Articles for Audiophiles by Steve Deckert
AUDIO PAPER #009
by Steve Deckert
Sometimes I have to wonder if aliens (out there) aren’t entertaining themselves at my expense! I don’t mean with occasional incidents but rather with an on going theme. Perhaps a better word for it would be “lesson”.
I almost wish audio was in a world where there were no such things as labels, name brands or trade rags. From an audio perspective these things have just gotten in the way and caused me years and years and years of delay in reaching the holy grail of audio playback systems.
Perhaps in “their” world, this is the case. Perhaps that theme of paradoxical events that happen around here (almost monthly for reasons I can’t figure out) are why I have found the grail where so many others haven’t yet. Nevertheless it never ceases to amaze me.
Tonight has been no exception, as the little prankster’s (aliens) have been at it again. Their favorite joke is to make the underdog ALWAYS sound better and then watch you try to figure out why that is. This is in fact the running theme behind most Zen designs around here, and is what distinguishes them from a regular one (I do both kinds).
Let me explain what got me befuddled again with an excellent example by just telling you how the evening went. Oh I’m SURE this has never happened to you... (smile) but then come to think of it maybe it never has! You know since audio playback systems require components, there is a certain amount of material acquisition required. That ongoing measurement of ones possessions as referenced against another’s with money being the mark of distinction.
That system of distinction is a dangerous path where audio grail hunting is concerned. It seems to offer short cuts to the land of OZ but actually stops just before you get there. Of course I’m talking about audio gear and the assumed safe statement that if something costs 10 times as much it will sound at least twice as good!
I have been going round and round lately with tubes for my new Zen amp. Which tubes are the best sounding? It started out a simple enough problem, just buy a few of all the popular brands and see right? Pleeease...!
Why can’t anything ever be simple? My range of available tubes discounting the Chinese ones, started at the low end with Sovteks and ended with the best being NOS Sylvania Military grade. The difference in price being around 500%. In the middle of my selection is a wide variety of British and American tubes.
For marketing reasons I wanted to at least try the Sovteks and see how they compared, so I bought their best grade of select tube and gave it a go. I listened to it for a couple days and one night when I installed a 30 year old pair of British Made pull-outs with low mileage all the grain went away! ...That’s about right.
Towards the end of this tube discovery process, I ended up getting my hands on a pair of N.O.S. SYLVANIA milspec tubes. They even looked serious! The plates are almost black and the bulbs are seamless. They became my little pets for about a week. Indeed they sounded good until I was able to admit to myself they really kinda sounded bad!
Needing even MORE tubes, I ordered some more Sovteks, but this time their bottom of the line 6BQ5, not the M’s not the Select Grade, just the 3.50 ea. in matched sets. Well just for kicks when they came in I popped them in my Zen amp in place of my little pets, and I’ll be damn if they didn’t sound better! .... about right... he shakes his head.
After comparing the three types of Sovtek 6BQ5’s I have to say the worst ones sound the best and the best ones sound the worse. The cheap one is grainless and quiet. The M and Select are more aggressive on top with more grain.. at least in the amps I've tried them in. Warning this text is seeded with a subtle moral.
Tonight, I thought I would listen to our Golden Tube SE40 (first model) 40x40 single ended pentode since I pretty much abandoned it after completion of the Zen amp project. After about 10 minutes I remembered all the reasons I abandoned it, and reminisced about how good it used to sound, and how well it compared with high dollar amps. To read reviews on it alone is a paradox about underdogs wining the fidelity wars.
The sound of the SE40 didn't change, it sounds just the same as always, but now after listening to this inferior looking Zen amp 2x2 watts single ended triode my reference has changed. The Golden Tube SE40 now seems cold, thin, grainy, unfocussed, and this is what really surprises me,.. slow! It shouldn’t be possible for a 5 watt 500 dollar amp to walk all over an 80 watt 1000 dollar amp that walks all over several popular 2500 dollar amps, but it does. That’s Zen.
After hitting pause, and returning the Golden Tube to its shelf I got a Zen amp out and prepared to listen to it. I grabbed what I was still thinking was my favorite tubes, the Sylvanias, my pets, and popped them in. While I was down there I discovered something that should be impossible. The tubes were microphonic! I could tap them with my finger nail, and hear the corresponding speaker ring like a crystal wine glass!
Can you see the head trip? Prior to this little chuckle, the aliens made my stock DENON 2560 that I was using as a transport sound better than the DA converter, and last week made a tweaked pair of audax 40 watt paper cone speakers sound WAY better than a tweaked pair of Dynaudio’s best woofers.
I won’t even get into the studio downstairs, my drum kit, or our band equipment in general, but I can assure you the phenomenon is alive and well down there too.
And if there really aren’t aliens watching me, I can safely say I have been providing an almost daily source of good free entertainment at my expense for their mental enlightenment and it's a shame their missing it.