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Hot Glass: Tube Amps Still Ring True

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“Our dying planet will be saved by tubes and some hi-fi nuts,” reads a blurb in an advertisement for the L.A.-area stereo emporium Upscale Audio. The store’s owner, Kevin Deal, has been dubbed the “Tube Guru,” and he’s recognized as one of the industry’s most ardent proselytizers for the renaissance of tube-audio gear.

“In a time when people are worn out by electronic sterility and separation, by e-mail, faxes, cell phones and software problems, I’ve found that the ‘golden glow’ is one of the best ways to get a groove on,” says Deal, who sometimes appears as an ersatz Elvis in his ads. “The humanity of listening to Ellington, Gillespie or Basie through tubes and getting that feeling is indescribable. That’s why most any guitar player or recording studio still uses tubes. Truth is, they never stopped using tubes!”

Though you’d never know it shopping at those everyday-electronics warehouses, not since the heyday of the ’50s and ’60s has vacuum-tube audio gear enjoyed such popularity in the marketplace-popular opinion in the industry indicates there are more types of tubes available today than ever before. Make no mistake: Tube equipment is here to stay.

In this age of digital everything, why are tubes still hanging on?

Well, as Deal points out, guitarists and studio types know that only tubes can give them the musicality they are looking for. Part of the secret is that, though all amplifiers distort when cranked up a bit, tubes distort in a more pleasing way, emphasizing even-order harmonics, whereas solid-state devices excite odd-order harmonics. Tube distortion creates a tone that we actually enjoy hearing, as opposed to something like the scraping of fingernails running down a chalkboard—a noise that, not coincidentally, is comprised of odd-order harmonics.

The late Harvey Rosenberg, an eccentric hi-fi philosopher and observer, often known as Dr. Gizmo and the author of Understanding Tube Electronics: The Search for Musical Ecstasy, says tubes are all about tone. In an article published in the April 2001 issue of the now-defunct Listener magazine, he says, “The single most important attribute of reproduced music is tone, and only tube circuits can create natural tone…. Tone does to our body what the smell of a barbecued steak does to our body…it makes us salivate and bark like a dog.” Pretty far out.

But Rosenberg comes back to Earth a bit when he says, “I don’t have to remind you about the direct relationship between the value of a musical instrument and its tonal quality. Just try and buy a Stradivarius or vintage Fender or Gibson guitar.”

Anyone serious about music will understand what Rosenberg is saying and will probably agree that the tonal characteristics of music played through a vacuum tube are much more pleasing than the alternative.

As for tube dependability, consider that they are still used in military and industrial applications where reliability is an essential attribute. Nuff said. However, tubes do eventually wear out. Not to worry: New tubes are easy to find these days, with increasing production from Europe and Asia guaranteeing a fluid supply. Or you can haunt the Internet for the purist’s sources of “new old stock” tubes from the golden age. In any case, the sound of the amps discussed below, equipped with their stock tubes, will serve to prove the point: Tubes rock—but even better, tubes groove, just as Deal insists.

Ready to make the plunge into the lush world of jazz-via-glass? Here are a few options chosen for value, reliability and sound quality. The focus is on integrated amps in which the preamplifier is built in as part of the package—so these are, practically speaking, plug-and-play.

None other than the Elvis-impersonating Kevin Deal is one of the figures behind one of the hottest new lines of tube components on the market, PrimaLuna (upscaleaudio.com), the result of like-thinking minds on several continents coming together to create products that are affordable, reliable and great-sounding—which is cool, because often you get to pick only two of those qualities.

Deal was approached by a longtime Dutch business associate, Herman van den Dungen, about developing a full spectrum of tube electronics to be manufactured in China. “The first words out of my mouth were, ‘Not interested!’ Having seen products built in China, I felt their quality control was negligible and their models chaotic. Every shipment was different. Schematics didn’t match,” he laments.

So, assessing his 29 years in the audio business, Deal insisted on certain features being designed into every PrimaLuna product. “Dependability was number one,” he says. Other features he pushed for, then had designed by noted Dutch engineer Marcel Croese, include a soft-start circuit that fires up the amp slowly, prolonging tube life, and an Adaptive AutoBias circuit, which constantly adjusts the bias (the amount of current running through the tube) for each individual tube so maximum performance is guaranteed for the life of the tube.

PrimaLuna products also feature hand-constructed point-to-point wiring, not printed circuit boards, and top-shelf parts. Deal contrasts PrimaLuna’s construction with that of others in the industry, “You void some companies’ warranty if you open the cabinet. Heck, I encourage people to take the bottom off and just gaze at the build quality.”

The PrimaLuna ProLogue Two integrated amp ($1,350) is based on a quartet of KT-88 power tubes and delivers a healthy 40 watts per channel, more than enough to drive typical speaker loads to neighbor-hassling volumes. And, just as Deal promises, under the hood it is a marvel to behold-the fit and finish well beyond what such a modest price would normally imply.

The sound? Unbelievable, fun and quite addictive—the music is just that good. The ProLogue Two nimbly handles the soaring, fiery fiddles, clarinets and white-hot voices from the wild, wailing soundtrack to the film Gadjo Dilo, set in the Romani (Gypsy) community of Eastern Europe. Through the PrimaLuna, the spirited harmonic complexity of the clarinet pierces the soul, portrayed in all its rich wood-toned glory. All the individual instrumental lines of a complex ensemble piece are clear and distinct, not confused into a jumbled mass as a lesser amp might convey it.

On “I Could Eat Your Words” from Patricia Barber’s Verse, the trio is right out there in front, swishing brushes, hunkering bass and percussive piano, while her vocals are 3D, offering no hint of sibilance or other distortions. Then Dave Douglas interjects a trumpet solo, almost out of nowhere, and the sound of the brass is pure and round, also with no stridency whatsoever. There is plenty of air around the individual instruments and plenty of detail. Playing the RVG edition of Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, the PrimaLuna makes it clear that Elvin Jones was the engine behind that band—the amp kept up with every crash and bam of Jones’ remarkable, singular drumming.

Deal and his PrimaLuna pals set out to develop a product that was a no-brainer, one that would make the entry into tubes painless and hassle free. Well, they’ve achieved that in spades. And by the way, in case it isn’t already clear, the PrimaLuna ProLogue Two kicks sonic butt, making its purchase a cakewalk for sure—at its price point it has no peer.

Mark O’Brien of Rogue Audio (rogueaudio.com) has spent the last 10 years building a lineup of all-tube electronics with a reputation for tanklike construction, stupendous sound and an enviable price/performance ratio. With the new Titan Series of components, he’s taken that last quality one step further while sacrificing nothing of the first two. The Cronus Integrated Amplifier ($1,795) is an impressive piece of equipment, from its sheer heft (weighing in at a meaty 50 pounds) to its exemplary sonics. Its soul consists of four EL-34s, a tube familiar to guitarists for sure, which pump out 55 watts of pleasure per channel. An additional bonus is the built-in phono preamp, a feature found all too infrequently these days, regardless of price point.

Jazz was originally dance music and in Brazil it still is, at least when disguised as forro (a Cajunlike music from Northeast Brazil), particularly when performed by accordion king Dominguinhos, whose usual studio band on his classic RCA discs is primarily comprised of Sao Paulo jazzers. The Rogue transmits all the dirty, almost nasty ginga, or booty swing, of this amazing get-down music. Who cares about detail and resolution—it’s there for sure—but with the Rogue, the pace, punch and, well, thrust of this music is impossible to ignore.

On “‘Round ‘Midnight” from the wonderful Blue Note box Grant Green Retrospective, each note is clear and precise with very natural decay. Green was a central figure in Blue Note’s “soul-jazz” sound of the early ’60s, and on “Old Folks,” featuring Green with B3 maestro Jack McDuff, the laid-back groove is a snap to follow, but the texture is as pleasantly thick as a St. Louis BBQ sauce and just as sweet and tangy. The Rogue sculpts Green’s single-note melodic line and nails that bluesy organ trio groove to a T.

Switching to phono, Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” from his Shape of Jazz to Come LP, sounds as good as any modern recording—no, better than most, since there’s no trace of digital distortion anywhere in the recording chain. The distinctive tone of that plastic alto is easily discernable, and Billy Higgins’ pace is driving and constant. There is nothing screechy or grating, not even in the ensemble passages when Cherry and Coleman play their unison statements, as is often the case on not-so-capable equipment. The Rogue is an easy recommendation and should go on any shortlist of potential tube-gear purchases. It’s a steal at only $1,800.

Japan has played a pivotal role in keeping tubes glowing in the high-end audio world, particularly in regard to the more esoteric areas of single-ended triode amps, which are renowned for their absolute musicality, jaw-dropping midrange and uncanny realism. Single-ended amps employ a single tube for both the up and down segments of a musical waveform, whereas more common push-pull designs use two tubes working in tandem: one for the top of the waveform, the other for the bottom, then the two halves of the wave are recombined. It’s not as simple or elegant a solution as the older, single-ended theory.

Yoshihiro Muramatsu, founder of Almarro Products (almarro.com), describes the sound this way: “Single-ended amps tend to make a more natural sound, while push-pull amps tend to make a more accurate sound. I think it’s like portrait photography. Some people like a tonally pleasing, soft-focused photo, and others like a sharp, absolutely accurate picture. I like both, depending on the music.”

The unassuming and dedicated Muramatsu possesses an obvious passion for music and for creating exceptional playback equipment, evident from the nature of the equipment itself. His love of audio and music led him to create Almarro as an offshoot of his principal business: producing industrial communication devices. Almarro now offers a variety of tube amps as well as a line of extremely handsome loudspeakers whose quality cabinetry is handcrafted by the woodworking company Muramatsu inherited from his father.

But the cornerstones of Almarro are two relatively low-powered, handmade single-ended integrated amplifiers, the A205A ($800) and the A318A ($1,500), both hand built to exacting standards.

I’ve heard the modest A205 at several trade shows-and the sound is anything but modest. It may generate only five watts via its EL-84 tubes, but those are some of the best five watts I’ve ever heard. I recall sitting spellbound at a recent New York show as the A205, mated with a pair of Almarro speakers, of course, lured me into a Dr. Gizmo-esque state of musical ecstasy.

The A318A ups the ante to 18 watts using a pair of somewhat unusual, but easy-to-source, Russian 6C33C-B tubes. The amp sports handsome wooden trim surrounding the chassis, rock-solid construction and a year warrantee, a sure sign of confidence in dependability of this product.

Almarro sent the A318A as part of a package called the Koro 3033A system, which adds a pair of M33A speakers ($1,800) to the mix. These are solid-hardwood, bass-reflex cabinets enclosing two novel four-inch drivers connected with no crossover, resulting in a sound Muramatsu calls “musically correct.” This is an understatement-the size of the sound, not to mention the frequency extension from bottom to top, is exemplary. The matching furniture-grade woodwork is just gravy.

I had tremendous fun listening to the Almarro combo. The sound is smooth, never hard, harsh or irritating, but rather, always inviting, captivating and satisfying. There is a magic that is hard to describe except to say that everything I played through this system sounded like music and not like hi-fi-the system vanishes and pure music takes over. Assuredly this is partly due to the synergy created by the two components, but even separately, combined with other gear, the Almarro magic persists. Muramatsu is obviously doing something right.

On the classic album Mingus Ah Um there’s plenty of “pluck” on the opening bars of “Better Git Hit in Your Soul” and beaucoup bottom to back it up. The system reveals the locomotive drive Charles Mingus inspired in his band; there was no drag at all, just surging forward motion. There’s a just-right reediness on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”—in fact, it’s almost possible to detect the wetness of the reeds themselves. With the Almarro in place, understanding Mingus’ genius becomes an effortless joy.

When the Almarro speakers are properly positioned, it is possible to achieve a level of dimensionality and image specificity that can become almost disconcertingly realistic. I often found myself startled by a ping, a strum, a cymbal crash-late at night, this can be quite alarming, but it proves how lifelike music can be when played through the right equipment.

As often stated in this column, nothing puts a system to the test like properly recorded female vocals, and one of the landmark sessions of the genre is Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat. The Almarro rig proffers an uncanny sculpting of Warnes’ vocals firm enough to reach out and grab. I was transfixed by this magic, even with the lights on, but with the lights down it provoked a chill and a thrill.

As for bass, the little drivers in these speakers move an amazing amount of air, generating dynamics to spare. On “Joan of Arc” from the Warnes disc, the opening slaps of the bass drum hit hard, right in the chest. Friends will want to know where you’re hiding the subwoofer.

This Almarro system makes real music and makes even the cruddiest old CDs listenable, engendering a nearly analoglike sensation. Almarro is a jazz lover’s dream come true.

Tubes, glorious tubes. Combined with some great smoky jazz, it doesn’t get much better. Hi-fi nut and tube guru Kevin Deal sums up “burning bottle” fervor this way, “You have to try it and experience it. Every music lover should own some tubes at some point; otherwise they miss out. Like Louis Armstrong said, ‘There are some people that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.'” Originally Published