Quest for perfection (or something like)

“… but the highs are missing a little bit of sparkle.”
That is an actual quote from an owner’s evaluation of Tung Sol 6550 tubes posted on Upscale Audio’s website. But not to worry, as the writer continues “However the balance is perfect for my system. ”

I mention this because it made me realize how accustomed we can become to that little bit of sparkle, not because it is in the music, but because it’s kind of an exciting addition to the natural sound. We get used to that and miss it when it’s gone.

In case you wonder why I was reading about 6550 tubes (probably not) it’s because I have decided to have my Harman Kardon Citation II tube amp refurbished and was thinking of “tube rolling”. I finally decided on the refurb because the arrival of the Triton One speakers started a chain of events. When people came over to listen they brought their own music and their own idea of good sound. I discovered that I am more willing to put up with a softer less accurate sound than others, all for the sake of blurring the defects of less-than-optimal recordings, so I found myself obliging more discriminating tastes by switching to more accurate amps.

Of course I have known for years that audio systems are imperfect and that we end up choosing the colorations that fit our tastes, but having changed amps for critical listening several times I became more aware of the colorations and in consequence have become less certain about what I really want, or whether there is an amp that will please more people. I consequence I have begun my own amplifier shootout. To wit: Given the very positive reaction to the Bel Canto REF150S amp I have ordered another pair of Bel Canto REF500 monoblocks, I have begun to do tube rolling with the Vincent Audio SV237 integrated amp (finding through the generosity of friend Byron F. that changing only one tube from a “China” brand to a Mullard made a substantial improvement), and decided to refurbish the HK. Also Keith Herron (Herron Audio) has said he will come by sometime to hear the Triton Ones and let me hear his excellent electronics. And I am awaiting the latest amp from Musical Design, so new that only one has been made and sold so I am waiting for the next one. John Hillig is busy but he made a (sort of) promise that it would be ready in late September.

An Invitation to an ongoing shootout
One goal is to discover which sound is my favorite; but since I have found that my customers often prefer another it’s important to find amps that cover the range of tastes. For those willing to listen to some music and share your opinions I will be conducting listening sessions. If you want to participate, please let me know by phone or email.

Then and Now

Then – Tube vs. Transistor

There was a time when tube sound vs transistor sound was usually a clear choice. Typically tubes were warmer, softer, sweeter; transistors were more dynamic, better controlled and brighter. In those early days the makers of each style had little choice – tubes and transistors seemed to have inherently different sound.

As I read the literature it seems that designers now have more choice in achieving the sound the want. The best examples of each style are converging toward an accurate sound with some of the pleasantness of tubes. At higher prices brands like Pass Labs and Herron Audio are said to have these qualities in solid state designs. At lower price points brands like Vincent Audio, Musical Design, and Rogue Audio use hybrid designs (amps with tubes in the early gain stages) and solid state in the later and output stages to achieve the synthesis sound.

Now – Euphonic vs. Accurate
Even though using euphonic and accurate as contrasting adjectives is common, it just seems wrong. Shouldn’t having a sounding pleasing sound and being true to the source be the same? Visitors have pointed out that my preference for the euphonic tends to make me choose less accurate amps. When the system uses the more accurate amps I do hear the difference,someimes appreciating the accuracy, but sometimes missing the sweet colorations. its hard for me to pin down because differences in program material change my prefernce.

This is not a unique conundrum, but I am lucky in being able to experiment with a few examples of each style. I hope that I can find my “perfect” amp in a price range I am willing to entertain.

The problem of Outliers
I realize that this is a wandering narrative, but the lack of clear distinctions is greater than I have described. The HK Citation II tube amp is said to have a highly defined sound, though I won’t be able to judge that statement till mine comes back. The one kind of amp I have longed to hear is the low power SET. These are legendary for a seductive sound that makes listeners stop caring about accuracy.

Like the person quoted at the beginning of the newsletter I hope to find a sound that is “missing a bit of —–” but is “perfect for my system”. Maybe that dream goal won’t be realized but the process of listening to a lot of music through a few good amps should be a bearable burden.

Happy listening,


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