Budget tube amps/ tube hybrids

Pretty simple debate. Are “budget” tube amps worth it? Also, where should you Just say, I need to save up and buy that instead of settling.

As for me, I have never owned a tube amp but I do enjoy them and I am looking into it. There are a lot of factors in doing so and I am a bit hesitant as to where I need to draw the line for “worth it.” Any help/ recommendations are very welcome but I am probably more interested just to hear what you guys think about the question.

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Hey,

Well there are some good hybrids out there. A few that come to mind are the Cavalli tube hybrid, Schiit Vali2, and Project Ember II. I’ve heard all 3 and they are all good tube hybrids. With these amps, you get good value for money and you can change tubes out to get different sounds coming out of your hybrid amp. Tube swapping on these budget friendly hybrids I found to be really fun, if you have an assortment accessible to you.

Even without rolling tubes, they are enjoyable amps. I would recommend upgrading from stock tube when you can afford to do so though.

There is also tube amps like the ZDT Jr from Massdrop. Here is a review of it from SBAF.

So to answer your original question: Are budget tube amps worth it, I would say it depends. It depends on what you consider “budget” and what you consider “good enough to be worth it to you”. Your mileage may vary depending on your preferences.

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It depends on what you consider “budget” like @Fishcommander mentioned.

I have a Ember and have heard the CTH and Vali2, depending on the headphones you own or plan to get the Ember is the most flexible due to its adjustable output impedance but the CTH is a slightly better amp for the HD650/HD6XX but still not as good a pairing as with a BH Crack (+ upgraded/updated tubes). FWIW I’d consider the Lyr2 a good budget amp but this is assuming $500 or under is considered a budget amp which to me it is when compared to most of the other tube amps which are usually in the $1000+ range these days.

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There are definitely good “budget” tube amps available, and a few of the less well-known brands started to get discussed here. Beyond that, depending on what your budget is, and what headphones you wish to drive, they can be excellent.

As @Fishcommander and @DavidA have said, the Schiit Vali 2 is a very good starting point and isn’t fussy about headphone impedance. Going up in budget from there, my favorite until you get to $500 or so is the $249 Massdrop Cavalli Tube Hybrid. I’m a bit less of a fan of the Garage 1217 amps, but they certainly have their following.

Now, those all have a couple of things in common which are appealing if you’re new to tubes. First, they’re hybrids, so they are quite a bit more flexible than some pure-tube designs. Second they all just use a single tube, so experimenting with “tube rolling” is pretty inexpensive - as long as you’re sensible about it! But, as hybrids, their overall sound is less affected by rolling since the tube makes up less of the overall signature than would be the case with a pure-tube amp.

The Bottlehead Crack is a lovely little pure-tube amp and it pairs particularly well with the Sennhesier HD600, HD650 and HD800. However, in stock form the bass is a little on the flabby side with the HD650. As an OTL (Output Transformer Less) design it also really needs to be paired with high-impedance headphones … 300 ohms or more (it’s output impedance is 120 ohms, so damping factor is a potential issue).

From there we get to the Schiit Valhalla 2, another pure-tube OTL design, but one with more flexibility to pair with lower impedance headphones. Personally I think this is another that is at it’s best with the HD6XX. It’s a bit more daunting to tube-roll with this amplifier as it runs two pairs of tubes - but the effects of doing so are quite a bit more pronounced than with hybrid designs.

The Lyr 2, which is no longer made, has fantastic drive and slam, and a ton of power, but isn’t the last word in refinement or resolution. The Lyr 3, which is a rather different beast, is a very nice little hybrid amp though. Plenty of power, the ability to put a DAC or a Phono stage in it and use it as an all-in-one, ability to drive pretty much any headphone you like, and a single tube that makes rolling cheaper and easier.

Something of an unobtanium amp is the “Laconic Night Blues Mini” with @Fishcommander references (as the Massdrop EC ZDT Jr.). I’ve not had a chance to listen to this one, but once the Massdrop units are shipping, and the inevitable rash of sales from users that have since moved on, starts (or the unit gets re-dropped), I intend on picking one up to see how it is.

We’re up to $500 now. Let’s push that a little though …

The Woo WA3 is a really nice, pure-tube, OTL amp. Again best used with high-impedance headphones, it has a bit better control over the bass with something like the HD650 than the stock Crack does, and doesn’t have to be self-assembled. At $599 it’s an interesting option. There’s a certain clarity to the presentation with OTL designs and the right headphones that is quite compelling.

But another $100 sees you to what I think is the single best-value headphone amplifier that Woo Audio make, and that’s the WA6. I ran one of these in my bedside rig for a long time. Typically with HD650 or Massdrop Fostex TH-X00 (Purpleheart) and it was unfailingly engaging. It responds very well to tube rolling and is worth spending a good fraction of the amp’s overall cost on doing so. Drop a Sophia Electric Punched Plate 274B in as the rectifier, and signal tubes to taste, and it not only delivers the goods sonically, it looks gorgeous doing it.


I’ve heard a few other relatively inexpensive tube amps, including models from Little Dot that were not bad at all, but all were tweaked quite heavily at that time.

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I bought a Little Dot 1+ last week out of curiosity and frankly, I think it sounds worse than the iPhone Lightning Dongle. It kind of just makes everything sound veiled and unengaging but I also hear a bit of harshness coming though. I’m really confused by it. I generally tell people to avoid tubes unless they’re ready to spent a good bit of money, but I have heard good things about the CTH.

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The two I heard were the Mk III and Mk IV, both of which had been tweaked/modified fairly extensively. I’ve not heard them stock, nor have I heard the 1+ specifically - so I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t great OOTB.

I’ll have to find the model number as there was a “Dark Voice” unit, also modded, which was also not bad. But again, “not bad” is predicated on them being modified rather than run stock.

The MTCH is probably the sweet spot amp before you get to the Woo stuff and then the big-boy amps. At least based on the units I’ve heard. It takes about 50-100 hours for the tube to settle in (not untypical at all), but is otherwise very good and drama-free.

I have both the MTCH, and bottlehead with speedball on the way, pretty excited to play with tubes (these will be my first ones). I’ve wanted the Fireflies since my first dive into HiFi headphones… They are just beautiful.

Give them some time with the stock tubes first. The MCTH, in particular, ships with a very good tube that’s hard to beat for sensible (in relation to the amp and the fact that it’s a hybrid) money.

I’ve been tempted many times by the alluring looks of the WA7. Unfortunately, they don’t sound as good as they look. They’re not “bad” … just you can get better performance, for less money, even within Woo’s own line-up. In particular, with the first-generation unit the amp part is a lot more competent than the DAC. The 2nd gen units are more balanced in that regard.

Though as an all-in-one solution, if you care enough about aesthetics, there isn’t much that challenges them and I’d still take a set if I needed a compact, desktop, all-in one solution for moderately easy to drive cans.

Thank you for the tips. I’ll probably stay stock for 200+ hrs just to get past break-in and get a solid experience with the tubes before I even begin looking at tube rolling.

Yeah they, are definitely a nice to have not need to have for me. But I didn’t know they weren’t the greatest combo, which is good to know. I tend to be a function over form (to my wifes chagrin sometimes) but I do love good aesthetics and clean lines (but my ADHD tends to make clutter which goes against my idealistic way of being, good thing my wife is an OCD neat freak lol)

Former owner of first gen WA7 here, Its the best looking amp that I’ve seen so far and I agree that the DAC was the weak section but also it was very limited in tube rolling so I it was sold off for a Lyr2 and BH Crack which both sound better and look halfway decent compared to the WA7 IMO.

Yeah I plan on doing some DIY beautification to my Bottlehead when I get it… I was thinking Purpleheart wood, with custom volume knob, and I want to get the metal top as flat deep black as I can. I would then like to find some nice Brass or Copper “feet”, and maybe Copper/brass joint covers for the corners. Or I might go with all flat black accents and just let the Purpleheart wood shine =)

With all due respect - There is something very wrong somewhere in your audio chain
The LittleDot 1+ is an exceptional amp that performs way way above its price point
Maybe your tubes are shot?
Also You don’t need to spend a lot of money at all tubes at all. You can find all the tubes needed for LD1+ NOS on eBay. On average you wouldn’t spend more than £12 on a matched pair
I would definitely bin the stick tubes though that come with them! Headfi has a list and exhaustive review of all the different types of tube and what they can offer. After trying many though I did find one type that was exceptional: 6HM5 EC900 EI Yugoslavia - Platinum matched pair :slight_smile:

I’m not sure something is broken; it doesn’t sound so bad that it may be the case, but it doesn’t sound particularly impressive compared to even a CMoy. It came with some GE Jan 5654W tubes so I have no idea if this is stock or not. I’d consider experimenting with tubes but since I don’t see myself using it much I’m probably going to chuck it on eBay for like $60

Those tubes are ok…the only other nice tubes aside from the ones I indicated were the Mullards
What headphones are you using?
The CMoy (which I also own) sound like a ‘toy’ in comparison!
I wonder if someone put in a lower quality DAC chip?
Im a bit baffled that your particular amp is sounding below par. It would be great if we could find something wrong with it that could be fixed.
I just wish you could have had the same eargasms my own amp has given me ! :slight_smile:

I wouldn’t get too hung up on why one person has a different perception/evaluation of any given piece of gear to someone else. Beyond simple, personal, preferences, things like frame-of-reference are a big factor. And personal bias is, outside controlled blind testing, an inescapable part of being human.

One of the big failings of Head-Fi, for me, was the attitude that disagreements in evaluations became damn-near religious arguments. Endless back-and-forth, often devolving into insults/questioning one’s sanity/hearing/parentage. In reality, it’s just not worth it.

It’d be nice to see things here not go down that path. People like different things. Absent reasonable evidence that something is broken (e.g. a description of extreme clipping or obvious distortion with what should be an easy to drive headphone or well-known source) the chances are it’s just down to different synergies or preferences and not something to debate.


For me, that the Little Dot units I heard had more expenditure in mods/tweaks than the units actually cost was enough to make me just go with one of the Woo units instead - as they still sounded better to me, while being less expensive overall.

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My HD800s are out being painted so I don’t really have anything particularly great to try it with but I did use an HD700, PM2, Nighthawk, and T1 mod with it and had the same complaints consistently.

Like what Torq said, it probably comes down to personal preferences. I do see the appeal in the LD1+ if you’re looking for something less sharp-sounding than an O2 or Magni 2, I just don’t hear the sort of technical ability I expect from something around this price, which may not be its goal.

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I cracked up at this…but seriously let’s keep the trollollolos at bay for as long as possible (if not forever). We are all unique snowflakes, and the protagonists to our own stories. Keep that in mind.

Also during my time in Search and Rescue (amongst other things) I came up with this quote that sums it up in my opinion (see what I did there)

“One mans common sense, is another mans insanity”
~Tyler M.

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Good points. I didn’t pay much for mine. As I say I only found ONE type of tube that made it sound very good. ALL the other tubes I tried were good-to ok at best :wink:
Interesting. I think we have [over all] fairly different sounding characteristics of headphones
So on another level Im interested to learn your experiences

Admittedly I use the LDT1+ for a relaxed musical enjoyment whilst the I use the 02 for a more reference experience. I have another 4 or 5 amps all of which of course work better with some headphones than others… but Im sure we all know that here :smiley:

As others mention, there can be so many components in ones audio chain all of which can make a tiny to huge difference in sound
Ive been enjoying mostly 600 ohm flagship type 1980’s headphones with the LD1+ which certainly seems a nice synergy

@Torq - We are just politely chatting. Relax xXx

I faced the same questions several years ago and went with the entry-level approach: I got a $60 Bravo Audio V2. It added color, fullness, and depth to my Sennheiser HD600s so I was happy with the purchase at the time…but:

  • I immediately recognized its weaknesses when I heard something better
  • Its open-body design is fragile and an accident waiting to happen (and, yes I shocked myself several times);
  • I quickly spent another $25 on a better replacement tube

The value will depend on whether you like the tube sound and whether your particular headphones stand to benefit from a tube. Some amps add more character than others.

I wouldn’t bother with a tube amp for some brands/models of headphones as the benefits will be subtle or nil. However, tubes transform other headphones and are well worth it. There are plenty of inexpensive competitors today, and some are better reviewed than the V2.

I. am curious as to why some people own so many types and brands of headphones and earphones. I wonder if some collect them as a hobby and hardly ever use them or is there a slice of the spectrum they like with a particular model. I own an Oppo Model 1 and Audeze LCDi4 and have given to charity my B&W 5 and a Sennheiser headphone along with some lesser brands. I am quite content with what I have. As many of you guys have said it takes all kinds of people with different tastes and opinions and I respect that.