If you ever shopped for vacuum tubes for your amp, you must have noticed that the prices can vary significantly for the same type. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see price differences of 5 or even 10 times between the least and most expensive tube of the same type.
Why is this, and more importantly, is the expense worth it?
Well, we have tried to provide some answers below.
Quality and Scale
Over many years of testing and selling tubes, we found that assembly quality does correspond with the price to some extent. Why would that be?
Well, it takes skilled labor to assemble the intricate innards, braze many pins and pull a strong vacuum when melting the glass tubes shut. And it takes a very skilled workforce to do it consistently well. All of this comes at a cost.
This is not to say that lower priced tubes are always of less quality. Some tubes are quality build and priced lower. This is often the case with tubes that are shipped in amps from the factory. Amp manufacturers demand tubes that won’t cause costly warranty issues. Amp manufacturers require lower cost too. Tubes that are shipped in amps are made in high enough volumes that allow the scale of economy to drive the price down while keeping quality high.
There is another more obvious reason why some tubes are priced much higher. It’s them gold plated pins.
Gold is often used on electrical contacts for reliability. Vacuum tubes are installed in sockets where pins make contact with socket receptacles, and the same applies here. In fact, when vacuum tubes were used in mission-critical equipment that required high reliability, they plated the pins with gold for the same effect.
Gold, as we all know, is not cheap. It’s also not easy to plate the vacuum tube pins consistently with the correct thickness of gold. We once had a stockpile of gold pin tubes that we couldn’t sell, because there was just… **too much gold**. The gold plating of the pin was too thick, and they wouldn’t fit into a socket. This was a costly mistake for the manufacturer who had trouble with quality control in general. That manufacturer has now been defunct for some time.
Now, here’s a question though. Is gold plated pin really worth the cost today? Tube amps are not used in an extreme environment, so from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t seem so. Here is the thing, though. For us tube amp aficionados, it’s not always about being pragmatic. Aesthetics and the pride of ownership is a big part of the pleasure of owning such a piece of equipment, too. If you own a beautifully designed amp that incorporates gold plating on every contact and socket, why wouldn’t you get tubes with gold plated pins also? It only seems proper for such a piece of equipment.
Vacuum tubes were mass produced in the US, UK, Germany (both) and other European countries from the 1940s until 1980s. Once tube factories in these countries shuttered, these American/British/German/Dutch tubes were no longer being manufactured.
There were stocks of these vacuum tubes, especially by the military in each respective country that stockpiled enormous volume. These stocks supplied the market for many years. As the years went on and these vintage American/European tubes became scarce, the ones in demand have entered more or less collectible status.
Prices of such tubes are entirely driven by market pricing. It may be hard to justify some of the pricing on these tubes, but on the other hand, you are likely to get similar pricing should you decide to sell it. So perhaps it may not cost you so much in the end if you only want to try. YMMV, of course. We don’t deal much in such tubes but there are tube vendors who specialize in it, and they can tell you more about it.
What's The Secret, Kenneth?
If you haven’t set your heart on collectibles or high-end tubes, one secret we can share is that re-tubing worn out tubes, especially the power tubes regularly is more important than what brand you replace with. The sonic difference between different tube makes is subtle compared to what you lose with worn out tubes.
The tubes wear due to heat, and heat dissipation is governed by the laws of physics and not so much by price. You just don’t get extra longevity by paying extra. A set of worn out pricey power tube can easily be eclipsed by a new less expensive set. So you are better off re-tubing more frequently with tubes that offer good value rather than tubes that carry top-of-the-line pricing.
To help you make such a selection, we have several pages to help you guide which tubes to buy below. We hope it would be of some help. Oh, and may your tube amp live long and prosper.
- Best 12AX7 Review
- Best EL34 Tube Review
- Best 6L6 Tube Review
- 6550 Tube Selection Guide
- Best 6DJ8 Review
- KT66 Review