Tube amps - what 3 things…

Hello all,

I am close to purchasing a tube amp moving away from SS. So far I have listened to a pure sound, PL, and allnic. 

Question for all you experienced owners - if you could do it all over again, what 3 things/features would you look for in an amplifier and what 3 things/features would you not invest in again?




There are many good Tube Amps on the market for sure, I have had many being a Tube Amp only guy since I was a teenager, (60) now. I like and currently use the McIntosh MC275's run in parallel through McIntosh C2600 Tube preamp. These units are built like a tank, take plenty of abuse and keep playing excellent music. The other 5 Tube Amps I currently have, sound great but seems there's always something little going on with them that annoys me. These others are all the name brands we hear about, and yes they are good but not quite as bullet proof as the 275's in my opinion. Which must be about the general consensus on McIntosh 275's because they are very hard to find new or used for the past 5 years or so.

Unless you are unlucky, trying tube amps will not result in you going back to SS.

Cary Audio used to have a kit division, Audio Electronic Supply, and it disappeared as soon as Dennis Had retired. Presumably it was too good a bargain. I had their phono stage and pre-amp (both in standard form and 'Dennis Had Special Edition') along with their Sixpac monoblocks and their SE-811 SET triode monoblocks. Also used a Copland CTA-301 and CTA-305 pre-amp, Quad 24p phono stage, Quad QC-24 pre-amp, and Quad II/forty monoblocks. Even used a NuVistor phono stage.

Currently the Quads are still in use, but I do miss the addictive musicality of the SET monoblocks. Sure, it was distortion-laden, but I loved it. I wish I still had them.

All of these were better than the best SS power amp I ever had, a YBA-1, from the era when they were built in France rather than China. I still have it, but it just doesn't begin to compare.

Today afternoon I was spinning "Get On Board", Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Can't get enough of this album, but "Packing Up Ready To Go"... that song is something else. They sure found their sweet groove. Should you not feel the presence of that bass drum in your room, change your system. 
Oh, yes: recording is great, mastering is very, very good - and appropriate. It is all captured and preserved, from sweet rawness that usually get conjured during casual jam in a forgotten roadhouse, to the reverberation of the room they recorded it in. Absolute treat for music lover and audiophile.

My 3 most important things - for my system, not only for an amp:
1. True to the recording - reproduce what is recorded, no more, no less. If there are "spatial cues", I want to "see" the room. 
2. As close as possible to the real voice(s) and instrument(s) - reference is the live event and, in my case, years of being musician
3. Goosebumps. A lump in my throat. On some recordings happens. On most - it does not. I need to be taken, transported to the event, even for just a moment. System is the vehicle. Music is the fuel. Rare are the pieces do have such a beauty that can transcend poor reproduction. Conversely, if music is crap, no system can make you suddenly hear The Masterpiece. 
In too many years I'd care to mention I had many different systems. In early eighties, I had one ghetto blaster in my apartment. I even tried D class Bel Canto with Dynaudio speakers. Now, I am on my second Audiomat Prelude Reference. I sold the first one, to "try something different"... I also have Audiomat Phono 1.6 - which would classify as SS. My MD806t uses two 6992. Speakers are Capriccio Continuo Auralea 309, very good match with the amp, and the room. 
I prefer good sound, and don't care is it tube, SS, D class... nor I care about features. Less is usually more: I prefer integrated with passive preamp - power amp with input selector and volume control. 
I heard two different Zu speakers, one with Decware EL84 and another one with Trafomatic. If I would have your dilemma, I would try to hear those manufacturers. Trafomatic was more to my taste. 
Personally, the only integrated amp, besides Audiomat, that I would buy is Ayon.

Also, tube is just a part of the design. I heard EL84 design that was well balanced, with a nice and tight LF output. Also heard 6L6 design with mid-bass hump, and quite flabby down low. Good mids, but nothing else. So, which tube should be followed by which iron, which caps etc. Avoid all of that and go out and listen. Ask Zu people. Visit dealers. We can all give you great insights, but ultimately, those are only our, ultimately subjective observations. Hearing is very subjective, just like any other sense: taste, touch, even vision - just read the studies on crime eyewitness reliability. 

I agree with the previous comment on transformers being the most important component.

I recently posted about some coupling capacitor upgrades on some chifi integrated tube amps and it made a big different in sound quality.

But just recently I gave some Icon Audio equipment a try again (had one several years ago). In direct comparison to the chifi gear the resolution doubled. I am hearing elements of the music at are either veiled or completely missing on the chifi gear even after upgrades of tubes and capacitors. This is primarily due to the better transformers on the Icon and of course the actual circuit design.

Next most important thing is do not listen to Youtube reviews. I think many of those guys are being paid off to promote average equipment or they are half deaf and have not experienced truly good equipment.

Once you find a good piece of equipment you can tweak the tone with some nice tubes or upgrading a few coupling capacitors. But it would be unrealistic to try to upgrade transformers.

I agree with the previous comment on transformers being the most important component.

Until they aren't. Tube amplifiers with output transformers, regardless of how good they are wound are not as transparent as their OTL or direct drive counterparts (given a level playing field). I've have all three design types and it's pretty clear what an output transformer adds to the mix. Getting rid of the capacitor at the output is also a benefit.