Who doesn’t absolutely love the idea of an integrated tube amp for under a grand? What I don’t love is what you usually end up with when you get an integrated tube amp for under a grand. I know the price point is a hard one to hit, especially if you plan to run a business at the same time. So when I was asked to do a review on the tec-on audio SE34i, a $499 integrated amp, I was both excited and a little frightened. In the usual fashion I contacted the manufacturer and coordinated the delivery of the amp. Because of signature and delivery issues, I usually have things like this delivered to work. A couple of days later there was a larger than expected box at my desk clearly labeled “tec-on audio”. Right away, I was impressed by the box, nice heavy weight cardboard with plastic straps (good for lifting the box in to the car). Speaking of lifting, I was surprised to find the box of an 8 watt integrated weighing in at 35 pounds.
- 8 Watts r.m.s. per channel, class A Ultra-Linear Circuitry, SRPP
- Point-to-point wiring (except for the bias control)
- 6-way binding posts for 4 and 8 Ohms speakers
- Total Harmonic Distortion (T.H.D.) @ 1kHz, 8 Ohms: Less than 1% at 8 Watts
- Frequency Response: 20Hz -22 kHz (-1 dB)
- Background Noise Level: Less than 3.5 mV r.m.s. at 8 Ohms
- Signal to noise ratio: 90 dB Input sensitivity: 600 mV Input Impedance: 50 KOhms
- Power Source: 120VAC/240 VAC switchable
- Power Consumption: 70 Watts
- Dimension: 12″ (W) x 10″ (D) x 6 1/2″ (H) Weight: 28 lbs
- Price: $499
- EL34 or equivalent x 2
- 12AX7 or equivalent x 1
- 12AU7 or equivalent x 2
tec-on audio SE34i review
Once I got home I was very anxious to find out if there was a concrete brick stuffed in the bottom of this box somewhere. Turns out it was more like 3 copper bricks mounted to the back of this amp, but more on that later. Once I got the box opened, the high-end class of this budget product had me amazed. For starters I was surprised that an 8 watt, ultra-linear amp really did weigh in at almost 30 pounds. The amp is double boxed in rigid heavy cardboard, inside that padded casing; the attention to each detail became evident. Every piece has a specific place in the well-designed container. Sitting on top impossible to miss was a well written, but concise instruction manual. All that seemed to be missing was a “Read me first!” sticker. The amp itself is very well isolated in the bottom portion of the box. Every tube was in a properly sized slot; labeled V1, V2, V3, V4, and V5, inside their own separate Styrofoam isolated enclosure directly under the instruction manual. There is a very attractive corresponding diagram on the amp to ensure that every tube ends up in the right socket. Another diagram lists substitute tube options. This additional information can be very helpful for amateur tube rolling sessions. The manual includes very detailed instructions on tube insertion to ensure that the initial setup goes smoothly. A paragraph on wearing gloves when handling tubes would be a good addition. Other then that it is an excellent first time tube owners manual. I have to admit that before I even heard a single note from this amp I was impressed by the professional presentation of the SE34i.
Once the amp was out of the box with the tubes inserted, my wife took one look at it and gave it the closest thing I ever get to her blessing; “Hey, that’s cute!” So with that, off it went to the listening room to begin breaking in. The first thing I played was an album by Anna Nalick called “Wreck of the Day” [Expanded]. Not because I wanted to hear something special but just because that is the first CD in my Female Vocalists playlist. Before I even left the room I noticed the bass notes were much more pronounced then I had expected from an 8 watt budget amplifier. I also noticed that some of the texture and guitar pick detail I am used to from this recording was missing. Since the SE34i was in the very beginning of its break in stage, I wasn’t worried about any of that.
The initial system comprised of the SE34i, stock power cord, Dayton Audio interconnects and Dayton Audio SCP-6 speaker cables, a Roku Soundbridge M1000 (uncompressed audio files served wirelessly) and a pair of Fritz Frequencies stand mounted monitors. I played a random mix of music including, Jazz, Classical, Blues, Bluegrass, Classic and 90s Rock, Country, and even some Christmas music during the break in period. I have to say that even though I often wasn’t in the same room, I was impressed with what I was hearing. After around 50 hours or so of playing, I became concerned about some of the things I was and wasn’t hearing. I contacted tec-on to inquire as to why the sound was clean, but not as detailed and dynamic as I had expected. It seemed like I could hear a hint of more depth somewhere in there, I just couldn’t seem to get the amp to fully blossom. Once I contacted Fritz about my loudspeakers it became obvious that I chose to review an amp that my custom monitors couldn’t drive, at 82db efficiency they’re not an easy load to handle. So I hooked up some LJM Originals Super Monitors that I had on loan to see if they would be a better option, I have to say I was absolutely floored by the immediate change. At 92db efficiency I was now hearing all of the detail and complexity that was clearly being hinted at on my normally wonderful Fritz monitors. These two stand mounted speaker designs both use Dynaudio drivers, but the LJM Originals use a much more efficient version. The moral of the story is that in order for the SE34i to shine, it needs to be matched to speakers that are at least 88db efficient. In the case of the tec-on audio SE34i, the more efficient the loudspeaker the better detail and clarity you will get.
Matching up a low watt amp to high efficiency speakers can create a wonderful sound, but sometimes there is still something missing in the total system. Just plugging in the more efficient speakers solved the biggest problem, but I still felt that something didn’t quite match. I once knew one of the world’s really great system builders. He has passed now, but he did impart some of his knowledge to me before leaving us behind. One of the things he taught me was that synergy is as important of a component as any other to a well built system. The best components in the world can sound only mediocre if the synergy is all wrong, and some normally mediocre components property matched can really sound wonderful. There are some basic caveats to putting together a good sounding system. One of the simple rules is to use one brand for as many of your electronics as possible; using an integrated amp is an easy way to do that. The most important lesson I remember though is that just because something doesn’t sound wonderful the first way that you hook it up, doesn’t mean the equipment can’t sound wonderful. Usually it means you have something in the system that doesn’t mesh with something else in the system. Sometimes a small change like a set of interconnects, or using a wooden platform instead of a marble or metal one can make a huge difference. In this case it would appear that I was trying to drive a well built sports car with flat tires. (I had too much resistance in both the cables and the loudspeakers.) I added more efficient speakers, and dug up some Audioquest Sidewinder interconnects, matched those up with the Audioquest Type 6 speaker cables and I really started to hear the SE34i shine. I though that just over $100 in cables was a fair price to match with a $499 integrated. Once I got the right combination of equipment I was happily speeding down the path to audio paradise.
By audio paradise I don’t mean to imply that this integrated is a $499 miracle, there are of course going to be some compromises that need to be made to get an integrated in to that price point. I am very excited to say that tec-on did not the chose to cheap out on the power supplies. The heart and soul of a tube amp lives in its power supplies, and that isn’t any secret. The power supplies are the most expensive component and also oddly enough the first place bargain tube components often look to find cost savings. tecon didn’t go this route on the SE34i, and I have to give them a standing ovation for that. There isn’t any of the tube bloat, or tone control issues that are common in inexpensive tube equipment. I attribute this quality to the heavy weight power supplies.
While the weight was an indication of tec-on audio’s determination to build a quality product, it was the rest of what I saw that really made me understand the complete dedication of this company to build quality products. The SE34i doesn’t appear to be a shoddy product by any standard that I can find. The green paint isn’t chipped and doesn’t appear to have any defects, the screws are all tight to the touch and the volume and source selection knobs aren’t loose or particularly light. The terminals in the back are all nice and firm and the 6 way binding posts seem to spin freely, and hold a nice connection. The binding posts and RCA plugs are also nicer then average for this price point. This isn’t just a well built product for $499. It is a well build product for any price.
While my listening room isn’t the greatest layout, it is all I have to work with. I am familiar with its limitations and characteristics. Bearing all of that in mind, the soundstage of this piece of equipment was actually pretty wide but kind of shallow compared to what I am used to hearing in this room. There is a depth that this space lends itself to that just wasn’t conveyed very well. I’m not a soundstage junkie, I do require a certain level of width and depth and I think that this piece of equipment in this space, just barely meets my requirement. I tried several speaker positions and bringing the speakers a few feet in to the room did improve the sound, it still wasn’t what I am used to. I moved the complete rig, including the SE34i to my bedroom, which is a much smaller room and square instead of the short side of a rectangle. The soundstage improved immediately. Tube upgrades will help in this arena as well. So all hope isn’t lost, in the right room the soundstage of this piece defiantly redeems itself.
One of my favorite songs to reference imaging is “The Unionhouse Branch” on the Alison Krauss and Union Station’s “Lonely Runs Both Ways” CD. This entirely instrumental piece very accurately places every instrument and musician in a very well laid out three dimensional images. On the tec-on the higher frequency instruments are difficult to differentiate from each other. For instance it wasn’t as easy with the SE34i integrated as it is with my reference system to discern the fiddle from the mandolin in this recording. While I think for the price these differentiations are minor, but are still worth mentioning. This system also imaged better in my bedroom as opposed to my listening room.
Something I like to hear from my music is texture and detail. This is where some budget manufactures can’t quite get it right. It is also where I will go back to that Anna Nalick piece I mentioned earlier, when I heard it again in the final system the detail and texture I couldn’t quite find in the initial system was once again in evidence. These characteristics were not as tangible as they are with the more powerful system I usually listen to. These are some of the things that are often lost when the pieces don’t exactly match up.
While the review is based on the product as it ships, I did play with several upgrade possibilities for the amp. As I mentioned earlier I tried several interconnect and speaker cable combinations. I tried to keep the spirit of the lower cost of this equipment in mind. The sound of the SE34i was pleasantly changed by several different combinations. I encourage potential buyers to try everything they can get their hands on. The most dramatic difference that I saw was when I replaced the power tubes with Electro-Harmonix EL34-EH tubes. With a list price of around $20 and typical internet pricing of around $15 per tube it is well worth the 30-40 bucks. The midrange filled in much clearer and the soundstage depth issue was greatly improved by this one upgrade. I only saw a small upgrade by using a nicer power cord, and replacing the preamp stage tubes didn’t make a tremendous difference either. If you want to get all you can out of this product by all means, replace all of the tubes with higher quality alternatives. On a bang for the buck scale I would have to give the power tubes an 8 and all the rest of the upgrades combined around a 3 or 4.
Conclusions about tec-on audio SE34i
The bottom line is as long as you don’t have any ambition to drive the neighbors in to the streets, and you have a decent pair of efficient speakers you too could find yourself surprised at how impressed you are with this well built piece of equipment. While the imaging and soundstage aren’t on par with $2500 worth of separates, it is defiantly on par with anything else I have heard for $499. While in my case this integrated would work best in my bedroom, it could be a great dorm room system. But the best way I can think to utilize the SE34i would be to make it the centerpiece of an affordable starter system. So as I repackage this piece to send it back, I am still both excited and a little frightened by how much this quality company is willing to give you for the money.
- Roku Soundbridge M1000 Network Music Player (WAV files served wirelessly) Quicksilver Audio Silver Mono amplifiers
- Norh ACA2B Preamplifier
- Fritz Frequencies loudspeakers
- LJM Originals Loudspeakers
- Dayton Audio interconnects (3 foot)
- Dayton Audio SCP-6 speaker cables (6 foot) Audioquest Sidewinder interconnects (3 foot) Audioquest Type-6 speaker cables (10 foot) Electro Harmonics EL34-EH Tubes
external link: Se34i on Tec-on website
from aﬀordableaudio, By Jeff Brown