Tubes at idle

Do preamp tubes (12AU7) get consumed at idle as fast as they do with music going through them?
Is there anybody out there?
I'm no expert but I bet they do since the glowing electrodes are still glowing and that doesn't change much when music is playing...isn't idle current still current? I'm amazed at how long the damn things last , and turn mine off when not around in case one wants to explode.
I wouldn't fret about preamp tube wear since they last for years. I have 70 year old vintage radios and the original tubes are still fine.
I think they are used up faster when music is played through them.

There is an eternal debate about whether to turn them off or leave them on when not in use. I'd say turn them off if you're not going to be listening again in, say, 2 hours if you're using expensive NOS tubes.

I have no training in electronics. I learned what I know by reading forums, web pages, etc.
Also, turn your tube components off if you're not going to be around. Tube malfunction can cause a lot of damage.
I would always turn off amps that are not going to be used for a long time. First, for safety reasons, the amps should not be left completely unattended for long periods. Second, heat will, to some extent, shorten the life of the other non-tube components, such as capacitors and resistors. Third, he cathode of the tube, which emits the electrons, have a limited capacity to do so which is wasted at idle; most preamp tubes are not run really hard so they have a pretty long life, but, given the cost of decent tubes, it makes sense to not waste them; also, some designs actually run preamp/linestage tubes pretty hard, so that tube life may actually be as short as one-year, so conservation really makes sense there. Finally, it makes little sense wasting electricity as heat from running gear unnecessarily (tube gear is works inefficiently as space heaters).

The reason that one might have for leaving gear on is that it does sound better when fully warmed up and stablized at full operating temperature. The good news for tube fans is the gear actually warms up pretty fast, compared to solid state stuff, so that most gear sounds very good within 10 minutes or so of turn-on. If your listening habits involve frequent short-term interruptions, that might be a reason not to turn the gear off and on at every interruption.

I know there are those who are concerned about shortened tube life from the "surge" at turn. The analogy is to how light bulbs rarely fail in the middle of use; they almost always fail at the instant of turn on. With tubes, this is somewhat different. Bulbs are designed to come on instantly--when the filament is cold, it conducts so easily that the surge at turn-on causes abrupt temperature changes that causes the old, weakened filament to fail. This is, to some extent true for tubes as well, but, they actually light more slowly and do not suffer as much from thermal shock.

To the extent there still is some concern with turn-on stress to tubes, different equipment design has an impact on this as well. Gear that uses tube rectification in the power supply inherently turn on more gently. The rectifier ramps up the current/voltage to the rest of the gear instead of creating an instant-on situation. Some gear may also include circuit elements designed to ramp things up slowly, such as thermistors in the power feed that slowly increase current flow as they heat up, or circuits that don't allow the plate voltage to be at full strength until the cathod/heater are fully heated (if the plate tries to pull electrons from the cathode before the cathode is heated and readily delivering electrons, damage can occur to the cathode ("cathode stripping"). These turn-on issues are usually bigger issues with power amps than with preamp/linestages.

I want to say upfront that I have no formal training in electronics and my comments are based solely from my personal experience with one tubed preamp, a VTL 2.5 that I bought new in the Spring of 2006. I had an Aragon 4004 amp at the time, paired with an Adcom GFP-565 solid state preamp, and I was looking for a more dimensional and 'in the room' type of presentation. I had borrowed a local dealer's demo unit for a few months, with the stock Russian or Chinese tubes, verifying that this preamp gave me the presentation I wanted before ordering a new unit along with a pair each of 12au7 and 12at7 NOS Mullard tubes from Upscale Audio.

I received the new unit in mid May 2006 and immediately replaced the stock tubes with the Mullards. I was completely new to tubed preamps at the time and had read many forums debating whether to leave tube preamps on 24/7 or to turn them off after each use. At the time I wanted my $160 worth of tubes to last as long as possible, so I mistakenly reasoned that less total 'on' time would allow the tubes to last longer. Therefore, I initially turned the preamp off after each listening.

However, I quickly and clearly noticed that the tubes sounded significantly better after they had been on for awhile; the longer they played (both during each listening session and in total hours played) the better they performed. I also was weary of waiting for the tubes to warm up and sound their best from a cold startup. About this time, I read several forum posts from tube preamp users claiming that switching vacuum tubes on/off was more detrimental to tube life than leaving them on 24/7 and avoiding the repeated surges of electricity caused by powering on. This theory struck me as being counterintuitive but, at the same time, very intriguing and worthy of testing.

So, about the end of May, I began leaving my preamp on 24/7. This was very convenient and my music sounded great from the first track through the last. The only possible downside was the anticipated shortening of tube life. But my system was sounding so good I just chalked this up to the cost of having a very good sounding system.

To make a long story a bit shorter, I'll fast forward 6 1/2 years to January, 2013: my system still sounded good except I noticed a bit of thinness, lack of dimension and that 'in the room' quality to the sound that I enjoyed so much earlier. There was also an odd sameness to the acoustic perspective no matter what track was played; the sonic illusion being centered on the stage and about 20-30 feet back. So, I replaced the 4 NOS Mullards with a fresh set ($200 total cost, just $40 more than my originals that were $160 total almost 7 years earlier) and everything lacking was restored and the sonic illusion presented was unique again on each recording.

I related my experience because I thought it's relevant to your stated concern and demonstrates why I would suggest that 12au7 tubes lose less life at idle than when playing music and would recommend leaving the tubes on 24/7. I think 6 1/2 year tube life would be considered more than acceptable by most owners.

However, I think it's important to realize this is just one person's experience with one preamp and one brand of tubes. It is likely a bit risky to generalize from such a limited sample size. Results may vary not only by preamp and tube brand, but by more specific variables such as tube type and between manufacturing dates and sites and even between same date batches of the same brand and tube type produced at the same sites/plants.

No matter which method you choose, tubes do have a finite life and will eventually require replacement. If you don't have an expensive tube tester or access to one, small preamp tubes degrade so gradually that you'll need to either remain acutely aware of subtle sound degradation and changes as the tubes age or just wait until you notice them eventually to determine when the tubes need to be replaced.

I now realize that a thinning of the sound, lessening of 3d imaging and a similar sonic perspective on various tracks can all be considered signs of tube aging and result in a degradation in performance. I would suggest it may be simpler to just change tubes after a given amount of time or hours of usage rather than trying to discern the point in time that you notice these somewhat subtle sonic changes. This method also allows you the freedom to relax and just enjoy your music.

Hope this helped,

Excellent post by Larry, as always.

Regarding the original question, I'm pretty certain that Wolf is correct, and that there will be insignificant, if any, difference in preamp tube longevity as a function of whether or not the preamp is processing a music signal while it is powered up.

The current that heats the filament will not be affected by the audio. And since nearly all tube preamps operate their tubes with class A bias, the power dissipated (consumed) by the tube, and the current passing through it (averaged over each cycle of whatever audio frequencies may be present), will be essentially the same whether a signal is present or not.

-- Al
Noble and others, thank you for the responses. I am leaning towards leaving them on. Since this is a hobby I feel that a yearly, or bi-yearly tube purchase is not unreasonable. After all I would probably be itching to roll something else anyway. My only other concern is the fire danger, but since this issue is about 50/50 there must not be a lot of instances of houses burning down. The tubes I use, 5814A aren't as costly as Mullard CV4003 that I was previously using, so leaving them on is what I have decided to do. Thanks again.
I don't think actual fire is a common event, but, then again how much is even a small risk? If replacement tubes are cheap, the only other major cost to consider is the amount of electricity the component burns at idle (some manufacturers give buys that figure). You have to decide for yourself whether the environmental issues matter to you. If the amp remains reasonably cool, then heat degradation of other components will not be that big an issue.

The only real advantage to keeping the preamp on all the time is the issue of warmup--that can be a big deal if you don't have time to wait or really dislike the sound of your system while it is warming up. I would at least listen to my system to decide whether warmup is that big a deal or not; I would not rely on consensus opinion on the internet.

For my own gear, I must turn it off to conserve the tubes because none of them are that cheap. My linestage runs four 310s and two 311s, plus a rectifier. My amp runs four 348s and four 349s (even more expensive than the linestage tubes). My phonostage runs two 300Bs as rectifiers, two tubes that I cannot recall the type (reasonably cheap) and two ECC803S tubes (quite expensive).

The risk of a fire from a blown or faulty tube is much lower with a tubed preamp than with a tubed power amp. However, that doesn't mean there is no risk, so it would be a good idea to turn the preamp off/unplug it from the wall ac if your going to be out of the house for several days and want to be extra cautious.

Tubes have been used in preamps since the beginning of home audio (supposedly, archaeologists have unearthed early examples in prehistoric caves in ancient Europe)and are still being used today, decades later. It seems a bit odd and disappointing that the issue, of whether it is best to turn tubed preamps off after each use or leave them heated and 'idling', has never been identified, tested and definitively resolved in all those years. Perhaps electricity and tube costs were so high that they never even considered leaving things powered.

Just some thoughts,

Here is the opinion of a High End retailer, "The Tweak Shop." It's only one opinion, take it for what it's worth.

"Should I Leave My Tubed Component On All The Time?

"In 95% of the cases, no. There are a few components out there (like the T+A V-10 Integrated Amp) that have special circuits that provide a "trickle" voltage to the tubes, even when the component is turned "off". This does two things: It prevents the tubes from being "slammed" into operation when the unit is on, and it also means your "warmup time" to optimum listening is considerably reduced. Components like this are, therefore, "on" even when not "turned on", but this is a rarity. Energy-wise, a constant "trckle" voltage is not something we can recommend, as it can add up to a massive waste of resources. (Fortunately, that feature of the T+A V-10 can be switched in and out.)

"In an ideal world, we'd all use massive Vari-Acs to slowly bring our tube equipment up to operating voltage. But that's an impractical fantasy.

"It's something of a trade-off. Tubes don't like being turned on and off, but they also don't like being left on all the time just cooking. So it's sort of "six of one/ half dozen of the other". We think the tubes will last longer if *not* left on continuously, and many components feature a "soft-start" circuit that helps lessen the shock of turn-on.

"Bottom line: Unless you really do listen to your system 18 hours a day, turn off your tube gear and prolong the life of your tubes (and save big on your energy bill!)."

TOM AGAIN - And here is a link to a fairly lengthy discussion courtesy of someone who owns a recording studio, Sears Sound, on the topic of leaving equipment on or off. He does include vacuum tubes in his discussion.

He concludes that recording studio equipment should be turned off at night and acknowledges that others will disagree.

Again, it's not a scientific study, so take it for what it's worth and enjoy your music whether you leave your tubes on or turn them off!

Thanks for interesting link to Sears Sound. I know that the primary concern in this discussion is the impact on the tubes, but, Sears Sound also mentioned the issue of heat impacting other components. That is also a concern that I have. Every manufacturer's specification sheet for parts, such as resistors and capacitors, includes an estimate of the lifespan of the component; this rating is not a single figure but one that relates lifespan to the operating temperature--the higher the temperature the shorter the working life of the component.

In an earlier post, I suggested that tube rectification provides a form of "soft start" for the rest of the downstream tubes. I should say that this is probably NOT as good at providing protection as a true soft start circuit. My linestage has an outboard power supply with a tube rectifier and an unbilical to the main unit. On turn on, even with tube rectification, there is a huge voltage spike (the main unit has a meter) and then voltage drops to the normal operating range. During this time, a circuit with a relay protects sensitive parts of the main unit.

One other word of caution. If you have to turn tube gear off and then plan to turn it back on again almost immediately, it is better to wait a few minutes rather than waiting only a few seconds. I have noticed that some gear will behave rather badly when turned back on quickly. This can take the form of making loud noises through the speaker and/or tubes emitting a bright flash of light (particularly the rectifier); I don't know how much harm this does, but, it cannot be good.
They do not, although their life shortens by idle hours as well.
It's definitely no go if you want to leave tube electronics on all the time especially when you leave your dwelling.
Tubes worm up substantially faster than semiconductors and therefore require only 5m of worm-up time before you start playing music. Than you need to idle them for another 5...10m of 'cool off' before turning off. Good quality 12AX7 pre tubes will serve you good decade with no problems.
08-21-14: Czarivey
They do not, although their life shortens by idle hours as well.
Czarivey, did you read my post earlier in the thread? If so, what is the basis for your statement that "they do not," which I presume refers to the question in the OP as to whether or not preamp tubes "get consumed at idle as fast as they do with music going through them?"

-- Al
Good point Larryi, warmer internal temperatures means shorter component life.
Regarding tube amp care, I've used a 1960 Fender Deluxe tube guitar amp for maybe 50 years with varying degrees of on and offness and it works perfectly. Changed the tubes a few times over the years...but still. Also used dozens of other tube amps that were dragged everywhere for decades, dropped from loading ramps (thank you Anvil case), and otherwise abused...almost no issues. I have "soft start" features in my hifi rig in the power conditioner, preamp, and tube power amp, which I think provides all the mollycoddling and pampering the damn things deserve. Off when I'm not around, on when I am. I suggest people turn things off when not around just to keep from being wasteful boneheads or, if you do subscribe to the "leave it on" school of thought, don't admit it.