Published on October 15th, 2011 | by Greg0
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.