Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXLV: The Great Tube Shortage of 2022
(June 2022)

"First of all, I have to say that I fully support Ukraine and it's horrible what's happening over there right now."

That's the preface I keep hearing over and over from members of the high-end audio industry just before the current vacuum tube shortage is discussed. Yes, it's one of those First World problems, where Russia has stopped exporting vacuum tubes to the parts of the world where they, in turn, have received sanctions against them after invading Ukraine. After all the appropriate things are said, the subject turns dark and serious among audiophiles--how are we going to keep vacuum tubes flowing into the US, tubes that we need for our power amplifiers and preamplifiers and guitar amps and even, in a few rare cases, for our compact disc players (like the one I've owned for the last 12 years)?

As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the audio industry started to worry. I didn't realize it at the time, but an overwhelming amount of the vacuum tubes we currently use to power our gear comes from Russia. I always thought China had a bigger share of the market, especially with the growing popularity of the Psvane brand. When I was deeply into single-ended triode amps in the early 2000's, most of the vacuum tubes I used were from Eastern Europe. But many of the largest tube brands, legendary ones such as Mullard and Tung-Sol and Sovtek and Svetlana and Genalex and Electro-Harmonix are made in a single place, the Electro-Harmonix factory, in Russia.

I wasn't too concerned at first. I remember those toilet paper shortages at the beginning of the pandemic- uninformed and fearful people who hoarded it all and then tried to sell it back to the supermarkets as the inventory was gradually replenished. My first reaction, of course, was that the prices of tubes would immediately skyrocket as the hoarders set into motion. My instinct was to tell them we had plenty of tubes in the US. I visited the New Sensor warehouse in New York City a few years ago--they're the US distributor for all the Electro-Harmonix stock--and I couldn't believe the size of that immense stash of glass tubes stored in that gigantic facility. "Wow, this is enough to last forever," I said to an employee, and he nodded and said yeah, pretty much.

My first thoughts on the subject, which I discussed on The Occasional Podcast shortly after the invasion, were two-fold. We have lots of tubes already, and if there is a shortage, China will surely ramp up production because that's what they do. Still, the hoarders set upon the vacuum tube retailers and tried to buy everything. Some of the biggest tube suppliers, such as Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio, instantly set limits on the number of tubes for each customer. He was one of the first people in the industry who told everyone to relax, and that hoarding would deplete tube supplies quicker than Putin's horrific shenanigans.

But as the weeks progressed, a very real shortage of vacuum tubes emerged. Prices are skyrocketing as I write this. Tubes are disappearing. I know several manufacturers who have discontinued many of their models because they can't continue to build them without a certain tube that is suddenly no longer available.

So what does this all mean to the vinyl crowd? A lot, actually. I first wrote about the connection between amplifiers that use old-fashioned vacuum tubes--those light-bulb thingies on old amplifiers that actually supplied power to amplifiers before transistors came along--and listening to vinyl in "Tubes Are For Boobs?" back in April 2003. The idea is this: if you love the sound of vinyl and its incomparable sense of warmth and musical texture, you'll probably love tube amps as well. I currently listen to both tube and solid-state amps, and I still maintain that I'd rather listen to LP's with a tube amp in the system.

So where did I miscalculate the size of the tube shortage? It's simple--I had no idea that the vacuum tube business had become so large in the last few years, even since my field trip to the New Sensor factory. I'm so completely submerged in the world of vacuum tubes that I never paid attention to the bigger picture. I never really cared about the global supply of tubes, or the increasing sales. Perhaps I was paying too much attention to ebb and flow of vinyl sales to notice it, but I'm surrounded by tube gear all of the time. I had a vague feeling that the vacuum tube industry was healthy and growing, but I had no idea it had grown this much.

In many ways, the vacuum tube comeback is even more impressive than the Vinyl Renaissance. Lots of people use tube amps with digital audio sources. You don't need to have a tube amp in order to spin records, right? But I think it has more to do with the fact that vacuum tubes have a finite life span. While the market has been slowly redirected to vacuum tubes that have longer life spans--up to 10,000 hours and even more--you still need to have a back-up stash of tubes to own a tube amplifier. Tubes just wear out. Sometimes they go bad. Sometimes they fail right out of the box. Sometimes the amplifier does something to fry a tube. Sometimes, the owner of the amp does something silly, like swap out cables while a tube amplifier is still turned on.

That's why you need to have a tube stash. If you don't have a replacement tube ready to go, your amplifier becomes a huge expensive paperweight. A vast majority of tube amplifier owners have a tube stash, as they should. I have a tube stash. I have a friend who probably has a larger tube stash than anyone else in the US right now. If he sold it, he'd be instantly rich. Having a tube stash is something that you need to do. If you don't have a tube stash and you own a tube amp and you just paid someone an enormous amount of money to buy crappy, inferior and untested tubes--well, maybe transistors are the way to go, at least for you.

I know, that's a ridiculous piece of advice. To emerge from the tube shortage unscathed, you'll have to invent a time machine and go back to the New Sensor warehouse the day before the Russian invasion and build up a surplus that will last the rest of your life. Other than that, I'm not sure I have any advice for you at all.

I can tell you what I'm going to do however. I'm going to wait it out. In audio, we're constantly concerned about the future, and we're constantly coming up with hare-brained schemes to get more people into the hobby, or get more women into the hobby, or get more young people into the hobby, or get more people listening to vinyl, or get more people to use tube amplifiers. Right now, I'm seeing a few people who are trying to keep the compact disc alive, and there are signs (I'm seeing a noticeable amount of new CD players being introduced) that it's working.

We always manage to keep these things alive. If there's a love for something, there's always a way to sustain it. And if it succeeds, the market will exploit it. As Colonel Kilgore said, "One day this war is gonna end." Then we'll move on to the next thing that needs to be saved in the world of hi-fi. Instead, we should just listen to our favorite music and chill. And continue to keep Ukraine in our hearts.

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