December 2003Eastern Electric MiniMax Preamplifier
by Jason Thorpe
A case in point sits right here in front of me. The $1195 Eastern Electric MiniMax is the cutest little jewel of a preamplifier, and is that rarest of new products: an entry-level unit that looks and sounds like it costs more. Although diminutive in size, its not short on features, finish or sound quality.
The first thing I noticed about the MiniMax, as I removed the top layer of Styrofoam from the packing box, was the glossy, gray metalflake automotive-quality paint with which the chassis and transformer top were finished. This is miles ahead of the typical black crinkle finish with which most budget -- and even many pricey -- units leave the factory. The front panel of the MiniMax is a thick slab of aluminum, with the edges nicely finished and the ends thinner than the middle. This silk-screened panel is the home for the volume and selector knobs, each of which has a smooth, positive feel. The power switch has a solid, definite feel to it, and power is indicated by a blue LED. The MiniMax doesn't have remote control.
The back of the MiniMax is equally business-like. There are RCA jacks for the three inputs and two pairs of outputs. Absent is a tape loop and headphone jack, which is fine given the reasonable price of the unit. Id rather have the money go into the guts of a preamp at this price point than skimp on sound quality in favor of a few features that would likely see little use. Also present on its backside are an IEC jack and a fuse holder. Instead of generic rubber feet, the MiniMax rests on aluminum footers that are capped with a Sorbothane-like rubber, which is a nice touch given the budget price. The MiniMax measures a petite 12 1/2"W x 5 3/4"D x 4 1/2"H and weighs just under 9 pounds.
Manufactured in China and imported into the US by Morningstar Audio, the MiniMax was designed in Hong Kong by Alex Yeung, the president of Eastern Electric. The circuit thats employed in the MiniMax is a basic voltage amplifier, which is directly coupled to a cathode follower. The tubes are 12AU7s, and because they perform different tasks, these two tubes dont need to be a matched pair, and in fact can be chosen for complementary or contrasting sonic values. The MiniMax is tube rectified, using a 6X4 tube and a smoothing choke. There are no coupling caps between the stages, and, according to Eastern Electric, the circuit is simple and straightforward. Eastern Electric uses Rifa caps, low-noise, high-precision metal-oxide film resistors, and point-to-point wiring. While the warranty is stated as two years and 90 days on the tubes, Bill OConnell of Morningstar Audio, who imports the MiniMax, says that customer satisfaction is his primo priority, so each case outside of that period will be looked at on an individual basis.
For the duration of its stay in the Thorpe household, the MiniMax functioned perfectly, with nary a pop, hiss or any other untoward behavior.
I first injected the MiniMax between my Museatex Bidat DAC/Rotel RCD-975 transport combo and Musical Fidelity A3cr amplifier. In this system it was driving Tannoy TD10 speakers via Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8 speaker cables. Interconnects were Solo Crystal Oval, and the digital cable was Digital Oval, both from Analysis Plus. Power cords were cheap'n uglies going straight into the wall.
In the main system, the MiniMax received its signals from my Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz analog combo by way of a Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature phono stage. From there, it passed information to EAR 509 tube monoblocks, with the last step being Hales Transcendence Five speakers. All cables were Virtual Dynamics David series (review forthcoming), with the power cords plugged into a Chang 6400 ISO conditioner.
Ive been reading Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn, which traces the events leading up to and immediately following the two recording sessions that gave birth to this seminal jazz album. In the meat of the book, the author gives a track-by-track commentary, which I found absolutely fascinating given that Ive been listening to this album for 25 years without having a clue about what was really going on musically. I played the Classic Records reissue of Kind of Blue [Classic/Columbia CS8163] while reading about each track and how it developed. The MiniMaxs layered, three-dimensional presentation did nothing to detract from the music; rather its slight lushness actually enhanced the musical meaning and helped me discern subtle nuances such as the bowed bass on "Blue in Green."
"Flamenco Sketches" from the same album pointed out the small price to be paid for this lushness. Coltranes moody sax took on just the slightest bit of glare, gaining some additional bite above and beyond whats on the record. Jeff Tweedys voice on "Radio Cure" from Wilcos excellent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Sundazed LP 5161] also showed this upper-midrange emphasis. While this trait is noticeable, both Tweedys voice and Coltranes sax are already rather forward in the mix, and it certainly doesnt take much, system-wise, to make them stand out even more.
If youve read any of my other reviews, you most likely have noticed that I jump around the musical map with my choices of music. Unlike some of the other SoundStage! reviewers who like to use the same music in order to maintain consistency between reviews, I feel that my choice of music can tell you almost as much about a component as can the resultant sound. On the odd occasion when Im in the mood for a good buffeting, I load the turntable with Mahlers Symphony No.9. The version I turn to most often (its the only one I have) is Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Berlin Philharmonic [Angel SB-3652]. This angular piece of music didnt intimidate the MiniMax one bit. Youd think that you might need a big, expensive preamp in order to do justice to a big, challenging work like Mahlers 9th, but the MiniMax took charge admirably. The monstrous drum whacks on side two were reproduced with admirable depth and solidity, and the preamps textured and harmonically rich nature made for a relaxed yet detailed listen. I dont often listen to all four sides of this monster in one sitting as its angular atonality intimidates me, but this time I did.
Turning to something less intense, I dropped Rickie Lee Jones eponymous LP [Warner BSK 3296] onto the turntable. Here again the MiniMax did stalwart duty, as its propulsive drive perfectly complemented the bouncy, upbeat nature of the music. The cymbals on "Weasel and the White Boys Cool" had a delicious shimmer, and as I sit here typing, my head is nodding to the music and my foot is most definitely tapping. Theres no sense of murkiness to the MiniMaxs portrayal of rhythm, and this was nowhere more apparent than when listening to Talking Heads Stop Making Sense [Sire 92 51861]. "Slippery People" had an incredible sense of bounce and dynamic attack, and with the volume wicked up to neighbor-alienating levels, there was no sense of strain intruding between me and my all-time favorite white-man funk.
The aforementioned cymbals showed off the delicacy with which the MiniMax treats the high frequencies, and here it rivals the performance of any preamp Ive yet had in my system in terms of pure enjoyment. I must state, however, that the subtle, shimmery, Narnia-like quality of the MiniMaxs treble may not be wun hunnerd purcent accurate. If youre coming to the MiniMax directly by the way of a ruler-flat solid-state preamplifier, I can pretty much guarantee that youll find the sound to be of a rather different flavor. Be sure to realize, though, that the MiniMax isnt lush- and romantic-sounding in the manner of the vintage tube gear of yore. Its much more accurate and refined than those old matrons, providing instead an even-handedness thats sweetened with just a dash of tube richness.
Palpability of image is another of the MiniMaxs strong points. The Norwegian group Müm came out of nowhere last year and released a brilliant album appropriately entitled finally we are no one [Fat Cat Records FATLP 18], which is fast becoming one of my favorite chill-out-and-work records. This combination of ambient lounge lullaby and nursery rhyme contains a multitude of carefully crafted instruments layered on top of one another, resulting in a sparse, innocent soundscape. The MiniMax kept each instrument and sound distinct, while showcasing the liquidity of the midrange and highs, which resulted in an addictive, dense and delicious listen.
Another standout recording that showed what the MiniMax does best was Nirvanas Unplugged in New York [Geffen DGC 24727]. On "Oh Me," the bass had notable depth and richness that filled the room, while the guitar and drums hung in space with a reality that belied the MiniMaxs diminutive size and price. This album has a very immediate, in-yer-face sound, and its slightly forward mid-treble can limit my overall enjoyment of the music, as Im not always able to reach the high volumes necessary for full satisfaction. Not so with the MiniMax in the chain -- I was quite comfortable cranking it up louder than I normally would. Make no mistake, however: The MiniMax in no way lacks midrange bite and definition when they are called for. The massed horrns on "Villes Ville is the Place, Man" from Duke Ellingtons Blues In Orbit [Classic/Columbia CS8241] had the bite I expected, with the abrasive blat that makes a live brass section sound so dramatic.
Herein lies the paradox thats at the heart of this little preamp. While its slightly on the lush side of neutral, it doesnt give up anything in the detail department, and thats where it distinguishes itself from products that veil musical information in a tubey mist. Take Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Session [Latent Records Latex 5]. On "Misguided Angel," John Timmins backing vocals are very low in level on the chorus, and its easy to overlook them buried as they are beneath his sisters somnambulant voice. The MiniMax made it easy to sort out these vocal lines while still keeping the presentation rich, reverberant and musically enjoyable. This is no easy feat.
Late in the review period, I installed some of the NOS tubes that Bill O'Connell thoughtfully included with the MiniMax. After swapping back and forth through this box of rare truffles, I settled on the stock Chinese rectifier tube and two 1950s Hivac 12AU7 "tone monsters" (his name, not mine!). This combination took all of the good qualities that made the MiniMax distinctive and significantly exaggerated them. Where the midrange was originally palpable and textured, now it was much more so, and the sweetness of the treble accordingly became almost honey-like. While some might find this tubiness to be over the top in its presentation, I thought it was absolutely splendid. Although I dont think Id like to listen in this way all of the time, it made for a delicious holiday from neutrality -- one that Id certainly be happy returning to on a frequent basis.
Last year I reviewed the FT Audio LW1 passive preamplifier, a Reviewers Choice component. At $495, the LW1 is within a good-quality-interconnects price of the MiniMax, and since I still have the LW1 on hand, its a no-brainer to compare the two. These two units, while they profess to achieve the same task, couldnt go about it more differently.
The passive LW1 is pretty much an empty box with a potentiometer (albeit it uses FT Audios tricksy impedance-matching circuit), while the MiniMax is chock-full of active components. Listening to the two units shows up what youd expect, as the LW1 is the more tonally accurate of the two, lacking the delicious tonal richness of the MiniMax and substituting instead a more stripped-down, natural presentation. Bass-wise, the LW1 is tighter and more defined, with more snap on the leading edge of the transients. The MiniMax, on the other hand, seems to reach lower, adding a slight feeling of extension but at the price of a blurring of bass lines and the occasional lapse into boominess. Through the midrange, the MiniMax is slightly more forward, but with an increased sense of sonic depth and texture in comparison to the LW1.
With these two overachievers my affections swung back and forth, with each giving something up, and each getting something back. The active MiniMax has gobs of gain, while the LW1 necessitates more careful system matching. The MiniMax gives you the option of trying different tube types, whereas the LW1 doesnt even need electricity. The LW1 is truly accurate and neutral, while the MiniMax is rich and engrossing. In my opinion, you could build a no-compromise system around either of them.
While its fun to play with cost-no-object gear, its also a real joy to discover a product that performs above its price point, and in doing so gives those of us who dwell in the world of bills, creditors and responsibilities the opportunity to purchase great-sounding gear for cheap. The MiniMax preamplifier is such a product.
Although the MiniMax has a distinctive tube sound, its not overdone and isnt overpowering. Instead, its slightly lush, expressive sound quality provides great insight into the meaning of the music without ever becoming analytical. Add in a delightful sense of rhythmic assurance and youve got a juicy component with which to cuddle up on a cold winters night. As it deviates from neutrality slightly, the MiniMax most likely wont be for everyone, but then again, what is?
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