EV55SE Integrated Amplifier
as reviewed by Gary Lea
The name EKCO is not widely known in the US, at least with regards to audiophile amplifiers and certainly is not on the tips of audiophile tongues. At least not yet! Although the company has been around for some time its presence has been somewhat low key to say the least in recent memory. That could change very soon especially under the marketing prowess of Charlie Harrison of Ayon Audio USA who is distributing the line.
The name EKCO was derived from its founder's name: Eric Kirkham Cole, who began hand-making valve radios in the 1920s, formed a private company which catered to large scale eliminator production in 1926, and eventually ventured into valve manufacturing in 1938. EKCO valve radios are well-known for their stunning Bakelite cabinets and for their Noise Suppressor Control feature which limits the static noise received from weak signal transmissions; features which earned the brand the title of being the only tuner reference for English radio and was granted the chance to be displayed at the England Museum.
The brand lay dormant for some time. Enter IAG. IAG holds a number of very well known brands such as Wharfdale, Quad, Audiolab and Luxman just to name a few. IAG, with its strong interest in the analogue hi fi business particularly in audiophile tube electronic product development, acquired the EKCO brand in 2009 and is now proud to announce the release of its first vintage tube electronics product, the EKCO EV55SE Valve Integrated Amplifier.
As best stated by EKCO's own website the amplifier is "engineered to create a level of performance that goes beyond the mere technicalities of accuracy, the EKCO EV55SE Valve Integrated Amplifier offers not just superior realism in sound reproduction but a height of quality in its craftsmanship as well. Its Class A Push-Pull amplifier design offers a choice between 28Watts RMS per channel at Triode mode and 55Watts RMS per channel at Ultra-linear mode. It comes with Five (5) RCA Inputs and A/B option selective loudspeaker outputs into 8 Ohms, controlled via an included remote control. Its chassis is made of protective grilles finished with high-temp black paint protect the valve tubes while the sides of the chassis are fitted with matched pairs of handcrafted solid wood panels ) in piano gloss finish adding to the classy and elegant feel of the valve amplifier."
The EV55SE Valve Integrated amplifier is equipped with 4 x KT88 output tubes, 4 x 12AU7, 1 x 12AX7 and offers a frequency response of 20Hz to30kHz +/- 1db. THD < 1% at 1kHz in both modes. Not earth shattering numbers by any stretch but as we all know it is how you deliver those numbers that count.
The integrated amp is a very eloquent and compact unit. The unit measures approximately 18.5" deep by 14.5 inches wide and 9.7 inches tall. It weighs in at 62lbs give or take a gram or two and fits very nicely in the 3 shelf Bassocontinuo rack that I am using at the moment. (More about that in another article)
Although this a Brit design and the company has a definitive Brit history the side panels of Louro Preto (A Brazilian wood similar to Rosewood) are an added bit of spice in that traditional Italian design look. The EV55E is an eloquently executed piece of gear and the WAF score was rather high with Paula. (Must be the wood and relatively small foot print.) My hopes were high that it would sound every bit as good as it looks.
While it is no light weight it was relatively easy to unpack and setup on my own, bad back and all. The fact that it felt reasonably light and easy to maneuver was no doubt due, in part to having just crated and shipped four 300lb monster mono-blocks. Once set up I let it run in for about a week before doing any real listening. I have to say that even running it in the background throughout the day as I worked in my office it was quite clear early on that this was going to be a very entertaining piece.
I generally don't like to make comparisons between items I review but inevitably it seems to go in that direction when you have two items so close together in sound quality. When one unit represents a significant value in relation to the other it just seemed to come to that inevitable comparison. So when I sat down to begin my serious listening to this unit I was immediately struck by the similarities to the Cary Audio SLI 80 integrated that I reviewed a number of years ago. Just look at the specs on the Cary unit:
Not to wax on about the Cary unit I think it is important to say that I was so enamored of the Cary unit that I entertained buying it. After all I cannot think of a tubed Cary unit I have ever heard that I did not thoroughly enjoy. While the EV55SE has a bit less power it still maintains similar architecture and sound. As a matter of fact it could go toe to toe with Cary unit and come out on top if you weigh in cost as a significant buying factor. This is a class amp and it sounds every bit as good as it looks.
Running the amp through Von Schweikert VSR 4 MKIII speakers, XLO Signature cables along with a Grant Fidelity CD1000 and Consonnance Turntable fitted with a Koetsu cartridge combination the EV55SE dished out some significant SPLs and did it with great composure. It was significant to hear the EV55SE drive the same system that my 200 watt per channel Jolidas drives every day. After a lot of going back and forth between triode and push pull modes I found that I definitely preferred the Triode configuration for most of the time I have had. That being said it is nice to have the flexibility to change up to the push pull configuration if you want to really thump on some vicious rock or orchestral pieces and flipping a switch and doubling the output will give most audiophiles what they need especially if the room is of moderate size and space is an issue. If I were an apartment dweller or had a much smaller room I could only think of a few amps that would make my list and the EV55SE would be right there at the top.( It might be said that mating this level of amplifier with the accompanying gear would endeavor to make any piece of gear sound relatively good. I would tend to disagree. If anything it may well exaggerate its weakness.)
KT88 driven amps have always been able to provide satisfying bass but they are also quite stellar at rendering vocals in that oh so important midrange. Such is the case with the EV55SE. Eva Cassidy is still the best reference point for vocals in my opinion and the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is the best Eva Cassidy song for evaluating this aspect of a piece of audio equipment. (Yes it is a strong opinion but this is still America) The dynamic range in her voice along with the absolute perfect pitch can really tell you a lot about the quality of reproduction. On this song I got the requisite goose bumps as the song progressed and had the obligatory tear in the eye at the end. (Go ahead and tell me I have to give up my man card for the display of emotion. Anyone who hears this and does not feel the same wave of emotion needs a heart check. Chances are you are missing that vital organ.) What stood out just as much as the fine delivery of pitch and emotion was the detail. There was the slight breathiness in places and the actual feel of a human being singing to you and not so much a recording of a human being. The rendering of human voice provided that definitive chill factor. David Crosby's "Columbus" came across with that same detail in the angelic delicacy to his voice. (Forever thanks to Ty Lashbrook for tuning me on to that cut.)
I have owned and reviewed a number of KT88 driven amps and if I ever felt there was a noticeable weakness in any of them it was in the high end. Many of them seemed to lack that real crispness, that absolute sparkle like the finest crystal. Call it the finite element of resolution in ultimate detail. Not so with the EKCO. Of all the KT88 amps I have listened to this one hands down had the best wow factor in the high end. Sizzle to cymbals, the sound of a breaking glass that had me going to the kitchen to see what glass hit the floor. (I was out of the room and was afraid it was my favorite tequila glass, oh the humanity that would have produced.) Realism that was able to approach my Jolida Music Envoys. No edge. No grain just smooth and well articulated high frequencies. This is not to say it was perfect or up there with the best amps around in this particular facet but it was definitely at the top of this TYPE of amplifier. As I get older I am more sensitive to these extremes in frequency range and the EKCO delivered things so clear and present that it actually caught me out a bit.
On orchestral numbers such as Bond's interpretation of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" the dynamic punch and bottom end slam were all there as I have come to expect out of a few KT88s working in harmony. Not to say it was thundering or slab splitting. It brought enough to the party to satisfy my ear when listening to these types of tracks. Nothing will ever really replace power and headroom for generating earth shattering bass but then again one does not always need that nor is it always a great thing. In context Keb Mo's "More Than One Way Home" features some pretty thumping but tuneful bass. The EV55SE rendered the cut so convincingly I did not once think to wish that the bass was just a tad bit stronger. It delivered enough of it to leave me feeling that all of what I needed to hear was there.
In essence the EKCO is a very well balanced amplifier in a compact and easy to deal with size. Music is not about having the best and most shuddering bass, for that get a Japanese import car and add 2000 watts of amplification to 10 trunk mounted 12 inch woofers. It is not about having highs that will shatter glass or sending every dog in the neighborhood covering its ears and howling in pain from the output of your unobtanium, ectoplamsmic uber tweeter. Nor is it about having perfect midrange at the expense of everything else. It is ultimately about providing a good balance that provides a satisfying overall musical experience. When faced with a relatively low price point and a sophisticated buying public who demand a great deal from their equipment then you have a real hat trick to pull off. This is where the EKCO really shines.
The really great news about the EKCO EV55SE is that the compromise is in such small degrees as to be a non issue in the right setup. I actually set this amp up in another room coupled with some Kimber Kable Monocle XLs and Hero cables, my Nottingham turntable, Cary DVD 6 as a CD source and a pair of Odeon monitors and had a rousing time with that particular set up. At one point contemplated adding the Jolidas to that system to drive the VSR4MKIII's woofer cabinet as a subwoofer. Talk about a smoking good time! That would have been great but, and this is a kind of bedonkadonk kind of butt, there is no pre out. This was the only big thing I could complain about. A pre-out would have added just that last bit of flexibility to make it perfect.
The EV55SE provided many hours of listening pleasure at moderate volumes (enough to irritate Paula on occasion) and delivered music that was smooth, contained a good deal of realism and over time left me feeling that if one is to compromise at all this is a very good way to go indeed. Many people actually prefer an integrated amp. Less cost with regards to cabling, the sharing of power sources etc. make for a more cohesive sound and a better overall solution in some folks minds. I am a mono-block guy by and large, but I have also always had an integrated on hand for smaller room and secondary setup situations. Unless you are out to shift tectonic plates on major fault lines the EKCO EV55SE will provide you with endless hours of listening satisfaction and will only get better with time. Very highly recommended if you are in the hunt for a top flight integrated! Gary Lea