The art of tube amplifier design

To the audiophile's eye some tube amplifiers are art of the highest sort.

Steve Guttenberg
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 Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
The Block amplifier Przemek Szuba

Some high-end audio designers see themselves as artists. They might invest years of their life into perfecting an audio circuit or devising a turntable that's immune to disturbance from external vibrations from people dancing nearby. I'm fascinated by the sort of people who advance the art of audio design, but I'm also intrigued by designers exploring the aesthetic of high-end audio.

Case in point: Mateusz Glówka's Block tube amp; I think it's a stunning industrial design. The stainless steel tube amp is a functioning prototype, but may eventually be put in limited production. Glówka is a graduate of the Industrial Design department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland.

Viva Audio is a real high-end company, and they make beautiful amplifiers. I reviewed the Viva Solista MkII integrated amplifier for Home Entertainment magazine a few years ago, and living with that incredible work of art for a few weeks was a pure pleasure.

The amplifier's flowing lines and voluptuous shape couldn't be from anywhere but Italy. It is, and all Viva products are entirely hand-crafted in Vicenza. The chassis' undulating curves and exquisitely machined knobs show this is no ordinary high-end amplifier. While listening to my favorite tunes, it became clear the Solista MkII was designed to preserve, above all else, the essence of music's soul.

Viva's founder Amedeo Schembri is something of a perfectionist; he's an engineer who flat-out refuses to compromise his designs. For example, instead of using printed circuit boards, the Solista MkII's innards are entirely hand-wired and soldered. Schembri makes the effort because he thinks wired amplifiers sound better than ones with printed circuit boards.

Amplifier design is his art, and before founding Viva in 1996, Schembri designed and built gear for recording studios and concert sound systems. In those days he designed solid-state electronics, but he now works exclusively with vacuum tubes. He knows what solid-state can do, and that it can't approach the musicality of tube designs.

The Viva Solista MkII integrated amplifier Wes Bender