The End Of Cheap Tubes
Every year, when I focus on this Glass Audio issue of audioXpress, I like to dive into the archives and revisit a selection of the issues that Ed T. Dell produced twice a year, beginning in 1988. In 1990, in his column "Valve Views," contributing author Ken Kessler wrote "As you sit there poring over the latest Glass Audio, perhaps a small part of you is wondering: Am I devoted to a branch of hi-fi so obscure it could disappear at any moment? Believe me, such doubts affect us all at times, and not only when you hear of another tube amp manufacturer (or tube manufacturer, for that matter) closing up shop."
The harbinger was there, but this was shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in December 1989, leading to the end of Soviet Union, and Russian tubes flooding the market. Anticipating the revival of tube audio in hi-fi, Ken Kessler, also predicted in that article: "Tubes are going to be around for a long time."
While browsing Glass Audio issues, two years later I noticed a text-only ad from New Sensor, announcing the availability of Soviet "selected military" tubes, which mentioned the fact that Eric Clapton had "replaced the Philip / Sylvania 8L6 STRs in his custom Soldano amp, which he uses live with Soviet 5881s because of their "milky smooth sound."" The same ad also promoted GE, Siemens, EI, Sylvania/Philips, and other tubes, sold at the time by the New York, NY company, owned by Mike Matthews (Electro-Harmonix).
In later editions, an Old Colony Sound Lab house ad promoted Charles Hansen's book, A Brief History of Bendix Red Bank Tubes, revealing the mystery around those "highly reliable tubes made for the military for use in guided missiles." Charles (Chuck) Hansen (the audioXpress author) was himself employed at Bendix Aviation Corp., based in Eatontown, NJ, from 1966 to 1998. When Hansen joined Bendix, the company had by then stopped making tubes and used all-discrete transistor designs exclusively. His father worked there as well, as a tool and die maker, and developed much of the tooling used in the Red Band Tubes manufacturing until the 1950s. As Hansen recalls in his book, his grandfather and uncle worked at the S&S Manufacturing Corp. tube assembly business in Newark, NJ in the 1920s and 1930s. That company made plates, grids, tube supports, and other parts for Chatham, Tung-Sol, and Arcturus.
In the 1990s, a large surplus of these military tubes were still being auctioned, and the market was flooded with cheap tubes coming from Russia and other Eastern European countries that were part of the former USSR. It just didn't make sense to keep manufacturing tubes in the US or even in Western Europe.
When, in the early 2000s, the last remaining tube manufacturing operations, mainly producing tubes for televisions and computer monitors gradually closed, musical instruments, recording studio equipment, and hi-fidelity were the only markets left for tube makers.
Fast forward to 2022, and the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia are having a significant impact on the global supply of tubes to the audio industry. As I wrote in The Audio Voice newsletter, both Ukraine and Russia are important suppliers of raw materials, and in China there are also significant disruptions caused by pandemic lockdowns and transportation challenges, resulting in huge cost increases.
There are not many tube manufacturers left in the world, and the ones that exist, still depend on this challenging global supply of parts and materials. This means that the tubes required in the audio industry will remain scarce, and that prices are certain to increase exponentially.
On a positive note, while targeting the higher end of the audio market, Western Electric has successfully resumed manufacturing 300B tubes in its state-of-the-art Rossville Works in Rossville, GA, as reported by audioXpress and accounted with a review in this issue. To bring tube manufacturing back to the US, Western Electric also acquired the know-how and machinery from many of the former leading European tube factories and is now equipped to handle production of multiple tube types. On March 2022, Western Electric sent out a (soft) announcement confirming "plans to expand tube operations" to produce other tube types. We hope to report more information about this in our next Glass Audio special, in May 2023.