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2014 Midwest Audiofest Tent Sale & Vintage Audio Swap
Consonance Cyber 211S Monoblock Tube Amplifiers Review
My last review for the ‘wam, of Allnic’s T2000 integrated amplifier, was the easiest, least stressful to write for ages. The T2000 was simply honest-to-goodness sonic value and despite the fact that as a rule I’d rather not have to suffer push-pull amplification, I could happily have lived with the T-2000 until hell freezes over. And then, what do you know? Like London buses, a second great product comes along back-to-back; now I have the pleasure of writing about the Consonance Cyber211S monoblocks provided in the UK by distributor AA Acoustics of Brighton.
Yes, more Chi-fi.
Reader, do you still have a problem with this?
There really is some very interesting audio coming out of the far east now, and unlike mega-ticket products that are only affordable by people who pull down socially divisive rewards packages, much of it is affordable by us mere mortals.
I’d wanted to try some 211s here for oh, ages. Having done a back-to-back review of some Psvane WE 1:1 Replica 300B tubes for another title – by all means Google it if you are curious – I’d called the supplier of the 300Bs, Ian Large at AA Acoustics, about returning the review sample tubes. During the call I confessed my interest in 211 amplification.
“Want us to send you some Cyber 211s? We distribute them here.”
Four days later and up the garden path strides smiley Marcin of TNT. “Thank you for the two very large and heavy boxes Marcin.”
“Keeevin. You welcome. More audio?”
“Yup. Want to hear it Marcin?”
“No ta bud. You play weird shit. I hear it when I come [here].”
(Marcin lives in Reading with his man-husband and seems to be cultivating a curious hybrid argot of Thames Valley Polish-English crossed with San Francisco. He also classes anything other than trance as ‘weird shit’).
And so Marcin turns his back and rattles his van off into the noonday sun and I am left risking a hernia lifting the Cyber 211s into the listening room. Out of the boxes, man these are substantial and, you know what?… actually quite impressive.
Physically they’re a kind of vertical design rather than a horizontal one – somewhat in the manner of Nagra 211s but without the Superman Palace of Ice tube protectors that the Swiss amps feature. Black anodised aluminium meets some kind of Chinese hardwood on the cheek pieces, and the tubes are prevented from delivering burns to the careless by a thick clear plastic and aluminium front panel, while above some protective horizontal bars double as carry handles should you need to move the Cybers in order to run the vacuum cleaner around. On the front panel of each monoblock is a large bias meter. At night it becomes evident that Consonance’s attention to detail even extended to the colour temperature of the meter illumination – it matches closely that of the light from the thoriated Tungsten filaments of the 211 output tubes.
Overall the Cyber physical package is aesthetically pleasing and it certainly shows the tubes off to full effect. You’ll probably need to put the Cybers on the floor though, like I did. Their height means they need widely spaced shelves in order to fit into the average audio rack. That and the heat from the output tubes. They’ll roast anything closely above them.
The Cybers turned up with factory-fitted Shuguang 211s, Sovtek 5AR4 rectifiers, NOS Phillips ECC 88s input tubes and NOS Phillips 5687 drivers. Ian Large had arranged to send me some alternatives that he said would put a bit of a rocket up the amplifiers. These turned up the day after but I didn’t swap them in until I’d had the amps running for some 48 hours. Psvane T11 211 tubes replaced the stock Shuguangs, Tung Sol 5AR4s the Sovteks and 70s D-getter Tung Sol 5687s replaced the Phillips.
With the replacement set of tubes in place I ran the Cybers for a total of some 100 hours or so in successive sessions, warming in stages to the way they made music. The stock Shuguang 211s sounded lean and not that much fun, but the Psvane T11s and the Tung Sols made a huge difference turning ho-hum into Rattle-And-Hum. The Psvanes with the other swap-outs just gave overwhelmingly more bottom end, middle and top end – just more of everything along with a really beguiling and realistic tonality. I also tried vintage RCA and GE 211s in the Cybers and must thank a friend for their trusting loan. I did not much care for the RCAs. They sounded hard and had a rather on-the-edge top end that was most noticeable when playing female vocals. The GEs were a different kettle of fish. I can understand why people rave about them; they are well-mannered, very smooth, very even – a truly high-end listening experience. Even so, the benchmark they set was matched by the Psvane T11s and in some areas actually bettered by the Chinese tubes.
Here’s a question: What retail price do you expect to pay for a new pair of grunty and very satisfyingly musical and cool–looking 211 SET monoblocks? I’ll wager it’s quite a bit more than £6500. Add the upgrade tubes and you’ll be in for more than that buying from AA Acoustics – but what fun you’ll have with the result!
Crikey O’Reilly, and for all their claimed 16 Watts output, the Cyber 211Ss have balls with a capital B. There’s something about the 211 that some vendors manage to draw out and others simply don’t, and whatever engineering purists may observe about the choice of circuit topology chosen by Consonance the Chinese designers have achieved a pair of monoblocks that really rock, metaphorically filling a bottle with full-fat musical fun that can be poured out to turn a miserable day sunny side up and make it replete with head-nodding and toe-wiggling joy. The Cybers 221Ss are dynamic and musical in a way that some rivals can only dream of.
I have to confess that I broke a household rule here and got the screwdriver out to remove the lid of one of the monoblocks, curious to see what kind of construction and component quality was within. Normally I don’t mess with review kit. It just doesn’t feel respectful. But turned onto their backs the Cyber 211Ss give up their cherry rather easily. Inside it’s a mixture. A piggy-backed pair of toroidal mains transformers and a C-Core choke work with the 5AR4s to deliver power while a mixture of Chinese resistors with what look like Rubycon and Auricap capacitors populate the rest of the insides. The loom appears to be entirely point to point in copper hook-up wire. Without serious further disassembly of the amplifiers the output transformers were not visible and so I called a halt there and resorted to email enquiry. Consonance says they are Z10 IE core, although at least one Chinese retail Web site claims they are C-Core, which might help explain why the Cybers sound so powerful.
While we are on the subject of circuit design, I hear tell that on the test bench an earlier version of the Cyber 211s achieved an output of just 10 Watts, way short of the claimed 16. I don’t have the facilities required to measure power output, but I was able to compare the in-room volume achieved by the Cybers 211Ss against a pair of Audio Note 300B parallel singe-ended monoblocks with a claimed output of 22 Watts and I can report that the Cybers sounded equally powerful, able to drive the room to a peak of 95dB on my meter without sounding out of puff or collapsing into hideous levels of harmonic distortion.
The Cybers feature two trim pots on their tube decks, one for setting output tube bias with the aid of the front panel meter and the other for dialing out hum. While I twiddled the bias pots a little when swapping between the Shuguang, Psvane, GE and RCA 211s, the hum pots remained untouched. The amplifiers were both commendably quiet through the speakers and there was zero mechanical noise from the transformers.
The longer I go on reviewing the more I become sure that I am a fully paid up member of the SET tribe. No matter what components I hear, and I admit this is a deeply personal and subjective perspective, nothing, simply nothing else comes closer to real live unamplified acoustic music than well-done SET amplification through efficient speakers. As I have written elsewhere recently, if an audio system can do acoustic music well then as far as I am concerned it can take its chances with electronica. The latter is an artifice and therefore any discussion about its reproduced veracity is pointless and of zero interest to me.
The Consonance Cyber 211Ss don’t offer up the same Etch-A-Sketch 3D sound stage as the Merrill VERITAS Class D monoblocks that I currently have here for review, but they reproduce stand-up bass, cello and human voices in way that turns many people to jelly. We fed some friends and after supper the Cybers were playing away in the background while we drank coffee and chatted. After 15 minutes or so – I think I’d been spinning some JJ Cale – Jenny said: “That sounded nice. Can we hear something properly?”
“What? Properly, as in loud?”
My wife rolled her eyes as I rose from the sofa to change the recording and twist the volume knobs on the preamp.
During supper we’d all of us got stuck into an oddly restrained row about Britain’s EU membership, so just to reopen fresh wounds I chose the last movement from Beethoven’s 9th by the Berliners under Herr Karajan. If the late Sir Edward Heath is guilty of fiddling with anyone then it’s the British people, in my view. He gulled us into EU membership on false pretences. Even so, and for all its hi-jacking by the absurd Grande EU Project, the 9th still makes me weep shamelessly, even in company. If ever a human aspired to write a cry of optimism and defiance from deep within his soul then Beethoven succeeded with the last movement of the 9th.
I pressed play on the CD transport and sat back down. As the track ended I opened my eyes and looked around to see that I was not the only one with tears rolling down my cheeks. Jenny’s husband David had too. Sniffing loudly and rubbing his face with the back of his hand, David said: “Whoah! That was something else.”
On the subject of cultural pinnacles, I am reading Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds at the moment. I highly recommend it if you think you might enjoy a very clever and very funny left-of-field riff on Irishness. On the dust jacket of the book O’Brien’s contemporary Dylan Thomas writes: “This is just the kind of book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”
I don’t know about you, but I think she sounds a hoot. And I think the Cyber 211Ss are rather like her. A lot of amplification simply doesn’t facilitate the formation of a visceral connection between the listener and the music, and when I happen upon a component that like the Cyber 211Ss actually does do it, then I find I can forgive all manner of accompanying less-than-perfect Swiss finishing school behaviour.
The Cyber 211Ss don’t have such a strong grip on the lower octaves as better SETs with more costly transformers, and they tend to push voices forward into the room a little more than I am used to. They do not have the ability to pick apart particularly busy material in the way that more expensive amplifiers sometimes can.
But, they are way less grainy than I had expected them to be, they are pretty even top to bottom despite not being transformer coupled and despite the cheap and cheerful capacitors. They are fast and tactile with a powerful and much more than one-note lower register, lovely glowing slightly forward mids and an airy and pleasingly refined top end (more so with the Psvane T11s fitted). Dammit, the Cybers are just so musical that you’ll wear a constant smile while hugging yourself in self congratulation because of how relatively little they cost.
You’ll need efficient speakers to allow them to perform at their best. Oh, and do buy the upgrade tube set from AA Acoustics – it is well worth it.
While you are tinkering, think about having a competent grown-up make knowing swaps of the key capacitors and resistors for quality European items. In the scheme of things it’s not going to cost a lot and I bet the sonic results would be very pleasing indeed, lifting the Cybers even further above their already very strong price/performance level.
In conclusion, the Consonance Cyber 211Ss are your loud, dirty, boozy sister – and just like her they are hugely entertaining, unforgettable, loveable company. If emotional connection to your collection of recordings is what you crave, and you don’t want to spend too much on achieving it, then I can heartily recommend them to you.
Consonance Cyber 211S monoblocks – £6500.
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