suggest an integrated and that you avoid chinese made brands. go for a push pull design of around 50 watts a side...that way you have many speaker choices except electrostats. look for a tube design that doesn't have a tube "forest" the less tubes you have the easier to maintain although mainstream tubes are being manufactured and not too expensive. some quality brands are American: Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson and Cary. Generally speaking you get a 3D soundstage and tonal purity that are tough for SS to present unless you spend some big money and then you still get a SS sound.
I can't point you to a primer on tubes. A good way to start learning would be to read reviews of tube amps, preamps and integrateds, and do searches here and at Audio Asylum for topics of interest.
Tubes require a little more attention than solid state but the amount varies from very little to a lot.
IMHO, a good choice for your first tube component is a PrimaLuna Prologue II or Dialogue II integrated amp.
These integrateds are very well built and have many great reviews.
In the preamp section they use 12AX7 and 12AU7 tubes. These are among the most common small signal tubes and there is a great variety of them that you can "roll" (change) to tune the sound of your integrated.
For the power tube section they have adaptive autobias. Biasing tubes is probably the hardest aspect of tubes for a newcomer to get comfortable with.
PrimaLuna does it for you continuously so you never have to bias, you don't need matched tubes and the tubes are run in their sweet spot so they last longer. In a pinch you can even run different tube types (KT88s with KT66s for instance).
Also the PrimaLunas are built so that they can use a variety of power tubes. You can read about this in the reviews.
So that's why I think the PrimaLunas are a good place to start. Reselling shouldn't be a problem if you find you don't like the PrimaLunas or tubes in general.
Good Luck and have fun!
Assuming that your speakers are compatible with tube amps, and many are not, I would start with something both reliable and easy to play with.
Depending on your expectations, getting good sounding tube based audio systems can be seen as a black art. Because of the ability to simply change tube brands/types to get a different tone you have unlocked not only the possibility to get the sound you want without continually changing amps/pre-amps/sources, etc, to do so, but unfortunately, a Pandora's box if you are too ambitious in the beginning. You must also have or develope a frame of reference for the sound quality you are seeking. I would NOT start out with tubed separates even though they may have greater potential in the long run.
Personally, if they were compatible with my speakers, I would start out with an integrated unit. You won't loose that much quality in comparison with separates (more flexibility, potential improvement in sonic quality, build quality, in system building, but also with all of the added interface issues and costs).
A Primaluna integrated would be a good place to begin. They are very reliable, very easy to maintain, very easy to change tubes, not too expensive, and very easy to resell if or when you want to move on. Don't get caught up in that anti-Chinese stuff. The are great place to START.
If all you want to do is buy good plug and play tubed stuff this is a good place to start and probably finish.
Hope that helps a tad, at least.
Need more info on your system, tastes and budget before an informed answer can be given.
What speakers do you have?
What amp/preamp do you currently have?
What size room?
How loud do you listen to your music?
What kind of music do you listen to?
How important is bass to you?
What musical traits are you looking for?
Is this a dedicated 2 channel system or will you also use this for home theater?
What source do you use?
What is your budget?
I will say that the tube maintenance issue is generally overblown and should not deter the majority of interested people from checking out tube gear.
Tube gear does span the spectrum from tonally colored to incredibly transparent and everything in between.
Get back to us with some of the above and I think the tube equipment afficianados on the board should be able to provide some good recommendations.
I would absolutely encourage you to explore chinese brands. Make sure you buy from an established and reliable us dealer(assuming your in us). Also dont rule out used equipment there are many great bargains right here on the gon.
Start with the power requirement of your speakers this will help you determine the best topology to persue for your power amp. read read read. A good resource is upscale audio for new equipment,they can give you good guidance for getting started and can accommodate a variety of budgets as well as reasonable prices on tubes for equipment you have bought from them.
frankly I would start with tube friendly (high impedance easy to drive) speakers
then look for the proper amp
So, what is it about the date 12/27 that gets you going about tubes?http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?eanlg&1261926156
A U.S. built integrated - Rogue Audio Cronus - base model using EL34s 55wpc, or Magnum model ($400 more) 90wpc - using KT 90s - easy to bias, musical, well built, excellent customer service. Also, with socket savers you can use KT 88s or KT120s
Set for 8 ohm speakers but you can switch a wire to convert to 4ohm.
not sure. i remembered embarking on this journey once before, thinking then that i'd be able to narrow it down based on suggestion but learned that it's not that easy, which is why this thread, I hope, will teach me how to fish instead of tell me which fish to buy. I'd like to do the research I just need to know what the right place is to gain an understanding of equipment requirements/relationships so I can get started. Or... it could be the post Christmas time off... either way, I am already being educated.
For people to provide reasonable suggestions they need to know at lease your speakers,room size,listening volumes, music genre and price range.
Is there a high end shop in your area? If so, set up an appointment. Listening and hands on is the best way to introduce yourself and your local dealer is probably the only way to accomplish this. If you mention what state you live in, people might be able to suggest some shops.
With respect to valves, I found/find it reassuring to obtain product from the same manufacturer as I believe critical engineering parameters should have been characterized as an element of the design gestalt.
Of course, this is not fail safe...it may not be consonant with one's preference for sound!
I second the "embrace Chinese designs" suggestion...I've seen (and currently use) some extremely well made stuff from our Chinese brothers.
AMC separates, or their integrated, would be a great place to start.
If you REALLY want to get to know tube gear (and are really patient), build a ST-70. If you get one of Bob Latino's kits you'd get the experience of building a tube amp, and you'd have a good sounding amp that's switchable between triode and pentode operation. You can manage it as long as you have a reasonably steady hand and can be patient.
If you don't have the time or patience for that, you could start with a book like "Beginner's guide to Tube Audio Design" by Bruce Rozenblit. You have to keep in mind that there's some opinion in the book, but it's a solid introduction into some tube concepts/terminology. It would certainly bring your knowledge base up to speed.
As far as the integrated vs separates question, it really comes down to personal preference. Separates usually disperse heat better (and you can replace the power amp without having to replace the preamp as well). Integrated amps completely eliminate the interconnect between the power and pre; that's better than any interconnect you can find. There's also an issue of components interfering with each other in an integrated. This is part of why some separates have power supplies housed in a separate chassis.
lots of good advice here. Something to consider is the inevitable retubing of a tube amp or preamp. I'll add that you want to find an amp that doesn't run the tubes excessively hard so you keep your retubing expenses reasonable if economics are important. Some designs may sound fantastic but tube lifespan can be quite short. I've owned both kinds:) Good luck & enjoy!
I appreciate the comments and equipment suggestions, what about reading material to get up to speed on tube equipment. One suggestion is "Beginner's guide to Tube Audio Design" (Thanks Jazzerdave), are there any others or internet resources available?