McIntosh Laboratories MC275 power amplifier

Tubes, tubes, tubes.

The amps (and preamps) keep coming.

McIntosh Laboratories is back in the act with a limited-edition revival of the MC275 tube amplifier, the original of which was produced from May 1961 through July 1973—one of the longest model runs in hi-fi history.

New companies devoted to tube gear keep cropping up—in recent years, America's VAC and Cary and Canada's Sonic Frontiers. The same thing appears to be going on in the UK. The pages of British magazines are filled with new tube gear.

I was talking with a few dealer friends. It's not the old farts—or, as Aunt Corey would say, the Old Goats—like me who buy most of the tube gear. It's younger 'philes, who may be more open-minded toward tubes than we old fogies.

"You still buy records?"

This was my ex-wife's incredulous uncle a few years back—a man then in his 70s. Like a lot of old folks I know, he always had to have the latest. Leisure suits. Digital watches. You know—it kept him young.

Me...I like almost everything old.

"Yeah," I replied matter-of-factly. "LPs usually sound better than CDs."

"You say you use a belt-drive turntable?"

I raised an eyebrow. "Yes. Of course."

"Isn't that like the ol' horse and buggy? You live in the past, my boy. You wouldn't turn back to tubes, would you?"

AH-HA—I had him!

"I already have. Tubed preamp, tubed power amp. Even kids listen to tubed gear."

And that conversation took place before tubes really took off. Irony of ironies: The Digital Age appears to have fired up the demand for tube gear. Maybe audiophiles have decided that they can live with one evil—digital—if they have to, but not two evils: digital and solid-state. Tube gear helps take the edge off all those sharp bits and pieces, seems to connect the dots, makes the music more musical, more human. Maybe it's because tubes distort and we need distortion, particularly if it's even-order.

Why tubes? For me, it comes down to two catchphrases: "truth of timbre" and "palpable presence."

By truth of timbre I mean harmonic accuracy, or something which can pass for harmonic accuracy. My friend Lars thinks this is important, too, only he calls it "tonality." (Ironically, Lars, a solid-state man, started out with tubes.)

Tube amps may produce more distortion than their solid-state counterparts, but that may be one reason that so many of us love them. Bob Harley, Bob Deutsch, Dick Olsher, Guy Lemcoe, Corey Greenears—they all love tube amps.

We had "perfect sound forever" with the introduction of the Sony CDP-101 a decade ago. Maybe what we crave is imperfect sound—especially sound that's rich in second-order harmonic distortion.

It's the overtones, or even-order harmonics, that give a musical instrument—or a voice—its tonal color. So if a tube amp (or preamp) adds a bit more even-order distortion, it matters very little. It won't scrape against the ear.

Solid-state amps, on the other hand, tend to produce odd-order harmonic distortion, which, even in scarcely quantifiable quantities, will scrape against the ear—even more than the jagged bits and pieces of digital sound.

Most solid-state amps are like frozen food—the texture is destroyed. Remember Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and how the teleportation device ruined the steak by processing it? That's digital. Remember Invasion of the Body Snatchers (either version), with the Pod People from outer space? The Pod People brought us solid-state.

True, truth of timbre is something that many audiophiles appear not to give a damn about—particularly Linnies (members of the Linn church), who've kept prattling on about pace and rhythm and tunes. (Funny how few of them seem to like classical music.)

About 20% of my listening is jazz, and here, just as with classical, truth of timbre counts. Listen to a tenor or an alto sax in particular. Does it sound reedy? Can it pass for real? It probably will, with tubes. Try Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong with tubes. They're alive.

With good tube gear, there is usually more space or air around instrumentalists, their instruments, and vocalists. With solid-state you tend to get less air, and instruments tend to congeal or glom up on one another like so much sonic oatmeal (footnote 1).

There's yet another reason that tube amps tend to sound so good:

Simple circuits.

Tube amps are usually designed with little or no negative feedback. Feedback is that brilliant idea (like the servo-controlled direct-drive turntable) by which some of the amp's output is sent back to the amp's input in opposite phase to cancel out distortion and thus muck up the sound.

Simple circuits, by the way, are one reason that certain solid-state equipment sounds the way it does—the B&K ST-140 again.

Are tubes for everyone?

Not for Larsik. Not for Mario.

Mario says he loves the sound of tubes. He has a Conrad-Johnson tube preamp. But he also owns a pair of B&W 801 speakers, and a tube amp isn't the best choice for driving them. The big woofers, especially, seem to need solid-state amps, which he has. They are a pair of monoblocks, no longer made, with a very obscure name. Veekh-tor Goldstein sold them to him four or five years ago—I think only three or four pairs were actually sold.

I can't resist. "What kind of amps did you say those are, Mario?"

"Oh, shut up."

Lars likes tubes, too. Or did at one time.

Now, however, he owns a politically correct (in audiophile circles) pair of Wilson WATTs/Puppies, and these speakers, too, aren't particularly well-suited to tubes (footnote 2).

"I used to own a McIntosh tube amp many years ago in Sweden," Lars said.

Footnote 1: A few solid-state amps do surprisingly well in the palpable presence department, among them the B&K ST-140, which now sports snazzy new cosmetics.

Footnote 2: Ah, Sam, that's because you haven't heard the WATT/Puppies driven by Audio Research Classic 120s or 150s.—John Atkinson


torturegarden's picture

I've lusted after one of these for many years. My lifelong goal is to one day have enough money to buy a McIntosh system.