By Jonathan Schneider
CNN recently posted an article about the demise of the once paramount stereo system. It’s an interesting read for those of us above age 40. For the rest, it will probably fall upon deaf ears (pun intended).
The thrust of the article is this – an era of digital music, earbuds, iPod docks, laptops, and wireless Bluetooth speakers has sounded the death knell for the traditional component based hi-fi system (i.e.: big speakers, metal boxes, wires). If this is true, I must be living in an alternate universe. In my house, the traditional “system” still holds sway.
I’ve been a hi-fi addict since my earliest years in the 70s. I vividly recall caressing the brushed steel knobs of my parents’ Marantz all-in-one record changer / receiver combo in our family room. I had no clue what “Bass,” “Treble,” or “Low Pass Filter” meant, but I knew they changed the sound dynamic when I fussed with them. One of my earliest memories is listening to Fleetwod Mac’s “Rumors” on vinyl while my dad made his famous burnt cinnamon toast on a rainy Saturday morning.
From the late 70s throughout the 80s, my hi-fi love affair grew. I moved from a mono Panasonic portable radio-cassette player to more sophisticated equipment such as one of the first quartz digitally tuned receivers. I would pour over issues of Stereo Review marveling at high-end equipment from the likes of McIntosh, Conrad-Johnson, and Carver. It was all American made and in a different league than the Japanese equipment on the shelves of our local Circuit City. Of course, it was beyond reach so I had to make do with the big box offerings. Yet, that didn’t stop me from convincing my parents and grandparents to cart me to the local hi-fi shop where I could salivate over the really good stuff. Looking back, I’m amazed the sales people let a young’un like me even take a test-listen.
Fast forward to today and I finally have the kind of system I want – a McIntosh tube based dream machine. What’s a tube you ask? It’s one of the earliest ways of amplification and was common in all types of electronic equipment from TVs to radios to medical equipment. Versus transistors (solid state amplification), tube-based audio systems have a warm, lush sound that is more musical and less fatiguing to listen to. After a while, you don’t get that “I’ve just got to turn this off” feeling from listening to tube audio. To use an analogy, it’s like the difference between wearing your favorite khakis and your favorite jeans. Both feel good – one always just feels better.
Aside from the sound, the best part of tubes is being able to customize the sound. Different types of tubes lend different characteristics to the music – some bring out more of the middle, some have a brighter top, while some have exceptionally spacious imaging. Unlike a solid state amp, you can tweak an amplifier to get the sound you want simply by changing the tubes whenever you want.
Aside from high end-audio equipment (a sliver of the electronics market), nothing uses vacuum tubes anymore. The onslaught of solid state circuitry was so quick, that manufacturing stalwarts such as GE, Philco, RCA and Telefunken were left with gargantuan amounts of tubes that were suddenly worthless. While new tubes are still available from Russia and China (they still have a lot of old things over there that use them), the vintage new old stock (NOS) from decades ago reigns supreme for audiophiles. Small companies scour the market for NOS tubes and sell them to people like me. Inserting a tube made 50 years ago is real step back in time and a real step forward from a sonic perspective.
Sorry for ramble. But the hi-fi system is not dead. You just have to know where to look and how to listen.