Valvet E2 SE Stereo Power Amplifier

Valvet E2 SE Stereo Power Amplifier

The new Valvet E2 SE single-ended Class A solid-state amplifier is a revelation. Coming to market about a year after my review of the Valvet E2, the SE version exceeds the E2's audible performance in every parameter. Please see the older review for context. The special edition SE version takes all the E2's excellent performance and offers improvements in every area.

The review system has changed since the E2 review, and provides the potential for higher resolution. The significant changes are a speaker upgrade from Focal Sopra 1 to Magico S1 mk. 2. The DAC is a Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2v2SE 10th Anniversary Limited Edition DAC. The ZYX UNIverse Premium phono cartridge was replaced with the new ZYX Optimum, with 1 Ohm DCR and 0.15 mV output, which works exceptionally well with the current-amplifying BMC MCCI ULN phono stage. Lastly, the Kuzma 4-Point tonearm was replaced mid-review with a new Tri-Planar VII SE tonearm.

Over a year ago, after thoroughly enjoying the E2 amplifier for a few months, I suggested to the US distributor, Alfred Kainz of High-End Electronics, that a maxed-out, fine tuned, special edition of the E2 might be of interest to the audiophile community. Here is the result.

Inside the amplifier, there is a major redesign of the main circuit boards. Present in this new version are large Mundorf Mcap Evo capacitors and better resistors. Integrated circuits (op-amps) have been replaced by discrete circuits. The RCA input jacks and the speaker binding posts are expensive WBT NextGen. The case is the same as the E2 version, but the feet are improved. The cost of the E2 SE is $3,990. Is the SE version worth the $1,000 price increase over the standard E2?

Oh my, yes! The Valvet E2 SE is an obvious sonic upgrade to an already outstanding amplifier. Even new out of the box, the SE amp has faster and more powerful dynamic agility as if the power supply received an increase in energy storage. There is greater low bass quantity as well as definition, and while these dynamic improvements would suggest more power, the amplifier is still rated at 12 Watts per channel into 8 Ohms and 20 Watts into 4 Ohms.

This seemingly low output power caused some concern when considering the 86 dB sensitivity of the Magico speakers. However, the Magicos are 4 Ohm speakers and the expected in-room loudness is about 1 dB less than the 89 dB 8 Ohm Focal Sopra 1 speakers that were the primary speakers for the E2 review. This excellent loudness calculator confirmed that very similar loudness levels would be maintained with the less efficient Magico speakers.

Due to the Mundorf capacitors, an extended break-in period was expected. However, the SE sounded very good out of the box, getting smoother and cleaner for about 100 hours. Break-in seemed to be complete at about 300 hours, but I tracked time for 500 hours. These times will vary depending on power output and maybe the genre of music being played. Of course, this is conjecture as multiple amplifiers were not scientifically tested to compare break-in times using different variables. After 300 hours, the purity and “one voice” character of the E2 SE is obvious.

This is a very quiet amplifier. Placing an ear next to one of the speakers, the sound level with the amplifier turned on is nearly indistinguishable from when the amp is off. The SE delivers “black hole” backgrounds for total freedom from noise. This increases low level resolution because very quiet sounds are not masked by the amplifier's self-generated noise. 

While the E2 has outstanding freedom from upper frequency discord due to the single-ended topology, the E2 SE is even better. It pulls off this magic trick by having noticeably higher resolution. The SE amp digs deeper into every note and presents an even more complete sonic spectacle. This is easily heard in the mid to upper treble. The E2 has a faint trace of a warm character in the upper frequencies, where the SE sounds relatively more linear and "up front". This difference could suggest a change of cables, cartridge loading, or some other adjustment to address a slightly different apparent spectral balance. This listener welcomed the increase in detail and information, and the Magico speakers love the upgrade over the standard E2. The combination of the Valvet E2 SE amplifier and Magico S1 mk.2 speakers delivers electrostatic speaker-like responsiveness, speed, resolution and clarity. This is, without question, the best sound observed in this room in more than 25 years of component evaluations and system upgrades. Wonderful!  

A note about power. More Watts per channel would occasionally be welcome. However – and this is a big take-away from this review – this listener always felt that higher quality, somewhat quieter listening is much preferred over louder, lower quality sound. Always! The Valvet E2 SE comfortably drove the Magico speakers to 75-78 dBA, 100 dB SPL Peaks at the listening seat in my 12 x 17 ft room.

My appreciation of the E2 remains undiminished as its musicality is unquestioned, consistently delivering very enjoyable listening. Now with the E2 SE, we have an amplifier that is sonically competitive with any amp, without reservation, regardless of the technology. Single-ended amplifiers seem to deliver music the best due to their characteristic harmonic depth and purity of tone. The E2 SE has a wonderful sense of the airy openness and the “clean window” character we crave. The amplifier steps out with a clarity that articulates every sound very precisely, making each word more intelligible. This can place a greater burden on the quality of the source recording since upstream deficiencies are more obvious.

Listening to music with the Valvet E2 SE makes it difficult to concentrate on being analytical and taking notes for future reviews. The music is so compelling and involving. More than once, I went to write down on paper a thought or observation on the sound and found a half-written sentence on the paper, an interrupted idea. The SE is simply too good and distracting to maintain dispassionate and analytical listening. If you are into this stuff, the E2 SE will take you there. The relative improvement of the E2 SE over the E2 is similar to the upgrade we hear when listening to a 24 bit 96 kHz digital recording over a 16 bit 44.1 kHz music file, and greater than the improvement of 4K video over a standard HD image. We can hear farther into every sound, revealing very natural and seemingly complete resolution, all the way down into utter silence. Individual performers are vividly presented, separate and distinct from others on the performance stage. Cymbals have a very natural sheen and metallic clarity. Voices are very focused and precisely located on an amazingly large and stable sound stage. Stage depth is outstanding.

As well as their strengths, the E2 SE has those traits that vacuum tube products often count as weaknesses: excellent deep bass power and control and a linear sound character from low bass through upper treble. Compared to the Valvet E2, a couple of single-ended tube amplifiers maintained a small superiority in ultimate harmonic depth and resolution. This has been fully addressed in the SE model. The E2 SE amplifier is fully competitive in this area and should convince many serious audiophiles that vacuum tubes are no longer necessary for the ultimate in warmth, texture, purity and correctness. The Valvet E2 SE’s ability to “listen in” to a voice or instrument and allow the listener to really hear the intimacy of a performance is state of the art, and perfectly delivered.

Overall Rating: 10+ LPs

10 Audio 'Perfect 10 Award'

This review would not have been possible without the kind and generous support of Alfred Kainz of highend-electronics, Inc. Thank you, Alfred! 

Link to distributor: highend-electronics, Inc.