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2014 Midwest Audiofest Tent Sale & Vintage Audio Swap
Audio Note Kegon Monoblocks Review
Audiophiles like to label stuff. It’s the way we map our territory. 2A3s are detailed. 300Bs tend to be warm and rolled off at the top end. 211s are lean and my-oh-my are they grunty.
That 2A3s do indeed sound different to 300Bs is something I’ve now heard for myself after trying two pairs of Audio Note monoblocks built around essentially the same circuit topolology and component types, but one pair using 2A3s, the other 300Bs.
I had owned a pair of Audio Note P4 parallel single-ended 300B monoblocks since 2004, having done an abrupt about-turn from Bryston 7BSTs. Once I’d heard the P4s, solid state just sounded faux; fatally, hideously, gratuitously wrong. If this game is about getting close to real sound, then the Brystons were a large continent away; the P4s only in the next county.
I’ve no downer on Bryston specifically. I actually think they have a laudable ethic. A 20 year transferrable guarantee shows confidence in build quality and unlike other companies they stick with designs for a goodly long time rather than churn out new models almost every year. It’s just that Bryston makes transistor amplifiers and I find that now I mostly cannot abide the sound of sand.
So, for me, tubes is where it’s at. And single-ended too, thank you very much, not push-pull. With decent SET amplification, I’ve heard more musical veracity than anywhere else in some 45 years of personal audio geekdom.
The AN P4s were bought used, in standard configuration, but when I passed them on they were glassed-up with NOS tubes and ironed-up with mahoosive output transformers and, dare I say it, they sounded rather fine. But there’s always an itch, no? For me, it was to try some more exotic amplifiers in the Audio Note family. The problem is that the Meishu integrated is probably the price/performance sweet spot and from that point on one is seriously into the realms of what most folk with ordinary incomes would consider unaffordable diminishing returns. Sure enough, models higher up the AN performance level ladder sound glorious – but my word, they are costly.
However, in the last few years I’ve lost four people close to me. Life is short – and sometimes even shorter then you expect. How long do I myself have? Time enough, I hope, to enjoy a try-before-you-die audio purchase.
I borrowed a pair of used Kagekis – these being Audio Note’s silver wired PSE 2A3 monoblocks. After the sonics of the P4s, the Kagekis were like someone had taken a reamer to my ear canals; 2A3 detail wasn’t the half of it. The 50% nickel, silver wired output transformers, plus all the other silvery bits inside each compact chassis combined to deliver an astonishingly vivid, dynamic and refined sound. I loved them, and yet….the Kagekis were simply not powerful enough to drive my listening room to satisfactory volumes. I hesitated for several weeks, trying to convince myself that their 7 Watts per channel was enough and that I could forgive their lack of grunt because the rest of the presentation was so fine. In the end, almost tearfully, I returned them to whence they had come.
I was then loaned a second-hand pair of Audio Note Kegons, circa 18 Watts per channel 300B PSEs with the same component quality as the Kagekis. They’d been doing time in the US but now repatriated, equipped with a 240 Volt power supply and otherwise checked over, were available for less than half their original price and a fraction of what a new pair of Kegons would cost.
The Kegon circuit is minimalist – or what was classified as minimalist when Audio Note UK’s compact series of monoblocks was designed. A choke regulated power supply uses a 5U4G rectifier. A pair of 300Bs are driven in parallel single-ended mode by a 5692, outputting through a 50% nickel double C-core transformer whose primary and secondary are bifilar wound with silver wire. Both the power supply and amplification stages are silver wired. Audio Note tantalum resistors, Audio Note silver foil signal caps and a few Black Gates complete the story. Two Kegons make a monoblock pair.
Switching the borrowed Kegons on for the first time I was struck by how familiar the presentation felt after the Kagekis. What I heard was much of the transparency, but with considerably more weight and authority, and more warmth. This pair of Kegons, fitted with Sovtek output tubes, had been sitting idle for some time and they took some 24 hours to really come alive, by which time I’d decided that I simply HAD to own them. It was that fast. Love at first listen. The similarities with the Kagekis – startling lower register grip and texture, detailed mids and unfatiguing highs – are unsurprising since the circuit topology and component types between the two amplifiers are identical; different component values to accommodate the two valves types being the only substantive change. It is very instructive to hear 2A3s and 300Bs in such a back to back/similar circuit context, and it really does highlight the fact that they do, despite what some might claim, each have a defining signature.
I was intending to write this review in late December, but a rolling of tubes resulted in a burning-in period so infuriatingly extended that it was a month and a bit later before I felt confident enough to write anything by way of a critique of the Kegons. Within four weeks of the amps arriving, I had changed the rectifiers, the output valves and the drivers – all for Psvane products – WE274B 1:1 Replicas for the power supply, T Series MK II 6SN7s for the drivers and T Series MK II 300Bs. I intend to discuss these valves in a separate follow-on review.
Back to the Kegons. Silver really upsets some audio companies. They won’t use it because they say that it introduces a sonic brittle harshness. Audio Note embraces silver, countering that it is uncompromisingly revealing and simply exposes flaws in circuit design and componentry that otherwise remain masked. The higher up the AN product line you buy, the more silver you acquire for your money. I am here to tell you that the Kegons are very far from brittle and harsh. They deliver the sweetest, smoothest, most seamlessly coherent 300B amplification that I have heard, bar none. Although they use the same type of output valve in the same PSE configuration as the P4s that had given me such pleasure, the Kegons are in a totally different league, sounding nearly as detailed as the 2A3 Kagekis, but with much, much more weight.
There is something that quality SET amplification like this does to my brain: it pushes buttons that no other amplification type does, rendering timing and texture for me in a way that reveals so much more of what the players wanted to convey. Is that down to the simplicity of the circuit? Audio Note would no doubt say that in part, it is, and would then point out that the balanced version of the Kegon with its even simpler circuit delivers still more. Apparently the lack of capacitors in the signal path enables an evenness that is lacking in the plain vanilla non-balanced version that I have. Well hey ho. Plain vanilla is all I can afford and you know what? I like it very much.
The informed and confident use of silver is surely one of the other factors that enable the Kegons to sound as they do, but the primary reason is undoubtedly the depth of understanding of transformer theory, design and manufacture that Audio Note has. The Kegon output transformers – designed and wound in-house – hold such reserves of power that they deliver more made-you-jump dynamic pow! than the Bryston 7Bs that I used to run in bridged mode into Vandy 2C Sigs and latterly PMC IB1s.
However, what the Kegons add to this aural muscle is a stunning level of detail and texture. Even at the bottom end of the audible frequency spectrum in my listening room, the Kegons impart more information than I’ve heard from any amplifier, bar the 2A3 Kagekis. Fifteen seconds into the opening track on Yello’s Touch (Polydor) there’s a burst of sub-30Hz noise that through every other amp I’ve had here – my old P4s included – sounds like a smeared descending note. The Kegons show it clearly to be more complex than I had previously recognised; it is pulsed and multi-tonal, and if played loud re-arranges your internal organs.
This enhanced ability to resolve more of the low-level recorded information is present right through the audio band. On vocals, the Kegons let you hear more voice in the voice, if that makes any kind of sense. If the singist is miked closely, the subtle air movement of a ‘phh’, for example, has the hair-on-the-back-of-neck effect. It’s almost as if the performer is whispering sweet nothings two inches from your ear. Softly played piano still has a believable feeling of mass about it, similarly drums played with a light touch still sound, well, dammit, real. If the recording calls for the Kegons to move some air, then they jolly well do so. Of course, in order to do so they require being partnered with sensitive speakers like the An-Es that I use, or perhaps horns. I can’t see Kegons being a happy marriage with Magicos, for example.
Some of what I have described points to the unusual ability of the Kegons to portray dynamics. What’s particularly remarkable is that this is independent of volume. If the gain knob on the pre-amp is set to moderate or even low, the Kegons still drive the speaker cones through impressive excursions to generate an amazing and very satisfying contrast. Turn the wick up and the dynamics hardly increase in range – they just get louder overall.
A similarly acute degree of analysis is applied to symphonic music by the Kegons. They show far less of a tendency to become overwhelmed by loud and musically complex classical than anything else I’ve heard to date, with a remarkable ability to delineate separate instruments or groups amid the overall wall of sound. The Romanian pianist Radu Lupu made some cracking recordings with Decca of the Beethoven piano concertos. Play the 5th, through the Kegons and at points in the score where previously Lupu’s piano tended to be rather drowned under the might of the Israel Philharmonic, now he’s still clearly drawn in space, centre stage. For me, it feels as if some of some of this might be down to the way the Kegons do transients. There is none of the foot-being-dragged-through-treacle that makes me so fidgety when I listen to complicated transistorised amplification or, to a lesser degree, push-push tubes. It is almost as if the Kegons get out of the way and somehow facilitate a direct connection between the speakers and the source, so that stuff happens when it was recorded happening, rather than after it has negotiated a tortuous route and has arrived all out of breath. Perhaps, as a result, our brain can make better sense of the artifice – we’re talking about recordings here – and relate it more easily to real-life live music that we might have heard.
The Kegons throw a dense and very, very detailed soundstage if it’s there on the recording. Minimally processed material has an uncanny ‘you are there’ believability with the recording space – intimate low-ceilinged club or vast concert hall – a seemingly physical entity. My wife and I have a friend who plays cello professionally and we’ve heard her practice, in her home. Play Mischa Maisky’s six suites for Solo Cello (DG 445 373-2) through the Kegons and the presence of the player, the physical structure of the instrument… it’s the closest I’ve heard a recording sound to what we’ve heard live. The Kegons have also enabled me to at last ‘get’ what many critics hate about Maisky’s approach – his in-your-face loudness and vibrato is indeed alarming.
I’ve been listening to a wide range of material on CD and vinyl, making notes as the days passed in an attempt not to short-change my review with a paucity of detail. However, looking back on those notes I see the same observations and exclamations cropping repeatedly and I am not at all sure now that they are particularly informative. ‘Open, detailed, un-300B-like top-end extension, sub-bass rattling the ornaments at moderate volume level’, and then scattered throughout, some expletives that were undoubtedly the point at which I reached the limit of my rather narrow vocabulary and which probably meant something profound at the time, but now don’t really translate. Reader, you probably had to have been there.
Of course, it would be plain daft to propose the Audio Note UK Kegon monoblocks as amps of the century. However, it is truly remarkable just what an intelligent audio company can do with silver, nickel, a little tantalum and a large helping of know-how.
OL Resolution II turntable, OL Illustrious 3c arm, AN IO II cart, AN-S 3 SUT
AN CDT Three/II transport
AN DAC 4.1 Balanced
AN M5 Phono pre-amp
AN-E SEC/spz speakers
Various AN interconnects
RA mains leads
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