Vacuum Tube Audio in the 21st Century

Why vacuum tube stereos are making a comeback for audiophiles

Home theaters and the other household electronics we use today transfer information digitally as computer code. However, it was the vacuum tube that started the home electronics boom in the first place. Learn why vacuum tube stereo systems are making a comeback in the 21st century.

Why Are Vacuum Tube Stereos Still Around?

In the years following the end of the Cold War, the traditional vacuum tube started becoming a more common sight in high-end audio products. With the U.S. firmly entrenched in the production of digital solid-state devices, countries that had previously been behind the digital curve still had large tube manufacturing facilities, so they began producing and exporting vacuum tubes to the West. As a result, American manufacturers such as Audio Research, Cary Audio, ECP Audio, Glow Audio, Granite Audio, Jolida, Manley Labs, McIntosh, Rogue Audio, and others have tapped into this phenomenon.

Vacuum Tube Audio Components

Many true audiophiles have never been completely satisfied with the cold, sterile sound quality and performance of transistors and integrated circuits. That's why a niche market has opened up for vacuum tube audio equipment.

While it's still possible to import inexpensive vacuum tube audio products from China, a number of American manufacturers now offer affordable vacuum tube audio products including amplifiers, preamps, and headphone amps. Some support Bluetooth, so you can enjoy both the convenience of direct wireless Bluetooth streaming and that warm vacuum tube sound.

McIntosh Labs Model 275 2-Channel Vacuum Tube Power Amp
McIntosh Labs Model 275 2-Channel Vacuum Tube Power Amp. McIntosh Labs 

For updates on vacuum tube audio trends and products, subscribe to online and print publications like Audiophilia,  The Absolute Sound, Superior Audio, and Stereophile Magazine.

Home Theater Applications

The vacuum tube has also made its way into the home theater environment with products such as the Jolida Fusion Vacuum Tube CD Transport, the OPPO BDP-105 Vacuum Tube Modified Blu-ray Disc player, and the Decware Ultra Multi-channel preamp. By adding a multi-channel hybrid vacuum tube power amplifier (an amplifier that combines both vacuum tubes and solid-state design) such as the Butler Audio Model 5150, you can have a vacuum tube-based home theater audio system.

Butler Audio Model 5150 5-channel Vacuum Tube Hybrid Power Amp
Butler Audio Model 5150 5-channel Vacuum Tube Hybrid Power Amp. Photo by Robert Silva for Lifewire

Vacuum Tubes In Your Ear and On The Road

In addition to home audio and home theater products, companies such as Apex Audio, Moon Audio, and Vincent Audio also make vacuum tube headphone amplifiers. You can even find vacuum tube amplifiers for car stereos from manufacturers such as Butler Audio (Tube Driver) and Milbert Amplifiers.

Moon Audio Headphone Amp—Butler Audio Car Amp
Moon Audio Headphone Amp—Butler Audio Car Amp. Moon Audio and Butler Audio

Are Vacuum Tube Amplifiers Worth the Cost?

Although there are dedicated fans who feel that the warm, glowing sound of a good vacuum tube amplifier has no equal, the only way to know if you should take the plunge is to seek out a demonstration of vacuum audio products. If you have a CD player, DVD player, or TV with RCA analog audio outputs, you can connect it to a vacuum preamp or amp and experience the sound of vacuum tube audio.

Should you decide to embark on a quest to acquire high-end vacuum tube audio gear, one example of a true classic that has stood the test of time is the Dynaco Stereo-70 vacuum tube power amp. Originally introduced in the late 1950s, its design has changed somewhat through the years and was discontinued for a time, but the Dynaco Stereo-70 has been revived with a new design and now commands a much higher price.

Dynaco ST-70 Series 3 35-Watt-per-Channel Vacuum Tube Power Amp
Dynaco ST-70 Series 3 35-Watt-per-Channel Vacuum Tube Power Amp. Dynaco/Radial Engineering