The Return of the Nixie Tube

Ron Sutherland of Sutherland Engineering taught me all I need to know about Nixie tubes at CES. Used as the main visual display device used in his Reference N-1 preamplifier and in his Destination Line-Stage preamplifier's control unit shown in the photo, the Nixie tube was invented in 1955 as the first electronic display tool for reading out the numbers 0–9. The Nixie's designers fashioned a wire mesh into 9 layers, each layer in the shape of a number, resulting in a tidy small stack. This tiny wire stack was inserted into a small glass envelope, filled with neon gas, and then sealed. When any of the separate metal layers was charged with 175 volts, the neon gas around the wire ionized, and lit up. When plugged into a circuit board, the tube would read out the numbers, with each number appearing at a different depth. Paul was fascinated with the retro look of this type of readout, so he has installed it in his $15,000, three-chassis Destination line stage, and into his new $10,000 reference N-1 preamplifier.

Ron told me that he was fan of audio history, because he liked so many things about the past. He gave an example, recalling many years ago when Larry Archibald threw the first Stereophile party in his hotel room at CES. Larry kept his entertaining simple and elegant, Ron stated. He had a bathtub filled with ice and beer, and the crowd filled the hallways. What fun! Ron's enjoyment lead him to "mine our audio history and cherry picking what he loved the best." Nixie tubes were one element that fascinated him, so he purchased a huge supply—enough to build many line stage controllers and N-1 preamplifiers, and to service them—from a lot of army surplus Russian Nixie tubes.