Audion has a long history in producing well-received valve-based amplifiers. Here Stuart Smith takes a listen to the Silver Night Anniversary 300B Parallel Single Ended monoblocs costing £5750.

Audion was founded way back in 1987 by David Chessell (Audio Innovations) and Erik Andersson (an audio designer) with the philosophy of allowing audiophiles to get high-end products without the usual high-end financial outlay. In 1992 a copy of the classic 300B tube was released by Golden Dragon and the Audion Silver Night monoblocs were born thereafter. Graeme Holland has been the owner of Audion since 2000 and as well as having a varied background in music (there are some fantastic tales) he was also a computer systems designer. Under Graham the brand has flourished and their mission statement is to “…deliver music as close to the originally recorded sounds as can possibly be achieved….We will try and dispel the mysteries of “esoteric high end” and make this technology available to everyone… Straight talking without technobabble.” Now that all seems laudable and it very much seems to echo Graeme’s personality; and that can only be a good thing.

The company make a wide range of products including phono-stages and preamplifiers, stereo power amps, integrated amps, kit amps and cables. They also sell tubes.

When I got talking to Graeme a good while ago about getting one of their amps in for review I left it to him to decide which it would be, but secretly (perhaps not that secretly in hindsight) I really wanted to hear a pair of the 300B amps, specifically the 300B PSE (Parallel Single Ended) as when I sold my last 300B PSE amp I immediately regretted it. For the record, Audion also produces a 300B amp in Push-Pull topology, a 300B SET plus a number of other amps using other tubes. All the monoblocs are hard-wired and there is a series of upgrade paths available for each of the amplifiers.

FEATURES AND BUILD QUALITY

Parallel Single Ended basically means that there are two output tubes (in this case 300Bs) ‘cascaded’ and wired to a single output transformer. In practice, instead of the usual 8 or 9 Watts a channel you would normally expect to get from the 300B tube we now get a healthy 18 Watts into 8 Ohms. Now, I don’t actually need that in our main system given that our speakers are 107 dB sensitive, but we do run other speakers and other systems where the speakers are not as sensitive so that extra oomph will come in useful. 18 Watts is also a more real-world output for the majority of people with ‘normal’ loudspeaker setups and so perhaps more relevant to more people – Audion suggests that this amp will suit speakers with a sensitivity from 88 dB. With all that said, I have used 300Bs in SET topology into relatively inefficient speakers and had no issues, though I do like the extra headroom PSE gives.

The Silver Night Anniversary is Audion’s intermediate level of power amplifier and is hand-built using point to point hard-wiring using solid Silver in some critical areas. Audion says they source as many parts that make up their amplifiers from the USA and Europe and that they avoid what they consider to be inferior Chinese components, and the Anniversary badge indicates higher quality parts have been used throughout wherever possible. The amps come factory fresh with JJ 300B output tubes and Russian NOS 6H23N input tubes, with biasing being automatic, so tube rolling (Audion say the amps will take “almost any” 300B tube) will a hassle-free experience, though I stuck with the stock tubes for the duration of the review.

The packaging is good and efficient and the amps arrived safe and sound with no sign of any damage whatsoever and getting them set up is a pain-free, simple and speedy process. Visually the amps look beautiful in a minimalist and quite austere kind of way but look closer and you notice that the top plate and badge are both highly polished mirror finished stainless steel which adds a tad of glamour to proceedings. Otherwise, the amps are powder-coated aluminium in black. 

Unusually, each of the amps has a volume control (in contrasting silver) on the front, so for those with just one source and not looking to add a preamplifier to their kit list it’s a case of simply plugging in your CD player, DAC, phonostage or whatever, adding a pair of speakers and Robert’s your Mother’s Brother, though Audion do suggest that a preamp is a good idea. There is nothing else adorning the front of the amps other than the Audion logo.

Round the back of each amp is all pretty straightforward with speaker binding posts for 4 and 8 Ohms, the RCA input, a ground lift switch (to help if you experience ground hum), a fuse socket, and IEC power input and a master power switch.

On the rack the two amps side-by-side take up about the width and depth you would expect from a normal-sized stereo amplifier (about 46cm) and they are a normal depth for an amp (42cm). Build-wise they feel solid and well put together as you would fully expect for a pair of amplifiers costing £5750.

SOUND QUALITY

There was a flurry of anticipation waiting for the arrival of these amplifiers and so I thought it best to just let them play and let themselves get bedded in for a while before I did any critical listening. Of course, I did listen to them and I really enjoyed what I was hearing, but I was well aware that my expectation bias was high given my love of this tube and this topology. What I didn’t want to do was wade in with rose-tinted spectacles and give readers a skewed version of events given that expectation bias.

The preamplifier I used for the duration of this review was the Music First Baby Reference V.II and you can read the full kit list at the end of this review. This passive (TVC) amp seemed a very good marriage with the Audions. I did get to have a short play with the new Audion passive and that too proved to be a very good match.

I’ll be honest from the outset and say that I loved how these amps sounded with our day to day system and got lost in the music during the aforementioned bedding in period, which lasted much longer than it ought to have. I simply found myself listening to and enjoying music of all kinds and really did get drawn into the presentation and flavour these amps bring to the party. Are they absolutely neutral? No, I don’t believe they are absolutely neutral, but on the Avantgarde Acoustic Duo XDs, and being fed by a Melco library and Lampizator Big 7 DAC, the amps bring something to proceedings that had me enthralled at each recording and each piece of music I listened to. There’s a certain sense of quiet confidence with these amps in this system that just seems to work in an effortless and balanced manner. OK, I did start this with a bit of a preface to let readers know that I am a fan of the 300B tube, but like anything, the way a product performs is a sum of its’ parts, and with the Audions in the system I get the feeling that the tubes are being allowed (note I’m not using the word pushed which is the first word I reached for) to perform at their best.

Anyway, convention has it that I need to chat to you about a few records I listened to during the critical-listening process and believe me, I have listened to a lot of music on these amps over the last few months.

I often like to start off a listening session by listening at low levels with the volume inevitably creeping up in volume over the period of the session. This is a good thing in that it lets me get a bit of a feel for a bit of kit and how it performs at levels that are more realistic for the vast majority of readers. Our Time in Eden by 10 000 Maniacs is often a starting point for me in a listening session; it’s a great record in its own right, it’s wonderfully recorded and produced, and it’s pretty much the first album that comes up on the library. Readers familiar with the 300B will be aware of its reputation for having a beautiful mid-band presentation, and I often think this is why it finds favour with some music lovers, but what I am looking for in a product is something that delivers from top to bottom and offers balance and truth to the recording, with the caveat that most things have a flavour of their own that they bring to the recipe.

Needless to say, Natalie Merchant’s voice is presented beautifully. Mellifluous is the word I’m looking for, I think. There is texture and body to her voice through these amps but it’s not overly emphasised or, again I’m searching for the right word and will no doubt miss it by a country mile, “bloomy” – it feels just right in the mix, and at these volumes rather lovely. Is this mid-band loveliness at the sake of the rest of the mix? Nope, not at all. Everything is there including the snap of drums and the tonality and timbre of other instruments. Moving the tempo up a little, but not the volume, I pop on Armand Van Helden and DJ Sneak’s Psychic Bounty Killaz from the album 2Future4U and whilst I am craving a bit more oomph by way of ass shaking volume, what I’m not missing is detail and insight into the recording. It’s funky, clever and even at this level, I’m really loving it. There is still a certain scale to the music, there is still the rock-solid beat and there is the crafty little noises and effects that jar your brain a bit. In effect, what you are getting is the record in full effect but just at a lower volume.

So, as sure as night follows day the volume rises and the beats come out to put the amps through their paces. Will the amps be speedy enough to keep up with the kind of music I’m going to throw at them? Will they be too polite and well mannered to get these tunes across effectively and with the required punch and drive? Original Pirate Material by The Streets is a great record that, when played properly, never fails to get the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. The staccato beats, crafty instrumentation and vocals come together to create a perfect backdrop to the UK’s current zeitgeist, though it’s from a few years back and I’m listening to it in rural Brittany…but you get my point. What you have with the Audions in place is up with our reference amps with regards to speed and agility, with them never feeling as if they are getting into any kind of difficulty and it is very much the amps in control of the music. What I love with these amps in place is the slightly emphasised upper-mid frequency flavour that brings the oft-menacing instrumentation on this record to the fore, though it’s not overpowering everything else that is going on. I mentioned earlier that I want a product to have balance and whilst it would be remiss of me not to mention that mid-band (I love it) you do get an overall balanced presentation. Add to this speed and beautiful quality of the mids, a great level of detail in the tops and you have that thing of the whole being bigger than the parts that I mentioned earlier. There is crispiness to the skippy hi-hats and a snap to the snare sounds and when a bass line has distortion added you hear it.

The story is the same when listening to the new 808 State record (I’d heard a few tracks before on the EP) and whilst the acidic bassline is what draws me initially to the sound on the first tune, there is no mistaking that the amps are presenting the whole with bags of detail and a rock solid stereo image you can picture in front of you; to the point where it almost becomes possible to imagine reaching out and touching the different sounds in the mix. In addition to the, I hate to use the word, holographic presentation you have that speed I mentioned where everything starts and stops on a pin. Add to this a whole load of small details in the mix (little sounds and effects) and the image could become muddy and blurred. The Audions just don’t do this, and whilst this is a busy record in parts, the amps never become fazed and that rock-solid image is maintained.

Changing the feel a bit I dialled up some Neil Young and specifically the excellent Sedan Delivery from Live Rust. This is Young at his rockiest best and the amps convey this really well. Young’s guitar constantly feels on the edge of disintegrating into chaos and the amps keep that edge of your seat feeling I get with this tune when it is through a great system. Volume-wise there is plenty here to keep me satisfied and even when I switch to the Xavian Perla speakers where the amps keep the bass well in control. Powderfinger then comes on as I’m finishing up my notes and I’m immediately drawn to the tone of Young’s vocal and how the Audions let this come through. This beauty of tone is also conveyed in the way the guitar sounds. Yes, Young’s guitar is always on the edge of breaking into chaos but he keeps just at that verge and you hear it wonderfully with these amps and that edge of your seat feeling is there again. Here’s the thing; valves have, quite wrongly in my opinion, a reputation of being pedestrian and a bit polite in their presentation, but what I am saying here is that the Audion 300PSE amps have all the excitement and verve I want from my kit and the way that kit presents the music I love. Flicking to Young’s Down By The River there’s the sound of tape quite clearly coming from the left-hand speaker and it’s definitely a “hot” track which you hear very clearly with the Audions in place. There’s lots of hard panning left and right in this tune but again every little nuance of tone comes through the mix. No confusion, no getting all stressed and hassled and the walking bassline is handled wonderfully. The harmonies are also pleasingly reproduced with each voice being separate but at one with the whole.

We recently did a talk at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest about the kind of music we would like to hear at shows and one of the tracks I chose, and one that I use a lot when assessing new kit is Ben Frost’s Killshot from his album By the Throat. On a decent system, it’s a menacing and unnerving track, but on a great system it is more menacing, more unnerving and more brooding… and a bit scary. It would be easy to dismiss this track as just a whole load of noise, but on a good system you can get to mentally dismantle the sounds and hear beyond the noise and into the make-up of the sound, and that’s what is happening here. Yes, I get the visceral quality of the music in spades but I also get a deeper insight into the sounds and that draws me into the recording. Here’s the thing, there are lots and lots of good products out there and in some ways it is difficult to pick out a product that is inherently bad, though they do exist, and what is perhaps easier is to pick out the products that really do hit the mark, and I’d include the Audions in that group.

Rodrigo and Gabriel’s 11:11 is a great album for listening for dynamic presentation; it’s percussive and can get confusing on some systems but the Audions are again completely unfazed, sitting as they are on the rack and pumping out a fair bit of heat and a whole lot of music. The guitars of the pair sound literally as if they are in front of me and again, I’m drawn to the detail and speed of the presentation. Great stuff and again it’s that edge of your seat feeling I’m getting. Music is supposed to arouse the senses, is supposed to draw emotion from you, and ultimately to connect you with the music, the feeling and the passion of the musicians. I got this completely on this record with the Audions. It’s a little bit like experiencing that fight or flight thing that is built into us all, only you are not being chased by some big cat and you’re not experiencing some artificial chemical response, what you are experiencing, and I’m experiencing it right now so struggling with the right words to convey the feeling, is a connection with the music, the artist and the producers. Yep, I can listen to a cheap system and tap my feet and sing along to the tunes, but what we have here is a real glimpse into what really high-end kit can offer listeners, only at a fraction of the cost. There is finesse and composure, but balancing this out there is a dynamism and oomph that leads to a very pleasurable experience indeed.

Classical music is one of those things that I love to hate and I really don’t get along with very much of it at all. However, one of the few records of this hugely wide genre I do enjoy is The Moscow Synodal Choir and The Russian National Orchestra playing Hilarion Alfeyev: De Profundis on Pentatone. It’s a magnificent piece and the Audions do not disappoint one iota. At volume, you could be sat in the theatre with the choir and orchestra presented before you. Quiet passages still have the detail and solos still stand out but everything just seems to gel really nicely making for a tremendously agreeable listen. Mournful strings sound just that and sit to the right and a bit back in the staging, but it is the choral bits that do it for me and the Audion presents them as a coherent and believable whole.

So that all sounds very glowing and what not but there has to be something that can be said about these amps in the negative, and of course there is. I’m used to a pair of Class D amps that are, it has to be said, a little clinical in their presentation. This clinical sound works well for me as it is a standard by which I can judge all-comers. What I’m getting at is that the Audions are not clinical and they do add something to the mids which I love but others may say deviates from the “straight wire with gain” principle. I also experienced a little background noise coming from the speaker from the amp I was using on the right channel – inaudible when music was playing and these are very sensitive (107dB) loudspeakers.

CONCLUSION

I have really enjoyed my time with the Audion 300B PSE Silver Night 30th Anniversary amplifiers and I am in a bit of a quandary. If I was looking to buy a pair of amps purely for my own entertainment and without the need to be reviewing kit constantly then these would certainly be a permanent fixture on my rack. The reality is that the system in the main room has, as all of our systems have, been put together not only to allow for a good deal of musical enjoyment but also a standard by which to compare others. This is a double-edged sword in many ways; yes, I want these amplifiers and I love their sonic signature and really like their understated aesthetic, but would I be better off sticking with the Devil I know and sacrificing a tiny smidge of mid-band wonderfulness the Audions bring to the table over and above our reference? Look, I’m thinking out loud here but you get my drift, I’m sure.

Musically the Silver Night Anniversary amps are a joy and will be certain to put a smile on the face of anyone who sits down and spends some time with them. The level of detail they bring in the higher frequencies is pretty stunning, but never feels overly done or tiring. They control bass wonderfully with no hint of overhang or flabbiness. And that mid-band is a thing to behold; no, I don’t think it is absolutely flat but by crikey it’s a thing to behold and it is a feature of these amps that many will pick out as being their main selling point when considered with all their other attributes. Play anything from hard rock, to banging techno, to light folk and you will be justly rewarded, with the amps just doing their thing in the background, play something you know well and with a mid-rich mix and you will be in Seventh-Heaven.

My only very slight negative that I took away from my time with these amps is there was a bit of noise when playing though the Avantgardes and when no music was on. Through the Xavians and Jerns I heard nothing!

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: Good looking in a no-frills kind of way and well put together. They sit nicely and unassumingly on the rack and the top-plate and badge add a smidge of glamour to proceedings.

Sound Quality: Wonderful in the mid-band and yet highly detailed in the upper frequencies. Grippy and controlled in the bass even on challenging tracks.

Value For Money: Not cheap but certainly what looks and sounds like a pretty good deal. I’m loathed to say it but these really do offer a healthy dollop of high-end sauciness at a relatively reasonable price.

Pros: Detail, power and a mellifluous mid-band come together to produce a harmonious listening experience that just draws you into it.

Cons: Not absolutely neutral as outlined. Some will see this as a positive whilst others otherwise.

Price: £5750

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Smith

Kit List: GoldNote Tuscany Red Cartridge, Origin Live Zephyr arm and Origin Live Resolution Turntable. Lab 12 melto phonostage. Melco library and Lampizator DAC. Music First Audio Baby Reference preamplifier. Speaker cables are from Tellurium Q and Atlas with mains being through a balanced mains unit. Avantgarde Duo XD and Xavian Perla loudspeakers.

 

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