I switched from a new Sovtek to a used old stock real Mullard made in the UK 5AR4 and it makes a solid difference. The Power tube can improve weight and a more solid feeling through out the whole range.
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I have had excellent success with new production cryo'ed Gold Lion 5AR4. For the most part, I like them as well as the more common Mullard Blackburns from the 60's. You can get the GLs for about $40-50, a substantial savings over NOS Mullards. As Rodman said, the rectifier will have a profound effect.
I also agree the rectifier is important.
Mullard 5AR4 have set the standard for both sound quality and reliability. Look at how many are still in use, and the prices they command.
Based on Marty's recommendation, I may give the Gold Lion's a try. So far, for new production, I've tried Sovtek, JJ, and Shuguang. As usual, skip the Sovtek. JJs sound great, and a good choice if you don't want to pay for Mullard sound quality. I just wish they were more durable, as they easily arc over, then it's time for a new one. Shuguangs don't sound nearly as good, but have proven exceptionally rugged.
Thank you for all your responses to my question - very informative and helpful!
I have a follow up question - i've heard that the 5AR4's provide a higher supply voltage to the rest of the amp circuitry since the voltage drop across it is less than the 5U4's. Hence, I've been cautioned against using it since it *might* operate some of the downstream components at or higher than their ratings. Anyone had issues with the 5AR4's?
Marty, those JJ 5AR4 really do sound outstanding. Probably not as good as the Mullards, but at 10% the cost, pretty close. And, you know when you buy a new tube, it's actually new. But again, their threshold of arcing over sits disappointingly low. Far less than the Mullard and Shuguang tubes I've tried. Maybe it doesn't become a concern in amps outside of my Dyancos and Quicksilvers?
Like you, I'm a fan of the JJ E34L. Most high-end audio tube sellers skip them over (I've now come to realize that they've never actually tried them), but I also find their standard EL34 unexpectedly good, and a more balanced tube overall. In the right amp, biased correctly, the E34L can produce truly glorious midrange, which their EL34 will not. It's a vanilla and chocolate thing as to which I like better, and when. However, unlike most people, their KT77 doesn't sound as good as either of them to me.
274B are good rectifiers, but a different animal sonically and dynamically. I know that many prefer this and the 5U4G, and they can provide a romantic landscape, especially in an amp featuring 300B output tubes. But usually, I find them too soft and slack for me to live with compared to the far tighter and punchier 5AR4.
I trust Facten regarding the Philips, he knows his tubes.