Photograph by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash
Culture Music

School of tubeism: the irresistible hook of vintage amp tubes

You can look at this as prelude to this weekend’s November Hi Fi Show
Iñigo S. Roces | Nov 09 2018

Today’s gadgets and devices are growing smaller each year thanks to the transistor, a simple device that has become the fundamental building block of modern electronic devices. Introduced in the early 1950s, the transistor revolutionized the field of electronics, allowing the development of smaller and cheaper radios, calculators, and computers.

However, some argue that the transistor changed the way music sounds, possibly for the worse. Those who yearn for the purer sound of the early days have turned to the transistor’s predecessor, the vacuum tube.

Used for processing or creating electrical signals, the vacuum tube was critical to the development of early electronic technology. It paved the way for the expansion and commercialization of radio communication and broadcasting, television, radar, and sound reproduction.

Derived from the resisting property of incandescent light bulbs, vacuum tubes were created to regulate the flow of electricity, amplifying the frequency of an electric signal. This was necessary to amplify the minute vibrations picked up by the needle of a turntable running through the groove of a vinyl record.

All of this occurs within the vacuum tube amplifier which sends the processed signal to the speakers to create music. Tube amplification was widely used in the ‘60s and ‘70s until the invention of the cheaper and more compact transistor slowly replaced it in electronic applications.

While transistor amplifiers (frequently referred to as solid state) serve the same purpose when amplifying near their peak capacity, they typically create distortion. Vacuum tubes under the same stress conditions saturate more gradually and create a distortion that is more pleasant to the ear. Today, tube systems are experiencing a resurgence, particularly in the field of hi-fi audio. Many companies now reproduce early tube designs, while some audiophiles search attics, swap meets, stores, and the Internet for vintage units to restore to their former glory.

Allen McGregor from Brampton, Canada via Wikimedia Commons

Lito Gelano, owner of Audiolite Systems helps explain the appeal of tube audio to the uninitiated. “Vintage tube sound may be euphonic or colored, as they say. Tube systems are mostly more musical than solid state designs which, in general, are metallic, thin, and boring sounding.”

Much of the yearning stems from an early childhood experience, similar to Lito’s. “I heard these working and sounding great at the homes of friends’ parents. The sound remains, and when opportunity comes, one grabs these and many come from nooks and garages.”

Like Lito, many others were captivated by the sound and warm glow of the tube when in operation, spurring its popularity today. “Tube systems have made a big comeback. This has been the case since the ‘80s and so many tube factories have sprouted.”

Yet, much like vintage car restoration, some still prefer to restore older units as opposed to buying new reproductions or entirely modern tube systems. “Many tube units from the ‘60s are similarly good as newer ones. The current stocks of tube units are basically of high sonic quality; in other words, good vintage units are equal to the best current designs,” Lito says.

Of course, one key aspect of the hobby is modifying the classic system with a variety of tubes from different brands and regions. “Many audiophiles do what is known as ‘tube rolling,’ where one keeps changing the tubes and listening to the resulting sound. Usually, he is accompanied by friends to decide the better sound and install them until other tubes are available. Different tube brands sound different. It’s easy to improve the sound by using more desired tubes.”

Quite often, these tubes are “new-old stock” or stockpiles of tubes kept in warehouses for years. “Most of the popular tubes are very much available,” Lito reassures. Opening up a tube amplifier to repair or tweak it is almost always necessary, yet Lito insists that the hobby is accessible even to those who aren’t very technically inclined.

“It’s helpful to know electronics. Some audiophiles dwell on the circuit characteristics, but in general, listeners rely on technicians to help them choose and care for their audio gear. It’s not necessary to know technicalities. Basic facts such as impedance matching of the amplifier with the speaker should be learned. Other technicalities are available from manuals. A good technician to back you up is all you need.”

Appreciating tube amps doesn’t necessarily require a turntable or a stack of vinyl records. “You can hook it up to a CD player and still get that sound. What’s important is that the processing is done by a tube amp,” explains Rene Rivo, a technician specializing in tube amps and the proprietor of Hyperaudio.

Known for repairing and modifying tube amps, Rene is a firm believer in the quality of vintage systems. “I’ve never heard a vintage tube that sounds bad,” he relates. Those keen on making the switch should set aside PHP 60-70,000, he says. A vintage amplifier, of course, is preferable. “If it’s still repairable, by all means, repair,” Lito advises. “Unbelievably, when these are played, behold, they are great!”

 

This weekend, November 10 and 11, at the Dusit Hotel in Makati, the largest gathering of audiophiles and top of the line audio systems in the country will take place via the November Hi-Fi Show. Entrance is free. For more info on the event, look for November Hi Fi Show on Facebook.