Tube guy gets a B&K: tubes vs solid state

You folks probably already know all this, but maybe these observations will be helpful for some newbie... (tubey newbie?).

I've been looking to understand how to improve the sound of my tube system and decided to try a SS amp as a point of reference, and potentially as a permanent switch. Thanks to many here, the desirable choice seemed to be a McCormack DNA. But being unsure I decided to take a cheaper approach and bought a B&K ST-140 ($202 on ebay + $27 shipping), version 2, toroidal transformer. It is like new. After swapping back and forth with my Marantz 8B I have the following observations. Rest of system is stock CJ PV-5, ProAc One SCs, ordinary car audio speaker cable (next upgrade), all Kimber PBJ interconnects.

The issues I have with my system are a desire for tighter bass, more openness, less of a congested presentation. I got my system in 95 or so, and did some comparisons to SS then, but sometimes you have to relearn old lessons.

1) I am amazed at how pretty and smooth a sound the B&K has. It is a "lighter" sound, more even and polite or reserved, and the various instruments don't seem to be congesting together. For a $200, 20 year old amp, it is quite amazing.

2) The sound of tubes is different from the sound of solid state. It's difficult to overstate the significance of this. The tube sound is palpable and dimensional. I knew this before, and these have to be the most commonly used terms but it's true. But it's a bit stunning to hear it again.

3) I would never be happy with solid state because no matter how pretty, it does not have this tangible substance, palbability, or dimensionality. It is key to enjoyment of the sound. It is sonic sculpture versus sonic painting.

4) I expected the bass to be deeper, larger, and tighter with the B&K. At first blush I thought it was. But after several comparisons, it is none of these. It is stronger and...tighter doesn't seem like the right word but it is as tight with the 8B. More importantly it is more real, because of the palpability, and that makes it sound more accurate or defined. On recordings with fuzzy bass, though, I think the even, clear, laid-back presentation of the B&K renders the bass with more seeming definition whereas the 8B seems to be trying to make it full and tangible but having nothing to work with, it just puts forth a kinda warm and soft bassiness.

5) I now believe the comment I read here, that a SS amp with a tube preamp will not give the dimensionality and palpability of tubes. One needs a tube amp for this.

I no longer feel I need tighter bass; I see it differently and very much like the bass I have with the 8B. I do think I could use more openness, a bit better high end (PV-5s, I'm told here, have rolled-off highs), and a less congested sound when the band gets busy, which somehow seems to be linked to the palpability or substance of the sound. It's like the thick palpability is a bit too thick and things get congested together.

I'm not sure whether changes to the amp or preamp will solve those, but the experience with the B&K suggests the next move is the preamp. I'm trying to decide whether to pick up something less romantic/lush like an ARC or VTL, or to send my PV-5 off for upgrades, or buy a newer CJ. At this point not knowing which will be the more effective it's a coin toss unless a killer deal comes along. I'm getting more reluctant though to alter the nature of my PV-5. Since getting back into hifi I have never seen one for sale.

Any suggestions or thoughts on my next move would be most welcome.

Interesting observasions. Perhaps what you need, aside from better cabling, is a different tube amp and/or preamp. 8B is no slouch, but how about the EL84 tube. Sometimes those bigger tubes can seem plodding, even sluggish and sleepy despite their high watt output.'s a whole 'nother take on tube sound that retains the pristine uncongested presentation I think you like with the B&K. They are typically lower output however and may not suit your spk's. Roger Modjeski's RM 10 though might fit the bill. Also, lets not forget that the B&K, sweet as it is, may not be the best solid state has to offer. I'm stuck in the tube camp, but even I will aknowlege this.
Hi River,

if you seek clarity, openness...i would point at the PV5. i love CJ and have owned CJ consecutively for well over 12 years...but some of the much older preamps are a bit colored and fuzzy compared with today's equipment (even tubed). i would speak with Ed at CJ first...they often do upgrades and are incredibly helpful about guiding you towards an upgrade...or a difference piece of equipment.

The latest generation stuff is miles ahead of the stuff i once owned in the CJ line. i would not change it for anything.

If you dont wish to upgrade/have manufacturer modify it...the latest generation stuff is great, and i think you could find Premier 17 and have a huge upgrade.
Please don't judge all ss amps by the B&K ST 140! Especially when coupled with a c-j PV-5.
I agree with Unsound, the ST140 is a very nice sounding $237 amp, but there are quite a few better sounding amps even with B&K, The PV 5 may be rich and not as defined as some preamps, but it does some things quite well and over all is in a higher class the the ST140.
You should see if you could audition the Medusa. I think this may be the presentation you're looking for.
I'm going to throw you a curve, but I think you would find me correct. Try Mapleshade speaker wire with the Marantz. It will maximize the openness of your system and maximize the bass definition.
You will have to suffer though a break-in period, especially each time you manipulate and move the wire, but its worth it.
They have a money back guarantee if you don't like what it does for your system.
1, A modern CJ preamp(consider other brands as an option) will improve significantly on the PV5`s short comings(resolution,speed,transparency, openess,etc.)
2, Improving your cables will make a substantial difference(they don`t have to be expensive) and compliment the preamp upgrade/ change.
3,Consider tube rolling various EL34 tubes and also the input and driver tubes.This can make quite a difference in the amplifier`s sound character.There are better SS amps than the B&K but very few of them will match the presence,palpability and 3-D qualities that you noted and have with your tube amplifier.

I agree with your point#5,tube preamp with a SS amp is`nt the same as using a tube power amp(it can be good but it`s different).
Regards and best of luck with your quest.
Ssglx, funny you should suggest that, I just ordered some helix plus last night, after a long pleasant conversation with Pierre. I happen to own a Scott integrated, and it was fascinating to hear what he does with them. Interesting chap to say the least.

Ssglx, what is the break in period? Longer than the 30 day trial period I bet, but surely I can see if there is a difference in 30 days.

Yes, I know there are better SS amps, for sure, but I would be hard pressed to think any of them have the tube dimensionality/palpability. Plus I have to be selective as it can get pricey to start buying components.

I agree about needing a better preamp. I think I need something in between an ARC, which I think would not be warm enough for my tastes with jazz guitar (what I listen to most, esp. Peter Bernstein) and voice, and CJ. Maybe a VTL or VAC or Manley. But I really am only going by what I read here unfortunately. (We should all have regional fests where we all bring an amp and a preamp and have listening sessions so we can see what sounds like what)

LOL Jim...I didn't think that a cheap SS amp would satisfy you after using a tube amp. You are right about tube amps, tubes just have that *special* fuzz on the peach quality. Good SS certainly gets better than the B&K, but it's still SS.

I'm a 'tube' guy or at least have been for 25 years or so. I've owned AMC, Counterpoint, Quicksilver, Sonic Frontiers, Niteshade..... I do agree with the comment *special* fuzz on the peach quality regarding tube amps. However, as I get older I want take a simpler approach. So, I sold my last tube amp and acquired a pair of Monarchy Audio SE-100 Delux amps factory refurb'd for < $1k. Compared to my former tube amps the bass is tighter, deeper, and highs more extended, and having more detail overall. I did loose a bit of that *special* fuzz. However, no more costly output tubes, no more heat concerns raising the room temp by 10 degrees. I do not regret the switch over. I did keep a tube preamp as well as a tube cd player. For now I like the combo and do not plan on acquiring a tube amp. There's no right or wrong here.

Jim, your next move should be to audition a bunch of reputable ss amps, then archive past hi end stereo articles, and finally hunt down a good 20-30 year old candidate. Something that was considered state of the art then. Find a really good tech to completely rebuild it and you'll be an ss lover for the rest of your life. The "holy grail" being the elusive Yamaha MX 10000. Handily spanks any tube amp out there.
Try a hybrid amp with a tube preamp for all the magic! After many amps SS and tube, I have seemed to hit the sweet spot with my modified Aethetix Atlas amp with Duelund CAST caps. Like it better then 100 percent tubes in my system and I love tubes!
Okay, you're gettin there!
Monarchy does make some great hybrid amps for the money. I owned the 160's and liked them very much. They also had that dimensionality other love in tube amps. I picked up a set for $1500 a few years ago.

That's quite a coincidence on the Helix speaker cable. at the time I was auditioning quite a few speaker cables (one at a time of course) sending most of them back or just borrowing. The Mapleshade was a bit too brightly lit, but there was something about the clarity and the bass impact that I decided to keep it. Popped it back in after a couple months and adjusted a couple other things, then I was hooked.
They have also mellowed with age, but don't be dismayed when you bend them around or uncoil them after storage. They can sound nasty for a bit before they settle.

Speaking of Monarchy amps, I just love my SM70 Pro's. Really do.
I would recommend the very best tube pre-amp you can afford. In my experience, I've come to believe that the pre-amp is truly the "heart" of the system. Amp/speaker must be proper match after that. Pre and amp must match up properly impedance wise as well. The other option would be be to try a passive pre and use the $ to get the very best amp you can afford. I've had good luck w both approaches and I think that the trade off, which is substantial but a matter of personal preference is more meat on bones vs. more transparency. Check out the thread on the lightspeed passive pre, which coupled with the correct tube amp can be extremely transparent and "immediate" and at half a kilobuck leaves you lots of $$ for a good tube amp. Going the other way, the Modwright line stage is quite neutral (much more so than an older CJ) and used is a real bargain, IMO. Of course, your source has to be up to driving the passive if you go that way.
Swampwalker, Charles1dad, and Lloydelee21, I am beginning to think the same thing; the pre is the heart of things and what I should focus on. A new CJ is exactly what I need, does anybody know the next Powerball numbers? What do you all think about the Sonic Frontiers Line 1? There is one for sale and I did a bit of reading that suggests it is neutral. I think I need to try something neutral as a reference point. There are also an RM-5 and a Berning TF-10. Also a BAT vk-3ix just went for 1400 on ebay which is above my budget right now. I think I am going to just have to buy to try something, hard to decide which so I have been reading a lot on the preamps.

I have also been interested in trying the Lightspeed, but never see one for sale. Apparently there are plans, but as of yet I don't know where to buy a new one, need to go back and research that better. But for not much more could get one of the first three preamps I listed above.

I'm not quite clear on when a passive is a match; something to do with the voltage your source produces?

Ssglx, I got the Mapleshade on John's recommendation, I've read a lot of his posts and he seldom seems to jump up and down and stand on his head, so I figured he must give pretty level headed recommendations. I think bright and clear is exactly what the doctor ordered for my 8B (or McIntosh) and CJ system. Part of me still can't believe speaker wire can matter. Grannyring, I will go have a look at Monarchy, don't know about them. Vicdamone, will also check into the Medussa, not aware of it...isn't there a movie star named after your handle? ???

John, I just read the thread tonight when researching preamps where you were debating a BAT or a Sonic Frontiers pre. I think it was from 03. What amp and preamp are you using now?

Hifiharv, also funny you should mention the EL-84. My recent speaker shopping involved a lot of time at Arizona Hifi in Phoenix, listening to ProAcs through the Leben cs-300x integrated. I really like the sound. When they switched to the big Leben amp and pre, the sound was more full bodied and less light, but I can't forget how much I liked the ProAcs with the EL-84s. Then talking to Pierre at Mapleshade, the Scott they modify uses EL-84s. It got me to thinking. There is a cs-300x on agon for 2000, but that's outside my budget right now. -correction- it's gone. At 2000 it went fast. Also, I have been thinking about the RM-9, but this got me thinking about the RM-10. Only issue is, I am in a 11x12 (bedroom) office right now. My 8B is nominally 35wpc. I listen at just about the point where I start hearing distortion, about 10 or 11 on the CJ volume control. I am afraid when I get a new home in the next year or two, with a larger room, 35wpc may not be enough. Manley makes an 8 tube EL-84 amp. Or I guess I could get a new amp. But the EL-84 is in my radar now.

Lloydelee21, Unsound, Timlub, Pdspecl, I don't doubt that some seriously good SS could melt my butter. I heard a Classe/McIntosh/PS Audio SS system when I auditioned the B&W PM-1s and CM-9s at Soundquest in El Paso. I didn't miss any aspect of tubes, it just seemed amazingly good. Trouble is I'll never be able to afford the $15k just for the Classe. I still think that in the lower price range the tubes are going to give me a quality that might let me forget about the stuff I can't afford, or at least I hope so. Csontos may have just the ticket with vintage SS, though that would certainly complicate my search. I do think I need to look at a neutral pre right now. I am even thinking about SS, if there is a Classe, Pass, or Levinson pre in my range...would have to be an old one to be that cheap. I am a fan of vintage SS though. I miss my Pioneer SC-950 receiver and my brother has a beautiful looking and sounding Luxman receiver with the analog tuning knob.

Given the Mapleshades are on the way, I think my next step is a pre, either the Lightspeed if I can find/build one, or a neutral sounding pre in the 500-1000 range.

Thanks much all,
Speaker wire certainly does matter. I have 4 pair by 3 manufacturers and one DIY. They are all very different and quite consistent each time I switch them in.
Jim, I agree with Swampwalker that the preamp is the heart of the system, we both use VAC preamps, though his is several steps up from mine. I am using a VAC Auricle preamp which also has a great built in phono stage. I paid about $1150 for it with some special tubes several months ago. VAC, like ARC, seem to be some of the most revealing tube preamps out there. I would say that ARC is the most revealing, while the VAC is a tad more musical, yet still very revealing.

The BAT gear that I've owned I had a love/hate relationship with. I've owned 9 pieces of BAT gear, obviously I love the sound, but I've had mechanical issues with all 3 BAT preamps that I've owned. No issues with the 2 CDP's, 2 phono stages or 2 amps. BAT sound is hard to characterize. I would say that it is very powerful and dynamic, but a tad on the warm side. Certainly not as warm as CJ or Cary, but warm none the less. However, I've also seen many who claim that BAT equipment is bright. So maybe BAT is just perfectly neutral, as many find it dark, many find it bright and many find it just right, I don't know.

Sonic Frontiers gear I would avoid. I agree with most others from what I've read in that Sonic Frontiers will sound as close to solid state as any tube gear out there. In fact, so close that I've heard many SS units that better them. I prefer tube gear that sounds like tubes over tube gear that sounds like SS.

A word of caution, be careful that you do not go too far in your search for more resolution. You have higher resolution speaker cables coming in and you are looking for a higher resolution preamp. You still should be OK, but in my experiences, one can go too far, as you are now experiencing with too much warmth and musicality. You can also get so much transparency that the music becomes sterile and uninvolving. The key is to find a nice balance, one where you can listen for a long period of time with no sense of falling asleep or grinding your teeth.

You're kidding yourself if you don't think the amp is the heart of the system. Yeah sure, you don't want too much transparency. Or God forbid, excessively low distortion. Get real.
No, the preamp sets the stage for any amp that follows and as others have said is the heart of a system. It is the one piece that ties it all together. A great tube preamp makes all decent amps sound rather good in a well matched system. Class D, A, AB or whatever sound good with a great preamp.

Matching the amp to the speakers is critical, once this is done the preamp sets the sonic stage for the entire system in many ways. It sets the sonic personality and overall tone based on my experience.
Csontos, you are certainly entitled to your opinion, just as others are entitled to disagree with you.
I too disagree with Csontos. You certainly can overdue detail, emphasizing the edges of notes, exposing too much hf grain, instead of a good balance with tone and warm weight.

I believe its also possible that the tolerable limit of detail may be reached more quickly with lesser electronics.
Someone's obviously got you guys under some weird spell. IMO
I understand the point you`re making but disagree on one point. IMO there`s no such thing as "too much transparency".if you are in a room and someone is playing an instrument (like when I`m playing my trumpet)that is ultimate transparency. There`s nothing between you and the performer i.e. no veil ,wall or blanket. Thus you hear all the tone,harmonics and body the instrument provides.

There is pseudo transparency where a component is voiced for ultra resolution and 'hyper' detail and these often sound clinical,thin,analytical and very unnatural and unconvincing. This is sometimes mistaken for transparency but in fact is a false presentation that strips away the normal body and full tonality of real insruments.There is a emphasis on note attack but the note substain and decay are short changed(crucial error).
The more true transparency the better you`ll hear the instrinsic 'full' beauty of instrumnents and vocals.This is why some components that have impressive low distortion measurements(often by employing generous amounts of NFB) have the potential to sound artificial and less organic and natural.
Charles1dad, I agree. For the sake of simplicity, I was trying to keep it basic, as generally there are two directions to go towards as far as tonality is concerned with audio gear. Someone either wants more warmth or they want more resolution.

For the sake of this being Audiogon, I am strictly dealing from a audio gear veiwpoint, not comparing to live music. As you noted, yes, there are many pieces of audio gear that define themselves as transparent, but actually emphasize the upper midrange and/or highs, which is not accurate. They sound thin, clinical. I was merely pointing out to the OP that just as he is dissatisfied with a system that is now too warm for his tastes, it is entirely possible to go too far in the opposite direction (transparency/resolution/whatever you wish to call it) too.

If you wish to call it pseudo transparency, that is fine, I know what you are talking about and I agree. I was just trying to keep things as simple as possible.

Charles1dad, while I agree with your explanation, I would not describe such an amp as having "ultra resolution". The lack of sustain and decay contradicts this assertion. I remember certain amps back in the 70's behaving just this way and were quickly recognized for what they were,...Junk. Excessive NFB being the main culprit. The good ones had no such issues.

Hi John,
Okay I get your perspective clearer now and agree.
Yes you`re right there`s no 'too much' resolution or transparency, just failed attempts to emphasize detail with certain frequency region 'spot lighting' as john pointed out.
Hi, first time posting here. I have Luxman MB 3045 mono blocks with 6lf6 output tubes, bone stock configuration. After owning many many solid state setups, this pair fell into my lap at a price I couldn't refuse. I had to claim complete ignorance to anything with tubes. I actually stayed away from the idea of tubes since I had no experience whatsoever. I had heard many extol the superiority of the "tube sound", but had no frame of reference.

After receiving this pair, two friends came over with their tube amps (Mcintosh MC275 & Dynaco ST120 modded. They cycled their gear one by one with my Pioneer Spec 1 pre, Infinity Kappa 9's & we tore up some half speed masters/mobile fidelity vinyl on a VPI turntable. It was a fairly long session lasting six hours plus, much to the frustration of my wife.

After all these years I was converted. What joy to my ears. I had never been able to listen that long without the familiar fatigue we encounter so often. I did however experience a lack of what I will refer to as "tight accurate bass". My opinion after experimentation is this: Solid state is great for the low end. I have since bi-amped my system using the tubes on the highs & mids combined with my Spec 2 on the bottom. Obviously the Kappa's are bi-amp capable.

One caveat, the Kappa's work the Spec pretty hard. I am in the process of re-capping/restoring a pair of Bose 1801 power amps, which I plan to cycle in one of them on the bottom. (They can be wired to mono block configuration, but alas not stable with anything besides an 8 ohm speaker load. As most of us know, the Kappa's dip much much deeper into the abyss. I do believe one of them will perform much better than the Spec 2 since it is more of a high current design. I re-capped using a pair of 47000mf 100v output filter caps, which may prove to give me the reserve headroom that the Kappa's will require.

My previous amplification was a re-capped Carver M1.5t with a fair amount of power and current, but still had to be reserved with the Kappa's. They are wonderful speakers but hazardous to a majority of gear. They have an extended bass mode switch linked to the Xovers that make them dip even lower. I clipped the Carver one time and never used it again.

Sorry for the rater long diatribe, I just wanted to weigh in and comment on a worthy compromise of blending what I consider the best of both worlds. I am currently content with the obvious improvement in the bass until I finish the 1801's this week. One improvement on the near horizon will be a competent tube based pre-amp. For now I am filtering my digital library through a Music Hall 25.3 DAC with a tube buffer output with tangible positive results.

Most of us don't have deep enough pockets to approach this hobby with no limitation on obtaining what we would really like to have. I feel like I have been extremely fortunate considering the level of sound quality I enjoy compared the the modest resources invested. I suppose for those who can afford high powered tube amplification, the bass would perhaps not be an issue. I would love to be able to test this theory, but alas there is reality.

In summary, if you have tube amplification & speakers you love with bi-amp option, do not hesitate to put in a beefy solid state amp on the bottom. IMHO, it is the best combination out there.
I am a firm believer that the room/speaker/listening position interface is the most important consideration, followed by the speaker/amplification interface.
Well, it seems this thread has become a free for all. Just what I like. No hi-jackers here! perfect
Hope this helps: I have the ST-140, 105w version paired with the Lightspeed.

Morrow cables
Mac Mini w/SSD using Amarra
Music files upsampled to 24/96 via Wave Editor
Centrance DAC
Burson AB-160 (to match impedence)
Monitor Audio RS-6

It sounds good to me for the low cost. Very musical, deep and clear bass, decent soundstage. Someday I will upgrade to a tube amp, but for now the ST140/Lightspeed combo seems like a low cost winner if you feed it with a good source.
Counterbiz, thanks much for your post and welcome. I am rather new myself.

I would very much like to try biamping since I just obtained the B&K. However, I'm listening to ProAc monitors with a crossover of 3000 Hz. I would be putting the important stuff on the SS amp as seen here
I'll have to wait until I get bigger speakers. That sounds like a wonderful system. I have not heard the Kappas.

4hannons, I certainly believe you, as I am quite surprised at how smooth and sweet the ST-140 sounds. I see why people say it has a very tube-like sound. It really has a very nice balance across the spectrum, and a very clean but buttery musical presentation to me. When I got it I listened to it quite a while and enjoyed it.

I have been thinking about the Lightspeed attenuator. Did you buy yours or build it? Where did you get it? Can you say a bit more about how it sounds in your system?

I think others have explained the sound of the Lightspeed very well in other discussions here, I'm not so good; the best way I can describe is that it is smooth and presents music truthfully. Sorry for such a poor description, but this is the best way I can say it.

I bought it used here on Agon, it's the real thing. I understand George designed and makes these in Australia and is the only person using four matched LDR's. All others using his design use only two. It's very hard to match four is what he says.

By the way, it is not the best looking thing in the world, so I ordered an empty case from Burson and fit in the LS using only some slight alterations.. Now my Lightspeed and Burson buffer match and look good together.
4hannons, is it necessary to use a tube buffer with the Lightspeed?

Ideal for LS is an amplifier that has a high input impedence, greater than 47k ohms; the St-140 is 24.3k ohms. Buffers are used for impedence imbalances. You can read more here:

Also ideal for LS:
--A high voltage output source. For digital that means > 2 volts output.

--A source component with low output impedence, < 200 ohms.

--An amplifier that is sensitive, 1.5 volts or better (1v is ideal).
I would love to hear of your impressions after you put the Mapleshade speaker wire into the system.
I certainly will report on the Mapleshade cables.

I emailed with George about the Lightspeed and sent him specs for my Creek CD43 Mk II, Marantz 8B. Kind of surprising the price has remained the same. He said I'm OK. I want to compare those specs to the ones you just posted though 4hannons.
I am mainly curious what my system will sound like without the contribution of tube warmth/thickness of the CJ pre. Of course, then I'll have to try a better SS amp than the B&K, so see what it's like without the 8B. Then I'll be all SS....Oh no! heh.

Followup on the Mapleshade cables....

Nada. It's been a couple weeks at least so I checked and my card hasn't been billed. I called and got a nice lady, said it was in backorder, meaning they will ship my order when they get more cable made. I cancelled my order; can't have the charge hitting my account any random time.
Still plan to get some and will report when/if I do. Thanks...

I have a B&K ST1430 that long ago replaced an old Carver amp (remarkable upgrade at the time) and recently moved the B&K into my office to make way for a factory re-furbished Lexicon 512 (a re-badged Bryston 9BST) and the difference in clarity, dimension and "smoothness" was astonishing! While I have never owned tubes (yet), I can say with certainty that I agree with previous posters- the B&K makes a great sub-$300 amp, but it's far below other "budget" SS amps.