COINCIDENT SPEAKER TECHNOLOGY
FRANKENSTEIN 300B MONOBLOCK AMPLIFIERS
PRICE:$5,499 US per pair
James L. Darby
Coincident is a Canadian company helmed by Israel Blume. He has a rather interesting background that began at 18 when he got a summer job at an audio store. “I completed my undergraduate degree while working there part time for 4 years. I then went on to do a Masters in science with a major in physics. Something then snapped in my psyche and I turned down a dark path. I became a lawyer. All the while, I was constantly involved in audio. I imported some very esoteric components, did system setup , consulting and component modifications. After many years in the manufacturing world (I retired from law shortly after being called to the bar) I decided to devote myself full time to my passion- audio. Coincident Speaker Technology was founded in 1994. Prior to its founding, I had modified some very well known speakers with amazing results. I was astounded at the design flaws and the widespread use of inferior components in many very expensive speakers. With the coaxing of many of my customers and fellow audiophiles, I came to the inescapable conclusion that I could build a far superior product for much less money. The rest, as it is said, is history. Coincident has been thriving and we are now into our fifteenth year.”
When a manufacturer/designer dubs his amplifier the “Frankenstein”, you might be led to think the amp has “monstrous” power output. A quick glance at the Coincident monoblocks will tell anyone who is even casually acquainted with vacuum tubes that this is not the case here. A solitary 300B tube providing the output in a Single Ended Triode design will never be described as “powerful” in relative terms in the amplifier universe. Indeed, each monophonic amplifier churns out a meager 8 watts. Of course, for stereo you need two for a grand total of 16 watts. So, is designer Israel Blume engaging in some extreme hyperbole with his “Frankenstein”, or is there something about these that is truly colossal? Let’s investigate.
Knowing that there are many 300B integrateds as well as monoblocks in the marketplace at prices ranging from around $5,000 upwards to over $20,000 and bearing in mind the $5,500 price of the this pair, I asked Blume if his goal was to make the best sounding amp period or the best sounding at a particular price point. He replied, "The design goal was to create the finest amplifier in the world with no consideration to cost. All component parts from the transformers to capacitors to resistors had to be the best sonically. Only those parts that fit this criteria were employed and countless were measured and tested."
We have reviewed many amplifiers that employ driver tubes from EL34's to KT88's and everything in between. I asked him why he choose the 300B; "The 300B tube was chosen since it, when properly implemented, offers the purest sound with just enough power on the appropriate speakers. The 300B is a directly heated (filament and heater are one and the same) triode tube (consists of 3 parts - the filament or cathode, the grid and the plate or anode). The 300B is simply the most linear amplifying device ever invented."
The Frank was built over a period of years that consisted of trial after trial and combination after combination. He doesn't rely on computer aided design, he relies on his ears. One tube he ended up with is a rather unusual choice. I asked him to explain; "The choice of the input driver tube was far more critical and it is largely here that the Franks are set apart from its competitors. Instead of using the ubiquitous 6SN7 which is cheap and simple, years of research lead me to the 6EM7 super tube. This octal tube has so much current capability it can put out 2 watts as a single ended output tube. Used as a input /driver this enormous current capacity provides so much signal to the 300B that distortion is reduced by a factor of 10 and prevents the 300B from ever being current starved no matter how dynamic the signal. Using the 6EM7 is an expensive proposition( another reason other manufacturers shy away from using it) since the tube requires its own power transformer and power supply."
I asked him what other factors, in his mind, set his amps apart from the competition. He told me that experimentation also lead to the eschewing of coupling caps in favor of an input transformer. "Again", he continued, "a much more costly route to take since a top quality transformer costs in excess of $100 while a good capacitor costs $10. But the sonic result is enhanced purity and transparency. Nothing in the Frankensteins construction or design was deemed unimportant. The layout of the circuit in maintaining very short signal paths, the isolation of the power supply from the sensitive input circuitry, the close proximity of the output transformer to the output speaker binding posts, the ultra expensive use of an exclusive polypropylene capacitor power supply, the high gauge, rigid stainless steel chassis, the special feet in a tri pod arrangement all done to minimize internal and external resonances, the 6N copper .25 " stem on the speaker binding posts, the use of Coincident Extreme internal wire etc, etc. In short, every aspect of the Frankensteins design and construction was analyzed and given the most thorough consideration."
The Coincident Frankenstein is not a new model, but an upgrade of an original that has been around for years and has been constantly improved. I asked Blume what the latest changes are to which he replied, “We have changed the chassis of the Franks from our original design. You have the prototype which represents all subsequent production. The production will be the same as your sample except for the Coincident logo which will be smaller and instead of 4 feet, there will be only 3 with 2 in the back corners and one in the middle front. There will also be ventilation slots in the back of the power transformer cover. The new chassis is constructed of high gauge polished stainless steel which is not only a cosmetic enhancement but it further increases the frame's rigidity. The front face plate is .5" thick brushed aluminum.”
Appearance wise, the “Franks” remind me the Carissa integrated from Art Audio I reviewed last year. Both are swathed in shimmering, highly polished stainless steel that you would have no problem using as a mirror to shave if you so desired. Absolutely gorgeous as long as you avoid fingerprints. Once the amps are set up,there is really no reason to touch the polished surfaces since the only switch is an on/off toggle placed on the rear of each chassis. Speaking of mirrors, Israel built the amps so they are mirror imaged and not exactly the same. You can configure the amps so that the toggles are both on the outside or the inside depending on which is more convenient for you.
Also on the rear panel are speaker taps for either 8 or 16 ohm loads (not 4 ohms though), a single gold RCA for input from a preamp (Israel doesn’t make one - yet*), a standard power cable socket (he DOES make power cables that he sent and were used in this review). A fuse and a 110/220 switch complete the simple back panel.
Each amp is hand built and hard wired in Canada with .999999% pure copper wire as well as the transformers. Blume has built a self biasing circuit into the silver beasts which keeps them running optimally as well as making tube rolling very easy – something I did a lot since I used these amps for our shootout of about a dozen different 300B tubes.
Since I already had an arsenal of 300B’s including Blume’s favorite KR300B, he did not send any with the amps. The KR’s are an extra cost option over the standard Harmonic 300B Gold Grids. Those were not among the sample I had so unfortunately I cannot report on how the Franks sound with their standard 300B bottles.
The speakers used were Coincident’s own Super Victory. Their review was published previously and you can find a link to it at the end of this review. If you are at all interested in pursuing these amps, you should absolutely read that review.
In that review, I said, “As I mentioned earlier, they (the Coincident Super Victory’s) sound good with a wide variety of amps, but everything changed when Blume sent me the newest version of his “Frankenstein” 300B monoblock amps that we will review separately later. But I will say that inserting them in the system triggered a quantum leap in sound quality. The rest of the review is based on the Frankensteins in place.”
In that review amplifiers were used with prices ranging from about $800 to $14,000 – wattage ranged from 3.5 per channel to almost 2,000 per side. Tube and solid state models were included. There were integrateds and separates. The best sound was easily produced by the Super Victory and Frankenstein combo. I used my reference Halcro preamp as well as another very fine Chinese tube preamp called the Doge 8 in front of the Frank’s. For most of the time, the 300B tube of choice was the KR300B. Let me emphasize here that the tubes you use very much change the sound of the Franks. Of course, such is the case for any tube amp, but It seems the Franks, perhaps because of their superb transparency, are even more sensitive to tube choice than the norm.
If you have read many of the reviews here at Stereomojo and my reviews in particular, you will have noticed that we try very hard to avoid phrases like “These are the best I’ve ever heard!” and “These sound better than any other at twice the price!”. Why? The word “best” is very subjective; but what’s more, most components have strong points and weak points and most will do something better than a competitor, but most likely the competitor will perform better in another area. But the main reason we endeavor to avoid such verbiage is because everyone else does it – and to make matters worse, they do it on a monthly basis. Every month magazine covers scream “THE BEST (fill in the blank) EVER!”. So no matter how good the amp or speaker was last month, THIS month the latest one is even better! This kills credibility, as well it should. People don’t need or want hype – they want the truth. They don’t want marketing crap, they want an honest assessment.
Is it then always dishonest to say something is “the best I’ve ever heard”? No, but if it happens in every review or even a large percent of them, the reader should be very leery.
I said all that to say this: the combination of the Coincident Super Victory speakers and the Coincident Frankenstein 300B monoblock amplifiers is not the best I have ever heard. However, among the many systems I have had the pleasure of evaluating in my home, there has never been a system that more accurately portrayed not only the musical detail in a recording, but also the feeling, soul, emotion and spirit of the performance. There are systems that go lower, play louder, render more detail in an academic way and are faster and more dynamic. To put it more succinctly, there are other amps that do better "hi-fi". But no combination has delivered so much in so many areas while capturing the nuanced essence of a performance whether it be vocal or instrumental and across all genres.
We have all heard speeches, lessons or sermons and seen movies or heard music delivered by people with enormous talent and ability that left us cold. We have also heard and seen the same by unheralded persons with lesser flash that still managed to touch us in a deep and meaningful way.
Perhaps a better yet more sickening analogy; most men would love to spend a night alone with, say, Jessica Alba in the nude, right? But lets say dear Jessica had been dead for a day or two before you arrived for the night. Raise your hand if you’re still interested. C’mon. She’s still nude. Still has the same figure, she just lacks a little spirit and feeling. Uh, if you did raise your hand, the black helicopters will be visiting you soon.
Let’s go a step further to describe the sound of the Coincidents; Jessica is alive and kickin’, but she’s encased head to toe in an astronaut’s space suit covered by what an Eskimo might wear in winter at the north pole. She’s still naked and has the same feminine charms, you just can’t get to ‘em. This illustrates “transparency”. What good is a great body or musical performance if it’s obscured and impenetrable?
The Frankenstein’s give you the metaphorical Jessica in her full glory in luscious 3-D without having to use any special glasses.
The complaint against 300B amps has always been that they tend to roll off at the extremes – highs and lows. The story is that the midrange where 90% of the music lies is so glorious that sacrificing the outer edges is worth it. The 300B shootout made it clear that some of that roll off is due to certain tubes, but with the KR’s in place hearing any deterioration at the extremes is not an issue while still generating a midrange that is seductive and intoxicating. The Coincident team does not just sit there and play for you, They lovingly invite you in and encourage you to stay. I have heard many very expensive and exciting systems that sound incredible and impressive – for half and hour or so. Then you find yourself beginning to think of other things you should or could be doing. Soon you are doing them. The Coincident’s are just the opposite. The allow you to tune everything else out and just let the musical experience happen to you. They don’t force themselves on you or assault you with a sound experience. The do not impress you. They let the music do that.
Of course, the other problem with any kind of SET or single – ended triode is the very low power output such as the 8 watts we have here. Many of not most speakers on the market will laugh and kick sand in the face of 8 watts. But not Coincident speakers. The Franks easily drove the 93 db efficient floorstanding towers to levels around 100 db from a listening position some 10 feet away.
As we have disclosed before, speaker efficiency ratings are, for the most part, a cruel joke. First, there is no standardized formula or methodology for even measuring efficiency, so speaker makers can and do use whatever they want. In addition, even the most honest measurements are taken only at 1,000 Hz. That would be fine if we all only listened to music that was all one note. True speaker efficiency is what happens at lower and higher frequencies where impedance readings can look like a serial killer taking a lie detector test.
The smoother the impedance curve, the easier it is on amplifiers to drive them – particularly tube amps which are voltage as opposed to current devices.
The new Classic Records LP reissue of Leopold Stokowski with the Houston Symphony(SDBR 3070-200G -200 Gram Quiex) playing Wagner: Wotan’s Farewell to Brunhilda and The Magic Fire Music from the Opera “Die Walkure”, Chopin: Mazurka in A Minor, Thomas Canning’s Fantasy: on a hymn by Justin Morgan for solo String Quartet No. 1 and 2 with String Orchestra is stunning. This is an original Everest 35mm recording and it is one of the best orchestral recordings I have heard. (Notice I did not say THE best) This Classic version ranks up there with the Shaded Dogs and Mercury’s in my collection and betters many of them in terms of soundstaging.
In fact, it might be a little too good. The imaging of different sections of the orchestra is so vivid it almost sounds as if they were physically separated by sound panels. The experience is very visual as your eyes dart back and forth between the various locations, left to right and front to back. The Thomas Canning pieces are extraordinary in this regard as we hear a string quartet front and center and framed between the speakers. Then we hear a symphony orchestra surrounding them way to the left and right of the speakers and many feet behind them. The height is also amazing as the brass and percussion are well above the strings and woodwinds as they should be. The perspective is not one of being in mid hall, row 6 or even row 1. It sounds as if you are standing at the podium in Stokowski’s shoes. Some may not like that, but if you do, this is a must have recording.
But it is the astonishing timbres and textures of the instruments – particularly Stokowski’s legendary string sound that sets this recording apart. Linda and I listened to the whole recording then just sat there for a few moments after the last groove was spent and the stylus tracked the lead out.
Over a period of a few short weeks, we listened to dozens of recordings in all formats and the Frankensteins never hiccupped or sounded anything less than wonderful. They never make your mind or your ears work to hear everything that’s going on in the recording – and that is rare at any price. Nor do they hit you over the head and shout, “HEY! LISTEN TO THIS!”. It is that ease that sets the Frankensteins apart if – and only if – they are used with appropriate speakers.
I once played a recording session for a trio of guys, but they were not just any guys. They were all brothers. And not just brothers, two of them were identical twins. I have never heard such perfect harmony before or since. The synergy between the Coincident family of the Frankenstein amps and the Super Victory speaker reminded me of that experience.
Criticisms? From an audio point of view, there really are none when used as described. If you have small children or curious pets, there are no tube cages that guard the tubes which get very hot. The only other negative I have is the skin of plastic that covers the polished surfaces when it arrives from the factory. It is a pain to remove. The panels are must be assembled with the plastic coating attached because when you go to peel it off the edges are caught under adjacent panels leaving torn edges of plastic sticking out. I had to use an Exacto knife to trim the residue off. I actually left the plastic casing on the whole time until I went to do the photography. An owner could do leave it on if he wished I suppose. It does dull the mirror finish a little but finger prints are less an issue. Note: Israel tells us that is no longer the case with the plastic - it was only that way for the prototype. Production models have the plastic coating trimmed for easy removal.
Like any low-powered amplifiers, these are not for everybody. If you already have speakers with low efficiency that you like or, as we have shown you, speakers with high published efficiency but a difficult impedance load, you are probably not going to want to sell them and buy new amplifiers and speakers. Room size is also a consideration, but room "A" here is over 3,000 square feet. It all depends on the speakers. However, if you already have efficient speakers and want to see if they can sound even better, the Coincident Frankensteins are a must hear. You can pay a lot more (Wavac, Cary, Manley to name a few) or a little less (Audiospace or other Chinese vendors). Of course, there are many integrated amps that feature 300B tubes as well. I have lived with a few including a $4,000 model in for review right now and very fine Jolida. None have approached what the Franks do.While the Franks do not have a large footprint compared to most monoblocks, they are two chassis and they do take up room. Make sure you have a space that has good air circulation. As mentioned, people with small kids or curious pets should be careful off the unprotected tubes.
There is something special about the Coincident combo. They do offer a $1,000 discount if you buy the amps with a pair of their speakers.
There are many people who have never had the opportunity to hear what a good SET amp with well matched speakers can sound like. The old anchilles heel of rolled off response has been effectively eliminated for the most part and there are full range speakers (not single horn) that are very SET friendly. If you love music, particularly calssical and jazz, you should really try to hear a good SET setup...like this.
COINCIDENT SUPER VICTORY SPEAKER REVIEW
STOKOWSKI LP REVIEW
COINCIDENT SPEAKER TECHNOLOGY SITE
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