I have torn through these specifications because they speak of a range that works in a wholly sensible manner. Again, unlike many components in audio, where the notion of good-better-best seem separated by the thinnest sliver of difference, these are tangible improvements in specification that are likely to have tangible benefits in performance. This is why there are no built-in phono stages or on-board DACs; they rarely provide an improvement over even very affordable aftermarket models, and frequently do little more than increase cost and (in the case of poorly shielded DACs) lower overall performance. That being said, PrimaLuna did make the PhonoLogue and PhonoLogue Premium phono stages upgrades a few years back, so they can’t be that bad! Hopefully, however, this dismissal of the internal phono stage means a standalone Evo phono preamp or two is on the cards.
On to the specifics of the Evo 300 duo. The first observation is how the Evo 300 preamp is surprisingly weighty and bristles with valves (six 12AU7 and a pair of 5AR4 for the regulator). This weight comes down to a lot of transformers (because of that dual-mono, choke-filtered valve regulation). This is one of the sweetest sounding, yet insightful and upbeat, preamplifiers you can get for anything like the money. This is a harmonically rich sounding preamplifier that stays just the right side of ‘warm’ to be enticing, but that avoids the risk of falling into sounding too warm and ultimately cuddly-sounding. Stereo imaging is first-rate, with a great deal of image depth, and dynamics are more on the effortless rather than exuberant side. Fine detail resolution and vocal articulation are handled well, too.
In a way, the sound quality of the power amp is harder to track because it so readily invites tube rolling. The sound of the amp with two brace of KT150s is going to be markedly different to the Evo 300 sporting a quartet of 7581As, as it will with the stock EL34s. But with the stock EL34s in place it sounds damn fine. I felt the sound is perhaps best with smaller loudspeakers and in pentode mode than with more full-range designs or in triode operation. There’s something intrinsically ‘earthy’ and ‘gutsy’ about the sound when partnered with good, small loudspeakers that doesn’t extend to the bottom octave or so (but, in fairness, this isn’t the kind of amplifier that will be used in combination with full-range skyscraper speakers, and in context, it works fine). Moreover, while that sound gets a little smoother, warmer, and has better stereo in triode mode, I prefer the more dynamic pentode operation. Your mileage may vary here, however.
However, it is in combination that the PrimaLuna Evo 300 duo shine. This isn’t magic synergy or tweaking the response of one to suit the other; more that the two are well-matched in performance terms and that comes across well. One of the more ‘stand out’ tracks from the listening session that highlighted this was ‘Shipbuilding’ by Elvis Costello [Punch The Clock, F-Beat]. Always deeply evocative, the track was focused in the room with Costello’s voice and Chet Baker’s trumpet is almost too painful to hear. Anything that stirs up that emotion works!
The usual criticisms of PrimaLuna will be rolled out with the Evo range: the fact they are built in Asia, and their ‘bling-free’ styling. But, here’s the thing; you can buy valve amps designed and built in America or Europe but they either cost more or feature a lesser specification for the money. Or, you can buy something with a higher specification and better performance for less money knowing it logged a long boat ride in its infancy. Or, you can buy something that looks like a million bucks that doesn’t sound as good. Pick any one of these. There is no underlying value judgment in that statement; you can do all three and the choice is yours. What’s harder to do is buy a product of this specification and performance at the price that looks expensive, no matter how many times you stamp your feet and wish the world was different. Also, although some find the look a bit basic, with the protector like the styling; think of it as a ‘singing bread bin’.