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Miniwatt N3 tube amp review
March 27, 2010, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Music, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Somehow in my web travels I came across an enthusiastic review for the Miniwatt S1 amplifier.  Which led me to another, and then another.  I wasn’t really looking for an amplifier, yet this diminutive beast seemed to be drawing “OMG” type comments from some seriously nerdy Hi-fi types.  Something was up. While none of the reviews were saying it was the best thing since sliced bread, they were all noting the S1’s surprisingly high quality – surprising because it costs a mere US $229.  These expert reviewers seemed gob-smacked, so now I was really interested.

The Miniwatt sounded like a sweet way to power some desktop speakers for the office – after all, I thought, a tube amp would add some warmth to the slightly cool feel of digital audio, so that might even things out nicely.

In swapping emails with the good people at Miniwatt in Hong Kong, I learned of the N3, a slightly bigger and better spec’d model which, at the time, was about to be launched.

Cut to two weeks later and the N3 is on my desk.  Sporting three tubes instead of the S1’s four, up from 2 watts per channel to 3.5, and with options for 4, 6 or 8-ohm speakers (the S1 is confined to 8 ohm), this single input amp is quite something.

The S1 is billed as, “the worlds smallest 4-tube integrated amp”, and looking at the slightly larger N3, it might be that this is “the world’s smallest 3-tube integrated amp”?  Honestly this thing is small.

While waiting for the amp to arrive I got some Kimber 8TC speaker cable

for my AudioEngine P4 speakers…

…and a DevilSound USB DAC – figuring my computer soundcard wasn’t going to do justice to the rest of the set-up.

My N3 was shipped from Hong Kong to Australia via UPS in two days. It was well packed in high-density foam and was quickly unboxed.  There is no manual, but frankly adding a manual would be as redundant as when the airline shows you how to fasten your seat belt.

I connected the DAC to a USB port on my computer, added the speakers and then plugged the N3 in to the mains (you need to supply your own power cord, and like the S1, the N3 can handle universal voltage).  I switched on, waited a short while to let it warm up and then played a familiar CD to see what I thought.

Well the first song was less than a minute in when two colleagues came into my office to see what was going on.  I had hardly turned the volume up so it was not very loud at all, but they could tell something was up. “Are these new speakers?” (Yes), “Is that little thing the amp?” (Yes), “How come it sounds so good?” (Don’t know), “Where did you get it?” (Online), “How much was the amp?” ($378), “Wow!”

I let the disc play on, and gradually raised the volume some more. Oh yes, this was sounding good.  Very good…  I remembered reading some old marketing material from LINN, and their advice was to ignore the spec.  Simply, if it sounds better to you, then it is better. Wise words that came back to me as the CD played on.

The MiniWatt runs quite warm, but this is considered normal so I wasn’t alarmed, I did feel a little sad as I turned it off later in the day though.

The next day I did some more critical listening.  I am no audiophile so don’t worry I’m not going to rave on with some specialist vocabulary, and besides there are several elements at play here – from the source to the speakers – and a proper evaluation would swap out the MiniWatt  amp for “something else” if I were to try and isolate it’s contribution.  But here’s my point – the whole set up sounds fantastic.  3.5 watts is plenty loud enough for the office, and all up I’ve likely spent the same or a bit less than some of the “main street” audio gear that just isn’t going to come close to this for listening pleasure.

I’ve been amazed at the clarity of the music, there’s no obvious noise (no doubt some, but not hearing it in my office environment), and there seems to be a wide dynamic range – the little speakers are obviously going to be modest when it comes to bass, but even here I was not disappointed – everything just seems, well, balanced I guess.

I have been wondering about a cost effective power cable, something up from the spare computer one I am using now, but I am wary of these – are they snake oil, or do they help? (Comments welcome!)

The Miniwatt is the star player for me in all this though; it was cheaper than the speaker cables but fractionally more than the speakers and DAC.  Those with more knowledge may criticize my seemingly random choice of components, but the whole lot plays nicely together, it sounds awesome to me.  I thank Miniwatt for putting so much quality into a small, low-cost, no BS package.  Talk about putting a capital “V” on Value. That’s heroic.

You can buy your MiniWatt N3 (or limited stocks of the S1) from MiniWatt in Hong Kong, or in the US from ALO Audio

The DevilSound DAC (which I hardly touched on, but clearly adds to the sound chain in a positive way) is detailed here

A review of the AudioEngine P4 speakers is here and you can learn more about Kimber cable here

I will add to this review as I become more familiar with the set-up.

Specifications of the Miniwatt N3
Tubes: TungSol 12AX7 + 2 x Sovtek Matched Pair EL84
Input: RCA
Input Impedance: 50Kohm
Output: Banana Jacks
Output Impedance: 8/6/4 ohms (Japan Z11-EI48*24 Output Transformers)
Output Power: 3.5W + 3.5W
Frequency Response: 30-25Khz (+-1db)
Residual Noise < 0.8mVac
AC Input: 100-250Vac
AC Socket: Standard IEC Jack with Fuse protection (2A Fuse)
Dimensions: 130 (W) x 130mm (D) x 130mm (H)

The original S1 and newer N3 side by side

 

Update – May 2nd 2013.  This post has consistently been the “most read” on my site.  Clearly the Miniwatt intrigues a wide audience. Well some three years later I can report that this little system continues to prove highly enjoyable. I have not changed a thing, and use it nearly every day.  In therms of bang for the buck, it was always good, but I think this underlines that it’s been a no-regrets purchase for me.

 

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15 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Awesome! A simple and informative review. I’m no audiophile either but I love good music that sounds nice. I’m keen to get one of these amps to use for music at home instead of the surround amp in stereo mode. I’ll let you know how it goes. Cheers for the honest perspective.

Comment by pete

Hi I am too very keen on this configuration. But where can you get the P4 and the cables? I am in WA. I am also wondering if I can pair up to a 2.1 speakers that comes with a sub woofer?

Ong

Comment by Ong

I got the P4’s here http://www.dnacomputers.com.au/categories/Speakers/2.0-Systems/

And the cable here http://www.dynavector.com.au/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=75&zenid=31b38fb73a8a7fdbb8007a5d6878cda5

Not sure about the 2.1 – ask @ one of the above links maybe??

Comment by zeofoto

Hi Thanks, Can P5 work on this tube amp? Since P5 is considered as an active speaker?

Comment by Ong

I am not sure, but email MiniWatt as they are very helpful. Let me know what they say, it’s a good question.

Comment by zeofoto

miniwatt didnt give really a good answer, they class the two as active speakers instead. But was wondering how the connection would be like since A5 only has one Audio input and miniwatt has 2 outputs. I had sent an email to Audioengine and havent got a reply from them at the moment.

Comment by Ong

Hey! Great write up on the N3. I am trying to decide whether to build or buy a similar system for the office. Also, I can provide my personal opinion on the power cable. I’m an electrical engineer, and have been lurking around the audiophile world for quite a few years. I would say don’t waste your money. While they certainly look very cool, there really is no possible way they can affect your sound. Think about all of the miles of wire between your house and the power station. Or even the amount of wire in your house alone. Changing the “quality” of 4-6 feet of wire will make VERY little (if any) difference in the waveform of the electricity coming in. That difference (again, if there even is one) will have absolutely zero affect on your amplifier’s operation after it goes through the amp’s power supply. This is not to imply that if your house (or office) is next door to a power plant that it would make any difference–it wouldn’t. Neither would a “hi-fi fuse.” I can provide more of an electrical description if you like as well. Thanks again for the write up!

Comment by Aaron

Point well made, a gazillion cables before the electricity enters my office so a short cable isn’t going to do anything. I think these things are the hi-fi equivalent of snake-oil salesmen.

Comment by zeofoto

Hi. Received my new N3 yesterday. Rather a cute little device, especially in the silver finish, however I have not set it up yet as mine didn’t come with any instruction booklet, (did yours?). I plan on using a pair of the Infinity Primus P160 bookshelve speakers with it, as well as some AudioQuest Silver interconnects and Audioquest GBC speaker cables with a Music Hall CD player as the source.

Brenda 🙂

Comment by Brenda Joan Petrykowski

From memory no manual, but in truth it’s just power in, audio source in, and speakers out. You’ll enjoy it – makes a for a terrific little set up

Comment by zeofoto

Yep, actually I ended up downloading the manual. Just wanted to have it on hand as it does contain some useful information, (specifactions, etc.) The hook-up wasn’t difficult of course. Sound? Well, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I heard! Fantastic! Lean & taut! Rather a splendid little piece of gear.

G’Day,
Missus Brenda (Female bottlehead & audio geekette) 🙂

Comment by Miss Brenda

Hi,
I have just read this review looking for information on the N3 and how lucky that you have the same speakers that i have :).

The P4 specifications tells that the recommended amp. power is 10-125 W. per channel, and this N3 has only 3.5 W per channel. Do you have to turn too much the volume wheel to get some sound?.

I’m a bit concerned about the amplifier to be able to drive well this speakers or a “Dali Mentor Minuette” speakers (my planned upgrade).

BTW, do you hear the hum some people are complaining about in some reviews?

My setup would be a desktop one with digital output rca (spdif) from computer to Benchmark DAC1 to speakers amp.

Thank you very much
Regards

Comment by Ramon

Yes the volume setting needs a third to half way for me – but it is heaps loud enough in my office.
I have not heard any hum of note. I think all tube amps have a very quiet hum when you put your ear near them, but I don’t notice anything on the speakers

Comment by zeofoto

Hi, it’s an old thread, I don’t know if you are still around MiniWatt-s and Tubes. .:)

Anyway, thank you for the review!

Can you please leave some comment on how MiniWatt S1 performs against N3? Didn’t saw anything about that in text?
I would be very gratefull.

I’m planing to buy one of these two little candies!

Thanks in advance,
Alexander

Comment by Alexander

I never owned the S1 so can’t comment sorry. But my N3 continues to be used every weekday at work in my office, it’s never missed a beat so I remain very happy with it.

Comment by zeofoto




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