Gramophone Dreams #47: Hana Umami Red, Musical Surroundings Nova III, Ampsandsound Bigger Ben Page 2

As with the Phonomena II+, the Nova III exceeded my expectations for a moderately priced solid state phono stage. The Nova III allowed Saudades' dark, anxious moods to penetrate my room. It showed me how Freeman's saxophone sounds infused the church's whole, voluminous space. The Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum and Nova III phono stage reproduced what felt like every candela of luminance captured on this overtly atmospheric recording. It was a pleasure to observe how the Nova III plus Koetsu revealed the perfection of Kavi Alexander's microphone placement as well as Tim de Paravicini's unique audio sorcery.


My only disappointment was the Nova III's tendency toward partially grayed, less-than-fully-saturated tones. With the Nova III, the Hana Umami generated intricate, cleanly described musical forms. Images had bones, as if they were supported by almost-visible armatures. When I compared the cartridges, the Urushi-lacquered Duralumin-bodied Umami Red was not nearly as tone-colorful or luxuriously textured as the similarly priced ($3995) Koetsu Rosewood Standard I reviewed in Gramophone Dreams #21. But the Umami was more fit, athletic, and keenly focused than the unlacquered, rosewood-bodied Koetsu.

A Bigger Ben
The humans I admire most are the makers: those who physically make things with their hands, whether it's paper doilies, loaves of bread, or steel bridges. I venerate makers because the sacred rituals of fashioning objects force makers to understand the spiritual, cultural, and economic value of their work. That is why I chose to be a maker, not a merchant or a scholar.

When I encounter other makers, I feel an immediate kinship, accompanied by a need to investigate the workings of their mind. Ampsandsound's creator Justin Weber is one of those people (footnote 4). He is one of the most inspired, natural-born builder-mechanics I've met. I admire him because he is an unusually sincere, humble human who creates some of the finest loudspeaker and headphone amplifiers I've encountered. Between design gigs, he works full-time as a social worker specializing in psychiatric and medical social work.


A couple of years back, I spent a few months enjoying Ampsandsound's Mogwai KT88 headphone/speaker amplifier, but my first official experience with a Justin Weber–designed amplifier was my Gramophone Dreams #35 review of ZMF Audio's $2000 Pendant headphone amp, which Weber designed and built for ZMF. In that report, I concluded, "The Pendant seemed like the best all-purpose headphone amplifier I have used since I died and flew to heaven reviewing the $5899 Woo Audio WA5."

I am now living with Ampsandsound's $4950 Bigger Ben, a single-ended, triode-wired, no-negative-feedback tube amplifier designed to drive both loudspeakers and headphones. The Bigger Ben is intended to improve on the Mogwai by making everything bigger: bigger capacitors, bigger transformers, a bigger choke. According to its designer, the Bigger Ben can generate approximately 8Wpc into 8 ohms and 5Wpc into 32 ohms (when equipped with a solid state rectifier and KT88 output tubes). There's just one input via a pair of RCA connectors. Volume is controlled by a stepped attenuator.

My review sample arrived in a large Pelican flight case. It came equipped with Russian-manufactured TungSol–branded 6L6GC output tubes, JJ Electronic 6SL7 input tubes, and a Russian-made Electro-Harmonix 5U4GB rectifier. The Bigger Ben's single-ended (RCA) inputs are transformer-coupled, offering a 10k ohm input impedance. The power supply is filtered by a massive choke. The power and output transformers are "bigger" than the Mogwai's and over-spec'd compared to what would normally be used to support the currents and voltages of the Bigger Ben's circuit. Users can choose between an octal solid state rectifier plug-in or a variety of tube rectifiers.

The Bigger Ben's output transformer secondaries are tapped at 8 ohms for speaker cable outputs, and along the amplifier's left side are five ¼" headphone jacks labeled Low Z, 16 ohms, 32 ohms, 100 ohms, and High Z.

According to Justin Weber (via email), "Low Z accesses the output transformer's 8 ohm tap. A switch at the amplifier's rear allows users to choose between using that winding for headphones or speakers. HiFiMan's HE6s and Dan Clark Audio Ethers work well via the Low Z. The High Z is a 300 ohm tap, which pairs super well with ZMF's Eikons through Vérité or Sennheiser's HD600/HD800s, as well as Beyerdynamic's 600 ohm DT 880."

In my previous experiences, Ampsandsound's 5Wpc KT88 Mogwai and ZMF's 3Wpc Pendant amplifiers exhibited no SPL limitations driving the 97dB/W/m, 16 ohm Zu Audio Soul Supreme speakers designed by Sean Casey. All genres of music flowed easily and dynamically from the Zu's 10.5" full-range pulp-cone drivers. Those amplifiers are long gone, but during these current auditions, I thought the 6L6GC-tubed Bigger Ben powered the Soul Supremes to greater levels of transient and timbral exactitude than either Mogwai or Pendant—or most any other amp I've tried. The 6L6GC "Ben/Zu" combo specialized in highly tactile, microdetailed sound.


That same sense of dynamic, highly textured precision dominated my impressions of the 6L6GC Bigger Ben powering my DeVore Orangutan O/93s. I noticed no clipping or skewing of tone. With the O/93s, I compared the Ben to the First Watt F8 and Elekit TU-8600 and found it every bit as natural and engaging—as "live happily forever" satisfying—as those amplifiers.

I was more surprised by how easily the lower-watt Bigger Ben powered the low-sensitivity (83dB/2.83V/m), high-impedance (15 ohms) Falcon LS3/5a (Gold Badge Edition) speakers. With 6L6GC tubes and a strong tailwind, the Ben might put out 3Wpc—a far cry from the gigawatt Parasound Halo A 21+ I'd been using to power them just before.

I substituted the KT88 tubes for the 6L6s, still driving the Falcons. I played bluegrass, jazz, ska, and Mahler, at levels averaging 80dB with 90dB peaks (at 2m). I never once felt a need for more power. What I did feel was a special joy at discovering another tube amplifier that brought life and musical excitement to those venerable BBC monitors.

The Bigger Ben's circuit uses zero feedback, which permitted the JJ KT88s to show off their superclear third-harmonic character. In contrast, the 6L6GCs sounded second-harmonic misty. Drums and piano sounded softer. But I did not care, because the 6L6GCs extracted so much tiny-sprouts-in-a-forest detail they filled in all the KT88's empty spaces with infinite little things I hadn't noticed before.

The Ampsandsound Bigger Ben has a radiant quality—as if the sound were illuminated from within—that can be difficult to notice when playing highly processed, multitrack studio recordings. But that quality plays a leading role in pleasurable two-channel field recordings such as Pallavi: South Indian Flute Music (1973 LP, Nonesuch Explorer Series H-72052), engineered and mastered by Bob Ludwig (Sterling Sound Inc.). T. Viswanathan and L. Shankar are sitting onstage, playing flute and violin, respectively, in an arc with T. Ranganathan on mridangam and K. Ramiah on tambura. I listened through HiFiMan's 60 ohm, 83dB/mW, openback, planar-magnetic Susvara headphones connected to the Bigger Ben's 32 ohm output, KT88 tubes driving. The Hana Umami was driving the Musical Surroundings Nova III, loaded at 100 ohms.

I wish you could hear what I heard. It was almost scary. Audio accuracy is like pornography: difficult to define, but you sure as hell know it when you hear it. With the Ben/Susvara combo, I heard accuracy, and it was unforgettable. Of course, through headphones, the image mapping was less satisfying than it was through the LS3/5a monitors. Nevertheless, my mind was right there in front of every stage microphone. The actual, physical density and intensity of each voice or instrument was as jaw-droppingly real as I have ever heard from an audio system. Drums sounded startlingly—nay, almost completely—lifelike. The Ben's KT88s made percussion come alive.

Switching back to the 6L6GCs, still driving the Susvaras, my heart melted when I heard Anoushka Shankar's voice introducing her Live at Carnegie Hall appearance (16/44.1 FLAC Warner Classics/Qobuz). Until then, I'd only thought I was in love. Timbral nuance, inner-inner detail, and rhythmic fluidity permeated the Bigger Ben/Susvara presentation of this live recording.

Bigger Ben vs Z10e
I find this new category of integrated headphone/speaker amplifiers very appealing. However, I like it most when the amplifier allows me to switch between at least two line-level sources. Ampsandsound's Bigger Ben does not. I like it even more when the integrated amplifier comes with a remote volume control; the Bigger Ben does not.


That is why my favorite product in this category has been Linear Tube Audio's $6950 Z10e integrated headphone and speaker amplifier (see Gramophone Dreams #36). Designed by David Berning, the Z10e has three line-level inputs, a remote control, and a powered output for electrostatic headphones. It is specified to deliver 12Wpc into 8 ohms and up to 3Wpc into 32 ohms. It drives all headphones, plus my DeVore, Zu, and Falcon speakers, with spark and vigor. But the Z10e sounded quite different than Ampsandsound's Bigger Ben.

Both amplifiers excelled at driving ZMF's 300 ohm Vérité closed-backs. But the class-AB push-pull Z10e seemed more focused and brightly lit through the midrange. With the Z10e, Anoushka Shankar's Carnegie Hall performance felt like more of a grand, full-tilt tour de force (which it was) than it did with the Bigger Ben. The Z10e emphasized the urgency of rhythms. The Bigger Ben (with KT88s) emphasized the body and harmonics of the instruments and the sensual humanity of Shankar's voice. With the Ben, the Carnegie stage floor played an active, soundboard-like part in Shankar's performance.

The Ben showed more physicality. The Z10e showed more of the "air" above the stage. Both amps showcased a stark-but-enticing you-are-there clarity.

January 10, 2021
These are strange "Herb hides in the bunker" times. Nevertheless, I find myself feeling more grateful than ever. I have health and heat and sufficient gruel. And as you can see, I've been incredibly fortunate when it comes to music, amps, and speakers. I hope you all are equally blessed. May 2021 be a good year for peace, fellowship, and dream-filled listening.

Footnote 4: Ampsandsound. Justin Weber, Tel: (949) 636-9076 Web:

Jack L's picture

Hi Herb.

When both KT88 & 6L6 are operated in the same wired triode mode, both are therefore operate as a triode: typically max 5% 2nd harmonic distortion, with 3rd & higher order harmonics much lower without global negative feedback.
This is how all published data of the tubes based on.

So how come yr above statement re different harmonic distortion of the triode-wired KT88 & 6L6 ?

Of course they sound different from each other due to their different technical data, e.g. plate resistance, negative bias voltage, heater current etc etc, but NOT because of their 2nd & 3rd harmonic distortion level while both working as a trioide.

Technically, the ratio RL/rp (loudspeaker impedence/tube internal (plate) resistance) dictates the output power & the 2nd harmonic distortion levels of a single-ended class A1 power triode.

For example, a triode plate restance rp is 1,610 ohms (6L6=1,700 ohms) & the louspeaker load impedance is ideally 2x1,61KR=3.22KR. The output power would be 2.1watts & it's dominant 2nd harmonic distortion will be 10% without global negative feedback. Third & higher harmonic distortions can be neglected.

This is the musical charm of a power triode operating single-ended class A mode - making our ears feel so good !!

Listening is believing

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... operating a triode-connected 6L6 to achieve an output power of 2.1W?

Jack L's picture


Please read again my post above re triode-strapped 6L6.

I never mentioned the example of operation was 6L6. In fact it was 45, a direct-heated filament power triode tube, similar to 2A3 but is of course, much cheaper to buy. A cheapskate version of 2A3.

Google 6L6 specs sheet: go for triode connection.

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... "For example, a triode plate restance rp is 1,610 ohms (6L6=1,700 ohms) & the louspeaker load impedance is ideally 2x1,61KR=3.22KR. The output power would be 2.1watts & it's dominant 2nd harmonic distortion will be 10% without global negative feedback. Third & higher harmonic distortions can be neglected."

The only reference is to a 6L6 tube.

Jack L's picture


I think you need a coffee to wake youself up 100%.

Rp of a 45 is 1,610R, & 6L6 (when triodes strapped) is 1,700R.
So I was not talking about 6L6, right ? I put 6L6 there because we were on the harmoninc distortion of 6L6 (2nd harmonc) vs KT88 (3rd hsarmonic) per Herb's review above.

I did not particularly mention it was a 45 tube there in the application example in my above post as 45 triode was not in our discussion at all.

Hopefully I have clarified yr misunderstanding.

Jack L

AaronGarrett's picture

As always next-level writing and description of the refined details of the experience of listening to recorded music. Herb is truly a phenomenologist of recorded music. I wish more writers put this kind of effort into careful description as opposed to lazily relied on cliches, but I think Herb may have a special gift.

I have to say though my main take-away from the article is I wish I could afford a copy of Saudades!

Jack L's picture


"Next level" UP:-

Best "all vaccuum tube" LP should use the best pressing vinyl material to get best sonic result.

I don't know if the 'Sauddades' was pressed with premium vinyl: KC600. FYI,I got 2 classcial music LPs digitally mastered 1983 & pressed with KC600 premium vinyl. Superb sound in super 'dark' background.

So you said you can't afford a copy of Herb's 'Saudades'. How about a CD of "All vacuum tube recording" !!

Were I nut to say so? No, in fact I got one CD (made in Germany 1999) using vaccuum-tube only custom-built equipment (from Neumann M49 tube microphones, mixing console, old Telefunken M5 master tape recorder, to custom-modified A/D converter (elimating all 'unnecessary' solidstate electronics, e.g. emphasis/de-enphasis coding, overload protection etc etc).

IMO, PURE tube & passive equipment for most direct analogue signal processing!

Guess the title of this 100% tube processed CD: "The TUBE".
No kidding - "The Tube" - German label: TACET. 1999 made in Germany.

It is tube recording of works by Handel, Vivaldi, Biber,
Corelli etc, performed by Stuttgarter Kammerorchester (Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.). 64.51 minutes of music.

How it sound ???!! WOW, you got to listen to it as no words could tell how live, AIRLY, & engaging the music sounds. Must be the most musical ever any digital music I've ever listened vs vinyl.

Whoever interested can try to order, hopefully still available.
TACET 74 LC-07033.

Jack L

shawnwes's picture

Herb, what I like the most about your writing is your ability to take the simple experience of listening to music and relay to your audience how deeply it affects you and what you're hearing using your poet's licence. Well done as always.

AaronGarrett's picture

Thanks for the tip. I'll look for it, sounds wonderful.

Jack L's picture


Never too late for good music !


s10sondek's picture

As usual Herb does a great job describing the sounds made by the cartridge under test, in this case the Hana Umami Red. Way to go, Herb!

With that out of the way, I would like to make a request for Stereophile to begin taking measurements of phono cartridges. The arguments are straightforward: 1) As a transducer (similar to speakers), they are highly likely to impose gross frequency response colorations that strain the credulity of a system's moniker of "high fidelity," 2) They can inject enormous amounts of distortion into the signal stream, oftentimes in excess of 5-10% at frequency extremes, which again can highly color the sound, and 3) They are pretty much the ONLY HiFi purchase in this day and age that can not be returned (without penalty) if the buyer is dissatisfied. Add to all of the foregoing that cartridges are a pain to set up and align, and you have a big "switching cost" to the user that should make any listener extremely wary of buying a new cartridge based on a review.

So let's get Stereophile to do for cartridges what they've done for Loudspeakers: put together a rigorous test regimen that will check for major flaws and serve as an adjunct to the subjective reviewer's prose. Build a scientific edifice of understanding as the test reports and literature amass over time. And most importantly, help its readers determine whether the glowing reviews are because of the 8% THD at 6khZ or in spite of it.

Given that Miller Test Labs has partnered with HiFi News in the past to perform these types of evaluations of Phono Cartridges, would it be reasonable to think that the Miller test suite could be used as a starting point for Stereophile's reviews? Just a thought.

Please, please consider making cartridge measurements a cornerstone of the Stereophile Test Program. It would help us LP fans upgrade with confidence, and embark on an intelligent and guided path to pursuing ever-better sound within what is admittedly a highly constrained medium (the vinyl record). Given the limitations of the LP disc, we honestly need all the help we can get, and then some.

jimtavegia's picture

Test it all, Phono stages as well. Let us see the harmonic content of a phono stage with multiple test tones. We worry about what DACs and Amps due with 19 & 20 khz tones. Do the same think with lower frequencies.

I would love to see the same thing with mic preamps so we know where the sound coloring is coming from. At least we can see the freq. response of microphones as most manufacturers publish those. This is not the purview of Stereophile, but it would still be good to know.

Jack L's picture


That's the real world, my friend.

Phono cartridges are sold-but-no-return items just like ladies underwears, right? Too bad!

So supposing as you suggested, Stereophile one day in the near future, test measured a XX MC cartridge showing 8% THD 6KHz@6KHz, would you decide not to buy it ?

Likewise, Stereoophile has measured loudspeakers 3D 'waterfall' frequency response graphs since day one, what do those graphics tell you with reference to the typically hugh 20% or more THD of any loudspeakers?

Audition is the only way to tell us whether we like or dislike the sound of any audio stuff, given excellent measurement data come with them, ideally.

Like I get both MM & MC cartrieges. Yet I seldom play my MC cartridge (+factory matching headamp), made in Japan, mounted on SME black tonearm. Yet I play my MM cartridge (made in Japan again) most most of my vinyl time on another TT with factory tonearm !

Why? I am personally not that fond of the characteristic tonal 'colouration' of a MC cartridge, way way too sorta musically 'articulated'. Just like compression driver horns, their tonal colouration backs me off off !

Honestly, have I ever lost sleep on bench measurement data? Never !
'Cause, IMO, my critical ears do a better job.

Listening is believing

Jack L

JHL's picture

Kindly allow me to paraphrase: Supposing as you suggested, Stereophile one day in the near future test measured a XX MC cartridge showing 4% THD @6KHz, would you decide to buy it?

Here in the free version, smart record-playing shoppers expect all sorts of responsive services from the editors. However, in the light of the complex transducer at the other end of the chain doing far worse to the audio waveform, this presents only one such conundrum, doesn't it?

By my exacting analysis, 93% of objectivist projection begins with a premise into which is backed an ordained outcome. Phono is ipso facto wrong and therefore phono cartridges are even wrongerer. We'd know because a worst-case test produced a number.

Tubes are likewise unsavory, tube amps being automatic distortion generators. Of course this QED finding flies in the face of good audio tubes possessing the lowest unaided distortion among devices, along with the widest bandwidth. These days they also stand an increasingly good chance of being deployed in wise circuitry that drops that distortion to nil. No feedback required.

Of course, hearing the thing is the cure. As if on cue, the best way to never hear the awful distortion of a phono transducer pushed to the limit of its excursions in its most unfortuitousness frequency cluster is never to hear it at all. Proof!

Jack L's picture

......responsive services from the editors" quoted JHL.

WOW! That is a huge demand from the Stereophile editors !! My friend.

We should all understand Stereophile or whatever else audio magazines out there, act only as a bridge between the readers & audios vendors/manufacturers. Any product information or technical details, unfortunately not included in whatever "all sorts of responsive services" as expected by "smart record-playing shoppers" should be obtained directly from the vendors/manufacturers involved. Right ???

Fair is fair. Assuming Stereophile could provide "ALL sorts of responsive service" as expected by those "smart record-playing shoppers, what would those shoppers offer back to the publisher for the service they got ??

Come on! Please talk with reason !

Jack L

PS: please use simple English so every readers out there, including yours truly can understand. I don't want to check up the meaning of some
odd English wording AGAIN like what I did when I first read David Brown's best selling thriller novel: "The Da Vinci Code". Thanks.

JHL's picture

...would be correct if you detected sarcasm. Some readers think themselves audio police and the veterans at S'Phile the miscreants who, in half a century, still have not learned to behave by their modern rules.

Jack L's picture


Sorry! My comprehension of SIMPLE English is not good enough to read your "sarcasm".

Again, fair is fair. I would refrain from using irony to mock or convey contempt for the excellent job done by an established reputable magazine like Stereophile.

So who should learn to "behave" properly here ?

Jack L

s10sondek's picture

I only once purchased a phono pickup based on a review that was lacking measurements. It was a mistake - a waste of time and money, as the pickup had glaring flaws that simple measurements would have almost surely revealed. Going forward, I have to see good measurements of a cartridge to pique my interest. The same is true of loudspeakers. I can pretty much tell from a measurement set whether I will hate a speaker, even though I may not know that I will love it. Same with cartridges. Good measurements are not a sufficient condition, but they are necessary. A simple way to weed out the junk.

Put another way: why wouldn't you measure? Do we just not know how to do it? Don't want to? Don't care? Too hard? Too expensive?

Thankfully, there are a few other publications that do perform basic measurements of phono cartridges (and even some that analyze resonances of tonearms!) and I lean on their results to guide my replacement and upgrade strategy in the LP domain. "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it," said Lord Kelvin, and I mostly agree.

Given that the editor of Stereophile has proffered that he eschews LP playback of orchestral music because of the unsatisfactory reproduction of massed strings, I imagine that 8% THD and/or IM distortion at 6kHz would not be unusual in a phono pickup. And no, I would NOT buy it even if such measurements were accompanied by a rave review. The range between 2k-10k is where most of the violin's overtones are located, and it doesn't take much to convert the spectrum of a fine example of the Cremonese school to a $200 Amazon student special. My Fi? No, thank you.

I suspect that there are many other readers who hold off on buying phono cartridges (or won't even take the plunge into vinyl as a format) because doing so based on reviews lacking measurements is just too much risk. The lack of basic frequency response, distortion, channel separation, and tracking competence metrics are holding the industry back and likely reducing sales -- not enabling a golden dark age of vinyl romance and candle-lit resurgence. Let's turn on the lights, see the flaws, and get to work fixing them.

Jack L's picture

.....that was lacking measurements." quoted $10sondek.


Bench measurement data can NEVER tell you how any audio sounds, my friend. 'Cause they measured the wrong thing.

As I posted back above to you, any loudspeakers generated huge total harmonic distortion, typically over 20% ! So ?'

Only your ears can tell, hopefully.

Listening is believing

Jack L

JHL's picture

That is true. We live in a time of sighted bias, where what a thing is thought to do from interpreted simple data metrics overrules what it actually does at the ear.

Jack L's picture


What "bias"?

Music is a leisure hobby which is personal & therefore subjective. I would not use "bias" to qualify it like those so called

More on this for ever on-going argumentative confrontation later.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

........actually does at the ear." quoted JHL


I do as well wish such 'simple' data metrics did exit. But there is none yet as of today as standard bench measurement data are still something alien or irrelevant to what our ear/brain perceive.

Too bad !

Jack L