Audio power has never been cheaper than it is at the moment. Advances in both semiconductor design and digital electronics have resulted in a situation where a couple of hundred watts of conventional solid-state power can be yours for less than a pound per Watt, and if you care to step into the world of class D amplification and ICE modules, almost limitless output is available for very little money. This might well prove an effective solution where the prime requirement is for plenty of power, for example with PA systems and it is suggested, sub bass units (although on that score I remain unconvinced). But for me, it is the quality of those Watts and how they are delivered that is of far greater importance than the quantity when it comes to listening to music. Certainly, my experiences with digital amplification that should offer tremendous performance, at least on paper, have proved to be highly disappointing in practice. So, two oft quoted sayings come to mind when I am looking at more modestly powered amplifiers: “It’s the first couple of Watts that count…” followed by the popular theory that there is often an inverse and conflicting relationship between power output and quality. The first stems from the fact that while listening to music the average power level transferred between amplifier and loudspeaker is quite small, and it is only during peaks or transients that this rises above a Watt or two, even at quite high listening levels. As for the second, there are a number of bona fide reasons why it is often easier to design an amplifier that is not required to deliver prodigious quantities of Volts or Amps, such as the benefits of simple, straightforward circuitry and the compromises that are inherent with multiple output devices.
While the two amplifiers here share common ground, both being where else?) and are not dissimilar in price, the concept behind them comes from two very different directions. The Minimax has a strong air of ‘budget audiophile’ about it, but with only eight Watts per channel will need careful matching with suitable loudspeakers. Thankfully, due to the resurgence of interest in low-powered triode amplification this is not as much of a problem as it might have been a few years ago. The Fatman, by contrast is a little more real world with 25 Watts a side, modest by many standards but enough to broaden the selection of partnering equipment considerably, and thus increase its appeal as a more universal device, which in part at least is exactly what the manufacturers are aiming for; a valve amp for the i-pod generation.
Casting round for suitable candidates in the loudspeaker department could have become a bit of a dilemma, certainly as far as the Minimax was concerned, but the Coincident Triumph Signature model that I reviewed in the last issue proved to be a welcome partner for both amplifiers, and although a peak sensitivity of 94dB might not seem ideal, they have been designed very much with low powered amplification in mind. Also available were a pair of Tannoy 15” Monitor Golds in Lockwood cabinets and their sensitivity made for some interesting listening with both amps. There was also another slightly unusual venture with the Minimax integrated designs built in China that I shall discuss a little later. Based in Hong Kong, Eastern Electric produce a small range of specialist equipment that includes a CD player and various amplifiers with an emphasis on traditional valve engineering and simple but effective circuit configurations. Neat, almost miniature in appearance, the Minimax presents a clean and uncluttered face to the world; it also feels remarkably solid for such a small item due in no small part to the dense central block in which three transformers are I think, potted. On the substantial aluminium front panel there is the input selector and power switch, together with a motorised ALPS volume control that can be operated from the supplied basic but functional remote. On the rear, three line inputs are provided together with five-way binding posts for both four and eight Ohm loads and a standard IEC mains connector. Valve complement consists of two ECL82’s per channel, common enough in lower powered amplification from the 60s but rarely seen in hi-fi these days. I believe they are still manufactured by some of the Russian and Chinese factories so replacements should not be a problem.
The relatively modest valve count is explained by the fact that each device incorporates both a power output pentode (akin to a smaller EL84) and a triode section along the lines of half an ECC82 in the same glass envelope. It enabled more economic construction of domestic audio such as record players and radiograms in an era where transistors had yet to rear their ugly heads. This configuration was adopted for hi-fi use by a number of manufacturers, most notably Rogers, who used the similar ECL86 in a number of their designs that have an enthusiastic following to this day. The Minimax uses a conventional ultra-linear configuration for the output stage with cathode bias, and the power supply is choke-coupled with the associated benefits of better ripple under load and superior drive capability. Internally, the Minimax is neatly constructed with housekeeping electronics (such as the remote circuitry) built on printed circuit boards while the simple signal electronics are hard wired to the valve bases.