ONLINE - ISSUE 1
by Rick Gardner
I have not had the best of experiences with SE amplifiers. I simply have not been able to see the attraction. Like the little girl eating olives with her father and crying because his obvious enjoyment suggests he is getting all the good ones, I have even considered that I might somehow be lacking in this regard. However, a brief moment of insecurity aside, I remain convinced that, for me at least, the serious limitations of SE amplifiers simply do not present a viable approach to listening to recorded music. The Bel Canto 845 monoblocks, fatally flawed as they are, have represented my peak SE experience to date. Even with all the things I appreciated about these amplifiers, I simply could not live with them long term. However, life is learning and I am determined to remain open and vulnerable to new experiences. Recently, I even listened to a HORN speaker at the VSAC conference that I liked. (Will wonders never cease?) Along with my sonic reservations, most of the SE stuff is pretty uninspired when it comes to industrial design, typically wearing frumpy clothes and no-nonsense shoes.
Enter the WAVAC MD-811
Nobu Shishido is one of the most immediately-recognized names in audio, and one of the most admired (personally and professionally) people in the business. His work is the stuff of legend. The MD-811 was my first chance to experience a product of his company. The MD-811 is WAVACs "entry level" amplifier, based on the 811 transmitting tube, still in production. David and I unboxed the unit in my living room and were immediately struck by the simple, elegant beauty of the compact unit. The antithesis of the typical single-ended amplifier, the MD-811 is a champagne-tinted, blonde-wood-clad confection. The thing literally draws your hand to it as a natural response.
The MD-811 features very modern circuit topology, including a high-efficiency IITC circuit and inverted interstage transformer coupling. At 15 watts per side, I did not even bother hooking it to my reference ESP Concert Grands. The first mating was with a pair of high-efficiency Kochel loudspeakers, which, alas, never turned out to be my cup of tea, regardless of what I tried to drive them with. On a whim, I decided to make the WAVAC the heart of my bedroom system. Using the Sony SCD-C333ES SACD changer, I decided to employ the WAVAC in direct mode (the amp has a volume control and three inputs) to drive a pair of KEF 102s. I was shocked and completely seduced by this combination. Yes, it was rich and lush, but it was also tight and literally bursting with a sense of dynamic "eagerness" that made it the king-of-rock-and-roll SEs for me, to date. Of great surprise was the bass. It was huge, relatively well controlled and extremely well differentiated. This from a speaker that comes with a "bass enhancement" equalization module (which I did not use).
Shortly after taking receipt of the unit, I attended a local meeting of the Oregon Triode Society with Jennifer and Michael Crock, of JENA Labs fame. I decided to drag the WAVAC along, just for giggles. The meeting was mostly about DIY, but the suave and sophisticated WAVAC was simply too much for the crowd to bear. So... we ended up lashing it to Jennifers SCD-1 and feeding a modestly-priced pair of high efficiency two-ways designed and built by a local man (Alfred Dupke, more on him later). Plopped down in the middle of a terrible church basement room, the resultant sound drew virtually the entire crowd. Whatever the program material, this combo rocked, rolled, cajoled, and seduced.
The one common experience I have with the WAVAC is its "single cloth" presentation, so much the antithesis of current "hi-fi" molecular-dissection models. There is a wholeness to the presentation that drives the listener from the need to examine each octave and to listen critically. While enjoyable, this makes for tough reviewing. From an objective standpoint, the WAVAC is colored, lush, and far from neutral. Because it is a single-ended amplifier, its "sound" is highly speaker-dependent. However, the listening experience is subjectively free from the gradual, unsettling recognition that all of the recordings are starting to sound alike, which has been my common experience with SE amps. It is also free from the mushy, poorly-controlled, and seriously rolled-off bass I associate with this topology. The highs are softened for sure, but not as rolled as I have become used to. Grain-free, smooth as a babys butt, and sweet as first love. We are talking sex and romance here, not hi-fi.
Without embarrassment, I say that the WAVAC is a little more beautiful than life itself. Frankly, at this point in my life I am beginning to appreciate romantic love and beauty more than the truth, sometimes. The WAVAC is all about romance. It is gorgeous to look at and touch. Controls are silky and of extremely high quality. I enjoyed the simple process of turning the unit on and adjusting the volume (really cool tri-tipped rotary controls), seeing the bright emitter tubes flood my bedroom with the cheery light of a bygone day. Every interface is carefully thought out to be as effective and sensual as possible. The sound is rich, silky, and seductive. Perhaps there is some airbrushing and diffusion being applied, but it is nicely controlled and always tastefully executed.
The amp will absolutely rock with a reasonably efficient speaker. I played it LOUD with such non-audiophile screamers as Kittie, Skunk Anansie, Full Devil Jacket, and others. I am thinking an active pre would have coaxed even more out of the MD-811, but I never found myself sufficiently motivated to seek one out. The MD-811 performed flawlessly throughout the review period. The distributor sent alternative tubes to try, but frankly I never found myself interested in making any changes to the sound. I really struggled with letting it go back when the time came, and I still miss it. I kept fantasizing the distributor would "forget" it for a few months. However, as with a beautiful but sadly impractical lover, I eventually had to say adieu to the WAVAC. I simply could not afford such a wonderful amplifier for a bedroom system. Even I am not that self-indulgent. (Well, yes I am, but I cannot afford it).
This is a
marvelous piece of audio art, which satisfies at every possible level. In that it
represents the entry level of the line, one can only imagine what subtle wonders inhabit
the higher price points in the WAVAC line. For me, the bottom line is that this is the
first SE amplifier I could joyfully live with, long term. I wish they would send it back.
Audio Lab, Sigma Co. LTD