Prompted by an article in the Popular Mechanics Magazine, “Vintage Audio in the Digital Age” by Mark Wilson – December 2011 I thought it pertinent to add a few cents worth. There is a lot of truth in the sentiment that valve audio sounds better than modern semiconductor audio – this I have heard from a lot of audiophiles over the last few years and compounded by the fact that I have actually done a comparison there is something to be said for this. However, in this lies also a problem – cost versus satisfaction.
This article is about sound systems for the home – not guitar amplification equipment where I feel a lot of what has been said and I have actually heard, which has merit. I also studied valve circuitry as part of my curriculum in the 70s as they were and yes, still are used extensively used in radio transmitters and again in audio equipment.
Show me a ten watt valve amplifier capable of producing a faithful signal at full output compared to a similar costing 100 watt (both measured using continuous power) semiconductor amplifier driven by the same signal set to output dissipation of 10 watts across the same loudspeaker load where the valve amplifier outperforms that of the semiconductor amplifer on specification only using the same testing apparatus. Dollar for Dollar the semiconductor amplifier should be better. Now I take my spouse, ask her to listen to music from the same two amplifiers – she doesn’t know which is which, has an ear for orchestral music (which is my test signal in this case) and she loves the valve amplifier. Taking the same setup and playing a track from Nickleback (which she hates), she says the semiconductor amplifier is better. Now I take, again, the same setup and go through the routine with a male friend – in both cases he preferred the semiconductor amplifier. Lastly, a family friend whom is a professional musician (a violinist) whom incidentally likes Nickleback listens to the same tracks and prefers the valve amplifier. The valve amplifier is rated at ten watts RMS, I have set the volume control to 90% and the tone is flat. So what gives? At full power the semiconductor unit really sounds horrific but I am after all only testing this amplifier at about ten watts according to the test equipment. The scope shows absolutely no sign of distortion but with the valve amplifier I can see this easily. Yes, I hear the audiophiles talking about soft clipping etc, etc. The valve amplifier, although designed to dissipate 10W RMS across the load does distort (I put this down to PSU) but a professional musician prefers this sound to that of a semiconductor amplifier. (Her sound system at home is a Marantz – FET).
Lets go back a few years. A pal’s dad had an Arena sound system (I think) – he played a track from vinyl, a locally produced version of a well known artist at the time – I cannot remember who – and the sound was unbelievable. This was through a 25W RMS transistorised amplifier. This was in 1972 or thereabouts. My old man had an amplifier, home built, which he said was about 15W using two EL84s. It was a mono amplifier. Playing the same track it lacked bass, actually it just sounded shitty, although my dad’s speakers (Akai) were known to be too heavy on the bass. The Arena had a three way speaker system, the Akai, two. Overall the Arena to me sounded better. So let’s party! We enjoyed Cat Stevens at the time, I still do. I play My lady D’arbanville at my friend’s place one night (I was sober at the time) and thought there was something wrong with the sound system. No bass, tinny high notes. The home-built 15W amplifier and speakers just sounded so much better playing Cat. So a few weeks later we have a party at our house (my dad used to call it HIS house, you know the feeling). I was very young at the time, but the old boy and the old lady played the music from the kitchen (knocking back red wines) whilst the youngsters had to rock n’ roll inside the lounge. I recorded the music – all on the old four track at the time, a Phillips – we played all the music popular at the time from Steeler’s Wheel to China Grove through this 15W EL84 juggernaut. Track for track it just sounded better than the transistor amplifier of my pal’s.
Moving on a few decades to Celine Dion, Whitney and Adele. Crystal clear, power at your fingertips and no distortion. Warmth? There is none. Satisfaction? I don’t know. There is something missing, I know this. Would a tube or valve amplifier sound better? Gee, I believe so! To my partner and our musician friend, a definite yes. I find the semiconductor version clean – maybe just too clean.
I tried this same test with four youngsters – aged ten to 16 and they all preferred the semiconductor amplifier (MOSFET). I tried this same test with an 81 year old lady – she preferred the valve amplifier. I have tried vinyl, first copy CDs and DVD sound. Some just prefer the valve sound. I have tried different speakers – some just sounded horrendous with the valve amplifier (KEF) and although matched just had no bass. You know what – it’s all in the hearing. Or is it?
I do genuinely believe that we sense sound, possibly not unlike a bat senses through it’s own ultra sonic system; reverberation, acoustics and range all play a role in our overall satisfaction. The best sound system I have ever heard had a Bose loudspeaker system yet many think that Bose is over rated. One thing for sure, our hearing does differ from person to person so do be careful of that salesman who tells you that his system is better than the rest. And no, older systems do NOT sound better than newer systems just like modern cars are better than older cars and modern jet fighters are better than the Spitfire. Modern valve amplifiers do use better manufactured passive devices like capacitors and resistors, better audio transformers and better power supplies.
Valve amplifiers in may ways can be seen as the perfect match to older pressed media but costs aside, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, music can only be heard and debated by one person, yourself. So next time you have 8000 dollars to spend on audio equipment, listen to it. From my side, Pound for Pound, Dollar for Dollar I’d go semiconductor.
Now live music, especially old Irish music – I’ll warm up the heaters of my old EL34s any day. (I have actually heard U2, not so old Irish group, on a professional valve amplifier – yes, it was the Mystère above – strangely from Missions and then Bose and yet more strangely the listening room hadn’t been acoustically checked. Too much money and a far fetched vision of having brains? Not at all, this came from a pal and colleague who does audio installations for a living. He is totally valve and believes semiconductors were invented by the devil. What quality! but try those KT88s in a computer friend!).