To experience an audio system featuring tubes is to experience music at its most natural sounding. There is a warmth and a sense of effortlessness to the music that I find to be sorely lacking in most solid-state electronics. A personal preference for sure.
As quoted on Cary Audio’s website “generally speaking, tubes offer a greater sense of bloom, more texture, and realism to vocals and instruments, a richer midrange. Solid-state usually offers more watts per dollar, faster sound, greater detail.” I couldn’t agree more and my bias shows (pun intended, for those familiar with tubes).
For those unfamiliar with either of these technologies, a very quick primer. Vacuum tubes were first developed in 1904 and served as a critical component in the earliest devices used in electronic circuits. A vacuum tube is a glass tube that has its gas removed, thus creating a vacuum, and contains electrodes for controlling electron flow. In the 1940s, the invention of semiconductor devices gave rise to solid-state electronics, and certainly, by the 1960s, the transistor had overtaken the tube. Transistors were smaller, more efficient, durable, and more economical than their tube counterparts. However, that does not mean they were (or are) superior.
Tube amplifiers that employ a single-ended triode (SET) design, thereby operating in Class A, such as several of Cary Audio’s integrated, stereo and monoblock amplifiers, do one thing exceedingly well, and that is they have excellent midband performance (arguably, the most important part of the audio spectrum). That is what gives their sound a greater sense of musicality and directness.
Typically, SET amplifiers have relatively low output compared to Class AB (or other amplifier classes). For example, Cary Audio’s CAD-805RS monoblocks output 50 watts, or Cary Audio’s CAD-300SEI integrated amplifier, employing the famed 300B output tube, an even lower 15 watt output.
Unfortunately, however, there is a misguided belief that more power equates to better sound. The reality is that the most important watt is the first watt. The requirement for power is a function of three key elements: 1) speaker efficiency, 2) room environment, and 3) listening level. Necessarily, the key element for consideration when assembling an audio system that features a SET amplifier will be matching it to a synergistic, high-efficiency loudspeaker.
Through my audio journey, I have had the opportunity to own a variety of gear. And, as impactful as that revelatory experience was when I first encountered a Class A amplifier (the Accuphase P-102, detailed in my previous blog), equally impactful, if not more so, was my introduction to tubes, specifically single-ended triode amplifiers.
Lastly, for those with a taste for nostalgia and all things vintage, there is also no denying the cool factor of tubes. The retro look of tube amplifiers and the glow that they create adds ambiance and serves as a conversation piece to any room.
So, while tube amplifiers require a little more care and feeding than their solid-state counterparts, the amazing sound that these amplifiers produce is well worth it, and undoubtedly listening to a tube system will be music to your ears.