Your opinion on the evolution of amps since 70s?

What is your opinion on the evolution of high-end amplifiers since the 70s?

I use the word “high-end” here not in the snobbish sense, but as a way of separating amplifiers designed for great sound from those intended for mass consumption. I am interested especially in the sound- and design changes of these amplifiers but would not mind reading about other aspects as well, such as build quality, prices and values. I read lively discussions on this topic on another site. Below is my take on the subject. I look forward to reading yours.

I caught the Hi-fi bugs in high school in the late 60s. This hobby quickly turned into an obsession in the 70s while I was still in college. I was seriously into high-end audio equipment in the 80s and 90s until their prices escaladed well beyond what I was willing to spend. Now I am just coasting.

I feel that from the 70s to the 90s amplifiers steadily improved in design, construction, and sound, especially solid-state (ss) amps. Today’s high-end amplifiers are generally more powerful and more sophisticated than their predecessors with sounds that are noticeably more refined as well. Interestingly, the sounds of ss and tube amps, quite far apart in the 70s, came closer together every passing decade though they never quite merge. Today’s ss have the edge on power, bass and treble extension while improved tube amps remain king of the midrange.

It is really a shame that the mid-90s witnessed an unconscionable price escalation leading to the inevitable shrinking of high-end audio. The much higher prices made cost-no-object designs possible but they also caused the large community of audio hobbyists and enthusiasts of the 70s and 80s to dwindle down to a much smaller group today. The design progress suffers.

That’s my short take on the subject. I can’t wait to read what Audiogoners have to say.
Listen to an "old" McIntosh tube amp. They go l o w, they go h i g h. And of course the midrange is fantastic. The latest reissue of the MC275 is EXTREMELY quiet. Same circuitry since 1949. My 1997 stainless version is 100db quiet. Amp progress??? Just the prices, I'm afraid.
Solid sate, and tubes are not the only players in town. There are wonderful
module driven amps on the market now, costing a fraction of ss and tube
About the 275 McIntosh......the new ones are different, instead of point-to-point it's on a board.

However.......I have to say that at it's price point the new 275 is a giant slayer with a most excellent sound.


Paul :-)
Hpims, I am also a tube lover, but I have not listened to a McIntosh in a long time so perhaps we can pool our experience.

I am very much impressed by the bass of NEW tube amps like the BAT or Atmosphere: dynamic, of course, and surprisingly deep and tight though still not quite the equal of the bass on solid-state amps.

My impression about tube amp frequency extension is somewhat different from yours. With all due respect to the venerable MC275, I think new tube amps go a little lower and higher than old tube amps, but ALL of them are STILL truncated at both ends. Mind you, I don't miss anything when I listen to my BATs, but when I switched to my solid-state amps, then I KNOW that I missed a lot of information, especially in the top end.

About the noise. I am impressed by how quiet my BATs are but I can still hear some rushing noise from them even in balanced mode; my solid-state amps are considerably quieter. As much as I love my tube amps, I don't think they will ever be as quiet as solid-state amps.

To get back to the point of my original thread--amp evolution--I feel that tube amps have improved: quieter and better extension in the bass and treble. But since I do not have an old MC275 to compare, I can't be absolutely sure. As to the price increase, I think we are of the same mind there.
I heard the BAT at Lyrics hifi with B&W 802s and got scared away. Still prefer the old Mac over many of the new comers.
Other than better parts from modern technology, the old school design in tube amp is still in. Not much has improved. The transformer in the old days still beats the many of the new mass production manufacturing ones today.

As far as SS goes, there are much more improved stuff. You can get reasonable good sound for the fraction of price of the 80s and early 80s
S23Chang, I guess we disagree on tubes but are in agreement with ss-amp improvement.

I get outstanding sound out of the BATs with Watts'puppies, Celestion, and Avalon Ascent.

On ss amps, I would add that even later products (up to mid-90s) could be excellent bargains. You can get very sophisticated ss amps by Counterpoint, Krell, Pass Lab, etc., even class-A amps, for $1000-$1500 or less (e.g. Threshold). Furthemore, slight modifications to some of these amps can make a significant improvement to the sound, but that's another story altogether.
the answer is no....even the vintage ss amps from tandberg,revox,mac,sumo,marantz,sonographe(cj)naim,quad,kenwood,and dozens of others sound as refined as anything being made today at any price. i recently came across an advent speaker brochure from the seventies that actually encouraged the consumer to spend as little as possible on an amplifier. kloss was a genius. a whole generation of us grew up on 'common sense' hi fi designed by guys who were as bright as any rocket scientist, yet loved music. the goal was music apreciation. well designed products favored no music catagory. a 'well designed' amp or speaker favored no catagory of music. hi end manufacturers and their consumers now have the same relationship as pushers and junkies. no amount of money is enough,and satisfaction is never guaranteed.
Well,I have had the same audio timeline as you, Justin Time.Bug in 60's.College in 70's.I have to agree with your findings,with just a slight spin,based on my own experience.

I have a good amount of NY area based Audio pals,with high end set-ups,ranging from tube to solid state.Though I have absolutely no preference to either the tube or solid state debate.However I have found that certain mfgrs design to a specific type (not that it is written in stone).Myself:My Avalon Ascents(modded twice)were designed with a Rowland 8,by the mfgr.Not to say that it cannot sound great with other fine choices,and I've heard other amps on the same speakers,at other homes,over the years,that were fabs!However since I have the Rowland 8t,with an additional chassis(this used to house the battery P/S),I felt it better served my interests to have Jeff Rowland further update this,second chassis,with the new switch mode power supply,which gives me more power and pure D/C.The results have been superb,and I truly cannot determine any specific tube/solid state signature(without rationalizing).

The point being;it is surely system dependent,once one has a bit of experience,in this hobby,and some common sense.Yet,I really DO love my pal's tube based CJ/Infinity/Air Tangent-VPI based set-up.Boy do I ever!!!

Actually I love almost any really good system,that has an owner who has a real sense of "music",and not the "marketing buzz,latest hot component of the month" attitude.Best of luck!!
Amps are amps. The technology has reached a plateau decades ago. Can't wait for the bricks to fly. Duck!
Jay, your assessment is opposite of mine but I respect it, especially since my own opinion of ss-amp improvement was not based on direct comparison but only on my recollection and experience. It seems to me, however, that for about 20 years (late 70s to mid-90s), each time I replaced a ss amp in my system (Dynaco, Yamaha, Hafler, Adcom, GAS, PS audio, B & K, Threshold, Krell, Rowland Research), the new one was always a little better than its predecessor. After all, they incorporated new designs, such as zero feedback, class A, high current, extended bandwidth, MOSFET, JFET, stiff power supply, dual mono construction, balanced inputs, high-quality parts capacitors & resistors in critical areas, etc. So, I logically concluded that my current ss amps must be much better than the one I owned in the late 70s. I still believe that.

Out of curiosity, I dusted off my old Hafler (early 80s vintage) from my storage room and hooked it up to my current system. And the sound was…far worse than I remembered: grainy, dry, very Hi-fi and not musical at all. The focus and soundstage were particularly disappointing. Even my low-cost B & K ST120 (late 80s/early 90s) sounded significantly better in every respect except perhaps punch. I would not overstretch my recollection to say that any of the ss amps from the mid-80s to the mid-90s by Audio Research, Counterpoint, Krell, Mark Levinson, Rowland Research, Threshold, etc. would sound better than vintage ss amps from the late 70s to early 80s.

You mentioned Mr. Kloss, a man I greatly respect and admire, and his famous Advent speakers. What a coincidence. I dusted off m y AR 3a and Large Advent speakers—you guessed it! I never throw anything away—which were considered some of the best speakers in the late 70s and early 80s. I hooked them up to my current electronics. Their sound was…disappointing! The bass was deep but ponderous and muddy; the midrange was OK but not terribly dynamic; the top end was muffled, lacking in sparkles. As in the Hafler’s case, the overall sound of these speakers was Hi-fi rather than musical. I grant you that comparing these speakers to today’s better speakers was probably unfair. But even compared to my Celestion video speakers, the venerable AR and Advent sounded hopelessly outdated and outclassed. I would venture to say that many speakers from the 80s to mid-90s like the Magnapan II or III, Marti-Logan CLS, Vandersteen, Thiel, KEF, just to name those I am very familiar with, would easily outperform the vintage AR 3a and Large Advent. The parallel may be instructive though I am getting way off the topic of amplifier evolution. Sorry.
i;m sorry justin, the hafler was indeed a mediocre studio grade amp, more than a hi-fi piece. i was never a fan of the ar3, but as for the large advent, i have a vintage pair that will go toe to toe with most of the speakers you've named, provided it is used with a any powerful, clean amp ss or tube. ponderous and muddy in the bass, only if 'it' is in the recording. sort of a bigger, rowdier LS 3/5 or epi 100. it is more neutral than my gradient revolutions. many of the ss brands you have mentioned built their best stuff in the 1980's. the marantz and kenwood ss heyday was much earlier. i currently own mac ss and tube gear (as well as some other odds and ends)but even a vintage mac mc7300 is more neutral than the the models that replaced it. i currently have an mc602 (wish i still had the 7300). my mc275 II is nice but its no marantz 8b. even the marantz 8b knock offs and clones don't quite get there. somewhere along the line, we all forget that we enjoyed music more when we were just looking for something decent to play it on. the marketplace today is getting smaller by the minute. the inventory in a typical classical music dept turns less than one time a year today. jazz as a catagory(without nora jones)makes up less than 5% of music sales. artists are being dropped from major labels daily. meanwhile some guy wants to sell us a pair of loudspeakers that cost $10,000 and are sure to favor one catagory of music over another. i can see the ad now......'great for acoustic jazz and female vocals' GOD HELP THE AUDIOPHILE-me included
Jay, I wished I had the chance to hear real vintage tube amps. My experience started with Conrad-Johnson, passing through Audio Reaserch and ending with BAT today. I alternately use a solid-state amp in my system as well.

I think the obscene price increase in audio started tentatively in the mid-80s with cartridges prices that jumped from around $100-$200 to $500 and more. This price surge really took off in the mid-90s with cables (from $50-100 to $500-1,000 per pair). After that, $10,000 amps and $20,000 speakers became the norm rather than the exception. Most audio hobbyists and enthusiasts cannot afford today's prices of high-end audio.

I think the demise of the music business as we knew it started when they proclaimed at the birth of CD that its digital sound was "perfect." It's been downhill ever since. The Internet is just the straw that broke the camel's back. It's depressing to go to any music section of Border's, or worse, Barnes & Noble: it's deserted most of the time. Being an engineer, I like the convenience of the Internet and MP3; the heavily compressed sound is OK on my iPod and in my car, but it is unacceptable in my home system.

The music scene is on the verge of a dramatic change. I hope there is a place for lovers of both great music and great sound like us in the new scene but I am not holding my breath.

I think I'm going to play my Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon LP to cheer me up!

Both transistor amplifiers and tube amplifiers have seen plenty of evolution since the 50s , 60s and 70s. I have had a hands on experience with both as I ran a consumer electronics repair shop for a number of years during and after college.

With respect to conventional transformer coupled tube amps: the big thing that has changed in pentode based class AB amps is increased filter capacitance in the power supplies! I have rebuilt a number of H/K Citation IIs over the years (one of the very best vintage amps, BTW). Its weakness was its power supply and properly fixed up with new parts and boosted supplies keeps up quite nicely with its modern counterparts. Mind you, to obtain such an amp and fix it up properly will cost you as much as a new amp!

Triode power amplifiers have returned, from the grave we thought they went to during the 30s or maybe during the War. They came back because triodes sound better then pentodes, despite their inefficiencies. High end cares not a whit about that but does care a lot about getting closer to the truth of our recordings. Obviously, single-ended amps reappeared too.

Balanced line applications now exist in tube embodiments and in the home. This too is different and better.

OTLs got reliable and competetive with other amplifier technologies. OTLs were neither reliable or practical in the 70s.

Coupling capacitors, resistors and filter caps have all improved immensely. Just rebuilding a vintage amplifier with newer parts using today's superior materials (non-inductive metal films, Teflon, poloystyrenes, OFCopper, etc, etc.) reaps big rewards. Modern materials sound much better due to better specs (including greater purity).

With respect to transistor amps, they too sound better due to superior materials and better power supply bypassing techniques. High power amplifiers that are also stable are rather commonplace now rather then the exception. Heatsink technologies have improved, thermal feedback means have improved and improved semiconductor devices are commonplace that were only theoretical in the 70s.

Prices have also gone up, but if you figure what inflation has done to the US economy- lets explore that for a moment:

In 1967, a near state of the art system, maybe all Marantz tube gear with a nice set of Dayton-Wright electrostatics, Revox recorder and Empire turntable would have set you back around $3,000, which was about the price of a decent car. Nowadays you pay $20,000 for the same performance (in round numbers) and that gets you entry-level transportation. High End audio today is a good deal.

Another way to look at it: Design a nice,decent box (but not a super fancy one), install a couple of $4.00 volume controls, a couple of switches and some connectors. Now you have a stereo passive volume control. Include the cost of labor to build it, the rent to house the unit while it is being built, dealer markup, shipping and so on (don't forget to include a wage for yourself...) and see how much a simple thing like that has to cost! You are doing exceptionally well or *cheating* if you come up with a retail price of less then $500.00. And that is a passive setup with cheesy controls and no active circuitry!! High end today is a screaming deal. I would not complain about the costs unless you have already walked the talk and seen the expenses that can be involved!
I believe there is some evolution from early amps to the current models today but not nearly as much as with early digital source components. I own an older Threshold Se series amp and had an interesting conversation with an well known amp designer once. I mentioned that I had thoughts of upgrading to a new amp and he suggested that I not be in too much of a hurry to upgrade yet as my older Threshold could still hold it's own against many of the current designs today.
Thanks Atmasphere for a most lucid and informative discussion. That's the kind of response I was hoping for when I started this thread. I've always known that ss amps are better today than they have ever been but now I learn a great deal about tube amp's evolution as well. I agree with you that they are among the better values out there in spite of their relatively high cost.

I fully understand and agree with you that an amp that is properly designed and built with high-quality parts costs a great deal of money, especially for a small run. I still find that too many high-end amplifiers out there spend (waste?) an inordinate amount of money on cosmetics and testosterone effects. Sure, a fancy box helps sell the amp but I for one prefer the money optimally spent on the sound. I always open an amp and do the part counts whenever I can: many high-end amps are just overpriced, period.

To be fair, I think high-end amplifiers are distant second or even third when it comes to poor values—that’s really what we are talking about. Cables and cartridges are way up there on top of the overprice/poor value list with many speakers not far behind. And I won’t even mention the ridiculously priced accessories with dubious functions out there. When you see that companies like Magnapan, Martin-Logan, Vandersteen, and Thiel just to name a few—I apologize for not recalling all the worthy ones—have been able to make great sounding products at about the same price or less in constant dollars as they did 20 years ago, you begin to wonder about the prices of other speakers.

I am way off the main thrust of this thread: amplifier evolution since the 70s. But I feel that it is important to stress an important point: the larger the gap between the cost of high-end audio and mass-market audio—or should I say video?—the further the high-end market will shrink, and the higher the unit cost of high-end gears will rise. It’s a vicious circle. Let us make great products but let us not forget about values.
the cost of manufacturing consumer electronics as a percentage of wholesale(this includes hi end audio)has dropped from about 35% to less than 10% in the last 35 years. the only two places to see increases have been cardboard and transportation. that $20,000 system has a hard cost of around $2000 today. this obviously does not apply to the diy'ers who took out a second mortgage to fund a company commited to building an s.e.t. capable of....well...not much. i love music, but this industry has got to be based on value for the dollar like any other.
Better components, not better design. But what a difference.
In '71, I bought a pioneer 626, electrovoice speakers and dual turntable for $450. With inflation, that price would be around $1,800 today. For $1,800, you can put together a system today that will sound better than the original. There is (and has been) high end equipment sold, not for the enjoyment of music; but for establishment of "superiority". Audio is not immune to status seeking.
Hi to some degree you are correct but only for certain parts and materials. In 1970, Teflon parts were astronomical in price- about $1,000 apiece in round numbers, today a Teflon part is a fraction of that. But Caddock resistors and other similar parts did not even exist back then and are quite pricy today. Some Caddock resistors retail for well over $25.00 each. We could use 3 cent resistors and 35 cent coupling caps but the gear would sound bad!

One must also figure the cost of labor and the cost of small manufacturing. If you want something that is stamped out by the 10,000s of units in China, it might be cheap. But if a product is made by hand with proper materials in the US, and only ten of them are made at a time you are simply going to have to pay for it. Its a good bet that the stamped out unit is not going to sound as good too, because by definition less care goes into its existance. You do get what you pay for (although there are shills in any industry).

When I designed our product line I started with the idea of putting the dollars into the performance rather then the cosmetics and that is our ideal today. But we pay the price- often our products are not taken seriously because it *is* less expensive then the competition that it beats! and because we don't have a 1" thick gold panel on the equipment. At the same time though, our stuff is not cheap, because we are only interested in an assult on state of the art, so we have custom built switches, filter caps, resistors and capacitors- this stuff costs very dear even in large quantities. Yes, we could build with lesser materials and parts but now we are not being the best that we can be- which is not what high end audio is all about (hopefully each of us in the industry believes in what we are doing and are building the best stuff that we know how).

If high end audio is shrinking, it is not due to prices, so much as it has to do with public awarness, which is a subject of a different thread.

Off the topic, There are too many things to do these days than audio ( computer, internet, HT setup, gaming..etc.)

Inflation also driven the price higher these days.

i.e. MacIntosh MC275 used to cost $300 back in the 60s ( gas was only a nickel per gallon.) but it is worth over $3000 for the same amp from the 60s. If you buy the non collectable amps from that same era like the Citation preamp and amps for under $1000 today, you got a pretty nice equipment.
i have no problem with any specialty company making a healthy profit, or appealing to audiophiles who love the look and the touch as much as the sound. i've had a room full of audio toys since high school ('71) and have been in the music and movie business(and hi fi too) for over 30 years. as much as i'm passionate about music and as much as i love the hobby, it scares me that someone with the ability to spend $100,000 on hardware would do it under the myth that it has superior performance because it can only be purchased by 300 people globally. i've worked with the finest engineers and soundmen on the west coast and not one of them believes that hi end has gotten 'better' in any regard. they are always asked to add bass that wasn't originally there, and bring the voal up in the mix to give us the thrill of thinking the reissue is better. kill the tape noise, etc one wants a balanced presentation, not in the studio or the home. consumers should only trust their ears after they use common sense. the branding of gear from china to prompt the emotional purchase of a product that has a historically rich name, is shameful.
I'm with Ralph(Atmasphere)on this one and I see "high-end" as a long term investment to be made carefully and enjoyed. That is why I have put my money where my mouth is and I now am the proud owner of a pair of Atma-Sphere Silver Edition MA-1 MkII.3 mono blocks and I could not be happier camper imo. Thanks Ralph. Great thread Justin_time. Enjoy!
All I know is when I played music in the 70s all we did is put it on the table and turn it up,no going listen to those highs or wow that bass goes deep,if it sounded good it sounded good,like half the crap today people will pay about anything for tunes,and most likey pay way to much for it.

try an EICo Hf-81 from 1958, you'll be surprised at the sound coming from it.

I love my 1978 Levinson/Curl ML2's 25 watts of class A.
Extremely musical with plenty of power. A better power supply then most amps today.