How could this unassuming little integrated tube amp from 1959 make
my painstakingly assembled cast of modern separates sound like they
were emitting a sonic connect-o-dot drawing of the musical event?
OK, perhaps I am exaggerating a bit, but I would be lying if I didn't
admit this amplifier could embarrass many well known sub-$2000 solid
state amps (as well as more than a few tube compatriots).
Yes, like every loon, I had scoured the net for access to affordable
tube gear. Although, I had a wonderful modified Cary SLP-70 tube
preamp that I had been running with solid state (Mosfet B&K
M200 Monoblocks) and various EL-34 push-pull ultralinear options,
I really wanted to get an SE or full triode tube amp, or at least
something with some finer pedigree; I had never really recovered
from the exposure to the insanely musical single-ended CAD 300se
8 watt monoblocks I heard in 1990. To this day, it still remains
the best "in store" equipment setup I have ever heard
(actually an understatement; it remains one of the most musical,
real sounding amps I have ever heard. Period).
I was looking into kits for various SE designs such as the AES
SE-1 kit, the Wright
Sound WLA-3.5, and I even cast a few longing glances at the
Labs 2A3 designs(see footnote ). Of course,
I was deluding myself. Unfortunately, when it came right down to
it, I had less then $150 to spend on a $2000 idea...
At this stage, it looked like the vintage route might be an interesting
alternative if I wanted something of fine quality. Amps from Dynaco,
Fisher, Scott, EICO, Heathkit, and LEAK were floating around on
the Internet in various states of (dis)repair.. For some reason,
the EICO gear kept jumping out at me, burrowing into my skull; indeed,
it was the little triode input, Williamson HF-81 PP integrated that
managed to worm its way into my subconscious. I realized there was
only one place left, a place where one must drop all pretense of
taste, common sense, and reason. That's right, EBAY.
Reality Sets In
Ebay is the only place where one can bid and vie for ownership with
the likes of NinjaMan, TOOBBALL, TraderVic, and JazzFool; to say
this is a bit disconcerting and a cause for alarm is perhaps overstating
it. I had already made the Ebay dive with the heavy first purchase
of $480 for a little used Rega Planet. Regardless, seven days later
I have an amp, an integrated one at that. But this is not just any
integrated, it's the famed EICO HF-81, considered, online at least,
to be an excellent underground classic, outperforming some of the
other more well-known kits and classics.
I was lucky enough to have the seller only within a few hours of
my home, so instead of adding on the shipping, I decided to add
on the drive; besides, the owner actually had a little used shop
called the Stereo
Exchange, filled with other tube gear. How could I refuse?
The owner, Mike, turned out to be a great guy. The amp turned out
to be a rust bucket! I was rather crestfallen. My wife appeared
a bit gruntled by the whole situation and began eyeing a shiny,
chrome, Cary Audio SLA-70 that appeared to be modified. I loved
the look of the Cary and had wrestled with this amp back in its
day; yes, it was a fine EL-34 amp, especially this one as it had
the upgraded output transformers, triode switching, and oil filled
coupling caps. It also had an $850 price tag. Besides, I had been
this route and the vintage bug was clawing at me more than ever
(or was it just sucking blood?)
But for some reason, I just couldn't shake the lowly EICO sitting
there. Ole Mike was even nice enough to absolve me from any feeling
that I "had" to buy it if I didn't want it. Ole Mike.
Well, I at least wanted to give the poor beast a shot as I had read
and looked into buying it for quite awhile now. I dragged the amp
over to a rather bedraggled pair of Klipsch Heresy speakers and
a cheap Denon CD player. I was not prepared for much; the speakers
were a whopping six inches apart with the Denon sitting directly
on top of them...not much hope here on any front. After placing
the EICO on the Denon and hooking up the sorriest pair of off-white
lamp cord speaker wire I have ever seen, plus a garden variety pair
of interconnects, I hit play...
It was one of the K2 20 bit recordings featuring Ben Webster and
It seemed as if Ben was trying to blow his horn right out of those
nasty beat up Klipsch boxes! I was amazed at the naturalness of
the sax! That breathy sound of Webster's sax was extremely life
like. Several of the patrons stopped what they were doing and stood
up, unable to continue without giving it the respect of their attention.
Look, there was little soundstage or stereo separation/imaging since
these speakers were sitting side by side, but the tonal quality
was all there and more. This little unit had some serious magic.
Even ole Mike was a bit taken aback.
I pretty much decided then and there, I had to have this amp...
Home is where the EICO is...
When I first plugged this vintage beast into my girlfriend's system
it looked quite a bit different then what you see here. Every panel
was removed revealing perhaps the most homely chassis you have ever
seen! The nude EICO HF-81 looked for all the World like a elementary
school electronics project gone awry. All the panels were getting
a going over (documented in pt II). Well, the lowly EICO might have
looked rather homely, but homely had nothing to do with the sound
coming from this vintage Williamson integrated; I literally could
not BELIEVE the sound! If I thought it was good at the shop, then
I would have to magnify that impression ten-fold once inserted in
this properly set up system with a Rega Planet as source, Transparent
wire and some surprising Polk RT5 monitors on sand-filled 24"
stands (the Polk RT5 is a big surprise as well - The raves about
this one are correct - great little speaker used for $150 or so..who
would have ever thought.....Polk?)
II: The Truth about Nevr-Dull
* FOOTNOTE: Ironically enough, I did end up with the Welborne
Labs 2A3 Moondog Monoblocks
you have any questions or comments concerning the EICO HF-81,
please drop me an email:
Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org