As some of my closer friends know, I'm a big fan of decent audio equipment. More often than not, I'll turn off the 42" Hitachi plasma HDTV and put on some Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. I don't profess to have golden ears - not even close. But I do know when something sounds downright wonderful inside my brainpan via my eardrums. Pratt & Whitney's TF-33 engine may have made a nifty little notch in my hearing response over a couple thousand hours' worth of jet flying time, but I still love good audio.
In my living room, I have a $1,300 JoLida 502A pentode integrated audio amp, being driven directly by the CD/DVD player. It sends the signal directly to the ESS/Heil speakers, no equalizer, tone controls, nothing. Just a straight shot, very clean and minimalistic.
For a long time, in my office/spare bedroom I was using an older Nikko NR-750 receiver to pipe my MP3 collection to a pair of floor-standing speakers. That was all well and good, but it never had the warm sound of my big JoLida. I agonized over getting another JoLida, building a compact tube amp, or finding a cheap one elsewhere.
Cheap tube amps are few and far between, particularly those worth a tinker's damn. So I started designing and breadboarding a small tube amp that would drive an iPod or computer's sound output into a decent set of desktop or bookshelf speakers (think along the lines of the venerable Radio Shack Minimus-7 and Minimus-77 series). I had the prototype nearly completely assembled when I saw an ad in my VA Canteen catalog which made my eyes pop out. There was a smallish, hybrid tube amp and docking station for the iPod, along with a small set of 2-way speakers! The price was equally eye-popping, and they sell for between $500-$700, depending on who's distributing them.
So, being curious, I dug a wee bit, and found out the system was made by HCT Electronics of Korea. From there it goes to different distributors, who put their own silkscreen logos on them, then add several hundreds of dollars to the price tag.
I found mine for all of $195.00, having a simple HCT label and nothing else. Without further ado, I give you the HCT HMS-100 Vacuum Tube Amplifier Speaker System with Dock and Remote:
And to bring it into a vintage frame of reference, a gratuitous B&W photo:
Now, to be perfectly honest, this is a hybrid tube amp, meaning it has a vacuum tube pre-amp stage, and a standard silicon transistor output stage hidden inside the chassis. That's why there are only two tubes in the front and one transformer - they're little 12AX7/12AT7 style tubes to boost the signal prior to going to the MOSFET final output transistors. The tall tube in the rear is a reproduction of the old tuning eye visual indicator, and serves only as a power or level meter, dancing with the signal.
Being a hybrid, it sports a nice 15 watts/channel, but has considerably more warmth and smoothness with the tube pre-amp stage than a comparable solid-state amp. It is still quite simplistic and elegant, having only a power switch, input selector toggle, and volume control. That's it! No tone or balance controls, no bass boost, nothing extra.
How does it sound? Quite nice, actually. I had to let the tubes burn in for a week or so before they settled down, but it's definitely a kick in the pants now. 15w/channel is more than enough to drive the included speakers, and actually drive my floor standing towers comfortably, too.
This will make a great Christmas present for the hard-to-shop-for guy or gal who enjoys audio and a minimalistic touch. I'm ordering a couple more for this Christmas, myself. I've got family members who will love it.