AudioNote PQ Signature Kit1 Review

The following review is split into two separate parts. The first is dedicated to the kit as a kit; whereas the second part is dedicated to the resulting piece of hi-fi equipment and its performance as an audio reference.

PART 1 - The Build
I decided to take the plunge and order myself the AudioNoteKits PQ Signature Kit1. This is a build-it-yourself approach to hi-fi that promises a high quality Single-Ended, Class-A, zero feedback, directly heated triode (SET) amplifier. I have previously built several pieces of hi-fi equipment including a 300B push-pull amplifier, valve line pre-amp, valve DAC etc. I am not, therefore, exactly new to kits but, with the exception of the DAC (AudioNote DAC Kit 1.1), I have not undertaken any such projects within the last decade and was itching to get started on this project.

When I ordered my DAC kit, I did so from AudioNote UK. Since then, however, kit operations has moved to Canada so I did not know at first what kind of operation I would be buying from. However, after a few e-mails and phone calls, I found that the new head of operations (Brian Smith) was trustworthy, enthusiastic, and dedicated to his job. In fact, the new operation seem to be highly pro-active in pushing the kits further and further toward the high end of hi-fi's finished products.

It was explained to me from the offset that I was one of the first people to be in receipt of this particular kit, and told what the tweaks and alterations were intended to be. The option of waiting for such things as the intended new chassis design and various hard-wiring variations were plainly, and enthusiastically, laid in front of me from the start - rather than the all too familiar 'grab the money and run' approach. So that made a nice change. I decided, however, to go with the then current offering - I could always upgrade things in the future (one of the advantages of building it yourself is that you end up knowing the thing inside-out, making upgrades a much easier and informed process).

It must be noted at this point that the Kit1, in any of its forms, is perhaps not a kit for the complete novice. If you fit this description then I would recommend something like the Kit4 or DAC Kit 1.1 (from the same supplier) to get you started as these involve much less wiring.

About the Kit1 Range
The PQ Signature Kit1 is at the top of the Kit1 amplifier range. The full range consists of the following standard models:

For more information and pricing, please visit the website.

Ordering and Dispatch
Ordering was a simple and straightforward process. This kit was dispatched within the same week and took another 3 days to arrive in the UK from Canada with tracking number provided from the start. As soon as I ordered the kit, I was given a web link to the online manual so I could begin getting my head around the build. This proved to be a very good idea and allowed me to plan things in my head beforehand.

The box itself was heavy - weighing in at 63lbs - mostly due to the huge TRANS300 output transformers that are one of the most unique and compelling features of this amplifier. The kit was extremely well packed. The components themselves were of a very high standard, as promised from this kit. It was a pleasant surprise to find that those components not mentioned in the sales specification (such as speaker terminals, feet, etc) hadn't been skimped upon, as is quite often the case.

All electro-mechanical components are split into logical assembly bags - as are all the necessary nuts and bolts. All the component bags also contain a parts checklist. Your first job should be to check through these lists against the supplied contents, as encouraged by the manual - all were present and correct.

The manual is basically a copy of the web-based version that is re-arranged slightly to cater to the specific options that you have chosen. Manuals are printed whenever they are needed which allows constant updates to be made. What this means in reality is that an ever growing number of valuable photographs are being added or improved upon all the time. Many times in the past, I have ended up with kit manuals that were pre-printed in large quantities that contained many amendment slips and very few pictures - this is not the case here, thankfully.

I had decided from the start that I was going to document the build of the kit by writing a website at the same time, so the build took me much longer than it would have done normally. Having said that, however, it turned out to be a rather nice experience; having so many productive options open to me. What you it be tonight? Text for the website? Image processing? PCB assembly? Wiring? Graphics?...

Now that I have finished the build I feel a little lost not having all those options.

One of the reasons this kit is perhaps not suitable for the novice is that some of the wiring within the kit can be a little daunting. Basically you are told where each end of a given wire is to be joined, and the exact route and method (although wire twisting is encouraged) is pretty much up to you. For this reason, I decided to plan the wiring out and logically split it into specific looms - these can be found elsewhere on my site.

Fixing the Hardware
One of my only criticisms about this kit was to do with some of the supplied washers - namely the washers used for holding on the mains and output transformers. They were just too small for my liking. Although they would do the job if carefully balanced on the shrouds' slots whilst tightening, I decided to use larger ones because of the sheer weight of the unit overall; coupled with the fact that the transformers may be used to carry the unit at some point etc. This is, of course, only a minor flaw because it is so easy to get hold of the odd washer here or there.

Information Update: Since writing this article, I have been assured from AudioNote Kits that the issue of washers has now been resolved with the introduction of larger ones.

Difficulties to be aware of
The sheer weight of this amplifier means that you won't be throwing it around the room much. So, make sure you clear a space somewhere you can work on it from the start of the build to the end. I found it useful to use one of the flat packing strips to rest the unit on - this both saves your work surface from getting scratched and also allows it to be spun around easily.

For me, the most difficult jobs were more to do with inadequate soldering equipment than anything else. 95% of the soldering was as I expected it to be but there were two soldering jobs that took me a little by surprise:

1. Soldering onto the speaker terminals.

These were very heavy-duty terminals (as they should be) and, as such, dissipated a lot of heat. This meant that my normal soldering iron was not up to the job - it simply couldn't supply enough heat. Fortunately, I managed to borrow a heavy-duty gas iron from a friend - that did the job. Of course, there was always the option of using solder tags (which were supplied) but I fancied a more direct and permanent connection method. Also note that because of the extra heat required, the terminals will require further tightening - a very compact spanner (or wrench) is required for this job.

2. Soldering the input wire.

The input wire is a very nice, and expensive, piece of AudioNote AN-V dual silver cable. I love this stuff - one of the best upgrades I ever made was to change to this cable for my interconnects. When I built my DAC Kit, I had to solder the copper version of this cable and it was the most difficult part of that build because each strand of wire is individually coated in polyurethane - it was not an easy job to use it with a standard iron. I thought then that if I ever had to use that wire again that I would make sure that I owned a solder pot to make the job easier. I never imagined the same scenario would occur with the AN-V (silver oxide being such a good conductor versus copper). So, again I had to use my friend's iron for that too.

I found that I didn't quite have enough wire to finish the job. This was down to the output transformers. The common primary leads weren't long enough to reach the PSU board and needed to be extended about 6 inches or so. Also, the output transformer's secondary leads on the one furthest from the back of the unit had to be extended just a couple of inches to reach the speaker terminals. As I wished to use the same high quality wire throughout, I contacted Brian at AudioNote Kits who sent me some more without hesitation, along with his apologies.

Now, I think that the above gripes are pretty trifling so long as you know about them in advance and can plan around them or seek further advice.

I spoke to Brian at AudioNote Kits a few times during the kit build and found him to be highly dedicated to his kit business, and a very nice chap to boot. I feel that he would go to great lengths to help out in the event of build problems. No worries - second to none.

Conclusion (build)
I found the building of the PQ Signature Kit1 to be highly enjoyable with very few problems encountered. Those that I did encounter were minimal and easily worked around. I also feel that they will very probably have been addressed by the time you read this.

Although I would not recommend this particular kit to the complete novice, I think someone with a little experience could make it through the build with a little support.

More detailed information about my build experience can be found on my website at

Of course, it is all well and good building something - but how does it perform once finished? This brings us to Part 2 of this review - Performance...

PART 2 - Performance
Being a kit, my biggest initial concern, and fear, was 'does it hum?'
I am happy to report that there is no detectable hum whatsoever; even with the volume turned to maximum. Nor is there any unwanted noise of any kind.

Before we go any further, it should be noted that new valve amps will tend not to perform at their best until they have had a few hundred hours of burn-in time. This is something I'm expecting; mainly because of the Black Gate capacitors which I have had experience of on previous occasions. These can take many hundreds of hours before they perform at their best.

The first thing I did was to listen to some CD's that I was very familiar with (avoiding modern over-produced or re-mastered albums), using the supplied Electro Harmonic 300B valves. Although there were definite improvements to the sound in some areas (mainly in the reproduction of cymbals), overall it was pretty much on par with my old Audion Silver Night 300B integrated. That was until I swapped over the 300B tubes!

So, using the same 300B's that I was used to listening to in the Audion (namely Golden Dragon 300B Super/4300A - this is an old version of the Golden Dragons; not the new differently shaped ones), the differences became immense. In retrospect, the Electro Harmonic 300B's made the amp sound like a very good transistor amp - detailed but dull. The Golden Dragons put some of the 'feeling' back into performances.

Classical music is more listenable than ever. This is mainly due to the fact that very low volume listening now has such a high resolution (i.e. you can hear much detail in even the most low level sounds). This also manifests itself in greater instrument separation - individual instruments can be be picked out by the ear even in the most complex of passages. Also, due to this increased resolution, acoustic instruments have a much richer and interesting sound. This is not just restricted to classical instruments, of course. Acoustic guitars, drums and cymbals also benefit greatly. Listening at low levels is very important to me because I tend to do a lot of my work at nights with the kids tucked up in bed and enjoy listening whilst working.

High volume levels too are a surprise. There is less 'blurring' of the sound. There is also a mystery here because I have, many times in the past, had problems going above a certain volume level. At first I put this down to my listening room, but it continued at exactly the same level when I moved house; into a bigger room. That left the amp and speakers as the main culprit. I have since had two new amps before this one and still the same so I was convinced that it was my speakers. Now, however, I can go up much further which again points to the old amps! Strange but true.

One of the most talked about improvements about SET amps is vocals. The PQ takes a giant leap here; vocals now have air and space around them. It does wonderful justice to Joni Mitchell, for example.

Stringed bass instruments such as double bass, bass cello, etc. suddenly have a silky smooth bass that is very well defined, controlled, and deep (probably due to those massive output transformers).

Another nice experience was suddenly being able to hear musicians breathing between musical phrases for the first time on many familiar recordings.

I think you can tell that I am very impressed by my new amplifier. You could say that I'm biased because I built it myself - I'm trying not to be but I know I'm proud of the fact. The amplifier is in its infancy right now and has only had about 40 hours burn-in up to now. I'm expecting more improvements once everything has settled - if it's anything like my experience with the AudioNote CDT-One, it'll go through all kinds of ups and downs before it really shines. Therefore, I'll be adding to this review at a later time. I also have in my possession some brand new genuine AudioNote 300B's that I haven't listened to yet. I'm holding myself back until the amp has burned in fully. So watch this space!

Continued some weeks later...

Firstly, I have a confession - I couldn't wait for full burn-in before installing the new 300B's. I'm glad I didn't because the difference, even then, was quite significant. These tubes seem to give a wonderful balance. While they are not as 'bright' at the top-end as the Golden Dragons, they do have the GD's resolution but to an equal degree throughout the audio range.

Well I think I can safely say the amp has achieved it's burn-in now. I am quite simply knocked out by the sound now that those special components have bedded themselves in. Again, it was an interesting experience listening to the changes over time and the way the frequency response shifted around before finally becoming totally transparent (very similar to my experiences with the burn-in of my CDT-One).

Despite the fact that the sound changed significantly throughout the review period, not once did I feel that the amp was in any way worse than my previous configuration. On the contrary, It has been a steady climb to a better system. Just remember, however, when you are dealing with any equipment that contains Black Gate capacitors, you do have to be very patient and allow a long, long period before drawing your final conclusions.

So, there we have it - a very happy kit builder with an amp that should see me through quite a number of upgrades in other areas of my system. I could, of course, upgrade the amp further by hardwiring and beefing up the power supply further but I think it is fine and detailed enough as it is for the time-being and appears to be the leading component in my system. Time for other things to catch up now, I think.


Written by Paul Brookes
Published 13th June 2005


You can view how this amplifier was built by clicking on the link below. That will take you to the start page of the build process.

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