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Where do tubes make the most difference?


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I've seen two comments recently about using a tube pre-amp with an SS amp as an approach that combines the more musical sound with the more solid punch and reliability of solid state amps. I have tried this approach - and I like it. The problem with my big old Cornwall 1s with their B-2 crossovers is not just a nature as revealing as a photo close-up, it is also a mid-range blare/glare at loud volumes as harsh as your mother's nagging.

To tame this savage bite, years ago, when Iraq was the friend and Iran was the enemy, I bought a black Dynaco Pas 3 Series II with 12AX7 tubes. I used it with my Pioneer M-22 solid state reference amp (33,000 uF caps) for a few years. I remember thinking the Dynaco was more musical than the NAD 1020 it replaced. It is nice, useful unit with two pre-amp outputs, but no tone controls. Although soft and warm, it is a minor improvement compared to my new amp.

I also dampened the horns, cabinets, CD player and doubled the speaker wire. All of these tweaks were minor improvements too. Ones and twos on the tweaking audiophile scale of ten.

The only other tube amps I heard on my big old horns was a rusty pair of Dynaco ST70s - although wonderful, they were too scratchy.

When I bought a pair of flea powered Bottlehead 2A3Paramour mono-blocks (sold as kits), I noticed a very big difference in "listen-ability" and sound. A solid seven, possibly eight, on the scale - right up there with a change in good very speakers. Although the amplifier is the sink-hole of the audio hobby, into which one can throw a ton of money for very little gain; it does make a very big difference with respect to super-efficient horns!

I do think that tubes in the CD player would be a very good thing, not just for horns, but for the definition reaching all kinds of speakers. While the 12" black vinyl discs suffer from slow rotation, making wow and flutter annoying on low-end models, the 4 7/8" silver discs and their ICs suffer from the high end distortion known as jitter. Solutions for this include better chips, better dampening and the unique softening effects of tubes. It seems the closer that tubes get to the digital source, the better it sounds.

So the question is, where does low cost tube equipment sound best, when used with moderately efficient lines like the PSB Audio, super efficient lines like the Klipsch Reference series or extremely efficient models like the classic Klipsch LaScalas? Is the CD, pre-amp or amp the best location for tubes? Where do they make the most difference and the greatest improvement?

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I'd turn this around a bit...

Suppose we assume that, once the music has been captured to vinyl or disc, you can't really "improve" it en route to the speakers (or ears) - you can only damage it to a lesser or greater degree.

From this perspective, the question becomes "Where will tubes help reduce the amount of damage we are doing to the signal - the CD, pre-amp or amp?" I'd say in this light, and we assume for the moment here that tubes, somehow, damage the music less than solid state, that the biggest benefit would be where the signal is the most fragile... upstream as far as possible. That would seem to indicate that the best place for tubes would be in the microphone preamp in the recording studio, then the mixing board, then the cutting lathe (for vinyl), then in the phono preamp (if you're listening to vinyl), then the CD player, then the preamp, then the amp.

I suppose you could take the position that the distortions caused by tubes are the inverse of the distortions caused by solid state, and that by combining both in one's system you are "cancelling out" the distortions that either would, of itself, impose... sort of like push-pull operation cancelling out even order harmonic distortion... or more simply, two wrongs making a right... but assembling a system using that methodology, assuming you get to the point where the system sounds good, means you have a system of parts whose interactions combine synergistically to produce a whole greater than their sum, and into which you could not substitute a different component without destroying the system synergy you have attained... also, replacing a component with a more accurate, "better", more neutral one would eliminate the positive contribution of the old component's complementary distortions, rendering the system less of a whole that you had. Not sure I'd want to go that route, and besides, it obviously induces people to type long, run-on sentences when making an observation, which would tend to indicate that it somehow suppresses the logic center of the cerebral cortex resulting in missed dentist appointments.


Music is art

Audio is engineering

Ray's Music System

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Obviously I understand less and less of this art as time goes by. In my own case I have a pair of tube monoblocks mated to a solid state preamp. According to Ray this is the least effective place to have tubes.

The funny thing is the difference it makes to the sound. I compare always to my accuphase as my solid state reference. Ultimately the tubes are warmer and slower which means they are invariably better at Jazz than the accuphase but not as good at Rock (actually they are dreadful at rock - truth be told). Blues and Soul split fairly evenly down the middle as does classical (or did on Cd's but now on SACD's the tubes have it 9 to 1 as my listening choice).

Anyway - where am I going with this? Oh yes - if this is the least difference tubes can make to your sound - VIVE LA DIFFERENCE!!

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In my humble opinion, which closely matches Ray's, the ultimate authority is the source itself.

However, despite having tube amps, I do not and cannot believe that tubes are a panacea.

Consequently, I think anything (more?)less than a passive preamp is a compromise.

And the virtue of tubes, were I to hazard a guess, is to mate with horns, as in a power amplifier.

I have heard of tubed DACs, and CD players, etc, and these sound tempting, but if I were to hazard a guess at the virtue of solid state, it is in low level voltages.

Just my humble opinion. Don't think anyone can have the definitive answer. If they do, they are probably fooling themselves.

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I was never comfortable with the idea of high-fidelity. Of course, most of the music to which I listen does not usually sound better live. For example, most venues usually have horrible acoustics and too much crowd / noise. I find the difference between listening to music at home and enjoying a band live to be quite pronounced. I guess I wouldn't like to have all those folks in my listening room, and it would suck to listen at home at mosh-pit volume while all the strangers in my house put their cigarettes out on even my cheap rug. Going to see Guided by Voices in my underwear would have distinctly different results than going to a Laurie Anderson performance in the exact same skivvies. Get the drift?

Some music was made in a manner that sounds much better in a nicely equiped listening room than live. Who cares why? What? Oh, yeah: I want a mid-range and extended bass as fast and forward as the horns on my RF-3's, but I also want a complete speaker as laid back as the Aerial Acoustics 7.

I'm neglecting a lot of packing. Good night!


May the bridges we burn light our way....

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"Tubes make the greatest impact on your wallet."

Not always as there are many budget tube amps and preamps(Antique SoundLabs,Jolida and many others).

I use a tube preamps with a solid state amp the result is superb.All who heard my system agree,its music and you can listen for hours on end with no fatigue.

It all daepends on the synergy(match),if its right its magical.Other times there is little synergy and the result may be disapointing(no matter how much green you pump in).

For me the best match is a tube preamp with a SS amp.Some may call this bad,I dont care.All I care for is the RESULT.And when the results are so damn good I can recomend others try it too.

So to answer the question,the best investment is a tube preamp.You soften the top end and roll the sound a bit(too much ruins the sound).

A CD player does not need any tubes(some use tubes and work magic).

As for amps,yes tubes(Audio Research and company)are the great match with large speakers.

I heard a Dunlavy/AudioResearch/Wadia combination once that beat all other systems I head to date!And the preamps and amps were TUBE(AudioResearch).

So it all depends on setup and the synergy.

And then again personal taste plays a major role.

TheEAR(s) Now theears

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I use a Dynaco PAS4 tube preamp which I feed into the direct inputs (bypasses preamp) of my Outlaw 1050 AV Receiver. The PAS4 slightly improves the "smoothness", warmth and clarity of my Klipschorn's mids and highs. Bass seems to be very slightly better through the Outlaw alone. I got the idea from Robert Harly's "Complete Guide to High End Audio". I would like to try a Dynaco ST70 tube amp to compare, although I am very satisfied with my present set-up. I guess, generally speaking, output transisters do better with bass than tubes. While greater "warmth" can be acheived using tubes. Of course, the quality of the units play a big role. Certainly, the transisters require way less maintainance than do output tubes (biasing, matching, transisters. wear, etc.).

This message has been edited by soundog on 11-11-2001 at 02:00 PM

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I actually like tubes. I actually like SS. As you have said, it is the music that counts. Unfortunately, the only tube gear I have at the moment is an ST70. It needs reworking. No offense to the TVA guys I know, but they have the voltage at the max here. The old, original parts won't take the punishment. There are way better tube amps and preamps out there, but I only paid $50 for it. Even if I spend another $150, it will be fien for me. I bought it used, and used it off and on for 15 years before it went into the closet the last time. Still working on building my LaScala clones, so the tubes will have to wait a little bit longer.

More of my time is spent with my ADAT than listening in the living room. My monitoring is all done with small nearfields.


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From Ray's perspective, the question becomes "where do tubes reduce the amount of damage to the signal?"

I'd say that tubes do not damage the signal, except in the lower ranges where speaker impedance provides difficult loads for low powered tube amps to drive. Tubes can enhance the signal, especially in the critical mid-range.

If so, one would think that the biggest benefit of tubes would be as far upstream as possible and as much of the stream as possible. That would indicate that the best place for tubes is in the microphone pre-amp. Certainly some of recordings that Stereophile makes seem to indicate this preference. But assuming tubes enhance the signal implies that the entire audio reproduction chain should be all tubes.

There are people who believe as much. In fact, I posted a study where a mostly analogue system was compared to a mostly digital system with beneficial results in stress levels, although not specifically sound reproduction quality.

Myself? I did not hear a huge difference between types of microphones used in recordings. I did hear a huge difference - no, make that a subtle, but crucial difference, when changing over to 2A3 amps on my big old horns.

Assembling a stereo system with a mix of tubes and solid state might get to a point where the system sounds so good, that you have a whole greater than its parts. In fact, I think that is what many tweaking audiophiles are shooting for with their carefully assembled systems. Not being able to substitute a different component without destroying the system synergy you have attained is the very definition of a greater whole. You can't, for example Ray, swap out your beloved old receiver (Technics?) without changing the complexion of your system. Why? Because the whole you have created (room, speakers, tubes, cables, etc.) is greater than just a collection of parts.

I do think most tweaking audiophiles are already headed down that route, trying hard to divine that special magic which transcends the science of audio into a craft or higher art of music reproduction, trying to collect parts that create a greater whole.

It is indeed why we write long, run-on sentences when making simple observations, which does indicate suppression of cerebral cortex logic functions.

Missing dentist appointments, however, is not symptomatic of the problem; that is an entirely different problem relating to fear of pain, pain itself, lack of guts, fear of bills and lack of money!


Cornwalls & Klipsch subs; leather couch & feet up; lights out & tubes glowing!

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Tubes make the most difference in (generally):

1. Making frequency response look like a roller coaster.

2. No highs, no lows, it must be......tubes!

3. Producing distorion levels higher than most Klipsch speakers, that are then justified as being "even order harmonics, so they are musical".

4. Making strange noises through your speakers when you have the largest number of people over to say "what was that noise, is your stereo broken"?

5. Keeping your room heated, even in the summer.

6. Starting heated (no pun intended, ha ha) arguments between otherwise rational people, about whose hearing is better able to hear the differences in the sound of grass growing, when no one can really know what you hear or don't hear and frankly, 99% of the rest of the people on earth don't care (including our families.)

7. Causing people to walk over to an object that is glowing like it is on fire, touching it and then exclaiming "these are hot"!

All Tubies, please accept this undoubtedly feeble attempt to be humorous in the spirit of.......me just picking on you for fun!


L/C/R: Klipsch Heresy II

Surround: Klipsch RS-3

Subwoofers: 2 HSU-VTF-2

Pre/Pro/Tuner: McIntosh MX-132

AMP: McIntosh MC-7205

DVD: McIntosh MVP-831

CD Transport: Pioneer PD-F908 100 Disc Changer

Turntable: Denon DP-72L

Cassette: Nakamichi BX-1

T.V. : Mitsubishi 55905


Surge Protector: Monster Power HTS-5000

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TV calims(at least if you read his posts in the Subwoofer section)SS amps sound the same(at matched levels if not overdriven)! cwm24.gif

They dont

Each amp brings a sonic signature,some almost no and some much(relative) more.

As you know and some(including TheEAR know).

If I follow TV's opinion( Wink.gif ) then a BASH(name your amp)amp is as transparent and pure as a Class A(PassAleph) amp.Someone give me an electric shock PLEASE

BASH me please

TheEAR(s) Now theears

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$50 for a ST70! I had a pair and sure regret selling them - if powered sub-woofers existed then I would proably have the scratchy old things today - I would be willing to put a lot more into it than just $150 -

Kevin S, your list would be funnier if it wasn't so true!cwm30.gif


Cornwalls & Klipsch subs; leather couch & feet up; lights out & tubes glowing!

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I just don't buy the whole schpeal about the goal of our efforts being the original recording. What is the original recording? Is it what the sound engineer heard in the booth while the whole band was playing all at once? Not likely. Was it what he/she heard after all the mixing was done through the studio monitors? If it sounds different through different monitors, then we're back to searching for the "true" recording. Truth is for suckers, kids. "What about live events?" you say. Well, in what venue? sitting where? with all the people there snorting, sneezing, coughing, farting, smoking and clearing their throats? No thanks. There is no such thing as the original recording without the facticity of a means by which it is played back. Some playback systems sound smooth and silky, but lack the dynamics and forward presentation of a live kick drum; other systems keep up with your enthusiasm but don't seduce you with smoky sweetness. There doesn't appear to be a "reference" sound out there at all. Of course, I haven't heard systems that would encompass my net worth with just the amp section, but no one out there seems satisfied that they've heard a system that can do it all as well as all of it can be done.

If one claims that the goal of the gear is to reproduce the music faithfully, I'd like to hear from him/her what music exactly is he/she talking about? The stuff heard in the recording studio? On the front center seat of the auditorium? The stuff you hear just looking at the cd? What?


May the bridges we burn light our way....

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