The incandescent light bulb is a wonderful example to help explain “the deal with tubes” in audio — what you gain (pun intended) by using them, why they almost went extinct and why they’ve come back in a big way.
You see new energy-efficient LED light bulbs claiming to have the “warmth of incandescent” bulbs, and if you’re like me, you suspect that the product never fully lives up to that promise. Nothing can offer the warm glow of an incandescent bulb like the real thing.
And yet, the real thing needs to be replaced again and again and again. Incandescent bulbs offer too little of an operating life in our increasingly energy-efficient world, and we all generally have accepted the loss of that authentic warm glow in exchange for a better way to live and care for our planet.
Well, I wouldn’t say all of us. Step into any hipster brewery and you may find some choice incandescents illuminating the space. Fans of sensory hobbies like craft beer tasting or enjoying fine wine will likely also appreciate fine lighting, or so the thought process goes. These establishments are willing to put up with the maintenance and care of their bulbs as a price to pay for reaching the next level of environmental experience.
Just like incandescent bulbs, vacuum tubes used to be so prevalent they were in any product that created sound you could hear across the room. From “portable” 50-pound record players you could lug to your favorite picnic spot to massive TV consoles containing almost a hundred tubes to Navy jeeps transmitting radio signals and so on — anything audio related before the late 1960s was full of these glass bottled amplifying devices.
Along the way, scientific progress gave us the same amplification potential in tiny little transistors. These used less power to do the same work, ran cool and took up almost no physical space in comparison. Best of all, their life cycle promised to be greatly extended compared to tubes.
And all of that promise bore out. Amplifiers and other audio devices became smaller and ran much cooler. They became much less expensive and never needed their transistors replaced.
But there was and still is just something about the sound that transistors produce that is a little bit off. A whole column can be written about the difference in sound between tubes and what is known as “solid state” (transistor-amplified devices are referred to as such), and I aim to stretch this tube discussion over a couple of weeks, but essentially the consensus is this: Tubes get the top end of the audio spectrum right, and solid state tends to do a better job on the low end. There are of course lots of exceptions to this based on the way each device is constructed.
Just like LED bulbs, you now see solid state audio manufacturers advertising “tube-like sound.” You never, ever see a tube amplifier being advertised as “sounding like solid state,” period. Case in point.
The good news is, modern tube-product manufacturers have made things easier than they used to be. Next week, we’ll dive into how you can confidently step into the world of tubes when it comes to upgrading your audio system.