My earliest experience with tubes in audio is similar to that of most folks, I think. I started playing guitar at age 11, and in the guitar world, tubes reign supreme.
I remember that the first difference I noticed in a tube amp versus a newer and cheaper one was that guitar tube amps are freakin' heavy! I'd hear guitar people talking about replacing tubes, and the whole thing seemed like a lot of hassle. But I was quickly schooled on the fact that yes, tube guitar amps are a pain in the butt, but they are oh so worth it.
The saturation of input tubes to make a creamy overdrive was and likely still is unmatched by contemporary solid state amps. And the tone... the TONE! Don't let a guitar girl start talking about tube amp tone — she won't stop.
My grandfather opened my eyes to the magic of tubes in home audio equipment, and he even gave me a couple of tube amps he built by hand — one in the late 1940s and one in the early '70s. Later on when he died, I paid to have them professionally repaired. When I got them back and started listening to them, I began to understand the magic of tubes and what we've lost by going the route of smaller, cooler and cheaper in manufacture of home audio.
Last week, I touched on a few brands doing modern tubey things out there, specifically those making it easier than ever to add some tubes to the mix in your home stereo. I want to continue on that because there are just too many cool ways to do that nowadays.
iFi Audio is a brand the beginner audiophile must know, just like the brand Schiit Audio that I brought to your attention a couple weeks back. iFi has a similarly extensive range of small, exquisite-sounding devices that solve a lot of problems and improve sound at every turn. In the tube department, they have a number of offerings, but one that I stumbled upon recently that is really something special is their Retro Stereo 50 all-in-one audio system. It's got everything you need except speakers and perhaps a turntable, but it does rock an actual phono preamplifier so you're ready to spin when you get one. With retro looks and a bunch of glowing tubes inside, you'd think this came off the line in 1979, but it's a modern product that's geared to be a stylish one-box solution.
Jolida (previously called Shenda) is another Chinese brand that deserves a lot of attention. I recently got to play with two of their products: the Glass FX10 mini tube amp and the JD1501 integrated amplifier (integrated means the amp has a volume control). Both sounded excellent, and both were well-designed. The FX10 comes no bigger than a 7-inch cube and, interestingly enough, uses the same circuit — the "ultralinear" — that the amplifier my grandfather built in 1947 was famous for pioneering.
Jolida's version automatically balances the tubes, has a headphone amplifier and multiple inputs. The past meets the future. And that's what tubes in modern audio products is all about: using the best and updating the rest.