Go to any hi-fi show this year and you’ll see rooms illuminated by little more than the warm glow of vacuum tubes—the same technology 1950s jazz fans used for their first listen to Saxophone Colossus.
Why do audiophiles still love products powered by vacuum tubes, when solid-state gear is smaller, less expensive, more reliable and technically superior? Some claim tubes have a warmer, more natural sound—especially in the midrange, where the ear is most sensitive. Other audiophiles counter that tubes can’t provide the power, punch and precision of solid-state.
What’s incontestable is that tube gear looks cool, especially when you turn the room lights down so you can see the orange glow of the heaters inside the tubes. Tube audio gear soothes the eyes the way Ben Webster’s sound soothes the ears. In any case, there’s no denying that tube gear is, literally and figuratively, hot. I’d go so far as to say you can’t call yourself a serious audiophile unless you’ve had at least a brief fling with a tube amp.
Some consumers might worry that finding replacements for burned-out tubes will be difficult. This might have been the case circa 1990, but thanks to the efforts of Russian and Chinese manufacturers, replacement tubes for most amps and preamps are readily available through Internet merchants and music stores. And the truth is tubes don’t burn out all that fast in the first place. Small tubes in preamps and input stages of power amps might never need replacing. The large output tubes in power amps tend to last about 1,000 hours. For a typical amp with four output tubes, total replacement cost is typically $100 to $300 depending on the brand and type of tube. The bigger the output tube, the pricier it will probably be.
That brings up another twist: In the quest for the best sound, enthusiasts love to “tube roll,” experimenting with brands ranging from the latest Chinese labels to “new old stock” (or NOS) Telefunkens, Mullards and RCAs manufactured decades ago but never used.
Tube amps come in many types. The most important distinction occurs in power amplifiers, which can be push-pull or single-ended. Push-pull amps have two to four times as much power as a single-ended design using the same output tubes, and most work well with practically any speakers. Single-ended amps are simpler in design, which is why some audiophiles regard them as superior, but their power is low and most demand the use of speakers with a sensitivity rating of about 92 dB or higher (about 5 dB higher than an average speaker). Most tube preamps are single-ended, but with a preamp there’s no real downside to this design because the tubes aren’t amplifying the signal as much.
Hybrid tube/transistor amps combine a tube input stage and a transistor output stage. The stated goal with these is to combine the warm sound of tubes with the muscle of transistors. Sometimes, though, the tubes are there mostly for show; I remember one tube-equipped compact audio system that continued playing even with its tubes removed.
Tube headphone amps have recently become popular. The inexpensive models tend to be hybrids, but many, such as the $999 Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies, are tube through and through.
You can loosely lump tube audio manufacturers into two groups. One is high-end audio companies; most are American, and they include classic names such as Audio Research and McIntosh as well as somewhat newer brands like Atma-Sphere, Cary Audio and VTL. The other is Chinese manufacturers, who have introduced tube audio products at prices that are often a fraction of what the storied American brands tend to charge. Some, such as Cayin and Jolida, have North American distributors, with products available through traditional dealers. Others, like Audioromy and Bowei, tend to be sold through Amazon or eBay and shipped straight from China.
In general, you’ll pay more for a tube amp made in North America, Europe or Japan. For example, Audio Research’s Foundation VT80 75-watt stereo power amp costs $8,000, and McIntosh’s classic MC275 75-watt power amp costs $4,500. Many audiophiles happily pay a five-figure sum for a tube amp. Compare these prices with Jolida’s Fusion 3502S, a 60-watt amp with a built-in preamp that runs just $1,675. Monstrous, 4-inch-diameter output tubes give Audioromy’s FU29 a more exotic look than anything I’ve listed above, yet I saw it for $341 on eBay. (Plus $128 shipping—shipping is expensive for direct-from-China tube amps, and might take as long as a month.)
What’s the wisest choice? Impossible to say. Just as some people feel compelled to purchase a $100,000 luxury car while others are perfectly OK with an $18,000 hatchback, value in audio products is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder.
Just for kicks, I recently bought a Mengyue Mini integrated amp that cost $189 plus $50 for six-week shipping from China. It works, but the jacks are installed at a weird angle, the bottom plate was scratched on arrival, and it doesn’t live up to its specifications. A better way for a jazz fan to start in tube audio might be the Jolida Glass FX 10 ($649), which puts out just 10 watts per channel but looks simultaneously classic and modern. I have to think Ben Webster would approve.