by Darryl Lindberg
One thing’s certain: as tubes age, their performance declines. How do you know if your glassware is in decline? As far as I can tell there are two indications of this phenomenon: an abrupt termination of operation or a gradual realization that “something’s missing.” In the case of output tubes, an abrupt termination may be manifested by a brilliant flash as an output tube (or tubes) goes supernova. Depending on your equipment’s protective measures, such an event can be rectified by simply replacing the tube and inserting a new fuse. If your gear’s protective circuitry is less than robust, you could be looking at a glowing heap of ash that used to be most of the amp’s circuits and a substantial repair bill. In the case of a truly cosmic burst, backyard burial is probably the best answer.
But let’s not dwell on such morbid thoughts and turn our attention to tubes that are quietly moving toward the end of their useful lives. The performance decline in this situation is likely to be relatively imperceptible. But eventually, you find that the qualities that attracted you to that tube-a-saurus on your equipment rack are mysteriously missing from playback and/or you may find you’re hearing noise—or more noise. Rather than assume that it’s time to trot down to your local hi-fi emporium to negotiate a system “update,” it’s almost always more cost-effective—and possibly more satisfying—to simply replace the old tubes.
I know a lot of folks who consider the fact that tubes need occasional replacement a sufficient inconvenience to avoid the technology. While that’s certainly a valid reason to embrace solid state, tube technology still has virtues that solid state doesn’t have—and may never have. And, when you think of it, rather than an inconvenience, one of the positive attributes of the ancient valve technology is that the user can easily effect an update that can rejuvenate lackluster performance without the hassle and expense of a wholesale equipment change. Just try to replace the output—or input—transistors in your silicon-based amp! And the tube renaissance of past couple of decades has made it a snap to find reliable, sonically satisfying replacements for your gear; in fact, there’s a broad choice of brands for all but the most obscure tube types.
These ruminations lead me to my own saga of tube aging and replacement. In my case, the original Electro-Harmonix 6CA7 output tubes installed in my Jadis JA200s were clearly nearing the end of their useful lives. How did I reach that stupendous conclusion? Well, the normally silent amps began to emit soft ticks, pfffts, and buzzing on start-up and shut down; not startling blats or thunderous roars, or the popping of an output tube’s fuse, but sounds sufficiently unusual to attraction my attention. Although I’m oblivious to many things and fairly indolent, odd sounds from my system immediately attract my attention. In addition, I keep a rough track of operational hours on a spreadsheet (yes, a mildly obsessive activity) and I reckoned that the 2500+ hours clocked on the EH 6CA7s corresponded with the apparent wheezing senility I was hearing. So, the indicated course of action was to replace the output tubes, sooner rather than later. Why sooner? Even though each of the JA200’s output tubes is protected by a fuse, it stood to reason that having a complete set of well-worn, but still operational output tubes would be preferable to piecemeal replacement if a tube or tubes bit the dust. The JA200s sport twenty of the glass buggers (ten per mono side) and, since matched pairs are specified, this complete mature, matched set could come in handy in the future.
Once I decided to re-tube, I then had to decide whether I wanted to simply replace the old EH 6CA7s, which were sonically excellent, totally reliable, and cost-effective to boot, or try something that may further refine the sound of the already excellent JA200s—and probably wouldn’t be especially cost-effective. I’d heard good things about the Chinese Psvane glass, particularly the 6CA7s, so I got in touch with Rachel Zhang at Grant Fidelity, Psvane’s distributor. Rachel and I exchanged a few e-mails and she suggested that the relatively new Psvane EL34PHs might be a better choice for my amps. Although I was virtually certain that EL34s are direct replacements for 6CA7s, I wanted to make sure I didn’t make a dopey and avoidable, possibly catastrophic mistake, so I shot off a quick note to the folks at Jadis asking about the substitution. Better to ask an obvious question and be thought incredibly thick than to remain silent and suffer the consequences. A cordial response came promptly the next day: EL 34s are hunky-dory, as are 6550s, KT88s, KT90s, and KT120s. Wow! Quite a wide variety of choices, but for another time; I decided to order five matched Psvane EL34PH quads to get this show underway.
Another reason why I decided to change to the Psvane EL34PHs is that the Acapella Apollons, my relatively new speakers (see my introduction of them, here), are significantly more efficient than the Avalon Eidolons they replaced. When I ordered the amps, Jadis felt that the 6CA7s would provide a bit of extra grunt for the Eidolons, which weren’t exactly paradigms of efficiency, being rated at 87 dB (4 ohms). With the advent of the flamboyantly sensitive Apollons (~99 dB @8 ohms), I deemed the “grunt-ation” factor irrelevant.
And now a little background on the Psvane EL34PH . . . The idea of the EL34PH is to replicate, to the extent possible, the original Philips (Holland, metal base) EL34 pentode. So why would Psvane want to replicate the Philips EL34? One reason is that this tube is considered by many to be the most musical—and most desirable—EL34 ever created, which is saying a great deal, since EL34s are generally considered one of the most musical output tubes available. Another reason is that the production of the Philips metal base EL34s only ran from 1955-1958 (as near as I can determine), ergo robust surviving examples extremely rare and—you guessed it—expensive. How expensive? A quick internet search revealed that I can secure a metal base Philips EL 34 for somewhere between $300 (used) and $600 NOS (“new old stock”). Notice I said, “a metal base Philips EL 34”; that is the price per tube. When you consider that the JA200s require twenty of the little devils (in matched pairs, remember), we’re talking about an outlay of from $6-$12K, assuming ten matched pairs are even available. Zounds! You can understand why Psvane would be interested in producing a new, easily acquired and sanely priced facsimile of this rara avis and why it would likely be welcomed by audiophiles as well as musicians, who also covet these valves.
You might well ask if I would have considered vintage or “new old stock” (NOS) tubes if the prices were more attractive. My answer is no, in that I’m generally skeptical of vintage and NOS bottles. In the case of vintage tubes, you can never be certain how many hours are on them—and as I said at the beginning of this piece, all tubes have a limited lifespan. My concern with NOS tubes is that, in addition to the fact they’re not only rare to extremely rare (depending on the tube type) and getting rarer and costlier, unscrupulous types have been known to relabel/repackage as new old stock clearly used and/or inferior tubes. I know many people feel that NOS tubes have virtues that newly manufactured tubes just don’t possess and I don’t want to impugn those reputable dealers who scour the earth searching out these babies (or their customers); however, the risk/reward equation is tilted too much to the risk side for my taste.
And another thing . . . As I’m sure you’re aware, our hobby can generate some serious obsessions—or neuroses, depending on your point of view. And the ability to swap out tubes has created a faction of valve enthusiasts known as tube rollers. Just as there are vinyl hounds who adjust VTA for each LP (even each cut), there are folks who will swap out glass at the drop of a hat in order to find that special combination of valves that will be the key to sonic nirvana. To all these folks I say: more power to you! For myself, however, I consider tube rolling, constant VTA tweaks, et al., activities that impinge on my primary objective, the reason that I spent so much time, effort, and moolah: listening to music. Mind you, I’m all for careful setup and I spend a good deal of time optimizing my system, but only when it’s needed—no less and no more. The fact is that changing tubes requires time: warm up, cool down, warm up during which my system isn’t performing its appointed task. The oft-repeated adage is that life’s too short—and at my age, I can literally see the truth of that phrase!
Listening to the Psvane EL34PH
The precisely marked matched quads made it a snap to ensure that each tube pair made it to the proper location in the JA200s; even I couldn’t screw it up. As is my usual practice, I ran in the Psvane tubes for a bit over eight hours in “standby” before I flicked the high voltage switch to “operate” (engage the warp engines!). Once fired up, it was clear from the outset that the Psvane EL34PHs produced a more three dimensional/full-bodied, more colorful, and more “organic” or natural sound than the 6CA7s, which I always found powerful and, for lack of a better word, incisive. And by “more colorful,” I’m not talking about surreal, over-saturated technicolor sonics; it’s just more lifelike. I certainly didn’t detect any attenuation at the frequency extremes, supposedly an EL34 downside: the lows were still powerful and well-defined and the highs were extended and sweet.
These results are not too surprising, given that the Apollons are an easy load, which should minimize any frequency response irregularities generated by extremely low impedance and nasty phase angles—at least that’s my guess. Remember too that I’m comparing different types of tubes (6CA7 versus EL34), one set of which is approaching superannuation and the other brand new. Then there’s the difference in cost: an EH 6CA7 runs about $22, while the Psvane EL34PH sucks the smackers out of your wallet at the rate of about $87 a shot. Given all that, I’d hope that I’d hear an improvement!
To get down to some specifics . . . The “wider/deeper” EL34PH theme was underscored when I put on Haydn’s magnificent Heligmesse (Argo ZRG 542, oval label), featuring George Guest conducting The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge, with soloists April Cantelo, Shirley Minty, Ian Partridge, and Christopher Keyte. Although I’m not a religious guy (a very lapsed Catholic), I enjoy a wide variety of religious music precisely because its sole purpose is to glorify and connect us with something that’s transcendent, whatever that may or may not be —and other than ourselves. And Haydn, who was, from all indications, a fairly devout Catholic, wrote masses that pushed the envelope. This mass is one of his greatest, combining reverence with the tunefulness and humility that’s ever-present in Haydn’s oeuvre. That’s just the music; the recording is magnificent, as so many in the Argo catalog are. The spatial characteristics and atmosphere of the venue (it sounds like a church) are abundantly evident, with the soloists, choir, and large orchestra all in natural perspective. I’ve been told that EL34s have a reputation for being a tad euphonic; in other words, more musical than accurate. Well, all I can say is that if this is euphony, bring it on!
I’m always on the lookout for unfamiliar music, which explains my recent purchase of a disc of Jacques Aubert’s violin concertos (French Decca SXL 20.118). Aubert was a violin whiz and a contemporary of the more famous French composer, Rameau. I first played this disc when the 6CA7s ruled the Jadis roost and found it an ear bleeder: very tipped-up balance-wise, even though the recording was spatially accurate. The engineer isn’t listed and rightfully so, as he or she was probably run out of town on a rail—or flailed. Remember I said that the 6CA7s were “incisive?” Frankly, despite the charming music I found this disc almost—almost, mind you—unlistenable. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the music, so I thought I’d give this semi-turkey a spin with the EL34PHs on output duty. Guess what? Just as you can’t make caviar out of rabbit turds, new output tubes won’t make a shaded dog out of a mutt. But the EL34PHs more generous (less incisive?) nature allowed me to enjoy this disc and engage in its charming music in ways I just couldn’t via the 6CA7s.
It’s always been a mystery to me why some spectacularly recorded discs are feverously sought out by those of our species, while other, equally spectacularly recorded discs, remain obscure. Is it the program material? Rarity/collectability? Or is it just that we’re lemmings and follow the “advice” of putative audio gurus so we can listen to what’s spinning on their typically loaner-based systems? Although I would hope that the musical content of these sought-after sonic wunder-discs is at least partially responsible for their audiophile “lust factor,” I’m sad to say that, in many cases, musical content seems to be a distant second—if that—to sonic pulchritude. I mean, really: what else could account for an LP as fatuous as the Sheffield Track Record? Or the audiophile community’s almost creepy obsession with “female vocals.” That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of excellent recordings of interesting and worthy program material that are highly regarded by audiophiles, it’s just that the field seems to be limited by a sort of “sainted audiophile guru approval factor.”
Okay, back to the well-recorded, enjoyable, and ignored. A case in point is John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra’s recording of Elgar’s Symphony #2 (EMI ASD 610 and 611; dog-in-semi-circle label): here’s a recording that combines a stunning performance of mainstream, accessible late-romantic music with blockbuster sonics. The music’s nostalgic, but still relevant: it’s music that reminds me why I listen and what’s really important. I’ve played these discs many times with the 6CA7s and loved every minute of it. The new EL34PHs convey even more information, even more “there-ness” to what’s already an outstanding recording of Elgar’s second essay in the symphonic form. Of course, this Elgar second is spread over two-and-a-half sides of two discs. This fact alone is certainly a factor in the sound; after all, my other Elgar seconds are all single discs. The other factors that contribute to the excellent sound are the engineering work of Christopher Parker (uncredited on the jacket) and the justly famous Kingsway Hall recording location.
Now I don’t want you to think that I’m immune to audio-lemming-ism, so let me trot out a real audiophile chestnut: Mercury’s recording of Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra’s 1957 recording of Respighi’s The Birds and Brazilian Impressions (SR 90153, FR 1/1). It’s an LP of legendary status and surely well-deserved, as both the performance and the sonics are impeccable. Respighi’s music is delightful and ready-made for the attention to detail lavished by Mercury’s engineering team. The sound is upfront and you’re positioned close to the orchestra, but there’s still width, depth, and no sacrifice of either end of the frequency spectrum. The EL34PHs took the presentation up a notch versus the 6CA7s, creating a sonic image more palpable and with more presence that, if not literally “living” (as in Living Presence), as close to “living” as an assortment of electronic paraphernalia has been able to approximate in my room.
Another audiophile barnburner that the EL 34PHs really dug into was the Chesky reissue of The Power of Orchestra (RC 30; original: RCA VCS 2659), featuring René Leibowitz leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra through a pair of Mussorgsky crowd-pleasers: A Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. After the more upfront Mercury sound of the Respighi, we have Kenneth Wilkinson’s slightly more distant sonic perspective. This disc was intended from the get-go to be a sonic dazzler and it’s never disappointed. I thought the I’d heard the maximum width and depth from this record before, but the new tubes really increased the dimensionality of this already outstanding disc beyond my expectations. And it wasn’t just the raucous, hair-raising passages (of which there are plenty); the plaintive saxophone solo in the Il Vecchio Castello movement of Pictures was more meltingly realistic—and realistically placed in the orchestra—than was the 6CA7 presentation.
As I’m sure you’ve already surmised, this piece isn’t a review in the normal sense; rather, it’s a report on the impact of re-tubing my JA200s with the Psvane EL34PHs. Therefore, what I’m hearing is the effect of new tubes versus those that have “bottle age,” as the oenophiles say. Moreover, even though the new tubes are EL34s and direct electrical replacements for the original 6CA7s, the EL34s are structurally different (check out the photos) and the EL34PHs are replicas of a specific type of EL34, all of which I assume at least partially accounts for the audible differences I heard. And that means that I’m not only hearing fresh tubes, I’m hearing the EL34 signature and whatever the Philips replication process brings to the party.
So, do I chalk up what I’ve heard to the sonic differences between the 6CA7 and the EL34PH as due to: A) internal construction, B) well-used versus new, C) some combination of tube construction and age, D) my vivid imagination, or E) a harbinger of an impending zombie apocalypse? I’m leaning to attributing most of the JA200/EL34PH sound to the structural differences between the 6CA7 and the Psvane EL34PH tubes, even though they’re electrically equivalent. The remainder of the difference I attribute to a soupçon of “maturity” of the old 6CA7s and the Philips replication versus the construction of an ordinary, run-of-the-mill EL34 (a guess, since I haven’t tried the standard EL34).
Of course, it’s impossible to be definitive unless I’m in the mood to remove the twenty Psvane EL34PHs, stuff the 6CA7s back in, take the 6CA7s out, and put the EL34Phs back in, etc. until I’m able to determine (or imagine) what’s exactly responsible for what I’m hearing—or just go barking mad. Guess what? I’m leaving the Psvane EL34PHs right where they are, where they’ll give me the most enjoyment and where the money I spent can be put to its intended purpose. It’s the part-time aspect that’s one of the benefits of writing for Part-Time Audiophile!
Current price: $349/matched quad
- Pre-amp: Jadis JP200 MC
- Amplifiers: Jadis JA200
- Turntables: Rockport II Sirius LE, VPI HW-19 Mk.IV (various upgrades)
- Arms: Rockport (integrated with turntable), SME V
- Cartridges: Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, Allaerts MC-1B Mk.II, Ikeda 9CIII
- CD Transport: Mark Levinson 31.5
- Digital Processor: Mark Levinson 30.6
- Speakers: Acapella Apollon
- Speaker cables: Acapella Lamusika Reference Mk.2 bi-wire
- Interconnects (all single ended):
- Preamp-cables: Purist Audio 25th Anniversary Luminist
- Turntable-preamp: Custom, one-off MIT, Nordost Odin (Rockport); Kimber KC-TG (VPI)
- DAC-Preamp: Acoustic Zen Silver Reference
- Power Cords: Jena Laboratories Two
- Equipment rack: Gingko Platforma (Cloud 10 platforms for preamps)
- Amp stands: Target