By Matt Pisarcik
Vacuum tubes are the things that guitar and bass players, vintage radio enthusiasts, and amplifier designers dream about. These seemingly simple and old ways of producing power are much imitated today by modeling amps, but nothing seems to achieve the warmth and feel that these little glowing ambers of glass can. Over the years, there have been several designers and manufacturers, and each has a different resulting product, affecting the overall tone of any amplifying circuit. For guitar players, tubes are the answer to have a fatter sound that is much more articulate than transistor based amplifiers. With so many brands to choose from, it is sometimes hard to know which tube is right for your amp, your musical interest, and you. In this brief overview, I hope that I can shed some light on the subject, and provide you with a clearer answer when it comes time to re-tube your guitar amplifier.
Regarding relabeled tubes:
One major misconception regarding current production tubes is the number of actual manufacturers. Sovtek, Golden Dragon, and Sino are responsible for relabeled brands such as Fender, Mesa Engineering, Marshall, Vox and Orange. These amplifier companies do not have the means of making their own tubes, so they purchase from a company such as Sovtek and place their own brand name on it. Many times, they will simply screen the tubes first, and remove any defective units from the batch prior to screening. This is also the case with Groove Tubes; they test and match some of the best tubes from current production, including many if not all of the manufacturers mentioned in this article and sell them to you with a new name at a higher price. The premium price you pay is so that defective and microphonic tubes are not going to cause a problem in your amplifier.
Ei tubes are made in the former Yugoslavia under the Philips license, using original Philips machinery, drawings and test procedures. Ei tubes have long been known for their exceptional low noise performance and consistent frequency response. With new product lines like the Gold Elite series, Ei has won the hearts of many Orange, Vox and other boutique amplifier owners due to their warm, bright, chimmey sound.
The only issue that has plagued this company
is reliability. It is essential that these tubes be bought from a reliable
distributor that tests them thoroughly. Still, the strongest suit for this
company is clear, detailed tone tailored for clean to moderate gain
the guitar world for revolutionary analog pedal designs in large sheet
metal cases, Electro-Harmonix has been making many things guitar related,
including vacuum tubes for more than 30 years. Based out of Russia, EH
prides themselves as providing reliable, well tested and matched tubes for
all industries of vacuum tube application.
typical characteristics of EH tubes are definitely high gain, mid-range
friendly tone- a favorite of Marshall and Mesa Boogie users. Though not as
neutral as the JJ’s, these tubes still provide excellent bass response,
and are attributed with clear highs even with lots of gain. Electro-Harmonix
will always be a great choice for those soulful rockers who desire great
warm analog sound.
under the name Tesla, JJ tubes are manufactured in former
Czechoslovakia in the same production facilities that have been used for
decades. These tubes are used heavily by Mesa Boogie and Groove Tubes for
their product lines, proving to be a reliable, dependable vacuum tube
coming in a wide range of designs.
These tubes are generally considered to be
pretty neutral in the gain department for most amplifiers- neither adding
nor taking away from the natural voice. They are characterized by having
tight, responsive bass, punchy mid range, and detailed highs. These tubes
are great in both clean and moderate gain amps, but are especially a
favorite of Marshall, Fender, Vox and Orange amplifiers.
manufactured in the Shuguang factory in China, Sino Chinese tubes have
seen vast improvements over what was available just a few years ago.
valves tend to be fitted by many lower end amp manufactures. On the plus
side the valves have good gain and low microphonics, which suites tube
amps. The drawback is its complete lack of tone. The treble can be fizzy
and the bass response is a hazy distortion. The resulting tone is like a
blanket being placed in front of the amp. The valves also tend to sound
harsh and brittle after minimal use.
product of Eastern Europe, Sovtek has been around for generations, proving
to be a reliable, well-used vacuum tube by many amplifier makers.
Companies such as Sunn, Ampeg, Mesa Boogie and Peavey have relied upon
these tubes for sound quality and affordable prices.
low to medium gain amps, the Russian Sovtek tubes can be very similar to
the EH in many ways, in fact they are both owned by the same parent
company New Sensor. These tubes, however, tend to have a more pronounced
bass and treble; the result is a less punchy, more balanced and full
sound. Also, slightly lower
levels of microphonics can be attributed to these tubes, depending on
varied designs and series.
Winged "C" tubes are made by SED SPb, a division of J.S.C. Svetlana
in St. Petersburg, Russia. SED tubes are well known for their quality and
superb tonal characteristics. The new logo incorporates the Russian
factory symbol that appears on all SED-made tubes; all current production
SED tubes and packaging will have the "Winged C" logo. Marshall
and other U.K amplifiers use them widely for their stock tubes.
tubes are best known for their deep responsive bass and smooth top end
response as well as a rich distorted tone. Winged C is regarded as some of
the best-tested and built tubes in the industry, using thicker glass, and
internal bracing- reducing microphonics. These have become a standard for
Marshall El34 amplifiers, as well as a favorite for Vox, Matchless,
Orange, and other El84 users. Having a larger sound stage than the
Sovtek’s, the Winged C vacuum tubes are very punchy and forward
sounding. These tubes are a very good choice for the traditional British
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