Conductor: Noun, ‘a person who directs the performance of musicians or a piece of music’… ‘something that conducts electricity or heat’

Audio Note UK have used the strapline, music’s finest conductor, for as long as I can remember, and with good reason. I make no excuses for having always admired the company’s approach, as well as its products. Their aim, both explicitly and implicitly, has always been to put the reproduction of music above anything else, and any conversation with the owner, Peter Qvortrup, his son Daniel, the sales director, Micky Seaton or anyone else in the Audio Note factory, seems to revolve around music as much as anything (with the possible exception of politics in Peter’s case, though I am equally guilty in that regard). I frequently comment that one of my main considerations when assessing any manufacturer or dealer in the audio market is whether they are primarily interested in music. It is, after all, the entire point of this hobby, obsession or whatever you wish to call it, and it always saddens me how many appear to regard it as somehow secondary or even irrelevant.

Anyway, being offered the opportunity to review some Audio Note products, as well as having a tour of the factory and facilities, was not an opportunity I was minded to turn down. Many things are striking about Audio Note’s operation, but it is hard not to spot that everyone working there seems to enjoy what they do. The atmosphere is a mixture of enthusiasm and pride, but balanced with humour. Housed in an unassuming series of industrial units, the factory is a delightful medley of organisation, precision work, experimentation and development, but also a touch of orchestrated chaos. Wherever you turn, there are seemingly random piles of priceless equipment or components. It is anyway deeply impressive, in terms of not only the planning and investment, but the sheer volume of parts that are made in-house: something that few, if any, other manufacturers can come close to. Winding your own transformers is hardly commonplace, but making your own capacitors is virtually unheard of. Nearly everything in an Audio Note piece of equipment is made in the factory, or specifically made for the company under its strict control. Peter himself is enigmatic, intelligent and intense, but equally humorous, kind and thoughtful. It would be simple to describe AN UK as ‘the vision of Peter Qvortrup’, but much as the company talks of its products in terms of ensuring every stage and every component works together to produce the finest result, so the products similarly seem to stem from everyone in the factory working harmoniously.

Home and installed
On this visit, I came away with a car full of a Meishu Phono Tonmeister, for which I make no apology concerning the lengthy review. Based on a pair of 300B valves in a single-ended, interstage transformer circuit, in Audio Note’s own words, the Tonmeister features a design in which ‘the circuit is now a beautiful example of elegant simplification’. Although ‘simplification’ is being somewhat coy, as there is plenty of evidence of careful, considered and intricate design. The end result is a physically imposing (and heavy) unit, with a valve compliment including a rectifier, four small signal valves and a pair of 300Bs. Some gentle heaving, cursing and moving equipment and cables around, saw the amplifier gracing the bottom shelf of my main rack, with plenty of space above for ventilation. The Tonmeister radiates a fair amount of heat, so some breathing space above it will be essential. This also brings up one negative point, which is that the on/off switch is located on the rear panel. There is an obvious benefit in terms of keeping mains wiring away from the other sections, but it is inconvenient, especially if a lack of space to the side entails the need to lean over a hot amplifier to switch it off.

So, installed and ready. The amplifier had already been run for some time in the factory and on demonstration, but as with any equipment here, I left it a day to acclimatise after being in a cold car, and then left it running for quite a few hours with a CD on repeat. Everyone I met at the company still considers vinyl and Red Book CD to be of prime importance, and these were accordingly my main sources for listening. However, I hope I will be forgiven for also using a streaming device, as I would expect at least some potential purchasers will do so. One immediately apparent point is an incredibly low noise floor. It is effectively silent on line-level inputs. On vinyl, there is just a slight hiss at insane levels of gain, which may well be down to my extremely low-output cartridge and step-up transformer. There is no hum at all. Zero.

And on to music
First, to warm up a little, a rather old Blue Note vinyl copy of Kenny Burrell, Midnight. This is a pleasant, relaxed jazz session, but while the recording is decent, it can lean towards sounding a little two-dimensional, with instruments also concentrated left or right and a gap in the centre of the image. Not this time though. The width and depth is surprising, and everything is located ideally in space. The beautiful tonal balance is also immediately apparent. Instruments simply sound ‘real’, and straight away the overriding impression is of hearing the music and forgetting about the system. And where did all this detail come from? Is this really a single-ended triode amplifier? A little more lively, and Supertramp, Breakfast in America. Vinyl again, and the Mobile Fidelity Original Master pressing. This kills stone dead any suggestion of what some people assume is a ‘valve sound’, or for that matter, the emphasis of some single-ended triode designs on a slightly ‘big’ character. There is real speed and impact here: leading edges of percussion are razor sharp, but there is no hint of brittleness. The bass is excellent too. Tight and with no blurring or feeling of ‘overhang’. Roger Hodgson’s electric piano has an immediacy that caught me by surprise a few times. Vivid and realistic. I need to keep reminding myself that the Meishu is rated at a mere 8 watts per channel. Much as my normal speakers are relatively high efficiency, the volume levels I am listening at with real ease and no audible distortion seem implausible. It is also apparent that the quality of the phono stage is extremely high. Later experiments with one or two notably costly external stages confirm this impression.

Shifting to the small silver discs, I start off with a little John Surman, and ‘Portrait of a Romantic’ from the ECM Selected Recordings series. This is a track that really exposes the ability of a system in some unusual areas. The mixture of synthesiser background with some extended bass notes and Surman’s baritone sax requires power and speed, but also detail and delicacy. It is all present and correct. There is a superb soundstage depth to the recording, and forgive the cliché, but there are things I genuinely have not heard on this before, including Surman’s breathing and the ‘clicks’ of keys being pressed. I feel like staying in a relatively contemporary jazz mood, so the obvious move is to some Keith Jarrett, and Arbour Zena, which again proves deeply impressive. The strings in particular are portrayed with just the right degree of ‘sheen’, Charlie Haden’s bass is vivid and has real attack. Most of all though, the piano sounds like a real piano. That may seem like an odd thing to write, but comparing various pieces of equipment over the years, it is unfortunately a far less common feat than it should be.

Of course, vocals and valves (single ended triodes in particular) ought to be a perfect match, so vinyl again, and Leonard Cohen, Live in London. ‘Anthem’, with the stunning Webb sisters, is a track that can be deeply emotional. On the other hand, mine is a slightly ‘hot’ recording and can easily be notably sibilant, but now, it is perfectly balanced. This is so enjoyable that I am tempted to listen solely to what takes my fancy. That will come; however, first some other ‘test’ tracks to get a feel for the Tonmeister’s abilities. Something a little challenging, and Messiaen’s Ascension certainly fits that description. I have a few recordings, but the Naji Hakim is apt, as he followed in Messiaen’s footsteps as organist at the Sacré-Cœur. This is a recording that will show any weaknesses within a few chords. Despite the rich harmonics of a major organ work, it is not what would traditionally be considered ideal for a valve amplifier, let alone a single-ended triode, as it has massive dynamic range and needs rock-solid control and ‘speed’ to sound right. Here, the Meishu really pulls out the stops, if you will excuse the organist’s pun. The rendition seems endlessly powerful, but with abundant detail and nuance. If it were not for the stunning tonal palette, it would be easy to imagine this is a hundred watts of solid-state power.

And so the night goes on. Very, very late. The following few evenings bring more of the same, but Saturday involves a few guests, mostly some relatively proficient musicians. An eclectic mix of those who normally wear evening dress to perform, and those who prefer the ‘ripped jeans and stained T-shirt’ look. They all nevertheless seem happy in each other’s company. All of them comment on, for want of a better word, the ‘musicality’ of the setup. Some are still here at well past the time I ought to be fast asleep, but listening triumphs over resting. I manage to eventually eject the last of the stragglers not that long before sunrise, leaving the listening room looking slightly the worse for wear. It will take me hours to put all the LPs and CDs back where they belong and find all the empty glasses, but I do not mind in the least. My friends have assured me that my ears are not deceived. The Meishu has attracted not a single negative comment, other than that the aesthetics are a little ‘plain’ and one minor detail slightly riles my cello-playing friend. She and her OCD tendencies are minimally offended by the hole for the grub screw on the volume control lining up with its indicator mark, whereas the other controls differ. My own OCD tendencies had failed to spot this. I cannot be bothered to be even the least bit irritated by it.

At the time of typing this, the Meishu is destined to spend a little more time here, which no matter how extended, will feel too short. During its all too brief residency so far, I have failed to find a single piece of music that it could not handle with far more ease and panache than any comparable single-ended triode amplifier I have lived with. I am more tired than usual, having spent too many nights picking long-treasured LPs and CDs off the shelves, and marvelling at how good they sound. I can recall one or two amplifiers with 845 valves or other 300Bs that possibly have an edge with ‘lush vocals’ and a ‘big’ presentation, but lose out on the impressive dynamics and agility of the Tonmeister. I can think of one or two that are ‘more of the same’, but based on 211 valves, they push the price envelope stratospherically higher. Out of the endless amplifiers that have been here, no valve push-pull has equalled the tonal balance and detail, no solid state has been as natural sounding. The Tonmeister’s rendition of tone, the bass delivery and the delicate, but precise treble make it a remarkable all-rounder. I am going to miss it enormously when it has to leave. However, there is some compensation: it is to be replaced by its loftier sibling, the Silver Signature version. The aim is to find out just how much better it can possibly be. It is going to have to work very, very hard.

Tonmeister internal 2a.jpg

The technical bits
INPUT IMPEDANCE 100K Ohm, line level
INPUT SENSITIVITY: 240mV for full output
MAXIMUM OUTPUT: 8 Watts (approx.) per channel into 4 or 8 Ohm loads
2 x 300B
1 x 5687
1 x ECC82
1 x ECC83 (Phono models only)
1 x 6DJ8/ECC88 (Phono models only)
UNIT WEIGHT: 29.5 kg
UNIT DIMENSIONS: 220mm (h) x 460mm (w) x 530mm (d)
MAINS INPUT: AC 100-120V / 220-240V 50/60Hz

Manufacturer’s website


My listening room over the decades has hosted many guests. Some make a noise and some play music. That of course goes for people as well as equipment. I started off with an interest in music, and added an interest in electronics in childhood. From my first system up to today, I have only ever had one real aim: to have a setup that makes music sound as close to the ‘real thing’ as is possible. Surprisingly few pieces of equipment really do that. Many are impressive. Many go very, very loud. Many portray immense detail. Many produce monumental bass. Very few actually make a clarinet sound like a clarinet, rather than an imitation of a clarinet. The Audio Note Meishu Tonmeister is firmly in the category of equipment designed to reproduce music that actually manages to do so. I enjoy the majority of equipment I review, though I am somewhat choosey about the items I host here. Most are impressive and very good indeed, but I am usually perfectly happy to return to my own setup and indeed, am very pleased with it. This time it is going to be different. The Tonmeister will leave a large gap here, and not just physically.

The downsides? The main issue for some people will be the low output power and the necessity for relatively high-efficiency loudspeakers. Nevertheless, many (myself included) have already concluded that the best musical replay comes from a combination of efficient speakers and low-output amplification. If you want ‘visually awesome’, you may be slightly disappointed. The Meishu is certainly impressive in sheer size, but the brushed silver front panel is home to one small red LED and four silver knobs (or black with black controls). It is heavy, and needs sufficient space above. The facilities are basic: no remote control (and no option for one), four inputs plus tape, and a moving-magnet phono stage. Lastly, of course, the thorny issue of cost. At a recommended retail price of £11,243.50 (including VAT) for the phono model, the Meishu is obviously a very serious purchase (a line-only version is available at £8983.50 including the dreaded). Is it worth the money when you could buy an amplifier for a lot less that, on paper, may be as good? In my opinion, emphatically yes, it is. To hear it at length is to understand the difference between looking at a photograph of a Canaletto painting and visiting a church in Venice to experience the emotional impact of the original. If you appreciate that distinction, and it means enough to you, then I suggest that the Meishu Tonmeister belongs on the list of equipment you must consider owning. It epitomises the difference between listening to Hi-Fi and playing music.

Audio Note say this: ‘The result is an amplifier that maintains the legendary Audio Note musicality, midrange magic and glorious tonal colour of the original MEISHU, whilst bringing new and previously unheard levels of information retrieval and dynamic expression, redefining what is usually expected of a 300B SET amplifier.’ I cannot disagree. At all.

Lifelike presentation
Dynamics, speed and detail
Superb soundstage and imaging

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, Hashimoto step up.
Goldring GL75, Linn LVX tonearm, Audio Technica AT95N cartridge.
Micromega T-Drive transport with external clock, Pioneer Stable Platter CD player, Bluesound Node 2i streamer.
Audio Note DAC 1.1X.
Living Voice IBX R2 speakers with upgraded crossovers.
Speaker cables: Audio Note AN-La. Analogue interconnects: Neotech UP-OCC and Audio Note Lexus. Digital interconnect: Audio Note Pallas. Power cables: Kondo, LAPP and Supra.

Meishu Tonmeister Front 1_edited-4a.jpg