A HiFi WigWam review by Richard Bowles


Improving on perfection?​


I had the pleasure of living with Audio Note’s Meishu Tonmeister for some time. From the very first occasion I switched it on in my system here, I knew it was something special, particularly in its uncanny ability to extract the ‘music’ from any medium. It always emphasised the best of a recording without ever emphasising the worst, yet at the same time retaining all the dynamics and not concealing anything. The Meishu ended up remaining in its position in the racks here. It simply did everything so well that it became my reference, and it remains among the top items in my ‘unconditionally recommended’ list. However, the plan had always been to review both the standard Meishu and its top of the range sibling. Hence, it was eventually replaced by the Meishu Tonmeister Phono Silver Signature. The purpose? To live with it for a while and find out whether, as expected, it is better. More specifically, to find out how much better.

The differences​


I visited the Audio Note factory again to swap the amplifiers, and had the opportunity to discuss briefly with Darko, one of AN UK’s designers, the differences between the various versions. I expect audio designers and engineers to talk about rising edges of square waves, reducing power supply ripple, improving transformer efficiency and the like. It came as an unexpected and delightful change to instead hear animated talk about the correct ‘thwack’ noise a snare drum ought to make, and how the tonal balance should ‘expand like this’, accompanied by massive arm gestures. In technical terms, the difference between the standard version and the silver signature (I am struggling with this a touch, as it seems somehow unfair to call it ‘standard’) basically moves individual components to the top tier Audio Note category. The range consists of Standard, Silver and Silver Signature versions, and Audio Note say the following with regard to the range and the differences:

In order to build a range of Meishu Tonmeister Standard, Silver and Silver Signature Amplifiers, we have seamlessly joined a group of complimentary parts and valves to harmoniously work together. The Standard Meishu Tonmeister uses a new generation of EI output transformers, a combination of 0.5W and 1W AN Tantalum Resistors, AN Electrolytic Capacitors throughout, AN Copper Foil Coupling Capacitors and copper wiring.

The Silver upgrades the standard version specification with AN HiB C-core output and interstage transformers, AN silver (AN-V) and copper internal wiring, a combination of AN Standard and AN KAISEI Electrolytic Capacitors, 1W AN Ni-Chrome and 2W AN Tantalum Resistors in selected places.

The Silver Signature Tonmeister adds even higher specification AN SHiB C-core output and interstage transformers, a different and improved board material, AN stepped attenuators for the volume control, Brimar CV4068/ 13D3 input valves, a combination of 2W AN Ni-Chrome and 2W AN Niobium Resistors and an optimal combination of AN Standard, AN KAISEI and AN Non-Polar KAISEI Electrolytic Capacitors.

The overall circuit is nearly identical in all the variants, as is the remarkable proportion of components manufactured in house. The obvious differences are a small increase in weight and a somewhat larger increase in price, about which, more later. Again on this visit I had the opportunity to talk to a few of the people at ANUK, and to join Peter Qvortrup (very kindly) for lunch and a ‘put the world right’ type of discussion. And, again as before, the enthusiasm of everyone was notable and apparently undimmed.

Micky Seaton, Audio Note’s ever affable UK Sales Manager, advised that the Silver Signature had not been run extensively and would benefit from a little more time. On return here (and especially as it has been sitting around in cold conditions for a while), I connected a CD player and dummy speaker load, and left it playing for a while before the slightly backbreaking job of installing it in the main system.

More of the same?​


Once on the rack, the only apparent difference was quite a lot more lettering on the front panel, and a pair of stepped attenuators for left and right channels instead of volume and balance controls. The days of ‘too loud or too quiet’ are long gone for stepped volume controls, and there are more than enough gradations to allow precise sound levels to be obtained. I find separate left and right controls a little fiddly, but it is no more than a small (personal) irritation. If you prefer, I have no doubt Audio Note would oblige you with a stereo volume control and another for balance, though probably grudgingly, as the separate attenuators are stated as being a notable improvement.

Initial thoughts were hard to put into words. In fact, this has proved to be one of the most difficult reviews I have ever authored. It started off as a game of ‘listen for the differences’, but that proved an elusive task. Not because there aren’t any differences, but because what sometimes felt initially subtle actually turned out to be anything but. The first rude awakening was the bass. I expected it to be a little tighter and possibly a bit more extended. Wrong. It has incredible bass extension. Five minutes of my favourite Messiaen organ piece on CD (‘Transports de Joie’, from the L’Ascension Suite) soon proved that, with almost frightening physicality. At the other end of the musical spectrum, ‘Bostitch’, from Touch Yello (streaming, I have to admit) had a similar effect. Just to make sure, I played ‘Little Bird’, from Imogen Heap’s Ellipse, again on CD. If you know it, then you know ‘those’ bass notes. Not just present, but deeper and cleaner than I can recall any other amplifier managing. This is not what I expected. Nevertheless, as this is a valve amplifier, and a single-ended triode one, some listening to the mids and treble seems appropriate. It will have to be very, very good indeed to better the normal Meishu, yet somehow it does. The mids are just that bit more lifelike and the top end has more ‘air’. Vocals are possibly a touch more forward in the soundstage, which also seems larger all round and a little more defined, especially in depth. This is proving difficult. Difficult, because I genuinely still genuinely believe the Meishu is superb. After some time, what has become apparent is simply that the Silver Signature just builds on that, sometimes subtly, but always palpably. I have been regularly surprised by the sheer depth of tonality it achieves, but at the same time its ability to portray dynamics. I remember once commenting about a particular pair of rather costly loudspeakers (a serious understatement) that it was like having music poured into your soul without going through your ears. The Meishu Silver Signature has the same effect, but manages it with far more humble speakers attached to it.

For the start of proper listening, I used some of the favourites from my previous Meishu review for comparisons, though that was rapidly abandoned due to the inevitable desire to just listen to things I wanted to. For the direct comparisons, see the comments above about more of the same. ‘More lifelike, more space, more air’ appears more than once in my early scribbled notes, as do a lot of comments about ‘deep bass’ and ‘superb dynamics’. Listening to Leonard Cohen, Live in London on vinyl, the vocals feel slightly more ‘edgy’ (as they were when I saw the concert), the placement of singers and instruments a little more separated and precise, and everything a little more dynamic sounding. On the superbly recorded Jazz at the Pawnshop, everything is more focused and realistic, the background noises in particular. On every Keith Jarrett recording I tried, the piano seemed even more accurately portrayed in tone and the decay of notes. That was something of a surprise, as piano reproduction was something I rated the standard Meishu very highly on. The soundstage overall is superb and notably focused. My normal valve amplifier combination tends to bring things forward slightly, vocals in particular, whereas the Audio Note gives a more detailed and accurate spatial picture. You have the illusion of sitting near the front of the audience, in just about the perfect spot to hear the width and depth, but not too close as to lose the ‘image’. Overall, acoustic instruments have an incredible reality, particularly instruments that are difficult to reproduce well. In addition, the Silver Signature sounds amazingly ‘fast’ for want of a better word. It handles instruments and vocals in the way that only the very best single-ended valve amplifiers do, yet at the same time it manages dynamics and bass like a real powerhouse. Moving on to the CD of Roger Waters, Us + Them recorded live, Roger’s bass is reproduced with real force. Once again, the dynamic range is almost brutal in its ability, and the clarity and feeling of reality is amazing.

Two small side notes here in passing. First, I have heard some ‘silver’ versions of amplifiers that have a slight ‘sheen and sparkle’ to the top treble, which although not unpleasant, is not realistic. The Meishu Silver Signature appears to show none of this metallic edge to notes. They flow as naturally as they do from real instruments. Second, it goes effortlessly loud, by which I mean that it manages not to sound as though you are listening at a particularly high level, until you leave the room and come back, when it is obvious that the volume is much, much higher than expected. It is also even better at resolving small details than the non-silver version, which again is a remarkable, and unexpected, feat.

Over the time the Silver Signature has been here so far, a few of the visitors who came here to listen to the original version have made a repeat journey to see what the fuss is about, together with one or two newcomers. The overall opinion seems to match mine, in that there is nothing at all to criticize about the previously hosted Meishu, but that the Silver Signature seems to expand on its abilities in every direction. There has been some head scratching with regard to pinpointing exactly how it can be better, yet it clearly is. It feels like debating how something you thought of being ‘as good as it gets’ can actually be improved on. My cellist friend has possibly the most acute ear of anyone I know, and she left here deeply impressed and deeply surprised. Her first choice on both occasions was my somewhat ancient vinyl copy of Perlman’s Elgar Violin Concerto, and her comment was that the timing seemed a little tighter, the notes slightly cleaner and there seemed a greater perceived depth and height to everything. She also stated again (and others agreed) that both versions of the Meishu are extremely good at reproducing stringed instruments. A later visitor came in the form of a younger friend who is not only a highly accomplished acoustic guitarist in his spare time, but part owner of a studio and a lecturer in music technology in his professional life. He described it as being at the same time both accurate and yet incredibly ‘musical’, as well as handling dynamics exceptionally well; more like being at a performance than listening to a reproduction of it. He seemed to like it. At least I assume so. We spent almost the entire night before we stopped listening and I know from (sometimes bitter) experience that he is brutally honest when something does not sound right. The extended listening time is another clue to the amplifier’s abilities, as (massively) long listening sessions with it never feel too long. Far too many pieces of hifi start off being impressive and end up providing a headache. Not the Silver Signature though.

A few more notes and scribbles have been added over the days and weeks. On David Gilmour, Live at Pompeii, the audience seems to be more expansive than ever, and more ‘present’. Gilmour’s guitar has that touch more (accurate) ‘hollowness’ to the tone. On the vinyl copy, the hi-hat is a touch cleaner and the bass has a little more texture and force. On The Beatles, Abbey Road, more of the intricacies of the mix are evident. On everything I have played, there is a feeling that no matter how high or how low the frequency, it is there. Yet there is equally the feeling that somehow it is the good parts of recordings that are even more pronounced. My collection includes some truly dreadful quality vinyl that I keep more for the memories, but every time, the Silver Signature takes me back to the day I bought and first listened to each of them. The surface noise and poor tonal balance are forgotten, and the music shifts to the foreground. It may be some intricate metal casework full of ‘old tech’ valves, wires and components, but it is state of the art in many ways and the amount of development is evident. Putting technology to one side, however, it seems able to turn electricity into emotion, whereas much hifi equipment has the dreadful ability to do the opposite.

Quite some time has passed since my original notes, but nothing has changed. I have played everything through it that has come to mind or been requested, musically from Debussy to the Sex Pistols and alphabetically from Abba to Zappa. People from many walks of life have listened to it when visiting and everyone has been amazed. It just plays music, to the extent that I feel I should be describing it as a musical instrument itself, rather than a means of reproducing musical instruments. It may as well be one. In the same way as instruments and the people who play them, a great many pieces of hifi equipment are impressive, but only the special ones can really involve the listener. This one does.


The technical bits:

INPUT IMPEDANCE100K Ohm, line level
INPUT SENSITIVITY240mV for full output
MAXIMUM OUTPUT8 Watts (approx.) per channel into 4 or 8 Ohm loads
CHANNEL BALANCE+/- 0.3Db
VALVE COMPLIMENT1 x 5U4G
2 x 300B
1 x 5687
1 x CV4068
1 x ECC83 (Phono models only)
1 x 6DJ8/ECC88 (Phono models only)
UNIT WEIGHT29.5 kg
UNIT DIMENSIONS220mm (h) x 460mm (w) x 530mm (d)
MAINS INPUTAC 100-120V / 220-240V 50/60Hz
MAX. POWER CONSUMPTION200W

Manufacturer’s website​


https://www.audionote.co.uk/meishu-tonmeister

Audio Note UK, Meishu Phono Tonmeister Silver Signature integrated amplifier internals


Conclusions​


Everything in the Meishu range will have the same downsides for some potential buyers: no remote control (and no option for one), relatively basic facilities, a rear-mounted on/off switch, and a low power output necessitating high efficiency speakers. The latter is not really a negative, as my experience suggests the combination of low amplifier power and efficient speakers produces the most lifelike rendition of music. Audio Note have anyway always been about the sound above all else, and the Meishu range is no exception. There are no negatives here as far as I am concerned; however, we must now turn to the price. All of Audio Note’s product ranges work in a similar way and the company says about the Meishu that ‘each version is specifically voiced to improve on the level below and will demonstrate increased subtlety, dynamic contrast, refinement and beauty’. My ears agree, though I have to say that somewhat undersells the ‘standard’ Meishu, which for many people would be all the amplifier they ever need, and retails at £11,243.50 (including VAT) for the phono model. For the Silver Signature Phono, that doubles to £22,487.00. The Silver version is in between, though you can save a fairly large amount in every case if you only need line inputs. The Silver Signature can certainly be described as a great deal of money, though to some, it would not be a troubling amount. I have said to more than a few people that after extensive listening, the ‘standard’ Meishu actually strikes me as being a genuine bargain, and the Silver Signature as representing value for money. These are not pieces of equipment you will use occasionally and forget about, nor, if you appreciate music, are they items you would want to upgrade in a hurry, if ever. When you consider the cost (and inconvenience) of a power amplifier and a separate preamplifier and phono stage (and the associated cabling), it becomes somewhat more realistic. It is certainly a great deal of money, but then it gives an equivalent amount of pleasure. After considerable thought, the question I am left with is not whether the Meishu Silver Signature is worth the cost, but whether the difference between the Meishu and the Meishu Silver Signature is worth the additional cost. That question is made harder by the simple fact that the ‘standard’ Meishu is genuinely excellent. It is a question I have asked myself many times since the amplifier first arrived here, but every time I start to try and reach some conclusions, I become distracted by listening to music, and somehow it has become ridiculously late and my obsessively tidy listening space has once again turned into a cluttered mess of LPs and CDs. That should give you at least part of the answer.

I could very, very happily live with a Meishu, and indeed I did so for some time. Yet having now lived with a Meishu Silver Signature, I would always be aware that you can in fact improve on perfection. I have heard only a very few pieces of equipment capable of portraying music quite like it, and everything I have heard do so has been in a similar price bracket or above it. Quite simply, if you can afford it, and you have (or are happy to acquire) suitable speakers, then you should. To my way of thinking, the purpose of audio equipment in the home is to get as close as possible to reproducing the sound, feeling and atmosphere of the live event. The Meishu Silver Signature is designed and built to do exactly that, and it succeeds. I therefore have no hesitation whatsoever in categorising it as ‘unreservedly recommended’.

Plus​


Musicality
Lifelike presentation
Stunning dynamics, speed and detail
Superb soundstage and imaging

Minus​


Limited facilities
Awkward on/off switch placement
Looks will matter to some people
Needs high-efficiency loudspeakers

Partnering equipment​


Well Tempered turntable, Audio Technica AT50 Anniversary cartridge.
Goldring GL75, Linn tonearm, Audio Technica AT OC9XML cartridge.
Hashimoto phono step-up transformer.
Micromega T-Drive transport with upgraded clock, Pioneer Stable Platter CD player (used as transport), Bluesound Node 2i streamer (upgraded power supply).
Audio Note DAC 1.1X.
Living Voice IBX R2 speakers with upgraded crossovers.
Speaker cables: Audio Note AN-La, bi-wired. Analogue interconnects: Duelund, Neotech and Audio Note. Digital interconnect: Audio Note Pallas. Power cables: Audio Note, Kondo, LAPP and Supra.
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