Best application of vacuum tubes in the audio chain?

Two of the best audio systems I’ve ever owned have been tube/solid-state hybrids. The first used a Van-Alstine modified Dynaco PAS preamp and an Adcom GFA-1 power amp into a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10a speakers. The second used a solid state preamp into a pair of VTL compact 100 tube power mono blocks into a pair of Klipsch LaScalas.

Move now to the 21st Century… The speakers I’ve settled on are the GoldenEar Triton Three+ ones with (solid-state) self-powered bass. If I use a solid-state DAC/preamp directly into solid-state power amps, the sound is too dry.

I’ve tried the speakers with a solid-state DAC into a Black-Ice Audio F22 all-tube integrated amplifier, and although it helps, it still lacks the warmth, dynamics, and liquidity I’m seeking.

So ultimately, I see four potential locations for tubes in my system:

  1. Tube DAC such as a Jolida / Black Ice (or a Chinese tube DAC) with solid state preamp and amplifier

  2. Solid-state DAC into a vacuum tube preamplifier followed by a solid-state amplifier

  3. Solid-state DAC and preamplifier feeding a tube power amplifier

  4. Solid-state DAC and preamplifier with a tube buffer and a solid-state power amplifier

Of these options, a tube DAC or tube buffer are (by far) the least expensive options. Unless I buy Chinese, tube preamplifiers & power amps come dear…

If I select any tube gear, I’d (much) prefer to buy equipment that uses 12AX7 (ECC83) low level tubes. They are widely available, inexpensive, and can be “rolled” for more or less tube sound.

In fact, if I start with a tube DAC, I could always add a tube buffer downstream to maximize the tube effects. OTOH, McIntosh and others make Tube Integrated Amps with DACs built in (although they are very high priced).

All this said, the best-sounding amplifiers I have in the house just now are some modified Heathkits that put out about 12 Watts.

So what’s the best way of recreating the sound of either of the “best” systems I mentioned in the first paragraph?


Schiit Freya N still on B-stock for $599 if you want a good tube pre-amp to get going without breaking the bank and begin to see. The “N” is octal - 6n1p, not inexpensive but certainly readily available. You could of course get a Freya + for $849 which uses the 6sn7. I have always been vaguely unhappy about the idea of a tube DAC vs. a solid state DAC and a tube pre-amp, but I’m perhaps being silly about “what does what in the audio chain” - I’m not the audio engineer many on this forum are. I certainly couldn’t tell you where you get “tube bang for the buck”.

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I fed my Triton Fives with a PrimaLuna Evo 400 pre-amp and amp. It was a good combination and the only reason I changed was that I upgraded my speakers to Tannoy Stirlings, which are definitely a step up.

Still use the PrimaLunas.

Don’t know about a tube DAC. Something tells me no about that idea. I’ve contemplated the Jolida, but have decided to upgrade to an R2R. I’ve also rejected the idea of a tube phono amp. The low output from an MC cartridge has the potential of being overshadowed by tube noise. One’s system can be too tubey.

It’s been written that the key to matching tube amps with speakers is to find speakers that don’t have drastic changes in impedance. So, for me, the Tannoys.

BTW - the best system I ever had was a 20 wpc Scott receiver and 18 year old ears.


I think I’ve arrived at a decision. My DAC can be solid-state; integrated amplifier will remain the Black-Ice Audio F22 tubed unit (although I’m going to try some tube rolling on the four 12AX7 inputs to see if I can get more of the “vintage tube sound” I’m looking for). Baldwin organ tubes seem to be a good potential choice.

I also think, however, that I want to buy a streamer (end point) that will do two things for me:

  1. Enable Roon RAAT Ethernet protocol

  2. Have a USB output to my DAC

I’ll do some research to see what devices might do those two things (at minimum cost) but if you know of such streamers off the top of your head, feel free to enlighten me, please.

I may, in the end, decide that my Apple TV3 with its TOSLINK output may be superior, but I at least want to try out a (theoretically superior) streamer product.

Thanks again for the help! - Glenn Young

Check how your amp is set up. Two of those 12AX7 tubes are probably ‘driver’ tubes and don’t significantly contribute to any SQ. Save yourself some money.

Have you compared 12AX7 vs. 12AU7 vs. 12AT7. Do you need the extra gain of the 12AX7s at the expense of warmth?

Not sure what Enable Roon RAAT. It means that the streamer has to be Roon Ready? I have an iFi Zen Stream, has roon only mode (airplay and the rest, but I did not use them). It was a good upgrade from using core directly with usb to dac. Now it is connected to the Mac mini core directly with ethernet and works faster than when both were on the same switch,

The amp came with 12AX7 tubes. Can I substitute 12AU7 or 12AT7 tubes? I’m not familiar with the pin configurations, bias requirements, or gain structures of the other tubes (but of course, I can look them up…). I have AU and AT tubes already in stock (my Heathkit uses them), but I’ve never tried them in the Black Ice amp…

As I understand it, RAAT is Roon’s implementation of Ethernet packet transfer protocol. To function, both the source and receiver must be RAAT enabled (otherwise, the transfer defaults back to DLNA). Many devices (like my Apple TV3) that will be recognized by Roon as endpoints do not have RAAT available and use DLNA instead. Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) is another flavor of DLNA, as I understand it.

As always, my understandings are generic on these issues and I could be wrong…

Just because a device is called “Roon-compatible” doesn’t mean that it supports RAAT.

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Essentially the same tube but with higher gain and some loss of warmth with the 12AX7 vs. the 12AU7, or so it is written. 12AT7 lies in the middle of the two extremes.

If you don’t need the gain, try the 12AU7. As I said before, check how your amp is designed. Two of those four tubes probably aren’t suppling anything to SQ.

RAAT is Roon’s transfer protocol for Ethernet, WiFi, and (to some degree) USB. Roon Bridge supplies transfer capability to those devices not natively using RAAT, i.e. not Roon Ready. Roon steadfastly refuses to implement DLNA.

Maybe roon could add a tube emulator into the DSP?