Neutral Sounding Tube Amps - what gives?

If I'm in the market for a tube power amp or preamp, it's because I enjoy the sheer musicality of tubes, the romance they bring, the warmth, the inner-glow, the bloom, the whatever the heck you want to call it.

So why, when I'm reading current reviews and forum comments on the latest tube gear, has it suddenly become a good thing to encounter modern tube gear that sounds 'neutral,' 'transparent,' 'uncolored,' etc.? These were not the attributes that drew me to use 'valves' in the '80s (A classic Leak Stereo 20 driving Quad ESL57s), and it's not what I want from my tube gear today.  

Who changed the rules? Did anyone else get the memo?

With the above in mind, what do you consider to be the best tube preamp offering a 'classic' tube sound, but built in the last decade, say in the $10K new range? I'm not shopping, I'm just curious to see if I'm missing something.


I agree with you completely.  I prefer a warmer sound which and the musicality which is why I am drawn to SETs.  

I am HIGHLY biased (I import the line) but my favorite preamp I have heard under $10K with traditional tube sound is the Art Audio Conductor.  I list it at $8500 though if I went through retail it would be quite a bit more.  

Here is a review of the Conductor along with an interview with Tom.

My primary points of comparison were an Ayre unit and the PS Audio BHK in side-by-side testing but it was much better than those.  
Your missing a lot.
There are a ton of good sounding Valve amps out there. Set, Push Pull, selectable, and VALVE swappable. You can get all over the map with a single stereo valve unit, or mono blocks for 5K or under. I been having a great time with a few different models, Cary V12R, all tricked for my ears, and tricked out pair of 6 packs.
Macs, MC225,240,275,60s, I roll them in and out of setups all the time.

They all have their place. 12 to over 100 watts per rail, is plenty for me. I use to have a pair @ 360 per rail, TOO hot, too much, I quit using valve amps for bass duty, too. It cleaned up, a lot of issues and removed a LOT of the summer room heat. Over 114 last week. 121 in the Valley. HOT!!! It's still class D time for 3 more weeks or so..
I really dislike vent noise to stay cool enough to listen to the stereo..

@ebm .
You're. Sorry for being pedantic.

-Though if you mean SS can offer Tubes 'sound', then I agree.
I'm just curious to see if I'm missing something.
You are, if the colorations are what draw you in. In looking to avoid colorations I find unpleasant, I've been drawn to tubes because they are less likely to have the colorations of 'bright and harsh' with 'tight bass', all of which do not seem to occur in real music. But otherwise I want to get as close as I can to the musical experience, so I demand the amp otherwise be as transparent as possible. I find that such amps are more relaxed and easy going (more involving) than tube amps that have traditional colorations, which to me sound harsher especially at higher volumes. IMO/IME a stereo should not sound loud unless the music sounds loud, even at high volume levels it should stay relaxed and simply present the music.

IOW, what you may be missing is the experience of music sounding real in your room, made by an electronic reproducer.
I'm not sure why people feel content to talk about how "tube amps" sound because when you change the *tubes* a helluva lot can change.
I run a Supratek Chardonnay with some upgrades for the pre and like very much the 6SN7 presentation. It’s hard to describe in typical audiophile terms being that it just sounds right to me. More dynamic than any other tube unit I’ve heard but having heard and owned a few, just say it will shove when you ask it to. Great bass, never soft, never shrill.
As for amplifier, came across a demo unit Audiopax Maggiore M100.
Sometimes I just grin when the combo gets going. Runs KT88s in triode, six in each mono block, but I doubt it’s ever been pushed as speakers are 100 db efficient and the amp outputs 100W. When ramped up, the sound gets bigger more so than louder.
As an aside, Almarg, in his usual insightful and unpretentious manner, helped me sort out the particulars. Forever grateful to my favorite Audiogon poster. May he rest in peace.

It’s also why some own multiple tube amplifiers with different circuits, tube options, and some variation in sound.

There are instances where stock low cost tubes offered in new amps can tend to sound a bit dry or sterile or neutral, whatever you want to call it. Pop in some good input/driver and output tubes and things can become more engaging - really depends on the circuit, transformers, the amp designer, etc.  :) 

Thanks for the comments above.

I probably wasn’t making my point very clear in my OP. I said “romance,” “warmth,” etc, as those are what I consider to be classic tube artifacts or colorations. These are positive attributes and mostly the reason for dealing with the additional “maintenance” requirements of owning tubes, IMO. 

I want more of a good thing, not less of it, yet I see a trend where modern tube gear is often voiced to sound more like SS gear.

Apologies if my linguistic skills and choice of adjectives are poor.

@atmasphere  - Thanks for the comment. You do make a distinction in your post between desirable and undesirable colorations, which I share. Obviously I’m not suggesting that having a component that sounds “bright and harsh” is a good thing.

As for recreating the experience of music sounding “real” in my room, I think I do pretty well with it, given the constraints of the obvious physics involved and the fact that I’m not extremely wealthy. I’m not sure why anything I said in my OP would be construed as my not having heard a good facsimile of the real thing in my own space. As an aside, I heard your pre/power gear in the Classic Audio Loudspeakers room at CAF 2019 and it was my favorite room at the show. I'd like to try some of your gear someday soon.

@dentdog  - I owned the Chardonnay for a couple of years and enjoyed my time with it. I think Mick finds a nice balance with how he voices his gear. I’ve been using the Allnic L-5000DHT for a while and would love to try the Supratek DHT, but the wait-time from Oz is a killer.

@verdantaudio - thanks for the info. I was looking at some of your posts about a week ago, following the trail on a used Art Audio Carissa, which somehow lead me to your listing on eBay for the Conductor and then to your website. I wanted to try AA gear when I ran a horn rig some years ago, particularly the Diavolo 300b and the PX25. I hadn’t realized AA make a good linestage, though.

Anyway, thanks again. Tubes rule, as the saying goes, particularly ones which are unashamedly tubes.

I can't help but wonder about how much of this trend has happened due to the ubiquitous red Wima caps everywhere.

In my mind, the sound of a tube preamp or amp is in very large part due to signal and coupling caps.  I think I once called a tube preamp as a bunch of caps surrounded by circuits, and I more or less stand by that statement.

A good, very specific brand example is ARC. The ARC products I've gotten to hear over the last 5-6 years where very different sounding than the one's from 20 years ago. To my ears they were always a little sterile, bright and thin, while now they sound closer to Parasound.  Warm, more robust but not colorful.
I can't help but wonder about how much of this trend has happened due to the ubiquitous red Wima caps everywhere.
No, but coupling caps certain do bring their own issues to the table. That is why we employ a lot of direct-coupling, including at the outputs of both our amps and preamps. That makes them more transparent, but doesn't make them more 'solid state'.
@ebm .
You're. Sorry for being pedantic.
If you'd like to stay on full time and correct the grammar in ebm's posts, we have a position for you. I will warn you, there is a lot of overtime and it is a thankless job.


Just stumbled upon this thread from a few months back

At least now I know there are other folks thinking the same thing about the evolution of tube 'sound'.

I can go back to my corner now, thanks.

@ozzy62 ,
Sorry you feel that way. But, I hope you don't run into that Panda.
You know, he: 'eats, shoot and leaves'.,_Shoots_%26_Leaves