|What in hell is Vincent Price doing in a Bond flick?
Ah the dark, silken, foreboding time of dreams. Time of Tungsol; the Tungsol Black Glass 12AU7 to be precise. Now I know there's this maxim in audio that things sound like their color or at least, that we color things psychologically to sound like it i.e. Conrad Johnson gear sounding 'golden' and all that but in this case, swear to Freud, it's true. The Tungsol black glass is one coyly mysterious covert operator of a tube. For starters, the glass is black - much of it anyway. This, ironically, makes him stand out among his clear brethren. Not his intention to be sure and shortly after he fast-ropes his noir little butt into his rightful socket, he becomes even more conspicuous. His tonal palette was immediately richer, as if some sonic architect during his construction painted the midbass with broad, bold strokes and then said, "we build here". The tone of our covert operator is indeed built on the mid-bass, the power region of the music in my opinion, and the reason why classic amps like Naim's Nait 2 get so many things right. They too seem forged atop a powerful midbass. (Damn it. Sorry, there goes the used market price again. What's it now, like a grand for one of these cute li'l suckers? Stupid reviewers.) But Mr. Price isn't all darkness. While he does tend to homogenize image outlines somewhat, and while transients and symbols seem a tad less splashy, that midbass lends a nice rich aura to the proceedings and the low bass ain't bad either. Surprisingly, the music doesn't come through with excess torpor, just a nice languidness; not slow, just a bit languid. Okay, for me it was perhaps too much of a good thing. But you Vincent Price fans are gonna wanna buy a ticket.
"I knew the dread of the bushy plain
Or so it was billed to me. Not by Wallace Stevens but Bill O'Connell, our Eastern Electric friend. For in this first bunch of tubes sent me by he (okay, sent to me by him - but I was trying not to lose the poesy) lurked - Underdog. A sleeper tube he called it. Perhaps it cowered for years in the corners of shops while its bolder brethren were carried off anear and afar by tube-hunters all the while praying quietly "pass me by, pass me by". And that, my friends, is how I imagine you get to be a sleeper tube. You are free to believe as you will, naturally (or to disregard the matter entirely as unimportant) - this is the Internet. Anyahoo, stumbling sleepily out of the gloom and night of the Tungsol, I fumblingly slipped Underdog into the socket, all the while feeling a titillation known only to those who are about to know something few do - how the Sylvania 5814A sounds in the amplification socket of a Minimax. I immediately noted a perceptible slowing of the pace, not overwhelmingly so but enough to make the entire Naim audio forum a bit jittery, I'd say. I eventually decided that the tube wasn't so much slowing things down as it was taking its own sweet time to show you all it had on offer. To this end, it showed itself to have not quite the expressiveness of Goldfinger but a more even tonality allied to a solid and accurate bass, perhaps more tight and accurate that Square Better Wire or for that matter, any of the above suspects. It went on to major in vocal presence (beautiful) and projection of instruments individually and in concert. My notes further state that our sleeper is "Not dark, maybe a slower, slightly more well projected version of James Bond [square better wire], tho not quite as intimate and without that frisson of sultriness." How's that for splitting hairs? See, that's what Norah Jones'll do for ya. Let you split hairs without ruining good music. Works like a charm. In sum and seriousness, a great tube with terrific tonality and presence.
|Stop the presses! Mr. Bill O'Connell just sent me another batch of characters for scrutiny. Now how in heck did he know I was doing a Norah Jones-fueled tube rollin' review session? (Maybe coz I called and told him I was and to send me more tubes for the sake of it. He did and now I get to listen to Norah some morah - awesome.) Without further adieu then, our njoe tjoebs/characters are, in no particular order (okay, in some particular order, subconsciously wrought):
The Tungsol 802S - Unobtainium Heard
There have been/are many tenors. And there is Jussi Bjorling. Those of you who know opera know this. Those of you who do not may come to know this someday. You will then email me and thank me for the possibility of knowing this. You're welcome. To wit, I've always been fascinated by the extreme; the best of the best; the something of the other thing, what have you. Jussi Bjorling was that voice and in some people's opinion, the Telefunken 802S is that tube. The Swedish Caruso, the
|big Kahuna, the top dog, the head honcho, numero uno splendido, capo di tutti capi (Srajan, damn it, please stop me. Edit, for Chrissakes, edit!) Ahem. You get the picture. Bill wrote me that Jussi fetches a "king's ransom" when he comes up for sale, which apparently, is not often. (The tube, not the singer. This ain't no Michael Jackson buying a bag of bones situation. Disgraceful) In other word, he is all but unobtainium. Moving on, has Jussi still got those inimitable pipes? I mean, after all, he's been gone about 44 years now. Well, he pipes in with a warmish tone and not quite legendary definition. Nor is he as expressive quite as Goldfinger though I feel he certainly makes this up in the airiness department. Vocals are airy and sweet and the music on the whole has good pace and rhythm. This really is a very musical tjoeb but there isn't necessarily anything really special to write your uncle about.
And so it is I make one of a few major discoveries in this survey: That buying a really rare and expensive tube in no way guarantees you a rare and expensive sound. Not that this legendary Telefunken isn't good or even great in a given system - just that other tubes here are as good and as unique sonically while being presumably much easier to obtain. This is a great thing! I'm telling you that as I moved along through my multitudinous/pulchritudinous cast of characters, I became by turns struck with the notion that much like wires, expensive ain't necessarily better - just different. This is prosodic Prozac for those of you in leather jackets, bullwhip at the ready, questing Indy-style for the one true tube. For when the evil Nazi man burns his palm with the amulet and the light falls on the right place etc., you may just find yourself thinking "I dunno if braving all these snakes is such a hot idea. I mean, I can get a pretty good thermo cup at Starbucks/Target. Who needs some 2000-year old used one?" Might be nice to have on the mantle though?
|Egads! Alert the SAS, Goldfinger has a twin!
And him shall be called the Mullard 10 M Goldpin. No doubt not what you or I woulda named a child but he ain't ours. So as not to confuse him with that other gold-pronged tjoeb, we'll call him -- oh, I don't know -- Goldmember. I was immediately struck by the beautifully even tonality of Mr. Member, a tonality close to Mr. Bond but without the subtle dash of sultriness double oh 12AU7 had to offer (he is Bond, you know). Nonetheless, Goldmember was a tour de force of tonal evenness and involvement. Again, by comparison to Mr. Bond (as you may have guessed, a very capable and alluring tjoeb that remained in my good graces throughout these sessions and in spite of Norah Jones), Goldmember was not as fast but he had what I felt to be greater separation and a marvelous way with voices. Bill wrote me "this is one great tube!" As doctors everywhere are taught to say (cue chin stroking), I concur.
Attendant Yun! Quick, answer me! Answer me! The mouse eats food from the cat's bowl, but the cat's bowl is empty! Answer! No hesitation!
You stare down the Zen master. He looks at you fiercely. An hour passes. Your knees ache. No one breaks wind. Then it hits you! "The Amperex 12AU7 D-Getter, 1959 vintage" you reply, casually, as if you always knew. You did. The answer was inside of you all along. You bow. He bows. Well, first he slaps you. You are now "the man with nothing to do - free". Free that is, to listen to your Amperex D-Getter 12AU7 1959 vintage because it most closely approximates "The Tube of No Tube". This may be the Zen master of our tjoebs here. "Big, spacious and neutral" were the first pebbles that spewed forth from my stream of consciousness on encountering our hero, Mrs. Jones, through Dae Soen Sa Nim Amperex (Great Honorable Zen Master, a Korean honorific title used when referring to a particularly respected Zen master.) The sound poured forth easily without hindrance and that's when it hit me that I was listening to no tube. It also hit me that this is not your tube if you like toobiness per se. No pipe and slippers here. In truth, I thought it reminded me a bit of the stock tubes so I put the Richard Petty stocker back in to check my mind. The Dharma combat began and darned if Petty didn't have a similarly neutral character though I found him a bit more forward and 'glassy'. (Imagine! Richard Petty in Dharma combat with a Zen Master. Only in tjoeb land!)
|This shows to go you that the stockers are indeed well chosen and an excellent choice for all-around listening but I got the feeling that the Amperex is what these little monks would aspire to be were they allowed aspirations in the monastery. You know what the Heart Sutra says, "No attainment with nothing to attain." Believe it. Or don't. All in all, a supremely even and neutral tjoeb. Hai!
|...and a hearty Hi Ho Silver! Away!!
Bill billed the Siemens and Halske Silver Plate as one neutral hombre, writing me that this tube was "the neutral of neutrality". Now that's neutral. No two ways about it. All I can say after listening to the Lone Ranger here (well, his trusty steed anyway), is that if this is how my Art Audio Diavolo really sounds, then shuck my shoes an' call me cornpone cuz I'm alovin' it, pardner! The silver bullet had a big sound, a bit relaxed and a bit muscular in the bass. It reminded me muchly of the beautiful tone of the Amperex except with a tad more punch. It is an involving and expressive sound, nuanced and dynamic. This was one of my absolute favorites of the bunch. It also reminded me that you gotta be careful 'bout what you call neutral - but y'all knew that already, huh? In this vein, huddle in here men (and you too, yeah, you in the black Metallica tee! The one woman somewhere in Cleveland reading this!) C'mon in...
Let's break for a second. In a survey like this, it's damnably difficult to put your foot down/draw your line in the sand and say "Here. Here is neutral. All you fat tubes to the right and thin ones to the left." In fact, to some extent, perhaps even a large one, my call on a
|particular tube was influenced by the one I listened to just prior to it. If the prior tube was thin, for example, and the one following was even mildly tooby, than it'd probably get slammed as really over-the-top tooby, more so than if the prior tube was of a neutral character. To prevent this sort of thing or at least mitigate it, I listened to tubes during downtime (an off day when I wasn't writing this review, let's say), in a more or less random fashion with other music (Norah Jones' other CD - just kidding. Honest.). That way, whenever I put a particular tube in to listen critically, it followed different tubes into the arena. I would also go back to a previous tube at times if I thought it was unduly biasing me in terms of the present one. Moreover, I would sometimes get a gestalt that one tube had similar characteristics to a long-ago (read: A day or so ago) eval'd one and I'd then go fetch it and fight it out mano-a-mano. My girlfriend actually called me a "geek" during this survey more than once. I have suffered for our art.
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