Comparison Review by Noam Bronstein
I seem to chronically underestimate a lot of things. Notably to WoS readers, when I say something will be posted “by the end of July“, it might be best not to expect it until the leaves are dead on the ground.
What can I say, life has a way of changing our priorities, and I’ve been backlogged. This was a fun assignment, but also tedious. The bottom line? All of the 300B type tubes in this review are darn nice to listen to: the differences between them aren’t as dramatic as one might expect. That said, each tube had its strong points, and I tried to take a somewhat objective approach to the comparison work. I had help there, so some acknowledgements are in order first.
Thetubestore provided not just the tubes for this review, but an extended loan of the Elekit TU-8300R, the infamous “red amp” that won my heart over the summer. And since I wasn’t sure how long I could keep the Elekit, the very kind folks at Finale Audio kindly provided their super-refined F-3008 FFX SET amp, as well. Ironically, in a fiery Porsche Orange. This worked out really well. These amps were different in character, but both were quiet and resolving enough to make the differences between the tubes clear. The Finale amp stayed with me until the end of October, and many of the back to back shootout rounds were done with it. September was when most of the critical listening sessions happened. By that point, I’d even forgotten the prices on some of the tubes! Which probably helped me stay more objective.
Let’s back up a bit. Before starting, I ran all the tubes in for 12-15 hours, since they were new. I played music over the summer with all the tubes – I can’t say anything definitive about reliability, but they all performed well, with no issues, except for the Shuguang WE Replica tubes. One of them had a short, and since it was the only pair available at the time, they were unfortunately eliminated from the review.
With the WE Rep dropping out, only the Shuguang Treasure B-Z remained as a “premium” tube; hence, we can call this a comparison of “common-man”, or everyday 300B tubes. I did make an effort to get others, but none were forthcoming. In my view this is still an important review: the 300B is not a cheap triode by any means, and the most desired variants border on unobtanium. And many of those who are fortunate enough to own the likes of a Western Electric, Elrog, Takatsuki, KR, etc., are likely to keep them boxed up much of the time. The tubes on review here are the workhorses providing daily duty to thousands of 300B amp owners.
While I ‘lived with’ all these tubes, I realized that I needed some kind of test methodology in order to compare them. I needed to select some music that could be used to analyze the strengths or weaknesses in each tube. So I came up with a list of musical pieces, the attributes I’d be listening for, and a rating scale. These all went into a spreadsheet. The rating scale was 0-10, with minimum 0.5 increments allowed. The music ranged from Springsteen to Mussorgsky, but in between, mostly well-known jazz. I wanted to judge these tubes as “all-rounders”. No, 300B tubes weren’t designed to pound out heavy metal, rap or techno. So I spared them the shame. I did try to represent the music that “typical SET listeners” would likely play.
What did I learn in the process? 1. Chinese power triodes like the 300B have come a long way in the last few years. They’ve also gone up a lot in price. 2. Some things just sound like shit when they’re cold. 3. Shootouts are a lot of work. Mental note, don’t sign up for too many.
So is this a “definitive” review? Absolutely not. Even if all the control variables were lined up like ducks – my room, my system, my biases, and most of all, my hearing, could never be fully accounted for. Would it be more definitive with a panel of listeners? Probably not, just more complicated. DBT? No, thanks. These are tubes, for crying out loud. Tube rolling is supposed to be fun. Besides, even if a “consensus” of reviewers tell you that such and such is the best, it doesn’t mean you’ll hear it the same way. Having said all that……no one has done a 300B Shootout since around 2005. I got the opportunity, and thought yeah, it was time for one.
My last challenge with getting started, was, where to start? I mean, with the ratings. I decided arbitrarily (sometimes it’s great having no boss to ask), that the Shuguang 300B-98 would be the benchmark. What this means is that with each new piece of music, the 98 set the tone and received a 7.5, no matter what I thought of its performance. While this is a bit biased, and maybe unfair to the Shug, I actually really like this tube – and since it ships with a lot of Chinese-made amps, I’m not gonna lose any sleep about it. It’s in the middle of the pack, by default. What can I say, if you have a less arbitrary methodology, and can convince people to care, more powah.
So let’s get started!
Listening Session ResultsThese are the results of scoring each tube against the same music. Further below this table, you'll find a profile of each tube, with its' final ranking, more comments, and pretty pics.
Here’s the good news: although all of the tubes were pretty closely matched, I had no trouble picking a winner – when I ranked each tube against each test track, the Gena won 7 out of 8 times. Simply put, the PX was the best tube in the bunch, for me. It consistently had the most depth, the best tone, and the best capacity to handle complex music. And I really enjoyed the way it portrayed scale – it was “big” but not overblown. Height, width and depth of soundstage – combined with instrument separation – were all superior to the other tubes. Always. Again, the overall difference in sound quality wasn’t huge or dramatic, but with the Genalex, it was noticeable. And I didn’t have to be in an overly analytical listening session to notice it – in a decent system, I think it will be pretty obvious to most listeners.
The Lions appear to be ruggedly built, too. I think that in 2015 dollars, they represent an excellent value at $328 a pair. I give these tubes a top recommendation.
Also an excellent tube, though it is quite pricey in comparison to the others here. Shuguang’s Treasure 300B-Z is beautifully made, with its svelte profile and smoked-glass body contrasting a white ceramic base. “Smoked??” Don’t let me dumb it down like that – Shuguang calls it High Polymer Carbon Compound (HPCC) and the coating is supposed to catch stray electrons, or somesuch. Anyways. Very balanced sound, detailed, just slightly warm. Did I say detailed? This tube was incredibly detailed, it seemed to dig more out of the silver and black discs than the others. It also was very capable in terms of scale; sometimes I wondered if it was a little too big (artificially) that way. But I can’t say it ever bothered me.
The big story here was warm-up time: this tube sounds quite bad for the first 15 minutes or so after being powered on! Really. This is something to remember, because until I made note of it, I didn’t have consistency in my ratings. Once it settles in, the B-Z is as consistent as the others. I often wondered, “why” does this tube need so much time to come up to speed?? None of the others had this issue. Still, a very fine sounding tube. It scored very high, and consistently – but overall it’s only slightly better than the JJ and EH. The packaging is fine, but nothing special. So my hesitation with the B-Z, quite frankly, is the price.
Third place by way of the numerical ratings goes to the JJ Electronic. The Slovakia-made JJ is a physically big tube – it was the tallest and heaviest of the lot. Bigger isn’t always better, but in this case, I felt the JJ performed extremely well. It certainly wasn’t slow, sluggish or vague. At all. And yes, it had “big” sound – not the biggest in terms of soundstage, but it had a depth of tone, deep bass, and a rich, creamy midrange. It lacked the last bit of treble sparkle, but honestly, I didn’t find much to fault with this 300B. It’s built like a tank, and looks and feels like it’ll last a long time. As such, I think it’s priced very competitively.
The EH Gold Grid is just a fantastic tube for its asking price. It’s smooth, clean and just sounds excellent. It’s pretty close in price (and sonics) to the JJ, but I’d have to crown the EH as the value champ: if you want to squeeze the maximum performance out of a tight budget, this would be my pick. It didn’t beat any other tube here, in even a single particular attribute, but it also had no glaring weaknesses. Good, solid performance, and not dull or unremarkable sound either! Just a nice, sweet tube. This 300B sounded especially good in the lively Elekit amp. The packaging was also nice. Tube glow didn’t rate much of a mention. EH tubes tend to be rugged and very reliable, I expect the 300B’s would be no exception. Recommended.
This is an interesting tube – it has to be the lowest-priced “mesh-plate”* 300B introduced in the last 10-12 years. And they do indeed possess some advantage sonically over the other non-premium Shuggies, but in my tests, the differences weren’t that apparent unless I was really listening carefully. The cool part is that the “meshies” are priced lower than the solid-plate/graphite Shug’s, which for me makes them a no-brainer choice (read on..).
In the late 90’s and early 00’s we saw mesh-plate 300B’s introduced by TJ/Full Music, VAIC, and Emission Labs. They were billed and priced as premium tubes. Buyers should be aware that some mesh-plate 300B’s had reliability issues, specifically it seems that some of them had severely shortened lives when pushed with the “normal” 400VDC of plate voltage specified by Western Electric. They do well with 325-350, by the accounts I’ve heard. I don’t want to cast any aspersions on the Shuguangs, I’m just mentioning this as an FYI. In the majority of my listening with these, I used the Finale FFX, which runs at 350V. I also used it a few times with the Elekit amp, which runs 370 plate volts.
And, if such things matter (and we know they do), these had the best glow of all the tubes in this roundup. Although my camera doesn’t capture it well, check it out here in the second pic, photographed with a good Canon EF USM lens. Oh Mama!
*It should be noted that real mesh-plate tubes actually use thin strands of special metal, carefully meshed together in perfectly symnetrical patterns (think of a chain-link fence). These tubes are few and very far between. Most often what passes for mesh-plate nowadays is really a solid plate stamped with holes, which costs a fraction to make compared with actual mesh. Such is the case with these Shuguangs. Easy to see if you look at the full-sized pic.
This is the “benchmark” tube that got stuck with the 7.5 rating by default. But the cheapest tube in the roundup has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment listening with the 98. As mentioned, this is the tube you’ll see shipping with any number of China-made 300B amplifiers. Having said that, many on our shores claim that Shuguang has several grades of the same tube, i.e. export grade, OEM, etc. I really can’t comment on this, but I believe these days it might be overblown more than a real issue. In any case, this is a warm, musical tube with plenty of detail and lots going for it. If I were stuck with a pair of these, I’d still be quite happy. And if I bought an amp (like the Elekit) that came with them, I’d likely look at upgrading other things, including the input tubes, before I worried about replacing the 98’s with something better. I said so in my Elekit review, and after hearing the others, I still stand by that statement.
This is also the only non-white base tube here. And although some of the other tubes had their sex appeal (namely the B-Z had a very nice look), for me, a 300B should really have a traditional-looking black, or at least brown base.
What have we here? Again, a perfectly decent tube, but the 300BC just didn’t grab me, in any meaningful way. So it brings up the bottom of the pack. When I think back on it, and review my notes, I didn’t have much to complain about with the BC. It was fine. And I had no bias against it: in fact, for some reason I thought it was the cheapest of the bunch. And I love me an underdog.
But therein lies the issue. For whatever reason, this is the third most expensive tube in the comparison. Granted, the five least expensive tubes here are all within $50/pair of each other, but still. I heard nothing in the BC’s performance to endear it more to my heart than the others. I thought it was fine as the low price choice: and if it were $200/pair, I would dig up some kind words for it. But at $270, I’ll just nod and point you to the JJ, the EH, and the less-costly Shuggie siblings – all of which were better performers.
And that pretty much concludes The Great 300B Tube Shootout of 2015! It was fun, and I hope it’ll be a decent reference for a while. Thanks for reading it, and please feel free to add comments below.
With thanks also to our review sample supplier: