Tube Hi-Fi

[boogie with mister valve]

An Anthropological View

Technology changes things.

I vaguely remember my undergrad anthropology class, and a great paper that we had to read. I believe that it was called Steel Axes for Stone Age People, or something similar.

It was one of those sad stories, that anthropology seems to have so many of. A group of Europeans, with the very best of intentions, destroyed a thriving, if primitive, culture by giving them 'better' axes than the crude ones they'd had all along. Problem was, as I recall, that the stone axes had a great, totemic importance. All power devolved along lines of who was allowed to possess them, use them, or loan them out. The steel axes turned everyone into a king, overnight. The society collapsed. When the Europeans returned, they were amazed to see how the tribe they'd 'helped' was practically extinct.

Technology changes things.

We gather here today to speak of the output transformer. Every tube amplifier needed one. It was a huge, heavy, costly, square Thing. It matched the high impedance of the tubes to the low Z of the speakers. All the best ones came in sealed, black boxes, potted in weird-smelling goo, with wires coming out and dark magic inside. There were tales of strange buildings, far off in the distance, where sorcerer's apprentices wound them by hand.

Old-timers understood that specs are written as much by the marketing departments as the engineers. As Paul Klipsch was fond of saying, "Ho hum; another major breakthrough." Hi-fi had one of these, real or imaginary, every week. They kept a lot of hobby magazines in business.

There were super duper FM tuners, such as the almost mythopoeic Marantz 10B. These had glowing, green oscilloscopes, upon which you could watch them snatch WQXR from the merest whisper of RF. There were DC/daylight preamps, with distortion so low it broke the testing machine. There were record players, though everyone called them 'turntables,' of every shape and size, some delicate and fussy, some ready for Wil. E. Coyote to drop on the Road Runner. There were the monthly revolutions in cartridges (which none dared call 'needles') and tone arms, each one guaranteed to track the dreaded 'Mais Que Nada' better than the last. There were tape machines, like the Revox, so good that even studio grunts used them on location.

[Output xfmr in big triode amp] But the power amps were different. They had output transformers. Oh sure, tubes changed on occasion, from triodes to kinkless tetrodes to beam pentodes to transmitting tubes like 807s, 811As, and the enormous 813s. Kilowatts were possible with these tubes, and in fact were common in radio modulators, but the required transformers were heroic. For real, hi-fi bandwith at these powers, you were talking about a hell of a lot of iron, copper, and money. There sat that transformer, inert, immovable, unchanging, massive, daunting. The amp, the modulator, or whatever, had to be designed around the thing. This was practically a law of nature.

And so, for hi-fi in the home, the output transformer was like the stone axe, in more ways than one. It kept engineers honest. Everything else could, and did, get ever more gimmicky, but there sat the 90-pound power amp, hidden away as if almost in shame, buzzing and warming up the room. So it had been since Lee DeForest, and so it would always be.

This bothered engineers no end. The biggest problem dated at least as far back as the late 1950s, when AR designed a smaller woofer.

Now, remember that hi-fi gear came from pro audio. Any real audio pro knew that all decent speakers used horns, or Helmholtz resonators, or various ingenious combinations of same, to do sort of what a transformer did, only acoustically. 1 Their huge boxes matched the feeble wiggles of the speaker cones to the big wiggles that made big sound. Three real watts, class-A triode single-ended watts, could fill a movie theater through one of these monsters. In your typical home, this stuff didn't even breathe hard. Problem was that much of it barely fit a home. You could sleep inside these things. When stereo came in, you needed two of them. Time to think seriously about the AR woofer, or knocking out a wall.

The AR woofer was an acoustically damped, direct radiator. It made the speaker wiggle harder, much harder, hard enough to blow out a match, as the salesmen were quick to do. Once again, Paul Klipsch had an opinion on the AR-1. He said that anyone could miniaturize a bass speaker, but not a 32-foot wave length. He was right, but only partly. The AR-1, and later the AR-3, sounded great. They created a whole school of audio, The Polite Boston Sound, as contrasted to The Big West Coast Sound, which stayed with Altecs, JBLs, and, yes, Klipschorns.

But Mother Nature took her due. The ARs, KLHs, and such needed more watts. Way more watts. Every -3dB needed twice the wattage, and there were lots of -3dBs. From then on, it was good to have lots and lots of watts.

This hit the power amp designers dead on. "Watts!" screamed the speaker people, not to mention the ad departments, "Bring us more watts!"

Eventually, the engineers came through. They figured out how to make hi-fi transformers larger, but not too large, without compromising the sound. McIntosh went to pentafilar winding, and other things that might have captured souls. It was fortunate that these were in metal shields that would probably survive space re-entry.

This pact with the Underworld put real juice into tube amps. All the big stuff went to 40 RMS watts per channel, then 60 or 75. Guitar amps, with their whacko circuit designs, got clear to 100. 2 This made for some pretty heavy-duty gear. These things were supermachines, and they still are today. Like the original, big speakers, they push the limits of what fits in a non-technogeek home.

By the middle 60s, electronics had really gone about as far as this universe was going to allow. The transducers at either end, cartridges and speakers, continued to evolve, but everything else was pretty much in place. They still call this the 'golden age of hi-fi.' Everyone was making nice gear, much of it in kits or at reasonable prices, and an awful lot of people made a pretty nice hobby out of it all. Helped out by the highbrow FM stations of the time, it led a generation into 'classical' music, modern jazz and finally progressive rock.

Technology changes things.

Sometimes a great notion. Solid state was one of these. It got rid of the transformers. A power amp could be an electron hose. Hang an arc-welder power supply at one end, your low-impedance pass elements in the middle, and the speakers on the other end. Stick some sound in the middle, and run for the hills.

It got positively manic. Engineers had new laws of physics. Mankind had Fire. The number of watts was suddenly unlimited, except by what speakers could take, and speakers began eating electrons for lunch. Amp powers went to 150WRMS per channel, then 300, then out of sight. Your average car boom-box had more watts than a tube-era football stadium. Rock PAs got so big that they couldn't be fed from standard, AC mains. Roadies took power panels apart, and tied right into 220V pole drops. Man moved another step closer to God.

Everyone went number crazy. The magazines had to find new types of distortion to write about, because IM and THD had gone Heisenberg. It caused more IM or THD to try and measure either.

Lightning was abroad in the land. The 60s couldn't give power to the people, but the 70s hi-fi industry could. These were heady times. The human race was being saved.

So what went wrong? Something certainly did. Within a decade, we had lost hi-fi. It was gone. At the time, most people blamed that misunderstood monster, the personal computer, but that's not even close.

What happened was that, with direct-coupled circuitry, hi-fi had its steel axe. It lost its paradigm. The center gave way. Social distortion replaced the electrical kind.

First off, the industry got greedy and tried to push everyone into four-channel, discrete quad. Someone invented it, it was finally practical, so why not do it? Audio magazine went positively ballistic over this, month after month.

Unfortunately, the emperor had no clothes. I don't know who the first guy was who stood up and said that quad sounded like hell, but someone finally did. He served Humanity more than he will ever know. Mais que nada.

Debunked, quad blew away faster than a trailer in a hurricane. So did a lot of industry credibility. Audio, once a pretty decent engineering magazine, was bought by some large corporation. That, as they say, was that.

It was straight down from there. Hi-fi, for the most part, became stereo, as hawked in stores by spiff-point closers who'd sold used cars the year before. Stereo, ultimately, was absorbed into consumer electronics, along with everything else. This is when the hobby magazines moved on, to newer hobbies, including, yes, that dreaded microcomputer.

Wireheads went on measuring their incredible numbers, but few people cared any more. It was like getting excited about a toaster oven. Hi-Fi shows, which had been positively celebratory, died out. Marantz and McIntosh both dropped their travelling amplifier clinics, where whole generations of guys had once lugged piles of gear and faced Truth.

As a semiotician, I knew it was over when the ads changed. Hi-fi had always been an unabashed, snob medium, almost to political incorrectness. It was the home-electronic version of espresso coffee. Starting sometime in the eighties, however, we got democracy. Today, we are constantly reminded how easily any loser with two grand can be a public nuisance by nightfall. CD players come with DA BIG BASS written all over them. Thump, thump, thump. 3

With a few ideas left over from quad, The Big West Coast Sound evolved into consumer audio's current Real Big Thing, the home theaters. These are an attempt to recreate the movie experience back home. Fuzzy disks are shown on even fuzzier big-screens, while over-processed surround sound pummels you from all over the room. It's fun, up to a point, since being pummeled has its moments. The two problems, as I see them, are that music doesn't really sound like much on this stuff, minus a picture to look at, and that they're still in a content-less phase. They watch Star Wars, Top Gun and Terminator II, again and again. Nope. This is way too L.A. for me.

The Polite Boston Sound had a better fate. It got interesting fast, when it was taken over by bottleheads.

Now, I don't knew who the first neo-tube people were. Perhaps, they were always there. It's that thing with the emperor's clothes again. At some point, someone got up and said what everyone was sort of thinking, that specmanship had led us all down the garden path. It had created a generation of gear that looked hi-tech, made incredible pictures of square waves on scope tubes, but actually sounded less listenable than old tube equipment, THD and all. Soon, thousands of closet doors flew open. Audio types were dumpster diving all over the place. Just like that, firebottles were everywhere.

Apparently, a lot of magazine writers and engineers had made a lot of money burying tube technology forever. Then they had snuck home and listened to the stuff. They'd spent their salaries on 300Bs. Nobody's talking, but it had to be that way.

For one thing, it's suspicious that old, glass-audio stuff never really showed up at garage-sale prices. After all, we hams had been lucky. A lot of agencies, not to mention other hams, threw tube radios out as junk. But, except for a vintage, Heath parter I rescued from a Hollywood trash heap, this never really happened in hi-fi. There was no $100 MC275 for Hugh, not even outside of L.A..

Modern hi-fi still has two camps, but they're a bit different. Now it's the golden-ears versus the tinkerers.

The golden-ears, aka the audiophiles, have a good attitude. I like these guys, though sometimes they get a bit too worked up. As in the fine wine scene, there's almost a race to see who can throw out the best adjectives.

In my own, deranged experience, I have heard a lot of tubes sound clean, dirty, screechy, muffled, boomy, thin, and other things that music sounds like. When I read, however, that some newly excavated wonderbottle insinuates itself with a wry irony, slushy but at the same time somehow crystalline, deceptively virginal but with a dominant streak bordering on fascism, finishing with a psychoactive post-deconstruced weltanschauung of expressionistic purity seldom seen upon this Earth, I start wondering who's been sniffing the getter gas too long. Inspiring as these neat old firebottles are, they're still just neat old firebottles.

The tinkerers, the DIY scene, also have an attitude that I like a lot. They're currently experimenting with some interesting tubes and circuits. Of course, they also can have their own excesses. Some of their small companies are lucky that yuppies have long since disconnected monetary price from value. I mean, the 'high-end' audio scene is fun, and its amazing gear is practically art, but for me it's not worth a life of debt. I had college for that. 4

Any hope for the long-term, post-yuppie survival of tube hi-fi is as a hobby again. The future belongs to the DIY. The idea, as I see it, is to have fun with this stuff. It's ham radio with better speakers.

After all, that's just what this is. It's a movement. It's the Mister Valve anti-sonic-massacree movement, and you're in it.

FM: the Armstrong system!

boogie back to tubepage
re-bias for triode mode, and go home
1. Yes, this includes the Tannoys and Altec coaxials. Note how the tweeters work into horns, albeit very small and ingenious ones, and how the woofers are usually back-loaded. The Bozak was the main exception at the time. At least its tweeters were direct radiators, but there had to be a lot of them, and the speaker was so large that the home version was disguised as an Early American credenza. Pretty campy. back

2. This is not the place to reopen the old argument over the definition of a watt. In physics, it's work being done at a standard rate. In Ohm's Law, it's one amp at one volt. In hi-fi, it's however you want to measure it. Watts got smaller and smaller so the companies could advertise more and more of them. Until someone passed a law, U.S. watts were the smallest of all. The ludicrous 'EIA Peak Power' basically meant, 'Whatever we can drag out of the thing, at the top of the waveform, right before it explodes.' British watts, for a time, were indeed larger. This sold a lot of Marshalls. back

3. Nor is this any time to debate the subjective sound experience of CDs versus vinyl LPs. It's my honest opinion that an optimum LP playback will beat even a great CD any time, but most people have never heard an optimum LP playback, and unless they work in the right places or have some very rich friends, they won't any time soon. It's less a question of frequency response and distortion than one of dynamic range and waveform preservation, the old 'Absolute Sound' if you will. This is one can of worms I dare not open. Not here. back

4. Hi-fi shopping is a real caveat emptor. Given the unreal prices of some stuff out there, it's important to sort out electrical dB from the psychological kind. Hams have known about psychological dB for quite some time. A callsign that a lot of people need for some radio award is worth 15 dB of antenna gain every time. Something similar occurs when a listener commits his next 10 years' disposable income to a hi-fi. One way or another, it's gonna sound great. back