Re-Tales #21: Much a-tube about nothing?

Unless you live under a rock, you've followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You know something about sanctions against Russia and Russia's responses to those sanctions. If, in addition to not living under a rock, you're a tube-audio aficionado or electric guitar nut, you may have thought about a likely consequence of that war that's far less momentous than the destruction and carnage we see on TV: Will I be able to get new tubes for my amplifier? Especially those lovely Russia-made tubes.

I spoke and exchanged emails with several tube-focused hi-fi companies, including makers of hi-fi electronics, tube sellers, and tube manufacturers, to find out whether and how Russia's invasion of Ukraine is impacting their business.

[Editor's note: If you're a conscientious supporter of the Russia boycott—well, so are we. But we're just a hi-fi magazine. We're not here to judge or to express opinions about politics or foreign affairs. The objective of this article is merely to describe the situation on the ground with respect to Russian-made vacuum tubes.]

A handful of factories worldwide produce the world's vacuum tubes. One is the Expo-Pul factory in Saratov, Russia, on the Volga River; it produces Tung-Sol, Electro-Harmonix, EH Gold, Genalex Gold Lion, Mullard, Svetlana, and Sovtek tubes. The factory is owned by an American—Mike Matthews—and his Electro-Harmonix company, which is part of New Sensor Corporation. 80-year-old Matthews is probably best known as a guitar pedal-effects pioneer: He invented the Big Muff fuzz box, among other effects. Electric guitar amps need tubes, so Matthews bought the Expo-Pul tube factory in 1998. EHX has since had its share of adventures.

If you're in the US or most of the West and you're buying a Russian-made vacuum tube, you almost certainly are buying a tube made by Russian workers at the American-owned Expo-Pul factory. Indeed, industry sources say that EHX is the only commercially important supplier of Russian-made vacuum tubes for hi-fi.

In early March, Russia halted exports, including exports of vacuum tubes. Immediately, concerns arose about the US tube supply. A March 16 headline on Fortune's website read "Russia's invasion of Ukraine will have consequences in sectors ranging from energy to music."

In mid-March, EHX's Matthews sent a message to customers announcing that Russia's ban on the export of 200 goods pplied to EHX's seven brands of Russian-made vacuum tubes. Customers should not expect to receive tube shipments at least until after the end of the calendar year.

But then, according to a hi-fi company's letter to dealers, which was shared with Stereophile, a couple of days after the first message, Matthews sent another, which stated that the ban had been resolved and shipping would soon restart. Prices, though, would rise.

In a phone conversation, Matthews explained that, according to attorneys in Russia and Washington, DC, Russia's export ban was on transmitter tubes. At first, that category seemed to encompass tubes intended for hi-fi and guitar amps, but then it seemed that those tubes were exempt. Russia issued a new rule, which required submission of a certain form. EHX submitted the form, then amended it, and now they're waiting for approval. "We have a huge order ready to ship by air," Matthews told me. "We have very few tubes in our Russian inventory right now," referring to the inventory in the company's US warehouse. "The demand—there's such a panic."

There's a panic, but is there a crisis? A quick search of online tube sellers found many common EHX tubes in stock, including Sovtek 6H30s and Tung-Sol KT150s. Most manufacturers I spoke with weren't worried, or not very, when I wrote this in early April. "We're okay for now," Dave Gordon, managing director of Audio Research Corporation (ARC), told me. "We're still able to ship from stock for most products." (Gordon confirmed that EHX is ARC's only source of Russian-made tubes.)

Some sources, though, were wary of buyers buying up tubes in quantity, whether panic-buying or profiteering. Gordon compared it to hoarding toilet paper early in the pandemic. Upscale Audio's Kevin Deal (a dealer, distributor, and major vacuum tube reseller), tube electronics maker VAC's Kevin Hayes, and other man ufacturers and online sellers have restricted quantities of tubes available to purchase. Deal emailed customers asking them not to buy more tubes than they need. "There is no need to stockpile tubes," he wrote. Gordon said, "They might not get their full order, but they'll get what they need."

"Some price increases are coming from the factories and distributors, and this does not represent price gouging," Hayes told Stereophile. "But do watch out for the few vendors that will try to play on your fears." Stay cool, everything is going to be fine.

Meanwhile, tube manufacturers say that hi-fi and musical-instrument companies are stocking up. Charlie Whitener, president and owner of US tube manufacturer Western Electric, told me his company is receiving record orders from OEM buyers.

Limited availability of specific tubes has impacted hi-fi companies, including Living Sounds Audio (LSA). Walter Liederman, who owns LSA and online retailer Underwood HiFi, told me that production is delayed on the forthcoming LSA VT-150 amp, which was designed to utilize VT-150 tubes, which are made by Tung-Sol, an EHX marque. "Due to unavailability of KT150 tubes from Russia, we decided to change to KT88s, which we can get," Wally told me. "It'll be 80 watts instead of 110. If the customer wants to supply his own KT150s, he can."

Matthews said his customers have accepted price increases. "Without that, we can't pay our lawyers here and in Russia." Meanwhile, Canada has applied a 35% tariff to Russian imports. A bill just passed by the US Senate, on April 7, will suspend normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus, which will lead to higher US tariffs. (The bill has already been passed by the House; at the time of writing it awaited the president's signature.)

"Nature abhors a vacuum," Hayes said; you may decide for yourself whether the pun was intended. "So, some organization will arise to support the vacuum tube demands of the hi-fi and musical instrument market."

Next Month: In Part 2, find out more about tube manufacturers' response to the apparent shortages of vacuum tubes.

Glotz's picture

really has a golden opportunity to burgeon the market once again. And I really hope they do. In my eyes and ears, they were once the best.

Julie Mullins's picture

Stay tuned for updates on this—Western Electric and others—in my forthcoming Part 2 article.

topdwnman's picture

I recall when hardware stores had tube testers sitting on the floor, ah the good old days when we fended for ourselves, when AMERICA created, produced, marketed, and sold right here in the USA. While we watch manufacturing go overseas because of a cheaper bottom line, the end game will in all likelihood far greater cost. Companies need to see that IF they could work together, solving the dilemma of shortages could be overcome, be profitable, and create a manufacturing base with new jobs, wow what a concept !

MattJ's picture

Solid state for the win! Hm, what? Chip shortage? Oh. Well never mind then.

Glotz's picture

is waning on several fronts recently.

Jonti's picture

A handful of factories worldwide produce the world's vacuum tubes. One is the Expo-Pul factory in Saratov, Russia, on the Volga River; it produces Tung-Sol, Electro-Harmonix, EH Gold, Genalex Gold Lion, Mullard, Svetlana, and Sovtek tubes.

This makes me sad. Unless I'm missing something, all of these brands today are merely badges on identikit stuff coming off the same conveyor belt. What a con.

This is also why I only use NOS tubes: Mullards made by Mullard in a Mullard factory with Mullard expertise, pride and care.

Jack L's picture


Mullard where ?

I still got 2 brandnew Mullard ECC82 made in Great Britain, as standby for my linestage. Glad I don't pay hefty price for NOS !

Jack L

Jonti's picture

Your tubes were likely built in Blackburn, Lancashire. Or possibly Southport, Simonstone, Fleetwood, or Lytham St. Annes. Regardless, they were definitely built by Mullard people.

Jack L's picture


Yup. For linestages, I only use Mullard ECC82 (12AU7) made in Gt. Britain. More costly than same label made offshore, but definitely lasts much longer.

Listening with own ears is believing'

Jack L

Valter's picture

we are in 2022 and we cannot accept a war unleashed for futile reasons. Nobody can justify or pretend not to see.

mcrushing's picture

Starbucks announced its withdrawal from Russia today. Golden Arches signage is starting to come downs since McDonald's sold its Russian stores. I support these boycotts (or divestments, or sanctions or whatever). They seem a necessary step in stopping the crimes against humanity the Russian Government is committing. But the Russians who depend on EHX to feed their families aren't the ones committing atrocities - and they aren't free to dissent.

One thing this article misses is that lots of the world's NOS tubes are/were distributed by Ukrainians. If anyone knows how the US audio community could help THEM, please share.

On the whole, I think stories like this one help us understand all the ways that regular people are paying the cost of Putin's hatred and greed. Thanks for publishing it, Stereophile, and for taking the comment thread heat.

Jack L's picture


When millions of lives in Africa & Middle East are waiting to be fed with wheat regularly shipped from Russsia & Ukraine, the war between these 2 largest wheat exporters has stopped any shipments since February.

Should we still worry about stocking up Russian tubes now ?????

Jack L