An all-round amazing valve amp that has our reviewer’s ‘pie-hole’ catching flies in wonderment.
THERE IS SOMETHING quite magical about seeing a bunch of valves glowing warmly in your hi-fi rack. You would swear that they are alive and they can certainly add a life of their own to your music collection. Valve- based audio has made a decisive – and most welcome – return to the fore in recent years and there seems to be a valve amplifier to suit almost any budget. With a number of audio companies utilising valves to varying degrees – in CD players, DACs and phono stages as well as in amplifiers – valve-lovers are clearly spoilt for choice. Now distributors Capisco are bringing into New Zealand a new addition to the market: EKCO.
EKCO, A Brief History
‘EKCO’ comes from the name of its creator, Eric Kirkham Cole, an Englishman who, in 1922, started up his own business making valve radios. As well as inventing and patenting an “HT battery eliminator” as an alternative to batteries for his receivers, Cole was also one of the first to use bakelite for his radio cabinets. The company quickly expanded and were soon producing car radios as well as a range of heating and lighting appliances and, during World War II, military equipment. After the war, radios were back on the production line, along with televisions and – gulp – nuclear instrumentation. From 1956, an associate company: Ultimate EKCO (N.Z.) Co. Ltd. of Auckland, was created for the purpose of assembling EKCO radios for the New Zealand market.
Today, EKCO is owned by the IAG (International Audio Group), who also have Mission and Audiolab, to name a few, on their inventory. Thus, after a long hiatus, EKCO has returned, as it were, with an impressive integrated valve amplifier which, while totally modern in design and build, harks back to its valve ancestry, and is the company’s first ever vintage valve amplifier. Coming soon is a matching CD player/DAC – the EV55DP – which will be available in New Zealand shortly, in limited numbers. The EV55DP matches the amplifier in appearance (and price), with its wooden side cheeks, fascia and toggle-style switches, and uses a single ECC82 valve complement, though it is switchable between vacuum tube and solid state output. As well as playing CDs, it has coaxial inputs and a USB input which will accept up to 24/192 resolution files. This is a very astute move by EKCO, though a turntable would also be appreciated.
The EV55SE, What You Get
The rather impressive looking EV55SE is a Class AB push-pull design, using four KT88 output valves along with four 12AU7 and one 12AX7 valves (despite being labelled ‘EKCO’, I don’t know if these are made in- house or out-sourced, but they do sound excellent), giving 55 watts per channel into 8 ohms in ultra-linear mode and 28 watts in triode mode. That’s right, you can select between the two modes, depending on your speaker’s efficiency or your own preference. You can also select between high or low negative feedback (NFB) in either mode. If you have sensitive speakers (horns, for example), triode mode with low negative feedback may work best, while less sensitive speakers might be better with ultra-linear mode and high negative feedback; however, the choice is entirely yours, and you effectively have four different listening modes. [Please note: if you are one of those who don’t read instruction manuals, at least read this: you cannot switch between modes on the fly. The amplifier must be switched off for a few seconds before changing modes and/or negative feedback levels.]
The EV55SE is relatively compact – measuring 441mm deep x 356mm wide x 236 high – very solidly built and fairly heavy at about 28kg, and it stands on four very nice conical feet. There are five RCA inputs (no pre-outs, though) and A/B speaker selection in case you want to run a second set of speakers. The all metal case work is superbly constructed and finished in a temperature-resistant matt black paint, and the sides have high gloss-finished wooden cheeks which look very elegant. (The wood is Louro Preto, apparently a kind of Brazilian hardwood used as a rosewood substitute.)
The uniquely curvy fascia has a solid feeling, with the volume control in the centre, flanked by the speaker selector on the left (with mode and NFB toggle selectors in between) and source select on the right. And that’s it – nice and simple, and it looks splendid. There are no LEDs in the front, of any colour, shining brightly, just one red power indicator on top, and this has a little collar around it so it doesn’t glow annoyingly. All you get is the lovely glow of valves.
The power on/off switch is around the back, next to the fused IEC power input. The remote control matches the amp in looks and construction; it is made from black metal and has a wooden face panel which matches the amp’s side cheeks, and though not big, it feels hefty and nice in the hand. The remote controls volume only (up, down and mute).
The valves are covered with an attractive removable grill cover with a further cover protecting the smaller valves (this can also be removed, using the thoughtfully provided Phillips screwdriver). I did all my listening with the main cover off so I could admire those glowing valves. Some friends visited one night when the EV55SE was up and running, valves glowing, and one of them commented that the amp looked like some kind of Victorian torture device. The large transformer and power supplies sit, covered, behind the valves and I detected no undue humming while the amplifier was in use, and though just a slight presence of “valve rush” was audible through the speakers, it couldn’t be heard from the listening position and anyway, I have heard far worse, even from my own amp.
The instruction manual is one of the clearest and most concise I have ever read, and it even explains in detail about valve types, triode and beam tetrode output stages and NFB.
Position the EV55SE on a sturdy rack allowing enough space for adequate ventilation, because the valves do get hot. Also try to keep a distance of at least a metre between the amp and speakers as the microphonic nature of valves can potentially pick up vibrations which can affect sound quality. Use good quality and well screened interconnects of the shortest possible length and the best quality speaker cable you can afford. Here I’ll quote from the user manual: “Choose good quality loudspeaker cable designed for the purpose rather than general purpose ‘zip’ or ‘bell’ wire.”
As always, I used my Well Tempered turntable, fitted with a 12-inch Analog Instruments ‘Apparition 12’ tonearm with a Benz ACE low output moving coil cartridge running through my Trichord Dino phonostage. Digital music was handled by my Rotel RDD06 DAC and my cables are good quality and designed for the purpose. At around 88dB at 8ohms, my Spendors aren’t too difficult to drive, but I started listening in Ultra linear mode with high NFB.
I was advised that the EV55SE review unit had enough hours on it for an adequate burn-in time and when I switched it on I observed the manual’s suggestion that the amp be left with the volume down and no source running for at least 15 minutes to allow the valves to warm up to a suitable temperature before playing any music: playing music through cold valves can decrease their life significantly.
I firmly believe that you should be able to tell if an audio product is to your taste, or at least has the potential to be to your taste, within the first five minutes of listening, and the EV55SE certainly proved to be no exception. You might say I was instantly smitten; love at first listen and all that.
I started off with jazz tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ The Hawk Flies High on vinyl – a 1957 mono pressing which, like most LPs of that era, is an extremely good recording. When the stylus swept into action I was immediately and overwhelmingly impressed with the sheer presence and clarity of the instruments. The near lifelike scale presented by the valves certainly had me sitting up straight, my bottom jaw hanging slack in wonder. The music was full-bodied and liquid-like in the way it flowed from the speakers with so little effort. The midrange, sweet and smooth, all but gave me shivers, and there was enough low frequency power to give the music the drive it needs. As for the treble, not even the tersest high note from the sax made me cringe; it was sweeter than sugar. The tonal accuracy of each instrument at times made me wonder if this was actually a much more expensive amplifier and I’d been given the wrong price – it really was that good. As with the Conrad Johnson pre and power amps I reviewed some months back, I felt like something of a voyeur, listening in on a studio session, perhaps hiding back in the shadows or in a cloud of cigarette smoke, so natural and transparent was the EV55SE.
Moving on to a record called Alegrias by the talented Howe Gelb & A Band Of Gypsies (back in the world of stereo, I should add, and recorded in Spain) I was again quite stunned by the scale and richness of the sound. The soundstage was practically wall-to-wall and with brilliant imaging. You’ll find this album in the country/Americana section and it has a delicious Spanish flavour with beautifully played guitars throughout. While everything sounded realistic, including Gelb’s distinctive vocals and the marvellous percussion, it was those guitars that stole the show whenever they performed a solo or run, really standing out from the mix, and I could almost hear every individual finger working on the strings. There was a wonderful rhythmic energy with the EKCO and the synergy between the performers and their instruments has possibly never seemed so evident to me on this record, at least in my system.
Again the open nature of the presentation impressed me, along with detail retrieval and the presence of so many layers of sound. Transients, too, impressed with crisp, sharp attack and the piano was glorious in its realism. I felt I could have asked for a little more bass weight and perhaps more definition with the deeper detail, but so far everything the amp did right far outweighed any shortcomings.
Satisfied that the EV55SE was suitably competent with two of my favourite genres, jazz and alt. country (shoot, I sound like a hipster), I decided to get a little Bogan on it and put on my vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin II. I have never been particularly impressed with the sound quality of the Zeppelin catalogue on CD (at least the albums I’ve heard), finding them a little harsh and overbearing in the treble as well as being rather compressed sounding. Plus Robert Plant’s voice gets on my nerves after an extraordinarily short while. My LP version is not too shabby though, and even with a still slightly strident treble it sounds pretty good. The EKCO did remarkably well, delivering an insightful and exciting performance of the album; the treble, though sweet, was still a little harsh, but the amp’s transparent nature was never likely to completely address this. I felt the bottom end wanted a little more oomph but it was still sufficient to drive the music along. Bass lines did stand out clear and were easy to follow as was John Bonham’s inimitable drumming. The rhythm and energy was as good as ever, and I didn’t get too sick of Plant’s vocals, so another plus for the EKCO. ‘Heartbreaker’ was a standout with its driving power chord guitar riffs (and of course that improvised guitar solo in the middle), unusual bass sound and the neck-breaking (if you’re prone to head banging in time with your Zeppelin records) speed all handled admirably by the amplifier, and carried on into ‘Living Loving Maid’ for more good times. At times the EV55SE seemed to have such presence and clout that I would feel a genuine concern for my neighbours and fellow house members, causing me to reluctantly turn the volume down. Well, a little.
I needed to see how the EV55SE would perform with some thumping electronic music so who better to turn to than New Zealand’s Pitch Black with their always dependable album Rhythm Sound And Movement – Rude Mechanicals Remixes. Listening to this CD confirmed the need for a little more bass – there was certainly bass to be heard and at least the upper bass was coherent and palpable, but I just couldn’t “feel” any real lower frequency depth, as I can with my Unico SE, which can rattle the floorboards if I allow it to. Yet, as before, I easily forgave this shortcoming because the midrange was brimming with smoothness, detail and rhythmic snap, which kept me captivated and my pie-hole open. There was absolutely no fatigue or boredom. The sound was big and holographic and did justice to the immense work that must have gone into the recording of the album.
Luke Doucet was up next with his stunning album Outlaws (Live And Unreleased) from 2004 on CD via the Rotel DAC. This album was introduced to me by my good pal Craig, a fellow audio enthusiast, and it remains one of my favourites for its superb live feel, the reverb-drenched guitars and the damn superb recording. Doucet is a 30-something Canadian musician who can play his guitar really, really well, sings like Jeff Buckley and is backed by a very talented band, which includes two drummers to stunning effect. Outlaws is a bluesy alt. country rock record on the Six Shooter label and includes a riveting version of Tom Waits’ ‘Gun St Girl’ as well as Doucet’s own fine compositions. Because I know this album so well and I know it sounds amazing with valve amplification, I decided to use it to test the different mode settings, so I started with the Ultra linear mode with high negative feedback. I chose track seven, ‘Another Woman’, because it’s an action- packed little number with an engaging, full-on rhythm, which really shows off the double drumming magic.
In the aforementioned mode settings ‘Another Woman’ had excellent rhythmic attack with beautiful detail and clarity. The drums were clear and crisp and Doucet’s amazing fret work was wonderfully showcased – I could hear his amp buzzing and the immediacy of his playing and his voice sounded chillingly real. Little touches like the way the snare drums rattled from the low guitar and bass notes and the wooden sound of the drum sticks clacking together added to the ‘live experience’. Despite the gutsy performance I’d come to know and love, the lower bass was the main thing that I could possibly fault, just lacking the drive and all-out vigour of my Unico SE amp; but I didn’t really feel let down because everything else worked so gloriously.
Sticking with Ultra linear but switching to minimum NFB, I noticed a slightly warmer and more refined sound, with some of the coarseness smoothed off the buzzing guitar notes and the vocals, but there was no less energy or sparkle. There was still plenty of rhythm and dynamism.
I don’t know quite what I had been expecting with triode mode (and low NFB) but it certainly wasn’t the hearty performance I heard. The sound wasn’t quite as energetic as before and maybe some of the detail was a little recessed, along with the vocals, but the guitar sound was still impressive, as was the overall performance. At 28wpc the EKCO did remarkably well driving my Spendors (they aren’t too difficult to drive but I have found that they do usually thrive with loads of power) and I would love to have had some nice sensitive speakers on hand to get the full benefit of the triode mode. Flicking the NFB to high, the detail seemed to come back a little to the fore, with more vocal presence, and the drums had a little more crack to them and there seemed to be a new dimension to the openness and clarity; a bit more definition around the instruments perhaps.
Playing the same track through my Unison SE, I found the presentation a little more forward, in-your-face and even a little brash compared to the EKCO and with a slightly dark tone. The solid state MOSFET power amp section of the Unison seemed to better grip the speaker drivers though, giving deeper bass and a little more liveliness and headroom. It was great going back to my own amp – detail was slightly better defined and leading edges were sharper – but I found myself missing the smooth, rich goodness of those lovely KT88s. There is something quite enchanting about the valve sound which I find irresistible.
Whichever mode was selected, the sound was big – often huge, room-filling and with a tremendous soundstage filled with detail and realistic sounding images and of course, different flavours of speakers will add their own variables. This is not a super neutral amp with a dead flat frequency response; it contributes its own valve goodness to the sound with plenty of charming character and life. No, it isn’t perfect, but remember this review is judged relevant to the price (just under $4k) and even extends to amplifiers costing at least up to twice as much. More expensive amplifiers may well provide far greater bottom end, detail retrieval and more refinement all round, but the EKCO EV55SE in my opinion gives so much for so relatively little that it is surely a must try.
If you have ever had reservations about valves then the EV55SE could be the amplifier which will change your mind. It is full of energy and character and can pack a real punch too, with tight, controlled, lively sound and reach-out-and-touch-it imaging. The ability to use this amp with a wide range of potential speakers means no one needs to feel excluded from its charms. This amp rocks, it digs jazz and it is thrilling with electronic music, so could be considered an almost perfect all-rounder (I’d suggest it may not have quite the refinement required for serious classical listeners, but it’s worth a go). Build quality is excellent too, with a lovely and stylish finish. So… at just under $4k the EKCO is, in my opinion, an absolute bargain considering it gives such a high level of performance. It’s certainly in my current top 5 list of favourite amplifiers.
I really don’t want to give it back. ANDREW BAKER