Re-Tales #22: Is it time for a tube surge?

In last month's Re-Tales, I discussed what was happening on the vacuum-tube landscape, especially tube shortages resulting from Russia's war on Ukraine and its consequences for trade. Tube availability is, of course, a small concern compared to continuing Russian atrocities and the resulting suffering of Ukrainians. Still, it's a question tubed-electronics lovers and makers must grapple with, and we're a hi-fi magazine. So: If that Russian tube supply is curtailed or boycotted, what are the alternatives for manufacturers and individual buyers?

As I filed last month's Re-Tales article, it wasn't clear whether tubes from the ExpoPul factory, which is owned by American company Electro-Harmonix (EHX), would make it out of Russia. As we went to press, EHX was awaiting approval of a "new complex form required by Russia Export Control," EHX owner Mike Matthews told me in an email. Prospects for shipping were uncertain. That form got approved, and EHX's tube shipment arrived in the US in late April. Which means that the shortlived US shortage of Russian-made tubes should end as those tubes make their way out to manufacturers and resellers.

In 2019, China's Shuguang factory, which once produced a large fraction of the world's tube supply, closed, supposedly to move to a larger facility. But the new facility hasn't opened yet, and some people wonder if it ever will. Together, the Shuguang closing and the Russia crisis created a supply-chain "double whammy," one source said.

There aren't many alternatives. JJ has a factory in the Slovak Republic. Psvane and Linlai are Chinese. European Audio Team (EAT, the Pro-Ject–affiliated vendor of turntables and amplifiers), KR Audio, and Emission Labs all manufacture tubes in the Czech Republic (though EAT is based in Austria). Tataksuki is Japanese, and Tube Amp Doctor (TAD) is from Germany. Finally there's Western Electric (WE), which is, of course, American. When it comes to tube types, quantities, and pricing, these companies are not interchangeable. Certain tubes, like the KT150, are mostly made in Russia, by EHX. KR Audio also makes them but for much higher prices. For electronics manufacturers, purchasing a large quantity of "small-batch" artisan tubes would be cost-prohibitive, even if the producer could make them in sufficient quantity.

EAT produces KT88 and 300B tubes in the company's Czech factory, mainly for use in EAT's own electronics, said EAT CEO Jozefina Lichtennegger. Since the war began, she's been receiving daily requests to increase production—but scaling up and diversifying, she told me, isn't as easy as it seems. "You cannot do tube production in a garage," she said in an email. "You need a lot of knowledge to do it, and also a lot of machines, tooling, and high-quality raw material suppliers, comparable to the haute watchmaking in Switzerland." Tooling up for expansion would require a large investment, which would only be justified by even higher tube prices. "It would be very hard to cover the production cost with prices that consumers are used to paying for tubes," she said. "If somebody is willing to pay the prices for the handmade work, then I will of course produce and invest." For now though, she's "more than happy to give this opportunity of producing valves to others."

Among those "others" is Western Electric and Charlie Whitener, the company's president and owner. Western Electric is known for its classic 300B tubes but makes other tubes for military use. The company was planning to expand and diversify tube production even before the Russian invasion, Whitener told me in a recent phone conversation. "We've had a lot of requests for other tubes, so we've put a project together to do that some time ago," he said. "We've been tooling up for producing other types of tubes for over a year."

In mid-March, Whitener put a survey on the company website to gauge demand for various tube types. They received about 30,000 responses in less than a month, he told me. "We're completely deluged with requests. We're still getting emails." Whitener's Western Electric has held the rights to the Western Electric brand and tube-related IP since the mid-'90s. In the '90s, WE bought tooling from GEC/Gold Lion, which in principle should allow them to make the newer KT-series tubes: KT88, KT150, KT170, KT190. In 2006, the company bought an old plant in Serbia and moved its machinery to the US along with original drawings and tooling for making parts for old Philips, Mullard, and Telefunken tubes. In 2020, they moved the company from Lee's Summit, Missouri, near Kansas City, to a brand-new factory in Rossville, Georgia. The new factory has infrastructure and capacity, Whitener told me, but they're still working on the tooling for specific parts. Soon, they plan to add 12AX7, 12AT7, 12AU7, 6550, and 6L6 tubes to the WE lineup.

Some manufacturers that now rely mainly, if not exclusively, on Russian-made tubes told me they would consider switching to tubes made elsewhere if a real alternative existed. VAC President Kevin Hayes said he considers all sources all the time but he added, "I am not aware of any current operation in the US configured to supply a practical quantity and necessary quality of tubes to the industry." That said, "the recreation of the supply chain and facilities in the US necessary to produce quality tubes in good quantity and at reasonable cost is highly desirable."

In conversations, other industry sources expressed concern about whether Western Electric would be able to compete on cost with Russian or Chinese manufacturers. Whitener provided a direct answer: No. "Our labor costs are six times higher than they are in Russia or China," he said. "We won't be able to deliver the same price." Consequently, Western Electric doesn't expect to get the bulk of the tube business, he added: He'd be happy with 10%.

Cost issues aside, Western Electric seems the most obvious contender to soak up at least some increased tube demand. "[Whitener] has to get volume up," David Gordon of Audio Research said. "It'll be a while. I think there's great potential there, but we're not holding our breath."

"We've made commitments for extra machinery and materials," Whitener told me. "It's probably going to be at least nine months, maybe a year, before we can deliver quantity. We're on track in pursuit of this adventure."

Glotz's picture

The future looks very bright... err, glowing? yeah.

Thank you so much Julie!

Julie Mullins's picture

Thanks for reading. My pleasure. Stay tuned for more...

Jack L's picture


Profiteering honeymoon is over sooner than later !

Payback time !

Jack L