The Greatest Bang for the Buck:   Elekit TU-8500 "Kit" Phono Preamp & Line Stage Review          
by Richard H. Mak

Hi-End Audio has never been cheap, a McIntosh MC-275 cost US$ 444 in 1960s, a couple of them and you can almost buy a Mini-Cooper. When the Kondo Ongaku was debuted at a price of $ 60,000 back in 1989, audiophiles often joked that "the day will come when a Kondo will cost more than a Condo".   
Well, that day has dawned on us in 2017. Retail price of late appears  to have gone exponential for numerous brand names. The four chassis CH Precision P1/X1 combo which I recently reviewed cost US$90,000, that's just for the phono stage and you will need to spend plenty more before you can even  make a sound.  The 1st generation Focal JM Lab Grande Utopia which cost $ 80,000 in 1999, has ballooned to US$ 180,000 for the latest 3rd generation EM model, and the new flagship Wilson WAMM cost a whooping US$ 675,000, almost $ 400,000 thousand more than their previous flagship! Last I checked, the growth rate of my stock portfolio did not appreciate this much during the same period, nor the rate of inflation in general, unless of course if you're in Venezuela.

When audio components are beginning to cost more than not just cars but houses, the word "value" seems to be more of a misnomer than ever. The industry is almost becoming a numbers game, with a race of MSRPs to the top, each company wanting the crown of having the most expensive flagship model to make a marketing statement.This may be welcomed by the newly minted billionaires from around the world, but for the rest of us rat racers, the numbers game makes it even more difficult for Millennials to get into this rapidly aging hobby.

One company, however, seems to be bucking the trend: Elekit of Japan.

EK JAPAN - the parent company of Elekit, was founded by Tsunao Yanase San in the early 70s.  It began as a small electric appliance shop called KAHO in Fukuoka, Japan. He wanted to create a series of affordable "electronic model kits" so that young children can learn to be creative at a very age, with the hope that one day, they will have the ambition to dream big and perhaps become the next Elon Musk. In the early 80s, Elekit hired Yoshitsugu Fujita San as the company engineer to produce audio "kit" components. This gave birth to the TU series of affordable audio components which requires assembly. To this day, Elekit's social mandate of promoting creativity in young minds has remained un-wavered. Successive presidents of EK JAPAN continues to keep  the quality of their products high but prices low, so they can remain affordable for young children.

TU-8500 "Kit" Line/Phono Preamplifier  (North American Distributor:     

Listed at US $550.00, the price of the TU-8500 is indeed very affordable. It is actually so “Cheap”, that even the DIY projects I did back in the late 80s cost more.     

Let me give you an example, in 1989 I wanted to buy an entry model Audio Note preamp for US$ 2,000, but being a student at the time it was either that or school tuition so I decided to take the DIY route instead.  This was before the days of EBAY, so it took me months to scavenge a list of components:

A Used aluminum / metal chassis from a gutted "Audio Performer" Preamp: $ 100
Transformer and mounting accessories, by Toroid Transformer of Maryland : $ 120
Stepped Attenuator Volume control: $   55
ALPS Balance Control Trimpot: $   25
IEC Inlet: $   10
Marantz 7 Clone circuit board without Phono Stage: $ 200
2 Used Vacuum tubes from Local shop: $   25
2 Volume Knobs from a surplus store: $     5
Solder and cheap Soldering gun: $   10
                              Tax & Various shipping charges (approx):                                        $   50
Total Damage: $ 600

($ 600 DIY Preamp, vs the Elekit TU-8500) 

If I had known about the Elekit TU-8500 back in 1989, I would have not embarked on my DIY Preamp project. Base on aesthetics  and resale value alone, the Eleckit is clearly the winner.   

The Elekit TU-8500 arrives in a shoe box sized double boxed carton, inside you'll literally find 40-50 tiny bags of Japanese made electronic components broken down to the very last screw and resistor.  The price of the product is not indicative of the quality of the parts. Some of the parts are of higher quality than many $3000 dollar preamps I have seen.

The printed circuit board is 1.75mm thick and is properly printed with warning labels and numbering. The transformer which comes with the TU-8500, is an Japanese made R-Core transformers made by Kitamura Kiden, which holds the patent to the R-Core Transformer Technology. Interestingly enough, the R-Core transformer found in my $17,000 dollar McIntosh C1000 Preamp, is also a Kitamura Kiden. The same can be found in many high quality names such as Esoteric, Marantz and Accuphase.      
The standard tubes which comes with the TU-8500 are not Chinese or Russian varietals, they are NOS GE 5968 which can be substituted with any 12AT7. The chassis made of powder coated steel, and the rubber component feet, is encased in high quality aluminum. Let's just say if you add up the cost of the parts, it will likely be 2x the sum of the whole.   

From start to finish, the assembly of the TU-8500 took me approximately 4.5 hrs. Just when I was about to wax eloquent to my audiophile group that I finished the job in just 4.5 hrs, I plugged in my unit and no sound was coming out. I spent a further 4 hours painstakingly going through the entire circuit board, and discovered some resistors soldered in the wrong positions. I re-soldered them to their proper spots and I was once again fully prepared to show off. With Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 LP ready for its inaugural debut, lo and behold, there was no sound again! Lest my self esteem be further abased, I decided to ship the unit back to Victor Kung of (North American Distributor) for a proper diagnosis. In a matter of minutes, he figured out what the problem was, but to preserve my dignity he said it was a "small mistake which anybody could make”. It goes so show you why I'm a finance guy and not an engineer. 

To Victor Kung's credit, he made significant contributions to the translation of the Japanese assembly instructions manual into English. It is quite detailed and comprehensive, literally like a Dummies Guide to Preamp Assembly:  "Please take item 109, insert to the hold marked C15, and apply solder”. But like me, if you are technically challenged, Victor will be happy to sell you assembled units for just US$ 125 more.

The TU8500 is switchable between 100, 115, 200 & 230V. It has 1 phono, and 3 line stage inputs. There are two push buttons at the back of the unit to select between MM (37 dB gain) or MC (63 dB gain) phono input, and the other is for choosing between two different gain levels, 1.15x ( 1.2 dB) or 3.1x (9.8 dB) gain. The TU-8500 has a built in 15 second delay upon turn on, which allows the tubes to warm up. 

The Million Dollar Question, or should I say, the $550 dollar Question, how does it sound ?

Would you carry the same level of expectations at McDonalds as you would at a Michelin starred restaurant? For $ 550 dollars, if the TU-8500 is bug free at turn on, doesn't produce any noise or hums, and sounds basically "OK", I'm already a happy camper. The TU08500 does exactly that, it is completely absence of any ground loop or hums. At 12 o'clock volume with no signal going into the line stage, I can detect almost no noise coming out of the Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand speakers. Switching over to the 105 dB sensitive La Scala II, I can hear a faint hiss, but it is at about the same level as the McIntosh C2200 (US$ 4,500), but has a lower noise floor than all my other preamps: the Shindo Auriege ($3,895), the Monbrison ($8,000), and the McIntosh C22 Vintage.

The MM phono stage is relatively noisier than the line stage, and the MC has a noticeable hiss even at low volume. If MC cartridge is to be used, I would recommend using a step-up transformer going into the MM phono stage. But the fact that the TU-8500 even comes with a phono stage, is an extra free bonus in my book. 

Sonically, the TU-8500 is way beyond being just acceptable. In fact, I have a hard time finding anything which performs nearly as good as the TU-8500 even in the $ 2000 dollar range. It completely annihilated my $600 dollar DIY Marantz 7 replica in both frequency extension and dynamic contrast. 
The TU-8500 is relatively "modern" sounding which leans towards the side of being accurate rather than “tubey" and musical. It is somewhat analytical, but it does not veer toward the far end of spectrum like Simaudio or Esoteric, think along the lines of the VTL 2.5  or the older Sonic Frontier Line 1.   

In terms of sound staging, the TU-8500 offers a forward and robust presentation, with adequate depth perception. It gave classical instruments a weighty and solid spatial projection, comparable to the  McIntosh C2200 and the Shindo Auriege, but the latter two preamps exhibited a wider sound stage, with better instrument harmonics and decay - sure, for $4000 dollars more.

At the end of the review exercise, I liked the sound of the TU-8500 preamp so much that I decided to buy the review sample. Believe it or not, I sold off the McIntosh C2200. Is the TU-8500 better than the McIntosh C2200?  Not it is not. The McIntosh C2200 is better, but the C2200 is for my 3rd system in the house, replacing it with the TU-8500 was only a small downgrade and a change in tonality which I can happily live with. It also saved me $ 3000 dollars, just enough to pay for my winter ski trip to Jackson Hole.

Warren Buffet once said:  "Price is what you pay, value is what you get. Whether we're talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down". That is to say, if you can buy something where the whole cost less the sum of its parts, you are getting good value for your money. The Elekit TU-8500 totally fits the bill.

Richard H. Mak - Senior Analog Contributing writer