Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XXXVIII: Tubes are for Boobs? (April 2003)

"I don't give a toss. The most impressive sound I know comes from vinyl and valves, in particular SET's and OTL's. Some of those things make music sound *real*. Fuck what the specs say."

The above quote is from The Devil. No, not the red guy with the pointy tail and the pitchfork, but an English gentleman I know from the Internet and from quite a few transatlantic phone calls. The Devil, by all accounts, is wealthy beyond belief, and probably famous as well. In other words, he can afford the best of everything, and yet he continues to stress the superiority of vinyl. This, of course, is not news to us vinyl anachronists, and I've personally commented upon the emergence of using vinyl and turntables as a luxury hobby. But note his inclusion of "valves" and "OTL's" and "SET's." He's talking about tube amplifiers, those antiquities that look like black boxes with light bulbs stuck on top. A lot of people think that tube amps disappeared with the advent of the transistor a few decades ago. These are the same people, incidentally, that wonder, "Do they even make turntables anymore?"

Surprisingly, however, tube amplification is hot again, and has been for many years. In fact, the battles that mark the vinyl vs. digital debate resemble the ongoing struggle between those who prefer the sound of tube, or valve amplification, to solid-state, or transistor amplification. And I'm sure that you won't be surprised to know that many of the same people who prefer the sound of vinyl also prefer the sound of tubes. In my last year-end survey, 2002: Year of Triumph!, I hinted that I found a way to make listening to turntables and LPs even more enjoyable, and this is it. I've had the opportunity to listen to quite a few tube amps lately, and it's like the gates of heaven opened up. For everyone who has discovered how much better LP's sound than CD's, listening to LP's using tubes pushes the envelope further still.

"Tubes are for boobs."

This quote is from my late friend Steve Zipser, who used to own a hi-fi shop down in South Florida. For years he thought the resurgence of tube amplifiers was ridiculous until one day he started carrying amplifiers from Conrad-Johnson, one of the largest and most respected manufacturers of tube amps. Everyone called him on this, labelling him one of these "boobs." Steve, however, obviously changed his mind once he heard some quality products. He realized, just like I did some time later, that tubes are not antiquities, but rather very modern, and very complicated devices. Like turntables, they require a bit more maintenance and tweaking than usual, but they're worth it.

Are tubes right for you? That's a tough question. I actually resisted owning tube amps for years, for several reasons. First, they tend to be expensive. Some bargains have popped up in the last couple of years, but for the most part, the average tube amp costs well into the thousands. (Dr. Cameron, who I featured in Life Without Vinyl and Doc Goes Digital, has a tube amp that costs almost $100,000.) Second, they tend to be low-powered. Sure there are tube power amps that are rated at 100 or 200 watts per channel, or even more. But again, these cost a lot of money, usually because they require a lot of tubes. The average tube amp, however, is usually rated at 30 or 40 watts per channel, or less. Single-ended triodes, or SETs, which are based on circuits designed back in the 20s, are notoriously low-powered, with amps using 300B tubes averaging about 10 watts per channel, or 2A3 tubes averaging about 3 watts per channel, or a tube called the "45" which offers only 1.5 watts per channel!

Finally, I've resisted owning tube amplification because I have a house full of kids and pets. I've read reviews of tube amps where one of the output tubes starts to glow all Halloween orange and Christmas red right before it explodes and the amp goes up in flames. Tubes are made out of glass obviously, and I just didn't want to send my entire family to the emergency room just because I wanted a little more air and depth to the sound of Yo-Yo Ma's cello. And besides, tube amps also tend to throw off a lot of heat, and the last thing I need during those hot, dry San Fernando Valley summers is a few more space heaters in the living room.

But most of these obstacles have been erased with the new, sudden popularity of tube amps. For instance, a crop of very affordable tube amps have been introduced lately from companies such as Jolida and Antique Sound Labs and Audio Electronic Supply. The Jolida integrated amplifiers, for example, run about the same as their transistorized brethren, just a few hundred dollars. Antique Sound Labs even offer a pair of palm-sized power amps for $99! I've heard a variety of tubed amps in the $1000 to $2000 range that offer some of the very best sound I've ever heard. There's a beautiful Italian tubed integrated from Unison, called the Unico, that is rated at 70 watts per channel, sounds absolutely wonderful, and costs only $1295.

As for power ratings, well, "watts per channel" is only meaningful in the context of the loudspeakers you're using. That used to be a pet peeve of mine, when people would see my stereo and the first thing out of their mouths would be "How many watts is it?" That's essentially a meaningless question. If you want to ask me how many watts per channel my amplifier is, then I can answer. And never, never tell me how many watts your speakers are. Your speakers don't have watts, unless they are active loudspeakers, which mean they have amplifiers built into them. They "handle" watts. This is called sensitivity, which is usually measured in decibels reached with one watt of power, measured at one foot away. And this is where "watts per channel" becomes very important. If your speakers are sensitive enough, meaning they can take a watt or two of power and turn it into 100 decibels of sound (which is pretty friggin' loud), then you don't really need 250 watts per channel, do you? In fact, some of the worst systems I've ever heard were when a high-powered amplifier was paired with a sensitive speaker. So you need to match the amplifier with the speaker. And with the cult of SET users growing all the time (especially in the Far East, of all places), more and more speaker manufacturers are offering high-sensitive speakers that can still piss off the neighbors with even the puniest of tube amplifiers.

And as for the safety concerns, unless you're dealing with some fly-by-night amp manufacturer (usually some hobbyist who's building them in his garage after he gets home from his job at the local Radio Shack), reliability is much higher than it was even just a few tears ago. If you stick to the more established tube amplifier manufacturers, such as Conrad-Johnson, Audio Research, Balanced Audio Technology, Cary, McIntosh, and VTL, then you'll probably never experience the fiery thrill of an exploding output tube. Unfortunately, some of the more exciting products in this area, especially SET amps, are from newcomers, and I suppose the risk is a bit greater. And when you get right down to it, the tube itself can be as much to blame, if not more, than the amp itself. And most tubes come from places like the former Yugoslavia, China, and Russia where quality control doesn't quite match what you would find in a Toyota factory, for example. Still, I think the thrill of music coming through tube amps is starting to offset these concerns of mine, especially now that my children are getting older and more responsible. I can see myself taking the tube-amp plunge very soon.

"Sure. And they sound better to you, because you like the sound of their distortion. Open and shut case."

Here's the bad part about liking tubes, just as it's the bad part about preferring LP's to CD's. The above quote is from Howard Ferstler, a rather pedestrian freelance audio reviewer who simply refuses to accept why some people prefer the sound of LP's and tubed amplifiers. A lot of people, basically the crowd that believes in measurements more than their own ears, will try to tell you tube amplifiers distort the sound, and they're mostly right. Remember back in the '70's, when there was a "total harmonic distortion" war between the Japanese receiver manufacturers? First there was less than .01% THD. Then it was .001. Then there was .0001. So after a while, it was safe to assume that total harmonic distortion went the way of polio and the Chevy Vega. Well, I've seen tube amps with ONE PERCENT total harmonic distortion. That's well into what's easily audible to most people. And I'm not sure, but I think I remember some audio reviewer freaking out over the 3% THD he measured on a fairly recent model of tube amp. What the techies are trying to tell us is that digital music sources played back on modern, efficient solid-state amps are accurate and without distortion, and that we must admit that the distortion itself is what the lovers of LP's and tube amplification are attracted to. And I have to admit that that makes some sense.

But what seems to be alien to most of these individuals is that this is all about subjective preferences. Who cares if there's more distortion, more pops and ticks, more speed variations, more wow and flutter and rumble, if the music we are hearing sounds just like real, live musical performances? And that's what every lover of the sound of LP's, and every lover of the sound of tube amps, will say to explain this preference, that music played on LP's and/or tube amplification simply sounds like real music, instead of some supercharged and sanitized digital version of the same. It's a fairly passionate debate in the audio world, perhaps the biggest issue in music reproduction, next to trying to make money off the downloading of music into people's computers.

Frankly, some people will read this article and will criticize me for not going into more depth about how tube amplifiers work. Others will have never seen or heard of tube amplifiers, unless we're talking about guitar amps. But there's also a significant amount of people, like me, who have been aware of the existence of tube amps for a long time, but never get a chance to hear what they can do. Like I said, I'm finally getting exposed to the sound through several different amps, such as the aforementioned Unison Unico, an Antique Sound Labs AQ-1010, the Cary STI-80, and the Audiomat Arpege Reference (the one I think I might wind up buying). I'm certainly not an expert or reference on tube amps, as I'm very new to it and still learning. But once you hear it, the difference is amazing. The sound does have more air and depth. Human voices sound amazingly like human voices, as opposed to recordings of people making sounds into microphones. Tubed amplifiers don't do as good of a job with deep, deep bass as solid-state amps, nor are they as good with the highest highs. But most of music resides in the midrange, and this is where tubed sound much more realistic. Remember when you were a teenager, listening and discovering what your musical tastes were? Remember how easily music would pull you in and make you forget about the rest of the world? Well, with tube amps, I find hitting those same epiphanies is just as easily accomplished as it used to be.

And isn't that what it's all about, anyway?

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