Need Help on Tube Rolling for VAC Avatar

Just bought my very first tube amp (integrated), VAC Avatar, a couple months ago and it has been great. Pairing with the Sonus Faber Grand Piano speakers and Rega Planet 2000 CD player, with Nordost Blue Heaven IC and bi-wired speaker cables, I'm quite happy with the current set up.

HOWEVER, like any other self respected 'goner here, I just can't stay status quo and am contemplating of experiment tube rolling, with hopes to explore even better sound (I know it gets very personal here). The problem is...I don't know where and how to start and would like to get some advice from you guys.

First off, here are the 3 sets of stock tubes (Chinese) that I have in the amp:
- 12AX7 x 2 (line stage)
- 12AU7 x 3 (power amp)
- EL34 x 4 (power amp)

Newbie Questions:
- for the most bang for the buck, which set should I try rolling first?
- any suggestions as to what brand gives you what type of sound relative to others? (e.g. Mullard gives you a lush sound and much warmer relative to RCA clear top?!?)
- before I have to spend the money that I don't have, what is considered "entry level" tubes good for experimenting?
- comments on the following brands: Mullard, Telefunken, RCA, Svetlana, Sylvian, Svotek, etc.
- what's a good and reliable place to buy tubes? Used? NOS?
- perspective on Chinese vs. Russian tubes?

As you can tell, I have no clue where and how to start but would love to learn more. That said, the last thing I want to do is to spend hundreds of $ and get nothing accomplished. Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance, guys.

I would call Andy at Vintage Tube Services, he is very nice and helpful. Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio is often recommended by others but I had some difficulty talking to him (he kept interrupting me in mid sentence in a very rude manner) and I have not called back since. I am sure either of these guys are at least as helpful as anyone you are bound to talk to.

How are you liking the Avatar? I am considering buying one when money allows but my Plinius integrated is serving me very well now.
Congratulations, and welcome to the world of tubes! I think you'll enjoy it if your only audio experience has been SS gear. I can't answer all your questions since I don't have your specific amp and can only make broad generalizations about tubes. The best thing to do is exactly what you are doing: ask some questions and start rolling as you have the budget. Fortunately the tube compliment you have is not terribly pricey (as some amps can be). In addition to Andy at Vintage, you may also try John up in Canada at The Tube Store, for good and friendly advice and excellent service. Also you can do searches over on AudioAsylum in the "Tubes" section under any of your tube types to get more input than you ever needed. Finally do try to find other Avatar owners because different tubes have a different effect on different gear. OK, so here's some broad and sweeping generalizations for you to take with a bag of salt:

Chinese tubes tend to sound quite bright to my ears, although not nearly as bad as they are often made out to be. They are also very hearty tubes and tend to take more abuse and keep on performing. They are certainly considered entry level, and their sound is not very refined or warm in my experience. They are very cheap and manufacturers tend to include them as stock for that reason. You can do better.

The Russians do make some fine tubes, even today. In my experience they tend to be more prone to failures when new, but a reputible dealer would replace the tube if this happened. I've had at least three different Russian tubes fail in various amps over the past two years. The Sovtek's are probably considered the least desirable in most categories, though they have another higher grade of tube that is manufactured to higher specs under the name Electro-Harmonix which does manufacture some excellent tubes, among them their EL34's are outstanding in the current new offerings. The other EL34 I'd try is JJ Tesla, and if you can find the early 90's version of those in the blue and yellow box it is one of the very best made but they are quite pricey as NOS but not nearly as much as Mullards. Svetlana also make some good tubes. Their EL34's are nice but a bit on the colder side for my taste and in the gear I've used them in. Mullard's EL34's are considered of the best, but you will have to empty your pockets to buy a matched quad. I have no experience with them.

For your 12AX7 I'd go with Ei for current production, but if you really want to try an outstandign 12AX7 try out some NOS Tungsram's (I think The Tube Store has some of these). Pretty pricey at about $35 each but worth it to my ears and in my gear.

12AU7's I have no experience with so cannot tell you what I prefer, but ask around.

Of the brand names you mentioned as a question the NOS tubes by Mullard, Telefunken and Siemens are likely going to be the most expensive tubes available in many types and are all NOS as those companies are no longer manufacturing tubes. For NOS tubes, as a newbee, definitely buy your tubes from a reputible dealer like Andy, John or Kevin as they will stand behind their product. DO NOT try the eBay route as a newbee as you will be rolling the dice with most tube transactions there.

Hope that helps....have fun!

Marco,,, (pricey),,
I personally like Golden Dragon (high end chinese) & svetlana (russian) for new tubes and old stock I like Mullards & telefunken. I stay away from amperex usually because they are too "soft" for me but still great quality, expecially the bugle boy amperex.
My choices for you if on a budget:
EL34 Svetlana, mullard like sound for about $60/quad
12ax7 Golden Dragon, Mullard or Telefunken
12au7 Mullard or Telefunken
Don't change them all at once. It is probably cheapest to get some 12AX7's or 12AU7's to try first. Only buy used if they test almost new. When tubes get used up, they tend to sound too "tubey". If you upgrade to NOS Telefunken or Mullard for the 12's, you should get many years out of them and can concentrate on rolling the EL34's which can be vastly different.
rolling tubes can be as frustrating and fun as changing connectors, cables, power cords, etc. Good luck, hang onto your pocketbook and, most important: Have fun!
Call Kevin Hayes at VAC. He will be glad to help you. He is one of the really great guys in High End Audio. BTW, the Avatar is a great sounding amp. I think its sound is way, way underrated. I was frankly stunned at the bass output it has, not to mention how liquid it is. Wow what an amp. I loved mine, and wish I still had it.
Anyway, call Kevin for your best advice, nobody would know better than he, which will do the best job.
Try the JJ EL34. also make all of your pre tubes JJ as well (that's what Kevin Hayes installs for the SE upgrade. That's what I have in my Avatar, and I'm very happy. Remember that all tubes do have specific characteristics, but it's more important how the designer voices the circuit/tube. Have fun with the Avatar, it's one of the best integrated amps available.
Thank you so much for all your input. I've taken all your feedback and did a lot of reading in the past week. Man, you guys are right, some of the suggestions are not cheap, especially with a matched quad. As a newbie, I just ordered a match quad of Electro-Harmonix EL34 and a pair of 12AX7 of the same brand for experimental purpose. Just thought I would give it a college try and see what comes out of it without putting a big hole in my wallet. I'll let you guys know my 2 cents as soon as I plug/break them in, and try the pre-amp/amp both independently and seperately. Funny I've a feeling that I'm going to get hooked. Stay tuned... :-)

P.S. I really appreciate everybody's input. What a helpful group. To answer some of your questions...

I love the Avatar and very happy with its performance as you can see from this thread that I'm not alone. Never regrad that I spent the extra money. I'm hoping to be able to keep this amp for a while.

Jax2 and Elevick:
Thanks a lot for your insight and tips. I really appreciate your help and I've learned a lot.

Another worthy source is Brent Jessee at He has always been patient and informative in my conversations with him. His pricing seems to be fair and competitive.
Ta ta ta...Almost a month after my initial Newbie Tube Rolling posting here, here is the verdict of my 1st experiment:

I've decided to use the JJ 12AX7's for the input stage, and keep the stock (Chinese Golden Dragon?!?) EL34 tubes for the power amp.

As I mentioned from my earlier posting here, I've got myself a set of Electro Harmonix (EH) 12AX7 and EL34. The switch made my system a lot darker and for some reason, the soundstage also closed in a bit and moved to the back. Bass bot extension, but boomy, and overall presentation got dull. As you can see from my gear, they are already leaning more toward the warmer side of things and adding the EH's just makes the system a little too warm and dark for my taste.

Matching the JJ's and the stock EL34's brought everything back: clearer and more refined detail without the brightness, the wider and mid-to-frong soundstage, lush mid-range, and overall balanced presentation. Only thing that could be improved would be the bass department. It's tight, but doesn't have great extension.

Problem solved as I tried my 1st after market power cord. I was pretty skeptical in the beginning, but boy, it really opened up (even more) the soundstage, give (even more) clarity to the overall presentation, and more importantly, a quick and tight bass.

Now that I seem to have found what I've been looking for, but still curious about the great things that I've read on both Svetlana and JJ Tesla EL34's. Anyone has experience with these two sets?
Hi Steven,

I know the Svetlana EL34's are a good tube from personal experience and comments from Audiogon and AudioAsylum.

Amazing how different tubes will 'tune' the equipment, good for audio junkies -- gives one something besides cables to play with.

I'm using Telefunken smooth plates for 12AX7's and mullards for the AU7's. Very happy with the sound on some GMA Europas.


I'm an Avatar owner as well; love my amp. I've tried tube rolling with newer Mullard 12ax7s/12au7s from Upscale, older Mullards from VTS, some JJs from a local shop, and some NOS RCAs. Probably spent close to the cost of an SE upgrade on tubes. I kept coming back to the stock tubes. The stock tubes are Kevin's select Golden Dragons. Kevin spends a lot of time voicing his amps, and I suspect that the tubes he has selected are going to come closest to the sound he is trying to achieve. I just couldn't find any other tube that had the same airy highs, liquid but clear mids and deep bass. I also tried some older Mullard EL34s (very expensive), and ended up selling them as well. Perhaps some of the NOS Teles or Bugle Boys, or the premium JJs or EHs might provide an improvement? Some VAC owners also say that a NOS French tube, Radiotechnique (?), works well with VAC equipment (heard this from another Avatar owner locally), but haven't heard the tube myself. If I were to experiment any further myself, I would want to try either the Tele or RTC 12au7s/12ax7s. Not sure I would experiment with the EL34s. Please keep us posted if you try any other tubes. Thanks,

Thanks guys for the additional input to keep this thread "active". Lately, I've heard about JJ's "blue" version of the EL34, and was told that it can provide better bass extension.

Does anyone have any experience with the blue JJ's EL34? Is the additional cost (approx. double of "regular" version) worth the investment? Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.


Can you tell us what power cord you are using, and what improvements it made? BTW, I found that even the cheap JJ 12ax7s I purchased were better than the NOS tubes I tried. All the NOS tubes sounded as you described the EH EL34s- too warm and mushy sounding. The JJ's had a little more dynamic sound than the stock tubes, but I thought sacrificed a little airy-ness, were slightly less three- diminsional than the stock tubes. Do you know which version of the JJ's you picked up? Thanks again,

Hi Steve,

BTW, I listen to the Avatar exclusively in Triode mode due to sound preference. What mode are you using?


Still using the stock power cord. I bought a Synergistic A/C decoupler pc here for my Rega Planet 2000 cdp and have been very pleased with the result - more airy, and more spacing between instruments. Given limited budget, I was just trying to get the most out of the money at the time with the old saying of "cleaning the source first: source to pre-amp to amp to speaker". Still wonder if it's worth upgrading the stock amp cord. Problem is that I need at least 6 feet and it's not going to be cheap. Re: the JJ's, I'm happy to hear that you feel the same way too with other tubes. Thought it was me for the longest time. Not very sure which version they are...just the plain old red logo.

For my Avatar, I use exclusively in Triode mode for the very same reason. Musical preference include jazz, vocal, and classical.