ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

March 1, 2003

In Praise of Tubes

My first encounter with the humble vacuum tube was a pair of pro-gear monoblocks that a friend of mine picked up for a song as surplus from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation studios in Toronto. Though I didn’t know it at the time, they were a professional version of the now famous McIntosh MC30 push-pull design from way, way back. They cranked out all of 30Wpc on a good day, but they played loudly enough to shake the dance floor at my friend’s very fine parties. And boy did they rock: great bass, driving rhythm, and golden tone. Even then, in my pre-audiophile days, I suspected that there was something visceral and natural about tubes that the lean, clean Phase Linear transistor gear my parents owned couldn’t reproduce. But this was the ‘80s, "solid state" was a synonym for "good quality," Boy George was not yet in jail, and everyone was wearing digital watches and very thin ties.

Fast-forward to the year 2000. At the time, I was just beginning to spiral helplessly into the audiophile wormhole and was shopping for an amp. Under the patient guidance and tutelage of my local boutique hi-fi store, I was introduced to solid-state products from Classe, Primare, and YBA, and a number of other fine companies. Most had tight bass and good pacing, and could put out powerful sound, but none had the kind of tonal realism that would make me sit up and take notice. I could always pick out at least a hint of the flatness, glare, and hash that I can’t help associating with the detestable and once ubiquitous portable transistor radio. I was and still am as averse to that sonic signature, however subtle it may be, as I suppose those of an earlier generation might have become to the soft and thin warble of poor tube electronics. So I searched on. My search ended the day I first heard a single-ended triode.

It was an Antique Sound Labs stereo integrated, tucked away in a corner of the store with a budget price tag and an assortment of glowing glass bulbs and top-mounted transformers. The sound was just glorious. I couldn’t believe it. My favorite female vocalists were magically transported into a floating orb between the speakers, so real you could almost see them. It was only 8W playing into low-sensitivity speakers; the bass was indistinct, the extreme treble was poorly defined, and distortion set in at anything beyond low listening levels, but I was hooked. "This is what I want," I told them, "this is it . . . only with better bass, please." Within a couple of months, I finally laid ears on the esoteric but oh-so-refined work of the late Dr. Ricardo Kron, maker of KR Enterprise tubes and amps. Here was that midrange magic with good bass and exquisitely detailed treble. Here was enough bloom to keep the sound from being dry, but not so much as to diminish realism with euphonic colorations. The rest is history.

Don’t get me wrong: Half a ton of gallium arsenide rocket-propelled by several thousand watts can be sheer majesty. The YBA Passion, for example, is no slouch at all, and I’ve never heard speed like that of the Spectral DMA150. For timbral accuracy, breathtaking realism, and enduring emotional evolvement, however, I’ll take zero-feedback triodes, or at least a good tube amp, over solid state any day.

I talked with a PhD in physics just last year who looked at me pityingly when he heard I owned a tube amp and declared, "Tubes are nothing but distortion generators." He was not an audiophile (of course), but even if he were, he would find himself a member of a rapidly shrinking minority of opinion today. This is hardly a Gallup Poll, but of five audiophile buddies in our little listening group, four have switched to tubes over the past two years, and sales of the formerly obsolete glass-bottle beasties seem to be doing surprisingly well. The resurgence of tube gear has officially surged. With a little luck, everyone will see the light and return to the happy high vacuum hunting grounds of our audiophile ancestors. It’s happened before. Seen anybody wearing a digital watch lately?

...Ross Mantle

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