« Best of “analogue music enjoyment” »
Analogue tube technology has been experiencing a real renaissance over the past few years. But it’s not only in the field of guitar amplifiers that tubes are coming back: especially in the hi-fi range, there’s still a fascination with tubes which is currently experiencing an amazing upswing. This is partially due to the hype for vinyl which has been coming back for several years. Records have long since replaced CDs as the most important sound carrier on the market.
“State of the art” instead of “nostalgia”
In this era of streaming platforms like Spotify etc., analogue music enjoyment seems outdated, almost regressive. And yet there’s a magic inherent in the original recording of records, which fewer and fewer music lovers can escape. In combination with a tube amplifier, we enjoy music in a pure analogue form. That’s a good reason to take a close look at tube amps for turntables!
Vinyl 2.0 – a fascination with records
With CD sales continuing to decline, the fate of sound carriers seemed to be sealed. Streaming providers like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music have a firm grip on the music industry. But against all probability, one format which had long been thought dead is experiencing a return to the stages of the music business: the record is back.
There’s plenty of debate to be had about the background behind this new enthusiasm for the medium of vinyl. The oft-cited, allegedly superior sound quality of good records compared to digital media is difficult to prove physically. Depending on the sample rate and quality of the digital audio signal, quality levels can be achieved with modern means which are indistinguishable from analogue recordings to even the finest measuring instruments. There are also technical conditions which can lead to sound changes and influences in the sound. As well as records, turntables and pickups, external influences also come into play with the turntable, which can (negatively) affect the signal and therefore the sound.
Nevertheless, hardly any music lover can escape the sound of vinyl. The warmth and liveliness of the reproduction outshines digital formats in their “perfect” reproduction.
In addition to the sound, probably the most important element in the revival of vinyl is a psychological one: while streaming providers only show small, symbol-like album covers and changing an album is faster than deleting a spam email, the vinyl lover has a real piece of art in his hand; they’re making a conscious decision to listen to an album.
We’re dealing more and more intensively with the medium of music and perceiving music more comprehensively. Vinyl looks good, feels good and offers artists the opportunity to turn an album into a piece of art.
Putting on an LP requires a steady hand and, above all, a conscious decision to listen to this very album right now, at this very moment. Songs can’t be skipped. The enjoyment of music becomes a slow, decelerated journey through the worlds of sound which musicians create for us.
The parallels between tube amps and turntables are striking: the technology is old, may be more susceptible to interference, is subject to increased wear and requires greater attention. But turntables and gently glowing valves and great sound also mean a symbiosis which is second to none.
Tube amplifiers for turntables – technical basics
The reproduction of the recorded sound waves takes place on the record via the so-called pickup. A lot of people also know the pickup as a record needle, but that refers to just a part of this complex electronic component. The record needle itself runs through the groove of the record, moving from left to right in the process.
These fine movements are transformed into an electrical signal by a pickup system (MM or MC, see below). This signal is so weak that a normal line input doesn’t provide enough level increase to sufficiently process the signal for loudspeakers.
Over time, two hi-fi systems have proven to be particularly popular: turntables are either combined with integrated amplifiers which have a dedicated phono input or operated with special phono preamps. We present both tube amps for turntables:
Valve integrated amplifier
Integrated or stereo amplifiers are always used in the Hi-Fi sector when as few devices as possible should be used for the central control of different sound sources. Integrated amps take over the task of the central switching unit: here the source media is introduced by cable, amplified, and finally transmitted to the loudspeakers.
In addition to high-level connections for CDs, tuners or network players, integrated amplifiers also offer a dedicated phono input. This input forwards the electrical signal of the turntable to a special phono preamp which is integrated into the device. This preamp brings the MM or MC signal of the turntable to a level which can then be further boosted by the valve output stage of the amplifier in order to be reproduced by the loudspeakers afterwards.
If a valve amp doesn’t have this kind of phono input, then a phono preamp is essential.
Tube phono preamplifier
In principle, the phono preamp closes the performance gap between the turntable and the power amplifier. The extremely weak signal of the turntable is further amplified in an external preamplifier and brought to level.
After processing in the phono preamp, the signal can then be transmitted to the stereo amp via a normal line input. By using valve technology in the preamp, the signal of the record needle or the pickup is not only amplified, but also gets the warmth and liveliness which is so typical of valve technology.
By the way: tube phono preamplifiers can of course also be combined with modern stereo amplifiers. In this way, real tube sound can be combined with modern digital technology, and vinyl and streaming can peacefully coexist side by side in a single system.
Choosing a tube amplifier for turntables – what’s it all about?
Choosing a valve amp for a domestic hi-fi system is at least as important to think through as choosing a new guitar amplifier. We’ve summarised the most important factors:
Quiet while playing the record!
When choosing a suitable tube amplifier for your domestic hi-fi setup, there are many important factors. If a turntable is intended to be operated with the amplifier, the device should have a suitable phono input. If this input is not present, a phono preamp must be connected upstream. Among audiophile hi-fi lovers, opinions are divided as to whether an integrated phono input in an integrated amp can deliver the same quality as a dedicated phono preamp. Particularly cheap integrated amplifiers tend to be relatively susceptible to noise. Especially in quiet passages, disturbing background noise can occur during record playback at a high level. However, since tube amplifiers in the hi-fi range are mainly found in the high-end sector, this noise ratio is basically optimised in such a way that hardly any background noise can be heard.
The right pickup system
Pickup systems in turntables usually work according to either the MM (Moving Magnet) or the MC (Moving Coil) principle. Both systems convert movements of the plate needle in the groove into electrical signals – in the Moving Magnet System, the plate needle moves a small magnet between two coils and produces an electrical signal. In the moving coil system, on the other hand, the coil is moved in a magnetic gap. While the result (an electronic signal) is the same for both systems, the output power is different: MC systems deliver a significantly weaker output signal than MM systems. So, they also need special amps.
Several systems have established themselves on the market: combined preamplifiers can reproduce both MM and MC systems, pure MM preamplifiers can only reproduce moving magnet systems, while pure MC preamplifiers do not harmonise with MM pickups. So, when selecting the valve amp, you should also make sure that you have the correct unit suitable for the turntable.
Unlike digital amplifier systems, valve amps have an influence on the tone of the playback. The analogue signal amp ensures that harmonics are added to the signal. This effect, also referred to as distortion factor, is pleasant to the human ear in the case of tube amplifiers and leads to the lively and natural reproduction which is so often talked about. What for some people is a pleasure, for others is a deviation from the ideal tone. And different amps can produce different tones. However, in order to recognise these differences and, most importantly, to name them, you need the ear of a true audiophile! The bottom line, however, is the question of whether the sound of the amplifier fits your own preference.
Tube amps for turntables – conclusion
Analogue technology brings peace and contemplation to the enjoyment of music. Turntables and tube amps also harmonise so well because both systems follow this principle. If you love analogue music, you aren’t afraid of technical effort and you want to have a real musical experience instead of just a click, the combination of an amp with valve technology and a turntable is definitely the right choice for you!
Main image: © Jan Felber – stock.adobe.com
High-end record player: © ALAIN VERMEULEN – stock.adobe.com
Woman selects record: © yossarian6 – stock.adobe.com
Man sitting in front of record player with tube amp: © Pavel Losevsky – stock.adobe.com
Young woman listening to records: © chika_milan – stock.adobe.com
Record player, needle – close up: © Kzenon – stock.adobe.com
Luxury turntable with tube amplifier: © trompinex – stock.adobe.com