MiniWatt Tube Amplifier

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suprateep

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Review: MiniWatt Tube Amplifier

Introduction

This review for the MiniWatt Tube Amplifier (www.miniwatt.com.hk) is based solely on my personal experience, idea and opinion (coupled with feedback from my family and a couple of hi-fi dealers and enthusiasts). Nothing is absolute and I clearly believe that it will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth. I have used mostly budget solutions in terms of amplifiers comparison, transport etc so please take this review as subjective and that I will, in all my senses try to present a totally neutral viewpoint on the characteristics of this amplifier from the tests concluded.

I would also like to mention that I work in the IT industry and I do not work for any seller / distributor / manufacturer. I do however collaborate with a few dealers in a personal review and feedback exercise at times. And yes, I am just another enthusiast caught up doing something that I fell in love with sometime back.

Test Equipment & others:

Speakers: Mission M35. Others used include Wharfdale Diamond 9.1/9.2/9.5/9.6, Quad 12L2, PSB Alpha B1.
Source: HTPC using Asus Xonar STX: For more information refer here.
CD player: Include Marantz 6003, Denon DCM 27 and Pioneer 610 DVDP (please note not all high end, audiophile grade players used here keeping the Indian market in mind)
Other Amps: Denon 500 AE/Norge 1000/Marantz 7003/Nad 3020 and Onkyo 606/Denon 1909 (again just for kicks)
Room: Standard home environment (14X18) not essentially acoustic treated but having decent amount of traps and two standard HT environments

MP Used:
FLAC through CMP + CPlay using ASIO4all (did not use the default asio driver). CUE sheets were created for the test FLAC files using CPlayListEditor. CMP was loaded in its own environment and CPLAY used for playback. (There is a noticeable difference in CPlay SQ when used in conjunction with CMP)

Tracks: (High Quality FLAC ripped from personal collection)
A.R. Rahman - Dil Se
George Benson - Give me the night, Kisses in the moonlight
Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb, Brain Damage
Linkin Park - In the end, Points of Authority
Vivaldi: 4 seasons
Others: Assortment of tracks from Doors, Diana Krall, Sting, Michael Jackson, Dire Straits, George Michael etc

Ratings: (50 max )
  • Build Quality: (10max)
  • Sound Quality: (30max) i.e. 5 X6 parameters (bass, treble, midrange, soundstage, imaging, attack & decay)
  • Overall Value: (10max)

For the detailed review please proceed to the next page, and in case you have really inefficient speakers and planning to buy one, you can give the rest a miss.


Packaging and Build Quality
The MiniWatt is a striking piece of art with glowing tubes that shout out RETRO in every aspect of the term. Coming back the MiniWatt is really really small roughly at less than 2 kgs with a small (again!!!) form factor that can fit on the palm of my hand (smaller than a psp 3000 actually)- it can be seriously regarded as a enthusiasts ingenious DIY but then again isnt that the same path the others had taken initially and with clever R&D shaped into bigger brands as they are today.
psp.jpg

The amp was neatly packed inside a polystyrene box to prevent any damage to the internal parts. In spite of the miniscule footprint the amp looked pretty robust and well built (save for the volume knob which could have used some better material - but it is not a deal breaker and performed without any flaws or false gain during the test period).Overseas shipping of such an amp would not be a problem, not even to India the problem that might put off a lot of prospective customers when buying such a delicate product. While the outer package seemed hammered and mishandled out of shape, on first sight, all my fears were allayed when I opened the package to find the amp neatly seated in the polystyrene box which had prevented any damage to it. Also included were a standard IEC power plug (with fuse protection) and a 2 pin EU convertor - nice thought on part of the MiniWatt team to include this as part of the overall package.
Box Pack.jpg

While dimensions are restricted to 13cm x 10 cm which is really small by any standards and any tube amp I have come across, input voltage was flexible as mentioned on the website and using the selection of 176-265VAC posed no problems no transformer hum even at startup. The surprise was the amp stayed perfectly silent at all times.

A pair of 6J1 and 6P1 tubes lined up the amplifier skyline with the front dominated by only a large volume knob. The back of this baby has L/F analog in, power cable socket and power switch. There is also a pair of speaker wire connectors which accepts banana plugs only which are not too difficult to source even in India anyway. Overall a good, sturdy feel to it.
Back.jpg

The specs for the MiniWatt are actually great on paper with frequency response of 30Hz to 20kHz (+-1dB) along with residual noise < 0.8mV. It operates in class A-B mode and power output is rated at 5W at 8ohms seemingly insignificant in driving bigger speaker rated at 150W at 8 ohms but the beauty of the device comes to light with moderate to high sensitivity speakers. So when going head to head with solid state amps apparently grunting out anything between 40-100W at 8 ohms where does the diminutive MiniWatt figure more on this later.

While most stereophiles might argue that power conditioning is of high order for any amplifier (a typical valve amp has a huge PSU) somehow the in-house development SMPS not only delivered on this front, it did it with in style and lan. And personally neither me, nor the two hifi-enthusiasts I tested it with later, had any reason to complain. Maybe this is what held the secret to the MiniWatt but then who know as I refrained from opening it up and gave it the respect it deserves.

Great in design and form factor and build I gave it (8/10) marginal points lost mainly because of lack of flexibility of speaker wire connections (offering 4mm sockets and not binding posts) and sedate packaging. The amp though felt heavy wrt to its overall size and sat plush on its stands and there was no vibrations during playback per say but a next design change could include some better stand design instead of the four metal pegs underneath the amp.


Playback & SQ

Part 1: Home environment (13x18) with M35 speakers, HTPC with Xonar STX, CMP+CPlay
(Okay when it comes to a HTPC people have a lot of things to say regarding quality of output, HW, bad power and Windows SW/Driver interference so it should be mentioned that I used a combination of ASIO4ALL with Xonar STX using CMP + CPlay (also tried Wasapi in vista, KS using foobar) with no other HW present on the motherboard)
Hifi.jpg

After setting the amp up which was really easy since it accepts banana plugs, I put on the cue sheet that CPlay could make use of the first strike of Jiya Jale from Rahmans Dil Se made an uneasy feeling run down my spine making my knees go weak. The initial connect was very much there though the sonic characteristics had less of a tube sound to it. The amp kept Lata Mangeshkars voice in check as she went along evocatively expressing her anguish for love in the song (some amps and speakers do make her voice too shrill) the sound could not have been any better. The dynamics were spot-on and even with the m35s 3 way design the amp performed well keeping up with the right notes the bass response was good and timing impeccable. Next up was George Bensons, Kisses in the moonlight and Give me the night vocals were excellent the m35 keeping up the tempo and in spite of the absolute neutrality of the xonar STX the amp did well to reproduce Lee Ritenours work that was all over the album. Only glitch is that at a couple of places the bass response could have been better I did found later perhaps it was more to do with my combo test system rather than the amp itself the Quad bookshelves and Marantz CD player seemed to get the bass timings correct though a little too sharp at times.

Next up Pink Floyd though personally I feel that the vocal rendition of Comfortably Numb is a big letdown (original mixing) the guitar pieces here comes to the forte and the same is repeated with Another Brick on the Wall, the anthemic chorus of Hey Teachers! Leave the kids alone! rendered sharply with near perfect musicality that is highlighted later with the guitar piece. Next up Mother was rendered nicely the soft acoustic nature of the song brought to light by the combination - and clearly one of the best from Pink Floyd stables.

In the End followed the typical Linkin Park sound. Others sounded as good as any budget amp (upto 800 USD) I have tested.One notable mention up to this point was the way the MiniWatt rendered bass tons of it tons of nice tight bass. The amplifier left me in awe neither the Norge 1000 or the Denon 500/700 AE which I had tested on the same HW/studio environment could match up to the little wonder. The Onkyo 606 (which was tested just for kicks) was junk compared to the MiniWatt in stereo reproduction.

Lastly Vivaldis Four Seasons Spring was simply outstanding. The timing, the vast rendering of sound stage and imaging was spot on. The way the MiniWatt reproduced the notes and the timing and decay were all spot-on - kudos to that. The amp has a nice warm laid back feel to it but not at the absence of detail as the minute details for every song were checked and ticked away in every song.


Part 2: Actual HT environments with Denon DCM 27, Marantz CD6003 & Pioneer 610 DVDP. Amplifiers included the Denon 500AE, Denon 1909, Norge 1000, Marantz PM7003 and an old repaired Nad 3020. Speakers included Wharfdale 9.1/9.2/9.5, PSB Image B15 and Quad 12L2. Speaker wires used were DAC, Audioquest etc.

The Marantz combo was totally transparent and while a couple of people during the test process did comment as to be slightly detailed in some songs than the MiniWatt, albeit slightly, they agreed that the latter held its own with the sheer soundstage it created and had no fatigue that could be associated with whatsoever. With the Quads the sound became less warm, slightly thin yet the details were nicely reproduced - though the efficiency of the Quads left a lot to be desired. The Denon 500AE and the Norge 1000 (one of my personal low budget preference) were completely outgunned in the bass and details front. One thing that came to the forefront was that with low sensitivity speakers the MiniWatt could never be loud enough and would probably be restricted to the confines of a smaller room that said it drove the Whardales nicely though the volume knob had to be turned all the way up to say 50-60% - though there was no noticeable distortion. The way that the vocals from different songs were represented left the other amps behind and there was sweet musicality with which country music and classics were rendered. Last test was to pit the Nad 3020 up against the MiniWatt both paired with PSBs. The MiniWatt stood its own and in all departments and matched the 3020 and even apparently outgunned it in dynamics and that says a lot for this tiny dynamite. The MiniWatt felt slightly laid back than the NAD but that was probably all on paper. To the ears and there were many, the MiniWatt outclassed the budget amplifiers in the INR 10-30k segment and more wrt the price to performance ratio in mind. And most importantly the MiniWatt has its own distinctive sound signature and the characteristic tube sound cannot describe it in any way actually. It is noticeable to point out that the MiniWatt sounded great right out of the box in my case the assumption is that it was broken in previously before coming my way, since most tube amps do take some time to bring out their distinctive sound signature.

Overall the MiniWatt was mostly nicely relaxed, detailed yet slightly warm (except the Marantz and Quad combo) and reproduced music of almost all genres well yet if head banging acid rock music or hip-hop is your cup of tea then MiniWatt is probably not the right candidate you would be better off with an average Bose system then. The MiniWatt is more suited to a rainy dog-day afternoon, when you sit back and relax back while your music soothes the nerves and leaves a nice tingling sensation in your ears and soul. And with the right speakers with somewhat higher sensitivity the MiniWatt can give you audio nirvana at a budget; which proves again that you do not have to spend tons of money on equipment to get the right sound. You can optimize with less the tiny amp is proof enough and is a serious contender in the space you obviously cannot compare a Cary Audio with the MiniWatt but the latter sometimes outperforms or holds its own against HW that is up to 4 times more expensive than it.

I would give it ratings of (26.5/30) in the sound reproduction front and this is taking in comparison to all kinds of HW combination in mind.
Bass = 4.5/5
Treble = 4/5
Midrange = 4.5/5
Soundstage = 4.5/5
Imaging = 4.5/5
Attack & Delay = 4.5/5

Retrospection

Simplicity is good simplicity can be good for our senses too. Amidst all the complexity and high power output combination & integrated systems, the MiniWatt is like a whiff of fresh air, delivering high on fidelity and detailed sound reproduction which goes to show that you do not need an expensive, complex and powerful device to deliver a simple MiniWatt does the same, and does it with complete ease.

Yes there are a few chinks in the armour but not in the sound reproduction front. The built quality could have been better maybe a cage for the tubes could have helped, maybe the footrests could have been better, maybe the volume knob could be of better quality but ultimately they mattered little when we actually started using it for the purpose it was meant for. And maybe the next step from the MiniWatt team could be matching speakers for the MiniWatt justice can only be done that way inefficient budget complex multi-driver speakers may not do justice to it at all - maybe single driver systems can.

Apart from this the MiniWatt team has stayed away from acronyms and marketing buzzwords and mumbo-jumbo to sell a product they started with a decently built high quality product to start off it and the end product pricing takes the cake. Apart from it at 229 USD + other shipping charges it is a serious audiograde product for a wannabe and cognizant audiophile alike. And the MiniWatt team in trying to harness the power of social media and using real life users rather than test subjects and test conditions, have played a masterstroke. The Miniwatt gets a score of (9/10) for sheer overall value.

Ironically when we end up spending up tons of money on equipment bringing in multi-driver speaker packages, complex pre-power amplifier combos, DACs and other transport in question we often forget that simplicity is often the key to good sound. While we end up buying amplifiers with 100WPC power output all to drive some expensive inefficient speakers. Then again, on the first place a high power output amplifiers design often is in doubt. The more complex the circuit becomes the more correction measures come into play while logic would question the need for such complexity on the first place - perhaps the MiniWatt team figured out that some time back and the respectable 2.5WPC is good enough to drive decently efficient speakers and achieve good fidelity.

To say the least that the MiniWatt impressed me and rest (including my wife who loved the nice detailed warm sound of it) is an understatement. And though its cheap (quite inexpensive actually in comparison to most audiograde stereo equipment), it delivers on every front with the right speaker combination, except if one wants louder than loud levels of music at all times with budget inefficient speakers that is probably its Achilles heel. It deserves an audition simply because of the way it handles the music delivering a smooth combination of detailed, classy sonic signature that is easy to experience and live with. Its more for people who love and want to feel their music and maybe not for the ones who like to showcase their music and equipment for the latter it maybe, on paper, too simple on specs to deliver anyway.

But the calculating mind may lest forget that, often, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
 
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thevortex

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Patiently written, detailed interview, Supra. This has come at the right time for me as I am looking at valve amplifiers seriously.

If I may request it, the only thing I would like added to this is some sort of a comparison between other valve amplifiers at a +/- 10K equation. Likewise a comparison with some of the other leading integrated amplifiers.

If the Miniwatt can match a Marantz 7003 and can manage to be even more musical as your review seems to indicate, then this must be a good product. Looking forward to more reviews on this.

Also when speaking of volume levels - what sort of volume levels were you able to achieve with the volume knob at, say, 50%? Was any measurement done?

I liked the last line and the implication contained within it. Well said.
 

gobble

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Thanks for the review Supra.

Now its for psychotropic to decide .... :)

Are you auditioning it too Psycho?

Cheers
 

Asit

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Hi Suprateep,

Thanks for writing a well-balanced, informative and enjoyable review. Do we need any magazines any more? The relevant reviews and debates/discussions are all here, and fair ones too without any interests whatsoever.

At the moment, I have one question. Among all the speakers used in your test/audition, which one was driven best by the MiniWatt and which one then the next best, and so on until which one was least liked by the amp? Can you provide this information? I know there may be subjectivity in this for sure, but it may give an overall trend.

Regards.
 

suprateep

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Hi Suprateep,

Thanks for writing a well-balanced, informative and enjoyable review. Do we need any magazines any more? The relevant reviews and debates/discussions are all here, and fair ones too without any interests whatsoever.

At the moment, I have one question. Among all the speakers used in your test/audition, which one was driven best by the MiniWatt and which one then the next best, and so on until which one was least liked by the amp? Can you provide this information? I know there may be subjectivity in this for sure, but it may give an overall trend.

Regards.

well in order of my preference I would say wharf 9.1>9.2~psb alpha b1>mission m35>wharfdale 9.6~Quad 12L2.

Somehow the Quad seemed to have lost a plot with the voice rendition of country songs and a few Jazz numbers. Appeared quite shrill and not musical actually.

And wrt the marantz 7003 yes the Marantz was louder yes(after 12O clock for the MiniWatt, which starts at 7 actually and 11o clock onwards of the Marantz) but at normal listening levels the MiniWatt was ahead. The problem is it was unanimously decided amongst the people I auditioned with that these were not the right speakers and probably single driver systems would do justice to them.
 

mahiruha

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Hello Suprateep,
very well written literature indeed. I am quite tempted to get one for my bedroom use. The question that comes to my mind is if things go wrong do you think our good old chandni people will be able to fix it? How much life is expected from such a tiny product?
Thanks,
Mahiruha.
 

anm

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chha gaye guru????

oops! I meant chha gaye guru!!! - you know I am influenced. :lol:
That's a great write up.

I share the same feeling about low powered valve system and though I haven't heard miniwatt, I was mesmerized by Lyrita's 1.5WPC (even lower power, but much heavy size due to large power supply) and 15W russian valve amps. They also come with a high efficiency single driver (simplicity again) as a system and you don't have to worry about speaker matching etc.
 

suprateep

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well a lot of others actually make single driver systems to go along with their amps. My advice to Derek and the MiniWatt team is to get good single driver system along with the amplifier. They have a great amplifier - all they need is to make a good package.

And BTW nothing like the MiniWatt as a secondary system - my hunch is one will use it more often than the primary system for music.

And regarding life - usually valve amps last a long time - only the tubes need replacement once in a while. I have been listening to it everyday almost for 4-5 hours at night and the kind of movement it has seen, and survived - my thumbs up to it.

BTW i should have taken a pic of the box in which it came in - it was completely hammered out of shape, thrown around in front of me my the post office guys (who proclaimed that they were GOVT EMPLOYEES and were doing THEIR JOB) - luckily the box and the extra cushioning material inside prevented anything from happening.
 

suprateep

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Patiently written, detailed interview, Supra. This has come at the right time for me as I am looking at valve amplifiers seriously.

If I may request it, the only thing I would like added to this is some sort of a comparison between other valve amplifiers at a +/- 10K equation. Likewise a comparison with some of the other leading integrated amplifiers.

If the Miniwatt can match a Marantz 7003 and can manage to be even more musical as your review seems to indicate, then this must be a good product. Looking forward to more reviews on this.

Also when speaking of volume levels - what sort of volume levels were you able to achieve with the volume knob at, say, 50%? Was any measurement done?

I liked the last line and the implication contained within it. Well said.

well i did test it with Marantz, denon and Norge amps in that price segment and maybe a little higher actually. IMHO a lot depens on speaker combination as well - the NAD 326 with PSB Alpha sounds good to be in a budget - but the NAD with the speakers tested did not fare better than the MiniWatt. Maybe with single driver system where the potential lies for the MiniWatt, it can strike gold.

That is the beauty of such audio systems, whether it be MiniWatt or some other amplifier.
 

psychotropic

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hey gobble, i've already got my amplifier, this review arrived a bit late for that... :)

and supra, that's a really detailed review!

i would of course love to hear the thing. Hey supra, will you be sending it down to Venkat? Would be great to have venkat's perspective on this, and then after that maybe Stevie's.



Thanks for the review Supra.

Now its for psychotropic to decide .... :)

Are you auditioning it too Psycho?

Cheers
 

iaudio

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Supra,

Seriously appreciate the effort you have put into this review! Especially after hurting your back and all that.:clapping:
I have marked it down as my potential stereo purchase in the coming year. Especially with the price tag and compact size I could ask someone to bring it down for me! :yahoo:

Once again kudos to guys like supra( who joins the fold of Venkat and co) who take their valuable time to give honest reviews to people like us, who are else stuck with eyewash reviews of indian mags or objective but less pertinent reviews of international magazines.
 

suprateep

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Supra,

Seriously appreciate the effort you have put into this review! Especially after hurting your back and all that.:clapping:
I have marked it down as my potential stereo purchase in the coming year. Especially with the price tag and compact size I could ask someone to bring it down for me! :yahoo:

Once again kudos to guys like supra( who joins the fold of Venkat and co) who take their valuable time to give honest reviews to people like us, who are else stuck with eyewash reviews of indian mags or objective but less pertinent reviews of international magazines.

The real guys are the DIY guys man - cranky, suri and the others.

On the other end are the great gurus like venkat, moser, spiro - sorry if I missed anyone. I am probably a fraction of knowledge which these guys have - but I call a spade a spade, so maybe that helps.

Let the community grow.

PS: I ordered myself a pair of beta brainwavz and am liking it a lot for the price point it is available. Wait for a review of it soon.
 

anm

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of course!!! you missed my name :)

The real guys are the DIY guys man - cranky, suri and the others.

On the other end are the great gurus like venkat, moser, spiro - sorry if I missed anyone. I am probably a fraction of knowledge which these guys have - but I call a spade a spade, so maybe that helps.

Let the community grow.

PS: I ordered myself a pair of beta brainwavz and am liking it a lot for the price point it is available. Wait for a review of it soon.
 

kaushik

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supra,
lovely review.If you can post bigger and clear pictures .
The valves must be showing beautiful glow while running.
 

MiniWatt

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Hi suprateep and all hifivision members,

First of all, thanks so much for the professional review from suprateep, it helps other hifivision members have an idea on how does MiniWatt sound.

As I understand, according to Indian regulations, it must provide the credit card number and another identification number(QPIN/IPIN) when making on line payment. Now, we accept secured credit card payment (both VISA and MASTER cards) in our website, and it will be more convenient for all of you to make online payment.

Once again, thanks all for your interests on MiniWatt, and pls drop me an email if you have any questions and suggestions on MiniWatt.

Cheers
Derek
MiniWatt
MiniWatt Tube Amplifier
email: derek@miniwatt.com.hk
 

gobble

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supra,
lovely review.If you can post bigger and clear pictures .
The valves must be showing beautiful glow while running.

Yeah, get rid of the flash while clicking - it has created reflections. A few closeup snaps with lens in macro mode will help. :)

I feel you should replace the current snaps with better ones inline... A lovely review deserves lovely pics :)

Regards
 
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