Talk Tube: Tube vs SS, Triode vs Pentode, SE vs PP, Direct vs Indirect Heated
Some time ago I decided to start my first HiFi Basics article with how our hifi gears enhance (or just as often impede) the flow of music. As I took time to formulate, a visit to old friend WSS snapped everything into focus and showed the way. So you may be interested to read about the time I shared with WSS (here).
In this (rambling) article I shall touch upon some of my deepest beliefs, which in future articles I shall expound in greater detail. However, if your inclination is like mine, I do think you shall find some useful audio tips here.
- What is the Most Important Thing in HiFi? Most people get their notion of what is important in HiFi through "magazines" (first paper, now the web). But magazines differ in many respects. Some combine subjective listening with measurement (Stereophile, HiFi News), others just subjective (TAS; and almost all web magazines) (I must say my sympathy lies with the former). All writers write in some way about the flow of music, but not before they expend huge efforts on delineating the various merits (power, definition, soundstage, imaging etc) of the item at hand. This is completely wrong. If the pulse of music, its flow, is not right, nothing else is of importance. Unfortunately, in my experience, much of modern HiFi, most highly praised, belong to this category of mediocrity. Among the worst perpetrators of modern HiFi writing is the Taiwanese magazine 音響論壇, which now gives almost every gear it reviews 9 to 10/10 in all of its 10 HiFi Parameters 音響十要. Its argument is that modern standard is much higher than in the past; while this may be true from a technical standpoint, listening tells a completely different story
- Pace, Rhythm and Timing (PRaT) The UK writers invented this, and they have a good point. Flat Earth people, narrow as they can be, also get this right. I am acutely sensitive to this, but I am aware most audiophiles in HK are not. If music does not have good rhythm and pace, it does not flow well, then all other hifi parameters just do not matter. Music must be involving.
- Tube vs Solid State In general, tube gears are superior to solid state devices. Best are vintage ones in good electrical condition, Western Electric being the Epitome (my WE experiences here and here). This is especially so when it comes to the flow of music (yet there are times where the opposite may be true, like when it comes to certain speakers, usually inefficient ones, ss gears may gain competitive advantage). It is not just a matter of tube, as many modern tube gears are as bad as their ss counterparts in their lack of fluency. The take-home message here is: with transformers or tubes, vintage is usually superior to current production. I don't quite understand why the term "liquidity" is used to describe the sound of tubes - in my experience, the best tube designs have a clear and lucid sound.
- Triode Superiority I believe Triode, especially direct-heated ones, is generally superior to tetrodes/pentodes (in both musicality and transparency). This is true whether it is used in Single-Ended (SE) or Push-Pull (PP) configuration. Even pentodes strapped as triodes usually sound better - there are no better examples than Audio Research's old Classic series amps (Classic 30 /60/120/150), imho the best amps they have made.
- SE vs PP First, SET amps mandate high-efficiency loudspeakers - many SET detractors simply used the wrong equipment (like LS3/5A) to make up their impression. Properly set up, a good SET amp has a tactile presence (sense of the live event) and musical fluency superior to a PP amp. But there are rare exceptions - WE PP amps are superior to any SET I have heard (I have yet to hear the real WE91 - clones need not apply).
- Directly vs Indirectly Heated In my (considerable) experience with SE amps, the directly heated single-ended triode (SEDHT) design has the best performance. An SE amp using triode-strapped pentode (usually indirectly heated, like EL34) is simply second-class in comparison. My very first SE amp was actually not directly heated. It was the Audion Stirling (EL34). I then got the same company's similarly structured Silver Night (300B). There was no comparison and I immediately sold the Stirling. Within this category, I believe the lower-powered EL84/6BQ5 (a superior pentode) fares the best (I have used Welborne Labs and Almarro), though still well short of SEDHT. When it comes to Rectifiers, I also always prefer Directly Heated (like 5U4, not to mention WE 274A/B) to indirectly heated ones (like 5AR4/GZ34/U52 etc). All Directly heated tubes have better presence than Indirectly Heated ones.
- Source - Analog vs Digital Nothing epitomizes the spirit of this discussion more than this point. Analog (vinyl or reel-to-reel) simply delivers the flow of music better, period. This best illustrates that, despite claims of whatever superiority, digital is seriously flawed. , and that is why you should never believe people who trumpet each advance of Computer Music (Computer as Server, CAS). Digital can be competent, but never spend too much money on it. Our humble Sony DVP-PR50P tried at WSS' place (see link at top) provides more magic than many a more expensive digital source. Art Dudley, of Stereophile, opines that the mechanical aspect of vinyl replay somehow is superior to digital number crunching, and I agree with him. This may not be new, as many a Heifetz (legendary violinist) fan who have heard him live swear that his 78's played on a gramophone (mechanical) is more truthful than playback through any subsequent media (be it remastered LP, CD or CAS). I have one of these antiquities, and I do agree that my Andre Segovia 78 (guitar) had a special allure even the LP misses. As for Reel-to-Reel, which is how most of the immortal performances are recorded, read my articles here.
- Loudspeakers Few would deny the importance of the transducer. But which type is the best? There are no best, but I believe a well constructed horn system (like Klipsch, see my overview here) is hard to beat. However, horns by nature like real estate, and not everyone can afford such "luxuries". I am also partial to Full Range Speakers, select traditional 3-ways and First-Order Crossovers. For me, loudspeakers must be relatively easy to drive, as this makes less demands on electronics. Many modern loudspeakers simply fail this. Efficient loudspeakers may not be perfect, but they are usually more musical.
- Preamplifier To me, this is one of the most important link in the chain. With few exceptions, Passive Preamps fail to inspire me. Also, a good tube preamplifier is mandatory - even with ss amps. No solid state preamplifier has ever excited me.
- Amplifiers As a rule, the lower the power, the better the amplifier sounds, and this is true for both tube and ss amps. This is one good reason to avoid inefficient speakers. Simple designs that have stood the test of time, like those in most tube amps, have a better chance of sounding good. Think of SET amps: one reason they sound good is because the circuit cannot be simpler.
- Good Solid State Gears Although in absolute terms rather short of the achievement of tube, ss gears can be quite musically satisfying. Humble examples are now-vintage UK integrated amps (here) and the Micromega and Naim gears I have written about (here), and they do their tricks in different ways that are difficult for words to describe. I shall write more on this subject in future articles. As a rule, the more high-powered or expensive the ss gear, the more you should beware.
- Cables Most HiFi cables, beside being ridiculously expensive, are highly colored, more likely to ruin your system rather than enhance it. I use exclusively highly affordable professional cables (my favorite being Gotham). Also, solid core cables, especially those of higher gauge, are more colored than stranded cables. Think professional interconnects, which aim at neutrality and never employ solid core.
- Tweaks When it comes to tweaking, there are plenty of HiFi lores (and stores) but, I tell you, most dampen and tone down the system's energy. This is because there are just too many equipment and digitally recorded music out there that are simply non-musical, in dire need of toning down. What you need is equipment that performs well as soon as you plonk it down, equipment that needs no excuse. Often enough, equipment are less than inspiring, and you should not make up excuses for them.