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The Ideas of Termoionica Applicata®

Tubes or transistors? The Holy War

[Italian version]

It is a dead old debate: since the thermoionic tubes have come back in full force into the HiFi and hi-end market the audiophile crowd has been divided into two parties: those who swear about the superior musicality of the tubes and the others who believe nothing comes close to a good solid state design.

It is quite curious (and amusing) that among audiophiles this kind of debates are very popular: tubes vs transistors, digital vs analog, minimonitors vs large floorstanders, one way wide-band vs 10 ways :-) loudspeakers, bitstream vs multibit, low sensitivity vs high sensitivity loudspeakers, conventional dynamic vs planar speakers and so on.
Even better, the reasons why one should carry on one idea instead of its opposite are, generally, weakly supported by REAL facts, that is serious LISTENING EXPERIENCE.

I prefer to judge the RESULTS and NOT the theories behind these. Being a mathematician (my field of research is Partial differential equations, I teach Real Analysis at the University) I can assure you that one can build so many nice and fancy theories and formulas, the REAL problem is...finding good examples :-)
Hence, you can THINK that a tube is better than a transistors for so many technical reasons (and viceversa) but then you DO NEED real world examples. There's no escape.

The fact that TNT-Audio has devoted a whole section, called Termoionica Applicata, to tubes and their use for ultimate audio performance doesn't necessarily imply that we believe tubes are ALWAYS better than transistors.
Simply put, tubes do have real advantages with respect to DIYing: designing and building a good solid state preamp or power amp is way more difficult and usually tricky. Tubes are generally simpler to understand and handle (even if much more dangerous).
Building a decently sounding tube amp is generally easier. Designing and building an excellent tube equipped component (preamp or power amp) is a whole different story, though.

Another reason for choosing DIY tubes projects is the vast literature easily available both on the Net, on magazine and books. Old schemes from the 50s still work excellently well, and actually many modern tube HiFi components have been designed with these schemes in mind (if not copied throughout...).
A simple search with an Internet engine with keyword tubes will open a world of sites, plenty of information and throbbing with schemes. For example, I've been impressed by the amount of Japanese sites about tubes.

Then there's another point: tubes reliability. It is a well-known Old Wives' tale that tubes aren't reliable over long periods or intensive use. It depends, mainly, by the quality of the tube and the way it has been used into the electrical circuit: you can exploit a tube so that its life shortens while you can use it wisely and get several years (if not decades) of regular and perfect use (I myself own a perfect Philips mono power amp from the 50s...it works like it was new...).

Finally, let's talk about the SOUND. I won't tell you that tubes sound better than transistors. It is a plain stupid assumption. There are many good tube HiFi components and many solid state ones. Also, there are bad examples of tube and solid state amps. Everything depends on the ability of the designer and on the quality of the components (capacitors, resistors, tubes, transistors etc.).
There are many ways to reproduce a good sound and everyone should search for his own: one may prefer a dynamic and fast sound while another, depending also on musical tastes, may prefer a warm and sweet reproduction. There are men who like blondes and others who prefer browns. Who's right?
There's no such a thing as the Absolute Sound (the abstract concept, not the mag :-)), since we'll never know how that sound was recorded, firstly. Secondly, the heavy influence of our listening room (more than 50%, in my opinion) can change completely the sound of a loudspeaker or of any other HiFi component of our set-up.
So, our philosophy is: shut up and listen. It is the only way to learn something. And the more you learn the more you know there's more to learn :-)
So, please, don't think that because you have listened to a tube amp, all tube amps sound the same. Experience is never enough. I've listenend to tube amps which sounded like a solid state one and viceversa, hence it is almost impossible to write about the sound of the tubes.

So, to cut a long story short, are tubes any better than transistors? It depends. I prefer to judge what comes out of the HiFi component, not what's into it.
Some years ago a tube DIYer (a friend of mine) wanted to test his own power amps into my reference system. He sweared about the quality of his designs and said: the bass range of my amps is simply spectacular.
So we listened to his amps for a couple of hours. They sounded pretty good indeed (while I wasn't surprised) so he was ready to yell his credo again: Tubes sound better than transistors!. Then he asked to connect my solid state power amp (same price range, more or less).
Well, the "spectacular" bass range of his amps was NOTHING compared with the power and drive of my solid state baby and the rest of the performance was generally better, sometimes equal. The guy quickly changed his mind and stopped swearing by the superiority of tubes over transistors.
And, obviously enough, one can prove, easily, the opposite: tube amps that sound better than solid state ones.
So, please, forget your credo, close your books and magazines (including this), shut up and listen: the Truth is OUT there.

© Copyright 1999 Lucio Cadeddu

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