POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 39
as reviewed by Danny Kaey
Sasa Cokic, one part owner of Trafomatic Audio in Serbia (Milorad Despotovic is the other partner), ought to be commended for his efforts in producing and manufacturing highly competitive transformers and most recently tube based amplifiers. Eh, say what? Right. Well, sure, one could easily say that engineering and manufacturing these products in and of itself is really no big deal; considering however, that they are handmade and assembled in Serbia …well, that is a big deal… and by a long shot. Let's just say that economic and political conditions in Serbia aren't exactly something you would pin your hopes on—put differently, Serbia's spectrum of entrepreneurship is hampered by the current climate.
Sure, during a weeklong trip back to the homeland to visit my elderly mom, I couldn't help but notice the brisk pace of hustle and bustle. Retail shops galore, service industries packed to the gills with willing customers, but all is not rosy – or, scratch a tiny bit off the top and you may not like what you see. Yet, in the midst of all the chaos and nutty car drivers, some are willing to step up to the plate and give it the old elbow grease and make something with literally nothing. Precisely such must be the climate at Trafomatic Audio in Mladenovac, Serbia. Incidentally, Mladenovac is one of 17 municipalities of Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia. I suppose if one were crazy enough to even consider making world-class amplifiers and transformers, you might as well have the factory as close to the capital as possible.
Sasa began his venture as OEM supplier of said hand wound specialty transformers only to find himself intrigued by the old common “what if” scenario. This scenario is in essence the opportunity to not only cash in on what has become a lucrative OEM business, but also deliver an actual product based off these transformer designs. Sticking his hand into the magic tube cookie jar, we find Trafomatic Audio produces simple, elegant single-ended design concepts. The amplifier section is headed up by two integrated models, the Experience One, a 2A3 based 4-watt'er and the subject of this review, the aptly named $3900 Experience Two, a 300B based 8-watt'er. Flanked on each side by a preamplifier, the Experience Line One and a wonderfully lush headphone amp, the Experience Head One (which has become known as the EHO— subject to review @ SonicFlare.com) Sasa's line of components is short and well, just oh so sweet.
Having come off the recent Fi 2A3 amplifier, I opted to inquire about some time with the Experience Two. Considering I never had the opportunity to spend time with a 300B tube amp, I felt that this was my chance for heavenly bliss: many I spoke with consider the sound of a properly designed 300B amplifier to be leaps and bounds beyond anything else. Ok, I get it. Armed with Sophia Electric's 300B's, a vintage RCA 5U4 and a pair of 6SN7's, I eagerly awaited the arrival of this supposed tube wonder. Billed as being “at the top of the audio world”, Sasa uses only hand selected and auditioned parts for the E2. As indicated, the amp maintains 8 watts of direct heated triode output power with no global negative feedback; said 5U4G takes care of the amplifiers rectification while Trafomatic's own double core C transformers, an Alps pot and Mundorf capacitors finish out the design elements.
The fit and finish of the E2 appears classic by design: the chassis which houses all electronics is enveloped by a gorgeous real wood finish; 4 and 8 Ohm speaker taps are available at the back and the amp features 3 line level inputs marked CD, tuner, and aux(iliary). Yes, I know, only three inputs, alas, what else do you really need these days? There is no option for a remote control, though for an amp of this caliber this isn't really a deal breaker for me. Build quality is quite nice if I dare say so: especially considering this is a first generation product. In short, the amp looks killer, what with the big 300B's flanking each output tranny in all their glory. The visual esthetic is supremely pleasing especially at night, when the amp shows off a beautiful dark, Martian-like red glow.
Next to my long term Yamamoto A-08 reference, the E2 appears to go for slightly different looks (both are clad in real wood), yet seemingly similar clientele. Then again, the Yamy is made in good ol' Nippon, whereas E2 is made in Serbia. It's David vs. Goliath. Trusted vs. new. In the end what counts is how Sasa positions Trafomatic Audio: from the first looks of it, I have no doubt that customers will be lining up for Sasa's gear.
Armed with a pair of Zu Definition Mk2's and a pair of Zu Presence, I would soon discover what this amp was really made of. Rated at 101dB efficiency each, it appears as though E2 was almost made for the Zu's. One of my biggest delights with all things Zu is how amplifier friendly these loudspeakers really are: consider that I regularly drive them with my behemoth current monster, the mighty Threshold T400, as well as Luxman's supremely fine and delicious MQ-88, not to mention Brinkmann's magic Vollverstärker rated at 70 pops per channel. I suppose those who still hold to the notion that “all amps sound the same” ought to come over for a listen: you'd be surprised, to say the least.
Alas, while the Zu's are rated at 101dB efficiency, I do tend to shy away from amps that deliver anything less than say 10 - 15 clicks. Yes, they work well with 2 watts and such (heck, I reviewed the iMPAMP rated at 1 click for The Inner Ear some time ago with the old Definition Pro's), but for my music and my taste, you simply need at least a bit of grunt if not to say headroom for music to shine. Hence, while Don Garber's Fi 2A3 is a champ, much like Yamamoto's A-08, I do crave something with a bit more umpf. Along comes E2 in all its 8-watt 300B guts and glory. Some say that nothing comes close to bringing home the bacon like a well designed integrated amp. I say, it all depends. In my case, with Zu's acting as my reference musicians, I tend to concur to a point. So with E2 hooked up with my reference Kubala-Sosna Emotion speaker cables, power cord and interconnects, I went to work.
Folks, hold on tight (this is the part where I put my foot in my mouth, oh, to hell with it): I forthwith pronounce the Trafomatic Audio Experience Two the best, most glorious, midrange and vocal amp that has ever graced my audio system. Woohaa. That's it. Review is done. Ha! Well not quite so fast. Kindly allow me to qualify my observations and accolades. Let's recap: my Threshold T400 is the most neutral amplifier I own. If I want dynamics (118db peaks @ listening chair), power and absolute resolution, definition and such, then that's the amp I use. Kick in the Luxman MQ-88 and world's change. Music becomes more about the emotion and soul; it's my favorite amp to use when I listen to something like say Curtis Mayfield, Seal, or Al Green. If I want a slightly less emotional, yet equally as welcoming warmth and glory, I plug in my Brinkmann reference. ‘Nuff said. That's the whole point of this audio nirvana in my opinion: buy several amps, ‘cause guess what: there ain't no “best” amp out there. What's the best sports car? What's the best wine? Doesn't exist! More is better. More as in more choice—would you consider drinking the same bottle of vino for 5 years? Thanks, but no thanks.
Thus we arrive at E2. Having had something like 20-30 amplifiers come through my system over the years, I have yet to hear one that sounds so darn fine and glorious in the midrange as the E2. Is it colored? You betcha. But boy, do the colors shine! Cueing up something like Dream with Dean / Reprise / Dean Martin LP on my Brinkmann LaGrange, you simply won't believe your eyes err ears! To boot, the amp is dead quiet. I mean dead quiet. No doubt this is a testament to the superb quality of the overall design package, especially the trannies. Note to Sasa: well done! Even better, well musically speaking of course, is the fact that when you crank the volume, music continues to boggy, up to a certain limit of course. Eight pops is eight pops, no matter who makes ‘em. Having said that, let's go back to Mr. Martin for a minute.
"Just Friends", off his superb The Dean Martin TV Show album, is one of my favorite Dino jobs. Good luck finding a clean Reprise copy of this title, no doubt he must have sold gazillion's of them, all played to death on el cheapo all-in-one systems of the day. My copy came courtesy of none other than Mr. Record AKA Robert Pincus's garage sale finds - practically new. Sure, the overall sound quality is so-so, alas there is no amp better suited to host Dean Martin in your living room than the Experience Two. No joke. First, the shear sweetness, fullness and overall supremely natural Dino sounding vocals the E2 presents you with are out of this world. A simple arrangement, this song is all about Dino's masterfully swaying vocals. The recording engineer captured Dino prime center, while the Orchestra fiddles around the background and center stage. Goosebumps, folks, goosebumps. Cut and paste over to any of the aforementioned amps and while yes, the Threshold for example gives you more of the recording's perspective, you quickly realize that it's Experience Two (tea) time.
Next, let's turn to another crooner favorite of mine—Mel Torme's Swingin' On The Moon. Track 5, "How High the Moon", starts off with Mel's distinct voice prime center. Here, the E2 manages to not only bring across Mel's entire vocal range, it extracts him from the rest of the track, as if it were asked to add another layer of dimensionality to his voice. Having said that, don't think that this somehow means that E2 only spotlights vocals; far from it—it just happens to make vocals sound especially true, larger than life, and real. Think of it as 3D Technicolor. Think of it as your favorite singer giving you and your wife a personal audition and cranking up the syrup factor a couple notches. Soundstaging in this particular track is also quite superb, though the Luxman for example manages to extract a slightly more grand and well lit stage overall.
You say crooner, schmooner. How about some classic rock or down tempo chill? Here too, you quickly realize the E2's potential and merit. While it is no Threshold T400, it stands its own and with the added Technicolor and produces some pretty cool effortless images. The Ides Of March's Vehicle for example, is perfect demo material to illustrate this point (speaking of: how come no one ever reissued this classic?! Hello?!). I have the original mint first issue as well as the standard, i.e. non-remastered CD. Let's face it: neither of which are particularly good sounding records, however, musically this is a great album. Problem of course is that when I play this through either the Luxman or Brinkmann (not to mention the ruthless Threshold) the sound is not nearly as musical or engaging as through E2, it's actually quite typical. What a pair of 300B's mounted atop the E2 give you is that sensual, warmly accentuated midrange which makes listening to this record fun and exciting. Yay!
So by now it's clear that this amp rocks when it comes to producing the finest midrange I have heard in my system. There is this quality to the sound of E2 which almost transcends the equipment factor all together. Where normally I would be swapping out amps fairly regularly, E2 has now been in my system for quite some time—exclusively—and I don't miss any of the other fine amps. That tells me that something's cooking. It is only by direct comparison to the other players that difference become apparent and most notable. Then again, isn't that always the case?!
Onward and upward the journey goes. Let's cue up Yello's "Planet Dada - Flamboyant Mix" off their last project, The Eye (speaking of Yello: rumor has it they are close to releasing a new album shortly). This track begs to be played loud and on a dynamic system. Put differently, if you don't play it within those parameters you might as well cue up James Taylor. What you have here is a superbly, expertly crafted sonic landscape using nothing but the best Pro Tools type effects. The track's soundstage is huge, depth is insane, though dynamic swings is where it's at here. This has to be one of the most dynamically resolving tracks I have. Thinking E2 would sort of let me down here, I was pleasantly surprised by the opposite. While of course you end up missing ultimate definition, resolution and slam in the bass department, the Experience Two does serve up this track with its well, 300B style. In this regard E2 reminds me most of the lush Brinkmann, with a tad more color definition and style. The almost three dimensional stereo effects are rendered with the accuracy I am accustomed to, while the insane start/stop pinch effects throughout the tune are carried across with great timing and precision. A sign of the quality double C core trannies and the overall design execution of the Experience Two? I'd say so. Smearing or lack of incisiveness is invisible; I have had far more expensive amps here that would turn this track into jellybeans.
Speaking of the similarly styled Yamamoto. I'd say that E2 has the upper hand in virtually every aspect of the A-08 for my tastes. There's more power, more definition and an even greater amount of textural definition and color. Where the Yammy would run out of steam rather quickly, the Experience Two keeps on kickin' and jamming, particularly evident on tracks that are dynamic or simply beg to be played louder. Sure, the Yammy runs 2 watts per channel, E2 does 8. Finally, at $3900 the Trafomatic amplifier is slightly more expensive also.
So here's the final skinny: considering that there's a plethora of tube amps available, why bother with something from a relative unknown, a newcomer, a possible unproven entity. While I can't possibly answer any of these questions for you personally, I can offer a different perspective on the matter. Red Wine Audio was a nobody just a few short years ago; so was Yamamoto say back in 1995. Point is that as a reviewer it is my job to dig out and find stuff that is off the beaten path: there's plenty of that available already. Do I delight in reviewing a Luxman amplifier? Sure, you betcha. After all, the Luxman has its place in my system. Alas, finding something like Trafomatic Audio is that much more intriguing simply because it is a product that you won't find unless you specifically look for it. I'd say a job well done, especially considering the birthplace of Trafomatic's products and R&D team.
Personally, I am digging the whole 300B sound—it is pretty much what I expected it to be and than some. The only thing left to do is play around with different 300B's… this one's a keeper: perhaps a follow-up at some point. Cheers. Danny Kaey
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