The original Miniwatt – the S1 – was widely praised for deploying a classic single-ended circuit in an insanely small chassis with the resulting sound being more than a little bit special. That lilliputian integrated’s 6J1/6P1 tube combo has been given the heave-ho for the new Miniwatt, the N3. This new iteration confirms Miniwatt’s commitment to true bonsai-hifi. Prior to pushing my ears into the review, I exchanged emails with Derek Shek, head of Miniwatt’s marketing department.
Shek told me, “Traditionally, vacuum tube amplifiers are bulky and big, and we want to change this perception on (sic) vacuum tube amplifier with our product – MiniWatt. With our advanced switching power supply technology, we can reduce the size of tube amplifier to 13cm x 13cm. Additionally, our power supply technology provides a hum-free, stable and clean voltage to the vacuum tubes…”
Sitting atop the miniature chassis is the proud minimalism of three tubes (one fewer that its predecessor, the S1): one TungSol 12AX7 and a matched pair of Sovtek EL84s; the latters ease of availability just begs for them to be rolled…but I resist. This is a review of an amplifier in its stock form.
To the rear we note a choice of 4, 6 and 8 ohm taps that are directly mainlined into the “transformer” towers; which are taller than that of the S1. Only speaker cables terminated with banana plugs need fill out an application form to work as part of Team Miniwatt. And only one source at a time, if you please. I externalised the source switching by hooking up a Maverick TubeMagic DAC to the single pair of RCA connectors.
On the front, a solitary volume pot is joined by what just about passes for a company logo. That Miniwatt’s perfunctory approach to branding is symptomatic of the product’s visual appeal has it teetering on the edge of being dismissed by serious audio folk as a toy. It crossed my mind more than once that this is what a Toys ‘R’ Us valve amplifier might look like. Blink twice and you might opt for something else. The Miniwatt has just enough to get you through the front door and up the stairs. After that, you’re on your own, buddy.Rudimentary aesthetics and 3.5 watts per channel aside, its AU$550 price tag must surely be the single strand that holds the Miniwatt swinging above the abyss of marketing oblivion. “We tried to keep the price low and affordable, so everybody can enjoy the music with our products.”, continues Derek. For less than most hifi geeks drop on cables, Miniwatt permits the man on the street to enter the world of single-ended sweetness. What chutzpah!
As always, the proof is not in the inspection of the specification sheet but in the listening. What is Miniwatt’s take on the sound of gas and glass? My expectations were sufficiently low that starting out in my smaller listening room (3m x 5m) with some Tangband DIY single-driver speakers seemed most appropriate. Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” would surely allow me to dismiss the Miniwatt N3 out of hand within a few minutes and i could get onto listening to “proper” hifi. WRONG. Thom Yorke’s vocal was excavated from the dense mix to reveal rich tones thus far unheard. I sat down and played the song again. And again. What was previously quite lean was now vanilla infused, deep and…present. B-side “Last Flowers (Till The Hospital) confirmed it: the sweetness sure went deep.
My listening notes were dominated by one word: fruity. Think peach, white grapes, apples (not the heavier tones of their dried counterparts). The Miniwatt was more white wine than red: fully flavoured but not completely full bodied. Yet, still enough for me to write that - with the Tangbands at least – it was “fountain pen ink to the solid state’s biro”. I noted sufficient delicate magic at play to bring forward its graduation day: to the lounge room, Briggs!With only 3.5 watts into 8 Ohms the field of appropriate loudspeaker contenders is one of slim pickings. Desperate to quell my mounting hyperbolic enthusiasm, I brought the Miniwatt down to (sonic) size with a pair of ATC SCM 11s. At 85db, who would expect anything else?
The single-driver, 93db Omega Sticks were the twin towers in which the Miniwatt would perform sentry duty from hereon in. The Sticks’ benign load furnished the lounge room with a soundstage that extended to the rear wall. The extremely complex vocal and percussive interplay of Underworld’s “Pearl’s Girl” was accurately unravelled by the Miniwatt without it breaking too much of a sweat. The switching mode power supply maintains a relatively cool exterior making this a child-friendly amplifier choice.
Solid PRaT is rarely spoken of when reviewing valve amplification. Talk of euphonics and sweetness is what tends to dominate. Both of those qualities are present but not overbearing with the Miniwatt. It is the Miniwatt’s keen sense of timing that keeps Underworld’s “Rez” ticking along just nicely. This is not just an amplifier for acoustic-guitar-with-vocal fans. It does electronic music. But the textural information that almost seems to leak through the speakers is where this amplifier excels.. The crunch on Neil Young’s guitar on “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)” drew a palpable connection between recording and listener. There was guitar attack without edginess. Even at lower volumes on a lazy Sunday afternoon there was still the urge to bust out the air guitar. Activision’s Rock Band for Generation X? Yup. Having been a staple of this music fan’s student years, the potency of this album had been revived by an amplifier no bigger than the CD case in which it is housed and at cost that would barely cover textbooks for a single semester.
The Miniwatt is high fidelity that even a student might refer to as “affordable”. With sufficient marketing push, it could be a game changer for thousands staring at two-minute noodles and baked beans. This amplifier presents an opportunity to break the habits of those studying Chopin or Stravinsky by way of a K-Mart boom box. It is an amplifier for daydreamers inhabiting more limited quarters. Neil Young’s live set is presented as a tidy-but-romantic slant on life. Not in lyrical content or instrumental arrangements (it’s rock n roll!). No, the Miniwatt sonic infusion speaks of small-town America and its attendant domestic bliss, of the post-war dream: optimism, tidiness whilst maintaining the highest consideration for for one’s neighbours.
The Miniwatt had proven itself to be almost peerless in its price/performance ratio. With an RRP that stretches one’s budget to around $400 more than the Miniwatt, the Glow Audio One had done its fair share of giant killing upon its release. It was also single-ended with the headstart of 5 wpc. The Glow Audio One served up a heavier slice of fruit cake through the Omegas. The Miniwatt is no Victoria sponge, no Lamington but it did seem to be formed from a more delicate recipe. Think of the Glow as later afternoon sun to the Miniwatt’s morning light. (With no SMPS to save its ass, the Glow was considerably warmer to the touch of inquisitive fingers).
The Miniwatt is a triumph of simplicity: miniaturism meets minimalism. It is a beautiful marriage of the old ways (tubes) with the new (switching power supply) and despite such a bland exterior it is paradoxically refined and delicate. Frequently, I found it to possess the sparkle of snowmelt! To less critical listeners, it offers a first snorkel into the technicolour waters of single-ended musicality – a sweetness that is more fructose than sucrose. For those with easy-to-drive loudspeakers and who are searching for that post-thunderstorm euphoria they continually hear about from those that proudly refer to themselves as “bottle-heads”, little comes close at the this price.
- Logitech Squeezebox
- Lite DAC 68
- Glow Audio One
- Tangband DIY loudspeakers
- Omega Sticks
- ATC SCM 11
- Orbital – Don’t Stop Me / The Gun Is Good EP (2010)
- Underworld – 1992-2002 (2003)
- Radiohead – Jigsaw Falling Into Place (Single) (2008)
- Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Live Rust (1979)
- Vampire Weekend – Contra (2010)