HiFi: The Willsenton R8 Integrated Tube Amplifier is a NO BRAINER BUY.
By Steve Huff
This may be the biggest no brainer purchase in the history of HiFi high quality audio integrated amplifiers. Seriously.
I have heard/tested or owned maybe 50-75 integrated amplifiers in my 30 years of HiFi. These amplifiers have ranged price and quality but a few went up to insane wallet busting levels. I have reviewed a few of these amps on these pages over the years. One of my old faves in the realm of tube integrated amplifiers has always been the Line Magnetic 219ia. That over 100lb beast had some magic but also was a VERY expensive amp to retube or even run. It put out massive heat and sometimes even produced a buzz or hum. It was and is massive in size but nonetheless a superb magical amp at $7500 retail. Made in China, yes, but it delivered the goods and then some. Line Magnetic is known as the premium tube amp maker in China. They do a fabulous job.
When I saw this Willsenton R8 being hyped I knew I had to give it a go and at $1295 shipped (plus tax of course) from Amazon prime, I knew it was a risk free endeavor. Now, I did not believe for a second that it could be as good as some brands such as Prima Luna, Audio Research, and even the Line Magnetic as the price point was so much lower than those amps. For example, Prima Luna has the EVO 400 Integrated at $5k and it too is an all tube integrated with beautiful quality inside and out and stunning modern day features. How could a cheap Chinese made amp (that seem to be everywhere on Amazon these days) even get close in build or sound for so much less? I doubted it could but yet I ordered one to find out.
The R8 comes with a protective Tube cage as well.
Shocker! I was surprised to see my R8 arrived two days after I ordered (free shipping) and the packing was supreme. In fact, this amp is packed better than some mega buck amps I have owned, even one that cost me 20X this price. When I opened the boxes and took out the amp I was blown away by the construction, the design and the quality parts used. To me, this looked nicer in quality and build than my old Cary amps and as good or better than the $7500 Line Magnetic. Hmmm. I opened it up, as others have before me, and saw the beautiful job that was done on the hand wiring. Yep, this is a hand made, hand wired amp with point to point wiring. Something you do not see much these days in the realm of high end.
Most companies have cheaped out and gone to circuit boards all the while convincing reviewers to get on board and state that is a better option. Well, it really isn’t. Point to point hand wiring is IMO superb for a few reasons. Not only for sound, but for ease of repair. The internal parts and caps are all of great quality, not up to the quality of a Prima Luna but remember the price is 4X less for a similar tube integrated amp.
I expected transformer hum, buzzing, hissing, etc. In fact, my Naim Atom brings a hiss from my 99db Klipsch Heresy IV speakers when idle. When I plugged it all in, using my Nordost Blue Heaven interconnects, power cable and speaker cables it all looked so nice. I could not believe this piece cost me only $1295. I added a simple but powerful Bluesound Node 2i, using it’s internal DAC. Nothing fancy. I powered it up and let it warm up for about 20 minutes.
I sat down, cued up some tracks I know back to back from evaluating gear and what happened next literally changed my belief system on what is possible (more on this down below) at this price point (when we do not have greedy big name companies at the helm making thousand of dollars of profit per piece). It seems as lovers of audio, 2 channel music reproduction, we have been trained to think more expensive must be better. We see exotic amps that go into the tens of thousands of dollars and beyond and some of us lust just to hear them, to see what they could possible sound like. What we do not realize is an amp that may cost us $10k most likely cost the manufacturer less than $2000 to make, sometimes even less. There is HUGE profit in high end audio for some big dealers. I mean HUGE. In fact, some companies go by the fact that if they price their pieces high, people will want them because they will relate that high cost to being “the best”. It’s a psychological game some of these audio companies play.
I can tell you I have heard many of these exotic amps, and yes, many are amazingly good but not all of them are worthy of their cost. That leads to buyers remorse for so many in 2 channel audio who buy a pricey piece of gear thinking “this will be the best and I can be done”. We think this mega amp will bring us audio nirvana but when all is said and done, we realize we spent a fortune on something that really is not bringing any more enjoyment than the last piece we had in our system. We then continue our search and it never ends. We buy, we sell, we try crazy things to change the sound when all along all we really are doing is driving ourselves insane from marketing hype. Me, I just enjoy music. I enjoy nice gear. I really enjoy nice gear that doesn’t cost a fortune but it’s so hard to come by a truly amazing delicious piece that will cost us so little as there are usually serious compromises.
It’s why I settled on Kliscph Heresy IV speakers as my full time listening room speakers. They make me happier than just about any other speaker I have listened to, regardless of cost even if they are not the most refined, deep or color free speakers. With the right room, placement and power behind them there is nothing better, for me. These speakers are truly one of a kind when done right. Nope, they are not like typical audiophile speakers that get up there in cost but those always (and I mean always) get boring for me over time. I have found that no speaker sounds like a Klipsch Heresy IV. Not the Forte III or Cornwall IV.
It’s also why I love the Bluesound Node 2i, as I find and have found nothing that gets close to it for the cost of $550. I an now even using its internal dac as it does MQA with Tidal streaming and it does sound quite special. It’s only when I compare it with a $3k or up dedicated DAC that I notice an improvement and even then, it doesn’t make me enjoy the music more, rather it makes me notice the effects of music more. In reality, a pricey DAC just offers a slightly different presentation. I have found that the quality that brings me more enjoyment is a human and organic type of quality. That richness that exudes from my speakers offering up a warm yet spacious sound, with a solid bass foundation and that holographic soundscape that draws me into it. Is the R8 capable of doing this for me just using the Node as the source? I was thinking “no” but was hoping it would get close enough.
This year I wanted to get back to basics and set up a system that I can be 100% happy with in the sound, looks and build quality dept while spending under $5,000. I was hoping this R8 amp would fit the bill, and if it did, I would achieve my goal. I also bought the little Reisong 6 watt class A tube amp to test and I will write about that little $400 wonder soon (even with the H4’s though it is a tad bright and bass shy). I also have a 300B Amp on the way as well that cost me under $800. Again, unheard of in HiFi if it actually sounds good and is made well. I willed you guys know on that one soon.
For now, let’s dig into the R8 and see what the hype is about.
JET BLACK BACKGROUNDS
First of all, this amp is dead silent when on, even with my crazy efficient speakers. No noise. no buzzing, no transformer noises. It’s impressive and something I normally only see in high dollar integrated amps. The amp has several inputs and uses 4 KT88 tubes, 2 6SN7 and 2 6SL7 tubes. You can swap the KT88’s out for EL34’s which will offer a lighter footed more spacious sound. There is a switch on the back to go from KT88 to EL34. Unheard of at this price point. I left those KT88’s stock for this evaluation as that is how most will be running this amp.
It brings 45 watts per channel in Ultralinear mode and 25 watts per channel in triode mode, which is switchable on the fly from the remote or the front panel of the amp. Again, something we usually only see in amps that cost 3-4X as much. It always starts up in Triode mode and for me, that is my preferred mode without question. Triode mode sounds sweeter, softer, a little more expansive, with the vocals presented nicely and a bit back in the stage so they are not forward or in your face. In UL mode, the vocals come forward and the amp goes from sounding like a sweet tube amp to a more modern sound with crisper snappier highs and a snappier bass. Even so, the triode mode for me sounds like tubes, and that’s the sound I love. Sweet, a tad relaxed, wide open and luscious with some meat on the bones of each instrument. Something my Naim pieces seriously lack, that meat on the bones on the instruments as naim is more about the boogie, the speed, being light footed and bold.
This amp was bringing me the tube sound I remembered so well from years past. It brought back memories of the Line Magnetic 219ia yet it sounded different, and also had more gusto and oomph while retaining a lot of the magic. The transformers on the R8 are huge for an amp of this class, and adds to the weight of this 65lb beast of an amp. They get warm while in use but never so hot you can not touch them. This amp is quality through and through and I would hope someone would not let the fact that it was made in China sway them from it because this amplifier is just as good, if not better than some USA designs that cost much more.
The sound of this amp when mated with speakers that are a good match will truly blow your mind and if you have only listened to solid state amps you will be TRULY BLOWN AWAY here. To me, there is no contest in the sound between the R8 and any solid state amp I have owned, even one of my all time favorites the nearly $10,000 Luxman 590 AXII. While I love the timeless Luxman design, build and sound, it does not sound like the R8. It does not have the weight, the humanity, the soul of tubes yet this $1295 R8 does and it has gobs of it. Am I saying the R8 bests the Luxman? No, I am not. The Luxman is timeless, a heirloom quality piece. It’s gorgeous to look at and listen to and will offer a lifetime of gorgeous music. It gets a huge recommendation from me even today. A lifetime amp.The Luxman is built to the highest standard but does bring a lighter presentation that focuses more on instrument separation than bringing lifelike weight to said instruments. It’s also close to $10k. That one is when you are ready for a “last amp ever”. The R8 can be that as well, if you enjoy the sound and looks it brings.
Listening at night with the R8 was a truly magical experience on some nights with one night bringing a tear to my eye. Something that hasn’t happened since I reviewed the $26k Vinnie Rossi L2i SE. Was that mega exotic amp more enjoyable than the $1295 R8? Well, no but the R8 to me sounds just as satisfying in some ways. The L2iSE was as premium as it gets in an integrated but the R8 seems to have even more oomph, and such a sweet sweet holographic sound that the L2i SE also has but remember the price difference here. It is HUGE. The L2iSE is the better amp, NO QUESTION. Another one to keep for ages. But it’s $26k loaded. $24,600 more than the R8 that offers no less musical enjoyment.
The R8 is an amp that big companies who charge a fortune for their integrated amplifiers will despise. It’s an amp one can buy on Amazon Prime for under $1500 that delivers on build, sound, parts quality and beauty for so much less cash than they can ever or will ever offer. It’s hand made, with point to point wiring and QUALITY caps and parts and transformers (which is the heart of a good tube amp).
It’s a solid base to a high quality 2 channel audio system and one that doesn’t have things stuffed in such as a DAC or streamer, which is a GOOD thing. This means that all you have to worry about are your tubes and tube life. Speaking of tubes, the stock tubes are not the best but they sound very good and for me, more than good enough. So good, I have no desire to change them out just yet. I am sure I will experiment eventually but I am no hurry to spend $500+ to try new tubes when these sound so damn good.
I will also say that this amp is now my preferred amp for the Klipsch Heresy IV speakers. I have never heard then sound this good, no matter what I ran them with and this is with just this amp and a Node 2i streaming and doing DAC duties. The Node 2i and this amp come in for $1500 less than a Naim atom, and this setup sounds better.
I was able to hear a $5000 Prima Luna EVO 400 integrated amp as a friend loaned me his for a few days a little while ago. I loved that integrated but have to say that the R8 gives nothing up in build or performance to the $4000 EVO. They share more similarities than differences and while the Prima Luna will use a few more parts that are indeed a few notches up and offer convenience features that are not in the R8, the sound quality is really VERY similar. Each have that tube spaciousness, air and holographic thing going for it. The PL may be a little more richer in sound (though not sure on that) but worth an extra $3600? No way! Maybe if they were $500 apart in price but at $2600 more for the PL, I am thrilled to say I have an amp here that meets it in build and sound for much less. The Prima Luna is the better amp though for long term if you care about auto bias, ultimate build, a smoother more modern design and the best parts you can get but did you know that the PL amps are also made in China? Yes indeed the PL amps are China made amps as well. With that said, the difference is minor when it comes to the music. I would be happy with either but happier with the R8 as it saved me $3600. I am not saying this to bash PL, but saying it as this amp truly gives up very little to those designs in build, or sound quality.
I get excited when I find a piece that comes in at this cost yet punches WAY above its price point. Again, I am using speakers that mate VERY well with the R8, and efficient speakers at that. The Heresy IV and R8 bring so much more oomph and it seemed to bring out so much more tight bass and mid bass from my Heresy IV speakers that when I go attach other solid state amps they sound broken. Crazy. That is one thing the R8 does for the Heresy IV speakers… improve the bass and oomph (though this may not be so for the I, II or II Heresy as those are lighter in the bass by design). All the while keeping it tight and musical. I actually feel my wooden floor shaking when I turn it up to 10AM on the dial, shaking from a huge big full warm sound with extended bass and a wide open sound stage. Not as wide or uber detailed as some Solid State amps I own but much more enjoyable. Never fatiguing. I could sit and listen for hours on end, and sometimes I do.
I also hooked up the Q Acoustic C300’s and WOW! They sounded so much fuller, richer and warmer than they did with the Naim Atom and Nova. A different presentation for sure. While the Nova made these imaging kings, the R8 made them luscious, plump, spacious and vocals were so full and rich. This alone shows the huge difference between tubes and solid state. Both are wonderful presentations but both are so different.
This is an addicting amplifier and again, the amp looks like a much more expensive piece. In black, it looks better than most amps I see in the $5k range and I like it much better than the silver as the silver has a two tone thing going on. So in the flesh you will be surprised at just how nice this amp looks. As for “Made in China”, so what. It’s made by a human being, and one that is obviously passionate about audio. We are all human beings and it doesn’t matter where we live or come from, but rather what we have in common. What we have in common is we are all living, breathing human individuals who are all living on this earth trying to live the best life we can. It doesn’t matter where an amp is made if it offers this kind of quality. I’ve seen much worse in USA made amps. I’ve seen better in USA made amps but that “better” comes at a huge cost for 5-10% improvement.
To me the R8 integrated amplifier is something we rarely see in high quality two channel audio. A product that delivers in all aspects and brings us no buyer remorse due to the quality and price. If I paid $4000 for an amp like this I could be happy. If I paid $7500 I may have buyers remorse. At $1295 I am jumping for joy at the deal I just snagged. I can see the price of this going up in 2021. It’s such a steal at the current price and the biggest no brainer in the world of HiFi for any music lover. In my 30 years of HiFi I have never seen a product offer so much for so little. If you have efficient speakers or even ANY of the current Klipsch Heritage speakers just BUY IT. If you have speaker that need to be “warmed up” with tubes, this could be your ticket. Again, this will drive even more difficult loads. It has no issue driving speakers du etc its current and quality transformer. You will not be disappointed. if you are, return it. That’s a benefit of Amazon Prime.
Again, even with the Q Acoustics C300… this amp drove them without even starting to sweat. At 10-11 on the volume dial it was louder than I wanted it to be. They were huge, plump and sounded like a true high end speaker with the R8 driving them.
My HIGHEST recommendation EVER due to not only cost but what you get for that $1295 you will spend here.
I bought mine from Amazon using Prime. They are often sold out, but the link is HERE if you want to see if there is stock. Mine arrived within two days, and took only about 20-30 hours to burn in and sound its best. I use the stock tubes and recommend doing so for a while so you get a full understanding of how good it is with these tubes. Do know it will take the anmo being on for about 20 minutes to sound its best. Once warmed up, it sounds so good. I am using Nordost Blue Heaven LS cables from speaker to power to interconnects. Not cheap but also the “starter line” from Nordost. Nothing fancy or exotic. I am using a simple Bluesound Node 2i for streaming and the DAC, and it meshes so well with this system. I feel no need for a pricey DAC here. It’s musical, it brings emotion, it has that floaty magical tube flavor of sound with a nice holographic sound. Vocals are big, rich and have depth. All of the things we associate with a stellar tube design is here. It brought my Heresy IVs to life like no other amp has so far. I though the H4’s were spectacular already but with this amp powering them, I am in awe. Not sure how it is done but the planets must have aligned here and the designer of this amp has so much to be proud of.
As for tube bias, it could not be easier to manually bias the tubes. ANYONE can do it within 60-120 seconds and I give an overview in the video up top. The amp ships with a manual, and a screwdriver. When the amp has been on for about 30-45 minutes you can check the bias with the bias switches. Simply hold it down and the front meter will show you if the bias is a little under or over the recommended settings. If it is under, simply screw the small bias screw up top to the right until it is in the center. If it is over, turn it back. This is so easy and should be checked every 2-3 months. It’s a breeze to maintain and with the hand made quality along with point to point hand wired innards I see no downsides to this “budget” amp. It competes with the best of them and then some. A really special buy that I could not fathom sending back. No hum, no buzz, no noise, black backgrounds even with my 99db efficient speakers. A full rich holographic sound with good recordings and a nice big sound with bad recordings. This is why TUBES RULE.
Bottom line: Not only the best of the Chinese tube amps I have heard, one of the most enjoyable integrated amps I have ever heard or owned. It’s that good and let’s you get into high end tube sound for not so high end money. The real deal.
UPDATE January 4th 2021: I ordered and added some Mullard EL34 tubes (current production, about $120 for a matched quad) to see how this amp sounds with the magical EL34. With the Klipsch Heresy IV speaker the EL34 is even better than the KT88 as the Heresy IV excels in the midrange area. The low end of the H4 does not go crazy low but if you can flesh out the midrange and plump it up some, the sound can be so inviting, warm and yet delicate at the same time. With the EL34 vs the KT88, the amp pushed the Heresy IV in a warmer way, widened the soundstage substantially and improved on the imaging. With more mid bass yet at the same time vocals project better and sound more organic. I sp much prefer the EL34’s here just as I did in the Octave V40 amp a while ago when running them with a Klipsch Heritage speaker.
When you replace the KT88 with EL34 you must switch the amp off, turn the switch on the back from KT88 to EL34, insert the tubes, turn on the amp and bias the tubes immediately. After 3 hours bias again. The tubes will start to mellow out and get bigger sounding after about 5 hours of use. After 20 hours they will sound beautiful.