Why does 100-year-old tube technology still turn audiophiles on?

Audiophiles love affair with tube amps -- still crazy after all these years?

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Audio Research VSi75 stereo amplifier Audio Research

This past Wednesday I wrote about electric guitarists and their never-ending love affair with tube amplifiers. The technology dates back to the first decade of the 20th century, and tubes were integral to the development of radio, television, home/professional audio, radar, telephone networks, medical test instruments, and early computers! The transistor was invented in the late 1940s, but widespread use was only reached in the mid-1960s. Transistors nearly obliterated the tube home audio market in the '70s, but audiophiles and guitar players never gave up on tubes. Tube gear sounds different, it's richer, warmer, more full-bodied than transistor models. Those amps are, for the same output power smaller, lighter, cooler running, and cheaper than tube amps. Even so, the popularity of tube amps remains strong.

A properly designed transistor amp will always measure better than the best tube amp, so transistors are definitely more "accurate." I accept that, but instruments and voices sound more like themselves with tube electronics; life is full of mysteries and some things can't be easily explained. We like what we like.

I'm definitely not claiming that tube hi-fis always sound better than transistor gear, that's far from true. Matching tube amps with simpatico speakers is required to get the best sound, transistor amps are less finicky about speaker matching.

Vintage transistor gear doesn't hold its value as well as choice tube stuff, and old CD, DVD, Blu-ray players and digital amps are, with rare exceptions, almost worthless. Nothing gets old faster than new technology, a five year old AV receiver is already out of date, but a well preserved 30 year old tube amp can still fetch a high price on the used market.

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Bravo Audio V2 headphone amp Bravo Audio

A lot of audiophile tube gear is expensive, but there's no shortage of affordable tube amps to choose from. The Bravo Audio V2 tube headphone amp sells for around $55, it's currently out of stock, but I hope to get it in for review soon. I reviewed the still-available Jolida FX10 stereo integrated amp a few years ago, and it now sells for around $600.

American made tube amps from Audio Research, Cary Audio, Conrad-Johnson, Decware, Manley Labs, McIntosh, Rogue Audio, VTL, and Woo Audio are sought after here and in the global audiophile market.

Do you own a tube amp? Tell us all about it in the comments.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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