larry fisher, a former New York Times reporter, writes about business, technology and design.
Published April 7, 2022
There are a thousand stories behind the effort to blunt Russian aggression with economic sanctions, and this is one of them.
First there was oil, gas and wheat. And now... vacuum tubes? To the list of goods that are suddenly scarce following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, add these hoary electronic devices originally conceived in the 19th century. Hard numbers are elusive, but the vast majority of vacuum tubes in use today were manufactured in Russia, which banned their export (along with hundreds of other products) in March in retaliation for Western sanctions.
Now, few people care about vacuum tubes — or, for that matter, know what they are — but those who do care, care a lot. Guitarists have long treasured audio amplifiers using tubes in place of solid-state components for their responsiveness and, ironically, the way they distort tones when they are pushed hard (think Jimi Hendrix). Some audiophiles, the sort inclined to drop an extra $20,000 for the state of the art, treasure tube-based amps for their warm romantic sound and some ineffable sense of harmonic rightness. It’s not just nostalgic boomers, by the way. Generations X, Y and Z have embraced tube amps along with vinyl LPs and film cameras.
This is not to say that the loss of access to freshly made vacuum tubes should make us think twice about punishing the Russian economy for the invasion. Tube audio is a niche within a niche. And since the companies making the highest-end amps are all privately held, no one even knows how much revenue is at stake. But the rarified market does amount to many millions, if not small-digit billions, of dollars. And Russia’s tit-for-tat announcement that it was freezing tube exports spawned a wave of panic buying, along with price hikes and hoarding.
Pass the Quaaludes
The wild rumpus got going with an announcement of the freeze from Electro-Harmonix, a U.S. company that sells tubes under several brand names — all of which are manufactured at its factory in Saratov, a city of 800,000 about 500 miles southeast of Moscow. Some tube vendors raised prices immediately, while others took their websites offline for the duration. Even those with plentiful inventory have been daunted by the volume of orders.
“Where are the Quaaludes?” moaned Kevin Deal, proprietor of Upscale Audio, a major online retailer of tubes and audio equipment. “People are acting really foolish right now, buying tubes when they don’t need them. I will sell tubes at a reasonable price to my customers who have bought from us for years, not to some rich guy who’s looking to be the King Midas of tubes.”
Upscale has plenty of tubes, Deal said, but has suspended sales because it has run out of tested ones, and tube quality varies. “Every vacuum tube is different, and because they are made in Russia, China and Slovakia, these people are not inclined to say, ‘this tube’s a little funky, I think I’ll throw it in the trash,’” he said. “In a time like this, when all the top shelf stuff gets sold, you’re going to be left with more crap.”
Deal estimates Electro-Harmonix’s market share at 75 percent or more, so although there are other manufacturers, they can’t easily pick up the slack. A company called JJ, which makes tubes in the old (Nikola) Tesla electrical equipment factory in Slovakia, is still shipping, as is Psvane of China — but these companies are overwhelmed with orders now, too. There is even one maker left in the U.S., Western Electric, which was long the manufacturing arm of Ma Bell and has been producing tubes for 100 years.
Western Electric only makes one type of tube, but is considering broadening its offerings. “Our latest factory is equipped to handle production of multiple tube types and, in light of recent worldwide events, we believe our capacity to do so may become vital to the industry,” a company statement read.
Mike Matthews, Electro-Harmonix’s owner, once faced off with the Russian mafia when they tried to take his factory. Now he says he’s worked out a deal with the Kremlin.
Easier said than done. Tubes may seem primitive and, compared to microprocessors with 100 billion microscopic electronic switches on a sliver of silicon, they certainly are. But they’re still intricate, almost artisanal products, and both the engineering and manufacturing talent needed to design and make them are scarce. One entrepreneur bought the tooling from an old factory in the former Yugoslavia, but has never produced any tubes. Another in California has ambitious plans, but no product either.
Mike Matthews, Electro-Harmonix’s owner, once faced off with the Russian mafia when they tried to take his factory. Now he says he’s worked out a deal with the Kremlin. “The export restriction on Russian tubes has been resolved for now,” he announced. “We are accepting new orders, processing back orders, and hoping to resume shipping in April.”
There is a bit of bad news buried in the announcement, though: “Considering various economic pressures, we must raise our wholesale prices.” Left unsaid is how Matthews persuaded the Russians, how Electro-Harmonix will pay for those tubes given restrictions on sending dollars or euros to Russia, and whether the U.S. or EU countries will allow them to be imported.
Reintroducing the Edison Effect
But let’s back up a moment for a bit of technology history. In 1880, Thomas Edison stumbled across thermionic emission, the propensity of electrons to flow from one heated filament to another across a vacuum, while he was trying to build a better light bulb. In 1904, John Ambrose Fleming made the first simple vacuum tube — a valve of sorts to control the flow of current — and tubes quickly became vital to consumer electronics and defense applications (even computers) and stayed that way well into the 1960s. (Cathode ray tubes, a hybrid variant not at issue here, remained the dominant technology for TVs and computer screens well into the 21st century.)
Then, as cheaper, smaller, more durable solid-state devices performing the same functions with far less consumption of electricity proliferated, even venerable audiophile brands like McIntosh and Marantz dropped tubes for transistors. Guitar amp companies like Fender and Vox adopted the new technology as well.
But all was not lost for those nostalgic for the old days. In 1969 a tiny Minnesota startup named Audio Research introduced a new line of amplifiers utilizing tubes, which debuted to glowing reviews (pun intended). A raft of competitors with names like Conrad-Johnson, Quicksilver Audio and Vacuum Tube Logic followed Audio Research. On the guitar-amp side, which has always been far larger than the audiophile market, boutique brands like Matchless, Bad Cat and Dr. Z stepped forward to fill the void. Audiophiles and guitarists with deep pockets rejoiced.
None of these companies, though, generated enough volume to persuade electronic components giants like General Electric and Phillips to bring back the tube business. A few Eastern European brands soldiered on, but for a time it looked as though tube audio would die out, again. It got a reprieve when the Soviet Union collapsed.
“When the Cold War ended and suddenly Russia opened up, they still had plenty of tube manufacturers,” remembers David Gordon, Audio Research’s managing director. “The Russians had everything necessary — they had the engineering and the expertise. The Russians have for the most part dominated tube manufacturing ever since.”
Audio Research doesn’t send checks to Russia, it pays Electro-Harmonix in New York. But it was not entirely reassured by Matthews’s announcement that tubes would soon again be flowing west. “We’re breathing a sigh of relief, but at the same time we’re looking at what alternatives we have,” Gordon said, noting that Audio Research’s new amplifier, the I/50, uses JJ tubes from Slovakia.
Like Upscale Audio, Audio Research is refusing to fill outsized orders from obvious hoarders, while doing its best to reassure loyal customers that tubes will be available when needed. “We’re saying, ‘relax, the tubes are going to last a long time,’” said Gordon. “Relax and enjoy the music — that’s why you got into this in the first place.”
An Audiophile and His Money
Meanwhile tube prices are reaching silly heights. On March 13, I ordered a set of El84 tubes from JJ’s U.S. distributor. I paid standard retail, $18 each; the tubes arrived promptly and sound great. Now Tonal Tubes, an online vendor based in Durham, N.C., has the same tubes listed on eBay at $109.99 a pair. Caveat emptor.