Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Return of Vacuum Tube Fidelity

Back in 1984 (!) I purchased this amp and preamp combo in a Tottenham Court Road audio shop in London. It was really a top-of-the-line deal back then and I absolutely could not afford to be buying stuff like this. (That's why I used the AMEX card!) I think the pair were around US$1,700 and I added a comparable pair of speakers which tacked on another $1,500. So it was a major purchase for me and one that I hoped would last a lifetime. (OK, being 24 years of age I really had no concept of what lifetime meant, but whatever.)

Sometime in the very early 1990s in Los Angeles, there was a rather nasty electrical storm at our apartment and I was not using a surge protector (ahhh, stupid youth!) and one of the units got a part burned out. Rather than having it repaired (which I assumed would cost a fortune) and knowing I didn't have the financial means at the time to replace it with equal quality, I opted to store it in the closet and buy something affordable which was an all-in-one SONY product for about $300. Since we were living in an apartment and I didn't feel I could blast music anyway, it didn't seem to matter.

Twelve years passed until I finally convinced myself to start building up a top-notch audio system again. I splurged on a new English-made integrated amplifier and turntable. The total cost for both was about the same as what I paid for the amp/preamp combo twenty years earlier. I had a hunch the quality wouldn't be quite the same given that fact. I also didn't feel like I could splurge on high-end speakers yet, so the only listening I did was with headphones.

Around 2006, a work colleague told me her husband had a friend who could probably repair my speakers and burned out amp. Even though I no longer needed them, he thought it would be very affordable to fix. I shipped two speakers, the amp and preamp out to California and waited a few months. The verdict was that the speakers could not be repaired but he was able to repair the other units. And it only cost around $300.

When the amp equipment arrived, I placed it back in storage. There's not even a headphone output and I still had no speakers! So the status quo carried on until around 2009 or 2010 when I FINALLY decided on a pair of high-end speakers. When they arrived I was eager to test my old 1984 vintage equipment. After getting everything set up there was no sound coming out. I thought that was odd considering the guy who repaired it told me it "sounds great." And why would he ship something back to me that really wasn't working. I convinced myself some part had jiggled loose during shipping, so I put it back in the closet. It didn't matter really. My "new" (by 2010 the amp was 7-years-old) amp sounded great after finally being wired up to speakers!

Awhile back I started hearing static in my system and sometimes one of the two channels of audio would drop out. Correcting it only requires a tap on the input selection knob on the amp but it is still rather annoying. Sometimes I have to do that 2 or 3 times each evening. I've been rather stressed because I will have to box this up and ship it somewhere to be fixed. Apparently it's a common problem as I learned from internet research. I could live for a couple of weeks with playing television audio through the tinny little speakers on the TV, but I wasn't sure I could live without music options.

This morning I decided to drag out the 1984 equipment, hook it up, and just be certain it really wasn't working. Guess what? It DOES work! Apparently when I tested it before I did something wrong. So I've spent the better part of this day hooking everything up to it and listening to various things on vinyl and CD. At one point you would have thought Elvis Costello's wife (that's Diana Krall and I am just assuming they are still married) was banging away on a piano in my living room while crooning about having her grape peeled.

Vacuum tubes, baby!!

Yeah! OK, if you want me to be brutally honest, I'm not sure there's a helluva lot of difference between this old stuff and the amp I bought in 2003. If I could do a real side-by-side comparison it's entirely possible I'd detect differences between the two such as that proverbial "warmer & richer" sound from the vacuum tube amp. But since I'd have to unplug and replug a device and unplug and replug speakers to compare, I am just not sure I'm all that bothered to know. They both sound incredible.

There are so many variables to consider.  Even proper speaker placement can make a big difference.  I repositioned my speakers slightly while testing out the old amp and that made quite an improvement in the sound!

Maybe after a couple of weeks with the old amp while the new one is being repaired I'll notice a step down once I get the repaired amp returned to me. I am just thankful I went ahead and got that old unit repaired so I won't have to be music-less for however long it takes to get the newer amp repaired.   It's going to be fun spending some quality time again with this old friend from 1984.

1984 amp and preamp.

Back view of preamp.

You may call me a geek now. And I'm sure some of you who have your music in the "cloud" and listen thru ear buds are wondering what the hell is wrong with me.