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Published on October 15th, 2011 | by Greg


Inexpensive Tube Amp: Trends PA-10

One of the weird­er parts of high-end au­dio gear have to be the ob­ses­sion with vac­u­um tubes. This is a tech­nol­o­gy that is decades-old, in a uni­verse where all-dig­i­tal elec­tron­ics have made mu­sic cheap­er and eas­i­er to ac­quire and share. It’s sim­i­lar to LPs and records- the ana­log world still res­onates with some folks. Not ev­ery­one cares- most of our writ­ers like their iPods and lossy MP3 files just fine. But even they can’t de­ny the pow­er and joy of lis­ten­ing to mu­sic through re­al­ly good head­phones, and they can’t help but be blown away by the bal­ance and bass of a sol­id amp. These things cost mon­ey, take time to set­up, are finicky and heavy and large… but they don’t al­ways have to be.

We’ve said it sev­er­al times, and we’ll say it again. First step to im­prov­ing your au­dio is to get a good set of cans. You don’t have to break the bank- $300 is enough to find some amaz­ing over-the-ear mon­i­tors. And if your bud­get can take it, the next step is ei­ther a good amp (es­pe­cial­ly for ana­log folks) or a good DAC (dig­i­tal au­dio con­vert­er, for those who pri­mar­i­ly use com­put­ers). To­day’s am­pli­fi­er is the small, af­ford­able Trends PA-10. It isn’t beau­ti­ful and it isn’t per­fect, but it’s a great val­ue on a warm tube amp.

They make a few mod­els, de­pend­ing on the type of tube you want in­clud­ed. We re­ceived a few dif­fer­ent tubes, giv­ing us a nice chance to play around and see how dif­fer­ent tubes af­fect­ed our mu­sic. To test, we ran sound from ei­ther a com­put­er and FLAC or 320 kbps mu­sic through iTunes us­ing a DAC. And we tried out sev­er­al pairs of head­phones to see which paired best (we liked the old clas­sic Gra­dos on some tracks, but over­all the bey­er­dy­nam­ics were the fa­vorites). We al­so let the unit play for a bit to al­low for some burn-in, of­ten nec­es­sary with tubes.

Com­pared to the Hi­Fi­MAN EF5 or Woo Au­dio WA3 that we checked out, this one felt a bit clipped, and cer­tain­ly wasn’t as easy on the eyes. Some songs- think arias- were a bit dim­mer and oth­ers- elec­tron­ic mu­sic like Aphex Twin- felt a bit more clin­i­cal. Of course, chang­ing the tubes changed ev­ery­thing. We tried the NOS GE 12AU7, the clear win­ner, as well as a mod­ern Chi­nese 6N11. As we talked about be­fore, NOS tubes are “new old stock”, and are lit­er­al­ly an­tiques. They won’t be around for­ev­er, and ac­tu­al­ly can be a de­cent in­vest­ment. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple will stand by dif­fer­ent mod­els, but most agree that the old­er tubes are bet­ter sound­ing and of­ten stur­dier than the new­er Asian ones. We found the 6N11 to be a bit cold- cer­tain­ly bet­ter than no tube, and with love­ly range, but not of­fer­ing the same depth and sound­stage as the 12AU7.

We did like that the PA-10 was small, but it isn’t bat­tery pow­ered so you’ll need to find an out­let. Al­so, un­like many com­peti­tors it out­puts straight to 3.5mm mini­jack (the nor­mal head­phone jack used by all ear­buds) in­stead of the larg­er 1/4 size that is more com­mon among high­er-end gear. De­spite the small size, the unit’s bass out­put was im­pres­sive- not over­whelm­ing or ar­ti­fi­cial, but pump­ing out a sol­id and dis­tinct sound. There was min­i­mal fuzz at high­er vol­umes; per­haps some dis­tor­tion, though it wasn’t au­di­ble with all tracks and all phones so we’re hes­i­tant to lay the blame solid­ly at the feet of the amp. One im­por­tant thing to note is that the price is im­pres­sive­ly low- about $225-$265 de­pend­ing on your choice of tube (and we’d rec­om­mend spend­ing the ex­tra $40). The build qual­i­ty and looks aren’t go­ing to im­press the old school, but the com­po­nents have a sol­id pedi­gree, and it’s hard to ar­gue with two in­puts in a tube amp for un­der $300.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.

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