Small Tube Amps and Drug-like Sound

Hopefully the examination and categorization of small tubes amps will bridge the gap between everything we’ve talked about with respect to identifying drug-like sound characteristics and actually building systems that produce drug-like sounds.

As a little refresher [I think as much for me as you all]:

We are classifying things into 4 different kinds of systems:

Boy Toy systems: make loud noises
Gee Whiz systems: use really cool technology
Practical systems: are easy to listen to music on
Drug-like systems: evoke intense musical experiences

Drug-like sounds require three things:

1) A significant complexity [which perhaps triggers latent similar patterns of associations in the brain] which can be in the dynamic, harmonic, timing [we have experienced amazing effects with delays, and there is of course PRaT, as well as melodic interplay between threads of a melody], and detail domain: micro-dynamics, micro-harmonics [or very rich and/or pure harmonics], extremely fine timing, micro-details… Anything which adds [likely fractal-like] complexity

2) Something for our practical mind to focus on so it can ignore all the things that are wrong with the sound

3) No significant bad behavior

I want to say [to make our model as simple as possible] that 2) is largely personal preference and 3) is an absolute [for our purposes here]. So, for example, people who absolutely MUST have realistic dynamics [or deep soundstages, or whatever] in their system [which is fine], will never achieve a drug-like sound if they build a system that has insufficient harmonic integrity [we are not talking lean, we are talking Sahara desert].

Most people [if they are lucky!] build systems around 2) [personal preferences – what their practical mind demands] and then continually adjust cables and components to address the resultant 3) bad behavior caused by the way they built their system [unlucky people never even get to 2)]

[We see a lot of, dare I say it, weird 2) personal preferences [absolute MUST HAVE requirements] for just ONE of the following, strangely ignoring EVERYTHING ELSE about the sound: Soundstage width, soundstage depth, punch, room pressurization, air, bass detail, soundstage behind the speakers, soundstage in front of the speakers, absolutely no room interaction, etc. And every single person thinks that their personal preference is so obviously the most important thing about the sound and that everybody is trying to dupe them into thinking it is not :-). It was this observation that inspired much of the agnostic approach in the, for example, speakers guides in the Audiophile’s Guide to the Galaxy].

One approach to system building, which we do for a lot of people who are either like us [we pretty much want everything across the board to be equally great up to the point of unaffordability] or who do not know what their personal preferences are, is to build a system that satisfies what a REASONABLE person’s preferences should be for 2), with no bad behavior 3) up front, and then tune a single piece of equipment to be awesomely rich and transparent and provide the complexity [or is at least complexity capable] for drug-like sounds.

OK, getting to the small tube amps…

In order to build affordable drug-like systems the idea is to examine the range of small tube amps and the speakers they will drive [perhaps including some of the better solid-state amps as options for some speakers] and pick one. This will take care of most of the requirements of most people for 2) with minimal bad behavior 3). Then we will figure out how to add that extra special something [or preserve what is already there if the amp or speaker is the thing with the ‘special sauce’] to get the system from being Practical to being Drug-like.

… to be continued…