See this? It’s an HH Scott Tube amp. I’ve owned two of them.
When I moved into my mountain lair in 2005, the house was almost a time capsule. It came pre-wired for sound because swank people in the ’60s did that sort of thing — even in their summer homes in the mountains. I opened the hall closet to see a stack of old audio equipment: An old Harman-Kardon tuner, a turntable, a reel-to-reel tape deck, a bunch of Herb Alpert and Brazil 66 records and tapes, and an HH Scott tube amplifier.
Do you know about tubes? Do you know why they’re supposed to be good?
Vacuum tubes were the first method of electronic amplification. Electricity is fed through three metal prongs sealed in a small vacuum tube. The middle prong uses a small voltage to modulate (or vary) the flow of electricity passing from one outside prong to another. After it’s warmed up a bit, whatever you’re feeding into that middle prong (the grid, in this example) starts flowing through wires connected to speakers. And you have music — or something.
They are feeble, fragile, bulky, expensive, inefficient, short-lived, power-hungry things, these tubes. They also aren’t very powerful. Those plates can only flow so much current before they distort or burnout. That tubes tend to sound magnificent is the only reason they weren’t entirely replaced by transistors fifty years ago, nor by integrated circuits-on-a-chip in the 1970’s. There’s nothing that sounds like good music through a tube amp.
The consensus as to why this is: Even-numbered harmonics. Every sound has a base frequency (or fundamental), but most also have harmonics that ascend as multiples of the base frequency. Hit a note on the piano. Try the A above middle C. That should be about 440 Hertz. But you’re not hearing just that 440 Hertz. You’re also hearing something at 880, and something else at 1320, and something else at 1760, and so on, right up to the limits of the vibrating strings — or your own hearing. The first harmonic or fundamental frequency is called an “odd” harmonic, mainly because it’s the first harmonic. One is an odd number. The second harmonic is “even,” and so on. See how that works?
Tube amplifiers emphasize even-numbered harmonics. Transistors emphasize the odd ones. There are other reasons, but this is mainly what makes a tube guitar amp sound almost like music no matter who’s playing through it, while a cheap transistor amp sounds like — well — a cheap transistor amp. Harsh. Tinny. Thin. Shrieking. The human ear likes the even harmonics.
There’s also the fact that overdriven tubes sound far better than overdriven transistors. Overdrive a transistor and you get fuzz and buzz. Overdrive a tube and you get something I like to describe as mellow whallop.
Anyway, I looked at that HH Scott tube amp in the closet of my mountain lair for a few years. I didn’t bother playing it much. My ex and I didn’t agree much on music. I liked almost everything, and she liked almost everything else. So one year I decided to list that amp on eBay and get some money out of it.
I hooked it up first to see if it worked. I plugged it into a pair of small, inexpensive-but-ok speakers I had lying around. I connected a CD player and put on a Duke Ellington collection from when he was in his Elvis-years–about 1937.
It was good.
It was so good, it almost brought me to tears.
In my little office, I heard music. I felt like I was hearing music for the first time.
When I listen to live classical music at the symphony, I try to put myself in the shoes of the common people of the 17th or 18th centuries — long before recorded music. They didn’t have access to good music at their fingertips. When a decent orchestra or combo played, it must have seemed otherworldly to them. Those stories about musicians being honored as visiting gods started making sense to me when I looked at it that way.
As I listened, I felt moved to do something. I had to keep that amplifier. It had made me happy. But then I realized that I had already listed it for sale on eBay. Someone from France had already bid it up. I considered lying to him — telling him I tested it and it didn’t work. Sorry. Auction closed.
But then I realized I was heading into a time in my life when I didn’t know where I’d put a fifty-pound tube amplifier, and earbuds would probably need to provide all the music I’d be able to enjoy. It was a compound sadness.
That Frenchman — whomever he was — paid a few hundred bucks for the amp, and a few hundred more for me to package it up and ship it off to Lyon.
I sent it with love.
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