Eastern Electric M88 Tube Integrated Amp
First, many thinks to Bill O'Connell of Morningstar Audio, the sole distributor of Eastern Electric in North America. Eastern Electric is sold directly and not through a dealer network, saving you the additional markup.
We audiophiles often let ourselves fall into camps. For example: single driver camp, vinyl camp, electrostatic camp, tube amp camp, etc. Speaking personally, I’ve never got into tubes or vinyl enough to more than scratch the surface. The reason being not that I think they’re inferior, but simply because you can’t know everything about everything, and even more so you can’t afford everything. So I and many other audiophiles narrow our scopes into areas with which we’re familiar because doing so increases our chances of making wise purchasing decisions.
Recently James sent me a pair of KT88 based tube integrated amps, the Ekco EV55SE which I recently reviewed, and the subject of this review the new Eastern Electric M88. I’ve owned a few mid-range tube amps in the past such as a Cayin A-70t (also KT88 based), but bought them more out of curiosity than any other motivation. My reference system has been firmly in the solid state camp, but change can be good.
Eastern Electric has become a household name amongst in-the-loop audiophiles for their excellent MiniMax DAC, which I happen to own and have been extremely happy with. EE has also made waves with their amplification products over the years with such products as the MiniMax tube integrated and the unique M156 monoblocks, which Stereomojo previously reviewed – see link at bottom of page.
The M88 is Eastern Electric’s first KT88 amplifier, a tube that has established a reputation for balanced full range reproduction with just enough of the tube midrange ‘liquidity’. There’s also a pair of 12AX7s and 3 12AU7s, one of which is dedicated for creating the balanced input needed by the XLR. Not so incidentally, that means that is a full and authentic balanced amp, not just a pair of XLR adapters we see in many amps – big and expensive difference!
The connection and controls compliment is to be expected with some notable exceptions. There’s 4, 8, and 16 ohm taps (rather rare even for pricey gear that will let you get the best sound from your speakers), and 3 RCA inputs, and the afore-mentioned balanced XLR inputs. Also good but not particularly rare is the Pre In which bypasses the pre-amp section of the integrated and allows the amp to function as a stand-alone amplifier. Also of note is the slick tube biasing circuit, which makes the task of biasing simple for anyone. Turn the knob to position 1 through 4 corresponding to each KT88, and adjust the pot until the built-in meter reads as it should … simple. And you don’t need to go buy a circuit tester. Again indicative of excellent design and a priority of superior sound since auto-biasing circuits tend to degrade sound quality a bit.
Overall it’s an attractive package, with a slightly curved, beautifully milled aluminum front panel and titanium grey automotive (not just cheap) paint over the remainder of the chassis. The blue lighting is also just enough to see in room, but not so bright to be distracting. I did wish that the tubes could be visible from the seating position, but EE went for a more modern appearance. More than one person has been over to hear this amp and didn’t realize it was tube until they got up close for further inspection.
The EE and Ekco both arrived for evaluation at the same time, and listening comparisons seem logical. They have a similar tube compliment, and although the Ekco is more expensive, they’re close enough to be in the same ballpark.
As a speaker designer/builder myself, the EE was used to power a wide variety of designs. Sensitivities ranging from 81db to 90db (real ratings, not your typical inflated manufacturer numbers), and everything from 2-way mini-monitors to large 3-way true full-range floorstanders, even a couple open baffle 3-way full-range designs. Instead of going into each individually, I’ll just say that the EE handled them all without glitch. It would be absurd to characterize the M88 as finicky, its ability to perform no matter what it’s connected to is solid state-eque. Standard logic would say no way can 40wpc push 81db sensitive speakers to rather loud listening levels in a mid-size room, but I’ve never been much for listening to standard logic. As I said, the EE handled them all. I’d say that 40 wpc is a very conservative rating and that the amp has a superior power supply.
In addition to the amp, Bill from Morningstar also sent along a quad of Shuguang Treasure series Black Beauty KT88’s, Psvane 12AU7’s and 12AX7’s, and some Siemens Silverplate 12AX7’s. Since the focus of the review is the factory product, not the tubes, most listening was done with the factory compliment of “Eastern Electric Premium Grade” labeled tubes.
The first notes pumped out by the M88 put a content look of approval on my face. Balanced and full were my thoughts. It delivered wonderful drive and tonality to the bass and a lovely, open midrange quality. Notes were rounder and flat out more enjoyable with the M88 than my Electrocompaniet AW220 monoblocks, and no loss of bottom end punch or extension. Certainly more musical, but never crossing the line into being soupy, the M88 struck a near perfect balance. My only negative was with the stock tube compliment; the upper octaves didn’t have quite the same extension or presence as with my Electrocompaniet or the Ekco. With my own dome tweeter based speaker designs, this limitation wasn’t noticeable, but with my Vapor Audio Cirrus and it’s amazing Amorphous Core RAAL tweeter I wanted that intoxicating top end back.
To try and do just that I swapped in the Black Beauty KT88’s and Psvane’s, and while this didn’t fully restore the upper end, they came close while also further improving everything else. Most noticeable with this swap was the added layers of mid-bass tonality and a more 3-dimensional soundstage presentation. With this setup I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have known I was missing any top end had I not used the Ekco EV55SE in Triode mode, and if I were using speakers less extended up top.
My final configuration change was plugging in the Siemens Silverplates, which Bill was confident would give me just what I was looking for, and he was right! They really do add the sparkle up top I wanted, and even gave some more snap to the leading edges of bass in the 80-200hz range. With this tube compliment I felt the M88 reached it’s full potential. The Silverplates also do the same thing to the EE Minimax DAC, though they are rare and expensive, think $200 each if you can find some – publisher.
Power cables had little to no impact on performance, assuming of course you don’t try using a $0.39 18ga freebie that came with your computer. Any ‘good’ power cable sounded the same to my ears, which indicates the amp has good noise rejection built in. Speaker cables however did yield noticeable differences. I tried a couple cables from newcomer Downsize Audio, their 11ga CFR (Copper Foil Reference) and the 14ga SGR (Silver/Gold Reference). The CFR compared to my Kimber 8TC and DH Labs Q-10 was more dynamic and gave added width to the soundstage. I also found that it brought back a bit more of the top end sparkle. The SGR was fantastic indeed, imparting a level of refinement to the entire spectrum. It was like listening to the same music on the same system, but with a snifter of Hennessy Paradis Cognac in hand. Which cost more than Siemans tubes - publisher
I also did some comparisons between the different input options. Since you have the choice of RCA inputs with volume control enabled, RCA in that bypasses the pre section, and a nicely implemented balanced XLR in, I imagine most owners would undertake the same experimentation. There was no clear winner, but I did feel that using the XLR gave the most transparent and articulate overall performance. When comparing the RCA with volume control vs RCA pre-in and using my audio server for volume control, they were very close. I’d think I hear a difference, then switch back and realize I was imaging things … of course that makes me the first reviewer to ever imagine hearing a difference. Well, maybe a rare one honest enough to admit it, I’ll shut up now - publisher
I did also have the opportunity to use a Dodd Audio tube buffer into the pre-in and thought this setup did give a slightly larger overall soundstage and a bit more depth into the details of the recording.
But of course all the inputs sounded great, everything the M88 does is about balance. It’s very much like the Ekco in that regard. I don’t listen to much ‘delicate’ stuff like chamber music or piano solos. My standard fare is more complex, and a lot things that most audiophiles would poo-poo, but it makes me happy. And the M88 spat it all out with wonderful vigor and finesse.
True story, early on in the testing I hosted a DIY speaker geek party at my house. One of the speaker designs in attendance was a big 3-way using a 12” subwoofer and Passive Radiator on bottom … sensitivity around 85db. The kind of speaker you’d think can only be done justice with around 200 solid state watts. We put in one of those obnoxious bass test cd’s, Bass Mechanics I think it was, and after the house finally came to rest everybody looked at each other with expression of astonishment 40wpc just did that? Next album to be cued was the First Impression Music release of Jun Fukamachi at Steinway, which IS a delicate and masterfully complex recording. Once it was over, everyone was again incredulous. Rare that a listening session will flip from one end of the spectrum to the other that quickly, but the M88 handled both with both power and grace.
Suffice to say the M88 will be missed around here. It’s a nit free workhorse capable of kicking you square in the behind or
whispering delicately in your ear.
The Eastern Electric M88 is much like the Ekco I recently reviewed - the link to that is below. The M88
can handle anything you throw at it, and not only handle it but excell.
It's top to bottom balance also makes speaker pairings a non-issue.
The ease of use and predictable results make the M88 a perfect tube world
gateway amp. You really don't need to know anything about tubes to love
this amp, and it'll give you enough of that tube goodness to make you want
more ... and tube rolling can give that to you.
If you're a solid state person looking to expolore tubes this would be a
perfect choice. What's more, if you're a tube lover looking for something
with solid state balance, the M88 fills that bill too. It's not the final
word in detail and transparency, but what is at this price, and it's quite
respectable in both aspects. The M88 is a solid fuss-free performer.
It has a large feature set, including real, fully balanced inputs. It also has a full function matching heavy metal remote control, not the cheap plastic kind you usually get. Its look and feel are superior to others like Jolida with which it competes. It does not feature a dual operating mode (Triode and Pentode) like the Ekco, but the Ekco is not balanced.
It has a built-in meter for biasing the tubes, but it lacks auto biasing, a tribute to cleaner sound.
For $1800 you’ll have a very hard time locating a more capable and balanced performer. And with its receptive nature to tube rolling, it can move even higher through the performance spectrum. If I hadn’t just bought the Ekco, this one wouldn’t be leaving my rack.
Link to my Ekco Amp Review
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