The internet makes it very interesting to be an audiophile. No matter what obscure piece of gear you want to learn about, you can almost always find someone out there who has experience with it. I’ve certainly learned a lot from the experience of others on this forum, and I hope I’ve been able to give back a little by occasionally sharing my impressions.
One thing that I’ve noticed recently is that there are plenty of audio companies that are very successful in a certain market, but almost completely obscure outside of that region. I assume that audiophiles everywhere are aware of the big names like Sennheiser, Meridian, B&W, and Magnepan. But some others seem far more localized. A friend I met from Australia was surprised that I had never heard of Krix speakers. Although I’ve heard the names, Wharfedale and Mordaunt-Short don’t have the same following where I live that they enjoy overseas. And if you browse any regional forum from another country, you are sure to spot some brands that are well respected, yet you’ve never heard of. But as the internet becomes more integrated into our society, we start discovering more and more of these hidden gems.
The subject of this review is one such company. Analog Design Labs is a South Korean company that has been around since 1987. They sell a range of tube based equipment including amplifiers, pre-amps, phono stages, and headphone amplifiers. Without knowing anything about their reputation as I normally would with most audiophile gear, I have to use whatever clues I can find to make some assumptions about them. The first thing I notice is that they focus on tube equipment only. I don’t see any solid state or even hybrid designs for any of their gear. The other major thing I notice is with regards to pricing: adjusted to US dollars, their equipment seems to range from roughly $2,300 to $3,500 a piece. On the higher end their Mistral monoblocks go for almost $14,000 and their Valkyrie monoblocks sell for $32,000. That easily qualifies them as a high end company. Thankfully the Svetlana 2 headphone amplifier that I’m reviewing was not astronomically expensive. Converting the price on their website puts it around $1,200, but I’ve seen sellers on eBay asking over $1,500 shipped.
I contacted Analog Design Labs with some questions about the amp. We got to talking and they ended up offering to let me try it out before buying it. I had to wait about a month while they built me a version with the proper power transformer to work on the local power. Apparently they are already popular in their native country, and already had plans to expand into the USA, so the timing was great. Their current website is http://www.analog.co.kr and requires translation to read in English (I use Google Chrome and it does an acceptable job). They advised me that a new website is coming within the next few months that will allow for direct ordering, and should hopefully have more specific translation into English.
The terms of my review are that this is strictly a loaner, but of course if I enjoy it I can decide to purchase it. There was no talk of writing a good review in exchange for anything – in fact they seemed very eager to hear my opinion whether it was positive or negative. They tell me that this amp has already been well reviewed in its home country, being compared favorably to the likes of the Grace Design m903 and SPL Phonitor. But I have not seen any of those reviews for myself.
Svetlana with Resonessence Labs Invicta, Violectric V200, and Squeezebox Touch
The Svetlana 2 is a single ended, pure class-A, zero negative feedback, transformer coupled tube headphone amplifier. It features a switch on the front panel for selecting high or low impedance: low is suitable for 25 through 62 ohm headphones, and high is for 300 through 600 ohm models. Thoughtfully, there is a middle position for the switch that equates to “off” for the headphone output. This comes in handy when using the device as a pre-amp, because it allows headphones to remain plugged in but not active. The rear panel features a ground lift switch, which could be helpful in solving ground loop noise issues. It has a single input, a single headphone jack, and one output for use as a pre-amp.
Externally, the Svetlana seems to channel vintage tube amp design. With a rugged textured steel case in flat black and exposed hex screws, this amp makes my DarkVoice 337SE look positively modern. It does not include any sort of cage or protection for the tubes. In fact I don’t see a single tube cage anywhere on the Analog Design Labs website, an indication of confidence in their potential customers’ abilities not to burn themselves on hot glass. A very small orange LED on front glows just bright enough to indicate power status, but no more. It sounds like a small thing but for some it is a big deal – annoyingly bright front panel lights can really kill the mood in a dark room. Obviously appearances are subjective but I find the Svetlana very attractive, and to me it achieves the classic look that they seem to have been aiming for. One thing that does stand out a little is on the rear panel, where we find CMC Super Cu pure copper RCA jacks. This is an optional upgrade and at present translates to $140 extra. I don’t know what the standard option would look like but these are very nice, and I recognize them as the same type used on the $4,000 Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC. They are the only bit of flare in an otherwise understated design. The amp measures about 12 inches deep, 7 inches wide, and 5 inches tall at the highest point. The website lists weight as 5kg which equates to 11 pounds, but that seems low to me based on how it feels. I have to try and find a scale that works accurately in that range and test it myself, because it just feels heavier than that.
Internally, the Svetlana seems very well laid out. It uses a PCB, although apparently you can pay roughly $230 extra for a hand made point to point version. Parts seem well thought out and of high quality: big Wima MKP4 film caps for DC coupling, the ubiquitous Alps “blue velvet” RK27 potentiometer, ceramic tube sockets, Siltech silver solder, a mix of Rubycon and Elna capacitors, etc. The regulated power supply uses a large toroidal transformer which occupies its own housing. This makes it isolated from the rest of the components except for a very small opening big enough for wiring to pass through. The transformer was much heavier than I expected it to be, to the point where it probably makes up half the total weight of the amp.
The Svetlana uses a compliment of four tubes total, and both types are of the double triode variety. A pair of 6N1P-EV are for used for the line stage. It can also take ECC88, 6DJ8, or 6922 tubes, with the caveat that those will likely be noisier and thus require the use of tube dampers. I’m told that the 6N1P is a very quiet tube so I don’t know that there is much to be gained by switching – it might end up being a tradeoff at best. The EV variant is supposedly the extra durable, extra long life version used for military purposes. The spec sheet indeed shows an expected minimum 5000 hour life span compared to 3000 hours for the regular 6N1P, as well as better specs for vibration noise. A pair of 6N6P-I are used in the output stage. They can be replaced by the 6H30P tubes, which are commonly used in BAT tube gear and often sell for a rather high price. The 6N6P, like the 6N1P, is also known for being very resistant to microphonics. The included tube is the 6N6P-I variant, with the “I” standing for “Impulse mode”. As far as I can tell this means increased life and higher maximum voltage tolerances, but no difference in sound compared to the non “Impulse” versions. All tubes are self biasing. The included tubes are fairly basic Russian, matched NOS pairs marked with an L and R on the bottoms. The ones I got are between 10 and 20 years old. They should last a long time and replacements are very cheap for similar tubes.
The Svetlana features a pair of matched output transformers which are made of something ADLabs calls “Super Permalloy”. The “super” part is new to me, but permalloy is somewhat commonly used for high quality output transformers. I suspect this pair makes up a large percentage of the total parts price. I have heard of “Supermalloy” transformers but I’m not too familiar with them, nor do I know if that’s what ADLabs meant to say. Either way, we are dealing with quality parts here.
SET amplifiers are not generally known for huge power delivery. That’s just an inherent limitation of the design. That disqualifies them as being the best choice for certain situations like inefficient speakers or very large rooms. But when used in the proper context they can sound amazing, and for that reason have a loyal following. The Svetlana isn’t the most powerful amp out there but it has very reasonable specs. I’ve seen several different ratings in different spots on their website, so I’ll post the numbers quoted to me via email:
280mW RMS at 32 ohms
260mW RMS at 50 ohms
213mW RMS at 300 ohms
166mW RMS at 600 ohms
Also relevant is the amount of voltage swing, listed as peak to peak:
8.5 Vpp at 32 ohms
10.1 Vpp at 50 ohms
22.6 Vpp at 300 ohms
28.2 Vpp at 600 ohms
Those numbers tell me that the Svetlana should be able to power most headphones satisfactorily, short of planar models like the difficult HiFiMan HE-6. I asked ADLabs if they had any favorite matches with the amp. The reply was that they had used Sennheiser HD600, HD650, and HD800, Beyerdynamic T1, Audio Technica W5000, Denon D7000, Grado GS1000, and AKG K702. They felt that it did a very good job with all of them. I’ve got most of those so I’ll be able to give my opinion on the matter.
I keep referring to this amp as the Svetlana for the sake of simplicity. I have to clarify a bit: There was an original Svetlana model that is now discontinued. Although it appeared very similar and used the same tubes, it was a shunt regulated push pull OTL design and had an integrated USB DAC. The Svetlana 2 should be significantly better sounding. There is a third headphone amp that is positioned higher in the lineup – the Prelude 3.1 goes for roughly double the price of the Svetlana 2. It has lots of inputs and seems more focused on pre-amp duties, but does have balanced and single ended headphone jacks on the rear. It looked interesting but frankly I wouldn’t use the extra features at all so I opted for the lower priced Svetlana 2.
As I mentioned above, the Svetlana is built like a tank. It isn’t as big or as heavy as my DarkVoice 337SE but for some reason it is just as imposing. But look at the pictures and judge for yourself. There are plenty of options as far as styling a tube amp – some are elegant like the Yamamoto HA-02, others are a bit flashy like the DarkVoice 337SE, some hide their tubes like the Maverick Audio or Vincent models, some are really complex like Yaqin… as I said, lots of options. The Svetlana displays the same classic styling as the other Analog Design Labs offerings. I see shades of Eddie Current and Woo Audio, with each brand of course having their own distinct touches. Again, the pictures speak for themselves.
Upgraded RCA jacks: CMC SuperCu pure copper
Solid state rectification
The Svetlana 2 comes shipped in a heavy duty box with lots of protection. Inside I found a spiral bound user manual, a demo CD containing what must be some favorite tracks of the designers, a power cable, and of course the amp itself.
The only thing I’d say could be improved is the manual; while the presentation is very nice, the translation has room for improvement. It is intelligible enough to get the job done, unlike some others I’ve seen, but it could be better. This might just be something they threw together for me, since they have not sold to this country before. Perhaps by the time their website goes live they will have a better translation done.
Inside a well packed box, the amp has several extra layers of protection, including this tight plastic wrap
This is the associated equipment I used during my evaluation of the Svetlana 2.
Source: Marantz SA-1 with upgrades by Audiomod, custom music server fronted by a Squeezebox Touch
DAC: Anedio D1, Resonessence Labs Invicta, Audio GD Reference 7
Amplification (for comparison): Luxman P-1u, Violectric V200, Yulong A100, DarkVoice 337SE, Musical Fidelity X-Can v8 with X-PSU
Headphones: Sennheiser HD600 and HD800, Lawton Audio LA7000 Lite, Grado PS1000, Audio Technica W2002 and W1000, AKG K701, Kenwood KH-K1000, Beyerdynamic DT880/250 and DT990/600, Ultrasone Edition 8, Unique Melody Merlin, JH Audio JH13, Westone AC2, LiveWires Trips, custom YHD Orthodynamics (highly tweaked Yamaha YH-1 drivers in an HD600 shell)
Cables are Impact Acoustics SonicWave, Ethereal, or Blue-Jeans. I let the amp play for about a week prior to doing any serious listening. If I thought I might be listening on any given day, I tuned the amp on first thing in the morning, so it was always warmed up by the time I got to it. ADLabs states it has a fast warm up time of only 2 minutes, but they also say “extended warm up required”. I take that to mean you can get pretty good sound after the first two minutes, but it takes longer to achieve maximum potential. I later confirmed that theory.
All impressions were done using the stock tubes. My thinking on the matter is that a component should be judged (at least initially) in its stock configuration. Down the road people can swap tubes, or opamps, or power cables, or whatever they feel the situation calls for. But it is important to me to establish a baseline. If and when I try some different tubes, I’ll certainly add that information.
Svetlana, Anedio D1, Invicta, V200, Touch
With Lawton LA7000 Lite
With Audio Technica W1000
With Sennheiser HD600
This is from the Analog Design Labs website - they weren't kidding about testing the Svetlana with lots of headphones
These are just the impressions of one guy. I do these reviews for fun, not profit, and I don't claim to be any special authority. Many people have agreed with my assessments of other gear but some have also disagreed, and I totally respect that. We all hear differently on a physical level and we all have different preferences as well, so I think it is almost impossible for one person’s impressions to apply to every other person. As with all my reviews, I hope you enjoy reading them and I hope they help our hobby to some extent, but I don't pretend that they are anything more than my opinion.
First off, I have to explain my preferences a little. I’m primarily a solid state guy. I have nothing against tubes, and I’ve owned and enjoyed my fair share of all types of tube gear. But in general as I look around my system it is mostly solid state that I seem to hang on to. That being said, of all the tube equipment out there, I tend to enjoy SET designs the most. Past favorites have included the Dignity Audio 300B monoblocks, Audion Sterling EL34, Manley Mahi monoblocks in triode mode, etc. So when people talk about how much they love the stereotypical SET sound, I get it.
Listening to the Svetlana, I could immediately tell that Analog Design Labs “gets it” as well. This thing is incredibly musical and smooth, with an absolutely stunning soundstage presentation. Bass hit hard and deep, mids were liquid smooth, and highs were very extended but clean and refined. I pretty much fell in love with the sound from day one.
Starting with the bass: impact was simply outstanding. Anyone who thinks solid state amps have the market cornered in this aspect really should try a good tube amp like this. It was never bloated or overly boosted, but it could be absolutely explosive when the situation arose. This allowed more dynamic classical like Dvorak, Rachmaninov, or Holst to show a great sense of scale, as well as the scores from various films such as Gladiator and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Overall I’d say it fell just slightly on the warm side of neutral, but never overly so. There are those who demand a completely neutral presentation, and those who crave as much bass as possible, but I suspect the Svetlana will hit the sweet spot for the highest percentage of people.
Mids are often the biggest strength of tube gear. I don’t know if I could pick just one strength for this amp, but if forced I’d rank mids as tied for first place (along with soundstage which I’ll discuss later). They were simply magical. They had a very clean, organic, open, natural sound to them that made vocals sound lifelike. And it was very versatile - Jacintha sounded luscious, Rod Stewart was suitably gravelly, and Joe Derise had his usual smooth tone with the slight “old man” lisp when pronouncing the letter “S”. And it isn’t just good at more delicate vocals either – I could listen to something heavy like Meshuggah or Living Sacrifice and have all the growls come through just as they should, without overpowering (or being overpowered by) the aggressive guitars and drums. Strings also sounded fantastic, with a full bodied tone that captured the resonating wood in the body of Gary Karr’s Amati as played on the album Super Double Bass. Tonal balance was just perfect in my opinion.
Highs on tube amps can be a tricky proposition for me. I really like the smooth tone that many tube amps have, but often that comes at the expense of a little extension or detail. That might be the reason that I gravitate towards solid state as a general rule. But once again, the Svetlana proved that the stereotypical weaknesses of tube gear do not always have to apply. It somehow managed to find a great balance between smooth and extended, between detailed and relaxed. It seems counterintuitive, and it is hard to explain. The last amp I’ve heard that could pull this off was the Violectric V200, which I will compare to the Svetlana a bit later. Although I wouldn’t say the highs have the spotlight in the presentation, they also don’t hide in the background. An example is Pachelbel’s Canon in D as played by the All Star Percussion Ensemble. This is an odd release because it was recorded straight to direct-cut LP, and from there converted to 24-bit/352.8kHz “DXD” format. After mastering it got downconverted and released in standard redbook form. The result is a great analog sound complete with very minor background imperfections from the vinyl. This particular performance has a wide range of percussion instruments that can really test the resolution of a playback system. The Svetlana handled it with aplomb, especially the high notes. The triangle sounded clear, crisp, and present, without any excess, and was easy to pick out among the other percussion instruments. This is not easy to pull off in my experience.
One standout aspect for me was the soundstage and imaging. It was scary good. Maybe good is not the right word – how about spectacular? Breathtaking? Prodigious? I’d need a thesaurus to go any further, but the point is that this is probably the most spacious, accurate, realistic presentation I’ve ever heard from any headphone amplifier at any price. Obviously your choice of headphones makes the most significant contribution here, but it seems that the Svetlana made ALL of my headphones sound airier and more open than they usually do. The HD800 was out of this world, but that’s to be expected from that soundstage specialist. More impressive was that even my closed headphones like the LA7000, W1000, and Kenwood KH1000 conjured up a realistic performance space, complete with a well defined stage, specific placement of each performer, and the requisite space between them. I’ve got other amps that do a darn good job of this already, but I wasn’t prepared for how good the Svetlana would be. The music just flows with a “you are there” feeling that is very immersive. I wish I still had my Sony R10 around, as I believe that would be perfect match.
Analog Design Labs mentions several times on their website how the Svetlana 2 is free of noise and hum. I found that to be very true. It has a silent background on par with some of my best solid state amps. It was very pleasing and helped contribute to the startling dynamics the amp can deliver. There was one exception to this situation – when using my more sensitive custom in ear monitors (which this amp was probably not intended to drive anyway), I sometimes picked up a very slight intermittent static on the right channel. I disconnected the input but it persisted. I played with the ground lift switch and tried a different power outlet to no avail. It was very slight and was not noticeable at all when the music started. Some people might have a bigger issue with this than others; for me it was not too intrusive and I was still able to enjoy my customs quite a bit. For example, the Unique Melody Merlin sounded amazing through this amp. That IEM has a sensitivity of 108dB with an impedance of 12 ohms – that’s clearly outside of the intended range for this amp. Other IEMs include the JH Audio JH13pro (119dB, 28 ohm), Westone AC2 (119dB, 27 ohm), 1964 Ears 1964-T (113dB, 37 ohm). All of these should be considered torture tests for a tube amplifier – low impedance, super sensitive, and incredibly revealing of any tiny little noise. Compare that with some full size headphones: Audio Technica W1000 (102dB, 40 ohms), Sennheiser HD600 ( 97dB, 300 ohm), Kenwood K1000 (98dB, 42 ohms), Beyerdynamic DT880 (96dB, 250 ohms), etc. None of those gave me even the slightest hint of this background noise. When I inquired about this, ADLabs advised me that it is likely magnetic flux from the toroidal power transformer affecting the output transformers. They suggested that the upgraded version with the point to point wiring would solve this problem if someone was really serious about using super sensitive IEMs. I don’t know why that version would be any different – perhaps it leaves more room in the case to reposition the output transformers farther away from the power transformer. In any case, I still don’t find it to be a big deal and would probably put up with it rather than pay the extra $230. But that’s just me.
The Svetlana did an excellent job driving all the headphones I tried, but I felt that they mated especially well with my Audio Technica models. I had already committed to selling my W2002 when the amp arrived so I really only had a few days with that pair. But if I had to live with a single amp and a single headphone that might be the combination I’d choose. It was a very solid all around performance, in contrast to the W1000 which really excels on certain types of music more than others. The W2002 is hard to find these days but the W1000X should also be a great all-rounder and is easily available. And despite its weaknesses in certain areas, I’m mesmerized by the W1000 as powered by the Svetlana. This combo has a way of rendering vocals that is among the best I’ve ever heard, and is now one of my first choices for some types of music.
Going back to the list of headphones that Analog Design Labs used to test the Svetlana: I tried all the same headphones with a few substitutes - Beyerdynamic DT990/600 instead of T1, Audio Technica W2002 and W1000 instead of W5000, Lawton LA7000 instead of Denon D7000, Grado PS1000 instead of GS1000. They were right to say that all of them worked wonderfully. Even my custom YHD Orthos, which are very difficult to drive, sounded quite good (with an obvious limitation in maximum volume output).
I did get a chance to briefly try the Svetlana as a pre-amp in a small impromptu setup. I threw this rig together in a spare bedroom using the little QLS QA350 transport, a Matrix Cube DAC, the Svetlana pre-amp, a Teac A-L700P Tripath based amp, and some Pinnacle BDC-1200 speakers. For not taking much care in component matching, and just throwing things together that I had available, it really sounded amazing. It made me get excited to setup a permanent system in this room (which my wife recently requested).
The little Teac amp has built in volume trim controls on the rear, so technically a pre-amp is not even required. But I found that having the Svetlana in the chain brought out a more realistic tone from the system. The Teac tends towards a slightly bright presentation, and the Svetlana helped tame that aspect. It was also less edgy in the upper mids, and of course that soundstage… I suppose running with no pre in the chain is the more technically correct presentation, as far as being a better representation of what the amp really has to offer. Then again, those volume trim pots could be doing nasty things to the signal during the attenuation process. Either way, signal purity doesn’t really matter if the result is less pleasing, and I absolutely prefer the Svetlana in this scenario. I doubt anyone would purchase it to be used solely as a pre-amp due to the single input limitation, but it is a nice feature to have.
Some people have a “grass is always greener” type of attitude when listening to amps. They always remember some great sounding setup that they once heard, and are continually trying to recreate that sound. It often proves elusive because the memory is actually better than the reality. For others the best amp is the one they are currently using. They are so optimistic that they tend to focus on the better parts of what they are hearing and overlook the lesser aspects. I’m guilty of both of those at times, so I try to mostly do direct A/B comparisons. That’s the only way I know to be as objective as possible. With that in mind, here are some thoughts about comparisons:
Musical Fidelity X-Can V8 with X-PSU
The X-Can is really showing its age at this point. Don’t get me wrong – it is a solid performer, with no major deficiencies to speak of. It just gets outperformed by many of the newer amps I’ve tried recently. Roughly three years ago I believe I paid $700 total for the amp and power supply together, and I can name half a dozen newer amps that will sound superior for less money. The Svetlana is easily the better unit in almost every category. Again, I could happily live with the Musical Fidelity setup if I didn’t have another option. But I believe even casual music fans with less-than-golden ears would be able to appreciate the differences here.
The Luxman is an amazing amp. It’s basically the template by which I judge all other solid state amps. Comparing it to a tube amp is interesting because you would expect them to sound very different. But I find that as you go higher up the ladder, tube and solid state tend to become more similar. Another way to put it is that lower priced gear has to have some compromises, and those tend to take on certain characteristics. Tube amps often fail to match the speed and ultimate resolution of solid state, while solid state can lack the natural timbre, smooth tone, and enticing warmth of tube equipment. As you move to nicer (and usually more expensive, but not always) amps, it is possible for these differences to diminish. The sound signature of the amp is more determined by the deliberate voicing of the designer than the specific topology being used.
The Svetlana and the Luxman both fit that description. They both sound great, but there are little distinctions which would make me recommend one over the other to certain people. The Luxman has more of a neutral sound, with a tighter, more focused presentation. In contrast, the Svetlana is slightly warmer, smoother on top, and gives a more holographic and immersive experience. Both have excellent bass performance, with the P-1u maybe having a little more control and the Svetlana more richly layered textures. I do perceive a very small amount of grain in the upper mids of the Luxman that is not present with the Svetlana. It’s small enough to where one could argue for it being a natural artifact that must remain if we are to achieve complete accuracy to the source. On the other hand the Svetlana has a more smooth and liquid presentation that can be more pleasing to the ear. Perhaps the Luxman gives us sound as it really is, while Svetlana presents it as we wish it to be. Either way, I can’t see anyone being disappointed in the sound of either of these choices.
Though both models are happy to drive almost any headphone I threw at them, they do have different strengths. The best match for the Luxman seems to be Sennheiser – the HD600 and HD800, though fairly different in character, both seem at their best with the solid state choice. Svetlana takes the lead when we use 600 ohm headphones – the Beyerdynamic DT990/600 and AKG K240DF respond very well to the tube model. Audio Technica W2002 and W1000 also seem perfectly matched to the Svetlana, rising to a level that I had not imagined they could reach. Luxman does not do quite as well with those, especially the W1000, but does make a mildly better pairing with my custom IEMs due to the completely silent background. I could go on and on but basically it seems that the Luxman is not really better than the Svetlana, just different. Your preferences will determine which one is a better match for you.
Despite being the cheapest amp here at under $400 shipped and coming from a less prestigious brand name, the A100 is still an awesome amp. I have no idea why it hasn’t taken off around here. If you favor ultimate neutrality, you would be hard pressed to do much better than this unless you spent considerably more money. Svetlana comes across as being noticeably bassier, which generally seems more realistic but not always. Where the more expensive amp really distinguishes itself is that wide open soundstage, with more air between the performers and less congestion overall. Oddly the low priced Yulong practically demands a high quality source, while the pricier ADLabs unit is willing to put up with practically anything you can scrounge up that will play a disc or digital file. It makes even a basic Blu-Ray player into an enjoyably competent source, yet was also able to highlight the benefits of the $4000 Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC. The Yulong sounded good (but not as good) with the Invicta and rather terrible with the Blu-Ray player.
These amps are different enough to where I could see them happily coexisting in a setup. Kind of like having and enjoying both the Denon D7000 and the Sennheiser HD800, or the Ety ER4S and the Monster Turbine Pro Copper. You might prefer one or the other most of the time, but it is nice to have that alternative viewpoint available if you need it.
The V200 is my new favorite amp. Since I got it, my Luxman has been getting very little use. It’s a wonderful balance between neutral and fun – “Vivid Neutral” is the term that’s been used. In many ways the Svetlana is similar sounding. They both have generous low frequency performance, the Svetlana a little less than V200. Both are almost completely free of glare or grain. Both have effortless mids and can handle complex material with ease. Again, when dealing with amps of this caliber, the stereotypes of what they “should” sound like don’t really apply. The V200 sounds to me like a good tube amp, and the Svetlana is actually rather “solid state” sounding in some aspects. Specifically, the Svetlana is a bit more sparkly in the treble region. It doesn’t really come across as being much louder, but there is a sense of more “energy” there, and it maintains that silky smooth character I mentioned earlier. The V200, while not dark by any means, feels a little more subdued. It isn’t a huge difference but it helps determine which one I will choose – for extended duration listening with something like an HD800 I usually choose the Violectric, especially when playing music that might get a little fatiguing. For shorter sessions, maybe 1 hour or less, I’ll usually choose the Svetlana, especially with my DT990/600, W1000, or HD600.
Probably the biggest difference is once again soundstage rendition. The V200 has a more up close and personal presentation. It’s still airy, still suitably wide and deep, but just a little more intimate compared to the Luxman and the Svetlana. Again I’ll switch preferences from one to the other based on which music and headphones I choose, or even just based on my mood at the time.
One other relatively minor difference between the two: Svetlana goes a tiny bit further with regards to smooth mids. I don’t quite consider the V200 to be “liquid” sounding. It’s smooth and full, maybe flirting with the edge of “liquid” but not quite there. The Svetlana goes a small step further and the term “liquid” might actually apply. I know this isn’t the most descriptive but I’m doing my best. Put another way – the Svetlana does more to make everything sound good. It sort of takes the edge off when playing less than perfect recordings. Interestingly, it remains very fast and involving, so the end result is quite pleasing. Both amps sound equally “high end” when playing great recordings, but the V200 is a bit more critical when handling lesser material, although still not as demanding as some others. Ultimately both amps offer their own unique sound and both are very enjoyable.
This has been my favorite tube amp for several years now. I’ve had a few others come and go, but none were able to dethrone it. After comparing the two I can confidently say that the Svetlana is superior. It makes the 337 sound thick, dark, slow, and less transparent. Bass on the 337, which normally sounds great by itself, seemed bit loose during a direct comparison. The only time I liked the 337 better was when driving super inefficient orthos, but the Violectric is a much better choice in that situation anyway so it didn’t really matter.
I’ve long used the 337 as my benchmark for expansive soundstage. It still seems wider than the Svetlana, but that ends up being a bad thing. The Svetlana is almost as huge, yet has more definition and clarity with respect to who is where on the stage. It makes the 337 seem artificially stretched thin from left to right, making the picture a little blurry. This was the main reason I kept this amp around despite having other great options. At this point I see no reason to hang on to it any longer.
We all have different things that we value most from our gear. Some people value neutrality above all. Some prefer an accurate timbre and are willing to sacrifice some ultimate resolution to achieve that. Others love an immersive, holographic soundstage and place that as priority one. When you get to a high enough level, most amps should do most of those things to a reasonable degree; any respectable amp in the $1000+ range should work pretty well no matter what your preferences. But there is still room to find one that fits your specific needs the best.
The Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2 absolutely fits my preferences for a tube amp, probably more so than any other model I’ve yet tried. It has no specific weaknesses and plenty of strengths. The worst thing I can say about it is that it isn’t the best choice for something like a HifiMan HE-6 or AKG K340 that needs lots of power. Short of that it sounds excellent with every headphone I threw at it. It mated especially well with the Audio Technica woodies; if the W1000 and the W2002 are any indication, this amp should have great synergy with the entire line of W series headphones.
Tube amps can sometimes be picky, requiring a bit of maintenance and care while their solid state counterparts remain drama free. The Svetlana is very forgiving in that regard; stock tubes are absolutely free of hum and microphonics, are long lasting and self biasing, and are easily replaceable for cheap should the need arise. Aside from not being able to set your headphones down on top of it, the Svetlana experience is about as close to hassle-free as you can get. Combine that with enchanting sound quality and a handsome appearance, and the Svetlana is a very easy amplifier to recommend.
Short of solid state amps, which could certainly be a valid option for those with different preferences, there isn’t a whole lot of tube based competition for the Svetlana in the same price range. The Apex Peak is a logical and formidable opponent, but for $1400 you only get wall wart power. I had a difficult time finding a review that didn’t also include the $750 Volcano PSU, which of course puts it in a different price bracket. The Eddie Current Equilibrato would have been another option but it came and went very quickly last year. Other high quality tube amps include the new Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire and the Eddie Current ZDT, both well respected but both significantly more expensive. Going down to sub-$1000 models, there are plenty of choices. But judging by the way my DarkVoice 337SE was completely outclassed, I don’t think any of them offer much competition. I can only think of a handful of choices at comparable prices: Woo Audio WA6SE and WA2, Yamamoto HA-02, and DNA Sonett. All of those are well respected, and I could choose any one of them if I wanted. Yet I’m happy enough with the Svetlana that I don’t have any desire to try something else. I think that says a lot.
To wrap up this review: what if there was an undiscovered audiophile-oriented company that has been around for many years making quality gear, but you had never heard of them? And what if that company offered a very high quality headphone amplifier that fills a relatively vacant spot on the market in terms of pricing? That’s the sort of thing that would be very interesting to us here on HeadFi. Analog Design Labs is that company, and their Svetlana 2 amp is that product. I like it so much that I can’t imagine going without – I must own it. I’m even prepared to sell my DarkVoice 337SE and even my Luxman P-1u to make that happen. Yes, it is that good. ADLabs should have their new website up within the next few months, therefore allowing more people access to this amazing amp. If you are in the market for a tube amp in the $1000-1500 price range (or even more), I recommend keeping an eye on ADLabs. This amp is absolutely worth the wait.
Edited by project86 - 7/22/11 at 3:11pm