Tubes can be darn fun. Last week, I illuminated the charm of using thermionic valves, aka tubes, in audio and also hinted at the built-in maintenance and relatively transient shelf life of these not-so-ancient amplifying devices.
Once you’ve heard a good tube amp, you get it. There’s often a presence, quality and sparkle, and also a softness to some degree. Modern tube amp manufacturers understand that they’re competing against no-nonsense, maintenance-free, smaller and cooler-running amplifiers of recent design. So the popular current tube folks try to make things as easy as pie.
My favorite no-nonsense tube amps come from a company called PrimaLuna, which is run in the U.S. Manufacturing is done in China to keep costs low, and PrimaLuna’s engineers work hard to craft wonderful-sounding circuits that balance themselves automatically. As they are on the higher end of the pricing scale of amps I’ll discuss today, I’ll just say the extra cost is placed in the circuit and parts. PrimaLuna are darlings in the audiophile circle because of how darn good they sound for being so easy to set up.
If, however, your audio budget doesn’t extend into four digits (as mine surely does not as well), remember the plucky, punny company I wrote about a couple weeks back. Schiit Audio in good old California makes no-brainer tube gear, too. The way tubes work, even if you have them preceding your modern, non-tubed solid-state amplifier, they still add that sparkle to the mix. Schiit’s selection of tube preamplifiers can fill that role with aplomb. Pair a Saga or Freya with their Vidar solid-state power amplifier and you’re knocking on the door of serious audiophile land.
As we look elsewhere for reasonably priced entry into tube audio, China gains consideration in the discussion. The reason is larger than just this topic. Basically, high-end audio and being an “audiophile” is a quite popular pursuit in other parts of the world. Asia in particular has a long tradition of excitement for high-end reproduction of sound. And being a region of industrial powerhouses that can make darn near anything, tube audio companies from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere have been supplying the demand with all kinds of great tubey stuff.
The other day, I came across a fantastic-sounding amp with a unique name: RFTLYS. I chuckled at the tongue-twister name but really dug the concept and sonics of the tube amplifier I was listening to. It wasn’t an exquisite build in terms of construction, but it had the right parts in the right places and highlighted the virtues of the tube it was using for output, the vaunted EL34.
After some brief digging, I found it at hifi-amplifiers.com. And I chuckle again at the audacity of that URL and how it’s an enthusiastic portal to some of the better Chinese amplifier designs from companies like Psvane, Boyuu, Shuguang and Shanling. I haven’t ordered from it, but I do know one U.S.-based audiophile who went down that rabbit hole and wound up with a great amp that served him for some time.
Like I said, tubes are fun. Now is a better time to get into them than ever. Really.