Unhappy with tubes so which transistor amp?

Hi guys,

About 6 months back I bought an ARC Ref110. For one reason or another I am still running on the demo unit which has failed 2 times during this time. The first time it was one of the output tubes which was blown. This time it simply won't power up. I have checked the fuse and it looks ok but the amp shows no sign of life.

Based on my experience so far I am thinking that I will sell my unit brand new when I get it next week. I don't want to deal with a piece which breaks down often as for me reliability is one of the key criteria as I am totally zero on the technical side of electronics (changing the fuse may be as technical as it gets for me). So even stuff like biasing, changing tubes after x amount of hours looks like a lot of work to me.

Now after this background I come to the million dollar question. Since replacing the amp with my old Aragons I have noticed that I have lost significantly in 3 areas.

1) Soundstage does not seem to be as big as with the Ref110 specially in regard to sound coming from outside the speaker thing, which btw is gives you an awesome feeling if you are listening with the lights switched off

2) I have lost the mid range magic. This is painfully apparent in vocals as they have lost their sense of realism.

3) Digital glare and harshness has also crept back in the system.

Now I am looking for an amp that is SS but can give me back what I have lost although I am not sure about number 2 as everyone says you can't do it with SS. Basically I am looking for an SS amp with huge soundstage, beautiful and natural (not "smooth" as in muffled) midrange and san any digital glare. Price should be ~10K new or used.

The related equipment is ARC CD3 MKII, ARC LS26 and Peak Consult Empress loud speakers.

Any help or ideas is welcome.


P.S. I posted the same on speaker forum by mistake. Mods please feel free to delete the other thread. Thanks
I went back to SS after my Counterpoint broke down a second time..
The Counterpoint sat in the closet for awhile, then I traded it. NOW... I am kicking myself for selling it.
So I would say keep the tube job around in storage. Sooner or later you will want that sound BACK! and the only way to get it is with tubes.
I currently use a Adcom 750. I am moping around for a hybrid tube pre... (or a Dared, new.. to stick into the adcom's processor loop!)
Get a set of Channel Islands D200s. They won't disappoint...
That's unfortunate about your technical problems with tubes. But a good company would take care of you much better. I've been using Music Reference, deHavilland and Aesthetix for three years. Their amps and pres are amazing and customer service AMAZING. The sound is among the BEST for a very reasonable price. on't give up. When yoi find the right combination the enjoyment and revelation is worth it. Solid state is not!
If you liked the Aragons you might check out the designers own line Krell
Latest Belles or Symphonic Line RG-1 MKIII should give you some of that tube magic and be less problematic
Tube equipment always requires more care. The failures you have encountered with a brand new ARC amp don't seem usual for the brand, although, as with anything man-made, breakdowns will occur. Very often transistor amps are touted as having "tube-like sound". Class A often seems to be the key to getting the magic of tube sound with a solid state amp. I think that Pass offers great sounding amps. Have you given a hybrid design any consideration? ARC now makes a model that should probably be auditioned. Tenor amps also have a great reputation for their sound quality.
While I continually lust after tube amps like your Ref 110 I will probably never own one--even with a reputable outfit like ARC which has, in my experience, excellent service and customer support. I see tube power amps like woman who you want to take home for the evening but would never think of marrying--too much maintenance! I'd take a look at the new tube hybrid just released by ARC, the HD220. It has a tube input stage and solid state output devices. It should be much more user friendly and may preserve the midrange authenticity that you desire. Also, ARC has a new SD135 which is all solid state that may be of interest. Either of these will preserve much of what the Ref 110 is about, keep you in the ARC family (a good thing in my view) and give you more of a "plug and play" set up. If you do get either one of these amps please come back to the thread with an appraisal since folks may be interested in your experience with these new products.
HD220 will still leave you missing in 2, maybe/maybe not in 3, but it still sounds very good and is synergistic.

What about trying the CJ Premier 350? The reviews say it has all that, but I haven't heard it. Just a thought.
A Steve McCormack modded DNA-225 or even a non modded DNA-500 may do the trick for you. I have the DNA-125 and I love it with a tubed pre and eventually will have it modded by Steve. I believe a tubed pre with either of these amps would give you much of what you are looking for. For the kind of bucks you are looking at spending you need to make arrangements to hear the amp with your sytem and in your listening environment.
If a tube took out a resistor, that's not the amp's fault. Stuff like that happens. Also, ARC will take care of you, assuming you bought the amp from an authorized dealer.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a better-sounding amp for anywhere near the price, and there aren't many companies that are better than ARC where customer service is concerned. Also, checking and adjusting bias is no big deal, and the sound will reward you every time you listen.

I sure wouldn't give up on it yet.
How about a hybrid amp?
It combines the best of both worlds, like a solid state amp, for great bass response (deep and tight) and ease of use, and like a tube amp for that great mid-range and delicate treble extension.

I use the Lamm M2.1 hybrid monoblocks (200 wpc). These amps are a Class A/AB amp, that is heavily biased to run in Class A, (up to 36 wpc before they go into Class AB). They only have one 6922 tube in each amp, and no biasing is necessary. (And if you wish, you can even do a bit of tube rolling to get the sound exactly the way you want it. And since there are only two tubes total to buy, it is relatively cheap to tube roll.) These amps are much better than any solid state or pure tube amp I have heard, with one possible exception (more on that later). I have owned a couple of Mark Levinson amps, and my friend, who also owns Lamm hybrid amps (the M2.2- 220 wpc, which is the successor to the M2.1) has owned Classe, Nuforce and Rowland solid state amps, and the Lamm easily bested them all. My friend also went through several tube monoblocks, including the Kora Cosmos, BAT VK-150s, Manley Neoclassic 250s and the VTL MB-450s. Again, the Lamm was clearly better than all of them, although both the Manley and VTLs came closer than any of the solid state amps.

I paid $7K for my Lamm M2.1s, used of course. If you don't need 200 wpc, you can find a used pair of M1.1s (100 wpc - a full Class A amp, btw) for around the same price. I will point out that the only cavaet of using Lamm amps, are that since they are either full Class A, or heavily biased into Class A, is that they run very warm. (You won't burn yourself if you touch the top of the amp, but it will warm up the room a couple of degrees. A tradeoff I will gladly accept in order to get the best sonics I have ever heard!)

However, there is one solid state amp that sounds almost as good as the Lamm hybrids, (and to some people, as good, if not slightly better). That is the 100 wpc DarTZeel NHB-108. Personally, I prefer the M2.1/M2.2s as I like having the extra power in order to get best bass response out of my speakers, (and I think the treble is slightly better too), but if you must have a solid state amp, this is the one to get, IMHO. They sound as good as the Lamms do in the mid-range, which is where the most important part of the music is. Used they run just slightly above $10K, but it would be well worth it to get that quality of sound.

My two cents worth.
Good Luck in your search!
Don't take delivery of the new unit, if there are problems. You have no obligation to accept a product that is not fit for the intended purchase, and I think that you could reasonably make that argument from here.
Not to start another flame-fest - but you should check out the NuForce Ref9 V2 SE's. I am using an ARC LS26 with them and they are superb.

They will be replacing my Levinson 336.
Try an Ayre amp if you want magical midrange, authoritative bass, and absolutely no glare or harshness whatsoever. I owned an Ayre V3 (their smallest amp, 100 watts) and now own the ARC VT100 Mk III and love both. Sound is amazingly similar, esp with ARC front end like you have and I also have.
You must try McIntosh MC501 monoblocks at some point. They are the ideal thing for you IMO.

stay the course, and give the new arc a shot....you'll be happy you did
I'm not a big fan of tube power amps, much prefer the tubes in the preamp only, the maintenance involved, tube biasing unless its self biasing, the heat generated, tubes are wearing out once it is turn on, much more so with tube amps than tube preamps. When I listen to music I don't want to worry about the gear. It has been mentioned in other threads and worth mentioning again that the ARC 100.2 is a worthy contender since it is known to be one of the best sounding solid state amps ever produced by Audio Research. Partner it with a quality Audio Research tube preamp and you have given up very little.
I second the Pass. I have the a GNSC modified LS-25 Mk I with Amperex 7308 white label tubes. Used to pair with a Mark Levinson #333 running a pair of Thiel 3.6. Switched over to Pass X350.5 about a year, and was impressed at how good the Pass sounded. If you like the tube midrange and SS dynamics, I think Pass is an excellent choice! If you don't need a lot of power, check out the XA series, which would be around the same price range as the ARC Ref amps.

The rest of my system:
Digital: Mark Levinson #37 + Sonic Frontiers SFD2 Mk II
Analog: Michell Orbe SE + SME V + Shelter 901 + ARC PH3 SE

You are not unhappy with tube amps, you are unhappy with the ARC tube amp. You love the sound but don't want maintenance/reliability headaches. Understood. What you want is a great sounding, low maintenance tube amp. I suggest a pair of new McIntosh MC275 Mk-V running as monoblocks. They don't require biasing, are easy on power tubes, run very cool without fans, and are only $3900 MSRP each. Your speakers have 90dB sensitivity, so the MC275's will provide all the power you need and deliver great sonics.
What about digital amps from http://www.digitalamp.com
You can give an ARC HD220 a shot.
Also, consider Blue Circle hybrid amps such as BC204 or BC206.
These amps use 4 6922 tubes. Have a listen. All the qualities you are looking for.
IMO, this is the best compromise.
I'd also have to suggest the Pass amps. I got a pair of XA-160 mono's and that's one thing in my system I'll never upgrade... unless it's the XA-200!!

Plinius sa100, or Symphonic Line RG1 Mk3. very tube like solid state designs. btw---some Solid state amps need biasing and they all have fuses, so you may not want to give up on tubes if you like the sound. I have run tube amps for over 20 years, no major issues .
Thanks for all the responses guys. I do have faith in ARC Customer Service but the problem is I am based in Switzerland and my dealer is in Germany. So its quiet inconvenient to send the amp to Germany everytime something breaks. Additionally I want the luxury of just knowing where the power button is on my amps and I guess that is pretty much impossible with any tube amp.

I am thinkin about Pass and Plinius (SS) and LAMM M1.2 and ARC HD220 (hybrid). Mcintosh could also be an option but I have to check the availability and pricing here. Any other choices with world class mid range? One thing I definitely want is to buy something which can be offloaded fairly quickly if I want to change so I don't want to go for exotic products.

I have heard the DartZeel with my speakers and it sounded muddy and slow which was quiet a surprise based on the praise this amp gets on the forums.

I have heard the name Nuforce being mentioned a couple of times and its aroused my curiousity. Unfortunately the availability of this amp is a bit of an issue in Switzerland.

My fear with using the new unit is that if I use it and tnan after a couple of months end up selling it due to reliability reasons I don't know how much money I will lose. This is particularly important for tube gear as everyone knows that there is wear and tear which is not a big issue with good SS products.


Both the Pass and the Plinius will be more laid-back than the ARC, like sitting further back in the audience or as though the stage were behind the speakers. The Plinius is good with passive pre's while the Pass is not, in SE. The Pass is fully balanced while the Plinius SA series is only balanced when bridged. Both are best warmed up but the Plinius does have that A-A/B switch to reduce heat.

I've only heard the Lamm in another system but it was very nice. Macs have many good qualities but can be soft with some speakers.

You should consider the old Rowlands, like the Model 6,8 and 9, before they went digital but wouldn't a Euro maker like YBA, MBL, ElectroCompaniet or GamuT make more sense for you?
Nsgarch wrote:
You are not unhappy with tube amps, you are unhappy with the ARC tube amp. You love the sound but don't want maintenance/reliability headaches.
I tend to agree. Don't give up on tubes just yet. Peak Consult speakers work well with tubes.
I would try Conrad Johnson I have a premier 350 and it is excellent. As far as tube amp reliability goes I have had a couple of cj tube amps with no problems.

The CFs and ARC designs are on opposite ends of the spectrum.It would be easier to switch to SS from an ARC,than from CJ.IMHO.In addition to the fore mentioned products,i will also give a nod to the Pass X or XA series.
One other to check out is Audiopax, if they are available in your country. They are from Brazil, and the 2 years I went to CES, they had one of the best sounding rooms in the show. Although mostly known for their tube amps, they were showing a pair of solid state monoblocks in 2006. Although there was a year separation between the 2 shows, I thought the 2006 system (w/ solid state amps) sounded better than the 2005 system (w/ tube amps). They had also upgraded their speaker design, so this probably contributed, but the amps certainly weren't hurting.
I would also recommend Pass amps as very musical and detailed.
I, like you, had tube amps that continued to fail in one way or another. I even had some OTL tube monoblocks that had the biggest soundstage I had ever heard. But I got tired of going to my music room and panicking when the amp failed. When I went back to solid-state for its reliability, the midrange magic and dimensionality of the instrumental images and soundstage were mostly gone. So I tried a number of SS amps and never found one I liked until I bought a used Essence amp here on the Gon. Superior dynamics, bass, and detail to any other amp I have heard with some of the dimensionality of tubes. And no tube biasing nor tube failures. I will never look back.
try clayton audio!!!! pure class a and really gives you the best of both worlds and a true bargain to boot!! the m-300's are awesome
Lovely system, I heard the Peak consult speakers before I bought mu Acoustic Zen speakers,they were too costly for me. You have some great suggestions, particularly the Pass XA series. They were designed to give the tube like magic of the Aleph amps with the greater power of the X series. I tend to like a tube pre with SS power amps, so a hybrid might be a good choice. The Canadian DK or LSA as it is now, hybrid integrated amps sounded very good and reasonably priced, when I heard it at a recent show. 150watts should be more than enough.
I second Kurt Tank's recommendation for Lamm hybrid mono blocks. I have had a pair of Lamm M1.2s (110 watts each) for a year now and would not want to give them up for anything else.

They would make an amazing system with your other equipment.

Thanks guys. More information leads to more confusion. Ngjockey writes:

[QOUTE] Both the Pass and the Plinius will be more laid-back than the ARC, like sitting further back in the audience or as though the stage were behind the speakers. [/QOUTE]

I don't like the sound of it. I don't want to give up the feeling of being a part of the performance. I just love the sound stage of my 110 and don't want to give up anything there. Also I would like stay balanced through out the chain so I guess Plinius goes out as well.

Funny thing about me is that I have never had any European electronics and American speakers in my setup so I don't want to change this now. The American speakers I have heard (Revels and Wilsons) were too forward for my taste and European electronics too laid back :-)

As its been pointed out countless times system synergy is more important than the individual components so maybe the best mating between an ARC pre and Empress can only be provided by an ARC tube amp :-(

If your Aragon amplifiers sound better than the ARC, the latter is broken. As for the digital glare "creeping back into the system", you should probably look elsewhere for the culprit.

I can understand that tubes might not be your cup of tea for practical purposes, but good tubes amps consistently whup SS in most areas.

You must have bad luck. Problem seems to be a tube problem not an amp problem. Happenend to me many times with Graaf OTL GM 20. The amp was great only there were problems with a certain stock of tubes. I still own a Graaf ( GM 200 now it is ) with 32 output tubes and untill today they never let me down.
In my set I also use the ARC CD7 and the REF 3. In the winter I use the Graaf GM 200 OTL in the spring and summer the Belcanto Ref 1000's. I like them both for different reasons. The Graaf is still the winner but man it does get hot. I haven't heard the Ref 110 but read much about it. I don't think you can go wrong with it. Just give it a third chance.
The only non tube power amps I have heard that give SET type image depth and layering and that "reach out and touch it" soundstage are the Gainclone type chip amps.
I strongly recommend the Exemplar Statement amp. It is integrated but you can bypass the line stage. I have not owned a ss amp in over 35 years,with the exception of the tiny 25 watt amp whose name I cannot recall. I heard the Statement amp at the RMAF with the Model 10 LSA speakers. I tried the Statement on my Acapella La Companellas and was shocked. There was no grain; it had the bass control one expects of ss; its top end was clean and extended; and it was quite dynamic.

It certainly is far superior to any other ss amp I have ever heard, and at $6500 is a great buy. One also gets a good line and phono stage that I would recommend if you need it when you top notch line stage is down.

The Exemplar Statement is the top amp of three available through LSA. There is the base model and an improved line stage model from LSA. Finally, the Exemplar Statement is the top amp.
I know that you are interested in SS amps, but here in the U.S. the distributor for Peak Consult routinely does shows with Berning amplification. I have the Incognito X matched up with a pair of monoblocked Berning 270's. One thing everybody will agree on about Berning equipment is that it is ultra-reliable.
Hi Rayden1972 i have two friends that own Acoustat's speakers and i also own a pair but i am not in the same league as them one my amplifier is a Bow Wazoo XL integrated 75 watts per channel great LITTLE amplifier my speakers are the 1+1s friend # 1 owns a Passlab x350 with 2+2s and friend # 2 owns a Plinius SA-250 with Spectra 6600s BOTH amps are very very good BUT my preference goes to the Plinius and the major reason is SMOOTHNEST the Passlab is a livelier sound but not bright but the Plinius is very very close to tube sound BUT without the MAINTENANCE i am 64 years old and audio as been my main hobby for 40 of those years i have heard lot's of great systems here is to ME the best one i have heard Amplifier Plinius SA-250 - Preamps Promitheus special edition monos - Cd player Naim cd5x - Speakers very very highly modified Acoustat's Spectra 6600s you realy have to hear these panels to believe but the new Martin Logans CLX wich are a great speaker do not come anywhere close to these speakers and yes i have heard both and it is not even close.
I would check out the Bryston 14B-SST/SQ or a pair of Bryston 7B-SST/SQ monoblocks. They are descibed as having a tube like sound with a massive amount of power. I have the older version 7B-SST which I would not classify as having a tube sound. There are quite a few online reviews coming out on these items. I do not think I can post links to these reviews on A'Gon. The Oct 2009 Stereophile is supposed to have a review on the 7B-SST/SQ. Cost for these items is under 10K (I think).
My 2 cents if you want tube sound without tube maintenance then you need something in the same price range as the tube gear you are replacing this is for Rayden1972 Audio Research Ref-110 $10,000.00 US VS Aragon you have to be kidding if you want to be serious get a Plinius SA-250MK1V then you will never want to go back to tubes.
The first thing I do when I get a Tube amp is to swap the tubes for NOS. They sound 100 times better and I have NEVER had a tube failure.
Elizabeth, something was wrong with Counterpoint's production control. I had products that fell apart. Tubes are whats happening.
OK, here’s an uncommon one !

I’ve heard both amps in both set ups MrAcoustat is talking about. The Plinius is rich sounding but would be too laidback for what your tastes seem to be. Still a great machine. The Pass Labs X-350 is very powerful but a bit cold sounding. So still considering your tastes, Pass remains a good choice if you go for the x-.5 or xa series.

I think you got all good recommendations. And I most probably would go for any of them if I were in your position. By the way, you could also look at Threshold amps. But……here’s something under another angle : a Coda Class A amp.

I’ve got one paired with a CJ Premier 16 LS2 driving Acoustat Spectra speakers. This thing has high current and is quite a chameleon. It will follow anything you input it with, being a tube rolling in the pre, a change of interconnect or power cord, it will drive to a lot of different sound preferences. It can soundstage, make your speakers disappear, sound very detailed and transparent for a class A and be warm sounding and very bloomy on acoustics if that’s what you want. With ARC sources in front of it, it will adapt.

Now, here’s the deal. There is one here on Audiogon that’s been standing there for awhile. It’s in Greece (maybe why it’s still there), it’s a system 100. Now this thing has age but you can surely inquire when it was manufactured. This thing was brought on the market at 8500 $ US at the time. Check it out ! At the price the guy is asking, it could be an excellent alternative and an experiment in class A amplification for you.
Since you are in Switzerland, give the new Nagra MSA a listen, absolutely incredible. It's 60WPC, and bridgeable into monoblocks for 120WPC.

Disclosure: I am Nagra's US Service Manager.
I have the Plinius SA-250 with Logan CLX's and would say it was very textual rather than laid back. Definitely the soundstage goes further back than leaping before the speakers, but for me that gives a more realistic dimensional presentation with better instrument presentation on the stage. I was a tube guy and the Plinius confirmed I made a good choice to switch.
The magic of tubes without the tears, well I may have one answer. Another hybrid integrated, the Pathos Inpol. You really do get that warmth, without any loss of detail, speed and dynamics, that I associate with tubes and only have to worry about 4 Pre tubes. It runs warm, not hot, producing 50 Class A watts. That may not be enough for some speakers, it certainly is for mine. If you need less power, the Pathos TT is said to have a similar quality with 35 watt output.
They run way under the radar here in the U.S., but you should definitely check out Coda. They make some of the best transistor amps available, IMO. They simply excel at everything. Neutral, smooth, dynamic as all get-out, and able to drive most any speaker out there. They’re also very reasonably priced, all things considered. I’ve had some big names in my two systems—DartZeel, Lamm, Boulder, Conrad-Johnson, BAT, ARC—and personally, I wouldn’t trade my Coda for any of them. Sure, each of them does something better than the Coda, but not by much, and when you consider the massive price differentials, IMHO the Coda suddenly becomes a pretty good option.