Audiophiles Rediscover An Old Friend

The more things change, the saying goes, the more they stay the same. So it is in the world of high-end audio. After a decade in which enthusiasts spent ever larger sums of money on more powerful solid-state amplifiers, audiophiles are rediscovering the joy and simplicity of a device from a bygone age--the vacuum tube.

Given up for dead when transistors came on the scene in the 1960s, the quirky tube is once again being prized for its sonic virtues. Indeed, manufacturers of some of the leading solid-state brands, such as Threshold and Conrad-Johnson, are promoting their products' tube-like sound--one that is more lush, or romantic, than the crystalline tone of a transistorized device.

MONDO RETRO. Ironically, the tube renaissance began several years ago in Asia, home to the mass-market audio equipment that displaced many of the tube-dominated American components. Japanese stereophiles have been ardent buyers of such antique tube amps as the Marantz 9, driving the price up to $10,000--more than 12 times its original cost.

In the U.S., a cottage industry of amplifier makers such as Cary Audio and Valve Amplification Co. has sprung up in recent years to replicate tube designs dating as far back as the 1930s. Many of these amps are made from the finest quality parts hand-wired together. Another group of companies, led by Audio Research Corp., is mixing tubes and transistors in hybrid designs. Even do-it-yourselfers are dusting off their Dynacos and rebuilding them with modern parts.

Russia and China have become the leading sources of original and replacement tubes to meet the growing demand. Unlike in the U.S., the technology never died out in the former communist world--the Soviets continued to use tubes in their MiG fighter planes because they were not susceptible to radiation the way transistors are. "In the last two to three years, we've seen some higher quality tubes come onto the market," says Terry Dorn, head of marketing for Audio Research. "It has allowed manufacturers to once again explore all-tube circuit designs."

WELL-TEMPERED TONE. It may be more than coincidence that tubes are flourishing at the same time as digital audio. Some music lovers think that tubes in the amplification chain are necessary to soften the sometimes harsh sound produced by compact disk players.

What makers of tube equipment are seeking is a more natural sound. Audio engineers speculate that while all amplifiers distort to some degree, tubes do it in a manner more gradual--hence less offensive to the ear--than do transistors. "A good tube amp brings the music back with more life," says Kevin Hayes, president of Sarasota (Fla.)-based Valve Amplification. That might explain why electric guitarists--Eric Clapton among them--have long favored guitar amps with tubes inside.

There's more to it than just sonics. Modern tube amps are works of industrial art, with their glass bottles glowing yellowish orange in the dark. By contrast, today's solid-state amps are often imposing gray boxes with huge fans to dissipate heat in the back. "Very often a tube amp is an object of great aesthetic beauty," says Sam Tellig, contributing editor at Stereophile magazine.

MINT EDITIONS. But the beauty comes at a price. The best tube gear costs a small fortune, though no more than exotic transistor units. It is not uncommon to pay $4,000 and up for a quality amp. The esoteric Japanese-made Ongaku tube amp from Audio Note sells for $65,000, a price more akin to a starter house. More modest offerings are starting to appear. For example, a Cary subsidiary, Audio Electronic Supply, markets a tube amp kit for $700 and the same unit (Model SE-1) preassembled for $1,000. Quicksilver Audio has the GLA (Great Little Amp), which sells for $1,195.

There are some drawbacks. Tube equipment can be finicky or unsuited to speakers that need a lot of power to drive them. The tubes themselves need replacing every couple of years depending on use. And the same open-ended design that makes them appealing to audiophiles is a lure for the prying fingers of young children.

Yet the tube sound is not quickly forgotten. And in the 1990s, with a newfound appreciation of mellower performers such as Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand, what could be more retro than owning a piece of stereo equipment that not only enhances their sound but looks like something on which their original records could have been heard?

               SOME MODERN TUBE
      AUDIO RESEARCH LS7 Minimalist, all-tube design. $1,395
      JADIS JPL Stylish, French-made unit for CD replay only. $5,395
      QUICKSILVER GLA-75 Starter amp. $1,195
      McINTOSH MC275 Remake of a 30-year-old classic from company that is audio equivalent of Harley Davidson. $4,000
      CARY 955 All-in-one tube design based on chassis of Rotel 955 CD player. $700
      VAC DAC Digital processor that uses tubes and has separate power supply for better sound. $4,490
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