Triode tournament | Nagra 300p vs Tektron TK 2A3


Full disclosure: I don’t buy Hi-Fi for a living. This frees me from any taint of impartiality since I mostly only write about things I’ve paid for and which I like. As for lemons (there are stories I could tell) muckraking isn’t worth the hassle. With that out of the way what follows is an authorized spinoff from this amateur contribution to 6moons audio webzine – NdR - That we thank – which involved a whole lot of amps, among which my reference Nagra 300p and a custom 2A3 SET from Tektron’s Attilio Caccamo. After having used them to evaluate a preamplifier it struck me that a dedicated discussion of these two designs could prove both interesting and educative.
A preliminary walkaround is in order. The Nagra 300p is a four 300B tube hybrid push-pull, rated at some twenty watts per channel. The two watt Tektron TK 2A3 was built by Attilio to my specifications, which initially privileged premium passive components over higher priced tubes, look here at my past review for the details.

As audiophiles will, I successively capitalized on the fact that Tektron is also the official KR Audio importer by upgrading the Nagra’s stock JJ bottles to the hideously expensive Kron balloon 300BS, and the Tektron glass complement to Kron 2A3s, equally ruinous vintage CV 1932 drivers and a premium Sylvania CHS 5931 regulator. NdR - The Tektron can run 300Bs too. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of tube rolling, but I ended up by getting my money’s worth, at least as Hi-End purchases go. Though I must stress that both the Nagra’s factory matched JJs and the entry level Shuguang 2A3s gave sterling performance all following evaluations are based on the new tube sets.

At first blush this would seem a classic case of comparing apples to oranges. After all, we’re talking of a Sicilian custom homebrew and a Swiss bonafide hitech product. Contrast, if you will, Attilio’s neatly spliced wirework with the Nagra’s multilevel PCBs.
Hi-Fi appearances however are notoriously deceptive. Suppose then we look at Attilio’s amp as a typical Sicilian Baroque creation and at the Nagra as a modernist glass and metal appliance. The diversity would be intriguing but comparisons would still be farfetched.


The Baroque Cathedral in Militello, Italy


However if we set the archetypally baroque Cathedral in Militello, near Attilio’s hometown of Catania, against the equally Baroque Jesuitenkirche in Luzern (a two hour train ride from Nagra’s original Cheseaux headquarters) we are in for some surprises.


The Baroque Jesuitenkirche in Luzern, Switzerland


Look at the Sicilian cathedral which finds its organizing principle in the stepped facades rising power wards, just like two big DHTs.
Now contemplate the Swiss church, with its severely symmetrical towers disciplining the surprisingly tubes-like oval openings. It doesn’t take any great effort to invoke a resemblance to the twin cylindrical cap covers framing the bulbous bottles on the Nagra.
So it would seem that the latter is in its Helvetic way just as Baroque as Tektron’s 2A3.The similarities are carried over in the layouts. Attilio’s plan is laid out in strict internal and external obedience to a doctrinally sanctified catechism: point to point wiring, rectifiers, chokes. The Nagra is a determined finger in the eye of the classicist audiophile, placing the hallowed linear 300B tubes in a convoluted push-pull setup, and grotesquely driving them – The horror, the horror… – with MOSFETs. As for form following function the bizarre solution of stacking trannies in order to maintain the basic Nagra footprint is a perfect example of the Baroque trick known as replication.
It’s Counter-Reformation apples to apples then, and the 300p’s creator, Swiss corporate engineer Jean Claude Schlup, is really nearer to the Sicilian artisan Attilio Caccamo than to the similarly Swiss apostle of modernism Le Corbusier.
Now that we’ve established some aesthetic legitimacy let’s run briefly through the test rig and software. Both the 300p and the 2A3 were driven directly by the resident Nagra CDC CD/preamp, using the 4V output option. Speakers were the elephantine Tannoy Canterbury SEs, with Van den Hul cabling throughout and power delivered through Cablerie d’Eupen / Blacknoise combinations.
Software used was Martzy’s by now legendary Bach violin Sonatas in period mono with Dylan’s Tempestuous croaks and Alessandrini’s vast Monteverdi Vespro in contemporary stereo. Since I like music but not A-B repetitions I listened to these recordings through the 300p in the morning and the 2A3 in the afternoon.

As to results. Before I start piling up the chestnuts, Alpine morns and Mediterranean sunsets, Swiss white and Sicilian red wines, Apollo and Dyonisos and so on, I will clearly state that if this were a shootout it would be a Mexican standoff. As an articulated, if idiosyncratic, comparison it is a definite, dyed in the wool draw. There is simply no aspect, electrical or musical in which one platform can be considered significantly superior to the other.
From the electrical point of view the single ended configuration, though unavoidably beset by a very high internal impedance, drove the Canterburys, with their 95 dB sensitivity and quirky, variable Onken port derived curves to perfection. More specifically the 2A3 never awoke the beaming demon, which is the congenital bane of fifteen inch coaxials, while volume levels and bass control were altogether uninfluenced by its puny current output.
Does this mean that the two amps are interchangeable or at least similar? Not at all. Chestnuts duly discarded, the Tektron’s rendition may be described as tonally carnal, and the Nagra’s as cerebral. In no way however can these subjective pronouncements be relegated to categories as hackneyed as euphonically coloured or coolly precise.
Are the two versions at least alternative? Not to my taste, I enjoy one or the other, sultan-like, at a moment’s whim. This was confirmed by the final hurdle, Fritz Busch’s historical 1937 rendition of Così fan tutte, electronically salvaged from 78 rpm lacquers. No soundbox to speak of, approximated dynamics and philologically incorrect at best. Still it got me hollering È la vita military along with the cast. So much for puddings, and proof.

So much for my descriptive deficiencies too. The part I really like is where I get under a lot of people’s skin with the price/value ratio. Now, being only a consumer I may not know much about reviewing but I do know how many cents make a buck, or an euro for that matter. The current list Italian price for the Nagra comes at 16,500.00 EUR, and, while the Tektron’s price is on application only, around twenty-five percent of the Nagra’s tab would be the ballpark figure. So let’s consider the variables which are generally not in the professional reviewer’s purview. There’s availability first, warranty and service second, and resale value last. We can take Nagra’s availability as granted, even in its latter-day Audio Technology derivation. Attilio carries out his business worldwide either through the distributors listed on his site or directly, as in Italy. In fairness then I would rate access to Tektron’s products as unproblematic.
Warranty and service are largely irrelevant to reviewers and of paramount importance to consumers. In Italy Nagra is imported and given the obligatory EEC two year guarantee by Audio Natali, a world class professional. Nagra’s service department is, by personal experience, second to none – greetings to the great Herb Bartel. Attilio, whom I have found unfailingly prompt and attentive, is bound by the same statutory guarantee and all his products are CE certified. It is a fact however that if he should opt for the carefree life of a Brazilian beachcomber, having service for his products would be undoubtedly difficult. The argument can be made that given Tektron’s traditional construction repairs could be easily carried out by qualified technicians, while if both Audio Technology and its parent company were to go South its products, however durable, would be well nigh untouchble, given their technical sophistication. Still, on balance I think we should give a qualified edge to Nagra here.
The last variable, resale value and attendant model obsolescence is almost wholly irrelevant to custom-made creations. The exact contrary is true for apex brands, particularly those with long turnover cycles: I should know, I thought myself lucky to pay through the nose for my mint example of the discontinued Nagra PLP preamp.
By the same token, component quality, a requisite for higher end items, is negotiable for custom products. If I had wanted the WBT Nextgen connectors Attilio would simply have factored in their – frightening – price. The same applies, and in spades, to exotic NOS tubes. It may be stressed here that bespoke work is by definition not recommended to the uninformed.

Where does that leave us then? With two very different varieties of apples. Service continuity, resale value and component quality, all Nagra strong points, are directly and often direly sticker related. Musical worth and personal satisfaction, as distinct from bragging rights, are less expensive in Tektron’s case. The only real difference, in my experience, comes down to speaker choice. Simple good sense, hardly the most common audiophile trait, dictates easy electrical loads even more than high efficiency for the TK. With that all important caveat it is quite possible to have your apple pie and eat it too.



Associated equipment
Digital: Nagra CDC, Rega Apollo Brio, Audioquest Dragonfly v.1.2
Preamp: Nagra PLP, Tisbury Audio Mini Passive Preamplifier II
Power amp: Nagra 300p, First Watt F5, Tektron TK 2A3, Trends Audio TA 10.2p
Integrated amp: Leben 300 XS, Tektron 6EM7S Ref
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Canterbury SE, Klipsch Heresy III, Harbeth P3 ES3
Signal and power cables: Van Den Hul The First Ultimate, The Integration Hybrid, D-102 mkIII, The Inspiration Hybrid, The Skyline Hybrid and Audioquest Forest
Power cords: Cablerie d’Eupen and Blacknoise power plant
Stand: MusicTools Fultur, Guizu SRW-2A

For further info: to Nagra website - to Tektron website



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Nagra 300p
Nagra 300p
Nagra 300p
Nagra 300p
Nagra 300p
Nagra 300p
Nagra 300p
Nagra 300p
Tektron TK 2A3
Tektron TK 2A3
Tektron TK 2A3
Tektron TK 2A3
Tektron TK 2A3
Tektron TK 2A3
Tektron TK 2A3
Tektron TK 2A3
Tannoy Canterbury SE
Tannoy Canterbury SE
My Nagra stack
My Nagra stack

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