The best EL34 is Yugo 6CA7 fat bottles. I used to purchase them $8/piece from ebay almost 10 years ago.
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The price on Gold Lion reissue KT 77 quads was $180, plus tax and shipping, when I bought mine. They were a substantial improvement on the Groove Tube Mullard EL 34 reissues I had bought previously. I've used EH EL34's and Winged "C". The Mullards and Gold Lions were better.
If you want to go up to the Shuguang Treasures, they are quite a bit more expensive (you probably already know this). I would contact Brent Jesse or Andy at Antique Sound Labs, they are in the know, and will treat you right. Jim McShane is good also.
The Winged C is a good choice and a definite upgrade from the three you've already tried. The Gold Lions are great tubes, but make sure they're compatible. KT-77's, KT-66's, and some 6CA7's are 7-pin tubes (originally 6CA7 was the American designation for the EL34, but a true separate tube was eventually developed as another beam tetrode). I really like the GL reissues, but I have one ST-70 that works fine with them and another modified one that's not compatible. Both the KT-77's and 66's are worth a shot.
The Shuguang Treasure 6CA7-Z's are even better, but they'll really set you back. I'm currently using these, and I even think they sound better than some of the NOS tubes I have or have used, but they'll pretty much set you back more than anything other than the really heavy hitter NOS tubes (Mullards, original Genalex, etc.).
I would strongly suggest NOS Siemens. Upscale Audio has them for $220 a quad, but you can find them for less. I actually have three quads of these that I'm not currently using if you'd like to try them.
Out of all the options and your stated price point, I'd suggest either the Gold Lions or the Siemens.
Good recommendations here. At the lower end of the price scale the SED Winged Cs are excellent. The Gold Lion KT77s I bought from Jim McShane were rock solid and sounded wonderful and I also really liked the NOS Siemens like the ones Upscale Audio is selling. The Siemens were made by RFT in East Germany and rebranded by Siemens but they're wonderful tubes.
Sfar is correct about the "Siemens" EL34's. Of the three sets I have, they're branded Siemens, RFT, and National, but they're all exactly the same. I definitely should have called them RFT's to be more accurate. Upscale does have the tubes branded Siemens, but these and most other German EL34's of this era (including Telefunken) were all made by RFT. Regardless of the branding, I do feel that they're excellent EL34's.
Thanks for bringing up the Shuguang Treasures, you are correct that it is out of my price range here in the US. I travel to China/Asia usually at least once a year and believe they can be found for less than half of the US price. If they are significantly better than the Winged Cs, gold lions, and siemens I'd be willing to wait as I'm planning to be in Hong Kong and China this summer. Also thanks for the offer to demo the Siemens, I may take you up on it if my asia trip falls through.
Lastly, I was under the impression that all EL34 tubes were compatible, apparently they are not, so how would I determine which ones work with my amp?
I have used the New Sensor Svetlana EL34, Tung Sol EL34B, Siemans EL34, and the Gold Lion KT77s. Comparing these to the SED EL34s (original pre New Sensor Svetlanas) I chose to return to the SED. The best of the others were the GL K77. The KT77 had better bass extension and drive, but lost the three dimensional soundstage that I enjoyed with the SED tubes. I found them to have a wide and flat soundstage in my system at that time. The Siemans were inherited and I have no idea how many hours they had on them, though they tested OK on my Hickock Cardmatic.
Ok, for whatever reason I decided to just ask Jolida. They suggest EL34, 6CA7, or KT77. You can actually switch out some resistors to use KT88's if you want (I wouldn't want to, but some might). I didn't find out about the KT-66, but more than likely there's enough play in the biasing to work with those too.
I liked the GL KT77 the best of the small number of tubes I tried in my Jolida...JJ 34, EH6CA7, Svetlana 34(stock tube).
However you need to specify high biasing tubes with the GL 77's...the first set I received didn't come up to bias @ maximum travel of the trimpots.
And I would also suggest slightly under-biasing them.
I hear good things about the GL 66's, but have yet to try them.
Mesa Boogie, the guitar amplifier company, has a cache of NOS Siemens EL34 that are offered as matched pairs on their web site store, directly, $150/pr. These are re-labled Mesa STR-450 tubes, after surviving stringent testing on Mesa's proprietary tube tester. They are well worth the price for any EL34 amp, and will improve upon any current production EL34. The supply is fixed and won't last forever, but guitar players are mostly cheapskates about this sort of thing, so these tubes are around for now.
you guys beat me to the next, I'm going to open another forum to ask about the preamp stage tubes
As there quite a few EL34 users here, are most EL34s created equally in terms of life? What's the typical life in hours for the EL34s, as I'd like to know how many extras to buy should I find the perfect match.
Also, do new tubes have a burn in time, before they are optimized, like interconnects?
There's already a highly active pre-tube discussion thread called "12ax7 vs 5751". I think you'll find it a highly active forum for pre-tube advice. Enjoy yourself. Generally many EL34's last for about the same amount of time. Some are significantly less reliable (current production Tesla/JJ seem to have a high failure rate). Most have found that many NOS tubes seem to last much longer (well maintained Mullards seem to last forever). In my guitar playing days, I found that Mullards, RCAs, RFT's, and pre-Sensor Svetlanas all seemed to last longer than JJ, EH, or Sovtek. These are just my findings. I haven't lived with the Treasures long enough to comment on their lifespan.
And yes tubes definitely have a burn in time. Even if you don't believe the sound changes, they definitely take a while before the bias will settle down. I find the better tubes tend to take a little longer to settle down.
Jim is a big fan of current production Russian tubes. If he is saying the fat bottle 6CA7 I like them too, in some circuits, I am curently using them and I don't usually like Russian tubes other than Gold Lion. I am kind of surprised he didn't say go with Gold Lions whivh he usually likes. He also frequently recommends a 6L6 types tube from Russia with a designation that I allways forget something like 6P-3se?
The tube that Jim recommends is 6n3c-e also goes under the 6p3s-e designation. I have these tubes currently in my Primaluna Dialogue 1 and they have made a huge, huge, upgrade in sound. Soon, I am going to place 12 of these baby's in my Cary v12. Only $65.00 a matched Quad. They are silly good NOS. Read Jeff Days blog about them, they really do beat the pants off most any other similar tube out there. I basically bought a lifetime supply.
I'm also ready to pull the trigger on some of those 6p3s-3 tu bes from Jim Mcshane as well. I'm currently using Genelex Kt66 reissues in my JWN amp and they sound pretty darn good, and I'm a little concerned about them being too similar sounding. Has anyone compared the two? I can also use KT88's and just wondering if I should use the money towards a quad of Penta kt88's instead. The Treasures are too pricey for my blood.
I understand these tubes are beginning to get scarce...so, I wouldn't delay too long. I think I have to buy a few more sets myself since I like them in my Cary and Primaluna better than the EL34s, KT88s. I know I am going to get a Leben very soon and they sound even better in that integrated amp.
Mikirob, Jim's amps are IMO one of the best values in audio. Send him an email, tell him what you are looking for, and he will give you a price. You will be very surprised at how reasonable and affordable his amps are. For example, I only paid $1500 for my 8 EL34 amp, (minus the cost of the 8 output tubes). It weighs 85 lbs., is overbuilt like a tank, and sounds simply divine, with an estimated output of 100 tube watts per channel. It's driving Dali Helicon 400's.