The Sophia Electric KT88-ST…Don’t Say You Don’t Notice Them
I tend to lean hard into the idea that it should be all about the music, our hobby. I do try to hold myself to it. So, a component that sounds great can look less so. It helps that I appreciate the more utilitarian designs many builders choose today. I do appreciate great style and form, though the components that deliver both excellent performance and a handsome facade are often outside my reach.
But, then I look at these lovely blue bottles…like tree ornaments…damn, are they pretty things. So back to what I just (ShinyBlue!)…where were we? Brings to mind that Rufus Wainwright tune. And, raccoons.
Anyway. The Sophia Electric KT88-ST coke bottles were delivered last Friday. We’re still in the get to know you phase. Introductions are being made. Small talk ensues. I like them immediately. Yes. They are dynamic, yet refined and musical. We’re going to get along fine.
So, I’ve been rolling tubes, in a high quality, affordable single-ended amp. Ampandsound’s Mogwai outputs about 3 watts into 8 ohms, as well as having a 32 ohm headphone jack. I’ll add that having both speaker and headphone outputs makes tube evaluation easier. Removing the room from the equation makes subtle cues more apparent. I can switch quickly between the two and confirm my discoveries.
I’ve been using the Mogwai to drive my Tekton Design Lore and Audioquest Nighthawks for several months now, and am happy with it. Within it’s limitations, and in my system and space, it performs admirably. My current favorites – PSVane black bottle 6CA7-Z’s – offer clear highs, touchy mids and ample bass. They are slightly forward (aggressive is too harsh a descriptor) in the mids and highest frequencies -way up top. But I love them in my system. They’ve been my first choice above the other tubes in my collection.
Recently, I spent time testing several Gold Lion sets. What I found was that each had traits I enjoyed, but ultimately the black bottles remained my first choice. Always a compromise, ya? Recently, a fellow enthusiast pointed me toward the Sophia Electrics. Not a lot of material online specific to these tubes – most reviews are focused on their series of 300B tubes. So, I decided to email Sue at Sophia Electric, and order up a pair.
The Sophia Electric KT88-ST are made in China, and according to their own specifications. They offer two grades (A/B) – two tiers within each. The A grade (tested here) are US125 each and have a 30 day warranty. Or, for an additional $25 each, you can get a full year warranty. Impressive, but not inexpensive. That said, the tubes are well made. The boxes they come in offer both ample protection and good looks.
For those who hunt and collect the best NOS tubes, these prices are not unreasonable. I do appreciate the romance of plugging in tubes made long before we were born. Yes. Now it seems the current production methods are delivering a sound quality worthy of investigation.
We are at about the 80-90 hour mark. Perhaps things could shift a bit later, but I am confident in their overall character, as they appear to be stable now.
The tubes sound so good, that I find myself pulling up track after track. Addictive audio. The most remarkable part of their performance is the seemingly grain-less flow that isn’t limited to the mid-range, but extends in both directions out from center. There is such ease to the sound, that I am listening more to music than the sound.
I go looking for more complex, noisy and challenging music to see how they handle it. The results are similar. Even with M83’s Echoes of Mine track, which typically sounds compressed and digital, the sound is more open and relaxed. No glare. On Ellington’s Afro-Bossa track – from the recently released MQA version on Tidal – the brass sounds just right. On Nolatet’s track, Pops, the vibes are holographic. That record is bananas.
On Typhoon’s 2010 release, Hunger and Thirst, the sound is live and immediate. Two drummers, horns, acoustic and electric guitars, and gang vocals. I could imagine the entire band in place in the room. I love the sound of live drums in a large room or studio, and on Cpr/Claw’s Pt.2, at about minute four, I was making my poo face and rocking to that backbeat. You know… that mid-tempo backbeat, when the drummer’s got deep pockets and your whole body’s feeling it. Even better when they’re leaning back a bit, and playing behind it. That happened. Then, I sat through the entire record again.
Now, to return to my first impression. Very quiet. Even with the Nighthawks (25ohm) on, there’s no audible noise when the music stops. Another nod to the Mogwai as well.This tube is refined – meaning, low distortion and balanced performance across my audible spectrum. This is what liquid playback sounds like. Weighty tone grounds instruments, yet the stage is bigger and better defined. Instruments aren’t etched onto the background, instead there’s more air between them. Yet all the details and nuance are there, but without any evidence of forward leaning treble.
With headphones on, I imagine the stage in an arch stretching from ear to ear and across the eyes. Like goggles or glasses. Sometimes, the sound is compressed, like it’s wrapped tight around my face. With these tubes, the stage opens out and is laid flat in front of my face. Dimensional. Wide, and deep. Remember, this is all through the Nighthawks.With the right recording instruments are holographic. They extend deeper into the low end – farther than the 6CA7-Z. I can better see the bottom of the upright bass on Joshua Redman’s Trios Live record. More bass, better texture and definition down there too.
The Sophia Electric KT88-ST’s check all the boxes for me. I’ve said before, the ecstatic listening experience is my goal, and it’s been some time since I’ve been here. This setup is allowing me to connect to the music. This is certainly worth the price of admission. Once again, it’s all about the music. So long as I avert my gaze…
The Sophia Electric KT88-ST tubes are certainly worth a trial. For those used to hunting NOS tubes that continue to rise in price, these new production tubes may be the alternative. According the their site, they offer a two week trial with $25 restocking fee plus shipping.
I will post updates over time, in regard to reliability and longevity.
Also, I ordered the Sophia Electric 6SL7 for the pre tube, and will post a report on that soon.