Willsenton R8 KT88/EL34 x4 Tube Integrated Amp Power Amplifier Headphone : China-hifi-Audio online store, Yaqin,Meixing Mingda,XiangSheng,Line Magnetic Tube Amplifier, power amp, preamp,hi-fi CD Player high end audio for sale [MUIA9832268] - $893.18 USD Heads-up: this is a very, very long post. The factual /setup stuff is first, the listening stuff is lower down. As threatened indicated elsewhere, here are some observations about the Willenton R8 Tube Integrated Amplifier which I've now had for a few days. Mine was ordered with the default KT88 power tubes although that can be changed to EL34s at the time of ordering. Taking into account observations in other reviews about the tonal differences between the tube types, I ordered a separate set of EL34 tubes at the same time. The purchase was intended for a second system but more of that later. What arrived? A fairly large box weighing close to 30Kgs. The unboxed unit is approx 26Kgs. The extra tubes (i.e. EL34s) came in a separate box. Opening the (main) box reveals a second box, firmly held in place by the sort of shaped foam protection usually seen around the actual hi-fi units inside boxes. In short, well packed and well protected. Inside: - R8 amp (silver/black for me) + tube cage cover (black) - Power cord - 2 spare fuses - Tubes, individually packed in bubble wrap within flexible (but fragile!) gauze - Remote - batteries not supplied - Mini screwdriver (for biasing) - Manual The R8 has 3 line inputs plus a pre-in input (all RCA). Three of the four pairs were sleeved in plastic dust caps. There is one set of speaker posts but with separate positive (red) binding posts for 4 ohms and 8 ohms respectively. There is a headphone socket (6.3mm) on the left side of the amp. There is no digital connectivity. The spacing between the RCA inputs on the back of the R8 is excellent - no need to worry about some of the chunkier RCA plugs being too big to fit. The R8 takes KT88 or EL34 power tubes (setting needs to be switched), as well as 6550s which use the same setting as KT88s. The product manual contains a table showing replacement tube compatibility. Installing the tubes takes time but is easy - care needs to be taken not to mix up the 6SN7 and 6SL7 tubes. The tubes supplied with the R8 are marked (v1 to v9 respectively) but replacements won't be. The R8 operates in either triode or ultra-linear mode and this can be switched on-the-fly whilst listening. There are no tone or balance control knobs on the R8. The remote: volume (+ mute); input selector; TR/UL toggle. There is no on/off/standby. When installing batteries (not supplied) into the remote, it isn't the usual slot-and-slide. A Phillips screwdriver is needed (i.e. in addition to the one supplied for biasing) to unscrew the bottom end-plate of the remote in order to access an internal tray within which the batteries are placed. Care needs to be taken when pulling the tray back far enough to provide sufficient access to install the batteries - the internals of the remote could be damaged if done too roughly. Once the batteries have been placed in the tray and the tray pushed back into the main body of the remote, the bottom end-plate needs to be screwed back into place. Once done of course, you're good for a year or two but there is surely a better option than this palava. IMO, future versions of the remote would benefit from a more conventional design. Alternatively, change the bias screws in the R8 to Phillips screws (easier to locate than flathead screws) and change the screwdriver so it can do both the biasing and the battery end-plate. When turned on, the R8 takes 15-30 seconds to warm up, indicated by an orange / red LED on the volume knob. Once the LED is no longer orange / red, you're good to go. In the dark, the same LED shows as a relatively dim green. Although the product manual doesn't help a great deal here, biasing is fairly straight forward. The R8 is my first valve/tube amp but I had no difficulty in biasing - I just took some time. A couple of operational observations... The source selector (i.e. CD / Aux 1 / Aux 2 / Pre-In) always starts with CD when turning on the R8, even if turned off with a different source input. Similarly, the default start-up mode is triode, even if ultra-linear was in use when turning off the unit. Also, changing the volume with the remote tends to result in larger jumps (up or down) than most other remotes I've experienced. The listening experience Although purchased for a second system, it was too tempting not to try out the R8 with the speakers in the main system (Dynaudio Special 40s). So, the initial setup comprised the R8, the S40s and, initially, a Cocktail Audio X10 as the source (analogue out). Music listened to with the R8 has ranged between the melodic rock (no metal so far) to light rock to ambient to pop to instrumental classical. With the KT88 tubes in use, the "virgin" track for the R8 was "Brothers In Arms" by Dire Straits. I wasn't feeling too great so only intended to play a couple of tracks just to check the R8 didn't have any immediate issues. It was four hours later when I came up for air and tea (or was it coffee?). However, an issue observed by others had become apparent. Overall, I'd really enjoyed listening to music through the R8. Based on that first listening session, a decent soundstage with nicely balance upper frequencies and mids was/were evident. But, with the KT88s, bass output was seriously heavy and thumpy - as other reviewers have noted. For me, it was too much. The following day (day 2), I switched to the EL34s which made a huge difference. [from a different thread] With the KT88s, music came across as being "in your face". Imagine a classroom where most are behaving "normally" (whatever that may mean), a few are somewhat boisterous and one or two are distinctly OTT. For me, the KT88s created a boisterous character, sometimes bordering on the OTT with elements of music being overemphasised. By comparison, the EL34s offer a much more cohesive listening experience without "histrionics" but still having character of the right kind. The KT88s will be kept as temporary cover or (less likely) for A-B purposes but it's hard to see them ever being a long-term option with the R8 in my system(s). Just for completeness, I listened in both triode and ultra-linear mode and the bass emphasis was even more notable in UL mode. Later, on day 2, a Bluesound Node 2i arrived (B-stock, nice saving) having been bought specifically as the source for the second system. Out came the Cocktail Audio, in went the Node 2i with the R8 still hooked up to the S40s. Immediately noticeable was the difference in music presentation when comparing the output from the Cocktail Audio to the output of the Node 2i. The soundstage was wider with the Node 2i but there was less definition in the lower frequencies. After a couple of days, some tweaking commenced. Firstly, using the onboard tone controls of the Node 2i, the treble was slightly upped and the bass slightly reduced. That helped. Lower frequencies were still a touch "spongy" but less so. Up to this point, most of the listening with the EL34s had been done in triode mode. Switching to UL mode made a further difference to the LFs (firmer), small but definite and, for me, an improvement. Suffice to say, I really really like the R8 setup overall. Unsurprisingly, I did an A-B between the R8 and my existing main system (NAD C 658 pre / streamer / DAC + PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp). With the above mentioned tweaks in place, it is a surprisingly close call. Even allowing for the possible influence of "buyer justification" still being a factor, I'm pretty confident of this being objective: the NAD/PS Audio offers slightly more detail and resolution in the upper and mid frequencies, more so with lower frequencies. The soundstage of the R8 is notably bigger (width, depth, height) and the overall presentation is slightly warmer. Having switched back to the R8 after listening to the NAD/PS Audio, I had no immediate desire to move the R8 to its "second system" location. I just don't want to move it. Despite some external factors affecting the enjoyment (and amount) of listening to music, what I am hearing with the R8 is thoroughly enjoyable. I've not reached a definitive conclusion yet but maybe, just maybe, the audio conveyed by the R8 is just that fraction more "musical". For example, the decay of a piano note or acoustic guitar just lingers that tiny bit longer. In rock music (usual suspects), lead guitars generally sound fatter with the R8 which I tend to like but know there will be others who prefer a sharper, edgier presentation. For some music, "lush" would be a fair description but, at least IMO, it definitely doesn't mean "mush". Is it possible the R8 could end up in the main system, usurping the NAD & PS Audio? Honestly, that hasn't been ruled out. But, I'll wait to see if this is just the temporary effect of lingering "buyer's justification". Will there be more tweaks? Well, tube rolling is one rabbit hole I'm hoping to avoid! But, I already have a PSU upgrade kit on the way for the Node 2i and it will be interesting (to me at least) to hear what difference, if any, that makes. Also, further down the road, an external DAC for the Node 2i? Maybe. The Denafrips Pontus II looks mighty tempting and whilst that might be overkill for a second system, it certainly wouldn't be for the main system . To wrap up with a couple of miscellaneous matters. Other reviewers have said, amongst many other things, different SL7 tubes will affect the audio character. I haven't rolled those tubes and, barring a cheap opportunity, I probably won't. Also, the dynamics of the R8 have been described as "...not super fast but not too slow...". The latter I would broadly agree with but with a caveat: it will vary hugely depending on tubes, mode and external source units. At the time of posting, I hadn't listened to the headphone output. I may or may not update later. Above all, happy listening all.