While most people believe that vacuum tubes went away decades ago along with propeller-driven airliners and rotary telephones, in truth hardcore music lovers (and guitar players) have long embraced tubes for their sonic properties. After the Cold War ended, huge stockpiles of tubes started to shake loose, and now factories in both China and countries in Eastern Europe are again pumping out tubes by the skadillion.
The warm glow of tube amps is always hip (as evidenced by the recent surge of nixie chic), and we're now starting to see them popping up everywhere. Heck, these days you can even get a tube amplifier for your iPod. We searched all over for the hottest tube amps out there, narrowing the field to the 11 best. Get turned on by hitting the Continue link below.
1. Tubes for Donald Trump
The audiophile world is choked with exotica boasting stratospheric price tags, but few are surrounded by as much mystery and legend as those designed by the late Hiroyasu Kondo. Kondo was a firm believer in the properties of silver, and his top amps contained enough to supply a small country with coinage. Most legendary of all is the elusive GakuOn, a 55-watt mono amp using WWII era tubes, which has sold at times (depending on silver prices) for as much as $250,000 a pair.
2. Tubes for Your Ride
Using hot, fragile vacuum tubes for your car stereo may seem nutty, but Milbert has been making variations of its tube amp for over 15 years with great success. While 35 watts might seem pretty wimpy to most car-stereo people, if ultimate sonic perfection is you goal rather than waking the neighborhood, the Milbert's man enough for the job. Just don't open the trunk too fast when it's covered with snow.
3. Tubes for Your Laptop
Laptop speakers all suck. So why go with some nasty powered external jobs when you can use real speakers powered by a cool tube amp like the Audio Space Mini? At $890 it might cost as much as the laptop did, but it's definitely much cooler.
4. Flea-Powered Tubes
Some audiophiles feel that less is more, and that within their power limits, a lower-powered amp will outperform a similar design with more output. At only 1 watt per channel, David Berning's Micro-ZOTL amp is going to need some pretty efficient speakers, although there's also a headphone jack for those who value kick-ass quality for their personal listening.
5. Tubes for Steampunks
Josh Stippich grew up in a house full of artists, and the results show in his wildly creative designs for tube electronics. With no catalog of products per se, each Electronluv creation is a hand-built one-off designed to meet the needs and match the style of its future owner. Prices tend to run in the low to mid five-figure range for a pair of amps.
6. Tubes You Can Build Yourself
Audio kit building was all the rage in the 1950s, and now with the revived popularity of tubes, kits are back with a vengeance. The Bottlehead line has always combined great style with affordable prices, and the 3.5-watt Paramour II just about redefines the term simplicity. They're $679 a pair.
7. Tubes for your flicks
Few pieces of audio gear are as complex as a surround sound processor, so the concept of one using all analog vacuum tube circuitry might seem pretty unhinged. That wasn't enough to stop audio legend Jim Fosgate from developing the FAP V1, which uses tube output drivers for each channel. On board surround processing includes Dolby ProLogic II for two channel analog sources, while its 7.1 channel analog input lets you connect a multi channel source component that can decode the latest digital formats. As strictly limited edition, the FAP V1 sells for a cool $13,000.
8. Tubes for Your Head
Headphones can benefit from the sound of tubes too, and legendary tube circuit designer Tim deParavicini of EAR/Yoshino has come up with a tasty way to drive your cans. The HP4 headphone amp uses a pair of 6SL7s to deliver about a watt directly into your head. While not exactly cheap at $3,900, it's still a whole lot more affordable than most of deParavicini's amps for speakers.
9. Tubes from China
In the years since tube amps recaptured the hearts of both audio purists and trendsetters alike, a whole wave of mostly Chinese designs has started to pop up on the Internet. While some do have local distribution, most, like the SunSpirit JVD-845V seen here are available only directly from Asia, resulting in some astonishing values.
10. Really old skool tubes
I know what you're thinking, all tubes are old skool. But few tube types have a history stretching back as far as the 101D and 2A3, which were first introduced in 1921 and 1933 repectively. Now Australia based Malody Audio has introduced the I2A3 where the retro engineering continues in its use of paper in oil capacitors and point to point internal wiring. While this all sounds like the sort of exotica you might expect from the likes of Kondo (see #1 Tubes for Donald Trump), the I2A3 sells for a decidedly down to earth $3299.
11. Tubes, the Quest for Power
There are times when we all need more power, and while going with a solid-state amp would be and easy cop-out, there are tube-amp manufacturers out there who like to turn the volume up to 11. VTL's Luke Manley has long been at the forefront of the quest for power, and his 800 watt Siegfried monoblock should fit the bill of even the most hard core headbangers. They're a mere snip at $45,000 a pair.