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Nuvitron´s Tube Amp. The Miraculous fidelity of tone

Starting with the obvious, a vacuum tube amp generally looks better than a solid-state amp. There is something very comforting, almost primal, about that orange-red glow. Sitting in the dark, watching the soft glow from the tubes in a tube amp, as your favourite music gently caresses your ears before massaging your emotions, is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Add in Scarlett Johansson and you have the recipe for a dangerous fixation.

There is also something very pleasing about seeing the inner workings of a device. In these days of integrated circuits, transistors and discrete components, there is nothing to please the eye and they come in any colour you like, as long as it’s black and you can’t see what’s going on inside anyway. Even if they were transparent, there’s not much to see, it’s all ones and zeroes, not that you’d see them anyway. Pretty dull stuff, really.

Tube amps are top gadgets for men and tend to be, in general, big boys toys. Let’s face it chaps, we do like to see how things work. The male of the species likes to see “things that do things”.

Our better halves seem much more content to have things tucked away, simply trusting that they’ll do the job for which they were designed.

Testing Vacuum Tube 12AX7

Perhaps it’s something to do with the differences in our physical makeup? Who knows? (Who cares?) But men are different in this respect and anything that whirrs, clicks, hums or glows, has the power to reduce grown men to wide-eyed kids. When you install that tube amp in your home, there’s an instant “Wow!” factor and it can also become a useful conversation piece:

“Wow! Nice piece of equipment there Frank. What is it?”

“That’s a desk lamp, Tom.”

“No Frank, not that. The thing on the cabinet over there, with those glowing things on top.”

“Ah, okay. Well Tom, that’s a 40 Watt, Class A, EL34 tube amplifier.”

“Gee Frank, it looks great. Tubes, they’re the things that light up, right? I’ve often wondered how they work.”

“Well Tom, sit down there. Now, tell me, do you know what an electron is?”

“Yeah, I think the wife has one in her bedside cabi-”

“Whoa! Hang on there, Tom, I’ll fetch us some drinks.

– You’re not busy today are you?”

And so it goes. Tom loses several hours of his life to discovering the joys and workings of the humble vacuum tube amplifier and it’s almost a guarantee that, on his return to his dearly beloved, he will find a way to steer the conversation toward tube technology and how it relates to their joint savings account.

Another high-end audio fan is born.

Less is more. In a vacuum tube amplifier, there are fewer components in the signal path, meaning fewer reasons for the audio to degrade. It makes sense. The more components there are in the signal path, the greater the potential for unwanted artefacts to be introduced and, in a system such as an amplifier, any artefacts introduced before reaching the power amps, will be amplified before it hits your speakers. Fewer components also mean that there are fewer things to break down, allowing for greater reliability.

Vacuum Tubes Across Time

This is also one of the reasons that few tube amps sport tone controls, balance controls or anything as vulgar as loudness buttons. They’re made to sound as good as possible and simply don’t need such fripperies.

Harmonic distortion. Whilst both solid-state and tube amps create harmonic distortion, it’s the type of distortion that makes the difference. The former distorts more dominantly at the third and odd order harmonics while the latter distorts more dominantly at the second and even order harmonics.

What does this mean in practice? Well, any increase on the third harmonic is going to give the tone less body and will sound colder, some say thinner. Whereas an increase at the second harmonic, which is one octave, will have almost the completely opposite effect, giving the sound more body and warmth and sound fuller, more rounded in tone.

Musically, this distortion is more pleasing to the human ear and partly explains why the word “warmth” is often used when people describe the sound of tube amplifiers. Tubes are much more music friendly in their operation. Clipping and overload occurs more gradually too, as the amp approaches its maximum power capabilities. Solid-state amps reach their limits much quicker and will sound much harsher when they get there. Tube amps take their time, stop off for a couple of malt whiskies and generally feel much more relaxed when they get there.

Tube amps have much higher build quality. Due to the fragile nature of vacuum tubes, they need to be installed by hand. Furthermore, many tube amp designs do not use printed circuit boards and wire components directly instead. A neatly wired, neatly soldered tube amp is a thing of joy and beautiful to behold.

In the best tube amps, the best components of all types will be used, further improving reliability and overall sound quality. In a well made Class A tube amp, you will hear the spaces in between notes, which is appealing if you’re a Zen Buddhist or a keen meditation practitioner. Tubes are also less susceptible to the electromagnetic pulse effects of nuclear explosions or geomagnetic storms caused by giant solar flares.

So, if you live in an area where either event is likely to occur, rest assured that you’d be able to shuffle off this mortal coil whilst listening to your favourite music.

Vacuum Tubes glowing in the dark 2


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