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Published March 1, 2004


Cayin TA-30 Integrated Amplifier


I’ve been 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 I’ve 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.

First impressions

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, that’s 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-30’s surface. But photos that don’t exhibit this problem don’t adequately show off the finish. Cayin thoughtfully includes a pair of cotton gloves so you don’t have to smudge your brand-new amp while you’re unpacking it.

The TA-30 is relatively small -- 12" wide by 7.75" high by 15" deep -- but at 40 pounds, it’s 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 you’ll 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. I’ll 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 won’t 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 it’s 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 you’re curious about how beefy the power supply is, it accounts for the bulk of the amp’s 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 amp’s bottom plate. I’ve seen my share of tube amps in this price range, and they’re 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, you’ll 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 meter’s 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 you’re 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), you’ll 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 won’t 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, I’m 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 didn’t 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 Barber’s 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 there’s an ethereal quality and openness to the vocals -- the TA-30 reproduced this faithfully, with a natural decay as Barber’s voice slowly trails off and evaporates out into the room.

The soundstage on "Orinoco Flow," from Enya’s 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 Group’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Thompson’s Fashionably Late [Rounder 613182] is all about vocals. You’d 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," Thompson’s voice belted from the speakers with astonishing clarity, her son Teddy’s 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 don’t get this level of richness and depth from my solid-state amplifiers, and the home-theater receiver downstairs doesn’t even come close.

Moving on to classical music -- well, more like Latin-jazz classical -- I dropped Al Dimeola’s The Grande Passion [Telarc CD-83481] into the CD player. The title track is one of the prettiest pieces of music I’ve 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.

Final thoughts

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 can’t 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 can’t get enough music, and find myself buying CDs at an alarming rate. This is not a bad thing. I’ve also rediscovered portions of my music collection that, until I hooked up the TA-30, I’d 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, you’ll 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

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