Most of the photos above are from the Primeamp eBay auction page for this amp. I took the second one down, showing the glowing tubes; the rest are theirs. I mention this because the photos from Primeamp demonstrate attention to detail. This type of detail helped my decision to go with Primeamp as my first choice of Chinese reseller on my inaugural tube amp purchase. I'll touch on this again a little later.
I've avoided purchasing tube gear, mostly out of a stubbornness to experiment with a technology that seemed mired a particular "camp" of highly-biased, fanatical opinions. The typical tube gear evangelist wants little to do with solid state components, and enjoysproselytizingto those who have yet to see the light, literally. I've always rebelled against zealots, and this is no exception. I can also blame my ignorance of tube technology. I've held the ill-founded belief that tube gear is more temperamental and less reliable than solid state. I'm learning the error of my ways.
This Yaqin amplifier arrived last Tuesday via UPS, and yes, it sounds quite wonderful. Never heard of Yaqin? Neither had I until a couple of weeks ago when I started researching tube gear. Take a look at eBay's list of integrated tube amps and you'll see a preponderance of Chinese-made amps in the $200 - $1,200 range. Sounds pretty low for tube gear, right? No wonder we're afraid to gamble on purchasing these amps. At least in the US, we're conditioned to equate cost with quality, and look upon extreme discounts with suspicion. Then there's the whole "Made in China" stigma; until we remember that the majority of our home electronics are made in China, from the LCD television in our family room, to the keyboard I'm using right now to type this. But Yaqin isn't an established brand name, so our weariness is well-founded; especially when one is dropping $500 or more on something that may cost half that to ship back if it fails to perform or arrives damaged.
So yes, it's a gamble. However, the few audio forum posts I read on Chinese-made amps and Yaqin, in particular, were encouraging. Plus, the eBay seller I chose for my purchase has a feedback rating of 99.4% with 2,846 sales. The customer feedback was also very encouraging, touting excellent packing, quick shipment, and product quality that exceeded expectations.
Primeamp has a wide selection of tube gear from various manufacturers that you probably haven't heard of. I'm not certain if some of these are uniquely-branded but sourced from the same factory, and frankly, that doesn't really matter to me as long as they are quality products. You'll see names like Yaqin, Mini, Music Angel, Mr Liang, Music Curve, and others. I chose the Yaqin because of what I was able to read in the forums on this brand, but would consider experimenting with another brand in the future.
I chose the MC-10L mainly based on price-point. I didn't want to spend more than $500, including shipping, on my first tube amp, and this one came to $480 with air mail shipment. I could have saved $80, half my shipping costs, and waited seven weeks instead of five business days, but I chose to shell-out the cash to get this to my door quicker.
Purchasing high-dollar items on eBay is always an adventure. There's a distinct pang emotional instability when clicking on the "Confirm Purchase" button. This momentary loss of fortitude is usually replaced with relief as I get the confirmation email from eBay or the seller. In this case, the email I received in my gmail account was undecipherable. It was filled with question marks with only a few recognizable words. This caused me to immediately send an email to back to Primeamp. They responded in an hour or so with another email, again filled with question marks. This time, I sent them a message from within my eBay account. The next morning I received an email into my gmail account from Primeamp with a sincere, polite apology, stating that there is a bug in Gmail that causes their auto-responder emails to get garbled. They said that they received my PayPal payment and they would ship my amp the following day; which they did.
The next day I received an email with several, high resolution photos of my package, including the shipping papers, and a UPS tracking code. The photos are a nice touch, again, showing concern for quality and attention to detail. The photos also help protect them as visual evidence that the unit was packaged well and looked intact as it left their shipping dock. I was getting the feeling that this purchase may work out fine, after all.
The amp arrived in five business days in excellent condition. It was packed in heavy-gage cardboard with thick molded foam packing that prevents any movement within the container.
The package arrived virtually identical to how it left the
Chinese shipping dock.
The manual is written in English and well-done.
I inserted the tubes, carried the amp to my office, and hooked it up to my newCreative Labs X-Fi HD USB Sound Card. I powered on the amp and all the tubes glowed nicely - good sign. I chose a tune fromPaul Anka's newest album, Rock Swings, from iTunes on my computer and crossed my fingers.
The music that came through my KEF Reference Two speakers wasn't at all what I had hoped for. It sounded anemic and lacked definition, bass. I waited a few minutes for the tubes to warm up, and tried again. The sound was better, but still disappointing. Unfortunately, that night's experimenting had to end as it was getting late. The next few nights went by quickly as I had to work late, so the next test would have to wait until the weekend.
Finally, a few days later I had time to play with the amp some more. I traced the sound quality problem to reversed polarity on both speakers. Plugging the speakers into the amp in the correct manner (4 ohm taps for these KEFs) made all the difference. The music came alive and was vibrant, defined, and wonderful. I have a McIntosh MC 2105 hooked up to these speakers as well and am using a McIntosh C32 preamp and a Theta DSP Pro DAC to convert the digital audio coming from my computer.
I've wired the Yaqin and the McIntosh amp so that I can switch between the two via a speaker switchbox. Just wired the switchbox in reverse so that the amplifiers feed into the speaker output and the amp input goes to the KEFs. As long as I don't have both amps powered on at the same time, there's no feedback or problems. Also, I'm using a "Y" splitter out of the Theta DAC to allow both the Yaqin and the McIntosh to receive the same, quality digital conversion. The Creative Labs DAC is a fine external sound card, but I wanted to get more of an apples-to-apples comparison of amp quality by using as many common components as necessary. Again, as long as I'm only powering up one system at a time, the splitter coming out of the Theta DAC works fine for both units.
It's true - tube sound is different. Compared to the McIntosh system, the Yaqin presents a much more laid-back sound. Vocals aren't quite as "breathy," and some wind instruments, like the oboe solo in Ennio Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe" don't "pop" to the front of the sound stage like they do on the McIntosh, but there's a sweetness to the blending of the instruments that the solid state gear doesn't possess. When I chose Paul Anka again for the Yaqin, the brass and drums were lively and well-defined. Paul's voice was warm, neutral, and commanding without being forward.
Ask anyone tube-enthusiast (note, I no longer refer to them as fanatics), and they'll tell you the more you listen to a tube amp, the less you'll listen to your solid state gear. I'm not sure if this will be the case with me. I'm still a rebel; still stubborn, but, at least I'm no longer childish in this regard. Herbert Spencer said something 150 years ago that I wish I'd learn to heed more often: There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is a proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is condemnation before investigation. Amen.