIC VV30, their premium tube, in the Wavelength Cardinal XS. One of them let go, and a set of Golden Dragon Supers took their place until another set arrived, which worked perfectly. As reported in the article, the VAIC tubes could not be auditioned in the Jadis SE300Bs. I did listen to them in the Wavelength ampsas test beds from which to listen to the various 300Bs, Gordon's amplifiers were peerless.
The '30s are refined, finished, educated, well-traveled, wealthy, and possibly titled. The "big" VAIC is a slightly jaded European suavester with a beautiful chateau, a perfectly aristocratic wife, decadent kids (one of them's the VV300), and a mistress installed in his pied-à-terre in Paris. Whereas the Westrex tube can roll up its sleeves and kick some serious butt, the VV30 would have his man take care of it. It doesn't get its hands dirtyit's terribly refined and sophisticated, don't you know, old man. In that sense, when it comes to dynamics, pace, transient behavior, and power in the bass, the beautifully balanced Western Electric just manages to outdo the Eurotube. The '30 lacks the push of the Westrex, but it makes up for it with a ravishing midrange and practically lascivious highs. For ultimate refinement with perhaps fewer fireworks, the VV30 may do it for you.
The build quality of the VV30 is extraordinary. The heavy glass envelope and base, the unimaginably complex appearing filament structure (much more complex than any other 300B variant), the entire production exudes lavish quality.
If the VV30s are slightly more "mature," its offspring, the VV300, sounds younger and spunkier. It's a little rambunctious and outspoken, drinks, and gets into trouble. The '300's shirt was always hanging out of its pants as a lad, but now it's in Armani and a tux. The '300s are refined monsters! Well, certainly less refined than the '30, but even at its most crossed-up and out of shape, it's still way more refined than the Golden Dragon 300B Super. The midrange is well-developed, but not so lush as the VV30 or the Westrex. The bass is very good, maybe even a touch punchier than the '30's. It's got rhythm and it's got highs, even if neither is so perfectly well developed as its dad. The build quality, while still high, is a lot simpler than the VV30'sthe plate structure looks more like the rest of the 300B litter.
Common to both VAIC tubes is a slightand I mean slightdarkness in the upper-midrange and treble regions, the '30 slightly less so than the '300s. I don't want to make too much of this, but it's noticeable in comparison to the Western Electric (which suffers no such darkening whatsoever) or the lively 300B Supers from Golden Dragon. Interestingly, the less-expensive '300 seems to splash out a more vivid and palpable soundstage, if not quite so transparent and continuous as the '30. I wonder if the lighter internal structure of the '300 gives it a more resonant signature, and therefore develops a slightly more alive and kicking quality to its sound. There's something boyish and exuberant about the '300 that the '30 tames in some way. You lose a little something with the more expensive tube, but you gain...quite a lot. The '30's bass is also deeper, more extended, and pitch-differentiated, if somewhat less kick-butt.
The VV30 retails for $760/pair, and the VV300 for $595 per pair, all US sales handled through the importer, Fanfare International (footnote 2). If VAIC can keep their tubes lit and stem the blowups, they've got a winner in both of these tubes.
Golden Dragon 300B Super: The glass on this Chinese tube (footnote 3) is lighter, it seems somewhat more flimsily made than the Westrex or the VAIC, and there's no Gucci or Ralph Lauren anywhere to be seen. They run hotthe micas at the top of four of the six on hand became discolored and one grew rather crisped-looking. Nevertheless, they sounded robust, exciting, dynamic, and were nicely acoustic. Their presentation, while entertaining and vivid, was a bit rough-edged and slightly ragged. However, this is still single-ended triode sound we're talking abouthow bad can it be? Trust me, not that bad. It's just that the Super comes across as a bit unrefined and coarse compared to the best on offer. It is a little brighter on top, a touch grainier, but it rewards its gruffness with a dramatic and effervescent musical presentation that can be winning with the right music and with the right equipment.
For their dynamic qualities, for the good bass, for the midrange it does develop, and for the highswhich, while not the sweetest available, still can be attractivethe Super is a valid choice. This especially so when the budget becomes an issue. You can do (much) better, but at a significant cost increase. In the meantime, this tube will do nicely, thank you! The Golden Dragon 300B Super retails for $354 a pair. (Golden Dragon also make available the 4300B for $368/pair, and the titanium-plate 4300BLX for $552/pair.)
Overall: The VV30 and the Western Electric 300B are the two really serious audio devices here, with the Golden Dragon a contender, but at the head of a second rank of pretenders to the throne. The Westrex tubes are the perfect blend of old-boy smoothness with a touch of the ruff'n'tuff that got him there. He's not afraid to rumble when it comes to itmany a stiff was left on the boardroom desk. These would be my pick for the top of the hill. The VAIC sound a little more Euro, with a higher degree of smoothness at the cost of a little sparkle and life, like a noble family fallen on hard times.
I suppose there are those of you who will choke on the following notion, but perhaps the true single-ended aficionado will keep several sets of 300Bs at hand, and depending on mood or music, he (she) can just change 'em out. If the amplifiers are broken-in and have been on for the day, and if the tubes are broken-inthey do break-inthen it takes a mere 15 minutes or so before sounding at 90% of its abilities, with that last 10% of nuance catching up after 30 minutes, more or less.
I wasn't able to get the Cetrons in the Cary to work well in the Wavelength XS, so I've nothing to say about them. The four carbon-plate ESTi 300Bs from the Audio Note also wouldn't settle down and behave in anything but the Audio Note amp. Go figger...I look forward to hearing the Sovtek the Svetlana 300Bs, neither ready for production at the time of this writing.Jonathan Scull
Footnote 1: Western Electric: Tel: (404) 874-4400; fax: (404) 874-4415 (1996).
Footnote 2: Fanfare International: Tel: (212) 734-1041; fax: (212) 734-7735 (1996).
Footnote 3: Tube by Design/Golden Dragon: (813) 377-7884; fax: (813) 925-1220 (1996).