Here it is November. Finally time to get back to our systems and do some tweaking. Thus, this month's column on several products that could be worthwhile in your systems.
ER Audio 300B REZO Tubes
While over at Steve Klein's, the importer, home last month evaluating the Reality Check CD Duplicator, AA Chapter 72, he offered to have me be the first reviewer in the US to evaluate some new 300B tubes from the same company. Who am I to refuse such a generous offer, especially since he had them in his mega-bucks system that was sounding exceptionally good that day. Two matched sets came to the Gaw residence.
Although ER Audio does not have their own tube factory, but sources them from another un-named Russian company, they are a large producer of tube preamps and amps, cables, and of all things, high end violins for the Russian market. Thus their expertise in resonance. The tubes themselves look like old fashioned 300 B's with a black ceramic base with the silver pin, coke bottle shape, actually a little smaller than most 300 B's today, and what appears to be a carbon anode.
What the company does to the tubes, in their own words is:
Well, that explanation was about as clear as mud to me. But so are most of the explanations given for high end tweaks. There have been all sorts of other things done to improve tubes, including putting them in a cryo bath, heating them in ovens, burning them in at various voltages, etc. So does vibrating the hell out of them do anything? In a word, yes.
For the past couple of years, I've been using the gold 300 B tubes sourced from Electroharmonics, also of Russia. My stash of 8 sets was obtained very cheaply at $50 per tube when Parts Connection was dropping the line and I have been very happy with them as their sound qualities meshed well with my Vacuum State amplifiers. Even Alan Wright, chief bottle washer of Vacuum State, after my prodding has started to use them as his main tube. They have a very neutral, although possibly a little to the left of neutral sound, very similar to the new Western Electric 300B's, but much cheaper at about $100 per tube compared to Western Electrics at $900 per matched set. Unlike my last pair of WE's, which lasted about four weeks until half of a filament burned out, they have been extremely reliable with one set lasting me more than two years before they became significantly imbalanced.
A little aside. You may ask, what does it mean for tubes to be imbalanced? All tubes produce different gains depending on many factors. Tubes are matched by running them at specific levels and measuring their output. Perfectly matched sets are very important for single ended amps so that they will output approximately the same signal if fed the same. It is even more important in push-pull amps as each tube controls the plus and minus side of the signal, and if they are not perfectly matched, then higher order distortions occur. Tubes age at different rates; thus a perfectly matched set early on may become severely mismatched as they age, thus increasing amp distortion. This may be one of the reasons tube amps seem to sound better after re-tubing, especially with a new brand of tubes. It may not be that the tubes sound better, but that the older ones sound worse. One never sees this discussed by other reviewers.
This is mentioned for several reasons. First, because my Vacuum State amps, have the ability to match tubes to less than 1 millivolt output difference, until they become so mismatched that the adjustment pots run out of range. Thus, tube aging should make no difference when comparing them to others. Second, this makes the amps very neutral with extremely low second and higher order distortion. This does have a disadvantage in that these amps don't sound like tube amps, but also not like solid state ones either, just completely neutral. Third, even somewhat unmatched tubes can be used to good effect as long as they can be adjusted to neutral. Fourth, and most important, they are ideal amps to test tubes on due to their neutrality.
The one problem I sometimes have with these amps is their neutrality. I was a SET man for a while, loving the luscious second harmonic distortions they produced, especially those from 2A3 tubes. The sound is so full and glorious, adding some naturalness, especially to digital recordings. But theoretically neutrality is best and Alan's amps certainly fit that bill.
In addition, these are the first supposedly matched sets that I've tried that were indeed perfectly matched. The pot that adjusts the tube balance on each amp has 25 turns. Both amps balanced out at exactly the 12-turn point, or perfectly balanced from the get-go. Thus, both matched sets were perfectly balanced. A first for me. Other sets I've had were off by anywhere from 2 to 10 turns, and only worsened over time. That means their outputs vary by much less than 1 millivolt. Exceptional.
There are only two sets on American soil at the present so I cannot discuss their reliability. All that can be said is that Russian tubes, unlike many from other, new manufacturers, are made to mil-spec specifications, and one can guess that mil-spec in Russia meant Siberia for the manufacturer who didn't meet it. Also, he is still discussing price with the manufacturer, so that is still up in the air. All that can be said is that these are now my favorite output tubes and I'll be keeping them. Good luck getting them back Steve.
WIN DVD 7
While the playback sound is not quite up to the best that high-end audio can offer, it comes mighty close at a significantly reduced cost. One of the best programs I've found for this is WinDVD produced by InterVideo. They were kind enough to send me their newest addition, which has added several audio features.
First, like the previous addition, the program can play back DVD-A's. There is one caveat though. It will only do 24-bit/96kHz using audio cards from Sound Blaster, which are considered more of a mid range home card. For all of the pro cards listed, the program down-resolves the digital signal to 16-bit/48kHz per DVD-A standards, a real pain in the butt. This can be overcome somewhat as one can set the pro cards to oversample to 24-bit/96kHz but something is probably lost in the translation. On the other hand, one does get all 5.1 channels of surround sound in fairly good sound. This is the biggest drawback to the program, but not the fault of InterVideo as they are required to do that.
The second nice improvement is something they call the InterVideo Hall Effect. While one can use Dolby SRS or DTS decoding to get surround effects from 2 channel, this programming derives the spatial sounds of halls from Chicago, Australia and Broadway. While the Dolby decoding works better for recordings having built-in ambiance information, these help somewhat with dead studio recordings to give a surround effect. Sometimes its helpful, sometimes, not so. For headphone listeners, there is programming to obtain a surround effect.
Audio effects include a built in digital 10 band graphic analyzer, volume and time alignment control for each of a 7.1 surround speaker system, and for those so inclined, Karaoke effects. While I haven't tried this last effect, I'm sure there's somebody out there who wishes to use it. Good luck to the neighbors. I won't discuss the video effects, suffice to say the video is the best I've seen from an HTPC, easily equal with a high end video card what one can obtain from some of the best DVD playback machines. Plus the program can play back Windows Media Video high definition discs at 1440x1080I resolution with full brightness, contrast, gamma and sharpness control, and MPEG4 digital video stream. Now the best part. All of this costs only $49.95 plus the computer. What a deal. PowerDVD, the next best program, doesn't come close in both price and quality.
Ulead Movie Factory 4
So what does it do? It allows you to transfer all of your videotapes, 8 or 16 mm home movies and digital videotapes to DVD's with the addition of musical accompaniment, special effects, etc. It will also store your slides, prints, digital pictures etc. to CD's or DVD's and in addition be able to produce a show of those images with music and intermingle them with video files. Plus, it will allow you to make copies of all of your CD's, mp-3's to CD, and backup computer files or programs to CD or DVD. Thus this is the best method I know to produce a pure torture video of all of those family outings, reunions, vacations, etc., for those relatives, friends and acquaintances who come over and stay for too long a visit. While it won't allow you to capture and copy copyrighted DVD's, one can get around it by converting them to Windows Media Video files, but I didn't tell you that. Plus it's probably not worth the effort.
The biggest addition is the ability to move WMV HD non-copyrighted materials to DVD for storage, as they take up tremendous space on a hard drive. One can then use WinDVD to play them back or any DVD player. All in all a great program for videophiles with tapes and film that are slowly deteriorating, and all for $99.95.