"The only tubes that I want to see in my household are...the picture tube in my TV and the magnetron in the microwave oven," a Glendale, CA, reader recently wrote, and I guess his feelings reflect those of many when confronted by a supposedly "obsolete" audio technology. Forty years after the invention of the transistor and 20 after the widespread introduction of solid-state amplifiers (footnote 1), it must come as a shock to readers of the mass-market "slicks" that not only do a number of American manufacturers manufacture amplifiers and preamplifiers using tubes, but some of those companies—Counterpoint and Audio Research in particular—are among the more successful. It is the Classic 60 power amplifier from Minnesota-based Audio Research that is the subject of this month's lead-off equipment review.
The VTL 225W DeLuxe monoblocks are very similar to the 300W monoblocks that received such an enthusiastic reception from J. Gordon Holt a year or so ago (in Vol.11 No.10) and, ultimately, most of the audiophile community. Technically, they differ only in output tubes and transformer: the 225W uses EL34s, the 300W uses 6550s. The 225Ws, at $4200/pair, cost $700 less than their more powerful brothers. The question may be raised: Why have two models so close in price and performance? According to David Manley, the 225Ws were built on special order for audiophiles who preferred the sound of EL34s to the 300Ws' 6550s. Demand was so great for the EL34 version that he decided to add it to the line. They look almost identical, the only difference being the smaller output transformer on the 225W and an additional filter capacitor on the 300W's top chassis.
Do you believe in beginner's luck? If so, some of your personality traits should be quite predictable. Let's see. You're very likely an optimist with a "bull-market" mentality, play the lottery, and, most important, bought a CD player within a year of its introduction, or a solid-state amp in the '60s. You're apt to mail in a profusion of bingo cards (you know, the kind Stereo Review is full of) and spend hours perusing specifications in the hope of finding a kernel of truth in all of that chaff. You'd particularly be appalled at that fellow I ran into the other day, who had bought an AR-1 in 1956 and waited another decade before buying another speakerjust to make sure stereo wasn't a fad. Hey, relax, I won't turn you in; the mere fact that you're reading Stereophile is sufficient reason for redemption.
The last time I was in England, I happened to be rummaging through some boxes in my mother's garage, boxes containing photographs, my old school books, concert programs, diaries, postcardsall the bric-a-brac you collect throughout your life that you'll never have a need for and can never discard. If anything, such rubbish is perhaps the nearest thing to roots that anyone can have these days. Among the boxes was an amplifier that had been an everyday companion of mine for many years, the vintage Vox AC100 I had used to amplify my Fender bass when on the road.
Not only does the venerable vacuum tube refuse to lie down and die, as everyone predicted when audio went solid-state; it continues to deliver better performance than anyone had imagined it could. Only a few years ago, we could characterize "the tube sound" as being sweet but soft at the high end, rich but loose in the midbass, deficient in deep bass, and bright and forward, usually with excellent reproduction of depth. Since then, we've seen the introduction of what might almost be called a new generation of tube amplifiers, which rival solid-state units in those areas where tubes used to have weaknesses, but have given up little of the tube's sonic strengths.
The D-250 is the flagship of Audio Research's power amplifier range and, at 250 watts per channel, is the most powerful all-tube stereo amplifier currently available in the US. Under the circumstances, then, it is not surprising that it should also be one of the heaviest and largest.
Many audiophiles who have only recently subscribed to Stereophile will be surprised to find that those clunky, heat-producing, short-lived tubes that reigned up through the mid-'60s are still Executive Monarchs in the mid-'80s. Why, for Heaven's sake? Because, despite everything, people like them.
It says something for the state of technology that, after a quarter of a century, there still is no authoritative explanation for why so many high-end audiophiles prefer tubes. Tubes not only refuse to die, they seem to be coming back. The number of US and British firms making high-end tube equipment is growing steadily, and an increasing number of comparatively low-priced units are becoming available. There is a large market in renovated or used tube equipmentI must confess to owning a converted McIntosh MR-71 tunerand there are even some indications that tube manufacturers are improving their reliability, although getting good tubes remains a problem.
The Audio Research D-160B has been heavily modified since the D-160A, and uses the same technology as the D-70, D-115, and D-250. It embodies William Z. Johnson's latest transformer and power supply designs, his latest choice of capacitors and resistors, and the same independent regulation of screens, drivers, and front end. D-160s and D-160As can be converted to D-160Bs for $1500.