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Sound Practices Magazine Online!
Sound Practices Magazine Online!



History Lessons
Article By Joe Roberts
From Sound Practices Issue 6, Summer 1994

  There is a lot of confusion regarding the cultural significance of vacuum tube audio in general and single-ended audio in particular. All of a sudden, we are confronted with a harvest of new stuff which apparently has a lot to do with very, very old stuff. Some mainstream journalists were quick to dismiss the whole phenomenon as a "retro" movement, a term of pointed disdain in high-tech circles signifying an unnatural preoccupation with an imagined past. "Now is better" is the cry of the old guard rallying in defense against this blast from the past.

Well, now is better. But "now" is composed of our collective and individual past experiences and it offers a diverse set of possibilities for the future. The rise of single-ended amplifiers is a NOW thing. You can build one of these so-called "retro" amplifiers with parts manufactured last week and designed after the Intel 486 chip was well on its way to obsolescence. Recent changes in World sociopolitical structures provided the side benefit of new manufacture and even new design vacuum tubes for audio. Yes, now is better - especially if you're into certain kinds of "retro" tube gear!

Although there is a romantic reflective aspect to the current reconsideration of foregone audio technologies, those involved in this movement are excited about future prospects and see themselves as working to make NOW better until we get to the future. Sure we have come a long way since the first 300B rolled off the line back in 1935, but this is not to say that a 300B can't take you today to a place you have never been before, somewhere you might discover that you really want to be. As new concepts blend with old, new directions emerge. Why shouldn't history offer lessons in audio as it does in politics?

Technological progress rarely traces a straight line. If it had in audio, our systems would be so good by now that further development would be strictly academic. As it stands we have a long way to go. More often than not, a step forward in one area of performance is repaid by a step backwards in other domains of evaluation. Transistors rode to dominance on economic advantages but it took at least 25 years before they even came close to the vacuum tube as a reproducer of music. A dramatic advance in, say, efficiency, size reduction, or cost per unit may temporarily blind us to shortcomings but over time our initial over-enthusiasm is moderated by experience. Such is the engine of progress that it drives us between one incomplete solution and another.

Since the values of the modern audiophile radically depart from those of the market-driven engineering perspective which officially defines progress, maybe it's time to reassess technologies passed by in big industry's quest for economy, efficiency, and miniaturization according to our own uneconomic aesthetic ideals. Many possibilities appear on the horizon when we break out of the tiny slice of time that is 1994 and take as our playing field the entire range of technologies which came to pass during our century of electrical sound reproduction.

Let us make our own choices with our own special goals in mind. Like postmodemism, the new wave in audio draws on and juxtaposes wildly disparate influences, from points scattered across space and time. But in contrast to the jaded cynical superficial attitude of the postmoderns, the core of new audio is heartfelt excitement about possibilities and a joy of participation in the giant experiment. In this sense we have a rebirth of modernism in the classical sense with a 1994 thing going on. Fellow adventurers, modemism might even be better the second time around!

Single-ended audio is not vintage audio. However, one of the crucial lessons that many of us have learned from living with the best classic components of the first electric century is that there are more possible musical sounds than the latest Recommended Components list offers. Some widely neglected devices can really play music. We surely haven't heard the best yet, but maybe we will get there during the next audio century by keeping an open mind today.


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