The real "tubey" sound comes from a tube amp based system. However, there are many preamps that can provide tube flavor when combined with the right SS amp.
Good synergy and compatable specs between the two components are important.
PrimaLuna, CJ, Atma-sphere, Cary are some possible preamps. Balanced or SE?
The comments above illustrate how much the idea of "tubey sound" varies. If that is suppose to mean a warm sound (upper bass, lower midrange prominence), I cannot think of too much gear that is the antithesis of this kind of sound than Audio Research, particularly pre-Reference 3 gear. It would help to know, by comparison of what the OP has heard, a bit more about what the goals are because the different kinds of sound of tube gear is at least as vast as solid state.
In one post above, CJ, Atmasphere and Cary are listed as tube-based brands, and yet, the gear they produce sound quite dramatically different. You cannot reasonably lump together all of the tube gear from just the Cary line alone because the sound among models is so different. The SLP-98 linestage is very different from the SLP-05 (the former having a much warmer sound).
I think that, in the OP's context, "tubey" means something with euphonic coloration that makes things sound more "beautiful" as opposed to neutral. Audiophiles always say they want something neutral, but often prefer something to smooth out the rough edges a bit. I consider my Viva amplifier in this category and I've been very happy with it for about 9 years.
Chayro, I like the sound of Viva gear. I have a Viva fono phonostage myself. I checked out your profile and found that you have a Trenner & Friedl speakers, a brand I like too. We also share the same brand of turntable. It must mean we share the same notion of "euphonic coloration." But, that description merely means we like the sound of whatever we attach that label. There are plenty of tube gear I would not call euphonic and many of these are the most popular brands (at least as far as internet hype).
Obtain the tubed pre of your choice, then load it with either Mullards or Brimars(British valves/NOS, NOT repops). British tubes are generally quite euphonic(warm/caramel flavoring). There are a plethora of excellent 6922/6DJ8/E88CC types out there that should even enable you to adjust your Sonic Frontiers pre to your tastes.
Just find a tube unit from the early 1960s and put in some worn out tubes. Get as much distortion as you can. That will make it sound "tubey." Great, fat, bloated, lacking transparency like trying to read fine print through a layer of mud while wearing a welder's mask.
Otherwise, buy a modern neutral tube preamp and enjoy the quality of fine musical reproduction that well-designed tube equipment can deliver.
I agree with everything bpoletti references above. If it is a "tubey" sound that you are looking for you can’t really take the amp out of the picture. With that in mind a musical signal driven by a KT88 valve can give most preamps the tubey sound your seek. An original old stock Dynaco PAS pre/MK III amp will satisfy your quest for a dark, muddy, milky, thick, gooey......etc, etc musical signal. Needless to say tube amplification has come a long way in the last 50 years. Just one reason these have all been updated and modded. By avoiding neutrality you are adding (and some like it!) euphonics.
Tube Haters key in on the negative aspects of tube amplification: Great, fat, bloated, lacking transparency like trying to read fine print through a layer of mud while wearing a welder's mask
and fell that tendency is worse than the benefits of a warm, liquid, honeyed, smooth sound.
The trick is to get lots of the latter while minimizing the former subjective qualities.
Anything that does that for say $500??
It's funny to me reading all the above descriptions of tube sound running the full gamut, particularly liked your's bpoletti, now THAT is what some tube haters really mean when they refer to tubey sound. To others it means a degree of warmth or body that some components lack which leads to fatigue as does too much tubeyness.
In any case Randy-11 as one who has owned many tube pre's and power amps and listened to many more there is no definitive answer. The answer lies in your system and what you are trying to achieve and sometimes it's just a hit or miss proposition. I won't add to the responses above as I would tend to agree with most. Only one thing though is when the word "neutral" comes into the mix as it so often does. I suppose that means reproducing EXACTLY what is on the recording, personally not for me, been there done that, better to enjoy as much of your music as possible whatever brings that about. Besides, there really is no "neutral" there is only real and reproduced and how we reconcile the two.
@Randy- Did you read my previous post? It will cost much less than $500, to experiment with your Sonic Frontiers pre and British tubes. Just add two matched, LOW NOISE tubes in each gain stage, until you obtain the presentation you prefer. Amperex tubes will also add some warmth, though not as much as the Brits. These recommendations come from over three decades(going on four) of tube rolling, in a very wide variety of components/systems.
@Randy- Here's a bit of info that may be of interest to you. Read the section, toward the end, that's headed, " MULLARD, GENALEX, BRIMAR, and other British made NOS". (http://www.audiotubes.com/6dj8.htm)
Actually, I'm a tube lover. I own a tube phono stage with a FET mc front end and fully tubed line stage preamp. Herron VTPH-2 and Herron VTSP-3A (r03). They are very wonderful units. Vanishingly low distortion and coloration. Not "tubey" sounding, not anything sounding. Just transparent to the music.
I do not like components that add coloration or distortion to the music. They subtract from the musical presentation. Your tube "warmth" or "body" as you describe is a distortion, a coloration and not true to the source.
My original statements apply. I built and owned Dynaco, and owned early Audio Research tube gear. It was good in its day, mostly because almost all the solid state equipment in those days was so bad.
There is little to choose between in the very high end as it relates to tube or solid state gear. I chose the Herron equipment because I could not find anything better, could not even find an equal to it regardless of price.
Tubey or not tubey...that is the question?
I've got a hybrid integrated (Rogue with tube pre, class D power) amp and sometimes I wish it sounded warmer and more sumptuous. But I don't want to sacrifice definition and clarity. I'm guessing that's possible at a higher price point. Is it found at all in mid-fi?
@bpoletti- I'm of the exact same perspective, with regard to listening tastes. However: as one that's been in the business of helping others either produce their own, or- enjoy the music of others, for a few decades now; I've never felt it my place to adjust another's listening preferences. Even if it's diametrically opposed to my own. I like to leave them smiling!
@toastado- If you read the info in my posts, the British flavor and sonic qualities of the tubes mentioned extend across their lines of nine-pin miniatures(12AU7, 12AT7, etc). Try a pair of Mullard( 1960s date coded, Blackburn) 12AU7/ECC82 valves(if that’s a Sphinx). OR- If you’re feeling especially ritzy: 7316 Selected Grade early Amperex/Philips made, RARE D-getters(1950’s date coded, Holland). Their halo-gettered, 1960’s 7316 isn’t any slouch either. They may be the last tubes you have to buy for your Rogue. ie: (https://www.audiogon.com/listings/tubes-amperex-holland-7316-ecc82-12au7-medical-grade-long-plate-d-...) for the pics only.
I DO agree with everything you said bpoletti as far as it went. What I have personally found however is that some components characterized as neutral/accurate are really, to my ears, not that at all over extended listening. When fatigue comes into play on a regular basis there IS distortion. The word neutral in audio is overused and almost irrelevant. It is only neutral relative to what one is accustomed to. As Rodman notes it ultimately comes down to listening preferences over accuracy or lack of.
Keep on hearing great things about Keith Herron’s gear but have never listened in a familiar system but one always on the radar. " Correct presentation in time is the key element to transparency." Keith Herron. I definitely agree with THAT statement and have found it to be so true in my experience.
At $500 for a tube unit, I'd think more about condition than sonics.
Also, with your amplifiers rather low single ended input impedance, it might narrow your most likely to be single ended output tube preamp options. Not sure if you need a phono stage, that'll probably add to the cost.
Here's a quick off the top of my head shortlist of inexpensive tube pres,
caveat: don't know it they'll work with your amp, or if any fit any of your criterion, but at $500 you're not going to get too many options:
Cary SLP 50
Quicksilver Line Stage
I'm sure there's more,
My old Ayon CD-5s with Burson single HD discrete op amps, matched 6C4P rectifiers & cryo'd EH 6H30 Gold pins. The gold pins are warmer, lusher sounding tubes. Don't neglect the importance of cables either. I found Jorma Prime sounded harmonically rich, on the warm side and liquid sounding. OTOH Jorma Origo is a bit more neutral if you don't want any more warmth.
I have a Quicksilver full function preamp that can be tubey depending on tubes. I love mine and it's fun and easy to play with tweaking it. It's gonna run you north of 500 hundred but likely less than 1k. I've had mine for 5 years and it's been trouble free with only recently needing to replace a couple resistors. Tubed phono stage is quite the added bonus as well.
What are you trying to fix? I see you have Magnepans, so I'm guessing the highs are too much for you. If this is the case, call Magnepan and ask for some of the resistors that attach to your binding posts. The resistors roll the high's off to take away the edge. Its a problem they know about, and they won't charge you for them.
Ok I am going to go out on a limb here. You Sunfire Cinema Grand sound like crap and you are trying to mediate that sound. May not be necessary. I have never sold/owned maggies but sure there are plenty of threads here on the best amps to drive them. maybe an integrated?
Do you 5 channels? Does anyone need 5 channels?