This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
And figure it out I did. Quickly. The Canary CA-308 monos, between each other occupying about three times the real estate of the compact Fi, have nothing on the WE 421A. Rather the opposite. Having three micro to low-power SETs in-house at one time proved really enlightening. It's all about sonic flavors. One qualifier there is the three-part event of tones arising from silence (leading edge), blossoming into fullness (sustain) and fading back into silence (decay). Each amp handled this sequence slightly differently. Other qualifiers operate in the tonal balance domain - bass, midrange, treble. Others again in the textural domain.

The Cunningham 45s in the 2wpc Yamamoto A-08S -- and to a slightly livelier, more contrasty extent even the Emission Labs solid-plate 45s -- are the most lit-up and 'poppy'. They do transients like solid-state, which is to say crisply, ultra-defined and articulated for the ultimate in edge definition or outline clarity. The 300Bs -- to varying degrees but still obvious even with the best of the bunch, the Western Electric clones by KR Audio -- are slightly fuzzy around the edges to give music a softer, mellower feel that contrasts with the crystalline Class-D-type behavior of the 45s. The 421A is closer to the 45s in this regard but not quite as sharp and incisive. The 300Bs in the Canary amps are most typical of widely held tube ideas. Their subjectively less instantaneous rise times create an overall effect of minor soft focus. In conjunction with a slightly muted treble, this makes for a moderate degree of romance, languidness and 'prettiness'.

The 421A gathers up those looseness strings into a tighter bundle. The end result is extraordinarily smooth but still tensioned. Edge definition and thereby rhythmic acuity -- the locomotive driving sense of music -- are more pronounced than the 300Bs but clearly not to the extent of the 45s. Without being bright or lean per se, those are simply the most energetic and lit up bottles/amp in this lineup. The 421A shifts its tonal center downwards some by comparison to the Yamamoto. That injects warmth, something the 300Bs elaborate on even further and additionally focus in the vocal range. From left to right, from cool to hot (and stretched out to make the point), it's Yamamoto, Fi and Canary Audio.

Even though my Zu Definition reference speakers use an actively amplified bass section of four rear-firing 10-inchers that kick in with a 2nd-order filter below 40Hz, bass quality and amplitude of partnering amplifiers is very transparent. For one, the bass section is driven speaker-level through a Z-coupler, right off the main amp rather than preamp. For seconds, the so-called power zone of music -- the upper bass range -- is solely reproduced by the front-firing passive wide-banders. For a back-up test, I simply pull the plug on the internal bass amp and presto, no more sub-40Hz contributions from the active bass array.

The 421A, although not quite as transient-sharp as the 45s, plainly had the highest amplitude response in the bass to cause some truly wicked grins from this listener. The 300Bs are the least endowed in this regard and warranted a few upward clicks on the Definitions' external bass attenuator to equalize the response down low. The 300Bs also didn't resolve anywhere near down to the same microscopic level as the 45s which are true resolution monsters. The 421A doesn't suffer the minor high-frequency hooding of the 300Bs nor their somewhat thicker texture. Neither does it seem as subjectively fast and microdynamically charged as the 45, instead setting up camp on a middle ground that's closer to the 45s than 300Bs.

Where the 45s treat transients like transistor amps and the 300Bs conform to old-style valve expectations, the 421A is a more relaxed cousin of the 45. Listeners already coming from tubes would probably embrace it more readily than the 45s. Those initially can seem nearly a bit bracing, all fuzz and billow and amorphous softness annihilated. Where the Yamamoto and Fi run a dead heat is in how ultra-quiet they are in operation. They're entirely free of even the most marginal background surf. This mows the grass, so to speak. It lets you hear the tiny insect-like details that cavort right on the ground and are never seen when the grass of the noisefloor is allowed to grow. In the final analysis and to remain with this visual, I believe the Yamamoto cuts its grass the shortest - but that remaining difference to the 421A doesn't pertain to self noise. I'm more inclined to think of it as an effect of the slightly higher tonal center and sharper attacks of those 45s.

Therein also lies a smaller margin for error. Inherently
lean and forward recordings have nowhere to hide with the Yamamoto. The Fi treats them just a bit gentler yet it simultaneously avoids the 'minor cloud cover' of the 300Bs which belong into a lower class of resolving power. Without resorting to treble shading, the 421A simply doesn't do glare. There's that aforementioned smoothness again. Very much to its credit, it doesn't seem to be the lossy kind that throws away much data while polishing away edges. What the Fi amp doesn't do is bite. To my ears, live music has plenty of edge and bite - but benign, not painful as usually happens in translation to playback at home if you're intent on resurrecting that tartness.

The Yamamoto can and does bite when the material warrants. Its flavor is one of velocity, rhythmic elan and pungency. Think texturally lean but tonally full, quite a mean trick. Like the Yamamoto, the Fi does tone without excess THD (no 'deep triode' anywhere in sight). But the 421 is a bit thicker and fluffier in a direct comparison, its resolution not as preternaturally heightened. Like the Buddha's Middle Way, it borrows a bit from the 300Bs, a bit more from the 45s.

The British Music First Audio Passive Magnetic -- designed and built by Stevens & Billington as a subsidiary with its own branding -- provided sub unity-gain attenuation. This is a party I've just recently arrived at - combining superior SETs with transformer-attenuating passive preamps to minimize signal enhancement prior to the amplifier. It works like a charm. There's no redundant gain to raise system noise, no fattening up of harmonic distortion, no signal thrown away as heat as with resistor-based volume reduction. 4 watts go mighty far when non-reactive speakers convert an input voltage of 2.83V into 101 decibels of sound pressure at one meter. Most my listening took place at around 14dB of attenuation below the 1V output of my Zanden DAC and I never once clipped even softly.

Even with boisterous Rap during happy hour levels, I didn't run out of steam. Though it looks pathetically niggling on paper, four watts proved to be fat city in this context. Into my friendly load, bass quality and quantity were truly mindblowing. Swirling cymbals and struck triangles had very impressive overtone activity but lacked the 'silvery' brilliance of the 45s, being more 'coppery' if that makes sense to you.

The 421A strikes me as a pretty linear bottle without the peculiar midrange glow of the 300B. Their characteristic imprimatur on the sound is lacking here. That's a swell thing in my book. It avoids the sameness trap which otherwise -- and sooner than later if your musical tastes are omnivorous -- preselects what and what not to listen to.

Rotating between the amps on hand, the CA-308s exited the rounds early on when it became clear that they belong to a slightly different school of sound - a bit more old-fashioned especially when juxtaposed against the crystallized magnification power of the NuForce Ref 9s.

Both 45s and 421A keep up with the Class D monos in the detail department but the transistor amps do a bit
more highlighting, followed by the Yamamoto. These are subtle degrees of separation but -- supposedly -- what our kind gets the big bux to talk about. Where the tubes differ, no surprise, is in the textural realm. What exactly creates that effect is hard to say. Neither the Japanese amp nor the one from NYC are guilty of excessive octave doubling but they obviously must do more of it than the so-called digital amps.

Perhaps remaining -- subliminal -- noise with the tubed circuits makes the intra-note silences not as obsidian-black and 'hard' as with the transistors? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that I still prefer listening to tubes - though knowing what's actually on my CDs from using ultra resolution transistors means that any but the most 'modern' valve amps get disqualified as not sufficiently resolved to lay it all bare. At my current stage of inquiry and experience, I'm more and more into honesty. Still, I want the luv, magic or charisma - however you refer to it when listening to music turns into a somewhat spiritual affair where more of you is triggered than just the analytical mind.

How to pay your taxes to Caesar -- get the required resolution -- while remaining part of the prophet's community where the talk is about otherworldly things? Triodes still suffer a bum rap. Distortion machines. Unreliable tone controls. You've heard it all before. Perhaps it's even true that the majority of them are rightfully chided (or, often mated to speakers that force them to misbehave). Still, there's exceptions that completely go the other way. They so disassociate themselves from the bum rap that you wonder whether those reciting it have ever heard a premium example of the breed at all.

Don Garber's secret favorite is one such amp. Used appropriately, it's counter-intuitively powerful, linear and transparent. On the aforementioned tone axis, it moves a bit to the right compared to the Yamamoto, into the sustain portion. Hence it doesn't feel as driven and is more relaxed. There's less fire in the upper treble, likely less upper harmonics (or a different distribution thereof) but the amp still manages to sound unfettered on top. Unlike the 45s, the Fi doesn't emphasize jump factor to constantly telegraph speed. However, a minor injection of 'zip' is available when you replace the 6SL7 driver with the 6SN7. Tone slims down a bit, apparent incision goes up a tad, there's more silver, less copper and the presentation moves towards the 45s but loses some of its impressive tone. The sound becomes a bit lighter, a bit smaller and gain goes down. Whether these differences are due to sonic tube signatures or really effects of different gain structures is an interesting question. It's a bit akin to the difference between active and passive preamps. Good actives add not just gain but also body.

With this amp and while driven from a passive transformer preamp [Don's prototype of his new Fi preamp above], I had a clear preference for the 6SL7 which didn't require any tonal help from a preamp. The 6SN7 sounded better with my ModWright. I'll wager an educated guess than most listeners would concur. Still, the L/N option is a welcome boon to tune the amp to personal preferences. If your preamp is on the fatty side of things, that might in fact be the ticket.

The Fi's a very feisty amp that belies its power rating. Bass is shockingly good, suggesting excellent drive that didn't falter even when the going got rough. Slightly on the warm side overall yet distributed evenly bottom to top, the 421A barely steals from micro details to revel in its very real tone. It stands tonally fully on its own to make it a prime candidate for passive preamplification. It slots itself between the golden billowy glow of the 300B and the fiercer whiter brilliance of the 45s. Compared to the Yamamoto's heightened dynamics and nearly psychedelic contrasts when run with the Emission Labs bottles, the 421A is more subdued but livelier and tauter itself than the 300B. To my ears, it's more honest than the B as well though no less beautiful. Beauty without the 'aching' part perhaps?

The Fi is a resolute machine with such vanishing levels of self noise that 101dB speakers couldn't expose 'em. It's precise and articulate yet not overtly so, making it very pleasing to listen to. During its stay, it never sputtered, coughed or hiccuped - in other words, no funny noises save for the metallic stretching of the glass envelope when you first fire the amp up and the tubes expand. Except for the power transformer which runs warm, the amp's open architecture means it remains cool in operation.

Besides the somewhat laid-back but compelling and fatigue-free musical presentation, the 421A looks so different from anything else that if she and you see eye to eye in that department (the amp and you), it'll be lust at first sight.

If amplifiers were to have temperaments to indicate their state of energy, the Yamamoto would be a 23-year old extreme sports adrenaline junkie, the Canaries fit 50-year olds and the Fi a late but active and trim 30s fellow - all healthy and vibrant but with different degrees of extrovert intensity and juice. Why this particular creation suffers sleeper status is somewhat of a mystery. It's got more power than non-paralleled 45s and is on more or less even footing with 2A3s, two rightfully popular direct-heated triodes. It does tone as well as a 300B but in a less romantic, arguably more honest fashion and with more spunk. It's priced fairly, not inflated like so much else these days. And a replacement power valve will be child's play compared to a premium pair of 300Bs. Sleeper status is likely the case because Don Garber is even less than a soft sales guy. Unless you specifically ask him for a 421A, he might not even tell you it's available. Well, that cat's outa the bag. At least now you can ask the man about this unconventional 3-tube stereo affair. You should, too. It's a beaut. Thanks for letting me listen to it, Don. My first Western Electric 421A ever. Arguably the last one as well. I mean, who else even makes an amp with it? What a treat. Welcome to the party, 421A. Glowing glass maniacs can never have enough single-ended valve choices and we've just added a real good 'un to the dessert selection plate...
Designer's e-mail