A Brief Introduction to Tube Electronics
The history of tube audio components parallels that of vinyl records over the past 40 years, so in my mind it’s sort of appropriate that tubes and vinyl often go together among audiophiles.
By the early 1970s, tube gear was becoming obsolete, supplanted by smaller, more efficient wonder-of-the-Space Age transistors and solid-state audio components. But many audiophiles and music lovers found the sound of early solid-state harsh, spatially flat, even awful. Yet while tubes flickered out of mainstream consumer electronics, they enjoyed a high-end audio revival in the 1970s, still going strong. Today a wealth of tube gear exists, most of it in the high-end luxury realm.
With the advent of the digital Compact Disc in 1982, records were written off—literally, among the mainstream audio press—as a dying format. After all, CDs offered “Perfect Sound Forever.” But critical listeners rejected the sound of early digital, like that of solid-state gear, as harsh, flat and sometimes awful. Some CDs and CD players certainly were. Many audiophiles clung to the analog sound of vinyl, and still do.
Thanks to some very talented designers, engineers, and manufacturers, digital audio has improved dramatically. High-resolution audio formats and better D/A (digital to analog) converters are just two examples. In fact, a large contingent of audio professionals will tell you “Game over. Tube components and record players are hopelessly outmoded.”
Not so fast.
The fact—not wishful audiophile longing, but fact—is that vacuum-tube components have a major presence in high-
end audio, as do turntables, and it’s common knowledge that vinyl is enjoying a major renaissance. Many people who prefer tubes also like to listen to vinyl.
Why? Is it because tubes and vinyl really do sound better? Or is it nostalgia—the desire to transport, via one’s music system, back to a simpler, more fondly remembered time as heard through the aural equivalent of rose-colored glasses? Maybe it’s the fun factor of basking in the glow of those tubes (they look really cool in the dark!), watching the record spinning, and holding the record jacket in your hands as you admire the artwork and read the liner notes.
(An aside—I listen to everything from old mono LPs to hi-res streaming audio. I’ve heard superb digital and solid-state, and those formats have practical and engineering advantages. That said, there will always be a special place in my heart for tubes and vinyl.)
Good tube gear can sound incredibly good, with superb tonal richness, body, detail, and spaciousness. If you equate measurements with fidelity, some tube gear in fact measures very well. On the other hand, detractors will say that “tube warmth” is just an inaccurate coloration or harmonic distortion. (Some people like to run digital audio through tubes to “warm up” the sound, but I’ll leave that aside for now.)
There are practical considerations. Tubes generate heat and use more electricity. Tube audio components tend to skew expensive—vacuum tubes cost a lot more than transistors and integrated circuits, they use other expensive parts, and building them is labor-intensive. Tube gear can weigh a lot.
Tube amps come in many varieties. There are under-10-watt single-ended-triode Class A designs like the Audio Nirvana 300B ($1,650) and behemoths like the VTL Siegfried Series II Reference monoblock ($75,000/pair). Careful speaker
matching will be necessary, especially with lower-powered amps. (There are also hybrid audio components that incorporate both tubes and solid-state, to combine the advantages of both.)
Tube electronics require commitment—the tubes eventually need to be changed, though they can last many years, and some tube amps need periodic user attention. Solid-state gear is set-and-forget by comparison. If you’re thinking of going tube, talk to your dealer, read reviews, and do your homework.
To bring turntables, which I discussed in my previous article, into the discussion: Although vinyl has its drawbacks (bass limitations, inner-groove distortion, etc.), a high-end record-playback system can sound wonderful. And there are those who insist analog does sound better than digital, especially through tubes. Complementary colorations or better fidelity? The debate rages.
Arguments—er, debates—on sound quality aside, there’s definitely a funky cool nostalgic vibe to tube components and turntables. They look retro and give you classic analog sound. Vintage pieces from Marantz, McIntosh, Quad, Western Electric, Garrard, Thorens and others are from a bygone era—and prized by many audiophiles. (And are also going up in value.)
A friend of mine wanted a tube/vinyl setup specifically to listen old-school style to
music as it sounded back in the day as he looks out onto a lakeside sunset and cues up an album on the stereo. You’re just not going to get that vibe scrolling through a computer playlist.
In that sense, tubes and turntables very much go together. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fun just to be around them. Playing an old record on a tube/vinyl system gives a strong connection with the past. It’s like listening through a time machine. (Try it. You’ll feel it.) Listening to contemporary albums also sounds great.
Writers give a lot of blah blah blah lip service to the experience—but really, that’s what listening to music is all about. It should be fun, involving, emotional. Tube audio gear, turntables, and records offer an intriguing path toward getting you there. Maybe it’s a path you’d like to take.
Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.