Why do old tubes sound better than current tubes?

just wondering, is there something in the design, materials, or fabrication that makes old tubes sound better than those being currently produced?

it seems nearly universally held that old tubes are superior sounding to those made today - is there something specific about the old tubes that make then sound better?

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Rate of production, American, German, British manufacturers (old tubes)
Modern tubes are just Eastern factory tubes of respective countries but widened production, modern tubes made in former Soviet Bloc and China (because they were behind the curve, and still HAD factories making tubes left.)
The old tubes were made in 'Western countries' and a LOT were made. The vast majority of 'wanted' old tubes were made in England, America, Germany, Holland.
The Soviet bloc was making tubes then too, no one wanted those tubes.
The 'old factories' that made tubes in Western countries are all gone, the machinery is gone.
The factories that made tubes in the Soviet bloc countries is still there. So are Chinas tube making facilities.
That is the ONLY reason tubes are all made in those countries today for sale in the West.
Of any place, I would say China is the most likely to be capable of producing tubes equal or better than the 'old' tubes of the West. But then you have to sort through the junk to find the gold.
The current tube makers may be trying to improve thier tubes, but they are not the same as those old tubes, which hold nostalgia as well as a signal.
I think the tide is turning a little. The Genelex/Gold Lion reissues (Russian), for instance, are gaining real respect. I've personally replaced "Holy Grail" Mullard xf1 EL34s with Genelex KT77s because the new tubes sound quite a bit better in my amps. And the Sovtec 12AX7LPS is a winner. The reputation of many of the old tubes is, IMHO, a combination of performance and mystique/nostalgia. We're paying a lot for the latter.
I also believe the tide has turned in favor of the new tubes. You can get on the boards and read all you want about the "Holy Grail" tubes of yesteryear but I gotta tell ya, many of the new tubes are simply fantastic. I'll be reporting on this subject in TAS and on the AVGuide site. Frankly, it's great news and we all win.

Peter Breuninger
Sr. Writer, The Absolute Sound
The secret is inside. Quality of wire, cathodes, plates, durability...
Low noise (ask Aesthetix Callisto owners, they can tell you something about that), low microphonics, maybe shock resistance and so on.
forget the pricing for NOS, turn back the time 50 years and try to imagine you have in your left hand a Telefunken, Made in Germany and in your other other hand you have a modern Sovtec, Made in Russia, China or in other dark countries.
Do you really think they are equal? :-)
I know the answer. :-)

But we can't make money with old tubes, so let's be happy what is available today. It isn't that bad.
But not equal. I tried some modern tubes, great for the money, no doubt, but fantastic?
Fantastic is something different. But it depends on the quality of the System to hear these differences. I hate the NOS prices, I also bought a set of modern ones too with them to compare. I got my result.
The best answer I have ever heard is that some of the coatings used in the olden days are too environmentally unfriendly to be used in modern production. Another thing that you cant discount is the knowledge gained by experience of the toobe makers of old; trade secrets, lost in the sands of time :) Also, people were forced to use their BRAINS in those days.

I am happy to hear that at least some new production tubes are getting rave reviews but I remain skeptical about preamp tubes. I have seen so called preamp tube shootouts where the reviewer tested one tube of each type and drew concrete conclusions from such a limited sample. Anybody who has ever built gear or rolled a lot of tubes knows that two good preamp tubes from the same production code can sound vastly different - not to mention sonic differences due to minor changes in plate and heater voltages.

Disagree, kind of. While today's output tubes are really quite fantastic, the small signal tubes just do not compare to vintage. You can pretty much take any type of small signal tube, nine pin, octal, whatever, and vintage tubes will sound better.
My experience and that of many Doshi Alaap (preamp) owners is diametrically opposite to Viridian's, which leads me to believe that the design of the component is a critical factor in which tubes work best.

If a component is designed and executed from the ground up with a modern tube in the circuit, as Nick's designs are, then that tube may provide the best performance. I've done plenty of NOS tube rolling and Nick and other owners have done more. I've found one vintage line stage tube that slightly outperforms its current production equivalant in some sonic areas, though not all. But in both phono stage tube positions no NOS tube compares with readily available, fairly inexpensive new tubes from the likes of JJ.

In a vintage component, or a modern component designed around vintage tubes, the opposite may apply. I doubt there's any other hard and fast rule about old vs. new that we'd get much agreement on.
thanks for the responses, all - this was quite informative. i ask as i have just purchased an aesthetix calypso and find it to be an exceptional preamp, however, have read that tube rolling with particular NOS tubes can make it even better. i was considering telefunkens, but was curious as to what it was specifically that made the old tubes sound better. sounds like there's some lore/nostalgia, some materials, and some design (component and tube) that factor in here.

Why do old tubes sound better?

They have more experience. ;-)

I think it’s simpler still. Especially if you think about the times the vintage tubes were made.

Demand. Materials. QA.

Back in the 40’s, 50’s, & even in the 60’s, times were different. The thinking was more geared towards making a better product than a cheaper one more often than not. Materials too weren’t in short supply usually, nor were these materials skimped upon employing mere percentages of this or that instead of using 100% of them. Quality control too was on a higher level as well I would think. During those times, sales were generated by producing ‘better’ and not quite so much as making the ‘faster and cheaper’ products, though the latter always will be a facet of business.

Probably as important too, the apathy level on the job was lower than it is in the workplace these days and may well have played a significant part in the whole of things.

True too, those original ‘tube magicians’ that were around then aren’t around now, nor is the content of their heritage. Doubtless few magicians’ apprentices were getting on board in the business as silicon was becoming all the rage in the late fifties and sixties when the transistor came into being. So I suppose it came down to a main precept of business, ‘demand’.

You gotta know too, tube makers were almost like VHS machine & tape makers… lots of brand names but scant few actual makers. RCA was a giant in the tube industry, and their plans changed in house as well in which direction they would be going forward with.

That old adage “They don’t build them like they used to!” still has merit and reasons why.

There are some pretty decent tubes being made today though. Even in Russia. I have some and enjoy them a lot. CED Winged C EL34. I’m thinking about trying some of the KT 77s too as mentioned above… maybe.

In the 9 pin arena matsushita Elec. Made some back in the 70’s that I feel are on par with some of the far earlier Amperex 7308 & 6922s. I had some of them a while back.

On the flip side, I tried some of the Tung Sol 5881 re-issues and sent them back quickly.

As for the lable NOS…. I feel that too is more myth than fact. 50, 60, & as much as 70 year old tubes no one ever used? Really. How do you know? You had them in the closet for all of that time? Sure.

With tubes though, it’s as much about the vendor as it is about the tube itself. There’s one or two vendor’s I simply WILL NOT buy from again. Period. There are other’s of course that I’ll accept whatever they sell me as golden, and trust implicitly.

… or it could just be things change.

Perhaps tube topology designers ought to alter the other ingredients in their designs so as to attempt to recapture nostalgia by utilizing these newer tubes instead of emulating the ‘SS like’ sound so commonly found in today’s tube amps. After all, tubes are tubes and should IMHO have a distinct voice well apart from that of chips and silicone.
Doug brings up a great point and I defer to his broader experience. I use mostly vintage gear and have not tried every new small signal tube out there. So, as he so correctly points out, my experience is limited.
We use tube curves based on the old tubes to design gear. Modern tubes behave slightly differently and most certainly the Russian tubes are NOT direct drop-in replacements for old Mullard designs. Russian Tubes today can handle more current in many designs and require it to sound good.
Much of the NOS stuff is fraud and nonsense IMO, as many of the "better" sounding tubes have no bass or treble thus softening a truly nasty speaker,cartridge or CD player and making an awful system palatable. That is, when the NOS tube is what it has been labeled or is not a completely worn out "pull".

I picked up a few of the new Genalex 12AX7GENGP tubes from NS and did an audition between them and the 04/60's Telefunken I was using in my C500T.

Guess what -- even though still early, and the Genalex have only 5 hours on them or so since the swap out -- I like what I'm hearing & so, they remain in the MC slots.

Impressive so far folks.

I picked up a few of the new Genalex 12AX7GENGP tubes from NS and did an audition over a weekend between them and the 04/60's Telefunken I was using in my C500T.

Guess what -- even though still early, and the Genalex have only 5 hours on them or so since the swap out -- I like what I'm hearing & so, they remain in the MC slots.

Impressive so far folks.

Search the archives, this question seems to come up once a month or so.
There is much more to say about tubes than would fit into a thread. As was mentioned before, some tubes of days long gone by do have a unique mixture of materials in a pureness you won't find anymore today.
But in Audio it all comes down to the individual judgement of the respective listener/owner about what set of tubes he/she like BEST in a specific piece of equipment under certain circumstances ( circuit, matching with other components etc.).
There is no rule - there is no universal guideline. I for one do look for very specific mechanical criteria in tubes (and tube-types..) I use in amplifiers, because I know about certain direct links between sonic performance in a given circuit and specific mechanical/architectural circumstances in a tube. And this too is depending whether I use them as plate-follower, in SRPP mode, input-, driver- and/or phonostage-tube.
In the very end it always come down to what YOU do like best.
That is all that counts.
There is no BEST tube (type or version) out there.
There is a selection of great tubes for each specific purpose.
NOS or NNS - you will find good and great tubes in both camps (but you are likely to find a wider selection in the NOS-camp .... ;-) ..... ).
Try and enjoy.
One of the Chinese tubes, the Suguang 12AX7 is as good as NOS or better than other new for sure. I swapped some out and quickly swapped them back in.
because the people who sell nos tubes cant make money on new tubes. I have rogue m180s and have tried mullards, telefunkens, mazdas, GEs , rca cleartops, 5751 triple micas, and about five or ten I cant remember, sorry folks but the cheap as dirt sovtek 12ax7 lps is a winner, and so is the new tung sol gold pins, those are what I go back to again and again. the old tubes can sound nice and pleasant, but just dont have the resolution of the new ones, at least in my system. but now I cant brag and say I have three hundred dollar telefunkens in my amps either. I guess I will just have to listen to music instead.
I've only heard one new production input tube that sounds anywhere near as good as several NOS versions, and I've tried several new production variants. That particular tube is the Shuguang 6SN7, and it was heard only in VAC components.

I do like some of the new production power tubes...Sovtek 2A3, Shuguang KT88, and Shuguang 300B.
Hi all, I do believe that the overall voicing of the system or the component and related things (cables, cartridges, etc.), all help set the stage for what tube or tubes will sound better. In my current system with my new phono stage, Fosgate Signature and Lyra Lydian Beta cartridge, I've found that two JJ Gold Pin 6922 tubes, sound wonderful. I am also using a mix of one JJ Gold Pin 12AX7 (ECC803 S) followed by one electro-harmonix 12AX7 Gold pin, then one NOS Mullard CV4024 (12AT7),and finally one electro-harmonix 12AT7. I love what I hear.

I tried using NOS Sylvania 6922 and NOS Sylvania 12AX7 as well as Mullard 12AX7 remakes, Sovtek 12AX7LPS, and of course the tubes supplied with the unit, all were less than desirable or even awful. For what it's worth I have discovered that with phono stage tubes it's worth paying extra for low noise and microphonics. So at least with this application it seems that for the most part, current production tubes out perform NOS tubes.
When folks are making $$$$ finding pulled tubes from old TV shops and where ever they of course will say the best. I heard several new tubes that sounded better, some of the NOS tubes can have a warmth to them, but dynamics just are not there or tight bass, also the NSO can go to the other side and side bright and lacking mid-bass/bass.

In the end it is system depended and what you enjoy. I just ordered a set of the ECC83 Gold Lion reissues and I am looking forward to seeing what is what with them.

Will newer tubes last as long as Tele's who knows, but if they sound better who cares, just stock up on them. My friends had his stock McIntosh tubes in his preamp for several years and he says still going strong.

So myth vs. fact. Like LP's always sounding good, just not true.
Vacuum tubes require, as should be obvious in their name, vacuum. Over the years, vacuum tube manufacturers and suppliers have turned to lower quality vacuum to cut costs. The high-quality vacuum supply is harder and more expensive to acquire.

As vacuum was mined, the easily reached sources of good quality vacuum (near the surface) were quickly exhausted leaving only more expensive and dangerous mining operations as the only source. As a result of several large and devastating mine implosions the larger vacuum mines that produced good quality vacuum were closed leaving only small boutique vacuum mines to supply the vacuum. Often, this vacuum contains impurities that must be removed (by what else than a vacuum cleaner!).

In the mid-80s, the Russian Kamakiskorvitchski brothers (Kamis for short) had a corner on the vacuum market. They had several tanker cars on a railroad siding in Siberia that contained most of the high-quality liquified vacuum available at the time. They carefully supplied only the Soviet and Eastern Block tube manufacturers with the high quality vacuum. Some smaller tube manufacturers were forced to use counterfeit vacuum containing large amounts of impurities. Again this vacuum needed cleaning.

Unfortunately, the supply of good quality vacuum has dried up in recent years. Only the older tubes still used high quality vacuum in their manufacture, but some tubes of the same era used counterfeit vacuum.

So one must be careful. Check your tubes and don't forget to use your vacuum cleaner.
Bpoletti, bong or vaporizer vacuum? Well done!
In this context, bongs suck. (Sorry about yet another bad vacuum joke.)
It amazes me that some find the fact that people are making a profit selling pulls to be the source of misinformation about the quality, both physical and sonic, regarding vintage tubes. On last check, the vendors of new tubes make a profit as well. Since when did making a profit on things with a degree of rarity become an issue in a capatilist society? If you don't like the sound, or can't afford it, then don't buy it. But that doesn't mean that I won't.
Viridian, we found something we can agree on; I think. New tubes do not even compare to NOS tubes. NOS tubes can take gear to another level. Let me be specific; I am referring to preamp tubes, those are the one's I have had experience with.
We agree on lots, and I always enjoy your posts.....even those that I don't agree with. Keep it up!
I have a rather LARGE collection of NOS and "pulled" tubes both preamp and power tubes bought most in the 90's. I 100% agree w/ orpheus & Virdian. I originally collected vintage guitar amps from the 60's (mostly Marshalls) before I got into i-Fi again. In my experience ANY new tube does NOT compare w/ vintage tubes,period! Now I'm just talking preamp tubes. I will attest to the fact that when it comes to KT88 and Kt66 tubes some of the new ones beat out my vintage ones. I must stress that I'm comparing them to vintage USED.
When it comes to NOS and even used 6L6's/5881's, El 84's, and EL 34's..... NO COMPARISON! the vintage win! Especially true w/ EL 34 mullards and telefunkens. I would not even "think" to put in ANY of the new variants available when it comes to them. My 02 cents...
Viridian, Opheus10, Tjnif, others...

Regarding some of the more commonly used preamp tubes, do you find that "joe's tube lore" remains a valid tool for winnowing/choosing vintage pulls etc when preparing to do tube rolling?

you know. that old time sound. tubey.
Certainly, particular designs, system synergy and personal taste could favor any one particular tube over another. For small signal tubes, I have generally found that older production tubes sound better, and also last much longer.

The big problem with older tubes is that one hardly finds truly new, or barely used, old tubes on the market these days. I've bought tubes that are claimed to be NOS from supposedly reputable sellers that test pretty mediocre on a good, modern tube tester (Amplitrex). Also, there is such a wide variety of voicing of older tubes that it is easy to come up with simply wrong tubes for a particular application.

In everything that I've heard, for my taste anyway, I've been able to find alternatives to the manufacture chosen tubes that I prefer. Almost always that alternative has been older varieties for small signal tubes. But, then again there are a LOT more older choices.

I own modern 2a3 power tubes that do sound VERY good (EML meshplates and solid plates) so I can say that there is good current production of those tubes. A friend has AVVT 300bs that are quite good and distinctive (not as mushy on the bottom as most 300bs, new or old).
Does Flo Rida or the Black Eyed Peas sound better with NOS tubes?
I've got some of those expensive, NOS EL 34s. Maybe I should auction them off since I replaced them with current production 6AC7 because they sound much better to me in my amp. I like syrup on my waffles, but not my music. ;-)

My amp, pre and phonostage are the same as Doug's. So, ditto what he said.

Does Flo Rida or the Black Eyed Peas sound better with NOS tubes?

Nothing would make these guys sound good on anything other than an MP3 player, IMO. ;-)
" I've bought tubes that are claimed to be NOS from supposedly reputable sellers that test pretty mediocre on a good, modern tube tester (Amplitrex)."

So are they real NOS tubes or not? PErhaps NOS tubes are just not always the cats meow? They are old after all. Most electronic devices decline with age.

"Also, there is such a wide variety of voicing of older tubes that it is easy to come up with simply wrong tubes for a particular application. "

I think one must be willing to experiment with lots of different tubes to find the best. Buying overpriced NOS tubes just because they are NOS will break the bank sooner and perhaps actually prevent one from finding the right tubes perhaps?

Does Flo Rida or the Black Eyed Peas sound better with NOS tubes?

"Nothing would make these guys sound good on anything other than an MP3 player, IMO. ;-)"

I use stock 12AX7 tubes in my ARC sp16 tube pre-amp and BEPs sound just they way they should to me and mega miles better, no comparison, than on an Ipod with earbuds which typically has very limited dynamics.
Tube are often represented as NOS that are probably old pulls, and often include testing results that turn out to be either false or based on poorly calibrated testers. Most tube testers do not subject the tubes to full power tests (the Amplitrex does do this) or give actual numbers for transconductance and other measurements, so it is hard to get meaningful readings in terms of how much life is left in the tubes.

I don't know to what extent older tubes decline without use, but, I have some old tubes that DO test very strong on my Amplitrex so I know that at least some tubes do not deteriorate with age.

As to whether NOS tubes are overpriced, that really is a value judgment. It is entirely up to each person to determine whether it is worth the cost to conduct the search for better tubes. In every instance where I, or my friends, have tried different tubes, we have found alternatives to what the manufacturer supplied that sounded better. That was the case with my amplifiers, and my amplifiers came from the manufacturer with old tubes (RCA bi-plate 2a3s, red-base 5692s). In my phonostage, I really like the result of using old Telefunken ECC803S tubes. I know that they are now unbelievably expensive; if anyone knows of alternatives that sound like that tube and cost less, please provide such information.

Manufacturers of tube gear almost always use current production tubes because availability and consistency are of prime importance. Since alternative voicing is really a matter of system matching and personal taste, it makes less sense to use much more expensive older tubes when the result (matching customer's needs) is entirely unpredictable. Thus, in almost every case, their is at least THE OPPORTUNITY to "improve" the result by selecting alternatives, whether other brands of new tubes or older tubes.

I think the very lable of 'NOS' is misleading.

Unless my parents or some other close relative bought some of these claimed "NOS" tubes when they were young and can now recall it vividly, and kept them in a box clean and dry for the past several decades.... well those tubes I'd call NOS. Otherwise, NOS means very litttle to me apart from that they are old... New? Maybe new to me... but NEW outright?

I'm going to be quite doubtful. But if my gear and my ears say they're a step up... I'm good with that, and that means only they measure out well according to orig specs... but certifiablly 100% virgin new? Probably not. not IMHO.

Never thought about it but you are right. New old stock sounds like marketing jibberish. Its old, oh but its new! Oh sorry but I meant unused, not new. How do I know it was never used? Well, it reads like new. Yeah right! Funny.

I agree tube rolling can yield benefits, but the book is still open for me on the merit of NOS versus otherwise. I may never know though because so far for me, the fewer tubes, the better. And I like the few that I already have!
Yes, "new old stock" not only sounds like marketing gibberish but an oxymoron as well, which is why many prefer "new original stock", which is a more accurately descriptive term for the NOS acronym. This distinguishes the older production from the modern reissues.
I found this and thought it interesting:

I claim to have golden ears in regard to NOS tubes. I bought some bargain NOS tubes that sounded half as good as full price tubes and I sent them back for full price tubes. MY point is, leave bargains for the bottom feeders.
I have bought tubes from "Brent Jesse" for years. A reputable dealer makes his living dealing with "golden ears", he can not afford not to deliver the goods. Since there is absolutely no way to tell an OK tube from the real deal by looking at it, and only if you got the ears can you tell by listining to it; your best option is to only deal with a reputable dealer.
some old tubes sound great, some sound like crap, some new tubes sound great, some like crap. Sorry ,but the notion that anything nos is better than anything new is just not true. I listen to the sound, not somebody's marketing hype.
"some old tubes sound great, some sound like crap, some new tubes sound great, some like crap"

I suspect this to be true.
I suspect that the aging process may have something to do with this. I have a number of very old globe tubes along with the newer equivalents with ST shape bottles. I consistently have found that the old globe tubes sound better. I doubt that the bottle shape makes a difference and I would be think that quality and manufacturing expertise would have been higher when the ST shape tubes were made (50-60's vs 30-40's).

In particular I have a set of blue glass Acurus 27's that were made prior to 1931. They sound notably better than the later 50's version.
IMHO the blanket pronouncement "NOS tubes always sound better than new production" is the mantra of salesmen and the deaf. That they can be, for sure. But as often only have that potential if they actually are any good, as in not used up and/or noisy.

More importantly it is ALL about utilization and tone. Their use is not needed if they don't actually improve anything or give you the tone you're looking for.

FWIW, I use a lot of tubes and I get good mileage out of new production tubes as well as NOS and often actually prefer them, especially on a cost/benefit ratio.

I get good mileage out of new production tubes as well as NOS and often actually prefer them, especially on a cost/benefit ratio.

Newbee (System | Reviews | Threads | Answers | This Thread)
I'm certain you've mentioned them specifically in the past, but would you mind stating exactly which new production brands and tube types you like in your system?
I still think nostalgia is part of it.

Old tube gear had a certain sound different than modern gear. part of it was the tubes perhaps but also the overall state of eletronics design 50 years ago compared to now.

Old tubes in good condition still perhaps deliver that sound compared to more modern high end sounds.

The old tubes perhaps are more in the rhythm and smoothness camp and the newer ones more in the detail and resolution camp?

I'm sure there are exceptions, but that is my theory. I have too little actual experience with a variety of tubes these days to say for sure.

Similar to old low res TV versus newer HD TVs. You can see more details in HD but not everything is more beautiful in HD necessarily!
Tvad, Forgive me for not writing a book about my stuff and tube experience. No one would be interested, even you. Talk about a cost/benefit ratio! :-)

However if I see a post where I can knowledgably recommend a specific new production tube to get a specific result I will do so without regard to whether its old or new. And that is likely the only time I'll ever get into a discussion on the internet about what tubes I like (or not).

I was really doing nothing more than advocating that those who would come here seeking advise take less than very specific advise in response to very specific request with lots of cynicism. A poster should keep a mind open to all possibilities, including that in many applications new (or recent) production tubes can be, or are, as good as he needs in that specific application. IMHO, 'general' rules, broad observations, and general recommendations suck. Now for someone who can't do better than ask for 'What's Best' I'm sure that generic responses would be fine.

BTW, I realize that you have posted that you have not improved on NOS tubes in the applications you have changed tubes in. I take you at your word. But, consider for a moment that this statement really means little beyond the needs of your applications and the number of new (or recent production) tubes you tried as an alternative. Not so many I think IF you have been predisposed to a conclusion based on the age/expense/rarity/ of the tube or the hyper critical application you were using when you reached your conclusion.


Newbee, I think you have read more into my question than was intended.

I really only wanted to know what new production tubes you like. Just listing them would have been fine with me.

I have used the following new production tubes with good results: Penta Labs KT88SC, Valve Art KT88, Shuguang 300B, VAC 6SN7 (which I presume to be Shuguang).
Tvad, You are right. I did read too much into it I think.

New production (or recent productions) I have found a place for:

SED 6550, SED EL34, SED 6L6GC, and SED KT88's (I really like SED's)

Re-Issue Tung-sol 6550 (in one amp)

JJ and NOS Tesla 6922's and JJ and NOS Tesla 12AX & 12AU7's. I like the NOS tesla's better, but not that much and they are hard to get and can be spendy.

EH6922's (one application so far - not universal by a mile).

Re-Issue Mullard 12AX7's (one application so far)

EI 12AX7E (long grey plate) - my go to NP 12ax7 as a starting point/reference. I really like this particular EI though I guess it is out of production. I've had no QC problems with this one either.
EI 6DJ8 but it is not as quiet or rugged as I like. Again it is no longer in production.
EI 6CG7 - the only new one in production. So far so good but I'm just starting an inquiry into this tube type for a specific amp but so far so good.

And, FWIW, I've got a few others that are still trying to find a good home. Curiosity may have killed the cat - so far I'm only limping! :-)