Elekit TU-8200DX Vacuum Tube Headphone/Integrated Amplifier
Is it Elekit or Erector Set?
Do you like to build stuff? Well, Elekit has you covered. They have been designing nice tube amplifiers in Japan for quite a few years, and they deliver these as kits. The TU-8200DX is a kit that is aimed at the fairly experienced kit builder as it requires soldering the components to the PC board as part of the assembly (some of Elekits other units have come with the PCBs completed). It's really made for the folks who like the idea of building an amplifier but don't want to take one of the free DIY amp plans that float about on the interwebs and source all the parts themselves. Pretty cool. As for me, I don't have the time, sadly, and it's been a few years since I build a kit like this (although I do know how to solder!). So the TU-8200DX was sent to me already built. My review unit was loaned by the North American distributor of Elekit, VK Music (www.vkmusic.ca).
The TU-8200 allows for a lot of flexibility. That's a very cool thing for the user, but it poses a bit of a challenge for the reviewer, because it's not feasible in the space allotted (or the time I have!) to fully review all the options. There are two major ways to change the sound of the TU-8200: tube rolling, and the operation mode of the amp. The TU-8200DX ships with 6L6GC power tubes, but also supports several other power tubes such as the KT66, KT88, EL34, 6550 (and others). The good news is that one can swap power tubes without need to re-bias as the TU-8200DX has an auto-bias feature. I stuck with the 6L6, however, because I didn't have suitable replacement tubes around. I DID replace the stock ElectroHarmonix tubes with vintage Tung-Sol tubes howeverboth the 6L6G's and the 12AU7 input tubesand not surprisingly the Elekit sounded better with the Tung-Sols (although the EH's were not bad at all).
The TU-8200DX also has three modes of operationTriode, Pentode, or Ultra-linear. I know from experience that amps which allow such changes will indeed sound noticeably different in each mode. However, the TU-8200DX requires opening the case and moving jumpers to change this setting. That's a shame, actually, because it makes meaningful review comparisons very difficult as quite a bit of time has to pass between listening to the different modes (the same is true for tube rolling of course). Triode mode delivers about 4 W into 8 ohms with the 6L6G tubes (so about 1 W into the 32 ohm impedance of the LCD-3), whereas 8W is available in Pentode. My review unit was delivered in Triode mode. My reviewing philosophy is to review the amp exactly as supplied, and simply comment on any changes I heard via tube rolling or other setting changes. So I reviewed the amp in Triode mode. My comments below should be viewed in that light.
Physically the TU-8200DX is nice enough looking, although if I had built it myself I would have left the stickers off of the top to make the look even cleaner. It's not exotic casework, but it doesn't look cheap either. Headphones used for the review were my usual duo of the Audeze LCD-3 and the Audio Technica W3000ANV. Sources were the Pioneer N-50 Network Media Player/DAC playing lossless and high-res digital audio files from a Mac Mini, and a Denon DP59L turntable with a Dynavector 20xH cartridge using the phono stage of my Pioneer SX-1980.
Is it Elekit or Drum Kit?
I always wonder what will come out of review amps once I fire them up and first listen. I always run the amp in for 10-12 hours after getting it without playing the amp at all, and then I let them warm up for an hour on the day of first listening before I strap the cans to my head. And then I eagerly press play and let the music flow. And in the case of the Elekit, flow it did indeed, and in a very pleasing way. Listening to Band of Horses, "Factory" from "Acoustic at the Ryman" there was nice fullness, and the soundstage was very well defined and deep. I'm normally not a soundstaging freak, but the acoustic space was presented so naturally that I fell right into the performance, which was really coolI love it when this happens, and sadly, it doesn't always. Soundstage width and depth were both excellent, and I could really hear the space of the Ryman Theater.
Vocals were especially enthralling via the Elekit. As the poor souls who have read multiple of my reviews will know, I am a big fan of Alison Krauss, and when playing "Take Me For Longing" from Alison Krauss and Union Station's "New Favorite" the TU-8200 did an excellent job rendering her delicate voice in all its beauty. If an amp gets Alison Krauss wrong, it's not for me. The TU-8200 got her very, very right.
The same was true of Holly Cole...and Patricia Barber...and Simone Simons (from the band Epica)...and Tarja Turunen...and Suzanne Vega...I could go on and on. Female vocals of all sorts were luscious, natural, and very fun to listen to on the Elekit.
And not just female vocals. While I was writing this up, "If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot came on. I stopped typing, and closed my eyes. Goose bumps ran up and down my arms. This is a truly beautiful song, and it sounded absolutely fantastic on the Elekit via the LCD-3's, to the point where I could just feel the heartbreak that the song oozes. Great stuff.
Donald Fagen's "New Frontier" from "The Nightfly" was a little more of a mixed bag. Overall it sounded very good, and as before the midrange especially was excellent, as was the imaging. The treble was also very clean and nuanced, if perhaps just a tiny bit shelved down at the very top. Treble detail though was excellent, and this track will really test that as there are some subtle instrumental bits that need to be resolved. I did feel that Elekit is a little lacking in bass weight with the stock tubes in Triode mode. It's not a fatal flaw, and I only noticed it with certain tracks...but with those tracks, it was pretty clear to me that there was a little missing in the lowest octaves. It's not a roll offdeep bass was there when called forbut rather what I heard was just less overall bass weight that my reference amps deliver on the same tracks. I sometimes noted a bit of congestion on some tracks that have a lot going on. This also wasn't pronounced or severe, but on complex rock music things sometimes were not as well delineated as I have heard.
Neither of the last two little nits I picked are real surprises for an amp using pentode tubes being run in triode mode, in my experience, and I felt a bit sheepish about not trying the same tracks in the different modes. But there were three reasons for my not doing this: as stated above, I like to review amps as supplied to me; I didn't have the time and space; but perhaps most importantly, but I would NOT have traded the midrange magic for more bass, which is very likely what changing it to Pentode or Ultra-linear modes would have done based on my experience with amps that allow this sort of switching.
And on many tracks the music was so enthralling overall that I didn't notice either of these little nits. Joanna Newsom's "Peach, Plum, Pear" from "The Milk-Eyed Mender", which is mostly just her very unique voice and a harpsichord, was absolutely riveting. I also could hear all of the gritty detail of the sax blowing on "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" from Charles Mingus's seminal "Mingus Ah Um". This album is a great detail testerif you don't want to clean out all three of the tenor saxes after playing this track, then you didn't get all the detail you could have.
It's Elekitand you may want to get it!
So overall, I thought the Elekit's rendering of music I love was very enjoyable, and while yes, I would have preferred just a bit more bass weight with the stock tubes in Triode mode, the presentation was coherent, natural, and organic to the point that I really wasn't generally bothered by this. The all-important midrange was just gorgeous, and I was never fatigued or annoyed by the TU-8200DX, which is great. And again, it's really important to note that it's highly likely that one would get more bass in Pentode or Ultralinear modebut typically this comes at the expense of some of that midrange magic that the TU-8200 had in Triode mode. The good news is you can experiment with this to your heart's content...although I would have preferred an external switch!
The TU-8200DX is $725, but it's tough for me to know what to compare it to pricewise to some extent because the buyer is supplying the assembly labor. I do think it compares quite favorably however to other tube amps I have reviewed (somewhat) recently in the $1,200-1,500 range, and those didn't offer the ability to drive speakers (although one needs a very efficient speaker indeed to work well with a 4-8W amp). In any case I think the Elekit is a fine sounding headphone amp as reviewed, and it offers flexibility beyond what I could explore in the context of this review. If you like to tinker, the 8200DX might be just what you are looking for. I certainly enjoyed listening to it.