Of course, it’s an obvious question. Why buy a forty-year old design using technology that was all but wiped-out by transistors? There is one argument that goes – because it is still hand-built in Britain by someone who loves their work, and almost the only things that satisfy the criteria are the Radford or a Bristol. The car has a longer waiting list and costs considerably more. There are probably well-heeled gentlemen who will buy one to put an a shelf to add to their collection next to the ‘original’ e-bay purchases that needed so much work that they are like George Washington’s axe – you know the one that’s had two new heads and three new handles but is still authentic. Regrettably I can’t afford to buy an amplifier as a collectible or an exercise in nostalgia. For me it has to justify it’s place as my main everyday amplifier.
Happily, William Moores had used the supplied valves as part of his lengthy soak-test so it was ready to go on arrival. It is well built, well finished and has a weight which suggests that the quality of the finish is reflected in the components. In some ways it looks to me like a ‘sixies design for a power station, brutal from some angles but with enough chrome to make it look as if some effort has gone towards acknowledging that it is a domestic object. Like most people, I imagine, I prefer to position the amplifier ‘back to front’ so that the inputs and speaker connectors are at the back and the bias trim pots and test points are at the front. You get a comprehensive set of illustrated biasing instructions which even I could follow.
I am using a Croft Micro 25R pre-amp (add that to the list of hand-built in Britain, is there a pattern here?) which is a valve pre-amp with valve line and phono stages. It is most definitely not at the pipe and slippers end of the valve spectrum, it has drive, precision and real weight. The speakers are Harbeth SHL5 – I know, British; which are probably at the lower extreme of the Radford’s range for efficiency but they work in my small room.
There is the faintest of transformer buzzing which I easily eliminated by sighting the amplifier below ear height. I get a some valve noise from the speakers, probably not surprising given the number of valves in the chain, but nothing audible from my comfy sofa.
I had previously been using a solid-state power amplifier which had great pace and dynamics and presented a wide, albeit slightly flat, image. From the start the Radford had all those qualities with rhythm and timbre and added greater depth.
I don’t know if the E34L valves improved with use, or whether I just grew accustomed to the sound, either way they sounded better to me at the end of the week than the beginning. I took for granted that the combination of amplification and speakers would be easily able to reproduce voices realistically and was not disappointed. This is some of what I played today: followed by chamber, orchestral and vocal jazz, rock (but not RAWK), country, blues, folk and many other things on CD and vinyl, it’s that addictive.
‘Graceland’ has been playing everywhere this month as it reached its 25th year. So I put it on, great fluid bass lines and nimble guitar, most surprising was the drums, on some of the tracks they are given a mighty thwack and the Radford reproduced them with great control.
A 1950’s jazz trio should be made for valve amplification and the first side of Coltrane’s ‘Lush Life’ shows you how accurately instruments can be reproduced. However I have a mono recording which I have heard sounding a little narrow, pinched, as though the performers were standing shoulder-to-shoulder centre-stage. On the STA 25 it’s so BIG and has real room-filling presence. It was the sound of a live performance where three people are playing together, not just playing at the same time. It reminded me how good mono recordings – even played with a stereo cartridge – can sound through two speakers.
I don’t play as much symphonic music as other types. Partly because it is difficult to get the dynamic range of the orchestra and partly because it can just overwhelm my small room. So it was unfair to throw the Radford at Mahler’s 5th when in the same room an amplifier with five time the power had struggled. What I got was good dynamics, a proper balance between the solo instruments and the power of the full orchestra. It did not turn the far end of my room into a Vienna concert hall, but it did show me that the recording had been made in a hall with instruments properly positioned and a room acoustic which someone with a better ear than mine could probably identify.
I am convinced that at the end of a hard day at the office, the members of Kraftwerk jump on their bikes and when they get home they listen to that day’s music on valve equipment.It just sounds so much better that way, more rounded and human than you might expect. Valves show ‘The Man Machine’ to be a funk and romantic album. Seriously.
I know that it makes no difference to the sound, but I like the idea that I can speak to the actual person who built my amplifier – communication with Radford Revival is easy, they even encourage it! – I also am comforted by the fact that if I do something stupid and damage the amplifier then it can be repaired by someone who not only knows that particular model, but has years of experience of all things Radford.
Any reservations I have about the Radford Revival STA 25 are probably related to my room/speaker combination and how it might fare in a larger room.I suspect that there are further advantages to be found if it is connected to more efficient speakers.
Now, I just need to find someone who will let me have some 12” Monitor Golds in enclosures small enough to sneak past my wife.