When during Audio Show 2013 in Warsaw I heard Audio Tekne system for the first time with this incredible sound flowing in the air - and let me remind you that room’s conditions in a hotel during the Show are far from perfect – I already felt in my guts that it wasn’t THAT good by accident. I was pretty sure that it was a result of a well thought-through and perfectly executed design. It’s true that the aesthetics of the system did not quite „match” the sound I could hear in terms of class – I’ll get back to that later – but I couldn’t help but love the Japanese simplicity this system represented. Just to be clear – it doesn’t happen too often that I get wowed so quickly, especially in cases like this one when the looks of a system is so… different from what my own Reimyo system got me used to. It was probably the very first time when I truly experienced the fact that I, of course, was fully aware of, but never had experienced before, that it was the sound that mattered most, and the appearance was the second, much less important factor. Obviously after AudioShow I was very eager to put my hands on any AudioTekne product to listen to it and/or review it in my own system. As it turned out it was easier said then done. For some time it looked almost like a lost case. But then fate smiled at me. At first I got a product just to listen to it but later this encounter transformed into a regular review. Luckily for me the product I received was the most interesting one from my point of view – a phono stage. For me it was like winning a lottery as I am simply an analogue addict and I wouldn’t even think twice before giving even the best digital device up for a chance of listening to an interesting analogue one. And I was given such a chance. Long story short – let me introduce a basic phono stage model of a Japanese manufacturer Audio Tekne. Its full name is Phono Equalizer Amplifier TEA-2000 and it was delivered for this test by brand’s distributor for Poland (among other countries) – the Natural Sound s.r.o.
What one gets with this device is a rectangular chassis placed on four, round, large diameter carbon feet, with transformers and with small signal tubes (each pair under separate grid) between them, on top. I realize that if your only visual contact with this device is based on images you might find it difficult to get a positive impression. But when I looked at TEA 2000 when listening to the music, I realized that the external design, that reflects the internal one obviously, brought somehow a reminiscence from my childhood – a toy train car PIKO loaded with miniature containers. It is possible that this very positive reminiscence was responsible for my very positive reception of this design. Front panel is also very minimalist. There is a simple on/off flip switch on the left side with a red LED that turns on and off with the device. In the middle there is a name of the device printed with a stylish font, on to the right there is a name of the company and model (written with some regular font). The rear panels sports two inputs and two outputs, both for MC cartridges but one of them for low (or even very low) impedance ones – 10Ω (like the own AudioTekne’s cart), and higher impedance (100Ω) ones. RCA sockets are clearly marked as LOW and HIGH. Next to the input sockets there is a ground connector, and power inlet. There no adjustments - no pots, dip-switches or whatsoever. The only choice user makes is which input (and respectively an output) to use. This surely limits the number of cartridges that can be paired with this phono stage, but on the other hand, as my experience has proven more than once, not always the recommended loading offers best sonic results, so one should try this phono stage with one’s cartridge to actually check whether such pair would work fine or not. The last element of the device’s image, of how it is perceived, are its colors – graphite and some gray-blue were the choice of the designer – whether you like it or not is a matter of taste. As you can clearly see the designer followed the rule that says: “the device should be made as simple as possible but no simpler”. Probably most designers have this rule in mind when they start working on their device, but it often doesn’t really work for them after all. Just to finish this part of the review let me quote one more rule often cited in audio and followed also here: “the best capacitor is no capacitor” - this should get, at least experienced Readers, really excited. Yes, there are no capacitors in signal’s path in TEA-2000. So let’s see how these two rules, so often cited by both, professional designers and DIY ones, work in practice in this particular case.
When I received this Japanese tube phono stage it directly replaced in my system Polish, solid-state one – Theriaa. I knew that sound would change a lot and in fact I was afraid that these changes wouldn’t go in my preferred direction. Yes, I had some wonderful experience with tube phono stages like: Ayon Spheris, Aesthetic, or ModWright, but on the other hand (although not in my system) I heard also some poor sounding ones. So having such diversified experience I realized it would be best not to presume anything before listening. At the very second when stylus touched the groove and I heard the first sounds, all the greatest memories from my first encounter with AudioTekne in Sobieski in 2013 (that I described before) came to me, now delivering even twice as much emotions. Even my most optimistic expectations did not prepare me for that, because I’d never heard such a resolving sound in my system before. And I mean with no other phono stage, tube or solid-state, regardless price level. What exactly did I hear? Ever since I changed my speakers to ISIS, that sport drivers with paper cones, I always heard this slightly “nasal” sound. It became an inherent feature of my system’s sound and I already started to treat it as its added value. When I replaced Theriaa with AudioTekne I immediately realized that this “nasal” effect was gone. Sure, my speakers still sounded like ones with paper cones but now with an amazing vitality and ease and instruments actually breathing, if you know what I mean. Interestingly, this presentation did not make the background “even more black”, which is what so many audiophiles are after. Black background is an important element of the presentation but when it’s exaggerated it “kills” sprightliness of the music, or in other words it kills naturalness of the presentation. Instead TEA 2000 offered amazing dynamics, resolution and lack of any nervousness. Unlike many other devices this phono stage did not try to convince me at any cost that it was “so great” but rather proposed to take a closer look at its performance. It was like it said: „hey, look – I’m not trying to convince you, I don’t expect praises from you, what I want is to offer you an abundance of details, that are important for sound quality, but I also add wonderful timbre, musicality and vibrancy of the sound that will allow your senses to focus on the beauty of music”. I have to admit – I bought that approach. To better explain my delight let me use some music examples. I didn’t want to use Antonio Forcione again - despite the fact that he is a fantastic artist, his music is used in tests way too often and you might have already got tired with it. So instead I played an album of Ray Brown & L. Almeida – the „Moonlight Serenade” that was released as part of ”AUDIOPHILE LEGENDS” series.
Some might think that two such “boring” instruments, as double bass and guitar, are not able to utilize a full potential of a sophisticated audio component, but you’d be wrong if you thought so. It is double bass that often shows weaknesses of audio system, or its components, by being reproduced as a huge “splash” of sound somewhere on the soundstage. This is a great realization and both instruments can be clearly placed in particular places on stage. Strings are amazingly vibrant and agile which together with a bundle of micro-details and vibrations of the air amplified in a soundboard perfectly present that also bass might be properly quick, well defined even during fastest parts, without particular sounds blending together and without loosing even smallest parts of the information. The Audio Tekne phono stage, despite the fact it used tubes, played this material in such a fabulous way (with great, “sharp” leading edge, with super-fast response to each string pluck and so on) that if one wanted to find a serious competitor for this performance, one would have to look in a much higher price range and even then, I’m afraid, the sound might be too “digital”, at least for my taste.
I took another take trying to get rid of my initial fascination with TAE-2000, this time using live album of Ken Vandermark, recorded in Cracow club called Alchemia, titled: „THE VANDERMARK 5: FOUR SIDES TO THE STORY”. These fantastic, at least for me, as many others would probably describe them as: “crazy”, seemingly unrelated musical phrases within slower tracks enchanted me with sounds of many tiny percussion instruments suspended in the air, whose location on the soundstage was very clear even in the most heated fragments. AudioTekne, together with the Reimyo system, delivered also a wonderful experience on a spiritual level to me, allowing me a very close contact with free-jazz virtuoso, K. Vandermark playing saxophone and clarinet, delivering detailed information on what the reed he used was made of, and conveying all sounds of these instruments in a very convincing fashion. All those little details, noises, blows, or slow whirrs sounded as realistic as never before in my system. I was sure it would be really hard to forget so I already knew that giving this phonostage away after the review would mean a truly hard time for me.
As I was convinced that I dealt with device with a soul, I decided not to stain it with some artificially, electronically created music and instead I ended the assessment with Linn's 3LP production of George Frederic Handel's „Messiah”. Honestly? It was like a „hand of God”. Tonal balance was set bit lower than when I played the same album with Theriaa. Vocals were simply thrilling and wonderfully harmonized with supporting instruments. I felt like I was sitting in this concert in the, supposedly, best, 5th row. The only little annoying, disrupting this remarkable experience, element was the obvious necessity of changing the sides of following discs. My final conclusions were as follows:
- - soundstaging was absolutely brilliant – I meant both, the width and depth were perfect, and 3D imaging even better
- - there was this simply proper elevation and clarity of the sounds between speakers, absolutely no showy elements introduced only to create an impression of a more attractive presentation,
- - and probably the most important element of them all – this amazing vibrancy of the sound that I realized 5 second after I started to listen to the first track and then learned to appreciate more and more which each following tune.
I wouldn't be myself if I didn't try to verify impressions from my system in friend's system too. A system that sounded very different than mine, I need to add. I didn't really want to verify how good TEA 2000 was, as I already knew that. I wanted to check whether its amazing sonic features – openness, lots of air and increased micro-dynamics – wouldn't shift tonal balance towards upper part of the range. It didn't happen in my system but I wanted to confirm this observation is a system that, from my perspective, already had its tonal balance slightly shifted up (no worries – the owner of this system knows my honest opinion) just to make sure, because several years of experience in audio taught me that each finding should be verified if only possible. I am happy to report that this Japanese phonostage confirmed its overall class, this amazing palpability of the sound, its ability to deliver a multi-layer presentation and very realistic timbre of instruments and voices. What's more it managed to transform the sound of my friend's system, that sounded now much closer to my preferences and it even to convince my friend that this type of presentation was surely worth his interest.
I really don't know how to summarize this review. Theoretically, despite my quite large experience, this device surprised me in a particularly positive way, but to be honest – I would love to get surprised like this as often as only possible. Obviously such surprises tend to bleed my bank account, which is not so good, but on the other hand we have only one life and we should enjoy it as much as possible, right? Does TEA 2000 offer an ultimate performance? If you take a look at brand's portfolio you will surely notice that this is only an “entry level” product and it already outperformed anything I'd listened so far. It delivers music in such a seemingly easy, unobtrusive way, it invites listener to truly experience the performance – and that's just a fraction of the whole list of its qualities. Is it a perfect fit for any vinyl aficionado? There is no easy answer to that question. One has to learn many things through experience, one has to reach certain level of maturity to appreciate what Audio Tekne has to offer. I am sure that most of you in a process of “sound education”, that I also followed myself, at some point decide that what matters most is an involving, immersing type of presentation. But at some point, maybe at the relatively reasonable (for high end) level of 20 kEUR, you might start to wonder whether you're there for this overly immersive presentation or the presentation should be there for you, to your liking. The moment you start asking yourself this question you might find out that there is no other alternative to what AudioTekne TEA 2000 offers. At least from my perspective there is no alternative.
Distributor: NATURAL SOUND s.r.o.
Price: 20 000 €
Type: Stereo phono equalizer amplifier
Inputs: PHONO (MC dedicated LOW & HIGH)
Maximum inputs : PHONO (LOW 25 mVrms, HIGH 85 mVrms))
Outputs: EQ OUT 1.6 Vrms (std) 11 Vrms (max)
RIAA accuracy: ±1.5 dB (30Hz – 15000 Hz)
Power consumption:50 VA
Dimentions: W 44.5 x H 17.0 x D 15.5 cm
Weight: 12.0 kg
System used in this test:
- DAC + CD transport: Reimyo CDT - 777 + Reimyo DAP - 999 EX
- Preamplifier: Reimyo CAT - 777 MK II
- Power amplifier:Reimyo KAP - 777
- Loudspeakers: TRENNER & FRIEDL ISIS
- Speaker Cables: Harmonix HS 101-EXQ (mid-high section); Harmonix HS-101 SLC (bass section)
- IC RCA: Harmonix HS 101-GP
- Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
- Power cables: Harmonix X-DC-350M2R Improved Version
- Table: SOLID BASE VI
- Accessories: Antivibration stand for the power amp by Harmonix TU-505EX MK2, Harmonix Enacom improved for AC
- Power distribution board: POWER BASE HIGH END
Drive: SME 30/2
Arm: SME V
Cartridge: MIYAJIMA MADAKE
Phonostage: RCM THERIAA