Can a 3.5-watt amplifier rock your world?

Three and half watts may not sound like much, but you'd be surprised just how good this mini vacuum tube amplifier can sound.

Steve Guttenberg

Audiophiles never gave up on tube electronics. Sure, there's no shortage of great-sounding solid-state amps to choose from, but tube amps are still a hot commodity in the audiophile world. As good as solid-state amps can sound, they never sound like tubes.

Thing is, tube electronics are more expensive to build than solid-state gear, so when I hear about an affordable tube amp, I want to hear it.

The Miniwatt N3 Integrated Tube Amplifier uses a single ECC83 twin-triode tube feeding a single EL84 output tube per channel, and the amp features a switching power supply. The N3 delivers a healthy 3.5 watts per channel; it was designed in Hong Kong and it's built in China.

Yeah I know 3.5 watts doesn't sound like much, but the N3 made its presence known with a range of speakers, running from my Audioengine P4s ($249/pair), to Dynaudio Contour 1.1s, up to the mighty Zu Audio Essence towers ($3,600/pair). I can't tell you the N3 will work with every speaker, satisfy headbangers, or fill your loft with high-decibel sound. But those 3.5 watts will play louder and sound better than you would have thought. At night with your room lights turned down the tubes' soft orange glow will look way cool.

Measuring a scant 5.25 inches wide and 6 inches deep, the N3 will easily fit on a desktop system. It's beautifully built, with a thick metal chassis. The N3 is available in black or silver.

The N3's rear has just a single pair of RCA inputs Steve Guttenberg

Gripes: there's only one stereo input, with gold-plated RCA jacks, but the rear panel's transformers house three output jacks to accept 4-, 6-, or 8-ohm-rated speakers (you can only hook up one pair of speakers at a time). Output transformers are the heart and soul of any tube amplifier, and the N3's are custom units, designed for Miniwatt.

With a highly efficient speaker, like my Zu Essence, the N3 can make a big sound. Bass is seriously deep and tuneful. Granted, some tube amps have soggy bass, but the N3's low end is solid. Treble is pure and clean, which again, is not always true with tube designs. The real magic occurs in the midrange where voice, guitars, and pianos sound incredibly present and alive.

Jakob Dylan's new "Women + Country" CD had all that going for it with my Dynaudio Contour 1.1 speakers. The soundstage was big and wide, and the bass truly plumbed the depths.

Classic jazz recordings like Ella Fitzgerald's "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!" were even better. Fitzgerald's vocals blossomed between the Zu Essence speakers. She was all there, not just the voice; somehow the N3 brought her body and soul along for the ride. That's what tubes do, but the cost of entry is usually a lot higher than the N3's $378 suggested retail price, plus $50 shipping.

Miniwatt has its reasons, but the N3 doesn't come with an AC power cord, but you can easily buy one from your local hardware store for a few bucks.

Miniwatt sells direct from Hong Kong and it has one U.S. dealer, ALO Audio.

 

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