Vacuum Tube Valley Hosts Antique Audio Show

San Francisco---Vacuum Tube Valley's tube and antique audio show here last week drew dozens of exhibitors and hundreds of attendees to the Airport Clarion Hotel over the Feb. 6-7 weekend. The heavy rains that caused mudslides in some Northern California communities, combined with high tides that flooded some freeways, kept attendance down. The show's turnout was "about half of what we expected," said VTV publisher/editor Charlie Kittleson.

The show was combined with a used-equipment flea market on Saturday, sponsored by the Northern California Historical Radio Society. A technical school on tube theory for both home audio and guitar amplification ran concurrently with the show. Eager tube fans sat through eight hours of instruction by engineers including VTV contributors Eric Barbour and John Atwood.

San Francisco Chronicle financial writer Jonathan Marshall favorably profiled Atwood in the Chronicle's business section. The story, which featured a photo of Atwood in front of his collection of antique test equipment, quoted Stereophile's own inimitable Jonathan Scull: "Tubes is where it's at . . . they communicate the nuance, detail, and emotion of music." Atwood is a former digital designer who fell in love with "glass audio" after hearing a tube amplifier. A three-month stint of meditating in a Buddhist temple in Thailand culminated in a commitment to devote his life to tubes. He hasn't regretted the decision. "Tubes make music in a way that solid-state gear will never match," Atwood said.

Among the exhibits was a Saturday-afternoon demonstration by Dr. Bruce Edgar of his full-range tube-driven horn loudspeakers. The demo took place at the Randall Museum in SF and was sponsored by the Northern California Tube Enthusiasts Group. "One of the most realistic things I have ever heard," said guitar amplifier guru Sal Trentino of San Anselmo. "They're still scraping jaws off the floor."

GlassWare, a software company offering computer-aided design programs for tube engineers, had its products on sale at 20% off for the two-day affair. GlassWare's table was only a few feet away from one occupied by industrial designer, graphic artist, and tube aficionado Kent Leech. "You should see my cutaway rendering of the 300B," he enthused. "And my sandwich sign: Will Draw for Tubes."

There was plenty of vintage gear for sale. A pair of Heathkit W5s were going for $300, just a hundred bucks less than a McIntosh 1500 with 7591 output tubes. A very-well-cared-for Fisher 500C---75Wpc---was only $150, and $225 would buy you a rebuilt Scott Stereomaster 222. For a mere 40 bucks, you could take home a British PX-4 triode in its original container; at the other end of the scale, $900 could buy a rebuilt but like-new Scott 340B.

Such gatherings attract interesting personalities, too. One was audio veteran Hal Cox of Mill Valley. At the age of 78, Cox still runs an audio consultation and installation business out of his home. One of the charter members of the Audio Engineering Society, he joined in February 1948, almost 50 years to the date of Vacuum Tube Valley's weekend tubefest. "I knew John Mullin, who brought the first Magnetofon tape recorder into the States . . . I had a Brush Soundmirror, a recorder that used paper tape . . . I knew Walter Selstead, who designed the Ampex 600 . . ." Cox reminisced. Quick with a quip, Cox is a crusty veteran of the audio wars who seems to have met or dealt with almost everyone in the business. He and others find events like the antique audio show a wonderful opportunity to get together.

VTV publisher Charlie Kittleson promised that his next show will be bigger and better. If it follows the pattern established by his four-year-old publication, the promise will most certainly come true. Tube lovers are winning new converts daily, and they take their hobby very seriously. "Audio Rule #1: Use a Transistor, Go to Jail," reads their bumper sticker: "It's the Law."