New Audio Frontiers Supreme 300B Special Edition Integrated Amplifier
The name says "New" but in fact New Audio Frontiers has been designing state-of-the-art vacuum tube amplifiers since 1980 in a small factory in Viadana, northern Italy. Their products are based on directly-heated triodes and are hand-assembled using some of the finest components available.
My interest in New Audio Frontiers (NAF) was sparked by an email from a reader who wrote that I simply must hear their latest amplifier. After a few exchanges, I contacted New Audio Frontiers who referred me to their US rep, Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound. My expectations rose considerably for two reasons: first, High Water Sound is located in downtown Manhattan, a figurative stone's throw from my home in Jersey City; and second, I have a high regard for Mr. Catalano, who shows excellent taste in choosing components (mostly from Europe) for his emporium. In my book, having someone like Catalano endorse NAF gives it immediate legitimacy.
Catalano's spent nearly a decade earning top honors at shows in less-than-ideal hotel suites. He really knows a thing or two about getting good sound. "Hello, Clement!," he said when I called, "Yes, I am the proud, official importer of New Audio Frontiers' latest, the Supreme 300B Special Edition!..."
He gladly extended a review opportunity and I raised the question whether the NAF 300B was another typical 300B amplifier? You know, rich in textures and great at sound-staging but overall lacking in speed, clarity and low end impact and control? That's always been my experience when shifting between solid state and tube. And it's also been my experience that it's easier to make a solid-state component sound like a tube design than the other way around.
The Supreme 300B Special Edition is one heavy integrated amplifier. At ninety pounds it is perhaps the heaviest integrated amp I've encountered in recent memory. Even a casual glance at the Supreme 300B SE reveals its Italian heritage—it is gorgeous with a wonderfully sculpted rose-gold and black chassis. This faceplate sets off a trio of control knobs for power, volume and input selection, and its carved mahogany side panels give it high marks for aesthetic excellence. In addition, this beauty even comes equipped with a remote control!
The two heavy-duty output transformers and power transformer have amorphous cores. Because they are located directly behind the tube section, the unit is back-heavy. The rear has five RCA inputs: direct, CD, aux, tuner, tape-in and tape-out. (Direct input bypasses the integrated circuit preamp making the Supreme 300B a pure power amplifier.) And there is a male IEC for AC power.
All in all, the Supreme 300B SE is well thought out and very handsomely built. It's retail price is $18,000 which, there is no denying, is expensive. But because it's an integrated, you get two fine sounding audio products in one chassis.
Amazingly, New Audio Frontiers has six specialists who started with the company in 1980! This loyal group includes talented technical and electrical engineers as well as a dedicated chassis designer. The NAF website provides additional technical information: The Supreme 300B Special Edition arises as a reply to our desire to create a new, no-compromise circuit using the well known direct heating triode 300B. The circuit presents, for each channel, two power tubes working in a particular Class A configuration in order to achieve great power and an improved damping factor. The power supply stage, as for the entire amplifier, is arranged in a dual mono configuration and designed to reach an optimal leveling and the best possible sonic results. The power stage presents, for each channel, two 300B, a particular configuration that supports the output power of 21 Watts per channel. The zero feedback circuit reaches a spectacular sound quality, thanks also to the high quality of the silver-plated copper Litz custom hand wound output transformer. The driver stage is composed, for each channel, by an E83CC and a 5687. The E83CC’s function is to magnify the level of the signal coming from the 5 line inputs. The 5687 takes on the function of driving the power tubes accurately. Thanks to our expertise and experience, we have discovered that this method of driving power tubes is much better and presents a bold ability to reproduce the tri-dimensionality of the soundstage. The sound reproduction achieved with the Supreme 300B Special Edition integrated amplifier satisfies the most demanding audiophiles.
Wearing the hat of an audio/music connoisseur for the past two decades has led me to some exotic locales as well as some exotic components. My audio values have shifted significantly over the years. I originally thought that power and finesse were everything. And to some extent that is still true, and especially so when it comes to purity of signal. And signal purity has a lot to do with the overall sound quality of the Supreme 300B SE.
The old adage, "It's not the size of the dog in a fight but the size of the fight in the dog" certainly applies to the Supreme 300B as well. I'll never forget my fourth or fifth encounter with an Audio Note (Japan) system, how amazingly musical these products are using a small pair of their own two-way loudspeakers. The experience convinced me once and for all that state-of-the-art sound can come in small packages.
Synergy, that elusive quality found in excellent systems, isn't something you simply go out and purchase. It usually takes a great deal of knowledge, intuition and a good measure of serendipity. Case in point, the amplifier under review, driving a pair of Sound Kaos Wave 40 loudspeakers (Switzerland, $20,000 the pair). These oval-shaped, high-efficiency (94dB) transducers coupled to the NAF 300B sound as pure as the driven snow; they have a synergistic relationship that is immediately audible.
What enamored me most about loudspeakers is how alive and truthful the 8" Enviee driver sounds. The level of harmonic "rightness" when playing traditional 60's straight ahead jazz, for example, feels utterly alive. The G9 Audio mono amps I have lived with for nearly two years sound stunning as well, but swapping in the Supreme 300B's make these particular loudspeakers literally disappear in a wall of three-dimensional sound staging, right before my ears.
The late, great composer Gil Evans's stirring arrangements capture my attention no matter how often I hear Miles Davis's timeless recording, Sketches of Spain. And with the Supreme 300s, the castanets weaving in and out became more realistic, expansive, dimensional, tonally precise and, above all, very beautiful. Most interesting of all is how this recording is infused with a dynamic prowess that belies the Supreme 300's modest power rating of 21 watts per channel! Treble energy is sweeter and a tad subdued, but in a way that makes this recording easier to listen to. There's no right or wrong here. Only music, the way we enjoy it the most. (Wikipedia states the release date for Sketches is July 18th, 1960, my birthday—thank you Mr. Davis).
It is challenging to speculate why. Are 300Bs that much more faithful to the inner harmonics than KT120s? Are KT120's more inclined to reach further out to frequency extremes? The G9 Audio Nero's sound is very impressive in both the bass and high-frequencies, however if I have learned anything in this hobby it's that synergy doesn't play by rules, specifications or theory. Back in the mid '90s I replaced a pair of 600 watt BAT mono amps with a pair of 12 watt KR Audio tube monoblocks for the exact same reasons: a synergistic affair that's haunted me for a very long time. And for the past six months, the Supreme 300B has proven that magic still lives in small packages. Yes, I do miss the overall control in the lower octaves offered by the more powerful G9 amplifiers (which actually appear to possess more power than their 85 watts suggest). And yes, I still aim toward purity first. But wouldn't it be delightful to combine power and finesse!
Intrigued by the Supreme 's direct input connection, I decided to try a few preamps. First up was the newest arrival, the $13,000 Italian-made Grandinote Domino. Here's a preamp that, along with Grandinote amplifiers, drove a pair of 93 dB efficient Leonardo planar ribbon loudspeakers with incredible low-level and pitch control as well as speed. Having the opportunity to hear these electronics in my home has been an absolute joy. Pairing the Domino with the Supreme 300B via a pair of Oyaide Tunami Terzo RR V2 interconnects and Tunami GPX-R V2 AC cords impacted the Sound Kaos in a similar fashion to what I heard with the Leonardos. The sound became quicker which led to better transients. Bass delineation and treble energy was ever-so slightly extended but never sounded overdone or bright. I loved the additional energy and the transparency using the direct input.
Blame it on the Sooloos as the source perhaps, but installing the Vemeer Audio Model Two preamp/DAC ($22,000) took the music to even further heights of sonic enjoyment. This tubed, French-made digital preamp is rich, detailed and as dynamic as any digital preamp I have used in my home. Moreover, its natural stance, harmonic substance, weight and ability to remain composed no matter the size or complication of the material told me plenty about this digital dynamo. It's internal DAC is far superior to anything else I've heard and, effectively provides the double whammy by being both an excellent preamp and a state-of-the-art DAC. It allowed me to enjoy the Sooloos music server that much more. In fact, I found pairing the Vemeer with the Supreme provided the greatest sense of musical "rightness" I'd heard since the latter's arrival.
In the end, I can find no fault with the New Frontiers Audio 300B Special Edition. It's auto-bias, hassle-free operation is a breath of fresh air in vacuum tube design. It's specified 21 watts per channel scarcely reveals its real mission statement: to overwhelm you with grace, harmonic rightness and state-of-the-art musicality. Nothing more and nothing less. Paired with Sound Kaos loudspeakers and Vemeer Audio DAC/preamp, I cannot recommend this (power) amplifier highly enough. At $18,000, the Supreme 300B is not inexpensive, but considering what else you can spend eighteen grand on, that may not get you half-way there, this purchase is a steal. Highly recommended and my Publisher's Choice Most Wanted Component 2016!
Price: $18,000 USA
Push Pull Tube Amplifier - Pure Class A, Zero Feedback
Output Tubes 4 x 300B
Tubes 2 x E83CC – 2 x 5687
Output Power 2 x 21 Watts RMS @8 Ohm / 5% THD
Frequency Response 15 Hz-60 KHz
Signal Noise Ratio 90dB
Output Impedance 4, 8 Ohms
Sensitivity / Input impedance 800mv/100K
Dimensions (w/h/d) 35 x 24 x 58 cm
Weight Approx. 45 kg