Sunday, November 12, 2017

Here is a guest post from our friend in Belgium, Carine:
(Note: contains explicit tube pictures - click for larger view..)

This is my first ever blog post, so here goes… I have been an audiophile for many, many years. It’s not easy being a female audiophile, but when you have been infected with this virus, you’ll just have to follow your ears. I’m not going into technical details, but just write what’s important to me, and share my experiences.

It all started when I was a little kid. Our TV had tubes and our radio as well. It was very nice to look at our radio glowing in the dark and the sound I remember so very well; it was warm and rich. As a kid I thought there was actually an orchestra living in that huge wooden ‘crate’. Of course, I soon realised that wasn’t the case. I just loved listening to music. My parents both loved music, so naturally the bug bit me too.

And then everything changed. The transistor was introduced and my parents bought a new radio. It was so small compared to our old radio and the sound wasn’t quite the same either but hey, you could put batteries in it and take it with you into the bathroom and even outside. What a luxury. We then got ourselves a turntable and a four-track reel-to-reel tape deck. My mum recorded a lot of records on those reels and we still have those – fragile as they might be.

After a few years, we bought our first stereo system. Transistorised of course. A new world opened up to me, but I had this weird feeling that the sound could be bettered. When CD was introduced, I decided to buy a CD-player and find out what the hype was about. There I saw a Luxman integrated amp with two valves peeking through a glass on the front panel. I asked the dealer if I could demo this amp and there is was: that sound that sounded so familiar, the sound of my childhood. I bought it on the spot and from there it only got better and better. Over the years I owned a lot of amps, but I always go back to vacuum tube amplifiers.

One thing I don’t regret is that when CD was introduced I refused to sell our vinyl record collection. I put the records all in boxes and stored them at a safe place. In those days everyone was so very excited about CD they just threw out the vinyl records. I somehow felt that the sound of a CD was missing something, and I don’t mean the pops and cracks. It lacked soundstage and something I couldn’t quite define. I changed CD players frequently, but my ears didn’t seem to adapt to the ‘cold’ sound of CDs. When I picked up a UK hi-fi magazine, I read a great review of a CD-transport and matching d/a converter. The gear was expensive, but it received such a lot of praise. I wanted to know more so I sent an e-mail to the company. A few days later, I found a huge envelope with a bunch of information in the mail. And then it started…

I bought an Audio Synthesis CD-transport and matching DAX-2 d/a converter straight from the factory. Actually, the CD-transport was a modified Sony CD-transport, a top-loader and you had to clamp the CDs. By then I knew the gap between analogue and digital had been closed – or should I say minimised. The musical performance finally sounded right to my ears again. But then Audio Synthesis released a CD-transport of their own: the Transcend Decade. I just had to upgrade to the Decade and it was pure joy. A top-loader again, something special. As Audio Synthesis described it:

“In common with turntables for replaying vinyl records, the design of the suspension and isolation mechanisms in a CD Transport will ultimately be responsible for a significant proportion of the resulting sound." 

To avoid compromise in the design of the suspension system, TRANSCEND Decade uses a top loading motor, in which a heavy die-cast mechanism is suspended by means of lateral and vertically nested, mechanically tuned filters. Isolation from acoustic effects is achieved by encasing the delicate mechanism and electronics in 17kg of precision machined non-ferrous mass.”

Never forget to clamp the CD though or the neighbours might complain about flying saucers. ;o) The Transcend Decade never skipped like other CD-transport/players did from time to time (some more frequently than others), and their components were built like a tank. Their sound warm and vinyl-like, so what more could one wish for? A tube amplifier I can live with. I have owned quite a few, heard demos of several amps, but not the ideal one yet (if that exists)…

I owned Quicksilver Audio M60 mono blocks and stuffed them with NOS GE 6550A tubes. A wonderful, warm sound and a midrange to kill for. I tried the Art Audio Quintet power amp, it came with the then newly introduced Chinese Golden Dragon EL34 tubes. Not quite bad, but during a listening session one of the tubes failed and it made a hell of a noise! I had a GE 6550A tube fail too, but it failed graciously, it just turned white inside but didn’t make a sound. The sound in one channel just sounded a little bit softer. By then I had fallen in love with NOS tubes.

I swapped to NOS Siemens EL34 tubes and added an Art Audio VPL pre-amp. That combination was really very musical and my Castle Winchester speakers were a perfect match for the Art Audio duo. Those amps stayed in my system for quite a few years. I focused on trying as many NOS tubes I could afford to buy. Here are just a few of my own personal remarks of every NOS tube I have tried over the years. NOS tubes are still widely available, don’t think supplies have fully dried up. You just have to wait until those you want come up for sale. Mind you, some do come highly overpriced.

Siemens EL34 tube: Very three-dimensional sound, tight bass, a very balanced midrange and extended highs. If you can grab those with the tips (military), you can add the Mad Scientist Audio Tube Toppers for an even better performance.

Telefunken EL34 tube: Very three-dimensional, great bass, sparkling highs, detailed midrange. A tube for all kinds of music.

Notice the wings, single O-getter.

Indeed, on the inside they look a lot like Mullards.

Mullard EL34 tube: Brings out the best of one’s amplifier and it’s sound it very similar to the Telefunken and the Siemens tubes.

The Mullard EL34.

Here also, the single halo-getter and wings.

Gold Lion KT77 tube: The tube that had to better the performance of the Mullard EL34 and did so. This tube has it all, compared to all the others, these give the better performance overall. Sounds very close to the Telefunken, but the bass is tighter. Excellent to listen to classical music. It also has a way with voices. The 70s versions have yellow printing on them, the 60s versions, the original gold printing.

Gold Lion KT77, manufactured in their Hammersmith factory in 1979, week 26.
Here we have a clear view of its innards with the double halo-getter.

Looks quite different from the EL34s.

A nice sight.
Looks a bit rusty, but their sound isn’t at all…

Western Electric 350B tube: Sounds very, very good. Warm, detailed, the best of the bunch. But they are heavily overpriced. The military version sounds even better but the price you pay for them is just too much of a good thing. Better try the French Vissiaux 6L6 versions - if you can find those that is.

Highly priced WE 350Bs, the American equivalent of an EL34/KT77.

These 350Bs have the later O-getter instead of the original D-getter.

Tung-Sol 5881 tube: For bringing out the best in rock music. Stubby tubes, but so very musical.

Short tubes, but great sound.

A Genalex Gold Lion next to the Tung-Sols for comparison.

GE 6550/6550A tube: Suitable to all kinds of music, gives a balanced performance.

Nice and shiny but difficult to see what’s inside.

GE 6L6GC tube: Very old-fashioned sound, lots of deep bass, gives a balanced sound and are excellent to listen to jazz.

Admit that seeing and hearing this, makes you feel warm inside…

Next time I’ll share some more on amplifiers…

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