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Valve Comeback

Valves Make a Comeback

Thermonic valves, or tubes as they are often called overseas, have made a resurgence back into hifi after drifting off for many years. The decline had been on for many years since transistor amplifiers hit the scene with their high power and super low distortion figures. Easy maintenance and generally reliable operation helped transistors too. The advent of CD and its so called “perfect sound” probably caused many to finally give up valves altogether and switch fully to solid-state equipment. But it is not a perfect world and technology soon proved itself to be fallible as many realised that the sound from going fully solid state was not as pleasing as they had remembered it years before. So the search began for old, discarded valve amplifiers and pre-amps; many a garden shed were raided along with second-hand stores and the back rooms of hifi stores.

The arrival of the Internet led to a whole new realm of discovery for valve enthusiasts as now they could explore the globe in search of the prize they were after – replacement valves for the ones that had long since lost their lustre. Hardly any companies were making valves, those that were were located in Eastern Europe and Russia. Over time more and more manufacturing came back online, new EL34s, KT88s and others were rolling off the production lines by the hundreds. Even Western Electric was back in action with their marvellous WE300B at US$550- each and KR Audio in the charming Czech Republic make some of the best new valves around! Many other companies make similar types of valves, there are a few dozen popular valve designs that have stood the test of time and are manufacturer by several companies, each with their own small nuances and characteristics. Now there is a plentiful supply of new valves to keep the equipment running for many, many years at virtually any cost.

That still leaves a lot of old valves that are no longer manufactured. This has led to the term New Old Stock or NOS for short. Much stock of old valves have been found around the world but in virtually new, unused condition. These have been selling rapidly over the last several years and some models are becoming harder to source. Sometimes the equipment just will not work with any other type of valve, sometimes modifications such as adjusting the bias will allow similar types of valves to work. Along with NOS valves have been the “used” valves. Proper testing is required to ensure the quality and estimated life left but some businesses out there will sell them as NOS. It is a good idea to double check.

Several years ago a Chinese company called Shanling released something very unusual and it took the hifi world by storm. It was a valve CD player. Very remarkable in styling, it had valves in the output stage and they gave the unit a very musical and relaxed sound. Several other manufacturers have followed such as Consonance and Vincent, both also from China. Asian countries have a very high uptake of valve equipment and this has led to much of the new development taking part there. Now you can buy valve SACD player, amps with digital inputs, even hybrid amplifiers such as some from Unison Research with valve input stages and solid-state output stages. Upgrading valves in such type of equipment has become popular. Due to manufacturing requirements and costs, top-end and NOS valves cannot often be used but after a while of having listened to the equipment, owners often start searching for valves that are compatible and will give an extra boost to performance.

So what is it really about valves that make them so attractive to so many people? On paper the specs are not as good as transistors, but specifications do not tell the whole story. One of the main specifications often mentioned is distortion. Valves have even harmonic distortion, simply put when they distort it is much easier to tolerate. When transistors distort, it is odd harmonic distortion and it does not go easy on the ears. Valves also tend to have a warmer sound, high frequencies tend to be less crisp but this is also taken as being smoother. Mellow, laid-back, enjoyable are all words I have heard people use when referring to valves. Many people have said they are listening to the music, not the equipment. They also look great sitting on the shelf with their warm glow and technical bits and pieces often sticking out everywhere. Of course some valve equipment looks just like solid-state, all the valves and transformers are hidden inside. Here it is a matter of personal choice as the appearance doesn’t have much to do with the sound.

Don’t get me wrong however, valves are not for everybody. I have heard the words old-fashioned and inaccurate used as well! Don’t just look at specifications however, they rarely tell the full story and certainly don’t say much about the character of the sound. Personally I’d be happy listening to either type of sound. Some people even prefer one over the other for particular types of music. So if you haven’t had a good listen to valve gear lately, go and hear what the commotion is all about. Virtually all decent hifi stores stock some brands, you might find yourself enjoying the music for a change…

Written by Leon Gross, originally published in Audio & Video Lifestyle magazine.