Sun, 19 Jan 2003

Tube amplifier, obsolete but popular

Arief Hidayat, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

In this modern era -- when household activities, from cooking meals to opening the garage, are dominated by digital devices -- the love of past technology still exists.

Such passion must have been based on profound consideration of its usefulness and the classical selection.

Need an example? Browse through Stereophile, the acclaimed holy book for the audiophile, the tube amplifier which employed early 1900s technology.

The tube amplifier had distinct physical characteristics compared with today's digital-technology amplifier, which is mostly recognizable from its compact slim shape and is operated by remote control.

The tube amplifier was a large appliance with a flickering light bulb in the shape of a balloon or a cigar.

Many would wonder about the durability of this kind of amplifier and would be astonished to see the fantastic prices it commanded which range from US$1,500 to $45,000.

The history of the tube amplifier dates back to 1907 when American scientist Lee De Forest refined the diode, invented in 1904 by John Ambrose Fleming -- two elements in a tube lamp that could detect a wireless radio signal.

De Forest added one more element, called the grid. This was later recognized as the first tube lamp with three elements: anode, cathode and grid -- the triodes.

The finding of De Forest's three active components, promoted the development of the electronics industry like the development of telephone radar, audio recording and sound technology for movies.

Radio and audio technology boomed in that era.

The term amplifier tube however, was introduced by D.N.T. Williamson who wrote Design for a High Quality Amplifier, an article which was run by Wireless World magazine in 1947.

Williamson was later acknowledged to be the father of the tube amplifier.

The heyday of electronic devices that used tube components faded when Alexander Graham Bell invented the transistor -- a solid state semiconductor -- in the late 1950s.

Although the development of tube technology was sluggish if not stagnant, many still eyed audio devices which used tube technology. The best creations were, among others, the 275 type McIntosh, Marantz type seven and eight, Dynaco, Quad, and Harman Kardon. These brands are still on the most-wanted list of tube fans.

In the mid 1980s, audio devices which used tube technology regained popularity. The sweet comeback was marked by the big names in audio devices like Jadis, Cary, Bat, Marantz, Quad, Audio Research, Mark Levinson, Audio Note, Sonic Frontier, Audion, Airtight, McIntosh, Legend and many more.

These audio devices used high grade components of resistor with 1 percent tolerance, capacitor, output voltage regulator which used pure copper or silver wires.

In brief, the components were of the highest quality and the power of each component was measured in a bid to create an amplifier with the most natural sound.

No wonder the tube amplifier audio was so expensive. The tube lamp which would be used was picked from the best products and measured carefully. Every channel must match the pair from the basic power to the last.

Compared with the solid state amplifier, the tube amplifier had a simpler circuit with fewer components.

A circuit transistor tended to produce a sound with high order distortion. This distortion caused a hoarse effect because it was dissonant with its original sound. If we listen to a recording with a solid state amplifier, frequently we will come to a state known as "listener fatigue."

On the other hand the sound produced by a tube amplifier was tender and mellow so the music resonated better.

With its soaring prices, the tube amplifier only has a limited market, approximately 2 percent of the total number of audio amplifier lovers.

Due to its value, many people who own tube amplifiers feel like they possess a Porsche 911 or a Ferrari Modena.