If you’re feeling nerdy, you absolutely have to pitch in to this debate. If not, then choosing between an old vacuum tube amp and a new one might seem like a trivial matter, but you never know when knowing the difference might save your life. Well, it will probably never save your life… But picture this.
One day, you get together with your girlfriend and she says:
“SWEETIE, I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU AN IMPORTANT QUESTION.”
“IF YOU COULD CHOOSE, WHAT WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE: AN OLD VACUUM TUBE AMP OR A MODERN PRODUCTION ONE?”
“YOU KNOW, A TUBE AMP, A VACUUM TUBE AMPLIFIER. WHICH WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?”
“YOU WANT TO GET ME A VACUUM TUBE AMPLIFIER?!”
“YEA, HUN. THEY’RE FASCINATING. DID YOU KNOW THAT THEY WORK BASED ON THERMIONIC EMISSION? THEY USE HEAT TO GENERATE AND EXCITE ELECTRONS. ISN’T THAT REALLY HOT?”
“WELL, YES, IT IS. BUT THIS IS SO UNEXPECTED; I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY…”
And then, before you get to make up your mind, whoosh! You wake up and realize it was all a dream. Damn, you should’ve known when she started talking about thermionic emission!
…But what if it ever does happen?
Now you have to find out more about the difference between old vacuum tubes and new ones!
It’s ok, take a deep breath. We’re here to help you.
Vacuum Tube Amp: What’s what?
That’s right – before you decide whether you want a vintage tube amp or a modern production one, you should probably know the difference between them. After all, if your girlfriend would ask you to help her choose between a burgundy dress and a deepcrimson one, you’d first want to know which is which, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you?!
Well, anyway, the difference is you’ll actually care about the vacuum tube amp! As you already know, the tube technology hit its peak around the 1950s1960s, when companies like Telefunken, GE, Sylvania and Mullard used to produce highquality, hightolerance devices.
Soon enough, however, transistors and silicon took over, while tube amps became obsolete and quite unprofitable to manufacture. While the abovementioned companies tagged out of the game, tubes continued to be made in Russia, in several other “soviet block” countries and in China, especially for military applications.
The current tube supply (or what we call a modern production vacuum tube amp) primarily comes from producers in these countries, while the tubes that were previously manufactured in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany (the old, vintage vacuum tubes, also called the New Old Stock or NOS tubes) are becoming increasingly rare.
So, apart from provenance and age, is there any difference between an NOS tube and a new one? Nobody can tell, really. It’s kind of like the difference between those two red dresses – they look pretty much the same, but your girlfriend will inexplicably like one and hate the other… only that, in the case of tube amps, she won’t really care. In terms of sound quality, even though some people argue that NOS tubes are better, it’s up to you to decide which type of valve amplifier you prefer.
On the other hand, if you’re going to buy an exquisite, vintage amplifier, then you’ll probably want the vacuum tubes to be vintage as well. I know you can already hear your girlfriend complaining:
“SWEETIE, WHY DO WE HAVE TO BUY THE MORE EXPENSIVE AMPLIFIER IF THE TUBES LOOK THE SAME?”
“BUT THEY’RE NOT THE SAME, DARLING!” — “THEY’RE NOT?”
“OF COURSE NOT. THERE’S JUST SOMETHING MAGNIFICENT ABOUT A VIRGIN TUBE AMP THAT HAS SURVIVED FOR DECADES IN SOME GODFORSAKED BASEMENT AND WAS THEN REDISCOVERED, POLISHED AND BROUGHT TO LIFE IN A CONTEMPORARY PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY!”
“THERE IS?” — “YES, DARLING. JUST THINK OF ALL THE HISTORY IT’S WITNESSED!”
“AND HOW DID IT DO THAT, SWEETIE, IF IT WAS JAMMED IN A DARK BASEMENT?”
So, maybe your girlfriend won’t get it… You don’t get why she likes the burgundy dress either, do you?
It’s the way of the world. Meanwhile, you can’t spend too much time arguing, because the supply of NOS tubes is quickly dwindling. You have to consider the fact that Telefunken, Mullard and co. are no longer manufacturing the vacuum tube amp reference and, even though they might display a similar quality, new tubes can never perfectly match the ones that were made decades ago.
Of course, miraculous accidents still happen and tube scavengers still stumble upon the occasional box of unused vintage pieces, but unfortunately, this won’t be the case forever. This moment right now could not be more fortuitous when it comes to buying your own vintage amplifier.
So what are you waiting for? A glorious old tube amp might look the same, it might sound almost identical and it might even be just as reliable as the new one, but nothing quite compares to that sense of vintage pride, when you can display a tiny, minuscule piece of history on your very own cabinet.