Steljes Audio ML-30HD Integrated Amplifier Review

Valves and Bluetooth – the way of the future?

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

Steljes Audio ML-30HD Integrated Amplifier Review
SRP: £400.00

What is the Steljes Audio ML-30HD?

The Steljes Audio ML-30HD is an integrated amplifier. A quick look at the basic layout in the pictures should be enough to tell you that the manner in which Steljes has gone about making such a device is a little bit different to more conventionally accepted practise in this area. We'll cover the specs thoroughly in due course but suffice to say that combining as it does, Bluetooth, USB and a phono stage, the ML-30HD is very on-message for 2016.

The presence of the valve sticking out the top is also pretty much of the moment. We have recently looked at the Copland DAC 215 which made use of valves in it but the position of Copland in such matters is that through careful implementation of the circuit they are in, valves retain advantages over their solid state brethren. There is also little arguing that valves give products a look and feel that is hard to replicate any other way and, while preconceptions are dangerous things, it seems more than possible that Steljes might be making as much use of the aesthetics of valves as any performance gain.

Valves or not, the ML-30HD pitches into a keenly contested category. After a period where integrated stereo amplifiers looked like they were on the endangered species list, manufacturers have noticed that they have production lives of years rather than months and can be something other than the latest software available crammed into a box. This means that the Steljes faces some pretty significant competition at £400 – so does this little metal box do enough to enthral?

Specifications

Steljes Audio ML-30HD
At its core, the Steljes is a four input integrated amplifier which sounds normal enough. The caveat to this is that the inputs in question are Bluetooth - in this case the v4.0 type, a USB-B connection for use with a PC or Mac, a standard RCA line input and a moving magnet phono stage. The Steljes is capable of handling a considerable variety of equipment.

As you might expect, for a product that costs £400, some limitations are apparent, if not actual cut corners. In a world where some USB connections, even at fairly terrestrial price points are supporting some exotic formats, the ML-30HD is a driverless type that tops out at 24/96kHz which, in fairness, is still likely to handle more in the way of sample rates than most examples out in circulation are likely to be called upon to do. The driverless aspect is handy though – simply connect the ML-30HD to a computer and away it goes.

The Bluetooth is more up to date and given that the very affordable NS3 active speaker has a good implementation, it shouldn't be too surprising to find that the pricier ML-30HD is also well sorted. Steljes doesn't actually list it as being Apt-X capable (and Bluetooth 4.0 is not automatically Apt-X) but the very reliable sniffer on the Onkyo DP-X1 flagged it as Apt-X so you get the benefit of lossless transmission.
Steljes Audio ML-30HD
The other inputs on the Steljes are more conventional. There is a standard line level stereo RCA input and a moving magnet phono stage. The fitment of both gives the ML-30HD useful flexibility in terms of setting up a system with it at the centre. Input selection is via rotary dial on the front panel and this is partnered with a volume control next to it. There is no remote control for either which is something of an annoyance. I appreciate that many owners will have the ML-30HD in a desktop situation but equally, plenty of them won't and when you consider the vast discrepancy in volume from different tracks via USB, the Steljes is slightly frustrating to operate from a distance.

The amplification in the ML-30HD is a 30 watt design that produces its headline numbers at low quoted distortion figures. The topology is not quoted in the literature for the amp but given there is a valve jutting prominently out of the top panel, the chances are that any minute characterisation of the output is likely to be elbowed out of the way by the traits imparted by that.

The valve itself is a 6N3, a signal valve of Russian derivation that has become popular with products produced in China as it is produced in some numbers there. The fact that the 6N3 is a signal valve and there is only one of them used in the ML-30HD means that while Steljes doesn't specify exactly what the valve is used for, it is likely that it is used as part of the preamp arrangement as a means of tuning the signal sent to the power amp rather than as part of the gain stage (where it would be more common to use a pair of them). This means that the ML-30HD is effectively a solid state amp with tuning courtesy of a spot of retro tech.

Design

Steljes Audio ML-30HD
The ML-30HD is a relatively compact piece of equipment that sits in an attractive all metal chassis. As noted, there is no remote control – something of an irritant to the terminally idle like myself – but Steljes has at least ensured that the controls themselves move with a positive and pleasing feel. Around the back, things are no less logical and the spacing of the inputs and outputs is amenable to making and removing connections without the aid of a pair of tweezers. The speaker terminals are a little on the small side but will still accept bare wire easily enough and worked fine with the 4mm plug terminated runs used in testing.

The build and general finish of the ML-30HD is good although it is worth noting that brushed steel has proved to be a pernicious fingerprint trap for me in the past and can start to look a little sad if you don't keep up with cleaning it. The actual effort that has gone into the construction is pretty good though and other than a very slightly uneven gap between the front and the top panel, everything feels pretty good for the asking price.

I'm slightly less sold on the design treatment for the valve though. Steljes has fitted the 6N3 in such a way as it mounts at the level of the top panel and has a protective cage supplied to prevent it coming into contact with a todder. The effect is very much "look, look, it's got a valve!" especially as the whole thing is lit from the bottom with an LED (like most signal valves, the 6N3 doesn't do a huge amount of glowing on its own). I think it's a bit showy but at least the actual bits involved are of a reasonable quality.
Steljes Audio ML-30HD
The Steljes is capable of handling a considerable variety of equipment

How was the Steljes ML-30HD tested?

Normally, with a product of this nature the 'go to' speaker for at least some of the testing would be my Audio Note AN-Ks but they are absent so the Steljes has seen some testing with the Wharfedale Riva 2 and the Neat IOTA Alpha that have been in attendance for review. An Onkyo DP-X1 DAP has been used as the main Bluetooth source while the moving magnet 'side' of an Avid Ingenium twin turntable (SME M2-9 tonearm with Nagaoka MP150 cartridge) has been used to test the phono stage. A Lenovo ThinkPad has supplied a USB signal and the line input has been tested with both a Naim ND5 XS streamer and a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage. Test material has been a huge variety of formats from high res FLAC to compressed material like Spotify.

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Performance with USB and Bluetooth

Steljes Audio ML-30HD
Unlike the scrupulously logical NS3 speaker, the ML-30HD does without a pair button or a pairing indicator. As such, getting connected to it is largely down to the indicators on your pairing device but once connected, it re-pairs automatically and has been pretty stable since then. Similarly, the USB connection has a think when connected to a computer, girds its loins and proceeds to work seamlessly from there on.

The performance itself is immediately characterised by a smoothness and refinement that is periodically lacking in equipment of this nature. What is particularly appealing is that this isn't joined by any appreciable sense of smoothing off to the presentation. Listening to the superb Brothers in Arms from the Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack, the Steljes does a good job of keeping the electronic snarls at the beginning sounding civilised without tipping over into becoming dull. When the fabulous string section comes in, the result is controlled but still lifelike and engaging.

At least it is if the volume is above the 9 O'Clock position on the control. Below this, the ML-30HD has noticeable channel imbalance between the speakers and this means it simply doesn't sound right. Imbalance on analogue volume potentiometers is far from unusual but it does affect the ML-30HD quite significantly and using it below these volume levels is unlikely to be truly satisfying. This being said, with 30 watts on tap, it is likely you will be calling upon more power than is available at this low volume level.
Steljes Audio ML-30HD
As a further incentive to doing so, the ML-30HD opens up significantly as the volume increases. The sense of space and openness that results from doing so is consistent across both digital connections and means that larger scale music has the scope it needs to sound exciting. This is aided by the Steljes having a decent sense of pace and drive to it. Give it the effortlessly boppy Animal by Miike Snow and it keeps on top of things and sounds genuinely fun while it does so.

There is a 'but' coming and depending on what speakers you choose to put with the ML-30HD it might be a problem. The bass response of the Steljes is detailed and pleasingly quick but it never truly sounds that deep or impactful. Both the Neat and Wharfedale speakers used for testing demonstrated more low end used on other equipment during the tests so it seems that the limits are down to the ML-30HD. Depending on how you listen and what you listen to, it may not be a huge problem but if you want to feel bass as well as hear it, this might not be the amp for you.

Experimenting with different file sample rates via the USB input shows that the Steljes does everything that the manual says it does and there is no sign of any gremlins in playback at any stage. It might be fair to say that high res audio doesn't necessarily show a night and day difference when used with the ML-30HD but I know of very few playback systems (decoding and amplification combined) at this sort of price that truly can. It might be better to view the ML-30HD as being equipped to handle anything you are likely to throw at it.

Performance via line in and phono

Steljes Audio ML-30HD
Connecting up the moving magnet side of my turntable to the ML-30HD reveals that the Steljes gets the basics right. The phono stage is usefully quiet and free of ground noise or the like. The levels of gain it offers are pretty good too and given that the comments about the ML-30HD sounding better once running at higher levels apply here too, you'd want to be using the upper reaches of the volume control anyway.

Having done so, the performance of the phono stage is perfectly acceptable judged by the standards of the competition at this price. Tonality is good and a spirited rendition of How to be a Human Being by Glass Animals sounds lively and fundamentally accurate. Compared to a really excellent sub £100 phono stage like the Rega Fono, the internal unit in the Steljes can't match the effortless sense of three dimensionality that the dedicated unit can but this is a more than acceptable way of getting a more affordable turntable up and running.

The line input finishes the feature set and the good news is that it largely relays the qualities of whatever you connect to it. Some tests with the Naim ND5 XS via its RCA output gives something of a sense of the qualities of the device and the truly spectacular bass response it has, which bolsters the more limited extension of the Steljes very effectively. While it probably wouldn't be the most significant input in any purchasing decision, it works well.
Steljes Audio ML-30HD
The performance itself is immediately characterised by a smoothness and refinement that is periodically lacking in equipment of this nature

Verdict

Pros

  • Sweet and refined sound
  • Solid build
  • Useful features

Cons

  • Limited bass
  • Sounds better at higher volumes
  • Valve a little bit of a gimmick

Steljes Audio ML-30HD Integrated Amplifier Review

The Steljes Audio ML-30HD is an unusual device. It is far from the only valve equipped design at this relatively affordable point but the sheer spread of connectivity it offers means it makes a reasonable case for itself. It looks smart, it is well built and it is easy to use. You can do considerably worse for £400.

The problem is that you can also do better. My personal feeling when listening to the ML-30HD is that the valve is a small facet of its performance and this should really be regarded as a solid state amp with a mildly tweaked presentation. My issue is that £400 buys amplifiers that might lack the spread of functions that the ML-30HD has but can deliver a more faithful, punchy and capable performance. If this is the sort of device you are looking for, the Steljes is a capable little amp. If your needs are less specific, more capable options exist like the peerless Marantz PM6006 and equally flexible Yamaha R-N602.

MORE: Integrated Amplifier Reviews


MORE: HiFi Product Reviews


Scores

Build Quality

.
.
8

Connectivity

.
.
.
7

Ease of use

.
.
.
7

Features

.
.
.
7

Audio quality

.
.
.
7

Value for money

.
.
8

Overall

.
.
.
7
7
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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