Tube amps, also known as a vacuum tube amps, are generally considered the best amplifiers for achieving hi-fi sound. For the benefit of our UK friends, the “tube” referred to here is what you call a “valve” and has nothing to do with your underground train system, as splendid as it is. So, how exactly does a tube amp work? Well, the first thing to look at is how a tube works.
The sort of tube found in tube amps works on the principle of Thermionic Emission. Thermionic Emission is the process of using heat to generate and excite electrons, much like the effect of the sun on clubbers in Ibiza. It may be helpful here to take a brief trip to the UK, although we won’t stay too long, the weather is lousy and everything’s expensive.
Using the term “valve” may be useful when describing the operation of Retro tube amps as it helps us to imagine that the flow of current is adjustable, much like a faucet controls the flow of water. (Faucet = tap, for our UK friends. Man, this is getting confusing. “Two nations divided by a common language.” Indeed, Mr. Shaw.).
In the tubes used in Retro tube amps, we have the two same elements that we met in the Nixie tube: cathode and anode. As the cathode is heated, the electrons get excited, and you can’t blame them for that, they’re in a vacuum for goodness sake; it’s the electron equivalent of going into space.
They hurtle towards the anode, creating a flow of current. We now introduce the third element within a tube – the grid. Here’s where the term “valve” makes more sense; as the grid voltage is varied, current flow also varies.
The effect of a few volts variation at the grid, translates to a much larger voltage change at the anode, resulting in voltage and power amplification within the tube. Let’s come back from the UK now, it’s far too wet and we nearly caused an international incident by trying to introduce a vacuum to the London tube network.
Now we know how a tube works, let’s build them into the Retro tube amp and see how it sounds. Now, you may be thinking of searching the term “tube amp” or “tube amp versus solid-state” or something similar, but let us spare you the finger work. You will find enough compelling evidence from both sides to support either argument.
You will find reports of blind tests, carried out under controlled conditions, where even ardent audiophiles have been unable to tell the difference between a tube amp and a solid-state amp. But this is to miss the point almost completely because a Retro tube amp does deal differently with audio and that difference is due mainly to the way a tube behaves and how we hear.
The way in which a Retro tube amp handles distortion makes all the difference. A tube amp will distort in a more musically pleasing way that has more to do with psychoacoustics than scientific measurements.
Psychoacoustics is a branch of psychology concerned with the perception of sound and its physiological effects. It could be argued that tube amps are more “human” in their response to musical information.
They overload and clip in a more pleasing way too. Think of it like this: in your favourite bar, there are two bartenders. Al, who plays by the book and, when you’ve had enough, stops serving you immediately, calls a cab and demands that you settle the tab. Jeff, is more relaxed, also notices when you’ve had enough but continues to serve you, gradually decreasing the liquor content until you call it quits. He also allows you to settle the tab later. Al behaves like a solid-state amp, while Jeff plays it like a tube amp. It’s a much gentler, friendlier way of dealing with overload and another reason why the tube amp is regularly described as being “warm” in its operation.
If you’re looking for geeky gadgets or top gadgets for men, a Retro tube amp is a big boys toy for men who appreciate hi-fi sound and high-end audio. A Retro tube amp may use vintage electronics in its operation but its sound is always present.
A tube amp will show others that you’re serious about music and equally serious about listening. Listening, when done properly, is not a passive activity. It requires a degree of engagement with the material and a Retro tube amp will reward that attention with warm, mellow tones and a delivery that is smooth, well rounded and deep, just like a good malt whisky. Think Jura, or Balvenie if you’re in the mood. There you go, the Retro tube amp is an electronic malt whisky and you’ll be able to drive after listening to a tube amp.
We wouldn’t recommend driving after drinking a malt nor would we recommend trying to drink a tube amp. Stick with convention and a Retro tube amp will reward you with years of listening pleasure, just as a good malt will give you hours of drinking pleasure. Try both together, not literally of course, keep the malt well away from the tube amp, and the mellowing, calming effects of the malt will echo the warming, velvety tones from the tube amp. A match made in heaven, hand-made, in fact.
Looking for cool Christmas gift ideas? Look no further. Well, just a bit further, to the end of this article. A Retro tube amp is one of the best gifts for guys and one of the most creative gift ideas. It’s also a great talking point for any home; a Retro tube amp will literally show itself off to anyone nearby, both visually and aurally. It wouldn’t hurt to get a good malt whisky too…