It’s the time of year for saving money!
Last week, I received a very cool coffee table book from McIntosh to celebrate the company’s 70th anniversary. I can’t wait to look it over and then archive it in my library for future reference. For that matter, I need to order The Absolute Sound’s fancy tome on audiophile electronics to go along with the one that they were kind enough to send me a few years back on the topic of loudspeakers. Both books were very well done and are helping me build up a new audio category in the library in my home office.
At any rate, the McIntosh book in particular called to mind topics I’ve been digging into quite frequently here at AudiophileReview.com: namely the subject of vinyl and other legacy analog formats. In a comment on a recent article, a gentleman asked an interesting question: why is it OK for guitar players to love tubes (which are distorted to one level or another) but somehow it isn’t OK to love vinyl? First of all, one thing the elders and audiophile true believers don’t understand about my recent writings on vinyl is that A) I do not hate vinyl whatsoever and B) I think it’s perfectly OK to be a fan of the format. What’s not OK is to suggest that the format is an accurate, high performance reproduction of the music as it was recorded by the artist, producer, and engineers. To me the goal of high-end audio is to work for a system that is capable of reproducing the information on the master tape (be it a studio or live recording) as accurately as possible. Us audiophiles invest huge sums of money in seeking the Nth degree of performance, by investing in super quiet, low-distortion electronics; extremely capable, full-range loudspeakers; and source material that is capable of reproducing what the artist wanted us to hear as closely as possible. Getting as close to the recorded event, studio or live, on the master tape is the goal of audiophile music reproduction, simply put.
Today’s well-made, audiophile tube electronics do have a certain level of distortion, but it is very slight. It does give it a sound that is pleasing to many, but it is important to note that tube electronics doesn’t leave as much as half of the dynamic range of a recording on the cutting room floor, to use a movie industry term. Audiophile grade tube electronics, be it a stereo preamp or a power amp, can pretty much reproduce every bit of the sound that comes from any musical source, be it vinyl, Compact Disc, 96/24 HD downloads, or HD streaming from the likes of Tidal or the new player, Qobuzz. Much like a post-World War II scotch, a tube preamp might slightly color the sound, but you might just like the sound, much as I like the effect of port wood casks on my Balvenie 21 Speyside whiskey. Is Balvenie 21 marinating in a port cask a truly accurate whiskey? Not really, as according to legend the port wood concept is a byproduct of the World War II era, in which new oak casks were too costly or using them was viewed as too wasteful when oak was needed to make essential things like aircraft. The result of aging whiskey in other casks–such as sherry, red wine, and port–Is a bit of a departure from standard, but not too far. And long after the war is over, people like me really like the off-shoot products in many ways better than the more traditional whiskeys. Tubes are like that. They bring a pleasant, warm sound but retain all of the flavor, energy, and passion that goes into the original product. I have always liked tubes and look forward to bringing some back into my system someday in the near future. Don’t get Dr. Taraszka talking about how much he misses his Audio Research 40th Anniversary tube preamp–especially after a few pops of Balvenie 21… I am just saying.
When it comes to music, though–not the reproduction of it but the creation of it–Steven Stone makes an interesting point about tubes in that they are an effect used by musicians more than anything. Jimi Hendrix playing his upside-down Strat through a Fuzz Face and into a highly overdriven Marshall head unit specifically trying to make his guitar sound distorted, and that is part of the art. (https://youtu.be/wDvlErh5zcc) Jackson Pollack wasn’t trying to create paintings that looked just like photographs. There’s a style to the art and that is in the artists’ domain. But if you are trying to appreciate the art as the artist truly intended it, shouldn’t you seek out the best, most resolute equipment (audio equipment for our argument’s sake) your budget can afford? Would viewing a big Andy Warhol at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through literal rose-colored glasses give the same effect as seeing it without the filter? Likely not.
This brings me to the glass-half-full argument with vinyl. Yes, vinyl is an analog format, which is refreshing in our often overly digital world. Vinyl forces sequential listening of music as the artists and producers wanted. Vinyl comes with cool, tactile, large-format artwork and liner notes. All of those points go in vinyl’s favor. But if you want to hear what really is on the master tape, how can you do that with such limited dynamics? Even if the original recording was mastered at the time to deal with the limitations of vinyl, FM radio, and any number of other factors, this is the exact reason why meaningful music gets remastered. Over time, we have new technology capable of bringing to light more of the art as it happened and/or was recorded. Too many old school audiophiles get caught up the way things used to be that they don’t realize that we keep getting closer and closer to the musical holy land.
Perhaps for the same reason you like tubes, you like the distortion that comes from the vibration of the stylus inside the grooves of a vinyl record. In that case, I wouldn’t fault you. It is just the sound that you like and you likely know that at this point that the sound is slightly distorted. But if you are trying to hear the whole recording, be it a modern recording or something more classic, in 2019 the world has better ways to do that than vinyl, including more dynamic range and less distortion on the playback side of the equation. Those who throw out the “my (aging yet) golden ears can hear the difference and I don’t care what the science says” make about as cogent an argument as those who want to argue in 2018 that the Earth is flat or that climate change is a hoax. Those are weak arguments based in blind faith and opinion over math and science. Math and science should come before subjectivity. I should print that on a T-shirt and sell it at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.
At any rate, the point I’m making with all of this is that tubes and vinyl, despite their shared connection in the pantheon of legacy analog audio, are not the same thing. Tubes, if anything, add to the equation. Whether or not you like that addition is up to you. Vinyl, on the other hand, subtracts from the signal chain with its dynamic range and resolution limitations.
What is your stance on tubes? Do you own them or have you owned them? What is your stance on the goal of audiophile music playback? Should you try to get as close to the master as possible? Is a little coloration OK if it doesn’t ruin the dynamics? Or should you listen to vinyl in 2018 to experience what classic music sounded like back in the day? Where do you stand? Comment below. As always, we want to hear from you.
I stand with my tubed Lamm electronics with Aqua Acoustic FormulaxHD DAC and La Diva transport for digital playback. Even the Absolute Sound agrees about Lamm reaching the “Absolute Sound” in electronics.
Our reference in live non amplified piano, violin and guitar. I play the trumpet as well.
For my ears the right tubed gear gets me the emotional impact and hits me in the heart with harmonics and tonality.
Charles, you obviously do not know what you are talking about and should be jailed. How dare you assume to know what you like best? Do you not realize how wrong and invalid your opinion is? If not jail, a harsh reduction camp is in order.
This is your fate Charles. Do not resist. https://local.theonion.com/man-who-enjoys-thing-informed-he-is-wrong-1819571272
My punishment will be listening to a lean, bright and hard SS system through a streamer. I repent. BTW listening to LPs rarely these days as digital playback has truly arrived.
My preference would be all new recordings recorded in DSD then played back with a tubed/SS system.
“…gets me the emotional impact and hits me in the heart…”
And that’s what is most important, and it doesn’t need to make sense, from a technical standpoint.
i understand; some things are not yet capable of being measured. i like a good solid state set up. and i like a good digital rig. but, i like a good tubed set-up and vinyl better.
do i lose any sleep over any of this? no? 90% of my listening these days is internet radio, from ~192k up to flac, on the solid state rig in my kitchen.
presently, what some folks might consider to be my “best” speakers, (piega p5 ltd mkii’s) are in the bedroom, also connected to a solid state system, w/internet radio as the main source. i could move speakers around, but i am basically lazy. i have a nice pair of gemme tanto’s that have never been out of the boxes i got them in, for a few years. and, i have an oris horn system that is spectacular (imo), but hasn’t been set up in a few years, either. i need to do something about it. now, that i have finally gotten back into a decent sized listening room (26×38). at least the main system in the living room (w/the tubes) is set up and gets listened to occasionally. the li’l kef ls50’s do all right in there, w/a highly modified melos ma333r preamp as control center, the kef’s driven by the old standby mesa baron, since they’re actively crossed over to the larger vmps subs driven by electrocompaniet amps… :>)
Thank you, Jerry, for stating what I already knew but seem to have trouble conveying to others. Common sense would tell us that a small piece of diamond scratching on top of a bunch of bumps could hardly match what a room full of musicians were playing. Besides.. However close some may think it to be, the first time we play that album causes wear. End of discussion.
I Do disagree with one thing you said though. And it’s “off-topic” here. It had to do with the weather. I’ll just leave it at that.
i’ll put my played-many-times 46 year old vinyl copy of stephen stills & manassas up against any digital copy any time anywhere anyplace.
Modern equipment with tubes produces the best sound I’ve heard. I’ve also listened to many, many high end DACs and have yet to hear the dynamic range produced by my VPI Prime Signature + Benz Micro LPS.
I really like your succinct articulation of what an audiophile is: “Getting as close to the recorded event, studio or live, on the master tape is the goal of audiophile music reproduction.” It is a reasonable definition that seems to be driving the goals of many audio enthusiasts. I would contend, however, that there is an second way of understanding the end goal: pleasing one’s own ears. While we might think of these two goals as being one in the same, that may not be the case.
Case in point: the liner notes for Nirvana’s In Utero have recommended bass and treble settings. Let’s set aside the fact that each unique system would actually require different tone control settings to achieve the same exact sound (as if such a thing would be possible in the first place). And even if most artists have produced an album that they wouldn’t want touched by tone controls, what if I like more or less bass or whatever?
At the end of the day, it is my own ears that must be pleased. While I would imagine that the artist and I would agree on what sounds the best, there’s plenty of reason to believe that isn’t an absolute.
That’s funny about In Utero. I always hated the sound of that album, quality of songs aside. Boxy, in-your-face drums, flabby bass, (Heart-Shaped Box is mess) and generally terrible sounding, to me. By comparison, Nevermind is a masterpiece of production. By further comparison, Bleach is a damn travesty, technically, but it suits the band well, and most seem to agree captures their live sound best. Rock on-
My bias against vinyl is solely due to the 70s Oil Crisis and the poor quality of rock/pop pressings in the U.K. Many LPs had to be returned half a dozen times until a satisfactory pressing was obtained. It was frustrating and just too much work. I assume today’s pressings, being much more expensive, have much better quality control and far fewer returns as a result.
With all due respect, that doesn’t make any sense. Your bias seems to be against the (sometimes poor) production of the records themselves, not the format. And pressed records are the inferior version of the format, where the ones that are “lathe-cut” are the best, if pretty rare. Try those and see what you think.
i agree with everything you wrote. i also reject vinyl and tubes
Interesting take, never really seen a comparison quite like this before.
As a guitar player of 20+ years I’ve used every type of guitar amp there is. From 60’s Fenders to top-notch solid state amps, to the latest digital modeling stuff. You are correct in that the distortion caused by vacuum types is highly sought after and considered *the* best way to get a great guitar tone. Very few guitarists will argue that, and there’s literally thousands of pedals/pieces of gear that try to mimic that tone without using tubes, which admittedly can be a pain. (And tube amps are heavy as hell.)
It goes further than just the sound that’s put out, as the other big benefit to tubes is how they react dynamically to your playing. (Ex. Play harder, get more distortion, play softer, get less. Keep in mind “distortion” in this case doesn’t just mean Hendrix-level stuff, and can be super subtle.) Tubes give you a tone that is fluid, and reacts to your playing in a way solid state/digital does not. I won’t get into added harmonics, but it’s another reason people prefer tube amps.
There is no “official” way to get the *true* sound of an electric guitar, because well, it’s an electric guitar, and it’s meant to be feed into something (tubes or solid state circuit boards or digital modeling chips) and output from something (speakers). They affect the sound as much as the guitar itself. Unplugged it’s just a really poor acoustic guitar.
So with electric guitar amps it’s strictly a matter of preference. Like with an electric Tesla vs. a gas-guzzling Mustang. They are meant to give you an awesome driving experience (and also simply transport you) but they do so in completely different way. (Side note: just drove my 1st Model 3 and it’s so incredibly different from my Mustang, still awesome though.)
With amps that are meant to output instrument recordings, as opposed to the instruments themselves, you are completely correct. The goal is to produce the sound of live instruments as closely as possible, it’s just a fact. I myself do like the slight distortion a tube amp adds, and it fits for when I want to listen to old Zep or Yes albums, maybe partially because they knew at the time they would be amplified through tubes and took that into account. Maybe because it just gives it that old, warm sound I associate with that type of music. But for watching/listening to Infinity War, or something like that, which is fully intended to only ever be output through a digital/solid state system, that’s what I prefer.
EDIT: However, when I play shows with my bands, I use a solid state amp. No, it doesn’t sound quite as good as a tube amp, but 99% of the audience won’t even notice the difference, and I got sick of killing my back lugging 60lb amps back and forth. Everything is a compromise. You all likely know about the ‘wife acceptance factor’, well, think of this as the ‘back destroying factor’.
Tubes used for guitar amps and tubes used for audio are different applications. As others have noted, driving tubes to distortion is a desirable thing in rock music…it’s THE sound of legions of recordings and guitar and amp combinations. However, based on many discussions with tube amp designers and decades in the industry, I would say that having some distortion to achieve a “musically pleasing sound” is NOT a goal of audio component tube amp designers.
I reject the notion of some people who say that those who like the sound of tube amps like an inaccurate, distorted sound. Ultimately, it comes down to a person’s needs and desires. I have both solid-state and tube gear and don’t mind, in fact, enjoy “tube rolling” and tweaking. However, I know many people who don’t want to even have to think about dealing with tubes — or prefer the sound of their solid-state gear.
Preamp tubes can last a very long time and even if your power amp tubes need to be changed after, say, 500 or 1,000 hours of listening, think of how much actual listening time that is in your life. And I’ve heard some people say you can get a lot more life out of a tube than that, depending on the tube itself and the circuit it’s in. For what it’s worth, I gig about twice a month with my 1965 Princeton Reverb, which gets regular checkups from my amp tech, and I think I’ve changed two tubes, maybe three…since 1977.
Not said is the hum that goes along with tube amps + if your speaker wire becomes detached….your amp can easily be damaged…not true with my Pioneer Elite Receiver.
My earliest memories of tubes is going to the drugstore with my Dad back in the early 50’s to use their tube tester. The intent being to finding the bad one to fix the tv. Currently living in Michigan I can see a use for tubes to help heat the house in winter. Other than that I’ll stick IC’s and their equivalents.
I am old enough to have had several tube home audio systems and when vinyl was the the only commonly available play-back media other than radio. I got as much performance as was possible at the time from those systems. When solid state analog audio systems first came along I was somewhat skeptical of the ability of silicon devices perform better than tubes. At the time tubes were still the dominate technology in my profession as a broadcast television engineer. But I could see that a major leap in overall performance using solid state analog devices was just ahead. And I was right. Modern low cost solid state analog amps and pre-amps out performed tube systems in all areas that matter to the vast majority of listeners. That said, as the writer points out it really comes down to personal preference. So take nothing away form those who still enjoy obtaining maximum performance from legacy analog audio components. For what it is worth I still enjoy listening to music CDs through my JBL Flair L45 speakers,
Has a successful tube/SS hybrid amp ever been developed? Has anyone heard the Butler Audio Tube Drive Blue? Perhaps more importantly, does any hybrid solution stand a chance of being accepted given audiophile us/them tribalism or do we value our ideological camp more than audio truth?
i heard a butler amp at a show once; hard to get a decent take on an amp at an audio show. it did get good press. there are others as well. moscode is a vintage hybrid amp that got good press, and there are others out there as well. cary, yaqin, music reference, melos, conrad johnson have all made hybrids; i am sure there are others.
Not sure what ‘successful” would mean in this context. (But it sure ain’t sales, at least not to the consumer. To the mfr, then sure. Beats sells a tons. They suck. But then again, ppl seem to love them. The world is a strange place.) But there’s a ton of hybrid guitar amps that have that arrangement.
And I was once the proud owner of a (very expensive, I think $1000 or so) Butler Tube Driver guitar pedal (literally the same exact one David Gilmour uses). It’s “as good as it gets” in its own neighborhood.
I hated it. Did not work with my guitar at all, at least not for the sound I was after. But my guitar is nothing like Dave’s, and it just didn’t complement it well to my ears. I replaced it with a $30 Danelectro pedal that I loved like an adopted son.
Yeah, I’m not even sure what I was after with “successful”. What I would really like is more discussion like what you just shared – a recognition that all products have strengths and weaknesses, fit within a given market space and satisfy specific personal preferences. I don’t think that bifurcating the market into two rival camps where each side tells the other they are wrong is the right way to bring people into a life-long enjoyment of the hobby.
jerry, you say:
“Getting as close to the recorded event, studio or live, on the master tape is the goal of audiophile music reproduction, simply put. ”
i agree. that’s why vinyl sounds better, because, for whatever reason, it does it better.. you can recite all the technical reasons why it shouldn’t. ad infinitum, ad nauseum. but, it still does.
keep regurgitating your repeated statements. about better dynamic range, lower distortion, etc. and, the same is true for tubed electronics. while some electronic artifacts, typically imparted by tubed gear, ad something that makes recorded music sound more like the real thing. just as with vinyl, science has not yet been able to explain all of it.
“I like it, so it’s better” is… not an argument. I am baffled that you can say (essentially) “it sounds more like live music” when live music is a pure sound, and vinyl adds a ton of garbage to it + only reproduces a fraction of it, which you seem to agree with. Plus, lots of stuff is recorded direct, and so it’s never really “live” anyway. The Beatles did it way back, and its largely the norm now.
And this is the internet, so you gotta repeat yourself ad infinitum.
Even though I agree with Jerry’s points, they’re essentially meaningless when you realize ALL of this boils down to opinion and preference. Doesn’t have to make sense. Either way, rock on with your preferred format.
sorry, but “if it sounds better it’s better” is no less valid an argument regarding audio reproduction than “if it measures better it’s better”.
but, i definitely agree that jerry’s points are meaningless. (which is why i find it odd that he keeps beating this dead horse. because no one will ever convince someone that their preferred playback method is inferior – unless they can be convinced by what they hear. for me, i have never heard digital sound as natural as vinyl, and all the specs in the world can’t change that fact. and i certainly agree that one should enjoy their format choices. ;~)