Willsenton R8 - how good?

I had a chance to listen to a Willsenton R8 (with KT88 tubes, both in 'linear' and the'other' mode) after previously extensive listening to McIntosh MC2125. 

It was my first real experience with a tube amp. 

In 'experts' opinion, how good is the Willsenton R8 (in relative terms, i.e. in its competive bracket of other tube amps and solid state amps). 

How do experts describe its 'sound'? How does the MC2125 sound?

I am trying to improve (or better, 'get back after 40 years') my 'listening skills'. 




I have a Willsenton R8 in my second system. IMO, it offers excellent value for the asking price. For comparison, I have had the following amps in the second system: Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum II, Raven Audio Blackhawk III, Rogers High Fidelity 65v2, and a VTL I-85. When talking about sound quality, I will rate the Willsenton R8 to be as good, if not better, than the aforementioned integrated tube amps. However, when considering the build, fit and finish, the R8 is better than all of them with the possible exception of Rogers 65v2 which was built exquisitely.

There are a few caveats though ...

First, the stock tubes are rubbish. Expect to spend at least $500-1000 on better tubes. So this effectively means that the true cost of the amp is really somewhere in the $2000-2500 range. Of course, nothing is stopping you from staying with stock tubes. Don't get me wrong, it will still sound quite good.

Second, with the stock KT88 tubes, the sound is a bit too bass heavy especially in the midbass region. You an ameliorate this to some extent by using EL34 tubes, which is what I ended up doing.

Having said that, this is a very "fun" sounding amplifier. It has lots of power, massive soundstage, and has that typical "lush" tube sound which makes the music sound so satisfying. It does lack the refinement and imaging of better tube amps, but you will really have to be playing in the >$5k range before the differences are noticeable.

In my second system, I enjoy the Willsenton more than the other amps I've owned. I found the Cronus Magnum II a bit too solid-state sounding, albeit it was a great amplifier. And definitely better than the Blackhawk III, which IMO is overpriced for what you get both in terms of SQ and build quality. I also find the R8 to be better than the Rogers 65v2, with the R8 having more power and bigger soundstage. VTL was definitely better but it was a much more expensive amp.

In summary, the Willsenton R8 is very competitive with tube integrated amps up to $4-5K range, provided you replace the stock tubes. But once you cross the $5k range the difference in sound quality starts becoming more obvious -- especially in terms of refinement and palpability.

Hope this helps.

I switched between the two 'modes' (full linear ??? and triode ???). 

Full linear was 'livelier' and more 'in your face' (sound stage way forward compared to 'triode'). 

I was HOPING to hear the famous 'tube softness' compared to the solid state Mac 2125, but listening memory (time for switching from one amp to the next) was not strong enough to make that obervation unfortunately. A lot more 'listening training' is needed! 

The owner did switch to EL34 for a week or so (borrowed tubes); I need to check back with him how HE felt they compare with the stock KT-88. 

I have not seen a 'power rating' for the amp, but was very impressed with the bass even at higher SPL, and certainly no signs of 'compression'. 

Wish it had a PRE OUT (it has the strangely named PRE IN to run as power amp). 


@arafiq thanks for your write up describing the differences between the R8, CM II and Blackhawk III. It’s so hard to know how to compare these different tube amps. I have an R8 and like it a lot, but get curious. It seems like I have a solid platform with the R8 and am better off tube rolling than getting a different amp. 

Or save up for an Audio Research amp. 🤔

In its price range, the Willsenton R8 is competitive and offers considerable audio value for money. I have done some of the modifications/upgrades shown on the Youtube "Skunkie Designs Electronics" series on the web, and they do further improve the amp and make it more reliable (mostly resistor and capacitor upgrades.) it is also possible to upgrade the stock tubes which also improves the sound. For about the same money there are other China-made KT88 push-pull designs putting out the same power and which do not need upgrades at least of the resistors and caps (Muzishare X7). So, the R8 is a good value, but not the only good value model. If you are interested in exploring tube sound and don't want to commit the kind of money that tube amps made elsewhere cost, it is a good place to start. If I were to move up from there, I might look at Margules or McIntosh, or used AR or VAC.

I think @arafiq’s comments are spot on. Fantastic value tube integrated that will compete with tube amps up into the 5k range w the right tubes. I disagree on the power tubes being rubbish, with the spike in prices for tubes, I’ve gone back to the stock power tubes so that my gold lions last longer and I haven’t noticed much of a drop off in performance. They are definitely worth using. The stock Russian preamp tubes should be replaced first, one of mine was bad right out of the gate, so I replaced all 4 leaving only the middle one which I believe doesn’t have an impact on sound quality. That seemed worthwhile and they are much less expensive than power tubes. As for the Muzishare I prefer the 6sn7 to the mini tubes in the Muzi, I also don’t like its asymmetric look but that’s just a personal preference. Oh the Muzi doesn’t have a triode/ultralinear switch on the remote. I use that almost as much as the volume control because it has a huge impact on sound and like to play around with that setting.