If you are anything like me in your approach to parting with money and, like me, you run amplification that uses 300B tubes, then from time to time you’ll be grinding your teeth at the prices charged for these absurdly fragile bits of glassware, metal, ceramic and plastic.
Hold an 845 or 211 in one hand and a 300B in the other. Compare them. No-one can tell me or any other sentient being that the 300B costs more to manufacture than the big broadcast triodes – yet premium new production 300Bs are consistently costlier, and in a few instances, hugely so.
I blame the Western Electric original. So highly revered is the WE for its sonic attributes, from beyond the grave it casts a long shadow, even with used pairs making eye-watering money,. As I type, eBay’s sold listings shows several pairs of WEs at $4,000 and upwards. The WE sets the sonic standard, but it sets a price benchmark for current production tubes, too. Shuguang’s humble WE copy – the 98 – can be picked up for $100 or less. But a number of brands led by Sophia Electric and Takatsuki charge upwards of six to eight times that per tube for their premium 300Bs.
I wonder if any of them will approach even half the WE’s intended operating lifetime of some 40,000 hours. Having been on the receiving end of several catastrophic failures of modern production 300Bs from China and Eastern Europe after only tens of hours of service, I have nowhere near as much confidence in them as I might in those now very costly 300Bs made by Western Electric.
A couple of years back, and for another publication, I reviewed Psvane’s TII 300B – this being the model with the grey graphite deposit on the inner surface of the bulb and a gold coloured base. They took some 200 + hours to stabilize sonically as they ran in, but once they had settled I liked them a lot. My brushes with Western Electric 300Bs up to that point had been fleeting, but my audio memory told me that the Psvane TIIs got quite close to the mid-band lushness of the WEs, yet offered more top and bottom extension. And so it was that when Psvane trumpeted the launch of its WE300B 1:1 Replica, claiming to have produced a 100% accurate Western Electric 300B clone right down to the materials used, I was itching to hear some. Fast forward a year or so, and courtesy of Ian Large at UK Psvane distributor AA Acoustics, I finally secured review samples to try at home.
When Psvane launched the WE Replica they set the retail price at a giddy $900 or so. How should we evaluate them? While it would no doubt be a fun exercise to pit the Psvane WE Replicas against other modern production tubes in a grand multi-brand shootout, I was more interested in testing Psvane’s claims of 100% replication by putting them to the test against WE originals.
At moments like these one needs an indulgent collaborator who also happens to own not just a pair, but ideally several pairs of Western Electric 300Bs and is willing to allow them to be rolled in short order through a reference system. When my pal Malcolm moved across the Channel to France – he owns both vintage and later production WEs – my local options shrank somewhat. Enter Audio Note (UK) owner and tube investor Peter Qvortrup who was not only happy to loan WEs from 1978, 1988 and 1998, but also agreed to allow the all-Audio Note system in the company’s demonstration suite at Hove to be commandeered for a listening test.
The date for the session changed a few times and ended up being an afternoon, too, and so it was that four of us convened in the room: Peter Qvortrup, Andy Whittle, Audio Note’s head of sales, and Dale Linzey who runs the on-site Audio Note dealership Audio Note Lounge, and me. Given the time constraints, we all had homes to go to and one of us – me – had a five-hour round trip, it was hardly going to be scientific or exhaustive, but it would be interesting, and fun, too. Andy, Dale and I competed for a sweet-ish spot in front of the speakers while Peter sensibly opted for a perch in the alcove behind the speakers. He has heard more 300B tubes than one could shake a stick at, and so was much more interested in observing our reactions to the trial than listening to yet more tubes.
The demonstration system comprised Quest Silver Signature monoblocks, a CD4.1X CD player, an M3 Phono preamplifier and a pair of ‘Big E’ speakers that were hooked up to the Quests with Isis copper speaker cables.
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