Written by 4:59 am Analog • 26 Comments

Tubes and Vinyl: An Often-Misunderstood Audiophile Debate

Jerry Del Colliano looks at two things that audiophiles often need…

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. 

AR-McIntoshBook.jpgAt 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. 

AR-Tubes.jpgToday’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. 

AR-FuxxFace.jpgWhen 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. 

AR-Bonham.jpgPerhaps 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. 

AR-tubes5a.jpgWhat 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.

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