Tavish Design Vintage 6SL7 Phono Stage
The New York Audio Show 2015 was a more intimate affair than previous, held outside the five boroughs - at the Hilton Westchester in Ryebrook NY - and attended primarily by diehard audio enthusiasts willing to brave the travel outside the City proper. I attended during press hours with my brother-in-law, Tim, and a second time in more of a sprint with Clement Perry.
In my first pass through the show, I found Wax Rax and Tavish Design, LLC exhibited jointly in room 4016. I remembered Wax Rax from the year prior - very nice storage units (and one very cool 45 adapter), but Tavish Design was an unfamiliar brand. Tavish is a small manufacturer of affordable, high end vacuum tube audio products and it’s owner and designer, Scott Reynolds, was both friendly and approachable and filled me in on the company’s offerings. On exhibit were three products - an integrated amplifier and two phono stages - one entry level and the other a cost-no-object offering.
An engineer by trade, Reynolds worked for IBM for more than 25 years as an analog and RF integrated circuit designer (he still consults there 1-2 days a week). Along the way he developed a passion for tube-driven analog audio, designing and assembling products first for himself and friends before choosing to venture into the marketplace. The Minotaur Direct-Coupled Hybrid Vacuum Tube Amplifier was Reynolds' first product back in 2011. It was designed for a friend to drive his Maggies, in an effort to prove that tubes really could make a difference. Quoting the Tavish Design site "Our goal is to provide equipment that not only lets your music sound beautiful, but also looks good and is a pleasure to use. While we certainly don’t believe that specs tell the whole sonic story, we do insist on equipment that is reliable and measures well, as necessary first steps." Reynolds' son is responsible for much of the production; more than 50% in the summer, allowing Reynolds time for IBM consulting. Reynolds' son is in high school, going into 12th grade in the fall - that’s one dedicated and talented teen!
The Minotaur Direct-Coupled Hybrid Vacuum Tube Amplifier (their first web-offered product) takes advantage of modern components and circuit design techniques to combine the best features of vacuum tube and transistor audio power amplifiers. It was followed by the The Classic Vacuum Tube Phono Stage (MM / MC), an affordable phono stage said to offer high-end performance and exceptional value for vinyl LP enthusiasts. Tavish Design’s third product was their cost-is-no-object Adagio Vacuum Tube Phono Stage (MM / MC), which delivers affordable state-of-the-art performance in an all-vacuum-tube signal path. Their most recent product is a variant of the Classic named the Vintage Vacuum Tube Phono Stage, which uses the 6SL7GT, a tube long loved by audiophiles for its linearity and low noise. Reynolds confided that there more products are on the way. All products come with a 6-year limited warranty and are made in the USA.
I reached out to Reynolds for products to review. Being a small company with limited back stock and a growing pre-order/wait list, Tavish Design has only a limited number of demo units for reviewers. Intrigued, I asked for any of their demo units when they became available and received The Vintage Vacuum Tube Phono Stage (MM / MC) a few short weeks later. Reynolds was kind enough to send both tube sets offered with the unit, Tung Sol and Sovtek. The Tung Sol Reissue version ships with a selected low-noise input tube.
The Vintage Vacuum Tube Phono Stage
In our numerous email exchanges Reynolds wrote: "The Classic and Vintage are similar circuits using different tubes. The Classic uses the more common miniature tubes (5751, 12AX7, and 12AU7). The Vintage uses the octal 6SL7GT in all three positions. I designed the Vintage to take advantage of a couple of very well made & currently available 6SL7s, the Sovtek and Tung Sol Reissue. There are both audiophiles and tube enthusiasts who really like the 6SL7, and there aren’t many phono preamps out there that use it. Further ‘The 6SL7GT has been a favorite audiophile preamplifier tube for decades, and the Vintage 6SL7 Phono Stage puts it to best use in a modern update of a classic circuit. It’s not your grandfather’s phono stage - it offers high-end sound and performance, and exceptional value."
A visit to the Tavish product order page reveals that both The Vintage and Custom Vacuum Tube Phono Stages are available either fully assembled or as do-it-yourself kits, with all parts, including enclosure, and with surface-mount JFETs pre-installed on the circuit board. The blank printed circuit board is also available, for experienced DIYers. Tavish suggests downloading the Assembly and Setup Manual before ordering any of the kit versions, to be sure you are comfortable with the assembly process.
To help illuminate the choice of tube brands, Reynold has thoughtfully compiled a list of noise measurements, accessible on the Tavish website “downloads” page, made on a variety of currently available audio tubes. Both the Sovtek 6SL7GT/6H9C and Tung Sol Reissue 6SL7s are said to perform well, with the Sovtek among the lowest noise on the list.
Relaying a handful of the stand-out specs, the Vintage can accommodate any cartridge, be it MM, High-Output MC or Low-Output MC with an output of approximately 0.25mV or more. It has a MM gain of 41 dB and 61 or 53 dB MC gain, switch selected. The MM section has an all vacuum tube signal path and the transistor complement uses high quality parts for the MC preamp. This version offers a total harmonic distortion of .02 % at reference point output level into 22k Ohms, 1kHz. The Vintage features adjustable cartridge loading on both MM and MC inputs and linear regulated high voltage and heater supplies (no switching power supples). Impressive features in a good-looking powder-coat finished aluminum chassis that’s just 9” wide, 6” deep, 1.5” high (4” high to top of tubes).
The Tung Sol Reissue 6SL7GT
With the The Tung Sol tubes installed and the phono stage well into break in, I started feeding vinyl to the Vintage from my Braun idler, self-made arm and the Audio-Technica 440MLb cartridge at the ready to see what these Reissue 6SL7GT’s are about. I apologize for repeating a couple of great artists from review to review… I like what I like.
Ray LaMontagne’s latest Outoboros (RCA 2016) is a well-recorded and beautifully mastered piece of work. At first listen, I was somehow reminded of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in mood and tone. Unrushed, ‘Part One’ begins with warm percussive thumps and percussion with great body and delicacy that packs a punch, topped with Ray’s soft and ethereal vocal and great guitar sounds. The following track gives us a guitar growling around well-defined instrumentation, all with a great variety of textures. There s a nice pop to each percussive note and gritty whispered vocals with LaMontagne’s yearning edge and distorted elements use grind and crunch to great advantage. This is a very well mastered recording that really comes alive through the Tavish Design Vintage Phono Stage. Part One - Track 3 comes alive with impressive authority – the bass is tight and music dynamic, offered in a sort of restrained chaos within Ray’s firm grip. There is nothing retiring, unnecessary or gratuitous in the work – essential listening in my book.
The first track of Nik Bärsch’s Ronin ‘Llyria (ECM 2010), Modul 48, presents a nice depth to the stage and focused imaging, with tight transients and a generous depth to the piano and drums. Moody and contemplative, I enjoy Ronin’s overlapping time signatures and subtle shifts in melody. There’s a ‘spatty good’ sax with great body and texture, floating near center that’s not overpowering. This is a tune with low frequency impact and wonderfully subtle micro-dynamics. There’s a nice groove in Modul 52 with an intriguing rhythm. One can easily pin point the exact position of the keys on the piano. You hear great body and roundness to the singular keyboard notes and a very nice depth to the established groove throughout. It’s always fun to follow one rhythm and hear how the overlapping time signature falls around it.
This vinyl release of Mighty Sam McClain’s Give It Up To Love (Sledgehammer Blues 1992) goes back a while, but it’s a great showcase for McClain’s drive and restraint – his forcefully honest delivery comes through in the mix. The stand out track is ‘Too Proud,’ firmly grounded by the organ and rhythm section, allowing McClain to stretch vocally. There is a nice guitar tone throughout and nice snap to rim shots and cymbal play.
Cécile McLorin Salvant’s WomanChild (Mack Avenue Records LLC 2013) had been on my want list for some time. When I went to my record store on Record Store Day 2016 to participate in the madness, I found a sealed copy of Salvant’s debut release in the bins at a used price, I walked away, content with just that. I’m happy to have predicted that her sophomore release ‘For One To Love’ would bring her a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for 2016 and her 2013 debut is equally adventurous and texturally rich.
WomanChild is a relaxed affair with Salvant and minimal backing. The upright bass has a good, woody growl, the brushes sweet on a generous sound stage. The instrumentation is playful and the interplay telepathic – everything is very well rendered here. There are commanding piano textures when the keys are struck hard – crisp and clear – and a nice snap to rim shots with beautiful cymbal fills and crisp transients. Salvant’s vocals have a warmth and depth that belies her young age. Coquettish yet defiant, Salvant slays me with her variety and voracity in her elocution, imparting every sound a woman’s voice can possibly make, every mood at her whim. She expresses and explores all her voice has to offer, and then some. This woman is something else. The Vintage and Tung Sol’s are a perfect match.
A buyer’s selection of the Tung Sol Reissue 6SL7GT tube set includes a specially selected low noise tube for the input (the right front) position in the Vintage. Tavish marks it with a small yellow paint dot on the glass shell, down near the base. The review sample I received had no specially marked tube, nor flyer noting it’s inclusion, normally including a brightly colored flyer tucked into the first page of the manual to alert people about this. I reached out to Scott who immediately sent me out the special tube.
Reynolds commented “You may not notice a big difference. It only affects the signal-to-noise ratio of the moving magnet input, and only by a couple of dB (the SNR of the MC input is set by the JFET noise level). Where it can make a difference is when you have a high output MC cartridge (in the 1.0 – 2.0 mV range) that you want to use with the MM input, avoiding the MC JFET pre-preamp.” After installing this tube, I moved the Vintage into another system with a Benz Silver high output MC and it’s 2.0mV output and noted a slight improvement.
The Sovtek 6SL7GT/6H9C
After a couple of weeks with the Tung Sol tubes, I thought I’d switch over to the Sovtek 6SL7GT’s, which Scott was kind enough to include in shipment with the Vintage Phono Stage. The Sovtek 6SL7GT’s come standard issue with the Vintage unless the Tung Sol Reissue 6SL7GT’s are ordered as an upgrade.
Ella At Duke’s Place (Verve 1965) was up next and side 1, the ‘The Lovely, the Tender, The Pretty, The Hold Me Close Side’ always melts me. While the pressings I have aren’t the best sounding, the content always delivers - languishing, sultry, Ella dominates as she should and Duke delivers a wonderful sympathetic atmosphere with unhurried, lyrical instrumentation. Moving on to ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,’ there is no hurry here - the accompaniment is elegant and embracing, allowing Ella the space to emote so very softly and sweetly. With the Sovtek’s, things are a bit sterile and somewhat less exciting with less bloom than with the Tung Sol’s. ’In An Azure Mood’ lacked a bit of the impact and stage depth the of the Tung Sol’s. The faster side 2 seemed to not dig in as deep with the Sovtek 6SL7GT’s.
The Three (Nautilus Recordings), is an old favorite direct-to-disc recording, presented with great drive, rhythm and sparkle… Sample, Brown and Manne are obviously having fun here, and their enthusiasm is contagious - this trio is amazingly tight… yes, as the proverbial drum. Punctuating rhythms, sumptuous cymbal play abound - this is a real showcase for three world class players rendered very well by the Vintage and it’s Sovtek complement. As good as some recordings sounded throughout my time with the Sovtek’s I was itching to put the Tung Sol tubes back in. While the Sovtek’s conveyed the heart of some recordings, the spirit relayed by the Tun Sol Reissues was missing to my ear.
I really enjoyed my time with the assembled Tavish Design Vintage 6SL7 Phono Stage (MM / MC) and the TunSol Reissue 6SL7GT’s. Having never heard a 6SL7 before, the time I spent with this tube was like making a new friend. Yes, I highly recommend paying the upgrade cost to get the Tong Sol’s – while the Sovtek’s provided a nice experience with quite a few recordings, the Tun Sol Reissue 6SL7GT’s were hands down the tube complement I preferred. The Vintage comes highly recommended by this reviewer.
Tavish Design Vintage 6SL7 Phono Stage (MM / MC) (assembled)
Price with Tung Sol Reissue 6SL7GT $ 669.00
Price with Sovtek $549.00
available in kit form for the experienced DIYer
Scott K. Reynolds
Tavish Design, LLC
P.O. Box 129
Amawalk, NY 10501
Available either fully assembled or as do-it-yourself kit, with all parts, including enclosure, and with surface-mount JFETs pre-installed on the circuit board. The blank printed circuit board is also available, for experienced DIYers. We suggest downloading the Assembly and Setup Manual before ordering any of the kit versions, to be sure you are comfortable with the assembly process.
The assembled version is available with either Sovtek 6H9C/6SL7GT tubes or Tung Sol Reissue 6SL7GT tubes – please select when ordering. The Tung Sol Reissue version ships with a selected low-noise input tube.
Designed to accommodate any cartridge (Moving Magnet, High-Output Moving Coil, or Low-Output Moving Coil) with an output of approximately 0.25 mV or more
Gain: 41 dB Moving Magnet, 61 dB or 53 dB Moving Coil (switch selected)
RIAA equalization accuracy ±0.5 dB, 25Hz – 20kHz
Signal-to-noise, moving magnet (MM) input: >79 dBA, ref 5 mV @ 1 kHz
Signal-to-noise, moving coil (MC) input, 53 dB gain: >79 dBA, ref 1.25 mV @ 1kHz
Signal-to-noise, moving coil (MC) input, 61 dB gain: >76 dBA, ref 0.5 mV @ 1 kHz
Reference output level: 560 mV RMS (-2.8 dBu)
Total harmonic distortion
Output level for 1% THD: >14 VRMS into 22k ohms, 1 kHz (28dB overload margin)
Adjustable cartridge loading on both MM and MC inputs
Linear regulated high voltage and heater supplies (No Switching Power Supplies)
OMRON low-signal relays for MM/MC selection and output muting
14 gauge powder-coated aluminum chassis
Tube complement: 6SL7GT (x3) (MM input has an all vacuum tube signal path)
Transistor complement (for MC preamp): 2SK209 (x2) Toshiba low-noise audio n-channel JFET, MMBFJ270 (x2) p-channel JFET
Easy kit assembly with hum-free, single circuit board design
Power Consumption: 18W, 120V, 60Hz using an 18VAC wall transformer
Size: 9” wide, 6” deep, 1.5” high (4” high to top of tubes)
Weight: 3.5 lbs. including wall transformer (6 lbs. shipping weight)
Made in U.S.A.
6 year limited warranty