Our more frequent readers might have noticed me talking about or comparing amps to the La Figaro 339 and some have even asked for a review about it. So here is a long overdue write-up of the LaFigaro 339 OTL tube amp after having owned it for a little over 1 year.
For those of you who don’t know, La Figaro is a Chinese based company run by a guy named Liu Yi also known as “Yuking09″. It was founded in 2009 after he had left the maybe more famous Darkvoice because of (to us) unknown reasons. You can clearly see the similarities of the amps when looking at pictures of all the models on Google. Yuking’s statement is that he improved the Darkvoice designs even more giving an even better listening experience to the customer. The 339 is the La Figaro version of the DarkVoice 337, but upgraded. Here’s what LF had to say: “The output capacitors of 337 series machines is only 50μF but 339 is 130μF, so 339 have more strength in the bass, the structure of 339 is more reasonable, the pipe is on the front far from the the transformer avoiding interference. Especially with low impedance, the headphones can be very clear, 337 has a mild hum when it running low impedance headphones. 339 has better components, tubes: RCA socket by CMC and Headphone socket by Neutrik both make reliability better”.
The 339 explained
First let me get into some more details about the more or less 10kg! heavy 339. It is a dual mono design OTL amp. It has no Output Transformers and the vacuum tubes directly drive the headphone with no intervening transformer. The result, according to the designers using this principle, is an unbelievable clarity and realism that no other configuration can achieve. The output transformer is said to be a major source of distortion and amplifiers without the output transformer therefore produce cleaner, less distorted sound. OTL amps are mostly made to power higher impedance headphones and speakers and the prices can be rather high as the assembly is manual.
The dual mono part basically means the amplifier has two of everything. The left and right channel are built in parallel and both have their own power supply unit (PSU). That means two power cords (the voltage is set in the lab) and two separate volume controls which I will come back to later. The 339 has only one set of inputs and one single ended headphone out (plug by Neutrik).
On the inside of the amp you can find some very impressive point to point wiring that even impressed my amp doctor when I paid him a visit. He especially liked it because it is much easier to work on in case of problems as you can easily find and replace the malfunctioning component. It measured absolutely perfect for an amplifier he said, he didn’t have to change anything. The LF339, because of this dual mono configuration, uses two input tubes and two power tubes. The input tubes can be 6J4P, 6Ж4С, CV849 and 1852 (+ all equivalents). The accepted power tubes are 6N5P, 6N13P, 6080 and 6AS7 (+ all equivalents). You can also get supplementary adapters from La Figaro so you can use EF80, EF800 or EF86 type input tubes. The 6AS7(G) power type tubes are known to be noisy but that really depends on your tubes: some hum only in the beginning of their life cycle, some only when you start to use them, others will always hum and some never do. It’s a bit of trial and error really, the pleasures of tube rolling.
For some reason LaFigaro has never been very open about the metrics/power of this amp, they just keep stating the 339 will deliver around 800mw – 1w per channel throughout 25Ohm – 600Ohm. Out of experience I can confirm that using more powerful power tubes like the famous and nowadays expensive Tung-Sol 5998 do up the output power (Jack Woo from Woo Audio stated his WA2 gets 10% more power when using these tubes). The amplifier does run fairly hot and the whole casing serves as a heat sink. I’ve measured the temperatures of the amp at 3 places (case, vent, tubes) and after 1 hour temperatures already reached respectively 95, 176 and 163 (35°C, 80°C, 73°C). However don’t let this scare you as this is nothing to worry about at all, just keep it away from kids (like any tube amp).
The Design of the amp is basic. You love it or you hate it and I personally absolutely adore the way it looks. From the first time I saw the amp I’ve found it looking powerful and sexy (can an amp be sexy?) and I wanted to have it. The 339 is only available in grey as the pictures show (at the end of the article) and it has a nice 339 sign with 2 small green leds incorporated on top of the amp, only the cooling vent kills the top look a bit to my feeling. As mentioned in the paragraph above the amp can run quite hot and with kids walking around wanting to touch those nice glowing tubes this could lead to some unplanned visits to the hospital emergency service. To protect the kids from the tubes (or is it the other way around?) you get a tube cage to put over the tubes but it really does destroy the look of the amplifier imo.
On the front of the amp you only have the headphone out and the dual volume controls, making it a simple symmetrical design. The dual volume controls have advantages and disadvantages but it has never bothered me. There were multiple reasons Yuking incorporated them in the design, while it wasn’t absolutely necessary. First of all not everyone’s left and right ear is equally good and with this separate control you still get the same volume left and right. Second, not only human ears can be wrong but your power tubes might be of different strengths too, just like your headphone could be a little off (like my HE-400 Rev 1). With all the tubes I used so far I never had to pass 11 o’clock, there’s plenty of room to work with. Both volume controls, like the amp itself, are dead quiet when turning.
Looks, in contrary to the internal design, aren’t the most important part of an amp (but they’re important too in my regard) and each time it comes down to how a unit sounds. From the first time I turned on the amp however I was genuinely pleased with its performance. While the OTL amps are most likely to perform well with high impedance headphones, the designer made sure his amp also sounded good with low impedance phones. The only low impedance headphones I have however are orthodynamics, so I’m afraid those are the only ones I can comment on.
How does it sound? + Tube rolling
Overall the 339 amplifier can be described as having a very tube-ish sound with a warm and smooth sound signature. Sound stage wise the 339 does very good, it has a great wide sound stage that even improves when using the famous 5998 tubes by Tung-Sol. It’s a very natural sounding amplifier with great dynamics and detail. The mids are warm and smooth with a slightly rolled off treble. You won’t really like it if treble is your thing but this can be improved using other tubes. (I my selection of tubes, most have the rolled off highs). Bass is nicely detailed, very deep and punchy but not as tight and punchy as say with one of the solid state Violectric amps.
The big advantage of this amplifier is that tube rolling really allows you to change the sound signature of the amplifier. With the stock tubes, which I didn’t listen to a lot, you get a much more forward sound and detailed treble but you lose the smoothness and bass compared to most “aftermarket” tubes. After lots of tube rolling (you can ask for details in the comment section if anyone is interested) I settled on two different sets of tubes. First of all the RCA 6AS7G power tubes with a Telefunken EF80 (using the adapter from La Figaro) and secondly a pair of Tung-Sol/Chatham 2399 tubes (5998 equivalent) combined with the Red RCA 5693. Both combinations have the same kind of sound: warm, smooth, good bass and the right amount of treble. The big difference is the 2399 set improves everything the first set does, it gives you an even bigger sound stage, more focused bass and more detail while remaining smooth and warm. Another advantage is that these tubes deliver more power too. In example with the LCD-2 were the first pair easily needs 11 o’clock on the dial, the second set of tubes only needs 9 o’clock. But one shouldn’t be afraid of the 339 not having enough power, I can assure you that’s not the case.
I have to say, how wrong it might sound, that I love all of my headphones with the 339 but the ones standing out most are the Sennheiser HD600/650 and the Hifiman-HE500. The Sennheiser – 339 combo is really a match made in heaven and I have never heard the Senns sound as good as with this amplifier. When I have people over, even those not knowing much about audio, they all put this combination on the first place of the podium. It’s just that good, warm, smooth and detailed. The perfect Sennheiser sound with good bass and detail. In second place comes the HE-500, the 339 even with the least powerful set of tubes drives it perfectly. The Violectric gives it more power and tighter bass and makes it a little more spot on with more forward and precise treble but the 339 just makes it so smooth sounding and lush you dream of being in that dark and smokey jazz club 50 years ago with the sexy female singer on stage who’s winking at you while you take a sip of your whiskey. If music and your setup can do that, you’re set for a long time if you ask me. Another of my favorite headphones with the more powerful setup of the amp is the LCD-2. While not at the same level as with the Violectric V100 and V200 the Audez’e still is very good sounding. It’s nice to switch between the different amps depending on the sound signature you’re looking for but there are better amps out there for the LCD-2. Two headphones that didn’t perform that great with it are the DT990/600 (a solid state amp in my experience can get more out of them) and the Hifiman He-400. These “bass loving” headphones both get better results using a solid state design.
OTL Amp comparisons
Compared to the Bottlehead Crack, the OTL Crack is the faster amp of the two, it it clearer sounding and focuses more on the treble. Bass with the Crack is punchier but not as deep and it doesn’t quite have the same rumble. Overall the 339 is smoother, warmer and laid back with an even bigger sound stage. It just makes you feel the music better (softer) as the crack. The Crack is a great deal and an excellent amp as we already said in our review but the La Figaro 339 is the better amp for me. Compared to the Woo Audio 2, the 339 is the more tube-ish sounding amplifier with a much warmer sound. The WA2 sounds much cleaner and faster but misses the warmth and soul I like of the 339. The WA2 is more analytical as the 339 and the bass depth and rumble isn’t quite the same, however it does have an even bigger sound stage. Most likely a full WA2 review will follow later.
I’m sorry if this review was too long and positive but in all honesty, I really find it that good. The La Figaro 339 is available from Yuking09.com directly and costs $550 without shipping. A price that I think is “a steal” for such a great amp. I’m convinced that if this amp was built in the USA or Europe it would get a lot more praise (as it deserves) and a higher price tag. If you would like a custom made amp you can always contact La Figaro, I’ve seen him do several impressive custom designs for clients all over the world.
Credits for the pictures goes to Valentin Hogea! (If you google for 339 pictures you can check out the internals & point to point soldering, unfortunately we don’t have a picture of the internals of our own available at this time).
Gear used: Beyerdynamic T70 & DT990, Senn 600/650, Hifiman He-400/500, LCD-2, Audio-GD NFB3, Norse cables.