This might be British Hi-Fi Week on What Hi-Fi?, but we still have a lot of love for our American cousins, especially when they have a heritage as storied as this. Western Electric is America's oldest audio company, and it's just launched in the UK. Its first product? The 91E, a valve amplifier that incorporates all of Western Electric's 154 years of audio knowhow.
Western Electric was founded in 1869, nine years before Thomas Edison had his lightbulb moment. Since then, it has done pioneering work on audio for telephones, cinemas, and of course hi-fi. The 91E is a modern development of the 91A, a single-ended triode (SET) design launched in 1936 that was originally used in cinemas. It also incorporates two 300B audio valves, a device launched in 1938 to amplify telephone signals and which resumed production in 2020.
Made in at the company's HQ in Rossville, Georgia, the 91E harks back to the golden age of American manufacturing – when it starts up, its LCD display shows Western Electric’s classic ‘Spirit of Communication’ logo of 1914. Yet it still has plenty of modern touches, like the colour display and Bluetooth functionality. If you prefer a wired connection, there are four line-level RCA inputs and an MM/MC phono input. It comes in three finishes: champagne gold, nickel and black.
The 91E includes Western Electric's patented, fully linear SCCS (Steered Constant Current Source) circuitry. This is controlled by the valve's output voltage and increases the power available to around double that of traditional 300B-based SET amp designs. It also eliminates the need for large output transformers and the hysteresis that comes with them.
Other modern touches include the microprocessor-controlled valve warm-up and auto-bias regimes, the optical-encoder volume control that addresses a relay-switched resistor network, and the switching of filament polarity each time the amp is turned on – this is designed to enhance the 300Bs' lifespan.
As well as the pair of 300B valves, there is a pair of ECC81s inside.
Thanks to its power generated, and its plug-in-plug-out 4-, 8- and 16-ohm interchangeable transformer blocks, it plays nice with a wide range of partnering speakers. Western Electric promises an airy, spacious sound with plenty of natural tonality and flow.
The Western Electric 91E integrated amplifier is distributed by Absolute Sounds, and will be available from a select high-end retailers from April. It sells for £16998 (around $21000, AU$31000) in black or champagne gold, or £18,500 (around $23000, AU$34000) in nickel.
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