Marc Mickelson

Authorized Mesa Engineering Dealer

October 1997

The Mesa Tigris: A River (of Fun) Runs Through It

There are any number of reasons that we listen to music--to relax, to enjoy, to learn. These go hand in hand with perhaps the main reason the high end exists: assembling an audio system and listening to music through it is F-U-N fun. And shouldn't it be? Yes, music is art, which makes it a serious thing, but that doesn't preclude it from creating joy in the heart and mind of the listener. And we at SoundStage! embrace this ideal: we write reviews because it's great fun to listen to great music--and we want to spread the word.

Mesa Engineering is a company that understands the high concept of high-end fun--the performance and flexibility of their Tigris integrated amp proves it. In addition to its standard features, controlling a number of source components and driving your speakers, the Tigris can double as a high-quality headphone amplifier, so both your speakers and headphones will benefit from the pure tone of the Tigris's many tubes. Two unique features, a selectable output mode and adjustable negative-feedback control, make the Tigris almost boredom-proof. Want a different sound? Just dial it in. More than any of this, however, the Tigris offers a high level of performance at a relatively affordable price: $2495.

Choosin' Man Blues

The Tigris uses eight matched EL84s and matched quartets of 12AX7s and 6V6s. It has a built-in auto-bias circuit, so its owner won't have to make tube adjustments--no stooping around your prized equipment with a screwdriver (of the steel variety at least) in hand. The Tigris can be switched to run in any of three different output modes, producing 35 watts of power in full pentode, 28 watts in 2/3 pentode, and 20 watts in 2/3 triode. The four-position negative feedback control dials in an amount of negative feedback based on the output mode the amplifier is in, anywhere from 0 to 12 db. Thus there are a dozen possible combinations of output mode and negative feedback, more than enough choices for any well-adjusted or neurotic audiophile.

Even with all of the inherent flexibility, operating the Tigris is a cinch: flip on the AC mains switch to let the tubes warm up, push the front-panel buttons--one per channel--to take the Tigris from warm to operate (the LEDs on the front will glow more brightly to tell you this), choose the input, and then adjust the volume. Because you can make changes to the output mode and feedback while the Tigris is on and playing music, tuning your system is a simple matter of flipping the mode switches, turning the negative-feedback knob and then listening. If after you've hooked up the Tigris you notice hum coming through your speakers, flip the ground switch from coupled to isolate, or vice-versa, and you'll probably eliminate it. If you want to listen to headphones, plug them into the front-panel jack and then throw the switch at the rear, which redirects the signal from the speakers to your chosen 'phones. Mesa eschews the use of a cheap op-amp to drive the headphone jack, so the switch allows the Tigris to operate as a high-quality dedicated headphone amplifier and still take advantage of the various adjustments. In a unique move, the Tigris includes a set of separately adjustable line-level outputs--for either bi-amping, remote connection to another amplifier, or use with a subwoofer. In the next few months I'll be reviewing the Mesa Baron amplifier and using it along with the Tigris to bi-amp my ProAc Response 4s, so stay tuned.

The Tigris uses the same substantial Tiff speaker binding posts and RCA jacks as the nearly twice-the-price Baron, and when it comes time to retube, Mesa will sell factory-matched sets to the original owner for 50% off the standard price, currently a $77 song. Mesa recommends 100 hours of break in on a new set of tubes. The Tigris is quite beautiful, with its field of tubes displayed proudly out front. It comes with a protective tube cage, but you'll want to use it only if you have to. Does anybody make a tube cage that's something less than butt-ugly? Perhaps it's fruitless, any visual obstruction to the glowing tubes being a bad thing, so nobody tries. Memo to manufacturers: TRY.

System Two

I first assembled a budget reference system for my review of the Meadowlark Audio Kestrel loudspeakers, and although the equipment in that system has changed, the guiding principle remains the same: to gather components that don't cost an arm and a leg but provide sound quality that's far greater than their prices might suggest. I've purposely neglected to address every minute audio detail with this system, believing that we reviewers often leave our readers behind when we endlessly tweak every part of our systems--and then write about everything we've done. Some people don't want to surrender an entire room and all of their free time to the church of audiophilia, so with my second system at least, I've tried to keep my wits about me.

Along with the Kestrels and the Tigris, I used a full set of DH Labs Silver Sonic interconnects and speaker cables (review forthcoming) and three different CD players: a Technics SL-XP7 portable with MASH conversion, a hefty Teac ZD-3000, and a CAL Audio DX-2 (another future review item). I also had on hand a set of older Sony headphones (model MDR-41), a good-sounding pair that I've owned for a number of years and thus know well. I set the Tigris on a Target amp stand and the various CD players on a three-inch-thick slab of oak that itself rests on a pair of stone pavers. Sandbags are spread about to minimize the effects of resonance. All components are plugged into a computer-grade surge/spike protector that goes into a non-dedicated AC outlet.


As you might be able to guess, the Tigris is not a simple piece of equipment to evaluate. Once you have one of its combinations of output mode and negative feedback pinned down, you switch to another and it's a whole new ballgame, or nearly so. Let me state, however, that all of the versatility you have with the Tigris is not a gimmick: it works and in ways that can make the music much more involving. Your results with each combination will vary based on your ancillary equipment and especially your tastes. No piece of equipment will please all of the people all of the time, but the Tigris makes a valiant try at satisfying a large cross-section of music lovers--a high and honorable design goal.

I used the Tigris initially with my ProAc Response 4s (which it drove easily) to gauge its general sonic character in a system I know well. However, I formed my listening impressions with the Meadowlark Kestrels, a more likely companion. With the Tigris driving the Kestrels, I found that the best overall combination of output mode and negative feedback was 2/3 pentode and zero. To my ears, this created the best blend of bass slam--which the Tigris in all-pentode mode can do with aplomb--and sweetness. Two-thirds triode with any amount of negative feedback was too dark and distant with the Kestrels, but 2/3 triode with no negative feedback was a close second to 2/3 pentode/zero. (Are 2/3 of you still with me?) With my Sony headphones, however, 2/3 triode with varying amounts of negative feedback ruled, adding a bit of sugar to offset the tartness of the Sonys. Of course, other speakers and headphones--as well as other listening tastes--will mandate experimentation, but it's clear that just about anyone could find a happy set of settings with Tony the Tigris. It's grrreeeaaat!

I especially enjoyed kick-ass CDs like Sublime's eponymous major-label debut and Green Day's Insomniac. This should come as no great surprise given Mesa's other product line: guitar amps used by some of rock's biggest names. Tonally, the Tigris is all tube--sweet, spacious and dimensional--but its somewhat modest power output doesn't mean that you'll have to pair it with the sort of speakers the single-ended crowd lives with out of necessity. Although the Tigris delivers fewer than 40 watts in any mode, its sound certainly isn't wimpy. Through the Kestrels the Tigris made the floor in the spare bedroom that houses System Two rumble. Rock on!

But then who cares what the floor is doing when you're listening to music? I don't--and neither does Don Byron, whose joyous Bug Music has been making the rounds between my two systems. Through the Tigris, "The Dicty Glide" reveals layers of instrumentation and tons of space, and "Powerhouse" takes me back instantly to too many afternoons spent watching Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd falling off cliffs amidst the all-out production of the Acme Anvil Factory (listen to the tune and you'll know what I mean). Another CD that I've been playing often is Mark Eitzel's West. If you don't know about this one, take a chance and buy it. Eitzel's songs are often described as "gloom tunes," but I find something especially lovely about West. The Tigris brings through the weighty bass line that permeates the CD and finely resolves Eitzel's languid, breathy voice--no small feats for a piece of equipment that costs what the Tigris does. In the end, I didn't feel cheated listening to System Two with the Tigris in the driver's seat, even with my reference rig waiting patiently downstairs, and I had a ball flipping switches and turning knobs, trying to effect some other satisfying combination of settings. Does this make me an audio dweeb? (Note: This is a rhetorical question only.)

Hold That Tigris!

The Mesa Tigris is an unusual piece of equipment--high value because of its sound quality and versatility, and a lot of fun for the same reasons. It's a tube piece through and through, serving up the space-and-dimension thing in heapin' helpings, but it has enough punch in the bass to make you forget about the tubes and just jam. And I guess for these reasons too it's a fine audio value--and a piece of equipment that should impress many listeners. System Two has never sounded better, but the Tigris shouldn't be confined to your spare-bedroom system--unless that's where you listen to your favorite music.

Years ago, a friend of mine had what we both thought was the coolest piece of audio gear: a whopper Yamaha integrated amp, all silvery and with tons of lights and knobs. It sounded pretty good hooked up to his AR speakers--or so I thought then--and we listened to a ton of music through it: AC/DC, Rush, even James Taylor (I still love his Greatest Hits). Nowadays I'm an audiophile--even worse, a reviewer--and, alas, simple enjoyment is harder to come by, what with all of the tweaking and CD swapping and deadlines and....

You know where I'm headed with this. Audition a Tigris and have a blast.

...Marc Mickelson

Mesa Engineering Tigris
Price: $2495 USD

Mesa Engineering
1317 Ross Street
Petaluma, CA 94954
Phone: 707-778-9505
Fax: 707-765-1503