The vacuum tube was invented more than a century ago, but tube amps are still favored by a significant number of audiophiles. I'm in that group; there's something about tube amplifiers' musicality that's rarely equaled by solid-state electronics. The Neuhaus T-1 ($495) is a "hybrid" tube/solid-state design, and uses a pair of tubes (type 6N2) in its preamplifier section and transistors to generate the amp's 18-watt-per-channel power output. Neuhaus shipped its first products in August 2009.
What really distinguishes the T-1 from every other tube amp is its rather unusual connectivity. Designer George Golik and his son Daniel set out to craft a tube amp for today's digitally oriented buyers. The T-1 comes with a built-in high-quality 96KHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converter (DAC), Bluetooth, USB, and optical/Toslink digital connectivity. You can use the T-1 with Apple Airport Express and stream your music through Wi-Fi. Vinyl hasn't been excluded; the amp also has two stereo analog connections and a front-panel 3.5-millimeter headphone jack. Hook it up to your computer via the T-1's USB or optical digital inputs, and you'll be bypassing the computer's own, probably less-than-stellar, DAC or sound card. The remote handles volume only.
The amp's mirror-finish stainless steel chassis feels nice and solid. The T-1 is built in China and Taiwan, but Golik may manufacture future products in the U.S. The amp measures a compact 8.7x10.6x5.9 inches, and weighs 8.8 pounds.
To find out how far I could push the T-1's 18 watts per channel I cranked the Dirtbombs' "Party Store" CD way up on my Zu Audio Essence speakers. These speakers are superefficient, so they can make a big sound with just a few watts. For this CD the Dirtbombs changed gears from their usual Detroit punk garage sound to a more techno-oriented groove. The low-down beats connected on a visceral level, and the T-1 sounded remarkably powerful.
Acoustic jazz had a presence and nimble attack that you rarely get from affordable solid-state amps. "Monk in Paris," a live Thelonious Monk recording from 1965, features a particularly energetic performance from the piano master. With the T-1 calling the shots you'll feel the entire rhythm section--piano, bass, and drums--totally locking in. Right, that's what separates great hi-fi from the merely good, and you get more out of the music.
Next, I used the T-1's USB connection to play iTunes from my computer over my Audioengine P4 speakers. They are my regular computer speakers, and I normally have an Audioengine N22 amp hooked up to them. The tonal balance was just a little richer with the T-1, and the sound was more transparent and the stereo image more expansive.
The sound from the headphone jack, driving my Ultimate Ears 4 in-ear headphones, wasn't anything special.
The T-1 is sold factory-direct worldwide with a 15-day return privilege. You've got nothing to lose by trying the amp; if you don't love it, ship it back for a full refund, including shipping! Neuhaus has one brick-and-mortar dealer, Hollywood Sound, in Hollywood, Fla.