Vinyl vs. Digital — FIGHT!

Vinyl vs. Digital --- FIGHT!

About 10 years ago I got serious about vinyl. I started scouring craigslist and driving stupid amounts of distance to buy record collections. If the price was right my wife and I found the money and I went.  It was fun and actually created an opportunity to start a small business.

We started listing albums on Amazon and had a website for customers to reach out if they needed anything special or wanted to buy direct. This was the most painstaking long process ever! The process started with me looking the album up to decide if it was worth investing any time to list it. Next step was cleaning. I purchased a Record Doctor V as an entry level record cleaning machine. It worked okay, but the process still required more cleaning once the machine was done. After cleaning I would do the visual inspection and make another decision regarding condition. Looking at/for scratches, quick listening test to make sure all was right with the LP. Then start the listing process. It was time-consuming but fun. It also helped me grow my vinyl collection. I had first dibs on anything that came through. I was selling enough to pay for the collections I was buying and growing my collection 100% win! It also helped me discover types of music and artists I was not familiar with. This is how I really discovered blues. I had always known BB King and Clapton and a few others but was completely unaware who Peter Green or Buddy Guy was.

Record Doctor V
Buddy Guy
Peter Green

My collection is blues and funk heavy now and it really didn’t cost me anything. Eventually, prices for people’s collections went up and it did not make sense for me to buy them any longer. I still look on occasion but since the resurgence of vinyl, collections aren’t cheap any longer.

Digital is something I’m new to. There is a very big part of Hi-Fi that is Digital based and brings plenty of options to the table. For me the only digital I had, besides mp3s, was CDs. When I hooked my cd player into my system it really didn’t sound that great and it never really got used. It was brittle, bright and would drive you out of the room. It was a cheap player and I now know that the player matters. I still need to replace mine, and until OPPO went out of business that was the direction I was going to go, but not sure what I’m going to get now. I like the idea of a CD player with tubes involved somehow. I’ve become partial to the Doge brand after buying their Doge 8 preamp. (Read about it in the previous blog post on the right)

Doge offers a 100% tube cd player vs. some of the other manufacturers that offer a tube buffer. Like most of you, I’m sure, I have a pretty decent CD collection. My generation was really in the heart of plastic discs. Now cd’s are pretty much given away with every fill up at the gas pump. As music formats have progressed online streaming seems to be a big avenue. I first jumped into online streaming with Slacker. I like the format and layout. The phone app felt very good as well and made sense when you went from one spot to another in the menu. When I started upgrading my system I found out very fast that the sampling rate was not very good. The music sounded good in my car but horrible in my main listening room. Until about 6 months ago I pretty much just listened to vinyl in my music room. Until I discovered Tidal and the magic of a DAC! It was like hearing a set of tubes that just made the music right. The DAC got rid of the glaring harshness and lack of midrange. It balanced everything out and left the music alone. Now music was coming through in a way I thought only Vinyl could sound.

I went with the Cambridge DAC because it was low cost, a brand I knew of, and reviews were good. That was a perfect starting point. I hooked it up to two devices a Bluetooth adapter and my Laptop. The Bluetooth offers the ease of sitting and adjusting from the listening position but lacks the bit rate of the laptop. My struggle really begins here. Vinyl compared to Bluetooth into DAC is no competition. It’s vinyl every time. However, when I listen to my laptop through the DAC It takes a big step up in bit rate and the music just sounds better because of it. Vinyl or Laptop is a much tougher decision. A bigger problem is that I know if I upgrade my DAC and CD player the quality is going to keep going up. Vinyl has always had a very nice full sound warm sound. I’ve been reading reviews and I think there are DACs that can get the sound to the same warmth that vinyl offers. I haven’t made the jump yet, but it’s in the near future. What DAC are you using? Don’t forget to catch up on past posts!

Life Without a Remote – The preamp search starts!

Life Without a Remote – The preamp search starts!

My system currently runs from a Primaluna Prologue 3 into a custom-made tube amp that will allow plenty of tubes to be rolled in. Currently, I’m using some =C= 6550 tubes that are special, and offer a great soundstage and low end that has the impact of the KT88 tube. The mids are warm, very balanced, and give off a great “tube” sound. With that said I’ve wondered about the top end.

I have always been skeptical of the Primaluna and its sound though. I have rolled a few brands of 12AX7 tubes in and out and haven’t really noticed a change in sound. I have also read that this preamp was known to have a solid state characteristic. Very linear and not much warmth added. Not to take anything away from it. I think it is a nice preamp that does sound good but always leaves me wondering if there is something better for my system.

Also, it doesn’t have a remote and my integrated amp does. I don’t care if you call me lazy I want a remote! I find that I listen to the Integrated more because of the remote. It is a great amp, but it isn’t the same caliber as the “KT88” amp as it’s called around our house. The KT88 amp runs 12AT7 and 12AU7. These compliment each other very well.  The amp really responds to rolling tubes and can take plenty of power tube options. KT88, El34, 6L6GL and all variations of these.

I know a simple solution would be to sell the amp and preamp and buy an integrated that will do what the KT88 amp does. That’s a great solution, but I’m attached to the KT88 amp. I got to help decide the preamp and power tube types. A local tech/tube amp guru made the changes before I purchased it. Plus it looks amazing!

Back to the hunt for the preamp with a remote

 I started researching and landed on a few options that I like. I narrowed it down to Schiit Audio Freya, Vincent Audio SV-500, or a Doge 8 LP. The first 2 were new and the Doge a pre-owned unit at an amazing price that made it a possible candidate.

Schiit Freya

The Freya is a no-excuses balanced, remote-control preamp! Switch between passive, active JFET buffer, and tube gain modes, enjoy the fine control of a 128-step relay-switched stepped attenuator volume control with perfect channel matching, and control it all from the comfort of your favorite chair—for many times less than you’d expect to pay.               http://www.schiit.com/products/freya

The SV-500 is a hybrid amplifier that utilizes a full tube preamp stage and a solid state amp stage. It is based on the bigger SV-227. The main difference between the 2 is the SV-500 has less power but the same tonal qualities. It can be used as a tube preamp vs an integrated.                 http://www.vincent-tac.de/en/product-types/integrated-amplifiers/sv-500.html

Vincent SV-500
Doge 8

The Doge 8 LP is a unit that has actually been renamed as the Doge 8 Clarity. Basically, they had a dealer that wanted certain caps installed and they did it. The “clarity” in the name means they are using clarity caps now. It is a full tube preamp and on their website Doge boasts “The best tube preamp on the market below $5,000”          http://www.doge.audio/products/doge-8-tube-preamplifier/doge-8-clarity-2017-edition/

One of the frustrating things in the Hi-Fi world is the lack of availability to go in and side by side compare higher end equipment. Out of the 3 options, I narrowed it down to it is a German company (Vincent) with no stores, a company in California with 1 store (Schiit), and Doge who is direct to customer company.  So I had to go by reviews and questions I was able to ask the company. Here are highlight points for each preamp for my needs.

Schiit Freya:

Freya Board
  • Remote (plastic credit card style)
  • 6SN7, 6N8S, or 5692
  • Passive, JFET Buffer, or Tube Gain
  • 128-Step Relay Attenuator
  • 2 unbalanced outputs

Vincent SV-500:

SV-500 Board
  • Remote (metal)
  • 1 x 12AX7, 2 x 6N1
  • Tube output
  • Built in DAC – Digital input decodes 16-bit, 24-bit and 32-bit audio files up to 384 kHz
  • Hybrid tube/solid state amp (tube preamp stage – solid state amp)

Doge 8 LP:

Doge 8 Board
  • Remote (metal)
  • 12AT7 x 4 for line stage, 12AX7 x 4 for Phono stage
  • Tube output
  • Built in MM Phono input
  • 2 unbalanced outputs

There are other features that some of these units have that may appeal to some of you. These were the features that appealed to me and my needs.

Online Reviews and Thoughts on each Preamp

Schiit – Freya

Schiit Freya Back

This company has always been on my radar. I like the looks of all of their equipment. That silver just jumps out and looks the part! They are a Made in the USA Company and they are proud of it. I like it as well! This amp gives the option to use it as 3 different preamps: Passive, JFET Buffer, or Tube output. When my search began originally I was searching for passive preamps with remotes. So the Freya appealed to me for sure! Plus you get 2 other options for outputs besides the passive output. The idea that I would have 3 options sounds great because I do have a vintage solid state system as well that might benefit from the Freya. The Freya also uses 6SN7 tubes that admittedly I have zero experience with. I’ve read they are an amazing tube. I’ve got a friend in one of the audio groups I am a part of that did a really nice comparison of them in his system.  The volume being on a relay instead of a true volume pot is another buying point for me. As excited as I was to go with the Freya I could not get in touch with the company. I tried 2 different emails and a message left and no response. It’s a shame because the reviews look great and most seem happy with the product. My main concern was if an issue arrived how would I be able to get it resolved. So, in short, The Freya was out rather fast.

Vincent SV-500

Vincent SV-500 Back

I have always liked this company and their products. The Hi-Fi community knows this brand rather well. They are a German company and they make quality! Before I first jumped into tubes I wanted to purchase one of their SV-237 MK2 units that were extremely out of my price range at the time. When I started looking for a new preamp I went to their website and found the SV-500. One of the great things about this unit is its ability to be a standalone tube preamp or an integrated hybrid. I don’t need another integrated amp, but it’s a plus to have it just in case. Reviews say it has the same sound as its bigger brother the SV-237. I was immediately drawn in when I read that! Just take my money already! I had done enough research on the SV-237 to know it was the amp for me. Plus it has an onboard DAC, looks amazing and the SV-500 has a cost at a fraction of the price with the same sound as the SV-237! It was the front runner for sure. My only concern was the amount of preamp I was going to get for the money. After all, this is 3 units in one: preamp, amplifier, and a DAC. Plus I don’t need another DAC. I have one that for my needs is good. I am able to stream Tidal at a level that for me is as good as or better than my Vinyl collection at times. Easy Vinyl lovers I still believe in Vinyl first.

It has a real metal remote. That seems like a silly statement, but credit card remotes feel flimsy and cheap. The SV-500 does have tone controls. For me, that’s a real love-hate relationship. In the past when I was running solid state equipment I had tone controls in everything I ran. All the vintage equipment came with it. You remember bass, treble, loud button, etc. When I made the jump to tube equipment I struggled with the lack of adjustments that could be made. It took a while to just relax and listen to the music how it was recorded and mastered. Now I enjoy not having the adjustments. My system is at a level that really lets you know if it’s a bad recording or not. That’s good and bad. If the recording/mastering is bad then tone controls allow you to adjust to make it right or at least improved.

The SV-500 gives the best of both worlds. As much as I like the entire bonus features set that SV-500 offers I just couldn’t pull the trigger on it. I am really only looking for a preamp and nothing more. My final conclusion was that the SV-500 would make the perfect bedroom all in one integrated amp. So I passed on the Vincent. Man, I can’t believe I ended up passing on the Vincent SV-500. Even typing that makes me a bit sad. Like I said I have wanted a Vincent piece in my set up for a while. I’m just destined to not have a Vincent in my music room I guess. Well for now anyway.

So let’s talk about my pick: 

DOGE 8 LP

The Doge is a current model that has had a name change recently by adding the word Clarity instead of LP at the end. Nothing major here. They just changed the caps inside the amp that are being used during production. It does matter the quality of caps that are used but they were high quality before the change as well.  Normally I lean towards chrome/silver equipment if possible. The majority of what I do have has chrome in it. However, the Doge I decided on is all black and looks amazing! It is going to match the KT88 amp it’s going to drive perfectly. I can’t wait to see them next to each other. The remote is a full metal remote that feels amazing. Truth be told here: I already own a Doge integrated amp. That is how I know the way the remote feels. The Doge I currently own, Doge 6130R, started life as an amp that ran KT88 tubes and was heavily modified. The volume pot and the remote were the main things that were saved after the modifications were complete. So it really isn’t a Doge amp any longer. I know someone is going to think that owning one will influence my decision. I just wanted to clarify that the designs/lay outs aren’t even the same at this point.

Stock Doge 6130R (not my photo)
My Modified Doge 6130R

As I was searching for reviews I discovered there isn’t a ton out there for the Doge 8. I found the least number of reviews for the Doge actually. I did stumble across one review that just jumped out at me as I was reading it. “The sound- Let’s start with the line stage. Magnificent sums it up. This line stage will compete with any in models costing $ 5,000. It is that good. Not only is it highly transparent and pure, this thing kicks ass. The dynamics, the weight, and impact are staggering. If your system is in need of an adrenaline boost, the Doge is the remedy. The Doge line stage makes listening to digital viscerally thrilling in a way a live concert does”- HIGH-END AUDIO writer Arthur Salvatore

The Doge uses 4 12AT7 in the line stage and 4 12AX7 in the built-in MM phono stage. The phono stage really isn’t that important to me. I’m glad it has it, but I’ve got external phono stages already that punch well above what the Doge could offer. Just an added bonus to have it. I do however like that it uses 12AT7 in its line stage. I run that tube in a few amps including the KT88 amp. I recently purchased some Mullard 12AT7 tubes that were rebranded by BEARD from VTubeAudio and wrote about them here. The 12AT7 has a nice laid back sound to it for the most part and is readily available in plenty of NOS options.

It has 5 inputs and a phono input. 2 unbalanced outputs and 1 balanced output. Again no need for a balanced output but it’s a bonus to have it. Currently, I run 2 turntables and a DAC so there is still room to expand if I wanted to add anything. All reviews I read felt like they were describing what I wanted in a preamp. Plus it just felt like the right one to go with. It should be arriving about the time this post goes live online. I’ll let you know in the next post how the tubes from VtubeAudio sound in it. I’ve got some on the way because you know how it is you have to have new tubes with a new preamp.

Doge 8 LP

Tube Rolling – Rectifier Tubes

Tube Rolling – Rectifier Tubes

Mullard Fat Base GZ34

Ah yes the ole rectifier tube.  It’s a tube that gets zero love and is always the last to be replaced.  I know there are plenty that will tell you that the rectifier makes no difference in the audio chain and that its only purpose is to convert AC power to DC power. I am not part of that camp. I believe that all the tubes make some difference / change in the amp tone.

Miniwatt GZ-3

In my opinion every piece of the amp plays a role all the way down to the volume pot used in Integrated amps. With that said the last tube I roll in my amps is the rectifier just like the rest of you. For me the logic is simple. The rectifier has about 10% input on the audio sound. While the power tubes have a 30% effect and the preamp tubes have a 60% effect. These are just my percentages, and only my opinions.

Here is what I do when rolling tubes. I start with the preamp tubes and get the music where I like. Then roll in some power tubes and get that combo just right. I am sure we are all after close to the same sound. Solid lows, lush warm mids, and clean clear non fatiguing highs. When I feel like I have my system at that point it is time to roll in a new rectifier tube.

RCA 5AS4A
Mullard GZ34 Halo Getter
Sylvania branded National Union 6X5GT

Even though the rectifier plays a small role in the sound it can be a final piece of the puzzle when looking for the perfect sound. My experience with rectifier tubes is that they can really focus a sound and remove some of the fuzziness in the music.  

A rectifier will not fix bad tube matching in the first 2 steps mentioned above. It is really a cherry on top of the sundae so to speak. When everything is right though man o man! If you haven’t rolled in a NOS Rectifier Tube you need to !

Catch up on past posts by clicking a picture below!

Rolling Tubes – Power Tubes

Rolling Tubes - Power Tubes

VT115 RCA tube - *NOT a direct drop in for 6L6

Oh yes the power tubes! The tubes that give us the main glow in our amps. While the preamp tubes do offer some tube glow satisfaction they just don’t offer the sexy mood that’s created by a great set of power tubes. Geez enough about the glow already.

Power tubes, often called output tubes, can give an indication of the amount of power an amp can produce. I know most of us have amps that come from a factory that has predefined tubes that can be used. In my main amp I have the ability to roll in El34, 6550, KT88 and a few other variations. 

EL34 PHILLIPS HOLLAND BROWN BASE

The preamp tubes may shape the sound the most but the power tubes really give that final touch to the sound. Power tubes offer plenty of options when it is time to roll new tubes in. There are “reissues”, term used lightly, and NOS. The latter are the way to go if you are really after a certain sound and are after a tube that can last and can take longer listing times. The task to find good / quality NOS power tubes can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. If you are after a certain sound or want to add something you feel is missing in your system an email to a reputable company can easily steer you in the right direction.

2A3-RCA-black-plate

In my listening room I like to change the tubes depending on the speakers and music I want to listen to. I am partial to EL34 for their midrange warmth and KT88 for their low end slam. Classic rock sounds best in my system with KT88 tubes, but blues has an amazing sound with EL34 tubes.

Tungsol 5881 Brown Base 1961

A tube I haven’t tried yet is the 6550. I’ve got a quad on their way. They should be here in 2 days and I can’t wait. I’ve read that the 6550 is supposed to be the best of both worlds. It is supposed to have the musical warmth of the EL34 with the punch and slam of the KT88. Here is a picture of a friend of mine running them in his Primaluna amp.

Getting some NOS tubes is a great experience. I really enjoy putting on albums that I am very familiar with and then rolling the tubes in. Getting to rediscover an album because of new tubes never gets old. 

Rolling Tubes – Preamp Tubes

Rolling Tubes – Preamp Tubes

When I first got into tubes I wanted to change the power tubes (output tubes) because they were the bigger tubes and it made sense, as a newbie to tubes, to start there. I found out after some research that wasn’t the case, and that the preamp tubes (input tubes) will make the biggest difference in how the music can sound in my system.

Let’s be clear tube lovers, I am not taking anything away from the power tubes. I just wanted to get that out before you get upset and scroll to the bottom of this article and start leaving comments. I’ll talk about them in the next post.

My experience has shown that to get the sound you want, you have to start with the preamp tubes. The preamp tubes mold the sound. They add the imaging, airiness, detail, and definition to each note. They can be the difference between a guitar pluck sounding like it is coming from right in the same room vs. sounding like it is just another noise in the recording.

Being caught off guard by the music is something that I’m sure most of us still enjoy and are amazed by. I’m referring to that moment when you are listening to a song that has always sounded amazing in your system and with new tubes there is detail and sounds you have never heard before.

A great example of classic rock is Poco’s Crazy Eyes. I’ve always like the song, but when I started rolling preamp tubes in it really came to life. Listen to the banjo at the 1:40; It blew me away with the 3D sound. That is what a great preamp tube can do.

A tube I like in the preamp tube options is the 6922 JAN Phillips tube.  The JAN stands for Joint Army Navy and was meant to take abuse and last. In the Hi-Fi world, they can really bring a recording to life.

They offer plenty of top end to help a system that has a dull or dark sound. The remarkable thing about the 6922 is that it doesn’t lose the solid lows or the warmth in the mids with the top end being so extended.

They can really take command of the recording and put its sound signature on it! What is one of your favorite preamp tubes? Let us know in the comments section below.