I first learned of Toolshed Amps and Matt Formanek in 2017 via a feature on the Head-Fi home page. At the time I thought his amplifiers were unique and beautiful but pretty far out my price range. Fast forward to 2019, my budget had increased, I had been through several very expensive but very disappointing amplifiers, and I was ready to buy 'the one' to rule them all.
When I first contacted Matt, I was surprised at how responsive and open he was about discussing the various design elements of the amp and it was clear he was dedicated to getting me something I would be happy with. I really respect this, as I have dealt with other boutique amplifier manufacturers who you would be lucky to get a grunt out of after asking a complex question about their product.
I placed my deposit and after an 8 week wait the amplifier was hand delivered to me by Matt and his son as he happened to be in town. Talk about customer service! The entire wait time went by quickly as Matt would frequently text me updates and photos of the progress.
I should share some words on my specific amplifier build, because Toolshed is a boutique outfit and yours may not be exactly the same as another customers (and that's OK!). First off, I should clarify the models listed on the Toolshed website are not totally up-to-date. Matt's main offering now is an amplifier that can accept both the 45 and 2A3 triodes with a simple rectifier swap, which is capable of driving both headphones and speakers. Further customization is possible (i.e. headphone only, speakers taps only, mono vs. stereo volume control, choice of output transformers, choice of coupling capacitors, etc.) on request.
My build has:
-Indian blood-wood two tone base
-Tango U-608 vintage output transformers
-Miflex KFPM polypropylene coupling capacitors
-NOS Western Electric tinned copper internal wiring
-UX4 base rectifier socket
-Independent L&R gain control
-Loading switch for the output transformer to toggle between a 5K ohm and 7K ohm load on the plate of the 45/2A3
-Output impedance switch for the output transformer to toggle between 16 ohm and 8 ohm taps
-(the above two features are only possible with the Tango U-608 which is not a standard offering)
-Binding posts on the rear for speaker connection
I listened to the Toolshed 45/2A3 via my modded Sennheiser HD650 headphones, ZMF Auteur headphones, and many DACs. My favorite DAC pairing with it so far has been the Border Patrol DAC SE.
I have owned several 2A3 amps before but had no experience with the 45. It's very interesting to have an amplifier that can accommodate both with an uncompromising circuit and the ability to adjust the plate loading to optimize for either tube.
My conclusion is that I prefer the 45, at least with headphones. It sounds more direct, naked, and linear. The 2A3 in comparison gets louder and has slightly more bloom and inner warmth to the sound. The main advantage of being able to use 2A3s in this amp is their increased output rating for driving speakers. This will allow for up to 4-5 W per channel into an 8 ohm speaker load. My favorite output tubes in this amp were engraved base RCA/Cunningham 45s.
For drivers, you have the excellent choice of D3a/E180F/E280F and the 'secret sauce' E810F. My favorite driver tubes in this amp were the Mullard E180F and Amperex 7788 (E810F).
For rectifier, it depends if you opt for the UX4 socket base or the octal base. My amplifier has the UX4 base so I can run globe-shaped 80 rectifiers (for 45 operation) or 5Z3 (for 2A3 operation). My favorite rectifier tube in this amp was an Arcturus blue glass 80 globe.
Tube rolling is not required for best results. Matt ships the amplifier with a good sounding play-tested set of NOS tubes. Rolling driver tube makes more of a difference than output tubes. The 45 is a linear tube and the sound does not change much between various makes of 45.
This amplifier sounds awesome. I am sure that a version of this amp without some of the bells & whistles I got would still sound awesome. I have owned amplifiers from EC, DNA, ECP, etc. None of them were as good as the Euphoria 45. One of my first texts to Matt after listening to it was that it was 'akin to injecting audio heroin into your ears'. This is hyperbole, so let me tone it down.
The 45 is a linear tube from top to bottom. Linear does not mean dry but it will not have the euphony/bloom of a 300B or poorly designed 2A3 circuit. Its strength lies in the fact that no particular frequency body is emphasized or de-emphasized, and it plays it straight up tonally. Some people may wish for more body or more sparkle, but the 45 is not really about all that. The 45 is about tone, presence and balance. The Euphoria 45 captures that while allowing me to hear the differences between various recordings and genres, appreciating the musical message of each.
My mainstay HD650 headphones aren't really the best to judge performance at frequency extremes. I will say with the right recording and source gear the Euphoria 45 is capable of surprising dynamics, the best I have heard with headphones. Other big budget amplifiers I've heard have left me nitpicking some aspect of the presentation; too soft, exaggerated attacks, unrealistic sustain, weird soundstaging, whatever. I won't say Matt's creation is perfect and flawless, but the straight up way it plays things leaves me not much to blame that isn't already a fault of the recording.
Flaws? Well like I said before, some would want a more euphonic or tubey or liquid sound than the 45 is capable of. Since my amplifier is also meant for driving speakers, there is a fair amount of gain on tap and that manifests itself as a low-level hum when there is no music playing. This would drive me insane if I kept my headphones on my head all the time, but I only put them on to play tunes, and the hum cannot be detected when music is playing (even quiet classical passages). Other than this gain-induced hum, the noise floor of the amp is insanely low considering the filaments of the 45 are AC heated and the power supply is in the same chassis.
I waited months to write any sort of impressions or review for this amplifier to try to work around new toy syndrome and I'm glad I did. I now also own the Toolshed Darling amplifier which is just as good as the Euphoria 45 with headphones, just different. Matt is one of the best people in the industry I have worked with and its obvious his #1 concern is customer satisfaction. If you've been around the carousel with many different amplifiers and know what you want, he'll help you get it. If you don't know what you want, he'll help you figure it out.
Thanks for reading.