I went from tubes- Conrad Johnson then to Rogue Audio then to Pass Labs. Zero regrets. Been listening through Pass gear for maybe 7 or 8 years now and I have no desire to use tubes again-
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Yeah, I went back, and it was a mistake. My first truly high end amp was the wonderful McCormack DNA-1. Good as it was, it wasn't quite as good as the Aronov integrated, so out it went. Which btw this was also when I realized tube watts are greater than SS watts, because the 60 wpc Aronov sounded every bit as powerful as the 150 wpc McCormack.
After 10 years or so though when the Aronov started blowing fuses I started thinking maybe it would be nice not having an amp you have to keep replacing tubes. I tried something, forget what it was, some SS integrated Class A type amp. Nothing but problems! More problems than tubes! Which at least with tubes they sound so good its worth putting up with a few problems. With SS though its always something. Not problems, usually they are totally reliable. Problems with the way they sound. There just aren't any that can hold a candle to a good tube amp.
So out went the SS and this time in went the Melody I880 another 50 wpc integrated. I'd almost forgotten what a good tube amp sounds like! Not quite as awesome bass control or deep liquid stage as the Aronov, but awful close, and with a normal stepped attenuator and way more reliable it has given me zero troubles in nearly a dozen years now.
Would I ever go back again? Never say never but in this case probably no, never.
Last year I changed my power amp from a 300B-based VAC Renaissance 70/70 MkIII I had been using for several years to a Pass XA25, and I have no regrets at all.
While they sound somewhat different, of course, the Pass comes remarkably close to the VAC with respect to dimensionality, imaging, liquidity, and other traditional fortes of high quality tube amps. It’s a bit less rich sounding than the VAC, but I interpret that as an increase in accuracy, which is fine as far as I am concerned.
I should add, though, that my speakers (Daedalus Ulysses) have an unusually flat and benign impedance curve, as well as 97.5 db efficiency and high power handling capability, which makes them more versatile than most speakers with respect to amplifier selection.
Also, some non-sonic factors contributed to my decision, including the likelihood of greater reliability in the years ahead with the Pass considering that the VAC was close to 20 years old; the fact that even though both amps operate in class A the XA25 puts only 240 watts of heat into the room compared to what I believe is upwards of 700 watts for the VAC; and the cost that would be involved in re-tubing the VAC’s eight 300Bs if and when that were to become necessary.
Had all tubes for 20+ years. I love tubes but got sick of replacing them. The old stock tubes are rare as well as priced out of this world now, & although the new ones were getting much better, they still didn’t match the old stock from the 50’s 60’s & to a lesser extent, the 70’s. Anyway, went from a SET tube amp (6550 Jeff Korneff / an absolutely wonderful amp) to a Single ended SS (Valvet monoblocks). The Valvets added some detail on top without being at all abrasive while keeping the majority of the mid range beauty. Shortly thereafter, replaced a Sonic Frontiers phono amp for a new Audio Alchemy phono amp with the optional power supply. With that I got detail and a better soundstage. Then replaced the Sonic Frontiers preamp with a Jeff Rowland. The Rowland is in another class all together.
There are trade-offs with SS for sure. That said, I listen to more music now than I ever have in the past & am enjoying it more. Can’t say I’ll never go back though... Maybe the current tube manufacturers will figure out how to pull off the NOS sound quality. Could happen, I guess.
There are still some guys above ground who started with tubes 'cause that's all there was. My first amp was a Fisher X-100A integrated, a nice place to start. Moved on to an AR integrated (solid state, of course), then a Mac C26 pre amp and MC2100 power. In '71 Audio Research started the high end revolution, so it was onward and upward to an SP-3 and D51 & D75 bi-amping the original Magneplanar Tympani T-I. Been tubes ever since, with ss sometimes on dynamic woofers/subs.
I started with tubes when I was a kit, and literally pulled gear from dumpsters and rebuilt it because I had no money.
Friends on mine in high school were all like- 'when are you going to get into the space age?' as if all aerospace gear was somehow all transistor...
That eventually happened. But on my old Altec corner horns and also on my Fulton 80s the solid state was less fulfilling. So I gunned the solid state electronic crossover and the SWTP Tiger and went to all tubes.
Then I figured out how to do OTLs and I was toast. I did try some solid state amps- the Electron Kinergetics Eagle, BEL 101, Bryston, Pass Labs but none of them seemed to make bass right and the highs were less involving. So I'm still doing tubes...
I started with tubes when I was a kit
Dang. Always knew this day would come. AI?
literally pulled gear from dumpsters and rebuilt it because I had no money.
Seriously though, this story is right out of Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman!
See: He Fixes Radio's By Thinking
My first system was a Zenith portable (Victrola). This was 1958 so of course it was all tubes. Eventually I stopped using it when I was given the OK to use my father's system. Bozak B 103s, Stereo 70, HH Scott preamp and tuner. Rec o cut TT with a huge ESL arm. And the best part, an Ampex Tape machine also all tubes. Back then you could get prerecorded tapes of just about anything and boy did they sound good. In 1967 I built my first real system with a Dyna Stereo 70 and PAS 3X.
The only tube equipment I have owned since are a Marantz 7C preamp
and several ARC phono amps. From the Stereo 70 I made a huge jump to the FuzzLinear 700. Then I got into ESLs and my first ones, Acoustat Xs came with their own special high voltage tube amps. Trying to compare them with other amps is hard. They did what they were designed for very well. With the addition of sub woofers they were punchy enough. In 1982 I got a set of Krell KMA 100s and have only owned class A SS amps since. Regular tube amps just do not work well with ESLs. Now there is Atma-Sphere which I have not been able to hear yet but are certainly a consideration as ESL owners seem to be very happy with them.
From my experience, all of the 6SN7 tubes I've tried had hiss. Was using a Modwright LS-100 preamp. I wouldn't let my experience steer you from trying tubes. Tube gear has a sound all it's own and will draw you in. Listen for yourself. You may just love what you're hearing so much that you never even hear it if it's even there.
Over the last 30 years I’ve gone back and forth with tube and SS gear multiple times. VAC, Belles, McCormack, Modwright, Emotive, Pass, many others, and now LTA. The motivation for change was driven by the feeling of incompleteness, never reliability.
I owned an LS100. A nice unit, but a little noisy. Healthy tubes are not inherently noisy. It’s either the circuit or worn out tubes. My LTA pre uses 6sn7’s. Dead quiet. Blackest blacks. Choice comes down to personal preferences and budget.
Much of mid priced tube gear is colored or compromised at the frequency extremes, and much of similar priced SS gear is lifeless because it doesn’t breathe dynamically and is compromised by transitional odd order distortions which our ears are very sensitive to. Tube watts sound bigger because the higher distortions are the friendlier even order type so 2% THD isn’t too offending. .5% THD from an SS amp can sound very irritating.
To me the LTA gear sounds complete. Resolved, extended, and clean. That doesn’t mean sterile. Not at all. Sterile sounding gear, usually inexpensive utilizing high global feedback, might be the most unsatisfying of all. The unique David Berning design doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard. The best of both tube and SS sound at a reasonable price. My Ultralinear replaced a Pass XA30.8, which is a damn good amplifier. But the UL was just superior in the lower midrange while retaining excellent bass definition and dynamics. And the tubes are cheap and should last 10 years because they aren’t biased to the moon. Tube amps with a conventional output transformer tend to smear the sound with hysteresis, which is a lag in reaction to change of signal. This may actually sound pleasant, but it is not accurate, and ultimately unsatisfying. Atma-Sphere amps are also OTL and I’d like to try them sometime.
However, 20 watts is only 20 watts. Not a problem for my Daedalus speakers which are 96 dB sensitive. Many speakers aren’t anywhere near this sensitive despite their printed specifications. So choose wisely. The amp to speaker interaction may be the most important in the audio chain so it is best to consider them as a matched system, especially with tube amps. At my core I’m a tube guy because I can live with their sins more easily. At the highest levels the compromises are few, or maybe just fewer.
@tuckia08 Thats great info since I'm a newbie to tubes. How do you think the new CJ ET6 compares to the LTA? I've read/heard great things about CJs. Some people on Audiogon don't like the relay 'clicks' on the volume control of the LTA preamp. I'm not sure if that would bother me--but it might. When I turn on my system, I don't want to hear anything---but I want good quality.
Sorry I don’t have any insights on the ET6. Is it the entry level replacement for the ET3?
Yes, the better LTA preamps use audible relays (MZ3 and Microzotl Preamp) can’t say that this bothers me and I’ve owned mine for 10 months so far. There are sonic benefits to using discrete resistors compared to a conventional sweep pot. This can be heard comparing an MZ2 to an MZ3 for example, but there are many other differences too.
Of all components, it seems to me that the preamp would be the easiest to maximize because of its isolated position in the chain. But what I’ve heard all sounds different, and these differences are amplified downstream. I use a digital front end and still use a Preamp because it sounds better to me. Some of my DACs have digital domain VC, but overall I like what the LTA does, or doesn’t do. Other preamps I’ve had colored the sound too much and direct sounded better. This is another topic altogether. But if you want some tubes, the pre is a good place to start. Watch the output impedance. Low is better than high. The LTA preamps have outputs under 2 ohms and can drive long cables.
I’m not trying to sell anything. You should always try equipment out yourself. I just want to share an option that I found and am still excited about. Many of the tube weaknesses mentioned in this thread are effectively dealt with by the LTA products, provided you stay within the power limitations. But you can always buy two amps and run them mono for 1.7 times the output. This is what I’m doing.
I've had brief flings with SS but always settle on tubes. In fact at one point, though my Conrad Johnson amps have been generally very reliable, they blew a fuse or something. I got lazy about having them fixed and threw in a Harman Kardon solid state amp in to my system so I could keep listening to it. Over the months and the next year my listening dwindled rapidly to the point I was rarely sitting in front of my system to listen. I figured it was because I'd just lost fervent interest in high end audio and listening to music that way, so I thought it was time to start selling stuff. First up was selling my CJ amps.
But of course I had them fixed before I could sell them. Got them back from the shop, hooked them up to make sure they were working fine before putting them on the listings. And...BAM! there was that sound! That richness, organic, believable quality that just sucked me in. I spent much of the night listening to music. Then the next night. The next night. I found that my desire to listen to music through my system was back, big time. I realized I couldn't sell those amps and have been listening happily ever since.
I'm very sensitive to tone/timbral qualities in a system and if it isn't "there" for me I feel no desire to bother sitting to listen. So while the tube sound may be a subtle difference in the big picture, it's a subtle difference that turns out to be very subjectively important for me.
I have an audiophile pal who has gone back and fort between tubes and SS, usually for the "I like the tube sound but I'm sick of the hassles."He recently replaced his tube amps with a solid state amp and claims to be quite happy. Good for him, I say. What I don't tell him is my own reaction: I definitely find his system less enjoyable than before, with a slightly off-putting hardness/steeliness that wasn't there with his tube amps.
@tuckia08 The CJ ET6 does replace the ET3 I believe---at least that's what I've read. The LTA is slowly pulling me in. I have also glanced at Cary Audio's SLP98 and Rogue's RP5. But the LTA and CJ and #1 and 2 on the list. There are so many good opinions on here and I guess I'll have to take the dive soon. I won't know about tubes until I try it.
@prof That's a great story---I have found that many CJ owners are quite loyal to the brand. I've never owned anything in the audio world that's as hi-end as a CJ or LTA. The closest I've ever come to that was Canton speakers, Nakamichi and B & O back in the 80s. As I'm slowly upgrading my system, I'm hearing things I've never heard before---why did I wait so long?! It's great getting back into the music again.
From my experience, all of the 6SN7 tubes I've tried had hiss.They do, but you probably just had bad luck. We use 6SN7s in everything we make and no worries playing them on high sensitivity loudspeakers. My speakers at home are 97.5dB 1 watt/1 meter, and no hiss.
@prof I had the same experience when I tried to use an SUT instead of going direct-in on my phono setup. The SUT was certainly quiet, but I found myself not playing the stereo anymore. When I got the SUT out of the system, right away my interest came back.