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Positive Feedback ISSUE 64
Sophia Electric 300B
Vacuum Tube Tasting: Royal Princess™ 300B, Princess™
Carbon Plate 300B, Princess™ Mesh Plate 300B, and
Globe Mesh Plate 300B
Sue at Sophia Electric mentioned to me that she thought the Princess™ Carbon Plate 300B Vacuum Tube would be a really nice complement to the Dual Concentric™ drivers in my Tannoy Westminster Royal Special Edition loudspeakers, and asked if I would like to borrow a pair to listen to. Sue definitely piqued my interest, so of course I said, "Yes!"
It also turned out that with the arrival of the Princess™ Carbon Plate 300B I now had four different pairs of Sophia Electric 300B tubes here to listen to. I had the pair of Princess™ 300B Mesh Plate Tubes that came stock in the Sophia Electric 91-01 300B mono amplifiers that I purchased from Sue and Richard after I reviewed them for Positive Feedback back in Issue 53.
Then in Issue 57 I had a chance to review the ultra-premium Sophia Electric Royal Princess™ 300B Tubes that were so ridiculously good in my system that they nearly caused me to go into a swoon! Many thanks to Richard and Sue for being so kind as to let me keep those in my Sophia Electric 91-01 amplifiers to use as a long-term 300B reference of what is possible in a 300B vacuum tube.
When Don Garber's Fi 300B mono amplifiers arrived, to my delight I found that Don had shipped them with the Sophia Electric 300B Globe Mesh Plate Tubes. As some of you will know from my previous articles on Fi electronics, Don holds the Sophia Electric vacuum tubes in very high regard, and it's easy to see why: they're beautifully constructed, they're reliable, and they sound great.
Since I now had four different sets of Sophia Electric 300B tubes here, I thought it would make for a nice article if I wrote up a comparison for Positive Feedback Online that could serve as a reference of sorts for those wanting some new Sophia Electric 300B tubes for their amplifiers. I figured that descriptions of their sound & music playing ability would help you pick out the pair of 300B tubes that would best complement the sonic attributes of your system and your tastes when the time came for new tubes.
For an overview of the history and manufacturing of Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tubes I suggest you go back and reread the Royal Princess™ 300B review in Issue 57 as it will complement this article. (I added in a little of the description about each of the 300B tubes from that article to give you a little more background about each of the tubes for this little 'tube tasting', but you'll still want to go back for a re-read to get the full picture.)
Sophia Electric Globe Mesh-Plate 300B ($285 - $350 per matched pair)
Richard told me "In the beginning was our globe mesh-plate 300B. I had considered both the ST-shaped glass envelope and the globe-style envelope, but I decided on a unique globe-style envelope for the 300B mesh-plate design because it was so distinctive and beautiful. Word of our new globe-style mesh-plate 300B vacuum tube spread like wildfire, and by June of 2001 the globe mesh-plate 300B was recognized by nearly everyone as something special, with one reviewer even saying it was not only better sounding than other 300B tubes being offered at the time, but even better sounding than the original Western Electric 300B vacuum tube – you can imagine how excited we were!'"
Sophia Electric Princess Mesh-Plate 300B ($375 - $475 USD per matched pair)
"Even though we were getting great results from the new globe mesh-plate 300B, I felt that there was still room for improvement. We spent another two years doing research and development to see if we could improve the design, and the result was the Princess Mesh-Plate 300B. With the Princess Mesh-Plate 300B we switched to a new big ST-shaped glass envelope and a new mesh-plate design that offered superior resolution, lower distortion, and a more liquid presentation than that of our earlier globe-shape mesh-plate tubes. The new Princess Mesh-Plate 300B tubes were also an instant hit, and the feedback we got was that their sound was easily better than the vintage Western Electric 300B, the benchmark for all 300B designs. Many of the Western Electric 300B users in North America switched over to the Princess 300B mesh-plate tubes, but there were still a few that claimed the Western Electric had more midrange magic."
Sophia Electric Princess™ Carbon Plate 300B ($525 - $600 USD per matched pair)
"In response to their feedback we continued doing R&D on the design to see if we could get more of that mid-range magic that the Western Electric 300B was famous for, while maintaining or improving the performance in those areas where we had already exceeded the Western Electric's performance. In 2005, we introduced the Princess Carbon-Plate 300B, a tube that has more mid range magic, and sounded more like the vintage mid-range of the Western Electric than the reissue Western Electric 300B did. The new carbon-plate design also had the benefit of more power dissipation, which means it would have an even longer operational life. This is significant because the new SE Carbon-Plate is still a 300B in the tradition of the Western Electric 300B format, making it fully interchangeable in circuits designed around the 1950's vintage Western Electric 300B, but with the added benefit of an extra 10% in higher current handling and plate voltage through improvements in the materials that are available today. Both the Mesh- & Carbon-Plate 300B tubes have proved to be extremely popular with enthusiasts, and many of Sophia Electric's clients have bought one pair of each so they can enjoy their different sonic characters."
Sophia Electric Royal Princess 300B ($1200 USD per matched pair)
"We have been working on refining the design since 2005, and in January 2011 we introduced the Royal Princess 300B which is our finest design to date. From the outside the Royal Princess 300B looks much like the Carbon-Plate 300B, however, the sound is dramatically different. We have combined the best characteristics of the mesh-plate and the carbon-plate designs. The Royal Princess 300B has even more mid-range magic than the Carbon-Plate Princess 300B, combined with the airy top and fine detail resolution of the Mesh-Plate Princess 300B, along with a strong vintage Western Electric-like mid-range sonic flavor. I think the Royal Princess as a new production vacuum tube not only has the vintage mid-range magic of the original Western Electric, but also betters it in the highs and lows. I think with the Royal Princess 300B tubes we have produced are the finest 300B vacuum tubes that have ever been made."
All of the Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tubes have a very solid and well-made feel to them. The ST-style glass envelope of the Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tubes seems both bigger and thicker than the 1/16th-inch thickness soda-lime glass ST-19 shaped bulbs of yore, giving the Sophias a decidedly more robust feel. In case you don't know, 300B tubes do not have a 'safety key' center pin on the tube to prevent incorrect installation. Instead they rely upon using two larger pins and two slightly smaller pins for proper orientation in the tube socket. Sophia customers will be pleased to note that the pins on the 'large' side of the Sophia 300B tubes are a bit oversized, making them too large to insert incorrectly into the tube socket holes. This is a nice touch, and it prevents possible damage to the amplifier and tubes that could result from incorrectly plugging in the tubes. Looking at the heavy-duty glass envelope, the nicely made ceramic bases, the design of the oversized large pins, the build of the internal structure of the tube, all suggests a lot of good design choices and a very high level of build quality.
To gather listening impressions for this 300B "tube tasting" event I used an EMT TSD-15 phono cartridge mounted on a VPI Classic turntable, a New Valve Order SPA-II phono stage, a Leben RS-100 U line preamplifier, Sophia Electric 91-01 or Fi 300B mono amplifiers, and Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers. Interconnects and speaker cables were Sablon Audio Panatela (except for the preamp to power amp connection, which were either Audioquest Indigo or Acoustic Revive Single Core). Power cords were a mixture of Sablon Audio and Acoustic Revive. I also use quite a number of the very effective Acoustic Revive accessories to optimize performance of the system in my primary listening room (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
As a little preamble to my listening impressions, let me try to describe for you what I'm trying to do here as I articulate the musical & sonic attributes of these four 300B vacuum tubes by Sophia Electric. First of all, when I write a review I try my best to give you the most complete picture of performance for a given item within the context of my listening room, associated equipment, and personal tastes that I can.
I want to give you a feel for how well each of these four pairs of 300B vacuum tubes performs on audiophile-style non-musical sonic attributes like transparency, resolution, imaging, soundstage, and soundspace. I also want to be able to inform you how well they perform on those qualities that make up the fabric of the recorded music itself; like the textures, tone colors, and tones & overtones that contribute to timbre; or those basic attributes of music like melody, harmony, dynamics, loudness, rhythm, and tempo.
All Hi-Fi equipment performs at varying degrees of competence across all those attributes, and while I do write about many of those attributes separately to inform you, in the end it is all about how well all of those factors work together to deliver an engaging musical performance from your Hi-Fi that really matters.
To gather listening impressions I listened to quite a number of different LPs to get an overall impression of how well each of these 300Bs performs both sonically and musically. I found that all four pairs of these Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tubes were musically impressive in their own right, and I enjoyed listening to music through my system with all of them. There's not a clunker in the bunch, and you certainly cannot go wrong with any of these 300Bs in your system. I do think, however, that each pair of these 300Bs will shine in a different system context based on their individual sonic traits.
Sophia Electric Royal Princess 300B
As I said above, there isn't a clunker in the bunch, but there is a standout: The Sophia Electric Royal Princess™ 300B is in a class by itself in this group of 300Bs, as it simply performs at a higher level than the Princess™ Carbon Plate 300B, the Princess™ Mesh Plate 300B, or the Globe Mesh Plate 300B. The Royal Princess™ 300B is better in every sonic category like transparency, resolution, imaging, soundstage, and soundspace; as well as with nearly every musical attribute like timbre, melody, harmony, dynamics, loudness, rhythm, beat, and tempo. Most importantly, the Royal Princess™ 300B offers the listener a consistently more engaging musical experience as a result. The respect I have for the Royal Princess™ 300B has only been heightened by my comparative listening sessions with the other Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tubes—it truly is something special.
Sophia Electric Princess™ Carbon Plate 300B
On the Norah Jones LP Come Away With Me the Princess Carbon Plate 300B sounded warm, rich, and musically compelling. On the Counting Crows LP August And Everything After the Princess Carbon Plate 300B quickly established itself as my favorite rock & roll 300B vacuum tube of the bunch, even bettering the Royal Princess (though not by much) in the way it portrayed the driving force of the beat. Generally on rock & roll, I found the performance to be best with the Princess Carbon Plate 300B, followed by the Royal Princess 300B, followed by the Princess Mesh Plate 300B, followed by the Globe Mesh Plate 300B.
Compared to the Royal Princess 300B the Princess Carbon Plate 300B is a little more reserved and distant sounding, is less detailed, but does have a rich, dark, musically pleasing sound that I think a lot of people will enjoy, particularly those with systems that have a brighter presentation that they'd like to infuse with a little more warmth and naturalness. The Princess Carbon Plate 300B is the darkest of this quartet of 300Bs, followed by the Royal Princess 300B, followed by the Globe Mesh Plate 300B, with the Princess Mesh Plate 300B being the brightest of the bunch. In the articulation of vocals I found the Princess Carbon Plate 300B to be bested only by the Royal Princess 300B, with the Princess Mesh Plate 300B and Globe Mesh Plate 300B being slightly less articulate on vocals (and in that order).
Sophia Electric Princess Mesh-Plate 300B
As noted above, the Princess Mesh Plate 300B is the brightest of these four 300B tubes, but not pejoratively so. The Princess Mesh Plate 300B would be a great choice for those systems that are a bit dark & laid back, and are in need of the extra sparkle & life that the Princess Mesh Plate 300B can bring to them. The Princess Mesh Plate 300B sounded superb on Muddy Waters and The Rolling Stones LP Live At The Checkerboard Lounge 1981, giving the music a vibrancy and excitement that really complemented it. "That Princess Mesh Plate 300B is a nice blues tube" my listening notes said, and on blues it was only bested by the Royal Princess 300B.
As you might guess from my earlier comments, the Princess Mesh Plate 300B is second only to the Royal Princess 300B in terms of transparency, resolution, imaging, soundstage, and soundspace (followed by the Globe Mesh Plate 300B and Princess Carbon Plate 300B, respectively). The Princess Mesh Plate 300B was second only to the Royal Princess 300B in the way it reproduced the musical fabric of recordings; those textures, tone colors, and tones & overtones that contribute to timbre; and the basic attributes of music like melody, harmony, dynamics, loudness, rhythm, and tempo.
Sophia Electric Globe Mesh-Plate 300B
The Globe Mesh Plate 300B sounded a little brighter and more transparent than the Princess Carbon Plate 300B, which was most noticeable on classical music like the Speakers Corner Decca reissue of Ernest Ansermet conducting the L'Orchestre De La Suisse Romande performing The Tale of Tsar Saltan/May Night/Russian Easter Festival. However, the Globe Mesh Plate 300B also has a lot of the good qualities of the Princess Carbon Plate 300B, but it is a little more detailed, while still sounding warm, rich, and as musically compelling as the Princess Carbon Plate 300B. The Globe Mesh Plate 300B was tonally gorgeous, with deep rich tone color, and with believable resolution of textures and overtones. In fact, the Globe Mesh Plate 300B was very nearly the equal of the Princess Mesh Plate 300B in the way it reproduced the musical fabric of recordings, giving up a little ground only in the reproduction of melody, rhythm, and tempo.
All Together Now!
In terms of reproducing the non-musical sonic attributes of recordings like transparency, resolution, imaging, soundstage, and soundspace, the performance of these four pairs of 300B vacuum tubes was relatively clear-cut: the Royal princess was in a class of its own across all the sonic attributes, the Princess Mesh Plate 300B came in second, and the Globe Mesh Plate 300B came in third by a nose over the Princess Carbon Plate 300B.
In terms of reproducing the musical fabric of recordings like timbre, melody, harmony, dynamics, loudness, rhythm, and tempo, the performance was a little more complex related to which set of 300B tubes did what best, but here's what I heard: When it comes to timbre I thought the Royal Princess 300B was best, followed by the Globe Mesh Plate 300B, followed by the Princess Carbon Plate 300B, and finally the Princess Mesh Plate 300B.
In terms of reproducing an engaging melody the Royal Princess 300B again came out on top, followed by the Princess Mesh Plate 300B, followed by the Princess Carbon Plate 300B, followed by the Globe Mesh Plate 300B. In terms of rhythm and tempo prowess the Royal Princess 300B was best, followed by the Princess Mesh Plate 300B, with Princess Carbon Plate 300B and Globe Mesh Plate 300B coming in with a tie.
In terms of portraying harmonies the Royal Princess 300B was on top, followed by the Globe Mesh Plate 300B in a tie with the Princess Carbon Plate 300B, followed by the Princess Mesh Plate 300B. Top performance on dynamics goes to the Royal Princess 300B, with its remarkable performance from micro-dynamic nuances all the way up to macro-dynamics and everything in between. On dynamics, the Princess Mesh Plate 300B came in second, with the Globe Mesh Plate 300B and Princess Carbon Plate 300B coming in with a tie in third. Notably, the Princess Mesh Plate 300B excels in micro-dynamics, and the Globe Mesh Plate 300B in macro-dynamics.
In terms of being able to play at musically natural levels (loudness), again the Royal Princess takes home top honors because of its ability to be convincingly life-like and strain free when playing rock & roll or blues at live like (really loud) levels, or when playing at the softer levels of classical or jazz, and everything in between. The Princess Carbon Plate 300B was second only to the Royal Princess 300B with respect to playing at natural live-like levels, followed by the Globe Mesh Plate 300B, and finally the Princess Mesh Plate 300B (which excels over the Princess Carbon Plate 300B and Globe Mesh Plate 300B at the lower than natural levels that some listeners prefer).
Summary & Conclusions
To get straight to the punch line, the Royal Princess™ costs twice as much at $1200 USD per matched pair as the next most expensive Princess™ Carbon Plate 300B at $600 USD per matched pair, and I think they're worth it as long as you've got the cash to spare. The superior sonic & musical attributes of the Royal Princess™ combine to deliver breathtaking musical realism from recorded performances, with instruments displaying rich and detailed timbral textures, deeply infused tonal colors, and an overall sense of drama that kept me on the edge of my seat album after album. If you don't mind the steep price tag, you can't go wrong with the Royal Princess™, and I can't imagine you'd ever be sorry with their performance.
But what if you don't want to spend $1200 USD on a pair of 300B vacuum tubes? In my reference system my second favorite Sophia Electric 300B vacuum tube was also the least expensive—the Globe Mesh Plate ($285-$350 USD per matched pair). Now I know why Don Garber ships this tube with his artisan Fi 300B mono amplifiers—it's a great sounding tube that doesn't break the bank.
If you're trying add a little life & sparkle to a laid-back sounding system, the Sophia Electric Princess Mesh Plate 300B ($375 - $475 USD per matched pair) is where you should look first. If you're trying to add a more natural presentation to a bright or brash sounding system the Sophia Electric Princess™ Carbon Plate 300B ($525 - $600 USD per matched pair) is hard to beat.
I started out calling this article an aural "300B tube tasting" in an allusion to wine tasting—which like audio and fine music is another great way to spend some quality time—so I guess I'd better wrap up our time of 'tube tasting' by giving you an analogy as to what kind of wines these 300B tubes could represent.
During a stop in the wine capital, Beaune, of the Burgundy region of France, I had a fantastic bottle of Grand Cru Pinot Noir that was as rare and spendy as it was delicious. Winemakers sometimes call Pinot Noir grape "an iron fist wrapped in a silk glove" because the wines it creates are capable of amazing power, finesse, and fragrance. On my aural palate I consider the Sophia Electric Royal Princess™ 300B to be the equivalent of that fine Grand Cru Pinot Noir, with its transparent ruby-red color and hints of strawberry & red cherry aromas that nearly jump out of the glass to excite your senses. Darkly transparent and full of life & color, the Royal Princess 300B is also an exotic and expensive treat, but one that will satisfy for far longer than my bottle of Grand Cru did, which seemed to be gone in a moment!
Another treat is a fine Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bordeaux region of France, with that king of noble grape varieties giving its wine a deep dark red tint, a rich and gripping flavor, with aromas of black currants. The Sophia Electric Princess™ Carbon Plate 300B reminds me of a fine bottle of aural Cabernet Sauvignon that you get for its rich & gripping flavor to enjoy with your rock & roll steak hot off the grill, for which it will be a particularly good flavor match.
While traveling in France a while back I spent some time in the Champagne caves of Reims. The Sophia Electric Princess Mesh Plate 300B reminds me of those fine Champagnes of France, transparent and lightly golden, but full full of life, sparkle, and bubbling with romance. Like Champagne made mostly of Chardonnay, it has a slightly leaner structure, lighter body, and more neutral presence on the aural palate that the other Sophia Electric 300B offerings, and it will bring the slumbering object of your desires to bubbling life as well.
The Sophia Electric Globe Mesh Plate 300B reminds me of a fine oaked California Chardonnay, with a transparent golden coloring, and with creamy & buttery notes of flavor. Delicious! Inexpensive for a great wine, but beautiful on the palate, I always keep a bottle of fine oaked Chardonnay handy!
In my wine collection I keep bottles of Champagnes, Pinot Noirs, Merlots, Cabernets Sauvignons, Chardonnays, and whatever else might catch my fancy, handy for wine & food pairings, or just for wine tasting fun. It is easy for me to see why so many of Richard's & Sue's Sophia Electric customers also buy a set of each of their 300B vacuum tube offerings for that same reason, as it's a lot of fun to have a number of different 300B tubes on hand for a little aural 'tube tasting'.
Sophia Electric web site: www.sophiaelectric.com