Cayin TA-30 Integrated Amplifier
interested in tube amps for a long time. These days, however, it seems that all the good
tube amps cost thousands of dollars -- too much for me to seriously consider -- and all
the "budget" models Ive heard lack detail or have tubby, bloated bass. So
when I heard about the Cayin TA-30 integrated tube amplifier, I was skeptical. At a mere
$800 USD, it seemed too good to be true.
The Cayin line is made by Spark Audio, of China, which has
an established presence in Europe but is not widely distributed in North America. If word
of the TA-30 gets out, thats likely to change. When I first set eyes on the TA-30, I
was a little taken aback. The amp is finished with a 3/8"-thick front panel of
gold-anodized aluminum, the body in a clearcoat of deep metallic blue. The finish is
impeccable, the clearcoat so reflective that my attempts to photograph the amp have met
with little success -- some element of the backdrop always ends up reflected in the
TA-30s surface. But photos that dont exhibit this problem dont
adequately show off the finish. Cayin thoughtfully includes a pair of cotton gloves so you
dont have to smudge your brand-new amp while youre unpacking it.
The TA-30 is relatively small -- 12" wide by
7.75" high by 15" deep -- but at 40 pounds, its anything but a
lightweight. The front panel has only a power switch, volume control, and a four-input
selector switch. Under the slotted-steel tube cage youll find four EL34 power tubes,
a pair of 12AU7s, and, normally, a pair of 12AX7s for the preamp stage. The cage is
removable; I find the warm glow of the tubes enticing, so I left my cage off. Ill
probably have to put it back on in a few months, when my granddaughter starts crawling.
The suggested tube types are printed in front of each tube
socket -- you wont have to hire a detective to identify the tube when one of them
eventually goes belly up. Oddly, in place of the 12AX7s that were supposed to occupy the
slots so labeled, my unit came with a pair of Electro-Harmonix 12AT7EH tubes. If you like
to roll tubes -- change them around to see which ones sound best to you -- the TA-30 will
accept the 12AU7, AX7, or AT7 in any of the small preamp sockets, and the EL37, KT88,
KT66, or 6L6 in place of the stock EL34 power tubes. I used the stock power tubes for the
purpose of the review, but its nice to know I can play around if I want to try for a
different sound. The power supply and transformers are behind the tube cage in a second
steel shell that should be left permanently in place. If youre curious about how
beefy the power supply is, it accounts for the bulk of the amps weight. Enough said.
Around back are four pairs of heavy-duty, gold-plated RCA
jacks, gold-plated binding posts with taps for 4- or 8-ohm speakers, and an IEC socket
with a fuse holder for the fairly heavy-gauge power cord. Cayin includes two spare fuses.
I was already impressed by the build quality of the little
TA-30, but nothing prepared me for what I found when I removed the amps bottom
plate. Ive seen my share of tube amps in this price range, and theyre
invariably based on a large printed circuit board to reduce costs. Not the Cayin TA-30. To
my astonishment, the only printed circuit in the whole amp is a small board that contains
the four bias pots for the power tubes: three resistors and two capacitors for each pot.
Everything else is wired point-to-point and built by hand. The wires are neatly routed
around the inside of the amp and are wire-tied where necessary to keep them from moving.
This sucker is built to last. Cool.
Setup is about as simple as it gets. Plug in your
components and speakers, turn the volume control all the way down, press the power switch,
let things warm up for five minutes, adjust the volume, and enjoy. Periodically,
youll want to bias the output tubes -- remember that circuit board? All you do flip
the amp over, pull the bottom plate off, turn the amp on, let the tubes warm up for a few
minutes, connect the negative lead of a voltmeter to ground (a negative speaker terminal
works perfectly), and touch the meters positive lead to one side of a resistor
attached to each output tube. Adjust the pot for each tube until the meter reads 0.35V and
youre done. Your dealer can show you how to do this in just a few minutes, or you
can do what Cayin prefers and return your TA-30 to the dealer for biasing. About every
3000 to 5000 hours (three to five years for most people), youll want to replace the
tubes. A little research indicates that a matched quartet of EL34s runs about $60, the
four preamp tubes about $10 each. You can spend more, but I was looking at high-quality
Svetlana and Electro-Harmonix tubes; the whole amp can be re-tubed for a very reasonable
$100. Not bad when you consider that the 300B tubes used in a lot of single-ended triode
amps run about $300 a pair.
With four EL34s operating in push-pull mode, the TA-30 is
good for a rated 30Wpc. That wont drive inefficient speakers to rock-concert levels
in a large room, but it will drive reasonably efficient speakers very effectively in a
room of moderate size. If you want to try something a little different, Im told the
TA-30 will run in 4W mode if you pull the second and fourth tubes from the left channel
and rebias the tubes to 0.7V. I didnt try this configuration, but am told you gain a
warmer midrange, at the expense of bass definition.
I set up the TA-30 with an Adcom GCD-600 CD changer as the
primary source, hooked up with Audio Magic Apprentice interconnects. I did most of my
listening with my reference Silverline Sonatina speakers or a pair of Ascend Acoustics
CBM-170s, connected with Analysis Plus Oval 12 cables. With both pairs of speakers, the
distance between the speakers was just slightly less than that to my listening chair.
Patricia Barbers Café Blue [Blue Note 21810],
one of my current favorite CDs, offers a mix of interesting jazz and stunning sound. On
"Manha de Carnaval," the transients, including the bass, were sharp and clean
while retaining enough midrange warmth for the vocal passages. The soundstage carried
throughout the room, with amazing depth in the a cappella "Wood is a Pleasant Thing
to Think About." Throughout the CD theres an ethereal quality and openness to
the vocals -- the TA-30 reproduced this faithfully, with a natural decay as Barbers
voice slowly trails off and evaporates out into the room.
The soundstage on "Orinoco Flow," from
Enyas Watermark [Reprise 26774-2], was absolutely huge, displaying a sense of
depth absent from the same track when played through my Chiro C-300 solid-state amplifier.
Further, the decay of transients was somehow more natural and believable. The soundstage
was a bit forward, but the depth was simply breathtaking. The imaging was good, though
voices covered a bit more space rather than being closer to point sources, as they are
through the Chiro.
The Blue Man Groups The Complex [Lava 83631-2]
is one of those recordings that simply must be played loud, and puts any amp to the
test. The first order of business here was bass -- I was concerned that a relatively
low-powered tube amp wouldnt be up to the task. But the Cayin TA-30 laughed off this
fear as it proceeded to shake the house with everything my speakers could dish out from
"Time to Start" and "Piano Smasher." In this case, the amplifier was not
the weak link in the chain; had there been a subwoofer in the room, I would have sworn it
was on. So much for the myth that tube amps have poor bass.
Linda Thompsons Fashionably Late [Rounder
613182] is all about vocals. Youd never know from this release that Thompson has
been out of circulation for 17 years -- her voice is as strong and clear as ever. This is
where tube amps like the Cayin truly excel. On "Evona Darling," Thompsons
voice belted from the speakers with astonishing clarity, her son Teddys voice
intertwining with hers while remaining distinct. This kind of lush harmony and layering
make amps like the Cayin stand out from the rest of the pack. I dont get this level
of richness and depth from my solid-state amplifiers, and the home-theater receiver
downstairs doesnt even come close.
Moving on to classical music -- well, more like Latin-jazz
classical -- I dropped Al Dimeolas The Grande Passion [Telarc CD-83481] into
the CD player. The title track is one of the prettiest pieces of music Ive heard in
recent memory. On this track, as throughout the entire album, the acoustic guitar was warm
and rich without ever sounding overly warm or muddy. There was a sense of fluidity as the
music washed over me in a soft wave. The Cayin TA-30 is the most musically satisfying amp
I have in the house.
When I brought the Cayin TA-30 integrated amplifier into
the house, I was looking forward to little more than experimenting with a tube amp. Until
then, my reference system had performed dual duty as my primary music and movie system. No
longer. As of now, my reference music and movie systems are separate. The vastly more
expensive electronics in my home-theater system cant match the beauty and finesse of
my reference speakers paired with the Cayin TA-30.
The combination of detail, soundstage, midrange warmth,
bass response, definition, and build quality in a tube amp at this price is simply
amazing. I cant get enough music, and find myself buying CDs at an alarming rate.
This is not a bad thing. Ive also rediscovered portions of my music collection that,
until I hooked up the TA-30, Id always thought a bit dry and lifeless. No single
piece of electronics that has come through the house in the past year has had such a
profound impact on my system or my enjoyment of music as this little integrated amp.
In a perfect world, that would be it. However, this is a
tube amp, and its output is limited to 30Wpc, so forget it if you have an abnormally large
room and/or inefficient speakers. Also, some speakers are simply not tube-friendly -- if
you buy a Cayin TA-30, youll want to make sure you can return it if you need to. You
may have to hunt for a Cayin dealer, but your efforts will be well rewarded.
...Jeff Van Dyne
Price of equipment reviewed