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The new Almarro A205A MkII
I've had the MkII version of the Almarro A205A for a couple of months now. Its latest incarnation employs the same circuit but Yoshihiro-san says that it has better output transformers for more frequency extension and now 8- and 16-ohm taps. The main difference between the original and current trannies is a narrower EI gap for greater high frequency extension and more accuracy: "The output transformers of the A205A and MKII sport relatively high primary inductance, necessary for better bass extension in a small EL84 SEP or SET amplifier. Especially in triode mode, the primary inductance of the OPT has considerable effect on bass extension, more so than in pentode mode. The size of a OPT is defined by the primary inductance. We decided on a relatively big size for both pentode and triode mode. The EL84 has a smaller input capacitance with relatively balanced amplification character to offer some unique tube qualities for its size and price."

The MkII version also has two switchable sets of RCA inputs and a higher-quality set of binding posts than the original. The inputs and outputs are now flush with the back of the amp which makes connections easier. Plus, there's now a removable power cord so you can frustrate yourself playing with different cords. Last but not least, there's a new headphone output for late night listening. It taps into the circuit at the speaker outputs. With all these updates, Yoshihiro-san has kept the price the same as the original - $800. That is very fair indeed.

Listening impressions
As a friendly reminder to those entertaining the purchase of an A205A MkII, you need relatively sensitive speakers to match with the Almarro's modest output of 4.8 watts or you'll likely be disappointed with the results. Stay at or above 93dB sensitivity and you shouldn't have anything to worry about.

Almarro A205A versus A205A MkII
I've been listening to the Almarro A205A original and MkII versions in my second system for audio and video: A vintage early '60s Scott 370 FM valve tuner, Omega Super 3 loudspeakers with matching 24-inch Skylan stands, with an inexpensive Toshiba SD-3109 DVD video player (now discontinued, originally < $400) providing images to my inexpensive Philips television and sound to the speakers. That system works great and I use it daily and enjoy the heck out of it.

However, to get a better idea of the ultimate performance of the two amp versions, I used my reference system described at the beginning of this article to wring every last drop of performance from the amps and fully characterize their abilities. From time to time, I switched back in my reference Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A amplifier for a reality check. I was curious to find out how the MkII version of the Almarro with the new transformers would compare to the original A205A in my reference system (used in amplifier-only mode, volume pot of the A205A open all the way driven by my TEAD Vibe
preamplifier with Pulse power supply). I fired up my original A205A with Electro Harmonic 12AX7EH input/driver and Sovtek EL84 output tubes and let it warm up. For my initial evaluation, I selected three CDs that I thought would help me get a feel: Jorma Kaukonen's Blue Country Heart, Lucinda Williams' World Without Tears and the Chet Baker Trio album Someday My Prince Will Come.

I like to use Blue Country Heart as a reference because on it, Jorma plays a Gibson Advanced Jumbo made out of Brazilian Rosewood & Adirondack Spruce that's just like the AJ I play. That lets me see how well my system -- or in this case the component under review -- is reproducing the sound of an instrument I know well. I can make sure the HiFi gear isn't doing anything to the basic character of the instrument that isn't realistic. I dropped Blue Country Heart into my Meridian 508.20 to feed digits to my Audio Logic 2400 valve DAC. As the music emerged though my big Avantgarde Duo 2.1s, I was impressed right away by the natural character of instruments arrayed across a wide soundstage. No edge, grit or glare but still plenty of good musical definition. The instruments were present and discernible but without the spotlighted presence or sharp edge definition that some of the best DHT SETs achieve with such seeming ease. Truth be told, the presentation of the A205A is probably more realistic to live music than the best SETs. In real life, instruments are not sonically spotlit when you listen to a live band. However, I admit that I too like that moment in the sun effect of the best SETs even if the A204A is more successful at sounding realistic. Overall, the sound of the A205A is a little dark, a little laid back and rolled off some on top but with lots of good tonal color. It's not as transparent as the best SETs and not as detailed. In case you are wondering, the A205A does get the character of the Gibson AJ right. The sound never gets in the way of the music, which is one of the highest complements I can pay the A205A. It always serves the music and gets the full musical message across. In fact while listening to BCH, I just didn't want to stop. I was just having too much fun grooving to the tunes.

I substituted the A205A MkII for the original A205A in the reference system and used the same tube set. Right after turn on, I was getting a moderately loud buzz. I suspected a grounding issue and got a cheater plug out of the closet. The buzz vanished. After that, I noticed that the MkII sounds louder at the same volume setting than the original. The MkII sounds more dynamic, with better rhythmic drive - or as our British friends like to say, it's got better PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing). The bass is deeper and punchier, with instruments more vivid in their presentation and a better sense of soundspace. While the MkII could not be considered harsh, it is not as sweet and musical as the original. It's brighter, more detailed, more transparent and more forwardly present. It is less forgiving of poor quality recordings. What we have here with the MkII is an example of the classic HiFi conundrum: The MkII version of the A205A sounds noticeably better at least on well-recorded material but the original A205A is more musical and easier on the ears particularly with less well-recorded material. Which one you'd prefer in your own system would depend a lot on your associated equipment and personal tastes. Mellower speakers that sacrifice a degree of resolution and detail for a more musical sound (Zu Druids and Harbeths come to mind) would probably sound better with the MkII. With my more revealing Duos, the original A205A gets the nod.

Next up for a listen was Lucinda Williams' World Without Tears [Lost Highway 0881703552]. Lucinda Williams is the daughter of poet Miller Williams and a fair amount of his poetic influence seems to have rubbed off on Lucinda. She is one of the more skilled of the current crop of songwriters at writing verse that evokes powerful emotive imagery. Lucinda's music contains hints of country, folk, rock, blues and jazz, with themes that span the spectrum of dimly lit hope to despair. This album is recorded hot and can get shrill in a couple of places. But it's music I enjoy and one of the tests of an amplifier's mettle is how well it can convey the sense of the music even on a less than perfect recording. If you've got
Harbeths and Naim gear, you're probably not going to notice that WWT gets a little harsh and edgy in places but with the Duos and the A205A MkII, you do. I guess you could say that the A205A MkII is accurate in that you get back out what's on the disk. But that wouldn't tell the whole story. The TEAD Linear A is capable of making WWT sound incredible both sonically and musically. Of course it's also over ten times the MkII's price. You'll hear a good sense of space with the A205A MkII, a deep and defined bass with good transparency and detail and good 3-D imaging across a wide and deep soundstage. Swapping my original version A205A and the same tubes back in, it was immediately obvious that the old timer was smoothing over some of WWT's crispies & edgies for a more listenable presentation. I also noticed that the bass became boomier and more one-note-ish, losing definition and articulation. There was also a noticeable decrease in recorded space as well as a reduction in detail. All things considered and on a so-so recording like WWT, which amp I liked best was clear: the original A205A did a better job of making the music fun and enjoyable.

The first round with BCH went soundly to the original version of the A205A, as did round two with WWT. What would happen in round three with some good old fashioned jazz? I dropped the Chet Baker Trio Someday My Prince Will Come into the transport and let her rip! Prince was recorded live in Copenhagen and remains one of my favorite Chet Baker recordings for its live musical vibe and excellent live recorded sonics. As you would expect, the original A205A played the music with aplomb while sounding very natural, giving Chet Baker's trumpet, Doug Rainey's guitar and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen's bass a nicely rounded tone. The resultant sound didn't have a lot of ambience or sense of space in the live venue but it certainly was seductively musical overall. Switching back to the MkII and giving Prince another listen reinforced what I heard with Blue Country Heart. The MkII resolved more detail, sounded punchier and the bass became tauter and more propulsive. However, while the MkII sounded better, it also introduced a slight tension into the music that drew me out of the musical flow compared with the original's mellower and more laid-back presentation. So there you have it: With the stock Electro Harmonix 12AX7EH input/driver and the Sovtek EL84/6BQ5 outputs, the original version whipped the newcomer MkII in musicality while the MkII returned the favor with sonics. However, at this point I'd rather have the music than the sound so the original version gets the nod from me as my favorite.

I don't think many of the EL84 aficionados out there would call the Sovteks a very good-sounding valve. As such, I give Sovtek a free tip on conquering the EL84 world: Replace the current EL84 with one that copies the Mullard EL84 of yore in every detail. Then call it the EL84M and the world will beat a path to your door and sales will go thought the roof. When I had some friends over for a listening session with the TEAD Linear A in the system, we substituted the A's EI EL84s with a set of Sovteks EL84s and the resulting sound produced sour faces all around,. The Sovteks came out and the A's Yugoslav bottles went back in to everyone's relief. Take that as a hint with your Almarro A205A MkII: Changing valves can yield substantial benefits.

Valve rolling experiments
The nice thing about the Almarro A205A is that there's only three valves to worry about. Valve rolling need not be particularly expensive as with certain designer SETs. Given the simple circuit, it's also very easy to hear the differences each change makes and to fine-tune the sound to one that matches your system and tastes to a T - or should I say A? I was inspired to roll valves in both Almarros. I really liked some of the sonic aspects of the MkII version, but not at the expense of the music. My goal was to find out if there existed a combination of valves that would allow the MkII to maintain its superior sonics while at the same time matching or exceeding the original A205A's superior musicality - a tall order to be sure.

One of 6moons' readers, Clinton, lives in London and owns a TEAD Linear A like mine. He has been filling me in on his valve rolling experiments with his amp (thanks Clinton). He hipped me to a very cool UK place called Watford Valves that specializes in tubes for guitarists and to somewhat lesser extent, HiFi nuts. You might not know it but lots of guitarists use amps with 12AX7s and EL84s, hence the Watford cats know all the ins & outs of the various options. If you need some ideas on where to start, a quick e-mail to Watford will give you some guidance.

Watford cryogenically treats a select hand-picked line of carefully measured and brutally tested highest-performing new and NOS valves dubbed the Harma Cryo line for their ultimate level of performance. Take a moment and read through all the material on their site about EL84 valves and how they test and select them. In particular, take a gander at their October 2005 shoot out of EL84 valves. Then go to their shoot out of 12AX7 valves. At that point, you'll have a good starting point for understanding what direction you might want to go for your Almarro.

NOS Mullard EL84s are considered to be the Holy Grail of EL84 valves by aficionados but good luck finding them. Their sterling reputation means they've been bought up and are pretty much out of circulation. So I did what I thought would be the next best thing. I ordered valves from Watford's hand-picked and thoroughly tested cryogenic series. I ordered two sets of cryogenically treated valves that would represent the yin (darker) and yang (lighter) of EL84 valve-dom to see what a little tube rolling might accomplish: A matched pair of cryogenically treated EL84L/7189A Harma valves & a matched pair of cryogenically treated EL84 Vintage Harmas.

The EL84 Vintage Harmas are military-sourced tubes from the original Tesla factory of the mid 1960s. Watford brutally burst tests them under extreme conditions for "high gain and maximum reliability" and then performs cryogenic immersion. When I asked Watford about their source for the EL84L/7189A Harma cryo jobs, they were somewhat tight-lipped, saying only that "the EL84L is an old Russian NOS special application military valve which has a higher plate dissipation of 14 watts (all other EL84s have 12 watts). This tube is very clean so is great for audio and also will outlast other EL84s in Class A applications." Watford also says that "the valve has a rugged construction and thick glass which reduces microphonics and rattle in all guitar combos. The valve has a coated anode which makes it stable and withstands high voltages. The valve produces the maximum clean headroom out of any current EL84, providing a rich warm overdrive sound when distorted." These old NOS Russian military valves are given the deluxe testing and cryogenic treatment to earn the Harma Cryo moniker.

I also ordered equivalent yin/yang input/drivers: A NOS cryogenically treated General Electric ECC83/5751 for light, and a cryogenically treated select ECC83/STR Harma sourced from the JJ factory in the Slovak Republic to represent the darker side.

Here's what the Watford cats say about the benefits of their cryogenic treatment: "The process involves taking the vacuum tubes and freezing them down to -312 F and soaking there for a minimum of 12 hours. Then the temp is held at this low level for 24 hours. The vacuum tubes are then slowly brought up to normal levels over the next 12 hours. Metals respond very well to deep cryogenic processes. The reasons are as follows. During the cooling or solidification phase of the manufacturing process, molecules are trapped in a haphazard pattern. This is due to stress caused in the bending and welding of the anode plate material. This random placement causes obstacles for electrons. When encountered, this can cause noise, slow down electron flow and sound deterioration. At very cold temperatures (below -312°F), the molecules will align in a more uniform, compact structure through the removal of kinetic energy. When the material is returned to ambient temperature, this new uniform compacted pattern is maintained, thus changing the structure of the nickel permanently. This process makes a permanent change and the benefits do not deteriorate over time or upon return to operating temperature. It changes the whole way the vacuum tube performs. The biggest benefits we have found were a dramatic improvement in dynamic range. Bass response has been clearer with reduction in microphonics. The most startling fact has been how the valves operate under saturated and overdriven conditions. This has made some of the more basic Fender amps sound fuller and warmer."

Audio pal Pete Riggle also brought over some NOS Amperex Bugle Boy EL84s from his private stash. The Bugle Boys are spoken of in nearly the same hushed and reverent tones as the Mullards are around here. I also pulled a couple of the EI EL84s out of my TEAD Linear A. On the input/driver front, the stock Electro Harmonix 12AX7EH battled it out against the cryo'd G.E. ECC83/5751 and cryo'd ECC83/STR Harma. Which combination of valves provided the ultimate combination of sonic and musical ability in the MkII?

I first tried Pete's rare Amperex valves in the MkII to see how they would perform against the stock Sovteks, retaining the stock input/driver. Simply put, the Amperex valves were a revelation. They lifted a veil over the music and uncovered far more musically significant detail and nuance utterly out of reach of the Sovteks while at the same time giving a level a musicality well above what the Sovtek-equipped MkII was capable of. With the NOS Amperex valves, the MkII became a very impressive amplifier indeed. Chet Baker's Prince became a spacious, natural and involving jazz session. Lucinda's World Without Tears became much more listenable and enjoyable, albeit sonically still a little nasty at times. You could still tell that WWT was a borderline recording but now it just teetered on the precipice without plunging over the cliff with abandon as the Sovteks were wont to. Jorma's Blue Country Heart became positively profound with the Amperex valves, attaining a measure of musical life and intensity that was really quite remarkable. Pete tells me that the Amperex valves get a lot better with more hours on them. Lordy! Besides being an extremely intelligent, talented and genuinely nice fellow, brother Pete has exquisite taste in valves, too. I was very impressed with the Bugle Boys and it gave me great hope that I would be able to achieve my goals of sonics and musicality for the MkII even if I wasn't quite there yet.

Next up was the Harma E84L/7189A Cryo job. The Amperex and Russian military bottles don't at all sound alike. My initial impression after the Amperex on Blue Country Heart was that the Harma E84L/7189A Cryo valves were a little less detailed and dynamically nuanced, a little less dramatic but more evenly balanced in the bass yet with less distinct pitch definition. The notes didn't seem to decay as long and there was a lesser sense of space. Lucinda's Tears confirmed the lesser bass impact, sounding a little withdrawn compared to the Amperex. However, there also was something beguiling about their sound and the way they played music made me want to listen more and more. With the Harma E84L/7189A Cryo valves, the recording took on a more natural and relaxed feel, losing nearly every incidence of edginess to an even greater extent than the Amperex valves. On Tears, the sweeter, smoother, softer and more laid-back Harmas allowed me to sink into the music better even though they couldn't quite compete with the Amperex' dramatic color-infused sonics.

Let me save you the detailed blow-by-blow comparisons and tell you flat out how the EL84s ranked from best to worst when paired with a Electro Harmonix 12AX7EH: The Amperex was somewhat arguably the best, followed very closely by the cryo'd Harma 'L', then the EI, then the cryo'd Harma Vintage, with the Sovtek in a distant last place.

The story isn't over yet though. The choice of input/driver tubes makes at least as much of a difference as the choice of EL84. Perhaps more. Watford says the cryo'd Harma JJ STR ECC83 "is a recreation of the famous Telefunken ECC803S. The valve has a frame grid construction which eliminates microphonics. The grids are all gold-plated as were the original Telefunkens. The valve is the most neutral and has the warmest vintage tone of all the current production ECC83/12AX7 types."

About the cryo'd General Electric ECC83/5751, Watford says, "this is a superb sounding tube for audio as well as guitar application. It was used in audio by the high-end audio manufacturer Conrad-Johnson in it most expensive designs and by Stevie Ray Vaughan in his Fenders. The tube has a lower amplification of 70 mu as opposed to the standard 100 mu of a ECC83/12AX7. This makes it harder for the valve to distort and therefore an ideal choice when the best cleanest sound is required. The 5751 has the classic sound stage that G.E tubes are known for, with plenty of top end detail and clarity. These are a great choice for taming down that hard high-gain sound. They are also a superb audio tube providing sharper imaging and detail than standard ECC83/12AX7 types. This is a specially treated cryogenic version."

I'll cut to the chase: In the MkII, the cryo'd Harma ECC83 and cryo'd NOS GE 5751 absolutely obliterated the Electro Harmonix 12AX7EH in both sonics and musicality. The cryo'd GE 5751 bested the cryo'd Harma but not by nearly as much as they both slaughtered the Electro Harmonix. When combining the best inputs/drivers and best EL84s, the results were really quite impressive, elevating the performance of the MkII by more than the simple sum of the combination of valves would lead you to believe. In combination, the very best sonics & musicality came from the NOS Amperex EL84s driven with the cryo'd NOS GE 5751. In very close second place fell the cryo'd Harma EL84L in combination with the cryo'd NOS GE 5751, good news indeed because you can actually buy the cryo'd Harma EL84L while the Amperex EL84s are not generally available. While those results were reasonably predictable, the third-place finisher was somewhat of a surprise. The combination of the cryo'd Vintage Harma seemed to have a certain synergy with the cryo'd NOS GE 5751 that allowed it to just sneak into third place. The other combinations were quite a ways off the pace set by the top three.

So there you have it: After a bit of valve rolling, the MkII was transformed to have both exceptional musicality and sonics just as I'd hoped. The MkII now offered enhanced sonics over the stock tube complement and a musicality that exceeded the original A205A. Don't even think twice about it. Dump the stock valves and smile, smile, smile. A word of advice: Don't consider my results the last word on valves for the MkII. There are many combinations of valves that I haven't tried yet that could well equal or even exceed the results I achieved. Conversely, you could do a lot worse than using my results as a starting point. If you do surgery on the MkII's C1 capacitor or modify the circuit to convert it to a triode, that could be a whole new ball game for whichever valves you prefer. But that's precisely the fun appeal of this amp. You can almost infinitely fine tune it to your own preferences without having to mortgage the house. If you find a really magical combination of tweaks, mods or valves, please let me know!

I doubt too many people would use the MkII as a stand-alone amplifier driven by nearly $10K of preamplification. I suspect the vast majority of MkIIs will find a home as integrated amplifiers in a more real-world system like my own combination of 1960's Scott 370 FM valve tuner, Omega Super 3 loudspeakers and Toshiba SD-3109 DVD video player. I'm using the superb Auditorium 23 Green speaker cables and a combination of Nirvana and Tom Evans Audio Design interconnects to tie the gear together. Now that I'd settled on a favorite set of valves, it was time to put the MkII back into my real world system.

First off, the flush connectors on the back are much more user-friendly and a true improvement. The ability to use two sources is welcome too although reaching around back to throw the switch is a bit of a nuisance. I'd prefer a push-button switch on the front panel. The new binding posts are really nice and much better than what was used on the original version.

There is a headphone jack on the back panel, which I'd like to see located closer towards the front of the MkII, say discreetly positioned on a side or the top. I'm not really much of a headphone listener so you should take my comments with that in mind. In went my cheapie set of Grado SR60s and while the speakers handily muted, I was getting a substantial and annoying buzz even with the volume all the way down. I reinstalled my aforementioned cheater plug for the power cord and eliminated the buzzing. However, there still was some noticeable hum through the 'phones without signal, fully masked when the tunes kicked in. I thought the sound through the 'phones was pretty darn good, certainly good enough for me and the few times I would ever use cans over speakers. For those who want to use earphones for late-night listening sessions so as not to disturb others, this input will be greatly appreciated.

I found that the standard volume control worked and sounded fine but it wouldn't surprise me at all if some adventuresome soul came up with a tweak there too. Perhaps a snazzy Danish Audio ConnecT (DACT) stepped attenuator that controls volume with a channel-to-channel tracking accuracy of 0.05 dB could fit under the Almarro's bonnet? I found that the MkII with the NOS tubes had excellent sonics. While watching DVDs, the sound was really spectacular and I never wanted for more.

Summing up
The $800 Almarro A205A MkII integrated amplifier combines a passive volume control with a 12AX7/5751) input/driver stage and an EL84 output stage for about 5wpc. The MkII's addition of better transformers, an additional input, better connectors and a headphone output make it an even better value and more versatile performer than the original. When the stock valves are replaced by quality NOS valves, the sonic and musical performance is truly something to behold and displays the same sort of virtues as boutique SET amplifiers costing considerably more.

Reader Peter told me that if you want to experiment with mods without getting your hands dirty, you can buy an already modded (tube-less) A205A MkII from Response Audio. Response Audio replaces the stock C1 capacitors with V-Cap Teflon Reference grades for an additional $100. Figure another 100 bucks or so for a NOS valve set and for about one grand, you can have an MkII tricked out to the nines. That's a bargain in my opinion. Peter added how he'd "recently purchased an Almarro A205A MkII based upon your recommendation. I couldn't be more pleased! The amp was purchased from Response Audio and has the V Cap upgrades. I'm using a NOS Amperex 12AX7 and NOS Brimar 6BQ5s. The biggest surprise to me is how well it is driving my Living Voice OBXs at 94dB." As others are finding out, the little EL84-equipped Almarro A205A MkII is one heck of a good little amplifier and one that I highly recommend to low-powered valve lovers everywhere.
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