What's the Big Deal About NOS Tubes?

June 4, 2013

THE TUBE AMP’S ARCHAIC TECHNOLOGY that powered the classic tones in popular guitar music in the ’50s and ’60s is still the go-to tone generator for the majority of professional players today. The only trouble is, the leading brands of tubes that powered those amps in the golden years just aren’t made any more.

So what’s a tone-conscious guitarist to do?

Many aficionados swear by NOS (New Old Stock) tubes that were made by the leading companies back in the day, and which have sat on suppliers’ shelves unused for decades. But shopping in that ever-pricier market has its pitfalls.

Most tube-amp fans agree that, where tubes are concerned, they simply don’t make ’em like they used to. The finest tubes ever produced came from North American and European makers such as RCA, GE, Phillips, Sylvania, Mullard, Brimar, and several others in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. In the early part of that time frame, plenty of other technologies— from commercial to military—also used tubes, so there was a huge market for these parts. But as the West moved en masse toward solidstate technologies, the relatively small guitaramp world—and the even smaller audiophile hi-fi scene—remained the only outlets for such components. That simply wasn’t enough business to keep the West’s tube factories running.

In China and the former Soviet Union, however, both consumer and military applications were slower to keep pace with cutting-edge technology, so their tube factories kept pumping out the product (and a few still do). Unfortunately, Asian and Eastern Bloc tubes have never been considered the equals of Western-made tubes for either tone or durability, and for several years in the late ’80s and ’90s, there were few truly great-sounding new tubes being produced anywhere.

Add up all of the above, and tracking down a rugged and sweet-sounding late-’50s RCA 6L6GC or Mullard ECC83 would seem the way to go, right? For a while that was the case, but it’s not as simple as that any more. For one thing, players have been hip to the NOS thing for a solid couple of decades now, and supplies of good, truly NOS tubes are getting harder to find, and more expensive every year.

Many reputable dealers out there still offer good, tested, vintage-but-never-played tubes, but several shifty operators are happy to clean up used (and sometimes near-dead) vintage tubes for resale, or even to rebrand newly made tubes with vintage labels. On top of that, if a supposedly NOS tube hasn’t been properly tested—and isn’t guaranteed as such—there’s more and more of a chance that it’s a duff tube that came out of a reject pile somewhere, and was never up to the job in the first place.

Fortunately, input from several tube-obsessed Western sources has helped bring both new and legendary tube designs—as well as greatly improved construction—to some of the few Eastern factories still producing. As a result, there are several new-manufacture tubes today that are of a better quality than have been available for going on three decades. Read the reviews to learn what will suit your needs, and buy from a reputable dealer that tests and guarantees its products. But if you have the cash, dive into some juicy golden-age tone by tracking down some tested NOS tubes, which can indeed sound wonderful when you get good ones.

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