Buying Hi-Fi : Should you consider tubes?
If you've checked out my advice page, you'll know that there're a lot of lovers of 'glass audio'. Even Hansen, originally a big McCormack fan, has moved up to a Conrad Johnson Premier tube amp. Personally, I wouldn't mind a CJ amp myself if I had the $$$ :)
The question I deal with here is: should you consider getting a tube amp.
You can also read the bottom line at the end for a quick summary.
Lets go through the commonly asked questions point by point:
High heat will cause thermal degradation of parts. You should operate your tube amp in an air-con room. But still, a piece of equipment that runs hot should wear out/ break down faster than a piece of equipment that runs cool. This doesn't mean that the equipment is lousy, as all parts eventually wear out, the only question is when.
By the way, I've never heard CJ amps in the Kingsley showroom hum or buzz.
At least the buzz is only at the transformer and doesn't go down the cables to the speakers. I've heard some 'home-made' amps exhibit quite amazing transformer buzz that could clearly be heard on the speakers. The shopkeeper explained that it was because the speakers were unusually sensitive... Well anyway, I'm not saying that all tube amps buzz or hum. Certainly, those with cheap transformers (the major part of the cost of a tube amp) are high-risk.
Warning: If an amp is silent in the showroom, it may still hum or buzz in your house and vice-versa. Ask the shopkeeper what happens if you bring home the amp and it buzzes really loudly.
Price & Performance
I have not found a cheap tube amp that I like. Personally, they all sound quite opaque to me (let the flames begin....).
However, tube amps are easily upgradeable. You can do a 1-1 swap for a silver wound transformer, purchase some incredibly expensive capacitors etc. So, I can still recommend tube amps to people willing to do this. But bottom line is that you've got to be interested in doing all these things. You'll probably start out with a cheap $1-2k amp and end up spending $5k. But all the upgrading is part of the fun eh?
Can emotion compensate for
Actually, only the Single-ended triode amps exhibit this 'emotion' thing very well. I agree that it is very appealing for certain types of music (and you can think 'It can only get better as I upgrade the parts'). The budget SET amps (under $2.5k?) are a 'niche' thing, and if you listen to female vocals etc, it can be recommended. But note that on points, solid state amps still run them over.
As for push-pull, ultralinear and other non-SET tube amps. At the budget level forget it. They don't have the advantages of SET, so they just end up sounding like inadequate solid state amps. If you need more watts than SET at the budget level, buy a solid state amp. At this price level, you want emotion+power? No way. Upgrading non-SET tube amps is more tricky (you may be amazed at how simple a SET circuit is); make inquiries with your dealer.
Audio 88 which sells cute little 'Houston' tube amps, takes photographs of customers' hi-fi rooms and displays them proudly (State of the Art, perhaps with a richer and more privacy-conscious clientele, also has photos but they're kept in an album for show to those who ask). When I look at the mass of cables all over the floor in some of them, I wonder what the wife thinks. When hubby bought that cute gold coloured tube amp she probably thought it was so cute and he can just place it discreetly on a shelf somewhere. He didn't mention that it would have to be placed on the floor and they would be connected to interconnects, speaker cables, and a power cord each the diameter of a garden hose.
Just because you buy a tube amp... it doesn't mean you're going to have wife-pleasing aesthetics. Its what you do to the rest of the room. :)
Tube Amps that impressed me:
High on the
Gives Krell/Mark-Levinson a run for their money.
Incredibly low Singapore price and recommended
by ST of Stereophile (who also recommended the X-10D so....)
Are there notable omissions? Some of them I haven't auditioned that carefully, some I'm not impressed with. Some may say that I'm too hard on tube amps, but I believe that the burden of proof is on them because of the attendant hassles that come with ownership:
Prove that the tube amp is better than an equivalent solid state amp. If their sound quality is about the same, there's no (sonic) reason why I should buy a tube amp over the solid state amp.
Of course, the lure of glowing glass is sometimes irresistible. I know... its only $$$ thats holding me back. If I could find an inexpensive tube amp that sounds as transparent as my McCormack I'd buy it in a heartbeat. But I realise that I have to spend quite a bit more than what I paid for my McCormack. Just ask Hansen and his CJ Premier amp :)