Tube buffers and preamps — No-name Chinese tube buffer, ARC LS16 tube preamplifier, Eddy Current Balancing Act preamplifier and external power supply

By this point I have a good grasp on what tubes can add to the sound of a system, and conversely what solid state has to offer. 

But every now and then I still get struck by the crystalline clarity on the top end when tubes are involved. Something about that sound makes cymbals and stringed instrument plectrum noise just so sweet and attractive.

Here at The Music Room, we see everything that’s made for high end audio. And on both ends of the price spectrum, folks are focused on tubes.

This little generic, unbranded Chinese tube buffer has a little magic in it, take it from me. For a $69 piece of kit with no name and no information, that seems a little hard to believe.

But it’s the tubes, man. Even at $69 and with no info you can’t screw up the magic that tubes bring to the table too badly.

Now, describing the bass on this thing, I would call tubby and soft. But that’s why you place a buffer like this into a system between the preamp and amp — you can add a solid state amplifier and get the grip back on that bottom end.

Or, you can spend a little more and consider this lovely Audio Research LS16 preamplifier, which is a little long in the tooth, but characteristic of AR products, is built like a tank and sounds like a dream.

The bass grip is excellent with the LS16, and it even offers something rarely found in tube preamplifiers or buffers: balanced input and output.

Just try to find a tube preamplifier for under $2K that has balanced in and out, I dare ya.

Part of the reason is that circuitry gets necessarily more complex and parts-heavy as you go balanced, especially if it is “true balanced.” True balanced on a tube amp or preamp usually means the circuitry doubles compared to what it would be for a single ended version.

Moving into the higher end, this newly received Eddy Current Balancing Act preamplifier and headphone amp is a serious gem. This thing gets a Gearhead Gem Award for what it does for the dynamics and detail of what’s fed into it.

I’m feeding it MP3s from my phone right now. Blasphemy, I know. And I have NEVER heard Spotify sound this good.

Dynamics, depth, space, and utter juice is what this thing does for the signal. Color me flabbergasted.

For an instant upgrade of any system, turn to the tubes to work their magic and you will be handily rewarded. Even in the budget realm does some of that special stuff exist, just waiting to be picked up and plugged into your rig. Happy hunting!