Review by Tim Smith
Tubes supplied by www.thetubestore.com
When Jon Esau of www.thetubestore.com offered a set of five EL34-type tubes for review (JJ KT77; JJ EL34 II; Svetlana EL34; Genalex Gold Lion KT77 and Mullard EL34) I jumped at the opportunity. We agreed that I’d throw a few of my own tubes, including the Tung-Sol EL34B and Shuguang 6CA7-Zs I purchased from thetubestore.com over the years, into the mix. As a diehard EL34/6L6 tube addict, I could not imagine living like Hans Gruber, “on the beach, earning 20%,” without a little Musical Paradise MP-301 amp by my side decked out with EL34s or 6L6s. Alas, between the receipt of the tubes last fall and the publication of this review, work and family life got busier than anticipated. The silver lining is that a drawn out review process made me work more carefully than I might have otherwise. Consider this a slowly marinated review.
Frankly I’m glad it has taken so long, since I fear that had I rushed in I might have fallen victim to what scientists call ‘experimenter bias’, which occurs when expectations regarding results bias the outcome. Each and every tube I review below–including the relatively unheralded inexpensive ones–is eminently listenable, a testament to the high-quality production levels of today’s Russian and Chinese EL34 manufacturers. I can recommend them all. I do not belong to the Church of the NOS Mind; in my experience two of the least satisfactory of my 6L6s and 5881s are ‘Holy Grail’ US-made NOS tube from the 1960s.
The benefit of using tubes with a small single-ended amps like the Musical Paradise MP-301 mk3 or the Coincident Dynamo mk1 is that it’s easy to shield the amp from view and do blind tests. I had my wife help out on a few occasions and I must confess that the only tubes that were readily identifiable were entry level Shuguang (not under review here) with their occasional touches of glassiness and a less than ravishing midrange as well as the fabulous Shuguang black bottles and the Gold Lion KT77s, which together stood out from the crowd due to their tighter bass and greater sense of dynamics. Having said that, I could not distinguish between the Shuguang and the Gold Lion but together they stood out as equal or better to NOS tubes I’ve tried. With the other tubes under review, I could not tell them apart when I listened blind, except on one occasion when I guessed the Mullard–but it might just as well have been the Tung Sol, which can sound similar. It’s far easier to distinguish between a merlot, a cabernet sauvignon and a malbec than it is to distinguish between vacuum tubes, especially when one is evaluating more than half a dozen at a time. I had no way of measuring ‘noise’ so I did not try but I will comment on detail retrieval which might serve as a sort of proxy for noise evaluation. The equipment used to conduct this review was as follows:
Amplifiers: Musical Paradise MP-301 mk2 and mk3 Deluxe version; Coincident Dynamo SE34 mk1 and the mk2 version I just reviewed for www.6moons.com
Loudspeakers: Harbeth Compact 7 ES-3; Tekton Design M-Lore; Pioneer SP-BS41-LR; Mordaunt Short Carnival 2
Sources: Project RPM 10.1 with Dynavector 10×5 and Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V; Marantz SA15-S2 Limited Edition SACD player; Marantz CD 5004 as transport with Muscial Paradise D-1 DAC with Western Electric 396A tubes; Marantz CD 5003 as transport with MHDT Labs Paradisea+ DAC.
Music (a very partial list…):
The level of subjectivity involved in a multi-tube review is probably quite high–so high that I hesitate to put numbers or precise rankings down on paper. Having said that, I can state without reservation that, to my ears, three tubes stood out time and again: the Gold Lion KT77, the Shuguang Treasure series black bottle 6CA7-Z, and the new production Tung Sol EL34B. The Gold Lion and Shuguang are so good I am uncomfortable declaring an outright winner so I have awarded them a tie for 1st place. Taking price into account, however, would give the Gold Lion a slight edge.
You’ll notice above in the photo that I also used tubes from my own collection including two that are no longer in production: the RFT Siemens and the SED Winged C. I won’t comment extensively on these tubes but I’d probably rank the RFT just below the two first-placed entries by Gold Lion and Shuguang. I’d place the SED with the Tung-Sols and Mullards. Without further ado, here are my conclusions.
1st Place (tie): Genalex Gold Lion KT77 ($49.95 each. All prices in USD)
Essentially, a perfect tube. Quiet and unfussy. It works with every musical genre. The sound quality is right up there with the Shuguang black bottles but this comes at half the price. This tube does it all–huge reserves of power and headroom, a massive airy soundstage but in this case airiness is not a sign of thinness or an unsaturated midrange. For hard rock and complex orchestral music, here’s your tube. It’s no slouch with jazz but tone freaks seeking an even more saturated midrange might prefer the Mullards or the Tung-Sols. Highs are unusually detailed and well defined but never glassy or edgy. This tube excels in scraping up micro details. The bass is deep and dry, not quite as punchy and elastic and ripe as the SED Winged C or the Tung Sol EL34B, but bone dry. There is a touch of warmth but this tube is not a tone freak’s dream. It’s more neutral. This is the only serious challenger to Shuguang and Psvane’s best offerings, and again, it’s half the price. My vote for the King of the EL34-family.
1st Place (tie): Shuguang Black Treasure 6CA7-Z ($97.95 each)
It’s a photo finish with the Gold Lion KT77 and it comes down to personal taste and my factoring in price to the equation. This Shuguang might be, objectively and regardless of price, the better tube. This tube has slightly deeper bass than the Gold Lion KT77. If money’s no object I’d go with the Shuguangs. The only drawback of this tube is that even after hundreds of hours of play–and perhaps for the life of the tube–you will get start-up rattling until the tubes arrive at a stable operating temperature. This has no effect on the sound unless you are using headphones with a small amplifier like the Musical Paradise or the Coincident, in which case, this tube may not be suited to a desktop setting unless you’re willing to wait ten minutes after start-up to do serious listening. These caveats aside, the Shuguang is a wonderful tube, equal to NOS legends in many ways. It is above all a powerful sounding tube with a relentless sense of drive, of propulsion. It’s got a bit of that 6L6 SED Winged C elasticity or bounce to it, which I find highly addictive. It’s warmth level is similar to the Gold Lion. This is the very best tube for complex hard rock and orchestral music–nothing you throw at it will lead to congestion. Guitars are piercing, unusually well defined, with a bit of that bite and tonal compression associated with Sylvania 6L6s from the 1960s and 1970s. Where the JJ KT77 is open and airy, this Shuguang is more tightly coiled. And when it pounces–bam!–it’s arresting. In a word, it’s a perfect tube. And highly reliable. This was from my personal stash; I have used these tubes for three years with no problems. Build quality is without parallel among modern production EL34-types.
2nd Place: Tung-Sol EL34B ($27.95 each) GOLD STAR WINNER
Move over Mullard and let Tung-Sol take over. I have only one burning desire; let me listen to this fire bottle. I was once smitten with the new production Mullards–fine tubes to be sure–but once bitten by these Tung-Sols I’m a believer. In my setup, simply the very best value in current production EL34 family tubes. This is a warm, thick, dense tube with world-class tonality for lovers of guitar music from Esteban to Stevie Ray Vaughan. This tube is to the EL34 family what the Tube Amp Doctor 6L6s are to that variant: a taste of the very best at an Everyman’s price. The Tung-Sol has no obvious shortcomings. What it does, it does well. It does not try to dig too deep so it doesn’t fall victim to bloat nor does it shoot for the stars. It is seamless from top to bottom. No particular frequency calls out for attention. I doesn’t break up or sound hollow when pushed in my two amps. Works with everything, and makes guitars and vocals eerily lifelike. Perhaps the most musical and pleasant tube on review here. Not a trace of ‘clinical’ sound to be heard. This was from my personal stash. I bought these tubes from www.thetubestore.com about 16 months ago and they have not failed me. GOLD STAR WINNER FOR UNPARALLELED QUALITY AT SUCH A LOW PRICE.
3rd Place: Mullard (new production) EL34 ($25.95)
Most of what I have said about the Tung-Sol applies to the Mullard. I find them to be similarly warm, similarly elastic. But in my setup I find the Tung-Sol to have a bit more drive, a bit more punchiness. When I want to warm my bones beside a thermionic fire, this is the tube I choose. Just like when I had an EL84-based amp–I always dusted off the new production Mullards for warmth. This EL34 is a bit rolled off on the top which makes it well suited to poorly recorded, bright 70s Prog Rock. Until I tried the Tung-Sol, this was my favourite affordable EL34. There’s a hint of that famous SED Winged “C” tonality but at a more agreeable price. In any case the Cs are now NOS (and thetubestore.com has some supplies). Shed no tears over that: here’s a pretty good replacement. When I want George Benson or Jim Hall’s notes to float like liquid dollops of butter, this is the tube I reach for. Warm and musical with never a touch of brightness and a rich midrange. Bass is adequate but nothing to write home about.
Just Missed the Podium: JJ KT77 ($19.95 each); JJ EL34 II ($19.95 each); Svetlana EL34 ($23.95 each)
Let me reiterate that I would be happy using either one of these three fine tubes and perhaps in a different circuit they might outperform some of the tubes above such as the Mullard and Tung-Sol. Don’t let the low prices of these tubes bias you against them: they’re wonderful products. I put all three of these tubes in one category because they are excellent and I don’t trust my ability to rank tubes to within a hair’s width, meaning, really, what’s the difference between a sixth and seventh-ranked tube?
My personal taste, however, probably leads me to shy away just a touch from these tubes. They all display just a little too much openness or airiness in their highs for me to place at my top. The Svetlana EL34 surprised me in this regard: trumpet was wonderfully airy and realistic as were highs of all sorts, but in calling attention to itself in this manner it made the tube seem voiced a bit too much in that direction, reminding me that its bass prowess was not comparable to its ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Others might prefer this sort of characteristic. I am a meat and potatoes and gravy warmth hound, not an open/airy/details freak. Other than the startling highs, I found this to be an entirely ordinary (in the good sense) tube that did most of what I want. It’s reasonably fast and powerful with good tight bass. If I had never heard the tubes I have ranked higher, I would be very happy with this Svetlana. Highly recommended for those who like a little more air than moistness and density.
I can easily see how some listeners might put the JJ KT77 right up there with the Gold Lions. This may well be the very best value in the whole lot of tubes reviewed here. Holy dynamic swings Batman! The JJ is a fabulous tube: powerful with tons of headroom. Great with hard rock, great with Chris Squire’s bass. Wonderful with classical, conveying a great sense of air and soundstage. JJ could easily double the price of these fine tubes–they’re worth it, and then some. Since I crave a bit more warmth, and don’t care too much for crunch, I have knocked the JJ off my podium but in the spirit of ‘progressive’ education, Rudy can’t fail and everyone’s a winner here. Seriously, it pains me that I cannot declare all of these tubes ‘winners,’ including the JJ EL34 II, a tube I struggle to describe–which might be its virtue in the sense that first, it does no harm. I could find no obvious faults with this tube–and no obvious category-winning attributes either. It is pleasant and it does the job. In a crowd of stars, it is perhaps overshadowed but its peers are tough acts to follow.
Take these rankings with a teaspoon of salt: I am personally biased against kinkless tetrodes whether of the 66, 77 or 88 sort. Each one I’ve tried except tonight’s co-winner, the Gold Lion KT77, comes a bit short of floating all my boats. If I want solid-state crispness, I can get that in my solid state amps. I don’t need it from my tubes. Your mileage may vary. You might want just one good all-rounder tube and the JJ KT77, JJ EL34 II and Svetlana EL34 certainly fit that bill. NOS you say? I ain’t gonna go your way, Lenny. Save your money. Buy any one of these seven tubes. These are the best of times.