AES SUPER AMP Mk2 $1,800
AES AE-3 LINE LEVEL PREAMPLIFIER Mk2 $1,500
The first thing you need to know about these products is this:
Right. They are proudly made right here in the US of A. North Carolina, to be specific. What other famous tube amp company is headquartered in NC? If you guessed Cary, you’re a winner. What you may not know is that Audio Electronics Supply (AES) is a subsidiary of Cary Audio which is headed by tube genius Dennis Had who designs Cary’s magnificent amplifiers. The great thing is that Dennis also designed both of these much more “budget” products. “I wanted to prove that the US, and Cary in particular, can compete very successfully with products made anywhere else in the world!”, he told me at a recent audio show. Of course, the “anywhere else” mainly means China. These products certainly compete pricewise, but how do they compete in features and sound? We’re about to find out.
We should point out that Dennis’ design prowess also extends to Solid State as well as Hollow State such as the Class D, CAA 1 power amp that won our Great Digital Amp Shootout of 2007. Very impressive.
THE AES SUPER AMP MKII POWER AMPLIFIER
Dennis says the design goal of the Super Amp MKII was to surpass the highly acclaimed original Super Amp which was a lower powered amp that operated in triode mode producing 12 wpc. He definitely reached that goal as the MKII version puts out 40 wpc, this time in Class A push/pull ultralinear mode. In addition, he said he wanted to offer a sensitive input level to allow passive line control of a CD player input. Lastly, he wanted to give the amp a fresh new look.
This amp employs 7 bottles to produce its sound with the main outputs assigned to 4 EL-34’s. The other 3 are 6SN7’s for input and drivers. Since no tubes are now manufactured in the US, Dennis did have to go PRC for these tubes, the label being Ruby Tubes. Rubies have a good reputation among tube guys on various forums around the net. They are said to be reliable with good microphonic rejection. Resistors are 1% metal film and the capacitors are Kimber Caps. Dennis says all his transformers are 200% duty cycle. This seems reasonable as the small footprint (7x9x15”) weighs in at a hefty 42 pounds.
Want to engage in a little tube rolling? The Superamp MKII is a tube roller’s dream! The internal voltage is low enough that you could use a variety of output tubes such as the 6L6, 6V6, 6CA7, KT-66, KT-77, KT-88 or even KT-90’S OR 6550’s. The SuperAmp is like a supertuner car – you can soup it up all you wish. As many of you know, tube rolling, or changing out the standard tubes, is a lot of fun and extremely fascinating. Different tubes, rather brand new or New Old Stock (NOS = vintage tubes made decades ago that test as if new) can radically change the sound and personality of an amp. It can be startling and be a real transformation and revelation.
Speaking of transformation, what if, somewhere down the road, you decide you would rather have a triode amp rather than this ultralinear push/pull. With a little handiness with a soldering iron, you can transform the Super Amp into a triode yourself right at home – for free. The AES comes with separate resistors and detailed instructions with pictures on how to make the conversion in 9 steps. You would also be reducing the output from 40 to 20 watts a side. So why would you want to do that? The manual says this; “If you would like to have an even more lifelike performance…”. There’s your reason. If you own or have acquired a pair of high efficiency speakers, say around 90 db efficiency give or take, you might like the tradeoff. Or, again someday in the future you decide to upgrade to something better like a Cary, you can then do the switch and use the Superamp in triode in a smaller system. We like products that give you lots of choices.
It needs to be pointed out that neither of these components have a tube autobias system. Bias is set at the factory, but if you need or want to retube or check the bias, it has to be done manually. AES supplies everything you need to do the job except a meter. You can pick one of those up at Rat Shack for under $20. Many claim that an autobias system compromises the sound the way any unnecessary circuit would. Dennis’ goal of best pure sound for the best Made in the USA buck dictates the circuit be as uncluttered as possible.
The fit and finish is excellent. Even the paint is not ordinary black, but contains specs of color that sparkle in the light. Automotive quality. Knobs and switches have a quality feel, solid and chunky in operation.
LOOK! UP IN THE SKY….IT’S A BIRD….IT’S A PLANE…
Let’s begin by comparing the overall sound to much more expensive components. Bear in mind that the combined price of the pair is what one might spend on a receiver at Best Buy or aI started out with the Super Amp mated to its matching preamp which we’ll evaluate in a moment. The first thing I noted was, like the Man of Steel himself, the Super Amp is very muscular. It produced a big, meaty sound with surprising bass support and control. In that regard, it gave the impression of a good quality solid state amp, but there was still that unmistakable signature Cary tube sound that has become a benchmark for quality in the industry. Both units were sitting on the carpeted floor initially, but I soon moved them both to my Stillpoints XXL rack where, as usual, things improved greatly. I find that tube electronics benefit from isolation from resonance and vibration even more than solid state – and solid state benefits greatly. If you don’t have a quality equipment rack, you really are depriving your system of its best potential.
The GEMME Tantos were in place at the time and the Cary – oops AES – lit them up like a Christmas tree. The Tanto’s have amazing dynamics and the Super Amp took full advantage on Flim & the BB’s reference track from the Stereomojo test CD. Piano and drums had real weight and body and on this recording they both stretch the limits of the Redbook dynamic range. There was no trace of strain through the bass and midrange. The lively sax was full and brassy with the good reed bite. Upper mids and treble were a bit more mixed with clarity and definition that fell short of what I consider to be reference quality, but at this price this is nothing of which to be ashamed or concerned. Overall performance in this league was very good. I did notice some soft hiss when standing a foot or so away from the speakers.
As I moved through the rest of the test music, the initial impression remained the same. Soundstage was also good in size and scope, very nicely defined layers but a little misty overall. Vocal solos were big, appropriately warm and well separated from the background, but they did not have the last ounce of purity that that is typical of the higher priced spreads.
This AES system recalls a late sixties, early seventies American muscle car – lots of grunt, brawn, excitement and tons of unbridled fun and enjoyment. A car that would smoke any Jag, MG or Alpha, especially in a straight line. Ultimate finesse and refinement are sent to the back seat (but not ignored or completely missing) to maximize horsepower over
the need for silky smoothness. What the pair do not minimize is ultimate musicality. Music flows true and strong like exhaust through Hooker Headers. Jazz, funk, early rock, country, bluegrass,– all the stuff that is not compressed and you like to play loud, are great. even anything pop, rock, electronica, trance or other dance idioms Large scale orchestra such as Mahler, late Beethoven, Tchaikovsy are rendered very well, too. If your tastes are confined mostly to string quartets, or composers such as Palestrina, Bach or Mozart, you might prefer something else. OR – and this is a big “or” – tell the guys at AES you want the amp configured in triode mode. That way you still get 20 watts per channel, which is much more than the typical 9 or 10 you usually get, and the Super Amp will be super with most anything with only moderately efficient speakers. Say in the 88db or above category. If you require balanced circuitry, you will not find it in either of these two.
The AES A3 preamp was removed and replaced by my custom Gary Dodd preamp. Many audiophiles, including this one and our Techincal Editor Danny Richie, think the Dodd is about as good as a preamp gets. It runs on rechargeable batteries and is quieter than Arlington Cemetery at midnight. It also uses a couple of tubes and looks gorgeous in exotic wood doing it. A first ever review is in progress. I don’t want to jump the shark on the Dodd review, but it may be a good idea to visit his site sooner rather than later.
The Dodd costs $3,300 or exactly twice the price of the both AES pieces together.
I was not prepared for the magnitude of difference it made. All of the muscle, bravado and vigor remained, but everything else improved tremendously. It was like the Superamp had escaped from an Ultimate Fighter’s choke hold. To pull a quote from every horror flick ever made, my first thought was, “IT’S ALIVE”!
I won’t waste your time by running through all the audiophile lingo because it is most accurate to say that what improved was “everything”. It was as if Superman had married Wonder Woman and their offspring was the AES Superamp Mk2! There is not a plethora of 40 wpc stereo tube amps out for $1,800, and even less that are made in America. I spent about two weeks listening to the AES combo and about 6 weeks to the Superamp/Dodd. CD, SACD, DVD-A and vinyl all were a blast to which to listen. Mahler sounded as mighty, fluid and detailed as Miles. “Back in Black” soared as high as the Brandenburgs, I am not saying the Superamp compares to a Lamm or those tube amps to be found in the Cary line (Dennis’ mom didn’t raise no dummy). The presentation could not be call luxurious or sensuous and there is still a significant degree of refinement to be had, but within reasonable limits, the Super does everything right and very little wrong.
The AES Super Amp Mk2 lives up to its name. It proved it has the chops to feel at home not only with its AES companion, but more upscale preamps as well. It has a big, bold sound, particularly in the low end where many tube amps suffer. It competes with many solid state amps as far as power and control, but gives you all the advantages of pure tube sound without the solid state artifacts. The AES Super Amp Mk2 proves that "Made in the US" doesn't have to mean high prices and poor value. It has a very high price/performance ratio and is an outstanding value.
For these reasons, the AES Super Amp Mk2hass received our
Congratulations to Dennis Had and all the folks at Cary/AES.
AES AE-3 Mk2 LINE LEVEL PREAMPLIFIER
Like the Super Amp, the construction quality and finish of the $1,500 preamp is excellent. It has a small footprint and weighs relatively very little. The black metalflake paint matches perfectly. The configuration is simple; there is an on/off knob, a “listening level” knob, and another to select one of the three available inputs. Since this is a line level preamp, there is no phono section, but AES makes a matching phono pre, the PH-1, the sells for $900. No headphone jack is provided. Two 6SN7s and one 5AR4 tube provide the Ruby juice. Rather uniquely, there are two sets of outputs in case you want to run a subwoofer. Also, the AE3 Mk2 features a handy remote control. Some competitors do not offer one or charge extra for the convenience. The power cord is also detachable if you'd like to upgrade. Of course, all AE-3’s are born in the USA. Also like the Superamp, the construction is done by hand. The published specs read like this:
Weight: 12 lbs.
Dimensions: 6"H x 9.5" W x 10.5" D
Circuit type: Class A Triode
Gain: Line Stage:15dB
Input Impedance: 100K Ohms
Output Impedance: 560 Ohms
Noise and Hum: -88dB
Frequency Response: 10Hz-200KHz
Tube Compliment: 2-6SN7, 1- 5AR4
It may be important to note that Dennis also uses the 6SN7’s in his state-of-the art , $7,500 SLP-5 preamp. Speaking of Art, Mr. Dudley, one of our Stereophile friends, said that the SLP-5 was the best he’d ever heard. Including his beloved, at the time, Lamm. So clearly, Dennis knows how to build a preamp.
I used the AE-3 in front of 4 different power amps; the Halcro, the Luminace, The Dolan M-1 monoblocks and of course the matching Superamp. What I heard was very consistent, and very consistently good. The preamp has plenty of output to drive most anything, so that makes it very versatile. There was never any hum and only a modicum of faint hiss if you really try to hear it. It was never audible in the listening position. I won’t repeat all the clichés by saying this preamp “punches above it weight” or sounds as good as preamps many times its price. While it may not “punch above its weight”, it certainly does punch. It excels at dynamics and a very enjoyable, lively sound. It is accurate with respect to tone colors and timbre. A clarinet never sounded like an oboe. Detail retrieval, especially ambient/reverb cues and trails, was exemplary in this price category. It allowed the Superamp to show its muscles and never got in the way of any of the other matchups. It did not hamper the extreme speed of the Luminous or the musicality of the Dolan monoblocks.
While macro dynamics, those big peaks and valleys, were right on, some of the micro details were a bit obscured when compared to the big dogs, which is as it should be. Bass was always substantial and solid – surprisingly so. Midrange had the 62N7 goldeness and the high end was not obviously rolled off, but this area seemed to be where Dennis had to compromise something or he’d be competing with the big brother Cary line.
The AES AE-3 Mk2 LINE LEVEL PREAMPLIFIER is an excellent entry level tube preamp. While we think the AES power amp reviewed here is an even better overall value and performance leader, the AE-3 Mk2 is no slouch and with its handy remote control and small footprint makes it a good match for the amp. While we weren't able to try this, we think rolling some better tubes into the preamp will improve its performance. Once again, Dennis Had has shown that American products, when designed and executed properly, can more than compete pricewise and quality wise with any import.