Thanks: A heartfelt thanks to Phillip Heitz - Triode et Compagnie - France
Author: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: May, 2004
The Western Electric 300b has a long and distinguished history, which I don't intend to go into here beyond this brief resume! It was designed in the '30's specifically as a power valve for audio - cinema amps specifically. Since then it's been used in several configurations, but the one that everyone is familiar with is as a power valve in Single-Ended mode. It was this valve, more than any other that kept the Single-Ended torch burning during the bleak, transistor dominated days of the 70's and 80's. This was especially true in the Far East, notably Japan where original WE 300b's (increasingly difficult to obtain and after 1988 out of production) fetched astronomical sums and were used in hand made valve amps complete with such delights as silver wound transformers. This tiny backwater of high-end mavericks would have remained as it was had it not been for the opening up of the communist and ex-communist world, notably China and Russia.
Why? Because these economies, starved of technological exchange with the West continued to run much of their electronics on valves rather than transistors. With the fall in demand for valves from their military, factories specialising in valves turned their minds to breaking into the western market. One of the first fruits of this were Golden Dragon and Sovtec's copy of the WE300b. Suddenly instead of costing upwards of 3000e to buy a pair of NOS WE's they could be had for 100e each. This made the 300b a relatively cheap valve and various manufacturers, in particular Audio Innovations in Europe, designed SE valve amps at a price the average (obsessed) audiophile could afford. Now we move on to the present where SE 300b amps can be bought from China for 600e complete with valves, and there are literally hundreds of different 300b amps available - right up to one's costing 100,000e +... For some the 300b is still the king of valves...
Of course with lots of amps around the choice of 300b's and their equivalents has expanded to the point where even Western Electric have woken up and started production again. These valves can be had for as little as 50e, direct from Russia or China, and up to 400e+ for top designer brands like WE.
So I decided to have a look at a few that were available to see what differences were to be found, and of course to try and optimise my nice new Audionote Quest Silver 300b Monoblocks! These amps are around 'mid range' as far as 300b amps go, at about 8000e. They use one 300b each which made comparisons easy, and best of all the French distributor was happy to send me half a dozen pairs of valves to play with. A huge thanks to him, with little to gain from the TNT link (not many visitors from France) he did it all in the spirit of enthusiasm - thanks Philippe, you are a gent...
Before I begin a three important points. First the cost of these valves can vary wildly depending on whether they are bought direct or from distributors. Searches on the net show variations running to 200%+ so you are going to have to look yourself. The prices where given are what Philippe Heitz charges, you may well find wild variations elsewhere...
Secondly a reality check. Though each of these valves sounded different and identifiable I wouldn't say that the differences were at all of the 'make or break' variety. If you have a SE 300b valve amp that you are unhappy with, then it is unlikely that a valve change we exact a cure. Likewise someone with 'entry level' valves will not reach audio nirvana simply by swapping valves. However that said often with hi-fi it is the little changes that can bring happiness, so only you can really decide... I also had a pair of new WE 300b's here as reference, these courtesy of the Loth-x amp under test a few months back.
Lastly about the typical 300b SE amp sound. Despite what you might believe SE 300b amps do not conform to the "warm and woolly" valve stereotype. If you are looking for warmth and weight go look elsewhere, an EL34 PP for example. 300b's are very open and clear in the midrange, to the point that some can sound pushy - the phrase "hear through" was invented to describe a good 300b amp. Given very efficient speakers they also can produce punchy fast bass and flawless high frequencies, but with normal speakers they quickly go flabby at the frequency extremes. So when I describe a valve as warm it'll still be much more open than most amps - everything is relative.
Two valves here are to all intents and purposes - identical. The AudioNote (120e) and Audion 300b's both hail from China (so I've only put up a picture of the AN's). The Audion uses a slightly taller glass envelope, but on close examination the internals are practically identical, right down to the tiny constructional details, the brick red plastic base and the Carbonised Anode. These are made in the same factory I am sure. And they are very good:-) Overall they are well balanced and clean. The balance is pretty neutral, and they are quiet. Compared to the best they lacked a little drive, detail and air, but we're talking minor details here, and for their cost they really are good alrounders and you'd need to be running a very revealing system to become dissatisfied. Certainly I couldn't spot any difference between them.
Third up comes the Electro-Harmonix (also 120e) gold pin. This is, I believe, a specially selected Sovtec with a ceramic base. It's much the same cost as the Chinese tubes, though the 'cooking' Sovtec is considerably cheaper and probably the cheapest 300b available. This did sound different to the Chinese tubes. It had a slightly smoother and more laid back presentation, though once again the difference was not enormous. It was enough that if your system is just too pushy for it's own good then these might well help calm things down whilst retaining much of the openness of the other valves. On the other hand it could sound a little unfocused at times, particularly in comparison with the JJ.
Fourth is the Svetlana SV300b (around 180e). This also hails from Russia with quality control and marketing being centred in the USA. Of all the valves this one was the most like the WE. It also looked very similar with the same sized bulb, and if anything both the glass envelope and internals were better made than the original. With much the same sonic signature as the Chinese tubes, this one managed to add another layer of very fine detail as if coming from a quieter background. Bass if anything was tighter and better defined than the WE but back to back I'd be pushed to tell them apart. Personally I'd really have to need that slight extra warmth that the WE's possessed to justify shelling out more than twice as much for them.
All the above are essentially copies of the WE300b original, but other companies have produced tubes with the same electrical characteristics but with quite different constructions and the two most popular of these are the JJ 300b (170e) and the TJ300b (220e) gold mesh plate. These do sound different...
First off the JJ's. Of all the valves these were the best built, with the thickest glass and the neatest looking internals. I'm no expert in valve design (or even beginner) but the internal structure was notably different to the others and the glass envelope the biggest. They also didn't sound the same. Of the test these were by some distance the most revealing tube. Let me explain. One of the characteristics of a high-end system is the ability to show the difference between recordings. I don't mean that you can tell if it's the Beatles or the Stones, more that the recording venue/equipment/processing differences are very clear. It's the ability to spot when Paul McCartney is singing rather than John Lennon, to spot the difference between a 'Tele' and a 'Strat' but more importantly to be able to hear where one track on an album is recorded in a different studio to another. This is a double edged sword as such a system will pick apart poor recordings to the point that all things being equal, you will begin to play good recordings rather than poor.
If the situation arises where you begin to avoid great music that is poorly recorded, then the process has gone too far (or you need to find another hobby). In this respect the JJ's were ruthlessly revealing, stripping bare the music to expose both its beauty and its faults. The Quest Silvers combined with the JJ's managed to walk the tightrope between music and analysis very successfully, but unlike the valves already described this would not be the case with every amp. I would hazard a guess that they could be the worse valve possible for the Loth-x 300b amp. Here they managed to make every other valve available sound as if they were missing things.
Now the TJ's. These are the most widely talked about 300b's on the market, They seem to have met almost universal praise so of all the valves these were the ones I just had to hear.
The biggest disappointment with 300b's generally is their appearance. The glass envelope is a voluptuously curved creation and they are big enough to look impressive. The problem is when you switch them on. If you switch the lights off you'll see the blue glow, but otherwise forget it. You can read by an 845, the 300b has the glow of a celibate glow-worm. Enter the TJ. The envelope is totally different, like a PX25 - big too - and by using a mesh plate the whole thing lights up, it's gorgeous and if looks are why you went for valves in the first place, then you've just got to buy the TJ's
But... But... Look at the pic, you can just see that the pins aren't parallel - the other of the pair was worse. They are also pretty thick. These valves were a VERY tight fit in the Quests, so much so that they damaged the valve bases so that they became loose with the other valves on test. But maybe I was unlucky. So I plugged them in. Yup, very pretty. And the sound had a beautiful beguiling tone, warm and smooth and delicious. The effect made voices sound rounded and organic. Recordings lost their harshness, things became more listenable. You can see where this is going. If the definition of the high-end is to extract as much as possible from the original recording then the JJ is the ultimate valve - the TJ take a big step back from this. It lays a warmth and ease onto everything and there is the feeling that this is an 'addition'. Add to this is the fact that they are the noisiest valve on test, with greater hum levels and you can see that my enthusiasm is not as great as some others that have tested the valves. As it is they are probably the perfect valve for the Loth-x 300b amp.
Six valves, with all the "copies" of the WE 300b giving a good account of themselves. Given a well-balanced amplifier any will do well, but of them all the Svetlana is my personal favourite being desperately close to the WE300b. Of the two 'compatables' I find the TJ difficult to recommend, poorly made, noisy and coloured, and with a high price it's for fashion victims first and foremost. The JJ is a scary valve. It is just so revealing - you get the feeling it is missing nothing. It is strong medicine, and for many ears and amps it may go too far, but once used to it you feel the others are cheating. I bought a pair for my own use. I also bought the Electro-Harmonix because they give me a tuning option for the Quests if I find a test component just too pushy for the JJ's. But if the TJ's had been better made and cheaper they would have done the job even better.
© Copyright 2004 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com