Pesco on stereo tube amps of today

NewImageOver at our sponsor Intel's My Life Scoop site, I wrote about several modern tube amps to warm up your digital music.
In the ongoing analog vs. digital debate, there are myriad measurements involving frequency response, distortion levels, and dynamic range that both sides cite to “prove” that the other is misinformed, unscientific, or just plain wrong. One path to consider is playing your digital tunes through an analog stereo, ranging from a headphone-to-RCA cable to a high-end digital-to-analog converter. Some might say that’s the best of both worlds; others would say you’d be better off with an AM radio. Ultimately though, it’s all about personal perception. So with that in mind, here are several products for bridging the gap between your digital music and your analog ears. The irony of running lousy and lossy mp3s through high-quality tube amps isn’t lost on me. But at least the enchanting glow of the vacuum tubes will distract you.
"Digital Music Meet Analog Stereo"

Stefan Riepl’s vacuum tube photo from Wikimedia Commons


  1. Eventually, a class of ‘rat-rod’ audiophile will emerge that derives satisfaction from playing 64kbit/sec MP3 files through cheesy beige plastic computer speakers snagged at thrift stores. 

  2. Remember, almost all the music you’re getting these days was digitally mastered. If the pros use a particular piece of analog equipment, it’s because they want the specific kind of distortion which that device will provide … and increasingly they use digital models of those too.

    If it makes you happy to use tubes, great. If you like the sound of a particular tube amp, great. Just don’t delude yourself that this is in any way an “audiophile” decision; that sound means you are NOT hearing the most accurate representation of the music possible.

    1. Yes and no. Quite a few of these users are playing old (predigital) vinyl or reel-to-reel tape.

    2. Here is my take as a musician.  As soon as a recording is mastered it is a the producer intends it to be heard.  Any processing after that should be transparent.  Tube amps color sound so they should be avoided.  Equalizers are for tuning your setup to be transparent.  This is not to say that recordings are ever perfect and there isn’t room for improvement.  I used to work at an art foundry.  I would beat multi million dollar sculptures with a sledge hammer to move them into shape and then cut and tweak them with an angle grinder.  A week later they would be handled with white gloves because they were considered “finished” by the artist.  

      1. It can’t be heard as the producer heard it, because the producer won’t let every owner of the recording come into his studio to listen.  It will always be played on a different amp than the producer users, through different speakers, in a different room.

        The producer’s amplifier introduced distortion to the signal he was feeding it. His speakers introduced further distortion. The shape of the room introduced more. His own ears introduced more. He modified the input signal so as to make it sound good to him when distorted as his studio system distorts it.

        Unless listeners are supposed to have an amp for every producer whose work they listen to, their amps will distort their music differently from what the producer’s amp does. It might as well distort it in a way that they like.

        Heck, recordings from the 1960s would probably mostly have been mastered to sound at their best when distorted as a tube amp does – listening to them on a transistor amp would have a different effect anyway.

        1. No, Producers, mixers and engineers are smarter than that. They modify the input signal so as to make it sound good to you when you play it on typical consumer grade equipment. Except when they produce the club mix for the Function One sound system in the club, or the radio mix for in your car, or the 12″-45 bass heavy mix, and so on. And for 90% of commercial music at least one of those, if not all of them, will be compressed to hell with loads of mid range sparkle to try and make it stand out from all the other pap.

          Meanwhile, MP3s don’t have to sound lousy and lossy. 320 or alt-presetstandard should be indistinguishable from WAV. If they don’t then the person ripping is deliberately or otherwise using a low quality codec.

        2. The record producers of the 1960s mastered the mono 45 RPM singles to sound good on an AM car radio and/or a crappy record player.

          1. The average fourteen year old in 2013, listening to a 160kb mp3 from a “volume wars” master on $15 earbuds is getting far, far better sound than his grandma listening to the Beach Boys from a well worn 45 on a $50 “hi-fi”.

            This idea that there was some sort of analog Golden Age is of course pure bullshit.

      2. All amps color the sound.  At least with tube amps you can change the coloration pretty easily to suit different types of music.

        If it were any other way there would be just one amp that came in different wattages.

  3. i guess it depends if you want to hear it how it actually sounded. or if you prefer it to sound like a recording.

    there will always be people who prefer paintings to photos, television to real life, standard def to high def, bacardi to rum, 24fps to 48fps, strawberry flavoured sweets to strawberries, sky wizards to science, and wax cylinders to digital recording.

    1. It probably “actually sounded” like a bunch of musicians playing their instrument alone in a room, listening to the other parts on headphones.

      If it’s a five-minute track by a four-part band, how it “actually sounded” would take at least 20 minutes to listen to.  And would sound terrible.

    2. “If you are speaking of music…it is of all subjects my delight. There are few people in England I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste.”

      — Lady Catherine de Bourgh

  4. We all have very powerful DSP machines through which we play music these days. Why not have a tube-amp processing module in WinAmp and iTunes to recreate the tube amp’s soft limiting and 2nd order distortion that our ears find so pretty?

  5.  Guy I work for has a vintage Quad tube amp which looks gloriously Soviet, is a glowing, dangerous health & safety hazard upon which you WILL burn yourself, and is one of the most covetable items I interact with. I want it badly.

  6. FWIW – My Father-in-law recently gave us (another) console record player and my iPhone plugged into it sounds gloriously better than anything else that I plug it into. Not scientific at all, but I like it…

  7. Some people seem compelled to make fun of audiophiles whenever the opportunity arises.  I guess it is a hobby, like making fun of trekkers or golfers.

    I am (slowly) building a tube amp from scratch.  I’m well aware that for a few hundred dollars you can buy a digital pro-audio amp with powerful output, a response that is board-flat way beyond the extremes of human hearing, and that can survive being hurled about in the back of a roadie’s van.  What’s the fun in that (depending on who’s around to throw it at)?  For my tube amp I had to have great honking transformers custom-built by a guy in New Mexico, track down affordable tubes from 50 years ago that still function as new, and when I get around to testing it there will be quite a high probability of death from the high voltages involved and my rusty soldering skills.  Fun!  Plus, when I’m done I’ll have a nice glowy thing to watch while listening to music.  

  8. The audiophoolish thing about this is…powered speakers are better.  Bi/Tri-amped, each side having it’s own power source, amplifiers specifically tuned for the drivers/impedance/cabinet. Theoretically, you could do the same thing with tube amps and wiring…but then it would still be just a powered speaker in the end. But you know, tubes add distortion…and we humans like distortion.  And shiny glowing things.

    ps. The best thing any audiophile could buy is acoustic room treatment. Bass traps people…bass traps.

  9. Speakers colour the sound more than amps, and rooms/placement colours the sound even more. Before spending any more money, spend a little time finding the sweet spots for your speakers and listening position

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