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What Makes Tubes Special?

Invented back in 1904, there's a reason why after 100 years, companies are still making tube amps. They simply sound better.

Tubes used to be the only form of audio amplification available and designers had decades to refine both tube design and tube circuit design. Even by the 60s, the quality of tube amps was exceptionally good and was only let down by comparatively poor sources and speakers. The incredible lifelike midrange and presence that tubes uniquely give could be heard even on these compromised systems. Many people are nostalgic for this sound because while it was missing a lot of modern accuracy, it got perhaps the most important thing right-- you could "feel" the instruments in your room with an immediacy like the real thing.

Lab 12 Integre4
In contrast to the 60s, when you pair a tube amp with a quality modern speaker and turntable, the quantum jump in sound is readily apparent. Gone are the frequency inaccuracies of 60s speakers, and the noise of 60s turntables. The tube amp is fed with a beautifully pure signal and it can pass it on wonderfully to the speaker. The result is not only the typical tube presence and naturalness, but also bass attack, soundstage, quietness and perfect three dimensionality.

Tube amps themselves have also improved greatly over the years. This isn't so much a factor of new technology, but the ability to mass produce components at a lower price than ever before. Transformers, capacitors and circuit boards can all be made at a fractin of the cost of the handmade products in the 60s, and generally the tolerance and reliability is higher. As a result an amp today might sell for less than half of what it would have in the 60s (in inflation-adjusted dollars). As well, the state of the art of metalurgy and signal research has yielded high end advancements such as silver wire transformers, unique transformer winding methods, audiophile grade hyper-spec capacitors and even entirely new tube designs.

A great example of a new tube that is stretching the boundaries of tube amp sound is the Tung Sol KT150. This tube is thunderously powerful, but has a neutral tonality from top to bottom and that beautiful present midrange of classic tubes like the EL34 or 6L6. Gone are the solid-state arguments of "I need more power". You can easily get 50, 75, or even 200 watts from using KT150 tubes.

As well, because modern speakers tend to not only be more accurate, they are also becoming easier to drive. It's not hard to find speakers that have easy impendence curves (which is at least as important as efficiency) and work very well with as low as 25 watt tube amps. What most people don't realize is that in the average listening room (say 14 x 16ft), average volumes don't require more than 10 watts program with up to 25 watts peak. If you are wondering, come in and listen to the little Acoustic Masterpiece AM201 at half volume and see if it's as loud as you need. You'll be shocked. For headbangers, there is more power available from bigger tube amp designs such as the Lab 12 Integre4 or Air Tight ATM-2.

The other reason tube amps tend to sound louder than an equivalent power solid state amp is that as they distort, they do it in a much more gentle and subtle way. Tube amps distort by adding 2nd order harmonics which is double the fundamental frequency, thus sounding "velvety" or "euphonic". It's a distortion that compared to the higher order distortion of solid-state is much more tolerable. Don't confuse this sound with soft though. Today's tubes have attack and bite that will please even the biggest metal or rap fan. The difference is that the attack comes without the unpleasant "harshness" of solid state and with far more nuance. You'll be surprised at how many more layers a tube amp can unravel from even noisy pop recordings.

AIR TIGHT ATM-2 AmplifierOf course, there is a certain joy in using a tube amp. Looking at the glowing tubes, and appreciating how the sound improves after 30 minutes of listening is an experience with much more depth and engagement than a faceless solid-state box. There's also the intellectual appreciation of knowing that most tube amps are simple analog devices where the quality of the parts is the important part and the person who made it is still a vital piece of the puzzle. Unlike transistor amps that will generally be unrepairable within 10 years, a tube amp is like a 60s Porsche, it's simple enough that even if the company doesn't support the parts, a technician will usually be able to fix it regardless. There's both an eco and pride factor payoff in buying a product that you could conceivably service and keep forever.

At the end of the day though, the proof is in the listening. Like a good turntable, the superiority of tubes is undeniable in an A/B comparision. Given the escalating costs of solid-state amps as well, in the mid and upper brackets, it is folly to ignore a tube amp. And, for those who don't want to change their amp but still want to get a taste of tubes, there are also a number of tube based phono preamps (Project Tube Box S) and tube buffers (such as the iFi Micro iTube 2) that will add a percentage of the tube magic to your existing system. Come in and hear what the state of the art in tubes is today!

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