In this hobby, nothing's for nothing. To get that gorgeous midrange, with its harmonic depth and inner detail, tube-amp enthusiasts are willing to give up some things in the bass. Tube folks put up with heat and occasional maintenance—routine or otherwise. To get the ideal middle, fans of single-ended triodes are even willing to shave off considerable dynamic range and settle for ultra-efficient speakers that often have limited response at the frequency extremes. Those who say nothing is lost by preferring tubes are in denial.
My stepfather wore only second-hand clothes as a child and never understood why anyone would deliberately wash the color out of his new dungarees. By the same token, the senior members of our hobby, many of whom recall with fondness the transistor's advent, don't understand why anyone would now wish to throw away their newfound power. Some people deserve to be blessed for their point of view, even as the world moves away from it.
When I reviewed VTL's MB-750 monoblock amplifier in the December 1997 Stereophile (Vol.20 No.12), it was a transitional time for the company. Luke Manley had recently taken it over, and he and his wife and partner, Bea Lam, were aggressively retooling. They introduced new business systems, including rigorous inventory and quality control; rebuilt VTL's dealer network around top-rank dealers; and systematically upgraded the products themselves to improve their consistency, reliability, manufacturability, and performance. VTL's goal, Luke explained to me at the time, was to build amplifiers that competed with the very best, and to "make the tubes invisible to the customer."
It's been 10 years since Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) introduced their first products: the VK-5 line-stage preamplifier and the VK-60 power amplifier. (I reviewed both in the December 1995 Stereophile, Vol.18 No.12.) The success of these and other BAT products has allowed designer Victor Khomenko (the "VK" of the model designations) and partner Steve Bednarski to quit their day jobs at Hewlett-Packard; they were joined by Geoff Poor as a partner to handle the sales end of the enterprise. BAT's current lineup includes several preamps, phono stages, a CD player, and tube as well as solid-state amplifiers. The top of BAT's preamp range is the VK-51SE, which costs $9000; their top tube power amp is the VK-150SE monoblock ($17,000/pair); if you want their best phono stage, the VK-P10 will set you back $8000.
"The realistic reproduction of orchestral music in an average room requires peak power capabilities of the order of 15 to 20W when the electro-acoustic transducer is a baffle-loaded moving-coil loudspeaker of normal efficiency."
—Peter Walker and D.T.N. Williamson, writing in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society in 1954
One of my best friends is a serious jazz collector with a side interest in good replay gear. The last time we got together over a meal, he asked, "What do you think is really the most important component in an audio system?" He might have added "these days": It's a subject we come back to from time to time.
The McIntosh MC 275 power amplifier has been born yet again. It's the Count Dracula of power amps. It refuses to stay dead. Introduced in 1961, the Mac 275, in its original hardwired edition, was produced until 1970. This was the amp I desired while in college but couldn't afford. I remember the Mac 275 fondly—rather like girlfriends from my college years.
Most of us have at least some taste for gear that jumps out—for audio components whose sonic and musical distinctions are easy to hear from the start. In audio, unlike in the art of music itself, there's nothing wrong with being obvious.
Anyone over 40 who's worked in a hi-fi or record store will remember the Pfanstiehl catalog, a pulpy thing that most shopkeepers chained to their counters, like a phone book. Pfanstiehl made replacement styli for virtually every record-playing device of the day, and their catalog contained page after page of tiny line drawings of nothing but phonograph needles, all lovingly rendered in three-quarter view. You couldn't browse it without being brought up short: My God, how many different needles are there? And how is it possible that a single company could tool up for so many products and still make a profit?
For those who frequent the audio discussion groups on the Internet, the method by which Stereophile selects products for review seems to be a continuing source of fascination and conjecture. Supporters of fledgling manufacturers—whose products these Webcrawlers just happen to own—rail against the rule that products to be reviewed in the magazine must have at least five US dealers. Some suggest that Stereophile's selection of review products is all about catering to advertisers and friends in the industry, a process that seems intended to exclude their favorite products from consideration.
Ah, Brazil...land of coffee, the samba, Pelé, Rio-by-the-sea-o, and tube amplifiers. All right, so perhaps the amplifier connection isn't quite as well-established. But one Brazilian amplifier designer, Eduardo de Lima, has published articles in Glass Audio magazine that are viewed by many as groundbreaking, and his evolving products have been seen at various specialist tube equipment shows. De Lima—president, founder, product designer, and principal owner of Audiopax Sistemas Eletroacusticos—is an electrical engineer who started out designing equipment for a telecommunications company, but since 1995 he's devoted his talents to designing a wide range of audio products, including speakers as well as preamps and power amps.
I'm a big believer in the notion that if you can't hear a difference, why pay for it? I also believe that the ultimate goal of any high-end system should be to simply disappear and leave the listener immersed in the presence of the music. System synergy is paramount, and how you spread your compromises around and make your tradeoffs work for you is generally more significant than how expensive the final tab is. Thank God there are still plenty of companies out there dedicated to the proposition that ultimate resolution and build quality are anything but antithetical to real-world value.
Single-ended triode amplifiers (SETs) have a considerable following, but even their most devoted fans admit that its maximum power output is not among an SET's strengths. You'd be lucky to get an SET that puts out 7Wpc, and some (like those using the 45 tube) are closer to 2Wpc. Highly sensitive speakers (eg, horns) will tend to offset the power limitation, and SETs usually sound more powerful than their measurements indicate, but the laws of physics still apply: 2W is 2W, regardless of the kind of amplifier that produces it, and an amplifier's manner of clipping and recovery from overload take us only part of the way toward achieving greater volume.
There's something special about big tube amplifiers. No other audio component has such a primal appeal or can so quickly reduce grown (?) audiophiles to Homer Simpsons sighing, "Mmmmm...toooobs." EveAnna Manley, president of Manley Laboratories, understands the effect of high-powered tubes on the audiophile brain and shares the obsession. A Harley rider, mountain climber, and devoted music lover, she is one of the industry's most individualistic characters. You just have to appreciate a gal who ends each CES by blaring Rage Against the Machine at top volume.