Coincident Speaker Technology
Frankenstein Mk II Monoblock Amplifiers
Coincident's Total Victory IV and Frankenstein Mk II amplifiers are two building blocks for a world-class listening experience.
Review By Rick Becker
February / March 2009
As fate would have it, Israel Blume needed a place to park his review pair of Frankenstein II monoblocks in the United States before sending them off to the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Itcan be inconvenient sending products across the Canadian border in either direction. Those Customs agents have to earn their keep and the process can slow down delivery. So, sometimes you get lucky, and in this instance, the Frankensteins landed in my listening room just in time to drive the Coincident Total Victory IV loudspeakers, also awaiting journey to Las Vegas .
As fate would have it, Israel Blume needed a place to park his review pair of Frankenstein II monoblocks in the United States before sending them off to the Consumer Electronics Show in January. It can be inconvenient sending products across the Canadian border in either direction. Those Customs agents have to earn their keep and the process can slow down delivery. So, sometimes you get lucky, and in this instance, the Frankensteins landed in my listening room just in time to drive the Coincident Total Victory IV loudspeakers, also awaiting journey to Las Vegas .
I had long been curious about the Coincident amplifiers. In the early days, Israel never seemed to have any in stock to use in his room at the Montreal Festival Son-Image. Nor have I come across a review of either model. There are two, actually. The Frankenstein is an 8 watt SET monoblock with a 300B tube and the 211pp Dragon monoblock is a 75 watt (in triode mode), push-pull Class A amplifier. The original versions of these amplifiers were cosmetically utilitarian and the layout of the Frankenstein was the typical three tubes in front of three transformers — not much to get excited about from a visual standpoint. Yet, the more I came to know Israel and as I reviewed more of his loudspeakers, the more curious I became of the amplifiers.
It was not until they were en route that I learned these were the new Mk II version and the body armor had been changed to polished stainless steel with an anodized aluminum faceplate. I also learned that they were sent from another reviewer here in the States, but without 300B power tubes. A fresh set of KR 300B Balloon tubes were mailed from Canada with a warning that it would take a while for them to arrive, Canadian mail being what it is. The amplifiers did indeed arrive well before the tubes and I left them boxed up, wanting to get the full effect of seeing them fully dressed with glass for my first impression. I'll get to my visual impression later on.
So why has a major player in the field of loudspeaker design delved into the manufacture of amplifiers? I'll let Israel tell his story here:
With the introduction of the (Total Victory loudspeakers), years ago, my frustration with amplifiers intensified. The low powered SETs satisfied my purity, transparency and coherency needs, but my macro thirst went insatiate. The big power jobs thrilled me dynamically but I could not tolerate their obvious colorations. Bi-amplifying proved unsatisfactory since I could always hear the ubiquitous discontinuity between the differing amps. There was no single amp in existence that really did it for me. I then endeavored to design and build my own. It took four years of dissecting various topologies, passive parts, output devices, and countless hours of aural evaluation of dozens of designs until I created what many believe is a breakthrough in absolute neutrality.
Implied here, of course, is that the interface of the amplifier with the loudspeaker is a very important one. Sometimes people select an amplifier to compensate for the shortcomings of their loudspeakers, or vice versa. Fortunately, I reviewed the Total Victory IV with other amplifiers before the Frankensteins arrived, so I knew the loudspeakers were outstanding to begin with. The Frankensteins made them better. They have outputs for both 8 ohm and 16 ohm loudspeakers, but I only had time to try the 8 Ohm taps, which are the same Coincident binding posts used on the loudspeakers. After the loudspeakers and amplifiers had been shipped to Las Vegas, Israel informed me that the combination sounds a little more powerful and dynamic from the 16-Ohm taps — not a big difference, but noticeable. Like I implied, it was a short visit at a busy time.
Also important here is the speaker cable and Israel takes control of that interface with his own TRS Extreme cable and two less expensive models. There is often something to say for using the same speaker cable as the wire used within the loudspeaker, but the Coincident cable was not available for this review. The exceptional results were achieved with reasonably priced JPS Labs Super Conductor+ cables.
Having been using another Canadian monoblock (prototype) as a reference ampwith the Total Victory IV for some time, I felt obliged to revisit my modded Manley Mahi monoblocks to establish a base line. At $2500 per pair, they were the most modest amplifier on hand. I have also been experimenting with what I shall simply call Panzer Board placed on slabs of architectural slate set on the floorbetween and slightly behind the loudspeakers. I also use Sound Dead Steel IsoFeet pressed up against the bottom of the chassis by Boston Audio Design TuneBlocks with stainless steel balls. This combination of vibration absorbing support had proven its worth with the other Canadian monoblocks and it works wonders with the Mahis as well. After a long warm-up I listened straight through my compilation CD with awide variety of music for almost an hour. Next, I repeated the exercise with other Canadian monoblocks and finally set up the Frankensteins. But rather than start out with the KR tubes in the Frankensteins, I borrowed the high-end Chinese 300Bs from the other monoblocks. This would tell me what was gained by the Coincident amplifier's circuitry, and later, when I installed the KR tubes, I would learn what was contributed by that particular tube. Tube swapping is easy since the Frankensteins have an auto bias circuit that keeps them optimally tweaked.
As I fired up the first monoblock, I thought I saw a blue flame at the top of the AU4 rectifier tube. It spooked me and shut it down immediately. I've reviewed a number of tube amplifiers but I had never seen anything like this. A quick call to Joe D'Angelo at Service Technology and he was soon checking out the tube. No problem, he declared. I went home and tried it a second time, specifically watching that tube, and sure enough, it glowed blue on top for about a second and returned to clear as the filament began to glow. I tried the other monoblock and the same thing happened. Quite unusual in my experience, but so is the use of the 5U4 rectifier tube in 300B amplifiers. I let the Frankensteins warm up for an hour before I spun through my compilation CD. As good as the Total Victory IV sounded with the Canadian prototypes, there was a decisive improvement with the Frankenstein, particularly in the realm of focus and transparency. "Delightful" sounds like an old-fashioned word, but this combination of Frankenstein and Total Victory IV was easily producing the best music I've had in my home.
KR Baloon Fest
I was so engaged with the music that it wasn't until I was nearly through my CD before remembering that I still had another round to play, substituting the KR 300B Balloon tubes. Have been very fortunate to have reviewed a number of KR amplifiers and my favorite has been the VA340 integrated amplifier with their 300BXLS tube putting out 20 watts per channel. Unfortunately, this more powerful 300B tube requires unique circuitry to maximize its potential. Consequently, do not put a standard 300B tube into an amplifier designed for the KR 300BXLS — it will eat them up. This is a rather significant deterrent for manufacturers who know that many tube aficionados love to roll tubes, so an amplifier designed for the 300BXLS is an end game. (The KR VA340 also accepts the KR 842VHD, so there is at least one other choice, but it sounds vastly different than the 300BXLS tube). This is unfortunate because not only is the music they produce absolutely wonderful, but with 20 watts per channel, it opens up a wider possibility of loudspeaker choices as well as allowing for larger listening rooms with high efficiency loudspeakers.
The KR 300B Balloon tube, like all KR tubes I've seen, is a work of superb craftsmanship and a beautiful thing to hold in your white-gloved hand. Tapping on the special glass with my fingernail I get a tactile impression of strength and solidity, reinforcing my visual impression. In action, it surpassed the Chinese tube (from a different amplifier manufacturer) in a number of ways. It was a little more transparent, providing even greater focus and a brighter light on the soundscape. The soundscape itself was slightly recessed in comparison with the Chinese tube, but it also went far deeper and was better lit at the furthest edge. Back-up singers in the distance on Lyle Lovett's "Church" were way back, easily comprehended and I could see the smiles on their faces. Not only were the singers precisely located on the soundstage, but the spaces between them were connected. The voices did not emanate from bubbles in a void, but from real, continuous space, further reinforcing the They are Here experience from this studio recording. Same thing from Jackson Browne's "The Load Out" and "Stay" from Running on Empty, except it becomes You are There with these live recordings laden with the room tone of the venue.
The combination of KR tube, Frankenstein monoblocks and Total Victory IV loudspeaker is easily one of the most musical combinations I've ever heard. Being slightly on the warm side, it was engaging, natural and completely non-fatiguing, unless that happened to be the nature of the music. It easily deciphered my two worst recordings: Dylan's Real Live and Jimi Hendrix' Live at Winterland. The attack of notes was very quick, but neither lightning fast nor grating. Pace, rhythm and timing went completely un-noticed simply because it was spot on. In fact, the music was so inviting that most of my listening degenerated into the non-analytic mode and went far past any reasonable bedtime hour.
This is not to suggest that there are no limitations with the Frankensteins. I tend to listen in the 85 to 95 dB range (measured from the listening chair) and sometimes felt obliged to check the level simply because the music was so fatigue-free that I wasn't sure how loud it was playing. Normally, I try to adjust the level to be somewhat appropriate for the music and found I was able to hear female vocals much more succinctly plus could even turn down Nora Jones for a change. But the 8 watts, in spite of being "tube watts," are still only 8 watts. With the efficiency of the Coincidents, most of the music required only the first watt. But my room is relatively large — 6000 cubic feet in the immediate listening area, opening up to another 6000 in the family room and kitchen beyond the back wall. Demanding orchestral crescendos produced some unbearable clipping, as did the deepest organ notes in Howells' "Master Tallis's Testament" on Pipes Rhode Island.
Except for such musical extremes, the Frankensteins exhibited admirable control of the bass and treble, far exceeding my expectations for a 300B amplifier. The midrange, too, was superb, but everyone expects that from this tube. When listening, it is so seamless from top to bottom that the near perfect tonal balance goes practically unnoticed. (This is as much kudos for the loudspeaker as it is for the amplifier). The upper treble is above my cognitive hearing range, but the music had such a refined, unlimited airiness that I suspect the upper harmonics were being sensed by my body in some way. Perhaps the signal has extremely low noise in this area or perhaps it has to do with the unconventional 5U4 rectifier and 6EM7 input driver tubes used in this circuit. The amplifier is spec'ed at a signal-to-noise ratio of >90dB, which is very good for a tube powered amplifier. With no music playing, I could hear only a very faint hiss with my ear positioned within an inch of the midrange or high frequency drivers. (Don't try this at home when children might be watching — it could lead to dangerous play). For whatever reason, never before in my home and precious few other places have I heard such a smooth, airy treble.
Frankenstein Meets Kharma
My Kharma CE 2.3c are easily driven by tube amplifiers, yet was curious to see how, or if, the Frankensteins could drive them. I turned them off while the music was playing to drain the capacitors, stopped the music and put the preamp in "mute". Much to my surprise, it was fairly easy to "walk" the Total Victory speakers off to the side of the room. Their height allows ample leverage to tip them up on one spike and spin them around. Of course, in another ten years of reviewing, will probably have to replace the flake board flooring and the shredded carpet. I left the volume setting un-touched in order to experience the difference in the sensitivity between the two loudspeakers. The difference between the 95dB/W/m efficiency of the Coincident and the 89 dB rated Kharma was noticeable, but not as great as I thought it might be. I merely turned the volume knob a couple of notches higher and resumed listening with no apparent clipping at reasonable listening levels. Beyond reasonable listening levels, the Kharmas got into trouble more quickly than the Coincidents, as you would expect.
The differences between the loudspeakers were easily discerned over the course of several cuts. Most noticeable was the leading edge of the notes with the Kharma. Consequently, the Kharmas were a little more "in your face" than the Coincidents. The ceramic drivers have more bite or sharper edges. The ceramic tweeter was smoother than what I've heard with other amps, and the bass was tightly controlled and had better timbre than with either my Manley Mahis or the Canadian prototype monoblocks. My review of the KR integrated amplifier was so long ago that I cannot make a definitive comparison, but I suspect the Frankensteins would be more transparent and more airy on top, and have slightly better portrayal of the soundscape due to their monoblock configuration. Both are certainly very high quality amplifiers, but it is an apple and asparagus comparison between an integrated amplifier and monoblocks. They're both food, but one's a fruit and one's a vegetable. I also tried the Chinese 300B tube in the Frankensteins when driving the Kharmas and the results were comparable to the differences I heard with the Total Victory loudspeakers.
I most certainly loved both the Kharma and Coincident loudspeakers driven by the Frankensteins, but a smaller room would be a big improvement in my case, given the limitation of only eight watts per channel. Of course a lot depends on the genre of music and the volume level you prefer. For those, like myself, who are unwilling to sub-divide their listening room, there is always Plan B. And in Israel Blume's case, Plan B is his 211PP Dragon monoblocks that put out 75 watts per channel. He claims this push-pull design is almost as good as the Frankenstein single ended triode design. He doesn't state which 211 tube he uses, but it doesn't escape me that KR also makes a 211.
Aesthetics And Ergonomics
The cheap shot here is, with the new polished stainless steel armor, the Frankensteins look like a cross between a Manley Mahi and a Harley Davidson. Manley Labs and Coincident have shown together at CES in the past and the footprint of the Frankenstein is very similar to the Mahi, only larger. Before the addition of the transformer cover and the polished stainless steel in the Mk II version, the two amps looked a lot more similar, dressed in black. Lifting a Frankenstein and a Mahi will verify the allusion to the Harley Davidson. The Frankenstein weighs in at about 34 lbs. each side. But the more discerning eye begins to appreciate the cleaner look of the covered transformers and the more sophisticated aesthetic imparted by the gleaming surfaces. While it leans in the direction of bling to a degree, it also imparts a more formal look than does the black wrinkle powdercoat used on the Mahis. This is likely to be more acceptable in the upscale music rooms for which it is destined, and probably more acceptable to women.
Israel markets the amplifiers at two price points, giving up $1000 when purchased with any pair of Coincident loudspeaker. When you look at the finishes offered on his loudspeakers, you begin to appreciate the polished stainless steel even more; it dresses up the loudspeakers to a level commensurate with the accolades they have received. The more feminine look of the shiny amplifier counterbalances the more masculine look of the Coincident loudspeakers, just as the gleaming metal offsets the more natural wood, particularly in the natural cherry finish of the review samples. Another way to put it would be to say the polished amplifier is like jewelry for the reserved, purposeful look of the Coincident loudspeakers.
A classic three-tone configuration of polished transformer cover, black wrinkle powdercoat chassis and anodized aluminum faceplate might be an equally attractive alternative forsome. The front of the transformer cover reflects what little light is given off by the tubes. Do not expect the "little village" effect of the EL84 tubes in the Mahis; there is barely enough ambient light to allow you to cross the room and flip the LP when listening in the dark. I'm told that old stock 300B tubes sometimes emit a slight blue glow, but only one of the four Chinese tubes did this, and neither of the KR tubes exhibited the glow.
The low faceplate, which covers the clipped point of the "home plate" footprint, is tastefully labeled withthe model designation in the upper left corner in half-tone gold lettering. It doesn't scream out at you, but it is there if someone needs to know what it is. The Coincident name in logo form is more prominent and can be read from a standing position. The logo on the production version is smaller and more appropriately sized than the review samples that were also seen at CES 2009. Like the loudspeakers, the amplifier design keeps the focus where it belongs — on the music. Although it is hard to miss its presence, it is not so visually demanding that itpulls you away from the music.
The Frankensteins are made in mirrored pairs with the toggle style power switch on the back at the extreme right and left rear corners. This allows you to orient them both to the outside, or both to the inside to facilitate turning them on and off — something that should be done for each listening session. It is part of the ritual with tubes (and more frequently now with solid state as we become more energy conscious). The switch is easy to locate and identify by touch alone. This is especially helpful if you have them placed in a rack. The power switch has a very solid, precise feel as you expect at this level. And while they take a few minutes to warm up, you will not be suffering if you chose to listen gently during that time — they're that good.
CST PC Power Cords
A pair of CST PC power cords was supposed to have accompanied the amplifiers, but they arrived late (from the previous reviewer). Most of my listening was done with a modest, but good cord, now discontinued, from Balanced Power Technologies. These were plugged into separate isolated outlets of a PS Audio Quintessence power conditioner, itself plugged into a PS Audio Soloist at the end of a 30 amp JPS Labs Power In-Wall dedicated line. This is a reasonably serious power chain to begin with, so when the Coincident CST PC cords finally arrived they provided only an incremental gain. With their 7AWG, tightly bound construction, this moderately stiff cord certainly did not restrict the modest power demands of the Frankensteins. At $399 each, it is a good value without going way overboard. If my power chain had been less optimized, the CST PC might have proven more beneficial, but I didn't have time to try it with a standard house circuit.
While this was a regrettably short review period, interrupted by Thanksgiving festivities, I sent the amplifiers and loudspeakers off to CES 2009 where I hope to get another chance to hear them in the more immediate company of the best our industry has to offer. If all goes well, I will offer a follow-up comment in my CES show report. In most respects, this is the finest combination of amplifier and loudspeaker I've had the privilege to review in my home. With my large listening room, the 8 watts per channel was not quite enough for my desire to play some music at louder than normal levels. For the other 95 percent of my music, it was stunning in the most pleasurable way.
For most people with more reasonably sized music rooms, the Total Victory IV and Frankenstein Mk II amplifiers are two building blocks for a world-class listening experience. Equally impressive is the fact that they are priced very fairly for this level of excellence. I wish I had had the Frankensteins on hand when I reviewed the Super Victory loudspeakers. For a medium size room, such a combination could be an outstanding value. While the power output of the Frankenstein requires an efficient loudspeaker (or at least one with a benign, tube-friendly load), when used within its limitations, you will be hard pressed to find a better amplifier. And if you do, price will most likely become an issue. Israel has tried to assure me that the Electro Harmonix 300B Gold tubes which come standard are almost as good as the KR 300B Baloon tubes used for this review, but for a couple of hundred dollars more, I would not want to sell this amplifier short. It's that good.
After CES Follow-Up
In the light of audio gear from all over the world at CES, the Frankenstein Mk II and Total Victory IV combination was surpassed by only a handful of rooms which all cost more — usually a whole lot more. Yet, confined in what is essentially sleeping quarters, aligned on the short wall, it did not sound as good as it did in my larger music room. Give them breathing room and your music will soar. I still miss them.
Type: Monoblock tube amplifier
Tube Compliment: 300B, 6em7 and 5u4g
Output Power: 8 watt per channel (Triode)
Output Impedance: 8 Ohm and 16 Ohm
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz (±1dB)
Input Sensitivity: 700mv
Input Impedance: 100kohm
Dimension: 310 x 166 x 385 (WxHxD in mm)
Net Weight: 34 lbs.
Electro Harmonix 300B Gold (300BEHXGOLD): Matched Pair $259
KR Enterprises KR300B: $459.99
Coincident Speaker Technology
19 Strauss Road
Ontario, Canada L4J 8Z6
Voice: (905) 660-0800
Fax. (905) 660-1114