Sunday, August 25, 2013

Contrasting and Comparing 6DJ8 / ECC88 / E88CC Tubes

Note: This has been re-posted with comments removed.  An anonymous poster was using this thread to flame another tube seller--and we do not allow that type of comment on Old Stock Audio.


We listened to only one piece of music - James Galway playing "The Flight of the Bumblebee" - to contrast NOS tubes.  The FotB is the ideal piece of music for comparing tubes. It's short enough to listen to all the way through with each individual configuration, and a good recording has enough detail that you can easily evaluate the accuracy and color of the different options.

Because it's the holidays and we're all strapped for time, I'm going to use my notes to give a short overview.  Since tube prices do fluctuate (and many people will base their interest in a tube partially on how affordable it is), I'll list each tube in one of four different price categories, from $ to $$$$.
These are (for the most part) 6DJ8-type tubes. I will say that I was very surprised at how well a few of the budget tubes stood up to some of the more expensive collector items.

It's good to know that a person just entering the world of audiophilia has some really strong options regarding where to start and how much money to spend. This is a fun hobby/obsession, but not everybody can immediately drop a huge chunk of cash on a rare pair of tubes, especially considering the rest of equipment needed to get started. Based on what we heard at our last listening party, I'd recommend that the beginning (or even intermediate) audiophile start out with a few sets of good, mid-level tubes and focus on upgrading his/her amps, speakers, and turntable (and collecting high-quality LPs) until their system is good enough to clearly hear the difference in the feel and color of the specific tube types. That's the time to start playing around with tube collecting.

That said, here are my thoughts about some of the NOS tubes we recently listened to:

Range $5-75 USD:
Mitsubishi 6DJ8 (made for Mullard in the 1960s)
This is the first tube we listened to. The sound was breathy and I couldn’t hear the bass much, plus there was almost no detail. Almost everything after this sounded great in comparison.
Toshiba 6DJ8
This is the only tube that possibly sounded worse than the Mitsubishi. (We didn't listen to them in sequence) I couldn’t hardly hear what was happening at all, and my notes say "audio systems like this are why people think classical music is boring."
A very decent entry level tube! The bass had nearly the same quality as the middle-range, which seems to be rare in the budget options. I heard multiple attacks and dynamics in the orchestra at the same time, and a few details within the layers that I missed with some of the more expensive pairs. This was one of the last sets we listened to, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Westinghouse 6922
These have some detail and range. It’s not a particularly exciting tube but it does compare well against many of the other budget options.
These were fuzzy - the instruments lacked identity, the sound was muddy in the middle, the bass was almost lost, and the top was fair. Not my favorite.

Sylvania 6DJ8
High level of mid-range detail, individual parts really stand out, full range of dynamics. Very musical for the money. Entry-level tubes that will take you far.

Range $$150-250 USD:

Amperex 6DJ8
Amperex as a brand has a very clear, light, detailed sound. I prefer a warmer, less crystalline feel to my audio, but I can understand why these have a following. Music has a nuanced and thrilling quality when listening with these tubes.
Mullard ECC88
These have an acoustic quality with a fuller, richer sound, strong bass, and greater dynamic range. Less detail but I didn't miss it much as there was so much more happening in the over-all blend. A terrific choice for every-day listening pleasure.

$$$300-400 USD:

Amperex PQE88CC
Very clear and detailed (I could hear pretty much everything on the recording) but not as much of a quality increase as the price hike implies. Still, these are exciting and playful and a quality choice for the discerning audiophile and/or Amperex fan.
Siemens. ECC88
Fantastic level of detail in lower register and lovely dynamics all the way through. The strings and triangle sound very shimmery and sparkly indeed. These are lively and musical tubes – no surprise that they are hard to find. I want these for my next birthday/Christmas/whatever present.

$$$$1750+ :
Amperex 6DJ8 pinched waist
Best choice for clarity and smoothness; high level of pristine detail; extremely crisp. A bit colder than most live sound, but definitely worth it if you have the money.