By volume, Chinese manufacturers dominate the world market for new valves. Shuguang claims that it alone produces 80% of 300Bs sold today – and Shuguang it is not the only vacuum tube maker in China.
While Shuguang does have its own premium level products in the shape of the Treasure series, it is mass-market valves that make up the bulk of its output, many of them white-label. Commit to a large enough order and they’ll screen-print the brand name of your choice on any valve type you wish.
Despite this dominance of the market, Shuguang is not the only show in town, so to speak, and competing underneath or alongside it depending on your perspective are a number of smaller alternatives, including the US-owned, Russian-made Electro-Harmonix brand, and JJ Electronic of the Slovak Republic. And then there are the smaller-still boutique manufacturers such as KR in the Czech Republic, whose products are aimed at the aspirational, high-end of the market for vacuum tubes. Casting its shadow over all of them is Western Electric whose original output of 300Bs is reckoned by some to be the best sounding of the type made by anyone – ever.
Western Electric resumed manufacture a few years back, then pulled the plug once more, unhappy, it is reported, with how poorly the revised series compared with original production. Rumours persist about WE’s third coming, but for many the will-it-won’t-it suspense is academic. Original production WE300Bs fetch huge sums as NOS, and second series valves, despite their less than stellar reputation, are also very expensive. And it is, of course, cost that lies behind how folk choose and buy valves. We’ll search for the best sonics at the price-point we can afford. WEs, KRs, and others at the really high and of the market are in a different country for most – me included.
And so when recently I gave a new home to a used pair of Audio Note Kegon 300B PSE monoblocks, I lived with the output valves they came with, a quad of Sovteks, for some weeks. Eventually though, the nagging thought won out: “These amps have a serious pedigree. I wonder how much better they’d sound with some decent tubes?”
Steve Rochlin and a few other writer/reviewers have attempted evaluations of multiple 300B brands over the last decade or so, and it’s instructive to see how views of what’s hot, and what’s not, change as time passes. TJ mesh plates were said in the early 2000s to be the 300Bs to have, but have latterly slipped somewhat in some people’s estimation. JJs were also quite liked, then slipped catastrophically from favour when quality and reliability fell off of the proverbial cliff. Of late, and judging by a nicely built quad I recently handled and listened to, JJ may have rediscovered its mojo.
I’d had some TJ mesh plates in my previous monoblocks so felt moved to try something different in these new-to-me pair of amps, (my review of the Kegons can also be found here on the ‘wam.) I initially set out to locate a quad of JJs but ran into the sands of indifference when I spoke with the company’s UK distributor. “We don’t carry stock – we’ll have to order them if you want some. Four weeks.” In the face of such astonishing enthusiasm I declined, and decided to try an alternative. I’d heard good reports of Psvane, so I called AA Acoustics in Brighton who are UK distributors for the brand. Psvane’s corporate history is somewhat obscure – not untypical for Chinese company – and depending upon who you talk to they are owned either by European money and run by Chinese engineers who fell out with Shuguang, or are alternatively simply the high-end brand of Shuguang. Whatever the truth is, Psvane tubes are manufactured in a separate facility to Shuguang’s.
Psvane manufactures four ranges of tubes – the Hi-Fi Series which on price at least competes in mid- mass-market territory; the more costly T-Series which have distinctive black bottles; the T-II Series which are further development of the latter and can be distinguished by their grey bottles (more on which in a moment); and finally the WE Series which are Psvane’s facsimiles of Western Electric’s tubes and ambitiously billed as sounding as good as WE originals.
I chose a quad of T-Series MK II 300Bs, plus a pair of the same series 6SN7 driver tubes which are misleadingly dubbed 6SN7/CV181s. Electronically, they are absolutely NOT CV181s – simply straight down the line 6SN7s. Why Psvane plays such naming games defeats me.
AA Acoustics normally carries sufficient stock to meet demand, but in this case I had to wait since the first consignment of T-IIs was still in transit. When they arrived initial impressions were favourable. Both the 300Bs and the 6SN7s have a pleasing feel of substance and quality about them, their bronze anodised bases contrasting nicely with the grey bottles. The gold-plated pins are neatly soldered and accurately set. The grey colour of the bottles comes from crystallised carbon deposited on the inside surface of the glass envelopes. Its purpose, says Psvane, is to capture random electrons and to better dissipate heat for greater stability and reliability. The coating on the 300Bs covers the glass almost right up to the top plate with the result that it’s very difficult to see the anodes inside. Under the glare of a bright LED torch, it’s just possible to discern what looks to be perforated (note, not mesh-plate) material.
I was moderately saddened to find that the coating almost completely obscures the pretty light show that some 300Bs can emit – all that’s visible in the dark is four points of red-orange light at the top of each tube where the heater filaments are suspended above the top plate. The 6SN7s’ getter flashing covers the entire inside top surface of each envelope down as far as the top of the grey carbon coating, so the only escape for light is at the very bottom, through the clear glass gap between where the grey coating ends and the envelope enters the valve base.
Initial listening impressions were very misleading. AA Acoustics had warned me that the Psvanes need a burn-in period of some 300 hours. Frankly, I had been sceptical; my experience with the TJ Mesh plates led me to expect a steady improvement with sonic stability reached after around 70-100 hours. But AA Acoustics is correct. The Psvanes do not behave this way. At first they sounded half decent – smooth but with limited extension top and bottom and little air. I listened for a while and then switched the amps off to work or go to bed – I can’t remember which – but I do remember sitting down for the second listening session and thinking with a heavy heart: “Uh. This has been a big mistake. They sound shockingly bad.”
Over the course of several more sessions the Psvanes began to improve, but it wasn’t a linear progression towards the broad sunlit uplands of sonic perfection: more a series of jumps forward often followed by one or two backwards – all in a maddeningly unpredictable way. Sometimes the top end began to sound more pleasingly extended and open. The next time the bass was firmer, but the top-end gains seemed to have been lost. The progress towards the 300-hour mark was so sloth-like that I took to doing what everyone advises one shouldn’t do and leave my all-valve system running at night and often while I was away from the house.
At around the 250-hour mark I was feeling much happier with how the Psvanes sounded, and I sent an email to Ian at AA Acoustics expressing cautious approval. His response: “Expect them to suddenly sound bad again before they finally stabilise.” True to his word, they did just that…on the day a pal called to hear these new Chinese wonder tubes.
Finally..finally…they did stabilise and allow me to breathe a huge sigh of relief and to begin to enjoy them. It’s been a lengthy process, but it has to be said one that will be familiar to anyone who has had the pleasure of running in WE300Bs. These, too, require some 300 hours before they sound as they should. I’d like to think that the similarly lengthy running in period says something about the quality of the materials Psvane use in the T-IIs. Aspire to get near to WE sonics and that’s the trade-off – you have an extended wait while everything settles down.
I like the T-IIs a lot. Having now also tried EH, WE 2nd manufacture, TJs and JJs in the same amps, the Psvanes have a refinement and balance that eludes all the above. They don’t have the exaggerated, etched, top end extension of the JJs or the superficially attractive mid-band bloom of the TJs, and they expose the shortcomings in the plodding sonics of the 2nd manufacture WEs by sounding far more fluid and alive. They just have a natural rhythmic musicality without sounding either forced and digital or overly soft and bloomy.
The seller of the Kegons told me that the amps would show up the characteristics of different valves far more clearly than lesser amps. So it has proved. After running in the six grey bottled tubes, I swapped out the Chinese 6SN7s for some NoS Philips WGTAs. The effect was very clear. The Philips drove the Psvane 300Bs with a warmer, darker and far less extended presentation – not unpleasant at all, but not with quite the same zip and sparkle. Of all the NoS 6SN7s, I really do like the WGTAs. I then tried some brown base CBS 5692s (the reinforced, tough duty version of the 6SN7) and ran the amps in this configuration for some weeks. We swapped back and forth while George47 visited for a listening session. Old softy that he is, he much preferred the CBS drivers for their warmth, while me, I wasn’t so sure.
With the Psvane 6SN7s driving the Psvane 300Bs, the Kegons sound almost like 2A3 monoblocks but with considerably more grunt. There’s a lightness of touch, of air and detail that is very beguiling. It’s what Psvane’s development team intended – apparently they felt the original T-Series 6SN7 to be too similar to NoS 6SN7s (probably such as the Philips WGTA) so they set out to produce a tube that drove the 300Bs to greater top end extension. Since I’d borrowed and so very nearly bought a pair of 2A3 monoblocks and was still mourning their departure, I leaned towards the Psvane 6SN7s.
However, dear old George could be right. The Psvane 300Bs react so very, very well to the CBS 5692s – delivering a beautifully organic sound with slightly more weight and warmth in the lower registers. And that’s where I’ll end because it’s now a toss-up between Psvane 6SN7 extension and NOS 5692 organism. Given limitless funds one could go on tube rolling until hell freezes over, but I really do like the Psvane 300Bs. They are a class act, teamed with the CBS 5692s delivering a very impressive combination of bottom and top end extension, sophistication and detail, and no initially exciting but ultimately irritating emphasis anywhere. With the Psvane 6SN7s, the combination they were designed for, they offer an even more extended top-end insight into recordings, with slightly less weight and organism in the presentation. These days I turn on the system and leave it to warm up with a real sense of anticipation in my heart. I know it’s going to sound very, very satisfying.
The Chinese have often been accused of being great copiers but nothing more. In the context of Psvane T-Series MK II, I don’t think that’s a fair accusation. The tubes are evidence that Psvane’s engineers are listening to music, and are thinking about how they can move forward from what’s already known about audio vacuum tubes to make them sound even better. That’s advancement and origination, not copying.
AA Acoustics: http://www.aa-acoustics.com/