|Golden Dragon 300B|
After the Western Electrics, Golden Dragon enter the fray with their own “designer” bottles.
Hi-Fi + Magazine May 2002 - review by Roy Gregory
Back in Issue 161 reported on the Western Electric 300B, valves the size of whose reputation is matched only by the size of their price tag. The wrong side of £300 each for consumables moves them into the same territory as exotic cartridges, although like those other thoroughbreds they should also offer a longer working life than more mundane examples. However, there’s no escaping the fact that for someone with a push-pull amp (and contrary to popular opinion, I reckon that’s the way 300Bs work best), the entry ticket to the WE club will be the wrong side of £1200.
Can they possibly be worth that kind of money? Well, listening to them in the Renaissance RA-01 mono-blocks left me in no doubt as to their stark superiority over the Electro-Harmonix versions supplied as standard. If these were my amps I’d find the money from somewhere. If I had a single-ended amp I’d kill to get it! The inherent simplicity of such devices makes them even more susceptible to component quality than ever. However, now there’s good news for the impoverished (and those with qualms about the act of murder). Golden Dragon, who are more normally associated with the other end of the market, are offering their own high-quality 300B – and it’s a valve with a difference, at least as far as looks are concerned.
In an extraordinarily canny piece of marketing, they’ve reached far back to the dawn of the thermionic age for the glass envelope they’ve used to wrap their valve. The retro, balloon shape will prove irresistible to single-ended aficionados, and sure enough, everybody who has seen it has let out an involuntary coo. Of course, it takes more than a pretty shape to create a quality product, and the GDs differences run more than skin deep. Look a little closer and you’ll see that the surface of the anode is perforated with a grid of tiny holes. The theory is that the increased surface area improves efficiency, but as I’m far from qualified to discuss or pass judgement on such matters I’ll confine myself to the way they sound. Just note that the M in the 300BM designation indicates this mesh anode.
Time again then, to borrow the RA-01s, along with a full complement of both WE and Electro-Harmonix output tubes, for which I extend grateful thanks to IES. Slipping them between the HP100 and the Audioplans was a matter of moments, and there they sat while I ran the matched Quartet of Golden Dragons for a few days, just to burn them in. After that, it was time to listen in earnest, although I’d been forming an impression of the performance offered by the Chinese valves over the intervening time. Let’s just say I was looking forward to the show down with the WEs with some serious expectation.
Once again, it was a case of running all the valves from cold, listening after a fifteen-minute warm-up for each set in turn. The Electro-Harmonix tubes were used as a control, and the sound in each case is referenced to them.
First switch was to the Western Electrics and I was immediately greeted by their familiar, solid, muscular sound. Let’s use the Christian Ferras recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto as an example (the excellent Testament 180g re-issue). Right from the opening notes the presence and tangible dimensions of the soundstage are obvious, far more so than the Russian tubes. Instrumental voices and choirs are more separate, solid and painted with a richer palette and more substance. This is particularly obvious as the Philharmonia build towards the first ff crescendo. The Electro-Harmonix valves start to glaze over, congealing the sound of the orchestra into a single, glassy whole, replete with an unpleasant sense of strain. In contrast, the WEs keep each contributing instrument separate and distinct, adding texture and control to the upward swell in level. It’s a bit like seeing all the individual strands that combine to create a really well-defined muscle. The result is much more powerful, dramatic and believable, the absence of strain allowing you to listen straight through to the entry of the solo instrument without even noticing the amps.
Ferras’ playing also receives a considerable boost. Whereas both his style and the recording lack the sumptuous lyrical splendour of the Heifetz on RCA, the WEs allow his violin its full richness and complexity, banishing the astringent quality of the standard tubes. Likewise, his playing becomes more dramatic and dynamic. The contrast with the beautifully tactile and airy pizzicato notes that underpin the opening bars of his solo entry is even more effective and evocative. It’s a tour de force performance in the true sense of the phrase.
The Golden Dragons offer another alternative again. Let’s start with the solo instrument. It may lack the absolute substance and rich colour it possesses through the WEs, but it’s more nimble and agile. If the American tubes move Ferras towards Heifetz, the Chinese make him sound more like himself. His phrasing and the way in which he accents proceedings with his bowing is far more apparent, as is the way he manipulates pressure and tempo. The pizzicato underpinning may not have the absolute substance and tactile presence that it does with the Western Electrics, but the space around the instruments is clearer as is the shape of the phrase they’re playing.
So, if the WEs major on power and dynamic range, the GDs offer greater dynamic discrimination and transparency. I suspect there’s greater high frequency extension there too. The opening of the Tchaikovsky treats you to a lighter, wider and deeper soundstage peopled with better focused images. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Chinese valves offer greater transparency and rhythmic sophistication: Not exactly the rapier and the broadsword, more the rapier and the sabre.
Returning to the Western Electrics after listening to the GDs, it’s impossible to ignore their slightly crude and hamfisted way with things.
Which is the better alternative? That’s an interesting one and a question to which, like so many others in hi-fi, the answer starts with “That depends”. There are those who love Heifetz for his smooth, lyrical panache and graceful power. There are others who abhor his lack of musical sophistication, finding his playing schmaltzy and melodramatic. You pays your money and takes your choice. Well it’s much the same with 300Bs. You can go for the broad, sabre-like sweep of the WE, or the rapier incisiveness and speed of the GD. Which you prefer will depend on your amplifier, your system’s overall balance of virtues and your own personal preferences. However, one thing I can guarantee: Whether you opt for the sable or the rapier, either is infinitely preferable to the two bits of wood crossed with a bit of twine that represent the Electro-Harmonix.
There is of course, one other consideration that I’ve purposefully left for last. That’s because I’d really like people to make this choice on musical grounds. However, once you see the relative costs, I’m afraid price will swing more than a few of you. Depending on source the Golden Dragons are slightly less than half the price of the Western Electrics. Okay, so you don’t get the nice wooden box, the individual data sheets or the guarantee. You don’t get the history and track record either, but in this world at least, money talks. For anybody running 300Bs the advent of the Golden Dragon 300BM has to be good news. I suspect that it will inevitably be viewed as a cheaper alternative to the Western Electric, but that’s to miss the point. Judge it on sound rather than price and you’ll find it meets the American heavyweight on equal terms.