Neuhaus Labs T-2 Integrated Vacuum Tube Amplifier Review 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Computer audio has come a long way since I purchased my first PC back in 1996. It was a Hewlett Packard model that ran on Windows 95 and had a pair of speakers that clipped onto each side of the monitor. That bulbous display and plastic speakers served as my first computer audio console, and though the sound was abysmal the prospect of having a glut of music at my fingertips was pretty cool. I watched as computer audio went from its humble beginnings to challenging home audio component space for pride of place. Many audiophiles are ditching their CD players for hard drives and CDs for audio files; others are treading into the waters slowly. Want to have your brain toasted? Visit an audio chat forum, ask what's the best way to set up a computer audio system and stand back.

It's unlikely that you'll hear, “How about a 20-watt integrated tube amp that connects directly to the computer, is plug-and-play, bypasses the computer's DAC and produces warm engaging sound? If necessity is the mother of invention, then compressed audio must at least be its stepmother. As Neuhaus' George Golik told me, “I got tired of listening to crappy sounding computer music, so I built the T-2.” The T-2 is an integrated tube vacuum amp of push-pull design, one that's been around for decades because it sounds good in home stereos and on stage with musicians and typically characterized by very low distortion. Bringing such an amplifier to computer audio makes sense to me.

Neuhaus T-2 Amplifier Front View with Remote

On the surface, the T-2 looks like other integrated tube amps – because it is. Shortly after I had received the Neuhaus my brother paid a visit, and I invited up to my listening room for a look-see. He sauntered over to the amp and tried casually to lift it with one hand, but the T-2's 20 pounds of girth held steady as he mumbled in surprise – no block of plastic here! A stainless steel case and body hold the unit's eight vacuum tubes, protected by a steel cover. If you're a tube enthusiast, four 6N7s populate the amp's back row, while a pair of 6N1s flank a duo of 6N3s on the front line. Tubes can be fussy, but the T-2 is self-biasing and takes any such worries away. Connect the amp to your computer, select the USB sound output device under System Preferences and listen. Just because the T-2 integrates seamlessly with a computer, don't be tempted to pair it with sub-par speakers or cables. This is a serious amp and deserves a speaker that can let it sing – the more efficient the better.

With old school tubes and new school USB connections, the T-2 brings the warm glow and sound of tubes to listeners who demand a butt-kicking computer audio system. If you're a Mac user like me, you'll love the T-2's Toslink with Mac Plug, which connects directly to most Apple computers. This connection bypasses the Mac's own digital-to-analog converter and turns the wheel over to a Cirrus Logic 24-bit/96kHz DAC. Want to stream iTunes? Connect the Airport Express' Toslink to the T-2, and from there directly to a computer with optical or Toslink connection. Windows users can also enjoy the T-2 via USB connection. As well, the T-2 sports three gold-plated analog inputs (labeled for CD, Auxiliary and Tuner), which can be used in any combination desired, and a pair of solidly built, gold-plated speaker posts. The whole point of computer audio is to streamline the listening process and shed unwanted component pounds, but I had to test the amp's playback with a dedicated CD player and tuner. I'm glad I did.
Neuhaus T-2 Amplifier Rear Connections

 

Listening

Marc Ford Album The T-2 makes most computer music sound better. I've been spending time recently on the Last.FM Web site, which lets users create their own “stations” by entering musical favorites into a profile. From there, the site offers additional recommendations based on similar artists. It's a fun way to find new music, but the audio is limited to a 128 Kbps MP3 stream. This is admittedly better than many Internet radio stations but still compressed. Still, I was surprised how good some of these files were rendered through the T-2. Former Black Crowes' guitarist Marc Ford offers a heartbreaking country-rocker, “Elijah,” on his 2002 release It's About Time. The song has a golden sweep that still stands up after getting its audio legs chopped in half. The Elvis Presley tribute “King's Call” features a terrific pairing of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott with Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler on a heartfelt paean to Memphis' most famous adopted son. Knopfler's inimitable finger-picked electric guitar fills roll with understated ease under Lynott's whisky-smooth vocal. Again, I was taken in by the music, not distracted by the bit-rate.


Not all tunes fared so well. Frank Zappa's classic “Peaches En Regalia” had plenty of energy but was noticeably thin in the tooth overall and by the time the song ended, I was glad. Good speakers (and amps) will usually reveal a recording's strengths and deficiencies, and here the deficiencies were due to compression not Zappa's studio technique. I suppose if you're going to listen to MP3s no matter what, the T-2 will reveal a tubby tune made tinny by compression. But if you're going to drop $795 for a tube amp, don't wean it with lean cuisine, give it the keys to the buffet and let it eat. 

Hunky Dory Album The open source Songbird Media Player is my go-to player to listen to countless FLAC files I have stored on an external hard drive, and switching from MP3 to FLAC made the T-2 come alive as a true audiophile amp. David Bowie's Hunky Dory, and its smorgasbord of early delights such as “Life On Mars” and “Song For Bob Dylan,” had the brilliant execution of camp and composer that Bowie brings to the table. Fully fleshed out arrangements made better – much better – by the T-2's DAC and tubes.

Iron Maiden Album

I keep a few dozen albums – in Apple Lossless - in iTunes for ready playback. Iron Maiden's Piece Of Mind was always a bit on the dry side as far as recordings go, but it's still a fire-burner of an album. The T-2 imbued the throttling opener “Where Eagles Dare” with tube gloss but with enough power to make my wife shake her head... and leave the room. When I listen to Maiden, I listen to Maiden. Don't let the 20-watt rating fool you, this amp will bring it with the right speakers.

In the Court of the Crimson King The day before I finished this review, a copy of King Crimson's twin-disc set In The Court Of The Crimson King 40th Anniversary Series arrived at my door. A progressive rock landmark, ITCOTCK has received a new stereo mix, re-mixed and produced by Robert Fripp and Steven Wilson from the original multi-track masters along with a bonus DVD-Audio of high-res stereo (24/48 & 24/96) and 5.1 surround at 24/48 sample rate. The sound is absolutely stunning. I listened to “Epitaph” for what must be the hundredth time and have never heard it like this before. The stereo mix sounds like DVD-Audio – deep, deep sound that offers a microscopic look at the music's minutiae. Played back through the T-2, the album had loads of air, openness and crackle that melted me. This may be a tube amp with computer connectivity, but it's a great tube amp for the money, period.

Even my old Sansui T-60 AM/FM Stereo Tuner perked up with the T-2. My local public radio station (KUMD 103.3 FM) has an outstanding Saturday afternoon schedule featuring blues, Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Typically I'll tune in with my Tivoli Audio Model One radio, a unit whose marriage of design and sound found favor with me and others very quickly. But I soon found myself turning off the Tivoli and turning on the T-2 and listening to my favorite programs in true stereo. The Neuhaus was a perfect match for my Sansui, and would likely be amazing with an upper-end model. I realize few users would connect a separate tuner to the T-2, but if you can't live without the sound of your favorite tuner have no fear here.

Baseball Goes Better With Tubes

Something of an aside, but my brother recently gave me his Eye TV antenna, which brings digital TV to a MAC via USB. Since I had the T-2 already in the system I couldn't resist and was probably one of the few who listened to the 2009 World Series via a tube amplifier. The Yankees still won so I can't say the amp has magic powers. Maybe they make a Cincinnati Reds model?

Final Thoughts

I've always considered the music stored on my computer akin to a savings account - something I could dip into if necessary but not for everyday living, but the T-2 had me spending like I inherited Brewster's Millions. With these tubes on my side, I could listen all day long to my digital library. Maybe you already do? Neuhaus asserts that if you're going to listen to music through your computer, it might as well sound good. What a concept – and execution.  
 

System Setup


  • Neuhaus Laboratories T-2 Integrated Tube Amplifier
  • Apple Mac Mini 
  • RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Interconnect (1m)
  • RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Loudspeaker Cables (8 ft)
  • Grant Fidelity CD-327A CD Player
  • Athena AS-B1 speakers






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