The Gearhead: Your first tube amplifier

A number of brands in the HiFi industry aim to offer hassle-free tube amplifiers at a reasonable cost, often by manufacturing in China and using common OEM chassis and parts. This tends to make products from these different companies' products look like each other, but underneath the similarities are interesting and unique approaches to tube amplification that gives each one a different sonic flavor.

At TMR, we’re thrilled that these companies such as PrimaLuna, Audio Space, Mystère and Cayin, to name just a few, are here to serve an audience that is taking a big leap, often with a fair measure of trepidation.

What could go wrong with owning a tube amp? Anyone with experience will read that and chuckle. There are a ton of good things that come with tube amplifiers -- great things even, and nearly all of them sound-related. The hassles simply have to do with the fact that tubes are expendable, finite-life devices compared to transistors. And most tube amps have more than a couple of the glass bottles on board, each with its own internal life span.

Managing the timelines of aging tubes is enough to keep some folks away from it altogether, which is really a shame because these easy-to-own products deliver exactly the kind of lushness and spacious magic or detail and accuracy that folks are looking for when they get into tubes.

Each of the brands above does slightly different things to make a unique-sounding product, but the main goal of these brands is to design circuitry in a way that keeps tubes happier for longer, and often removing the need to perform “bias” or “balance” adjustments on the tubes. In a plug and play kind of configuration, the PrimaLuna amplifiers for example don’t care that you install tubes in a specific order (besides of course installing them in the correctly labeled socket for each type of tube) like other amps with bias controls may have you do.

Today I’m testing a beautiful-sounding Cayin A-88T Mk 3 tube integrated amplifier (pictured above), and I’m struck by how luscious and gorgeous a presentation this thing is making at my testing station. After a little reading I understand it was designed to sound similar to a vintage McIntosh MC275 tube amp, one of the great classics in the tube amp world.

The kicker here is that the Cayin amp is actually point-to-point wired and still manages to land below the $3K mark. Many of the products from the brands above sit right around the same price range, and offer different features and presentations. Mystère, for example, focuses on low negative feedback pentode output while others use the same tubes (generally EL34 or KT-88) to run in triode or ultralinear operation. Some, like the Cayin and a few of the PrimaLuna and Audio Space models, allow you to quickly switch between modes from a button on the remote control, which can be informative and fairly entertaining.

The bottom line with these brands is that stepping up to the sonic glory of tube amplification doesn’t require taking out a second mortgage or learning how to operate electronic testing equipment. Everything you need is included, packaged neatly in well-designed boxes that are ready to rock.

Check out some of our current offerings from these brands before they’re gone.

Cayin A-88T Mk 3

PrimaLuna EVO 400

PrimaLuna EVO 300