Where The `Tube Guys' Hunt For Sweet Sound

"You'll find that a lot of the hard-core guys in this are bachelors. I mean, what woman would put up with all the junk?"

--Charlie Kittleson, editor, Vacuum Tube Valley

It's early Saturday morning and an El Nino storm has been soaking Silicon Valley for eight days straight. Still, a few cars are pulling into the soggy Foothill College parking lot in Los Altos, their drivers peering inside parked vehicles. A hatless man in a saturated down jacket jumps out of an old, rusty Chevy truck with Utah plates. The name's Marvin Match, he good-naturedly explains, eyes invisible behind dripping glasses, gray hair plastered to his head. He has driven from Salt Lake City for the Vacuum Tube Enthusiasts Weekend, and he's crestfallen that its first event, a swap meet for vintage amplifiers and other analog audio equipment, looks like a washout.

But gradually a few more tube guys arrive. They surround Greg Morgan's tiny Ford. "Solid-state people have this belief that you need a lot of wattage," says Morgan, 27, in the scornful tone that vacuum-tube lovers reserve for those who listen to digital, solid-state audio gear. "My belief is if the first watt is horrendous, why would you want 299 more?" Two characters listening through the window nod agreement.

I'm the only woman around, and that's not unusual for this quarterly swap meet, regardless of the weather. But the tube crowd is definitely getting younger--and bigger, as the old guard of aging ham radio operators and professional musicians is joined by more and more audiophiles embracing both new and vintage tube-based gear. It's a worldwide phenomenon, but ironically, Silicon Valley, the land of solid-state integrated circuits, is a fierce tube stronghold. "I was looking for a 12AX7 Mullard," laments Will Francis, 26, a computer systems engineer, referring to the long-discontinued tube that goes in his vintage stereo amplifier. He looks like a skateboarder, with his backwards baseball cap and Gen-X togs. Meanwhile, Greg Glockner, 27, who has a PhD in applied math, describes a recent dreamy evening. "I got home, lit a fire, put Mendelssohn on, and lay back on the couch and read a software manual."

"Sounds kind of romantic," I say.

"No," he says quickly. "It was just me and the dog."

HOT TOPIC. Vacuum-tube technology was the first electronics revolution to sweep through these former fruit orchards. But it was an analog, not a digital, revolution that flowered in 1911, when Lee DeForest, a scientist in a Palo Alto Federal Telegraph Co. laboratory, hooked up a "vacuum tube" to some phone equipment and a loudspeaker and produced electronically amplified sound. DeForest's invention was dubbed a "triode," because it has three parts: two electrodes (one of them heated) and a tiny grid between them. The grid acts as an amplifier but works only in a vacuum. The internal heat generated (up to 2,000F for large radio transmitters) gives the tubes their mesmerizing glow.

Vacuum tubes helped win both wars and propelled the nascent radio and television broadcasting industries, the recording industry, live music amplifying, ham radio, and, eventually, hi-fi. Hundreds of companies sprang up to make tubes and tube-based gear, including RCA, Sylvania, and General Electric. By the 1950s, "the tube business was chaos. It was like the Internet today. Everybody wanted to be in it," Eric Barbour, 40, a vacuum-tube historian and electrical engineer with Svetlana Electron Devices Inc., told me in an interview before the meet.

When the transistor was invented in 1947, it threatened to end the tube era. There's no question that compared with transistor chips, tubes were large, consumed lots of power, ran hot, blew out, and were sometimes unreliable (although tube guys say solid-state marketers exaggerated their fragility). There's no question chips make better computers: The famous ENIAC computer, which calculated nuclear weapons simulations in the '40s, held 17,468 tubes, required a staff of technicians to maintain it, and was less powerful than today's calculators.

ANTIQUES. But from the moment transistors appeared, audiophiles rebelled. "Solid state is harsh and sounds processed," insists Sandy Meltzer, a ham radio operator from Cupertino, Calif., huddling under an umbrella at the swap meet. Today, about 80% of the $100 million audio tube and equipment industry represents sales to professional musicians and recording studios. The rest of the business is split between new high-end consumer audio equipment from brands such as Jadis, WAVAC, and VTL, and replacement tubes for venerable brands such as McIntosh and Heathkit. Most new tubes today come from Russia, China, and the Czech Republic. U.S. manufacturers stopped making tubes in the 1970s, though several companies have recently started up again, including Atlanta-based Westrex Corp. Rare, vintage tubes can fetch as much as $1,500 apiece.

Are they worth that much? "We call it the golden tone," Charlie Kittleson, editor of Vacuum Tube Valley, told me when I visited him prior to the meet. "You can close your eyes and imagine the instruments. The sound is rich and magical and musical." These emotional, even flowery references to music quality and tube workings that pepper tube guys' otherwise nerdy discussions of circuitry and distortion are common--and a little jarring. Imagine Charles Bronson talking about his inner child.

Vacuum Tube Valley is headquartered in two rooms in the heart of Silicon Valley, across the street from the Sunnyvale headquarters of Advanced Micro Devices Inc. It's a rat's nest of tubes, wires, oscillators, soldering irons, vintage amplifiers, antique radio manuals, and even the very first television tube, which resembles an all-glass saucepan. Issues of VTV are a quirky cross between engineering specs and The Wine Spectator: "Glorious, involving, and well-balanced with very smooth highs," Kittleson writes about the 1973 Amperex 7308 version of a 6DJ8 tube. Of course, staff editor Barbour warns in a recent column, "if you get some kind of idea that listening to different tubes for VTV is a load of monkeys, think again. We sit there for hours, doing the same things over and over.... [P]lug in tube, wait for warmup, hit mute switch, hit pause...take notes, hit pause...remove tube, repeat." VTV has 1,500 subscribers but sells twice that on music store racks.

At the swap meet, electrical engineer David Renshaw, 30, and I take refuge from the rain in his car. He lights up at the mention of tubes. "It's like science and voodoo and art," he says. "They're the history of electronics, and they're warm and glowing and appealing."

Evan Aurand is an electrical engineer trained at the University of California at Berkeley, a guitarist, and a vacuum-tube equipment aficionado whose wife has banished him to the garage. Little wonder he goes to these events without her. "She hates this stuff," he says. "It's firewood and old bottles to her." Aurand has no fewer than 16 vintage tube stereo amplifiers. "We're not Luddites," Aurand says, grinning. "I love and work with computer technology every day. I use tubes because they sound better."

Tube guys here have an offbeat sense of humor. They wear T-shirts pronouncing themselves "Analog Retentive." Kittleson's van has a bumper sticker reading "Use a transistor, go to jail." Newsletters for tube clubs are sprouting, and the World Wide Web has united tube enthusiasts the world over. As newbies arrive, of course, the old guard gets rankled. "Some of these guys writing magazine articles now have never even picked up a soldering iron," grouses San Jose engineer John Atwood.


The biggest devotees of all, says Kittleson: Japanese collectors who sometimes set up theater-size speakers in tiny apartments packed with tube-driven amplifiers. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a Japa-nese tube-based amplifier using vintage American tubes and wires of pure silver was on display. The price tag: $89,000. "They've bought most of our good stuff and laugh that we've got the digital stuff they make," a tube guy tells me.

As Marvin Match prepares to pack up and leave what has become a swamp meet, some tube guys make plans to meet at tomorrow's "tube school," an introductory course for enthusiasts. "You can talk to me some more. I have nowhere to go," Match says. But I've got an article to write. Time to go home and fire up the old soldering iron.

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