Listening #12

I didn't care how the stuff measured, and I wasn't terribly worried about the sound. When the single-ended triode movement crossed my attention eight or nine years ago, I simply thought: That's for me.

For the first time in a long time, audiophiles were putting together music systems differently, spending money on audio equipment differently, and listening differently. Shopworn watchwords like soundstage and bloom and inner detail were replaced with vibe and drama—words that real people might actually use to describe real music. And, as with the flat-earthers of the 1970s, it was nice to think that a part of the audio community was once again more concerned with notes than with noise.

There was even some potential for camaraderie: The SET movement attracted disparate types in much the way that people who were disillusioned with the pasteurized arena-rock of the 1970s came together around those first albums by the Ramones and Television. I suppose the same mechanism was at work: When things got stale, a bored minority looked for something different and better—and their lives took on new meaning when they realized there were other people out there just like them. (I'm told this was also the motivation, later on, for a significant portion of the Smiths' fan base, but out of respect for my editor, I won't go there.)

One thing was clear: Whatever else was going on, the people who began experimenting with low-power amps and sensitive loudspeakers in the early 1990s were having fun—thus guaranteeing that they'd be misunderstood and, ultimately, loathed by certain others among the industry, press, and fellow enthusiasts.

Iron chefs
To uncover the real roots of the SET movement, you have to look a bit further back, to the mid-'70s audio scene in Japan—a place where no technological artifact ever goes entirely out of style, and where the vacuum tubes and horn drivers abandoned by the West found a loving adoptive home.

In the US and elsewhere, single-ended amplification left the stage soon after it bowed in the early 1930s, primarily because the push-pull circuits that arrived shortly thereafter seemed to offer lower measured distortion and higher output power. The single-ended products that remained—mostly table radios and small guitar amps, such as Leo Fender's original Champ—did so for purely economic reasons: Then as now, one 6V6 tube was cheaper than two. In any event, one could say that early SET technology never achieved its full sonic or musical potential here, arguably because no one was willing or able to manufacture the huge output transformers necessary for wide-bandwidth performance in those types of circuits. But Japanese enthusiasts were uniquely undaunted by this, and Japanese companies such as Hirata, Tamura, Kanno, and the beguilingly named Nature Sound were ready to oblige SET experimenters with whatever high-quality trannies they needed, and then some.

It's more than just having good iron: The Japanese have always been blessed with a healthy disdain for, as Robert Frost put it, "playing tennis without a net." They understand and appreciate the challenge of creating something within a strict set of guidelines—in which case the drive to re-create music with just two or three watts of amplifier power stands alongside bon-sai, haiku, and Japanese architecture. And the Japanese have a finely tuned appreciation for beauty and a drive to acquire it—not in a gross or greedy way, but as a means of expressing oneself, howsoever subtly. Thus do the most advanced Japanese audiophiles view their systems as works of art, and rightly so.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the modern SET movement didn't go wholly unnoticed. Smart companies such as Cary Audio and Pass Labs began making low-power amps using tubes and transistors, respectively, and Danish-born Englishman Peter Qvortrup, through his Japanese-based Audio Note company, established a SET presence in the US and Europe, the initial success of which seemed to catch some folks off guard. SET-friendly shops sprang up, such as Deja Vu in Virginia. And the press took notice in their own way, with a few established titles being a bit more adventurous than others, and with new print mags springing up in the SET pasture seemingly overnight. Some of the latter, such as Joe Roberts' superb Sound Practices, were a breath of fresh air: adventurous, informative, and fun. Others tried to parrot SP's hip tone but were either poorly edited or not edited at all, and ultimately fell flat.

The response from the audience was mixed. Some hobbyists took the plunge and stayed there, happily. Others enjoyed reading about the trip but decided to stay home for the time being. (When I was editor of the decidedly SET-friendly Listener magazine, the letters I treasured most were those from intelligent readers who didn't happen to care for tubes or horns, yet who felt their enjoyment and understanding of the hobby was enhanced by reading about them.)

And, of course, there were a few sad cases who weren't able to just shrug and say "That's cool" when confronted with the news that other audiophiles do things differently—and quite possibly have more fun in the process. That's just human nature, I suppose, although it often seems that audiophiles are second only to aquarium-plant enthusiasts in their tendency to malign other hobbyists—but whether that's merely for amusement or to establish themselves as the hobby's alpha males, I'm not certain. (Then again, I do remember reading in National Geographic that female audiophiles will allow themselves to be mounted only by potbellied males who can scream the loudest insults at loudspeaker technologies, digital encoding schemes, or magazines of which they disapprove.)

Before setting the subject of personality disorders to one side, I should not let SET enthusiasts themselves completely off the hook. Remember what I said earlier about a potential for camaraderie? Well, forget it: These people all hate each other now. First, the 300B tube tribe and 2A3 tube tribe started looking down their noses at each other. Then a subclan of the 2A3 tribe discovered the 45 tube, a discovery that apparently rendered the 2A3 unacceptable overnight—and for its part, of course, the 300B is now way too mainstream and thus uncool. Cary Audio is disliked by other amp makers for being successful, and Avantgarde, which also does well in the marketplace, seems to be in the barrel among loudspeaker "students of the art." By the time I attended my first SET-oriented hi-fi show, it seemed that much of the playing field had been taken over by trash-culture devotees (you know the type: anemic-looking East Village males who pretend they think the first Josie and the Pussycats album was the greatest record ever made) who see their goal in life as the disavowal of everything that's enjoyed by at least one other person. So much for wiener roasts and "Kumbaya."

Which brings us, inelegantly, to our hobby's hoary old clash between objectivity and subjectivity. In this Promethean conflict, audiophiles who are technically oriented insist that measurements, because they are objective, are the best if not the only reliable way to describe audio gear. Their counterparts ridicule that notion, suggesting that the only way to appraise something is to apply it to the job for which it was designed. Thus, cars can be judged only when driven, wine can be judged only when it's drunk, and $10,000 minimonitors can be judged only when used to hold small boats in place.

I think it's fair to say that the loudest critics of the SET movement in this country have, for the past 10 years, been the same self-appointed experts who want to save us all from the horrors of having fun with our hi-fis. "Go ahead and listen to whatever junk you want," they will say, "but don't you dare call it hi-fi, because fi means fidelity, and single-ended triode amps and horn loudspeakers are so colored that they do not and cannot exhibit true fidelity to the original signal—without which, you are wasting your time. P.S. Please leave the planet now."

Which is bullshit, of course.