EKCO EV55SE Tube Integrated Amplifier
First, thanks to Charlie Harrison of Ayon Audio USA and the Harwill group for loaning us the Ekco for this review.
"Music is the harmonious voice of creation; an echo of the invisible world."
Have you heard of Ekco amplifiers? Neither had we until we saw and heard one at CES just this past January. I knew Charlie Harrison had been looking for a very high quality but less expensive tube amplifier to compliment his line of Ayon products. I remember him asking me to listen to an amp some guy had brought by his room at RMAF for an audition. After about 5 minutes he asked me what I thought. I just looked at him with an “Are you kidding me” expression which he interpreted immediately. “You’re right…it sucks”, he said more than a little frustrated. You have to remember that the economy at the time was so bad that when you ordered a burger at McDonald’s, the kid would ask, “Can you afford fries with that?” The bank returned a check I wrote marked "Insufficient Funds”. It wasn’t lack of funds in my account; it was lack of funds in their bank. So the smart distributors (like Charlie) were scrambling to find things that constituted a high value to performance ration at entry-level prices.
The moment we entered the Ayon room, Charlie rushed me over to where the Ekco was displayed and started telling me how great it sounded and its unique features. At the end he said, “…and it’s only $2,495!” He promised to send one to us forthwith.
THE FIRST EKCO
I thought Ekco was yet another new company coming out of China, but nay; it’s neither new nor Chinese. The name EKCO was derived from its founder’s name – Eric Kirkham Cole, who began hand-making tube radios in England in the 1920s. He formed a private company that catered to large-scale production in 1926 and eventually ventured into tube manufacturing in 1938. In November 1958, Eric Cole received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Her Majesty the Queen at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. By the beginning of 1960, domestic manufacture encompassed mains and portable TV's, Mains and portable radios, radiograms, tape recorders, car radios, electric heaters, thermotube and thermovent heaters, electric blankets, plastic toilet seats, various plastic utensils, plastic bathroom fittings and 'Superbath' baby-baths.
IAG, the International Audio Group who also owns marquees such as Wharfedale, Quad, Audiolab, Mission, Luxman and Castle Acoustics acquired the EKCO brand in 2009. The EKCO EV55SE Valve Integrated Amplifier is their first release under the new name.
The EV55SE is designed to have the look of a vintage amp with the performance of current one, sort of like taking a ’74 Corvette and updating it with a current 500 horsepower Vette engine with a 6-speed, current tires and suspension and all disk brakes. The Ecko features a Class AB Push-Pull amplifier design with a choice between 28 watts per channel in Triode mode and 55 watts per channel in Ultra-linear mode. It comes with Five (5) RCA Inputs a dual speaker output option tailored for audiophiles who prefer to use more than one pair of loudspeaker setup combination for their system, or to facilitate bi-wiring. Its chassis is made of removable metal protective grilles finished with high-temp black paint to protect the tubes (and pets and little ones from them) while the sides of the chassis are fitted with matched pairs of handcrafted solid wood panels (deep Louro Preto, an exotic wood from Brazil) in piano gloss finish. The volume/mute remote is full-metal-jacket with a matching black and wood trim motif. Nice!
The amp has a rather small footprint; just 16 x 13 x 7.5 inches, but weighs in at a hefty 62 pounds! Talk about your anvil. Of course, most of that is the massive power supplies and transformer. The tube compliment is 4xKT88, 1x12AX7 and 4x12AU7.
In addition to the ability to switch between Triode and Ultralinear modes and their attendant different power outputs, the Ekco also has a rather unique feature that lets you also toggle between low or high negative feedback, giving you at total of 4 listening modes, each very different in their sonic presentation. I should note here that any changes in either of these modes require that you power off the amp. Some tube amps let you change between the Triode and Ultralinear on the fly, some even via the remote control, but not this one.
On the front of the amp there are 5 controls; front left to right they are speaker selector (A or B), the mode select for Triode or Ultra, an identical toggle for low or high negative feedback, a large volume control and the input selector for 5 different inputs, a rather high number of inputs for this price range. There is also a small red LED that indicates when the power is on, if the tube glow isn’t enough of an indicator. There is not a headphone out.
Around back you have a ground (even though there’s no phono input), 5 sets of RCA’s for the ins, 4 sets of high-quality 5-way binding posts for speakers, a standard IEC socket for power cable (provided) and an on/off toggle.
There are no balanced circuits for XLRs home theater bypasses and you cannot separate the pre or power sections to use independently. Having to reach around back to turn the power on and off is little inconvenient, but the unit’s small size didn’t make this a problem. While you can adjust the volume or engage mute from the remote, you can’t change inputs or speakers or, as I said, the 4 different modes.
While there is no mention of it in the manual or literature, I saw no pots to adjust tube bias, so I must assume there is an auto-bias circuit in the amp. There is also no choice of impedance via speaker connections. Usually there will be a choice of 4, 8 or maybe 16 Ohm connectors on the back of tube amps to help match the impedance of your speakers. The manual suggests you let the amp burn in for at least 12 hours before first listen. While that’s a good start, the amp will improve significantly over 100 hours however.
LISTENING TO THE EKCO
After burn in, the first thing you notice is amp’s ability to throw power punches throughout the frequency range, but especially the bottom end. I started out in ultralinear mode with High Negative feed back (NF). Man this thing is ballsy! Indicating that they didn’t skimp on the size or quality of the power supplies. Compared to the Melody AN211 in for review ($5,700), which puts out only 16 single-ended wpc via its 211 tubes, the Ekco is a real party animal. No romance in this mode, baby, but not much finesse either. This mode rocks!
It didn’t get much publicity or sales, but Carlos Santana’s 2010 “Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time” is a killer CD. Each cut features a different vocalist singing classic rock tunes. Check this out: Chris Cornell (on Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love), Pat Monahan (on Van Halen’s Dance the Night Away), Chester Bennington and Ray Manzarek (Riders on the Storm), Rob Thomas (on Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love), Scott Weiland (on the
Rolling Stones Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'), Chris Daughtry (on Def Leppard's Photograph), Gavin Rossdale (on T. Rex’s Bang A Gong) to rapper Nas (on AC/DC s Back In Black), veteran Joe Cocker (Hendrix’s Little Wing), and more. George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, features India arie and Yo-Yo Ma along with Carlos.
The Ekco portrayed each of the diverse cuts with a high degree of accuracy, matching the dynamic, bold playing with its own. Very satisfying.
I used at least 4 pairs of speakers with the Ekco; my Vaughn Cabernets and LSA Monitor 1 Statements, Von Schweikert VR-33 and the Nola Micro Grand Reference. These range in sensitivity from 86 to 93 db, but the same testicular characteristic was there throughout in that mode. I noted several times that the amp seemed much more powerful that it’s 55 wpc rating. I never felt that the Ekco was overmatched power or quality wise with any of those speakers that top out at $14,000/pr.
There was also no noticeable rolloff in the high end and there was plenty of midrange tube goodness with male and female vocals from the Stereomojo Ultimate Evaluation Disk. By the way, many of you have requested that we start selling our compilation. We do listen to our readers so we’re looking into it. Just thought you should know.
We listened for several days over extended sessions and there was never any fatigue, something that can happen with high NF amps. Mojo was high with rock like Alan Parsons (one of my favorites).
Staying in Ultra mode but toggling to Low NF, things softened up a bit, but the punchiness did not abate. Images became a little rounder and more tube-like, but still exhibited the characteristics of top line solid state (the good parts) like authority and excellent dynamics. This mode inspired me more to listen to pop, 70’s & 80’s rock, more relaxed vocals like Indie female vocals, jazz standards, bluegrass, country and the like.
If you haven’t heard “Infinite Arms” by “Band of Horses”, you should if you like bands like CSN&Y, America and even the Beach Boys. Great lyrics, great vocals and wonderful harmonies, but above all, interesting melodies. Pretty good sonics, too. The Ecko in this mode embraced the richness of the guitars and big arrangements like long lost brother.
In short, in the Ultralinear mode, the Ecko EV55SE sounded much like a decent tube preamp in the $2,000 - $3,000 range driving a solid-state stereo amp (but not monoblocs) in the same range.
Having explored two of the amp’s modes, I anticipated a big change when switching to Triode mode, especially when shedding half of the 55 watts per side. Usually going to that mode causes dynamics to compress and bass control to diminish with tonal color fading a bit to more pastel colors, losing some of the boldness and authority heard previously. But what’s this?! After the switch, using the high NF setting, there was still plenty of punch, dynamic contrast and the bottom end was almost as firm and robust as ultralinear! As expected though, the soundstage expanded in all directions, instruments and vocal took on a more rounded, dimensional character and the air around them increased as well.
I went back and played some of the same rock and electronic tracks that snapped, popped and crackled in ultralinear and found that they still rocked pretty hard. Leading edges were not quite as crisp and dynamics were not quite as extraordinary, but still better than any amp in recent memory after switching out of ultralinear mode. Vocals were now less aggressive, out front and more natural, but there was no sense of mushiness or wimpiness which was more than a little surprising.
Staying in triode but toggling to low NF, the fourth mode, things adapted yet again. This time we started hearing more depth and delineated layering with more midrange glow and roundness. Vocals now sounded even more natural and relaxed. But amazingly, the low end was still firm and extended with no overhang or sloppiness and it was even easier to hear the difference between a string bass playing plucked at the same time as a kick drum was, um, kicked. Speed was not as obvious, but nothing sounded overly bloated or slow. There were still some fiery colors amidst the pastel color palette.
I was now breaking out large-scale symphonies like those in the 111 Years of Deutsche Grammophon 55 CD Anthology Box Set I recently picked up at a crazy low price. Amazon has it at the moment at $235, still just a little over 4 bucks per CD and you get all kinds of great info in the box as well. 280 different works. What a delight to hear many different performers, orchestras, conductors, venues over a span of several decades. After ripping them to my Qsonix music server, I didn’t have to listen to a whole CD at a time and I could program a personal concert of classical all stars right in my room. Love this technology!
The Ekco was more than up to the task of simulating the live experience in mode 4. Brass was beautifully burnished, strings smooth and never strident and big percussion and deep orchestral bass drums and tympani crashed and with command and control.
So, does Mr. Harrison need to worry about the Ekco stealing sales from the stellar and very reasonably priced Ayon line? Well, his gorgeous and smart wife Susan (she’s an attorney and a veteran audiophile) didn’t marry no dummy. There’s only one amp in the Austrian amp line that competes pricewise with the Ekco and that would be the Orion, which at $3,100 also uses KT88 tubes. Its build and finish is better than the Ekco’s, uses better tubes, also has switchable modes though no NF toggle, but has a USB input and a headphone jack. You can better match your speakers with a choice of 4 or 8 Ohm outputs.
To this point, the Ekco sounds like a superb value and that inference would be correct, but we have only described the amp’s strengths for the most part. Most audio publications would leave it there, but every product has its weaknesses as well when compared to the best and the brightest and the Ekco is no exception.
What you don’t get with the EV55SE is the refinement and overall level of detail one would expect from the top performers, including the mighty Ayon Triton we reviewed last year. The Ekco is not a full dual mono design so some circuits are shared which shows up in channel separation that gives you that extra high and low-level detail, transparency and accuracy. While there is plenty of grunt with the Echo, it skips over some of the more delicate nuances that make music as entrancing as it can be. It also lacks the extreme textures that can be heard, like drum skins and mallet felt and guitar bodies and strings. It’s harder to tell the difference between a Baldwin and a Steinway concert grand.
Perhaps a more better example would be that with the Ekco, you get an excellent portrayal of solo vocals as a singing head while better amps give the illusion of a more fully fleshed out person standing there performing for you. In addition, you don’t get the sound of luscious reverbs and ambience as much as much more expensive amps.
It may sound like I’ve thoroughly trashed the Ekco, but remember it’s being compared here to amps like my $12,000 LSA Statement, itself a huge overachiever in terms price/performance ratios. Also, the new $18,000 BFA Tulip integrated is in the house for sake of comparison. For that price you could buy 6 Ekcos and have money left for music.
However, also under review is the astonishing Odyssey system where you get a tube preamp, two solid-state 100wpc monoblocks, speakers AND cables for about $5,500. The Ekco had been sent to Ryan for his 2nd option before that system arrived, so I can’t do a direct comparison. Guess you’ll have to wait for that world’s first review.
We are thrilled to be joined by Ryan Scott. I’ve known Ryan for several years and have a great deal of respect for his talent and abilities as well as Ryan as a person.
We believe that transparency is not just a quality of audio components; it is also our policy of addressing our readers. Therefore, we want you to know that Ryan designs, builds and markets his own speaker. You need to know that, as well as the fact that he will never do any review of speakers or anything closely associated with them. We do think that listening through his own speakers as well as others gives him a leg up in evaluating amps, players and other source components, giving you even better, more accurate reviews.
I should also mention that after listening myself, I sent the Ecko to Ryan with absolutely no inkling of my opinions. He was completely free to forms his own. In fact at first I didn’t even tell him how much it costs. Let’s see what he thinks of EV55SE ~Publisher
I have to first confess, I’m not much of a tube guy. I’m 36 years old, and growing up in the technology age, tube amps always just seemed a bit antiquated. Technological progression what it is, it just seemed logical that solid state amps should easily better their grey haired counterparts.
But as a speaker designer I try to challenge any biases or preconceptions I might have, not submit to them. I’ve heard some wonderful tube based systems over the years. Bringing them into my own systems though, well I haven’t made that leap. So it was with great excitement that James asked me to review the Ekco EV55SE. Finally a chance to face one of my longest standing biases, and see if tube amplification can equal or even better solid state.
Initial impression from the EV55 was solid, it took 20 minutes to get it out of the well planned double boxing. The amp itself is much heavier than I expected, with the weight being centered towards the rear where the transformer and power supply section are located. With all that weight towards the rear, it made the amp a bit awkward to carry. The finish is also exceptional. I’m always a sucker for exotic wood, and the Rosewood side panels add a nice bit of class to the overall appearance.
Out back is a nice compliment of inputs, and both A and B speaker outputs. The one connection that was lacking is balanced XLR inputs. The remote even is impressive, feeling like it’s carved from a solid billet of aluminum.
I’m not a total tube nube, so I did plug the amp in and give it a full 3-4 hours of warm up time before I sat down for some listening. I started off with the “Mode” and “NF Adj” switches both in the up position since it seemed logical, which gave the combination of Triode and Minimum Negative Feedback. For my first listening, I threw my most tube-unfriendly speaker at them. It’s a small 2-way bookshelf with a sensitivity of 81-82db, and very similar in sound to a Dynaudio C1. My first thought was the Ekco, even in 28 WPC Triode mode, was having no problem pushing these speakers well past my normal listening volume.
My next thought was a simple, primal Wow!
Compared to the highly modified ICE 1000ASP based amp I had in my system prior, the Ekco was throwing a more expansive soundstage in all dimensions, the bass was more forceful with richer layers of tonality, and the bloom or presence to the upper midrange/lower treble was intoxicating. I could feel my preconceptions fading away, rapidly.
I spent the next 8-10 hours of listening time with this combination in place, Triode, Min Negative Feedback, and the low sensitivity bookshelf. I was having too much fun to think about reviewing, instead I replayed all the old and new favorites in my music collection, experiencing each one seemingly for the first time.
One of my new favorites is the bass-raging Dubstep genre release from Diplo, Blow Your Head. As many Electronica albums are, Blow Your Head is a compilation of mixes originally performed by various other artists. Track 7, 8, and 9 are a tour-de-force trio with great vocals and hard bass lines that push boundaries. What’s so much fun about these tracks is the bass is layered with multiple harmonics, and truly original electronics beats. The final result is a real challenge for any speaker, and amplifier … and one that you might think would be out of the wheelhouse for a 28 WPC tube amp. But instead you’re treated to a powerful presentation and a holographic soundstage that extends past the physical boundaries of your room. My wife, who also loves this album, sat down for a listen with me one night, and her conclusion was the same – in her words, “awesome!”
After the initial euphoria, I remembered those front panel switches and that the point was to write a review. The next mode I tried was Ultra Linear, which lowers the tubes output impedance, and thus raises power to 55 WPC. It was quickly obvious that this combination was not as synergistic, the presentation became dark and bottom heavy with vocals seemingly sinking back into the soundstage and becoming somewhat muffled relatively.
With that result, I hooked the Ekco to another speaker design of mine that’s a 3-way open baffle midrange. It uses a fairly dynamic Seas metal dome tweeter, and is voiced to be more forward than the prior used bookshelf. My thought is that this would be a better pairing with the more dark and recessed Ultra Linear mode. And while it was a better pairing, I still ultimately preferred Triode mode. On tracks such as “Times Like These” from Jack Johnson - On and On, Triode mode gave a simply more emotionally involving experience than Ultra Linear. The Ekco manual states that Ultra Linear “massively reduces distortion”, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was Triode mode which was the more transparent and uncolored with my speakers.
Fiddling with the Negative Feedback switch took more focus to determine differences, but they were to be heard. With the open baffle speaker and NF set to Max, the soundstage became a bit more center focused. The ability for notes to dance around the edges of the stage disappeared, although the overall stage dimensions were still intact, the more heavy center focus gave the impression of a smaller overall sound field. I also noticed a slight loss of resolution in the very top octaves with Negative Feedback set to max.
My final speaker pairing is my reference, a RAAL tweeter paired with a 7” Audio Technology woofer in a CNC cut cabinet that I call Cirrus. Any lack of top octave extension is immediately apparent with this speaker, but the Ekco didn’t disappoint. Compared to my (much more expensive) Electrocompaniet monoblocks, I expected the Ekco to sound slower and less transparent, and I suppose to an extent that was true. However the Ekco was simply more enjoyable, more musical, more involving. With the Cirrus, the Ekco can not only throw and expansive soundstage forward of the listener, but at times will wrap around your head making you wonder if somebody slipped in surround speakers while you were switching tracks.
Pop Art Blue from the Zero 7 album, Yeah Ghost is just such a track. It’s a processed track with mesmerizing vocals, and for the better part of the song this pairing seemingly stopped time. All my focus was on the music which was coming from everywhere in my room. Those kinds of experiences are what this hobby is all about, and the Ekco gave it to me in spades.
The Cirrus also confirmed my earlier findings regarding Triode vs. Ultra Linear, and Min vs. Max Negative Feedback. With all three speakers I tried, my preferred settings were Triode and Min Negative Feedback. I can envision a very forward or beamy speaker, as some single driver speakers can be, appreciating the darker and more laid back presentation of Ultra Linear. I can also imagine that on some heavily vocals focused music such as jazz, that Max Negative Feedback would give a deeper window into the soul of the recording. So it’s true in this case as in life, options are a good thing. It’s better to have them than not.
Since receiving and reviewing the Ekco EV55SE, my preconceptions have been shattered. I’ve also shared my experiences with friends that have similar leanings toward solid state. I can’t see any pairing which the Ekco wouldn’t love, my kitchen sink of speaker designs was handled with aplomb.
Is my experience here with tubes just the tip of the iceberg, or did I go straight to the top of the heap? I’ll wait to read James’ thoughts for more insight as to the answer. But what I can say for sure is the Ekco spoke directly to me and what I love about music, I’ll be sad to see it leave.
It turns out I was much too sad to see it leave. After careful consideration, I decided to buy my Ekco EV55SE review sample, much to the chagrin of Mr. Darby who told me if I did not buy it, he would.
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