The Triode Renaissance
After many years of popularity among elite Asian and European audiophiles, the single triode amplifier has finally captured the fancies of a few prominent UK and US audio journalists. I don't mean to suggest that we're slow on the draw or anything, but as anyone who has ever heard a well-appointed triode system understands, it was only a matter of time before "triode fever" caught hold in the Atlantic world. A good single-ended triode amplifier is a wondrous thing.
Like anything else, triode amps are not for everybody. But a lot of listeners are discovering — often to their great amazement — that the triode sound is just what they were looking for. Partnered with appropriate speakers, triodes do all of the audiophile things with grace and precision. Although triodes excel at three-dimensional presentation, the greater weight and presence of triodes shifts the basis of listening from the "high end" photographic/visual aesthetic of imagery and detail to physical, immediate, and direct apprehension of music. It's funny that you can attain heights of presence and impact with a tiny amp and sensitive speaker well beyond what most 82 dB speakers powered by 500 Watts produce.
Think about it. There has to be a good reason why for decades some of the world's most serious audiomaniacs have been investing large sums of time, money, and emotional currency in creating systems around single triode amplifiers. They never seemed to care that the 300B tube was obsolete or that a 2A3 puts out as much power as a two dollar chip. Unless the many thousands of seasoned audiophiles who "went triode" are free of reason and taste, there must be something to this strange business. If it were simply a whim or fad, the triode wave would have died off long before it reached us. In spite of low power and generally unimpressive measurements, single triode amps are exploding in popularity in markets where fifty watts used to be considered a bare minimum.
Given prevailing conceptions about the necessity of big power, the high profile players in the first triode wave are big monster triode amps — Ongakus, Yoshinos, Cary 805s. A big amp in this context means well up in the two digit power range, something that seems reasonable to hook up to a "modern" speaker. In this respect, a 211 amp or an 845 amp is a capable ambassador for this new/old technology to an audio culture where high power is the usual way of getting the job done. In the context of what we think we know about musical reproduction, it's hard to take a three watter seriously. Until you hear one, that is.
Perhaps it has to do with traditional conceptions of manhood in our culture or something. Maybe it's an undiscriminating "more is better" attitude. The reality is that killer single triode amps come in all sizes: from milliwatt jobs which will only run hyper-efficient horn tweeters to fifty watt class behemoths. The big triode amps in vogue today may be great stuff, but they constitute only a small corner of the total triode universe. In other audio cultures, the low powered triode amp proved to be the small ax that cut down the big tree.
One phenomenon which accompanies and propels the triode amplifier as it moves around the globe is the growth of DIY. After decades of appliance consumer mentality, we are beginning to see this in American and European audio circles. Triode amps, especially small simple ones, are the ultimate amateur constructor projects. Glorious sounds can be yours with five resistors, five caps, two tubes, and a set of transformers. Anyone of average intelligence willing to work and think can build a simple triode amp. Not only can you get maximum sound per dollar when you roll your own, maybe even ultimate sound period, you get a whole range of new rewards from audio when YOU build it. Many newcomers to DIY are finding that the time invested in learning the basics of building is the best audio investment they ever made. This is what the triode renaissance really has to offer us, aside from great sound — a path to new levels of involvement and new ways of being an audiophile. Try DIY. It can change your world.
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