Tubes or Transistors?

Yesterday was an interesting day, I dug out an old Layfayette tube stereo amplifier and had an interesting experience. It inspired me to write this little piece about stereo equipment eqiupment, tubes vs transistors.

Decisions, decisions, do I want vacuum tubes or transistors in my electronics? Okay, vacuum tubes are relatively bulky, use considerably more power than their transistor counterparts, generate heat, they are subject to mechanical failure and at times can even be 'microphonic'. But they are superior for audio eqiupment, the reason why is beyond the scope of what I'm writing here, but it has a lot to do with even and odd harmonics and the way tubes handle them and the way human ears percieve them. There is much written on the subject elsewhere. Transistors, on the other hand are a fraction of the size of tubes, use far less power, are very efficient and don't need a hot cathode filament like a vacuum tube. So, you'd think transistors win hands down, right? Think again as I recount yesterdays experience. In most situations, transistors are the preferred way to get the job done. Like tubes, they can act like a switch, amplify, rectify, and oscillate. Without transistors and their cousins, the integrated circuit, or "chip" as it's commonly called, life would not be anything like it is today, transistors and 'chips' are everywhere, from your clock radio, to televisions, and even in your car. Not to mention your computer. The first electronic computers used tubes, (eniac) and took up a whole warehouse full of space, and there's no way tube equipment could be miniturized enough for use in the space program, we could have never gone to the moon without transistors. But, there are some applications where tubes are superior, read on and I'll fill you in on yesterday.

I was wanting to put a couple of remote speakers in the living room / music room to play the mp3 files off my 'kitchen table' computer, which I have the soundcard outputted to a crappy old Lloyds receiver set up to play through equally crappy speakers. Okay, the speakers arent' really that bad, The Lloyds receiver is one of those cheapies made probably in the 70's. I got it off a curbside on 'heavy trash' day. Realizing it would not have the power / fidelity to power a second set of speakers in my "jam room" (the idea is to play along with mp3's to learn songs on guitar and drums) I dusted off my trusty old Lafayette LA-256 all tube stereo ampifier with tube complements of 12AX7 / 6BQ5 / EL84/ 7199.

A little background on this old Layfayette warhorse tube amplifier. I aquired it back in 1972 (remember the 70's?) at the ripe old age of 16, I was already heavily into building / designing tube stuff anyway, albeit mostly amatuer (ham) radio gear, shortwave recievers, transmitter, etc, and I knew the pair of 6BQ5 finals in push-pull output combination were capable of delivering a healthy (and clean) 15 watts RMS / channel. I had just bought, new, a radio shack reciever, I dont' remember the model number (STA-??) , but it cost about $120, which I paid for with hard earned lawn mowing money and working at a pizza place, back then, $120 bucks was a lot for a 16 year old kid, the average lawn mowing job paid $4.00 to 6.00 and I think my pizza job paid about $1.65 hour. Hey, this is 1972 remember, a lot of my co-workers actually made less! Candy bars were, I think still a dime. It cost $.06 to mail a postcard.

I had decent speakers (Optimus 9) but the radio shack reciever (about 7.5 watts RMS / channel) just wasnt' enough to listen to albums at 'concert level'. Yes, we had albums back then, and by the way, an album played on a high end system sounds better than a CD, (but that's another article altogether- analog vs digital) and when a friend of a friend named "raul" offered to trade me this stereo layfayette tube amplifier for my reciever, I jumped at it.

A few people thought I was an idiot for making the trade, but now, in the year 2002, I think I have the last laugh. Where ya gonna get a tube amp now, bucko? Yeah, see what tube amps are going for on ebay, I dare you. The way I looked at it then, was, hey, I'm getting twice the (RMS) power, and giving up the FM tuner, what's wrong with that? FM tuners are a dime a dozen. Well, $14.95 at Radio Shack anyway.

At any rate, this innocuous looking Layfayettte all tube stereo amp has been with me all these years, and survived through all the hard times of my tough younger years, when I moved from apartment to apartment, changed jobs / trades almost as often as I changed socks. During those years I had several more powerful (transistorized) stereo recievers that served me well, but during lean times the newer equipment inevitably found their way to the pawn shop to put food on the table and gas in the car. Had I brought this ol' Layfayette amp into a pawn shop, I'm sure they would have laughed me out the door. So throughout the years, the Layfayette tube amp usually sat neglected in a closet or under a pile of crap somewhere, but always managed to go wherever I went in all my apartment moves. Like a faithful old hound dog, it went wherever I went, and when I was down to no amps, I'd dust it off and fire it up!

I know this is a long way to go, and I'm not trying to tell you my life story, just bear with me.

Flash forward to Feb 26, 2002, and I dust off the old lafayette amp for the reasons mentioned above, i.e. I want to wire some speakers into my "music room" to play guitar / drums along with mp3's, radio, CD's. Oh, and when I say dust off, let me tell you, it was REALLY caked with dust! It's probably sat neglected at least 10 or 15 years, and it's been longer since it's been fired up. To begin with, it's missing a couple of tubes, 12AX7's, which I find some in a non working Realistic STA-30 amp also collecting dust. (This will be a great project someday, I'm sure this reciever will rock!) I temporarily hook up some junk speakers, and fiddle with the layfayette, and it doesn't seem to want to work, but I keep at it, wiggling switches, taking the tubes out, putting them back in, scrutinizing everything, and eventually it makes some clicking and popping noises and produces a hum when I plug in an RCA shielded cable to one of the inputs.

I know I'm on the right track! ! ! ! !

Now for the weird part.

I bring it downstairs and hook it up, the 'tape out' of the lloyd's receiver going to the 'tape in' of the Layfayette amp. I hooked up speakers I happen to have laying around, one of em is a panasonic cabinet with a 10" driver, a 10" passive element, and a tweeter, it's okay for what it is, but definitely not the stuff of audiophiles dreams, the other speaker is a no name something-or-another with a 8" woofer and a tweeter.

So, I put the lloyds receiver on an FM station, KLOL, and fire up the lafayette amp and let it warm up a couple of minutes. But for some reason it's not very loud, at all! This makes no sense, so I check all the connections, it makes no sense at all. I KNOW this amp's got more balls than this , so what the hell is wrong? So, I leave the controls set at full volume, it's still not very loud and go back upstairs, leaving the local FM station playing through it, it sounds good, but it's at a fraction of the volume of what it should be.

So I'm upstairs for about 6 hours, having forgotten, more or less, all about it, and the damn floor starts !@#%! shaking, and the walls are rummmbling! Hmmmmmmmm.......

IT'S ALIVE ! ! ! !

The Layfayette is REBORN!!!!!!!!!!! Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it is a totally astounding experience, the furniture in the house is vibrating, you can touch the walls and FEEL the music, it sounds TERRIFIC!

I have gone through all of the above to tell you this:

Tube amps rule, and transistors SUCK! Well, okay, the really EXPENSIVE transistor amps are okay, but still, tubes rule when it comes to audio!

I, being an ordinary mortal, have fallen victim over the years to transistor audio stuff, I totally forgot how smooth and natural tube amps sound.

It had been a long, long time, since I had heard this amp, and I was totally amazed at how good it sounded after firing it up after all these years ! It's that even / odd harmonic thing I mentioned earlier, and the way that your ears perceive them. Let's say a violin string, or a piano string is sounded, it not only produces the main, or fundamental frequency you hear, but it also creates harmonics, or multiples of that sound, the way tubes handle this is much closer to what happens in nature than the way transistors deal with it. Now, there is some circuitry wizardry that can be used with transistors to get it closer to what tubes do naturally, such as negative feedback, equalization, and specialized semiconductors such as FET's (field effect transistors) or MOSFET's (Metal Oxide Semiconducting Field Effect Transistors) which employ 'voltage-gain' (like tubes) rather than 'current-gain' like the conventional bipolar transistor. I'm not gonna get technical here, much is written about this elsewhere.

Let's just say your ears can tell the difference. And they will thank you. One of the things that struck me is how 'separate' all the instruments sounded, you can really hear everything individually. And everything sounds so perfectly proportioned.

And you notice things you may not have noticed before.

I heard the ever so slight squeek of (Pink Floyd's guitarist) Gilmore's fingertips on the guitar fretboard as he changed chords in comfortably numb. I could have sworn he was sitting 5 feet away from me in a chair with an acoustic guitar.

I never noticed it on my "good" stereo with the cerwin vega speakers.

Again, the quality of a tube amp is difficult to explain, you must experience it with your own ears, it doesn't have to be turned up to earsplitting volume, it sounds good at any volume. Smooth. Natural.

And I listened to different stations and styles of music, even stuff I don't ordinarily listen to sounded good! Pianos sound like pianos, clarinets sound like clarinets.

Being a musician, it's probably safe to say that my ears are attuned differently than the average person, and very sensitive to things that don't sound good, and lately, I've gotten no particular thrill out of listening to stuff on my 'good' stereo'. I can't say why, and it's nothing I can put my finger on.

After getting this old Lafayette tube amp cranked, it's a whole new ball game, I could listen to this 24/7.

When listening to some good rock, I could actually FEEL the bass guitar all the way through into my bones, but it's not even loud! It just sounds totally normal, like a miniature little concert going on in my house, isn't that the idea of audio eqiupment anyway? And I'm playing through some pretty ho-hum speakers, I can just imagine if I hooked up my cerwin vega's ! ! !

And to prove I'm not insane, a lady friend of mine came over, she was most impressed, We'd change stations and listen to classic rock, hard rock, even some of the 'oldies's stuff, and some jazz stations. She commented something like, "I feel like I'm in a nightclub".

And of course, the MP3's sounded great, to say it was an improvement of a thousandfold would be an understatement.

I'm just trying to pass this on to the rest of the world, the moral of the story is, if you run across a tube stereo amplifier, GRAB IT ! !

And don't ever let anyone tell you that tubes are 'obsolete'.

Keep on Rockin' in the Free World ! ! !

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