Product: Svetlana EL34 Valves
Manufacturer: Svetlana - US
Reviewer: Geoff Husband
It's 1976, an airport in Japan. Suddenly an aircraft never seen before in Japan drops undetected onto the runway. One Victor Belenko had just delived a MIG 25 Foxbat to the Japanese and inevitably to the CIA.
This one aircraft had caused consternation in the west for 15 years as it was faster and higher flying than any other combat aircraft. And here the CIA had one on a plate. The thing was then stripped and examined and there followed a report that whilst accepting it's performance, concluded it was crude and primative - made of steel rather than titanium and far inferior to western aircraft in terms of technology.
Strangely this crude aircraft, then nearly 30 years old, proved invulnerable to interception during the Gulf war dispite F16's, F15's et al busting a gut to get near enough to shoot one down, and managed to "down" a F18 whilst avoiding all the escorting fighters.
So enough praise of the Soviet aircraft industry, what on earth has this got to do with valve amps? Well you see, one of the things the CIA sneered at was the fact that the Foxbat used valves in its radar.
This was due to the embargo on hi-tech export to the USSR according to the CIA, but the fact that the valves were less vulnerable to the "flash" of RF produced by the nuclear air-to-air missiles the US possessed had something to do with it.
The point is that in the Soviet Bloc and China, valves continued to be produced and used in cutting edge designs long after their abandonment by the west. The result is that if you buy a valve amp the chances are that it will be equipped with valves from the ex-/communist world.
Personally I'm surprised that the west hasn't been flooded with innovative, Russian designed valve amps using wonderful new valves, but perhaps the market is too small and too conservative.
As it stands the valves you buy are mostly reworkings of classic designs from the likes of Western Electric, Philips and Mullard. Without the Eastern Bloc the valve revival might never have happened.
One such classic valve is the old EL34, widely used in guitar amps as well as hi-fi. As one of the cheapest and most widely used valves it has been reproduced by all the ex-Eastern Bloc manufacturers.
"Svetlana" is a company which manufactures in St Petersberg, Russia, but the marketing and perhaps most importantly, quality control, is organised in the US. Thus Svetlana aims for the top end of the replacement valve market by a combination of rigourous control and attention to detail.
Perhaps Svetlana's biggest rival is Sovtec, another Russian built valve and one which is considerabley cheaper. My own Audion amps came equipped with Sovtec EL34G's so it was with some interest I came to swap them over.
The two valves look very similar though the Sovtecs envelope is a little thinner and so less pretty:-)
EL34 amps are fun. A good one has drive and boogie factor in spades and the Audion's are certainly good. Perhaps a happy combination of euphony and microphony combines to make them excel in dynamics, they always seem to get to the heart of the music.
But when all's said and done they are a cheap valve and suffer from a certain uncouthness and more important - grain. When put with a genuine "high-end" speaker/front end combination they can seem a little out of their depth. Replacing the Sovtecs with the Svetlana's proved a highly rewarding experience.
The change was far from "night and day" but the Svetlana's had the happy ability to retain the fun factor of the amps and yet add a level of refinement I'd not heard before. You'll not get the usual list of recordings used etc because the change was subtle and universal.
The Svetlana's just made the Audions sound more expensive - nothing more, nothing less - and therefore happier with hi-end partners.
The Sovtecs are half the price of the Svetlana's, but to be honest neither are expensive, two matched pairs being about the price of a "cooking" 300B. If you own an EL34 based amp you should always have a set of spare valves for emergencies. There are many other EL34's around, including others from Sovtec, but for the moment I'd happily buy the Svetlana's (they're not getting these back :-)...) and keep the originals as spares...
© Copyright 2000 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com