Favorite Mid-Priced Tube Amp (ie:1k USD or less)?

Hello folks. My situation’s a little unique. I’m new to headphones but not audio: I’ve recorded and mixed my own music for years, but always on studio monitors, studiously avoiding headphones over $100 due to their reputation for messing up mixes, but that’s changed with new tech, so I just jumped from my Sennheiser tracking headphones (HD280 v2, $80 used) to Raal sr1a with Jotunheim R (a wee bit pricier). My primary intended use here is mixing, though pleasure is great too! E

ither way, I’m looking at tube amps to provide a little extra warmth before the Jotunheim, but nothing that will take away too much in resolution, so something that can do the job with warm clarity and gooey goodness that doesn’t get messy in the process.

Currently Drop La Figaro 339i looks good, seems like a sensible pricing, but I must admit I don’t know what to look for. I know its OTL, will it distort as essentially a preamp for the Jotunheim? Will it be too clean because its OTL? Are there better options in its price range, or only better than stock tubes? Would a Feliks Echo, Schiit Valhalla, Hagerman Tuba, or something else do better here?

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My three favorites under 1K are the Haggerman Tuba, SW51+(which is now basically unavailable) and the Crack with Speedball.
I don’t think any of them will be ideal as a preamp.

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Have you considered a Schiit Freya+ ? @MrCypruz gave it a “glowing” reference: :wink:

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The Echo has been amazing pairing with all the dynamic drivers I’ve plugged into it. Let me know if you have any questions!

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It’s an excellent pre-amp for the $$$! Check out YouTube reviews and written reviews on the inter web from renowned reviewers…Schiit did something special there and kept it below $900! Impressive Schiit indeed!!!

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Just wanted to note that not all headphone tube amps have preamp outputs. Some tube preamps don’t have headphone outputs, such as the Freya + and Musical Paradise MP701.

I recently researched tube units with both preamp and headphone capability in the less than $2k price range and came across the Linear Tube Audio MZ2, Decware CSP3, ZMF Pendant, and Feliks Audio amps.

You might want to choose a unit that allows you to change the gain such as by changing the input/driver tubes. With my MZ2, higher gain 12AT7 tubes work well with headphones, but lower gain 12AU7 tubes work better when used as a preamp fed to my stereo power amplifier.

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IMO, if you want tube sound from a preamp, get a tube based preamp. Cheap tube amps make for bad cheap preamps.

The saga is a good tube pre. Cleaner sounding than most would think. That may or may not be ideal considering you said “I’m looking at tube amps to provide a little extra warmth before the Jotunheim”. I don’t know how little you want.

I know you probably want to stay balanced because the Jotunheim is balanced, but balanced means different things for interconnects and amplifiers. They aren’t the same. Jot is still a fully balanced and differential amp regardless of if you use rca or XLR connectors.

When I had the Sagaheim setup (OG Bifrost > OG Saga > OG Jotunheim) it was a very good sound. I can only imagine it will be better with the new Saga + Jotunheim.

As for tube based amplifiers … there aren’t many I would suggest buying other than SW51+ and Crack. Anything north of those two in price are usually very mediocre and suffer from really bad diminishing returns until you hit the $2000-ish category where performance takes a massive leap forward.

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I’m still surprised at how true this appears to be. Is there a weird lack of synergistic components that don’t allow you to make something of a value amp between 1 to 1.5k? Or is it that the improvement just isn’t enough of a jump to make it really noticeable until you get into the 2k range where the internals are markedly better? Having looked up some of the pricing on the parts of some of these 2k or higher amps and you can see where the money goes and that may simply be the difference. One cap on my Starlett was over $70 if I recall.

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I tube amp that i had on loan that will support just about any headphone and it sounds great with the stock tubes is the Quicksilver Headphone amp. Right at your dollar amount. It’s on my list of purchases since it just blew away my Woo Audio WA 6Se which I sold about 3 weeks ago.

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I’m not too familiar with Quicksilver, but looks interesting especially the founder previously working for Magnepan. The transformer coupled made in USA headphone amp sells for $1k, which would be an achievement and a relatively under the radar gem. I want to get my ears on one.

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Yeah I’ve also found this to be the case in my experience. Tube amps are notoriously vulnerable to all kinds of noise/interference from the internal components, and what I’ve understood is that the biggest challenge in designing a good tube amp is to minimize the sonic footprint of the internals/circuitry in order to allow the tubes to show their colors to the fullest. So a combination of using high quality components and a fair amount of complex and also expensive manual labor are required to perfect the sound of a tube amp, and since tube amps are such a niche market where a manufacturer isn’t likely to be selling much more than maybe 100 units per year, profit margins on each individual unit need to be higher to allow the company to grow further at a healthy rate.

Inexpensive tube amps generally use less expensive off-the-shelf components and minimize the amount of manual labor required for building each individual amp. As a result they’ll often either have audible performance issues or just aren’t optimized to synergize well with a wide variety of headphones.

Edit: I should add that there are definitely really good tube amps to be found under $1000. A great example is Feliks Audio. Their headphone amps (Echo, Espressivo, Elise and Euforia) cover vastly different price points, yet each of their amps seem to receive an equal amount of high praise from a lot of people. Surely the Echo doesn’t perform like the Euforia, but manages to be free from performance issues like noise/interference and has a very likeable tube sound that works with quite a wide variety of headphones. Whether a Euforia would be worth it for anyone over the Echo completely depends on what headphones they have, and whether or not the difference in sound justifies the difference in price for them.

For someone who owns only non-flagship dynamic headphones like Sennheisers, Beyers, Focals or ZMF for example, the jump from an Echo to a Euforia would be much harder to justify than a mad man like myself, who wanted to pair an Empyrean, a $3k 32 ohm planar, with an OTL tube amp. So in my situation, I benefit a lot from what the Euforia provides over the cheaper Feliks amps. And that’s my main point, whether a 2k+ tube amp is what you should be looking at or not completely depends on what your requirements and preferences are.

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If I’m not mistaken the amp was introduced the first of 2019. I’ve owned their mid-monos and I still own one of Mike’s tube linestage pre-amps. Built solid.

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@chris962x, are you looking for a tube preamp that will connect to your Jot amp, or are you looking for a tube headphone amp that also happens to have preamp outputs? I think people are trying to give you examples of both.

As @ProfFalkin said above, if you’re happy using your Jot as your headphone amp and you’re just looking to add some “tubiness” to the Jot sound, then you can buy something that was designed first and foremost to be a preamp and/or buffer, like the Schiit Saga+ or Freya+.

If you want to go ultra cheap, the made in China FX Audio tube preamps like this or this are popular in other forums, but it looks like there is a hidden cost, because the FX Audio enthusiasts replace the tubes, op amps and even the wall wart. Probably still cheap, even after all the upgrades, depending on what tubes you get.

If you’re not the modding type, and just want a retired professor of electrical engineering to build you something out of good components, the Line 2CRM preamp has had good reviews.

I haven’t heard any of these, just giving you a list of things to look at.

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Can you provide a brief impression of this. It looks like an interesting hybrid amp.

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It’s safe to say that most tube amps that are considered to sound good cost at least $2k. We know that correlation doesn’t imply causation, so let’s try to unpack that (also see @Jsim’s comments above).

There are some poor performing amps that cost more than $2k.

Factors that may contribute to a sub $2k amp performing well despite being in no man’s land: DIY and thus less labor cost such as Bottlehead; cheaper cost of production outside of the US such as in Russia with the SW51+; OTL/hybrid/parafeed designs that don’t require the cost of expensive output transformers such as LTA/CSP3/Tuba/Lyr 3.

LTA and Decware focus on stereo where many of their products cost significantly higher than $2k. Some of the technology/R&D/know-how/processes present in their higher priced gear likely trickles down to their sub $2k gear, as opposed to a manufacturer whose $1500 tube amp is their most sophisticated and advanced offering. The base MZ2 and CSP3 priced at $1300 can be configured with upgrades and a total cost up to $3k.

Perhaps the sub $2k no man’s land guideline that seems to have originated in a prior year should be refreshed (or eventually and not considered fixed) or qualified to refer to transformer coupled tube amps - - for inflation, technology and innovation should improve over time for producers to be able to make equivalent quality products for less cost, change in cost/access to raw materials including stock tubes. Or maybe it doesn’t need to be refreshed and we declare the price of the Starlett, Pendant, T4 as the minimum entry point. Or maybe one has a preference for transformer coupled sonics (associated distortion) over OTL sonics, making the price of OTL amps irrelevant.

A fair fight might be to compare tube amps with similar caliber tube complements, which might mean upgrading the stock tubes in cases where the manufacturer skimps. Yes, an amp should perform adequately in its stock form, but here the objective is optimized sonics and declaring an absolute no man’s land.

That being said, advising $2k as a minimum is a helpful guideline and makes it very likely that one will end up with good tube sound, but should be put in context and perhaps is not an absolute. Maybe it’s all relative. Such no man’s land characterizations, while generally true, are on par with “if you ain’t listening to directly heated triodes, you ain’t listening.”

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Also keep in mind that with the commonly spoken of 2k or higher amps there’s very little garbage out there, especially from the boutique builders. It comes down to sound preferences, for the most part, at that level.

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Indeed, although spending $3k doesn’t guarantee happiness where I can imagine an instance of maximized profit margin.

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I’m interested what you think of it, I have a pair of Quicksilver M135 mono blocks on my stereo system which I have a soft spot for, so the headphone option is interesting, but pretty much the last thing I need is another <$1000 tube amp.

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Actually thinking about this, if your looking for a pre amp, the best bet might be to look at vintage valve preamps, there are a few of those that are very reasonably priced at this point, and it’s not like valve amp design has come a long way in the last 50 years.
I have a soft spot for some of the earlier Melos preamps.

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True about vintage valve preamps, although David Berning seems to have come across an innovation.

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