Silbatone JI-109

Hardware Review

Silbatone JI-109
Monday, June 22, 2020
integrated hybrid amplifier
Jason Kennedy

A few months ago I visited a lucky man who had a rather splendid sound system that he was more than happy with, the reason for the visit was that this was the first system with Silbatone electronics in it that I had heard about in the UK. Silbatone will be familiar to anyone that has visited the High End show in Munich over the last decade, it’s a Korean company run by a man who is more than usually interested in vintage horn loudspeakers of the variety made by Western Electric for use in ‘movie theatres’ in the first half of the twentieth century. He has been bringing these huge metal and wood structures to Munich since 2010 and their scale and novelty distracted most visitors from noticing the Silbatone valve mono amplifiers that were being used. On enquiry it turns out that the first Silbatone amplifier, the JI 300B was made in 2000 yet it wasn’t until this year that I saw one of their amplifiers in the UK. 

It’s certainly one way to build a cult brand, but not the only one at work here. Another string to Silbatone’s bow is that the tube amplifier designs are by JC Morrison who was one of the contributors to early tube revival publication Sound Practices in the US. This non glossy but professional tube fanzine was published in the early nineties by Joe Roberts who used engineers like Morrison and OTL enthusiast (output transformerless) Harvey Gizmo Rosenberg alongside actor and mono maniac Vincent Gallo to create some of the most entertaining and colourful audio writing ever to make it into print. One final angle on Silbatone is that it was started by Michael Chung who is not only “the number one 300B collector in the world” but also a member of the family behind Hyundai, which probably explains why commercial imperatives don’t weigh too heavily on Silbatone.

The JI-109 is Silbatone’s least expensive amplifier but it incorporates one of the company’s newest innovations the MorriBae circuit named after designers JC Morrison and Dr Stephano Bae. Morrison explains: “the varying current in a vacuum tube is converted to a proportional voltage, with power [by the output transistors]. The most interesting thing about it is that the transfer characteristic of the original [tube] is preserved in its entirety. You could use the circuit as a precision tube tester, but also, use any tube to drive a much more powerful load. In some arrangements of the circuit, we have been able to plug in any tube with the proper heater supply, and get completely different sounds... at the same power output into the load”.

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The JI-109 is a line stage only amplifier with inputs on both RCA and XLR connectors, the latter are true balanced inputs which is rare in tube circuits even at this price. It has remote control for volume and volume display, the latter tops out at slightly random 64. Build quality is very high in a style that’s similar to Japanese high end hardware, with heavy heatsinking down each flank. The amp itself is reassuringly substantial as a result of both a mains and output transformers in a high quality aluminium case.

Listening commenced with the Silbatone hooked up to PMC fact.12 Signature speakers which are not the easiest of loads due to a low 84dB sensitivity but the JI-109 was more than up to the job, delivering gorgeous tone in a totally effortless fashion. It quickly reminded me that I need a decent tube amp in my life, this is partly because the sound is a little sweeter than solid state amps but more because you get great immediacy, transparency and energy from one like this that it’s impossible not to enjoy all manner of music. Another appealing thing about this Silbatone is that it works so well at low levels, you don’t need volume to feel the full emotional impact of a great tune, but if you do want some power it delivers it without any hardness creeping in, the fun just increases as you turn up the wick,

Switching to the higher sensitivity Bowers & Wilkins 802s it’s the vocals that shine through first of all, this with Radiohead’s Karma Police where the power in the drums and the guitar feedback also grab the attention more than usual. This Silbatone has a typically tubey midrange emphasis, it’s quite subtle but for a long term transistor user fairly obvious, however this does not get in the way, quite the opposite. Ryley Walker’s Primrose Green works really well; richly detailed, with bright highs, good bass and a ‘hear into the mix’ presentation that is once again very strong tonally. It also worked a treat with the dub beats of UFOrb where the bass was round and juicy, it doesn’t seem to extended as far as a high power transistor amp but makes up for this with a powerful, clean low end that is better timed than most. Going over to a tube era recording in Mingus’ Newport Rebels proved a highly rewarding experience, Roy Eldridge’s trumpet has all the energy and blare that it should but doesn’t harden up, which is so often the case with brass. Less ancient is Cornelius’ Point which also sounded spectacular, the Robert Fripp inspired distortion of Smoke and the intensity of Another Point of View were truly inspiring thanks to this amp’s ability to get to the heart of the musical message.

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Back with the fact.12 Signatures the balance was a bit more even, the 802s make a thrilling partner for the Silbatone but are perhaps a little too lively. This time I found myself contrasting PCM and DSD versions of Bill Evans’ remarkable Waltz for Debby where I confirmed a preference for the PCM approach thanks to its superior timing even at low levels. With the Grateful Dead’s live version of Cumberland Blues this amp once again delivered a bass line that was more musically coherent than usual, everything about this lively track hung together well in fact and made me re-evaluate whether its apparent raucousness with other hardware could well have been amp related. Switching to some smaller and more efficient PMCs (twenty5.22i) resulted in the beauty of Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs being made very clear thanks to the superb tonal rendering of voice and all the acoustic instruments, something that makes them sound more real and vivid. This album sounded spectacular to be honest with a large scale image and plenty of depth, the brilliance of the performance laid bare for all to enjoy.

The Silbatone JI-109 offers a compelling combination of power and vitality the like of which is hard to achieve with either tubes or transistors alone, it is more fluid than a transistor amp but has more grip than most tube designs, especially where lower sensitivity speakers are concerned. Silbatone is clearly not your average amplifier company, I’m told that they “don’t sell hardware but inspiration, ideas, innovation and spirit” which for once actually rings true. This is not an inexpensive amplifier of course, the price is no lower than it would be for a specialist amplifier that was made in Japan but the build quality and the effort that has gone into it is at least in the same league. This distributor told me that Simon, the owner of the all tube Silbatone system that lead me to this review, heard the JI-109 first then decided he needed to hear more. That is easy to understand but resulted in a considerably more expensive system, for many this integrated will be more than enough to keep the spirit of the music alive.

Specifications: 

Type: Integrated MorriBae hybrid amplifier 
Analogue inputs: 3x RCA, 2x XLR
Digital inputs: none
Analogue outputs: none
Bluetooth: no
Power Output: 90W/channel 
Dimensions (HxWxD): 120 x 440 x 350mm
Weight: 23kg
Warranty: 3 years, 6 months for tubes

Price: 
£10,000
Manufacturer Details: 

Silbatone Acoustics
T +82-2-867-0802
www.silbatoneacoustics.com

Distributor Details: 

Hi-Fi Traders
T 07842 126218
www.hifitraders.co.uk