Eastern Electric Minimax and Fatman i-tube 252 Integrated Amplifiers (Hi-Fi+)

Integrated amplifiers
Eastern Electric MiniMax Integrated Amp,
Fatman Audio i-Tube 252 Integrated Amp
Eastern Electric Minimax and Fatman i-tube 252 Integrated Amplifiers (Hi-Fi+)

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.

I was expecting a bit of a struggle to get any kind of realistic levels out of the Minimax with the Coincident loudspeakers, but that wasn’t the case. I’m not suggesting that this is a match made in heaven, but the 8 Watts available were put to good use, establishing a surprisingly firm foundation in the bass, that was tight and controlled with a sense of purpose which made it quite satisfying without having to advance the volume excessively. Not quite what I had anticipated. Add to this a midrange that has the wonderful liquid quality that is so appealing in amplifiers such as the Leak Stereo Twenty, combined with a gentle, smooth treble and you begin to get the picture.

An interesting opportunity presented itself in the form of a pair of Vitavox Thunderbolts, ridiculous (from a domestic point of view) cinema /PA loudspeakers from the sixties, but with enough hi-fi cred for Living Voice to base the Air partner design on them. They are also frighteningly efficient at something like 108 dB for 1 Watt; the standing joke when I actually owned them was that you could literally blow the windows out with a Sony Walkman, and this is one of the reasons they ended up in the converted church in which a friend of mine resides, rather than my living room. The Minimax proved to be tailor made for the job, showing a degree of precision and timing that would embarrass most other amplifiers of a similar power output (meaning most of the SE triode designs that I’ve heard) along with a euphonic and dimensional mid and top and a real sense of 3-D dimensionality, a major achievement considering the nature of the speakers. If low-powered amplification is on your agenda, don’t be fooled by the Minimax’s diminutive dimensions. It’s a genuinely potent and highly musical package in the right environment I guess the ‘i’ prefix gives it away, but you won’t be surprised to learn that the Fatman 252 comes with a universal dock for your i-pod, should you possess one. While this might conceivably rob the Fatman of a bit of hi-fi credability (although probably not as much as a mention in the Sunday Mail) it might also serve to introduce the concept of specialist amplification to a headphone clad generation that haven’t the faintest idea of what a half decent hi-fi system can do, so it can’t all be bad.

Fatman is an offshoot of TL Audio, a company who have been around the pro industry for quite some time. Initially renovating and customising old Neve EQ modules for recording studios, as these became increasingly rare and expensive they progressed to manufacturing their own units with a particular slant on valves as a tonic for the hardness of the modern digital age. The Fatman follows a fairly traditional formula when it comes to aesthetics, with a chrome chassis flanked by black lacquered wood. The transformer housing at the rear is similarly clad; in front of this a black cage protects the nine valves and small fingers, but I guess most users would want to remove this to show the full glory of their thermionic amplification in action.

The circuit is based around an ultra-linear output stage utilising a pair of 5881 pentodes driven by a 6SN7 octal double triode, while the input stage consists of a 12AX7. Cathode (or self) bias is employed, while an interesting addition is what used to be called a ‘magic eye’ valve indicator of the type commonly found on cheaper tape recorders (and better radio tuners) in the 60s. This gives a fluorescent green indication of signal, and I confess that when I first used the 252 this briefly gave me a bit of a fright – any light coming from within a tube amp that isn’t a reassuring orange glow usually portends some kind of expensive firework display and impending disaster. Internally the Fatman is very neatly assembled with the bulk of the electronics on two circuit boards. The power supply uses a substantial, torroidal mains transformer and choke coupling with plenty of fuses in the rails for protection. Three line inputs are provided along with good quality binding posts for the usual four and eight Ohm loudspeaker outputs.

The supplied i-pod dock is finished to match the 252 amplifier (making a change from the more usual anaemic white plastic of most i-pod accessories) and is powered from a small plugtop supply and signal goes via basic phono leads into one of the line inputs. The remote offers more than just the usual basic functions of the i-pod, and once you get your head around it, it will allow you to navigate through the menu to albums and play-lists. There is also adjustment of bass and treble as well as volume that I guess is carried out through analogue circuitry within the dock itself. However, note that the Fatman amplifier on its own has no remote facility.

Driving the Coincident loudspeakers the 252 proved competent and well behaved without drawing attention to itself. Able to generate levels a little beyond what I would have expected from a mere 25 Watts, it was able to cope with a wide range of material and was just as happy pumping Massive Attack into the slightly bass shy Triumphs as it was with a Brandenburg concerto.

Dare I describe the character as classic valve sound? Let me justify that by suggesting it sounds the way that the uninitiated think tube amps should sound. The midrange had that warm, tangible quality that was immediately inviting, while further down the audio spectrum upper bass had a mildly rich, slightly ‘plummy’ quality that seemed to suit small speakers well. It was with the Tannoy’s that shortcomings at the frequency extremes were evident; yes the treble was a little bit untidy and now that the bottom end was really evident, it lacked precision and a certain grip, more evident as the volume went up - but hey, this is not an Audio Research. I’m sure it would have been possible to refine the presentation of the 252 in these respects, but I have a feeling that it would have killed the performance in an area in which the Fatman is really quite good; the ability to endow music with a sense of life and purpose, with a realistic portrayal of the dynamics that matter.

To put the Fatman in perspective, there are an awful lot of sub £1000 amplifiers appearing from the Far East at the moment, and one only has to spend a little more to reach the territory of models such as the Prima Luna and the Pure Sound A30, which offer more power and up the ante considerably in terms of performance. But that slightly misses the point; the 252 is a very neat, elegant product that delivers a musical and enjoyable performance way beyond most of the solidstate lifestyle or i-pod associated equipment, and that is where it will really score, as with the included dock it is undeniably good value for money.

The more specialist appeal of the Minimax lies in its ability to match a beautiful liquid midrange to a degree of authority in the bass and an open and extended top end that very few valve amplifiers of this breed can match. With a number of interesting loudspeakers offering suitable efficiency there is the opportunity to maximise the potential of this little amplifier, enjoying what it does well, without too much compromise in other areas. If single ended triodes are your sort of thing, you should listen to the Minimax as it offers a very interesting and in many ways a better balanced alternative.

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