Mastersound 300 B S.E. integrated amplifier Page 2
I tend to place integrated amplifiers much closer to my source components than to my speakers: either on a rigid oak table next to my turntable stand, or, in the case of very large or heavy amps, on the hardwood floor. Due to the Mastersound's extraordinary weight (73 lbs), the floor was the only realistic choice, and while I tried a couple of different isolation platforms between floor and amp, neither made more than a slight and quite possibly imagined difference. Speaker cables were a different matter altogether: My choices were limited to the few on hand that were long enough to reach from one end of my room to the other, and the Mastersound 300 B S.E. clearly sounded best through the copper Auditorium 23 cables.
In a general sense, the Mastersound's most apparent quality was its very wide bandwidth, especially for a tube amplifier operating in single-ended mode. That quality may indeed have stemmed from a superior approach to designing and making output transformers, although I doubt if such good performance could result from any single thing. Whatever the reason, the 300 B S.E. had an enjoyably open sound, with a better-than-average—if not the absolute best—degree of realistic detail and texture. To the consumer who fears that this old technology will make his records sound murky or lo-fi, the Mastersound 300 B S.E. will be a pleasant surprise.
In addition to simply sounding good, and in common with other high-quality SETs, the 300 B S.E. was musically expressive. Melodic and rhythmic nuances remained largely undistorted, and the amp's sense of flow was satisfying. Tonally, it was surprisingly uncolored overall: Hobbyists looking for a decidedly warm, sweet sound will be better served by other SET amps, while those who cherish tube amplification for other reasons, and who prize timbral neutrality above all else, will find much to enjoy in the 300 B S.E.'s performance.
Another surprise: Driving the Audio Note speakers, the Mastersound 300 B S.E. was a fine rock'n'roll amp. Both sonically and musically, it was an ideal partner for such fare as Etta James Rocks the House (LP, Chess CH-9184), a live recording from 1963 that captures the singer with an anonymous pickup band, playing for one of the most loudly receptive audiences I've heard on record. The surprisingly well-played electric bass on "Seven Day Fool"—sung with such abandon that it almost sounds as if James is saying, "On Tuesday, I'm gonna hurt you!"—had more depth and rhythmic nuance through my Shindo separates, but in every other way the Mastersound played this and other up-tempo records faultlessly, with real drive and momentum.
Turning to more introspective music, the Mastersound reproduced Pieter Wispelwey's recording of Tchaikovsky's Andante cantabile for Cello and Strings, Op.11, with Daniel Sepec and the German Chamber Philharmonic (SACD, Channel Classics CCS SA 16501), with nice tone and an above-average sense of flow in the melody carried by the solo cello. The sound was physically big overall, which I enjoyed, but it also sounded more reverberant than usual, and was slightly more forward than with my usual electronics, and with less spatial distinction between soloist and orchestra. Other recordings were reproduced with sufficient depth—such as the brushed snare way in the background of Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne," from the recent remastering of Songs of Leonard Cohen (CD, Columbia/Legacy 88697 04742 2, footnote 2).
Other sorts of string tone were equally well served by the 300 B S.E., as on Dolly Parton's excellent Little Sparrow (CD, Sugar Hill SUG-CD3927). Through the very best gear I've used, the fiddles and fretted instruments on this modern-sounding CD have decent tone and surprisingly good texture—even the string bass, which sounds deep, quick, and appropriately woody through my Shindo separates. The Mastersound did almost as well: good low-frequency extension, but not quite as much color and texture.
In my experience, the sound of the selections from Schubert's Rosamunde recorded in 1960 by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minneapolis Symphony (LP, Mercury Living Presence SR90218) is distinctly system-dependent. On less sophisticated gear, the listener's attention is drawn to the excessively bright, in-your-face sound; but on the best gear, while the brightness and unrealistic perspective remain, the listener's attention is drawn instead to the sheer drive and bounce in the string playing, and the believable sound of the hall decay—especially following plucked notes. In that regard, the Mastersound's amp section, driven by my Shindo preamp, did a lovely job. The 300 B S.E. allowed this record to sound lively and tactile and, ultimately, satisfying.
The Mastersound 300 B S.E. is rated at 12Wpc—a bit optimistic for a standard 300B tube operated in class-A, though not beyond the capabilities of modern "high-performance" versions of that output triode—while my tetrode-based Shindo Cortese is said to provide 10Wpc. This made for as interesting a comparison under real-world conditions as it looks on paper. With the Audio Note AN-Es, the Mastersound was acceptably dramatic with most music—but, subjectively, it sounded less powerful than the Shindo amp, especially with recordings of massed voices, including the famous Kempe recording of Wagner's Lohengrin (LP, Angel 3641), and the finale of Gilbert Kaplan's first recording of Mahler's Symphony 2 (CD, MCA Classic MCAD 2-11011). Especially with the latter, while not sounding egregiously harsh, the Mastersound gave voices a brighter, ringing sort of sound that was less natural and listenable than the Shindo.
I try to stay mindful of the dangers of confusing a product's appearance with its sound, at least partly by keeping in mind those many products that confound the obvious patterns: small amps that sound big, light-colored amps that sound dark, etc. But the fact remains that the very large Mastersound 300 B S.E. also sounded consistently huge in my system—not in the sense of "throwing a big, billowy soundstage" (ugh), but in the sense that the amp had the same believable sense of scale with large music as it did with the small stuff. Which was good.
I hate tight shirts, astrology, scotch whisky, overcooked pork, publicity hounds, Ayn Rand, John Sayles, greedy shopkeepers, Queen, Las Vegas, and I Love Lucy. But more than any of those things, I hate background music. When I hear music, I want to give it all of my attention (unless it's Queen); when music is played as a background to something else—dining, drinking, talking, refueling my car, whatever—it only ticks me off.
The nicest thing I could say about a device intended for music playback is that it did a poor job with background music: I couldn't ignore it, so I either had to pay attention or switch it off. That has been true of literally every combination of low-power, single-ended tube amp and high-sensitivity loudspeaker I've had in my home so far. Whatever their relative frailties and strengths, they have all honored recorded music by making it unignorable.
The Mastersound 300 B S.E. integrated amp carried on that tradition, generously, and did so with style. It's among the highest-fidelity SET amps I've used, yet it filled that role without sacrificing all the good qualities that often seem to come from a different direction altogether—such as flow and momentum and the ability to sound human rather than mechanical.
The 300 B S.E. offers acceptable value for the money, especially to the hobbyist who already has a warmish-sounding system and wants the benefits of a single-ended triode without adding more color. It would be a fine thing to install once and enjoy, tweakless and serene. Recommended.
Footnote 2: I was delighted to see that this and two other early Cohen albums were getting the reissue treatment they deserve. But I was disappointed by the unambitious bonus tracks (there's much better unreleased stuff out there than the two John Hammond–produced turkeys tacked onto this collection), the uninformative (and occasionally just plain wrong) liner notes, and the downright fuzzy sound, the last suggesting that the original two-track tapes were either in poor condition or unavailable. Stick with the LPs.