By Modest I. Predlozheniye
It is easy to get caught up in the latest trends in audio, especially when you travel the world as I do. I see a lot of new technology applied to the art of enjoying music. Some of it is misguided but some shows just a trace of genius, enough to warrant a closer look. I am constantly attracted to these types of ideas and to see if they can lead to something revolutionary, for lack of a better word.
For example, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about new ideas for an old technology, namely vacuum tubes. An old audiophile acquaintance of mine back from my homeland, Dzhokah V., recently called me and said he was experiencing quite a bit of success with the treatment of the filament inside of an old stash of 12AX7 tubes from a Russian factory.
I immediately had many questions for my old friend. Was he speaking of cryogenics? Had he developed a new coating for the filament? And, most importantly, how did he manage to get inside of an old glass valve without damaging it?
“Oh, that part is easy,” he explained to me. “We go to the source, the old-timers who actually built the tubes back in the old days.” Those old gentleman know how to do anything, apparently, which includes the careful disassembly of existing valves without compromising their performance in any way.
“So Dzhokah,” I said. “What is this new treatment?” He would not tell me. I would have to come for visit, he replied somewhat enigmatically. I accepted his invitation to visit his workshop in Opasnost to experience this new technological wonder on my own.
Dzhokah is a no-nonsense type of man. He is one of those engineers who is never satisfied with existing methods which pretty much describes every engineer I’ve ever known. (For the record, my own background does involve quite a bit of engineering although I have no formal training. My father and his brother provided very important data for the government concerning satellite transmission and as a child I often listened to their discussions and was mysteriously able to comprehend what they said despite my young age. My uncle used to call me Gubka, which means sponge.)
I arrived at the factory two days later. Dzhokah’s work space was, of course, somewhat chaotic, littered with the old burnt chasses of many ancient tube amplifiers. Many of them appeared to be the victim of fiery accidents, with blackened tube sockets and occasionally a fine crystalized dust that appeared to be a combination of glass and tiny bits of wire. The only clean and well-organized section of his laboratory consisted of racks of metal shelves against the back wall that served as support for stacks of small metallic cases that shone like small beacons against the mottled grey bricks. It was obvious my friend had been busy designing something new.
“I first had this idea when I visited an old audiophile friend a couple of years ago,” Dzhokah explained to me while he put on a pair of very thick work gloves that covered at least two-thirds of his forearms. “He lived not too far from Pripyat, just outside of the Exclusion Zone.” Just then my old friend stopped and seemed to reconsider what he had just said. “Well, not quite ‘just outside.’ It was more like that area where the officials said ‘maybe it is best that you move somewhere else, but you can stay if you sign a form.’”
Hmm, I thought. That’s when I started to see where my friend was going with his story.
“So my friend invited me to his house one day,” he continued. “He told me that ever since ‘the incident,’ his hi-fi was doing very strange things. He noticed a change in the quality of the sound coming out of his old vintage system. He noticed that the midrange was sounding far more lifelike. The bass was taut and firm and the highest frequencies seemed to go on forever, like the horizon in Sukhay Nos.”
I leaned in close toward my friend, concentrating on every word, probably because sweet and extended high frequencies are one of the most important priorities I have when it comes to sound reproduction.
He went on with his story, his voice growing more excited when he realized he had my full attention. “He had an old Dynaco amplifier which he turned on. The first thing I noticed was the all of the tubes shone more brightly and more intensely than usual, and I suggested that maybe the bias needed to be adjusted but he just ignored me. Once proper warm-up was achieved, he put on a familiar recording of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, opus 96, a very old monaural recording that I had heard many times as a young boy. Through his system, however, it sounded like it had been illuminated from within. I asked him if it was a new reissue and he just laughed.”
Dzhokah sat back, letting me absorb what he had just told me. I knew the recording he was talking about, and I knew it was nothing special.
“I wanted to stay all night and listen to my friend’s rejuvenated system, but I had to leave early because I was not feeling well. It might have been the deviled eggs I consumed just before arriving at his house. But nevertheless I thought about the sound he achieved through a very modest hi-fi. It wasn’t a matter of correct set-up, since he had his speakers too close to the wall and too close together. But still it worked and was one of the most memorable systems I’ve heard.”
Dzhokah then walked over to the shelving unit and retrieved one of the small metal cases. He carefully opened the case and revealed what appeared to be a small stash of Soviet 12AX7s. They looked perfectly normal to me, although they were sourced from a fairly disreputable factory that no longer existed. I tried to remove one of them but my friend blocked my hand. “You need gloves,” he warned. “The oil from your fingertips, you know.”
I nodded and chastised myself for being so careless. “Don’t worry my friend,” he told me. “I am just being careful. These are very valuable and rare.”
Dzhokah went on to tell me that he had been thinking about his friend’s hi-fi system for at least a couple of years when he heard of a Persian engineer who had been irradiating capacitors with radioactive materials and achieving astonishing results in terms of sonic performance. But that gentleman had to abandon his project because it was very difficult continue the research, stating something about “those damned UN inspectors.”
“But I put two and two together and now I have a final finished product that I want to introduce to the world.”
Called Svecheniye, these tubes are indeed very special. Dzhokah installed the 12AX7s into one of the old, damaged amplifiers and to my amazement the amp operated perfectly. Hooked up to an old AR turntable and a pair of homemade electrostatic panels, I heard a beauty and a purity that was superior to anything I have heard in my over 60 years as a music lover. Not only could I hear each individual musician, I could almost smell what they had for dinner. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but you had to be there. I could hear my father and my uncle rolling in their graves back in my hometown and shouting out “How can this be so? It is not possible!”
Just to prove how special these valves were, Dzhokah replaced the Svecheniye tubes with some Sov-teks and the results were rather ordinary. I immediately asked him to go back to the special tubes.
My first question to my friend was the obvious one. “Are they dangerous?”
Dzhokah laughed. “No,” he explained, “we use very small amounts of radiation, similar to what you would absorb from only four or five chest x-rays over about two weeks. Very safe.”
“But what about those old engineers who are taking the valves apart? Are you worried about long-term exposure?”
“Despite some minor issues with high turnover at the factory, a problem we have not yet been able to solve, most of the assembly line consists of very highly-trained workers who take all of the necessary precautions.”
Finally, I had to ask my old friend a very intriguing question, one that had been on my mind almost from the start of the audition. “If you increase the amount of radiation in the filament, does the sound keep improving?”
“Oh Modest,” he replied. “Ever the audiophile. Yes, they do. But there’s a fine balance between an acceptable half-life and a pure, lush and romantic midrange to die for.”
A few months have passed since my meeting with Dzhokah, and I receive occasional updates on his efforts to turn Svecheniye into a commercial product. While many countries have regulations that make importing such a product difficult, some countries such as North Korea have readily embraced this new product and Dzhokah is selling these 12AX7s as quickly as he can make them.
“I have more trouble sending CD players into some of these countries. They ask, ‘why are you trying to send laser beam assemblies to our citizens?’ But when it comes to Svecheniye 12AX7s, they are very cooperative. In fact, some of these governments even help us with distribution, which helps to keep costs down.”
It might be a while before Svecheniye valves are available in the US, although I have seen them appear on Amazon.com once in a great while. If you have the opportunity to hear them, do not hesitate to do it. As for me, I have a set coming my way as I write this. I cannot wait!