Valve amplifiers are strange and wonderful beasts, but to say they’re making a comeback would be a severe understatement! Despite transistor or ‘solid state’ amplifiers all but replacing them a few decades ago, the valve method has been seeing increasing popularity in the last few years. And it’s no surprise – it doesn’t matter how far transistor radios have come – they have yet to fully replicate that warm, lush and open sound that valve amps provide. They may not be able to best them in terms of efficiency, but they will always come up trumps in the sound department. And what else is hi-fi about, if not the sound?
So, have you tried out a valve amp before? Have you heard what it sounds like? If you have, you don’t need me to tell you why making the move to the way of the valve is a good idea – but just in case you haven’t: it’s a good idea. If securing the best possible sound if important to you, valves are the next step in setting up your perfect high fidelity system. We’ve already gone into great depth about how valves work and why it’s worth getting one, so let’s skip over that bit and move straight onto the fun stuff: the amps themselves! Here we have five of our favourites, suitable for any budget. From the perfect starter valve amp to the master-level specimen and everything in between. The question is, are you ready to take the plunge?
Remember, all prices were correct at the time of publishing and may be subject to change.
The In-Between: Icon Audio BA 3 All Valve Buffer Amplifier – £599
If you want to experience what a valve amplifier has to offer, but aren’t quite ready to make the commitment to a full blown unit, the BA3 is a fantastic way to warm yourself up and get a real feel for what that valve-sound is like. The BA3 is designed to work with your existing transistor radio, adding a little warmth and colour to the sound that it provides. Incredibly versatile, this nifty device will sit anywhere in your system and add a little valve-colouration to the frequency. Not only that, but the BA3 will help prevent the loss of detail between your system’s interconnects. This is a really good way of introducing valves into your life – but taking some time to dip your toe and test the water first.
The Starter: Icon Audio Stereo 20PP Valve Amplifier – £699
If you’re ready to take the leap but don’t want the expense to be to deep the Icon Audio 20PP is a budget-friendly little amp which would be perfectly suited to smaller rooms and speakers. This amp may be tiny in size and price – but it packs a punch that far exceeds all possible expectations. What makes this little amp special – aside from its sound, size and price – is its versatility. It features outputs for CD, auxillary (MP3 etc.) and a tuner, as well as functioning as a very effective headphone amp. This is one of our best selling amps, and makes for an excellent warm up for the big leagues.
What do they think?
‘ [A] small form factor valve amp with refined midrange performance and great value for money.’ (Hi-Fi World Magazine November 2011)
The Intermediate: Icon Audio Stereo 40 MkIII Valve Amplifier – £1,399
Still a good starter valve – but a little more high end! This amp comes in three valve options: EL34 which offers the standard 20W per channel for the price stated above, 6AS7 for a purer and punchier response at 33W or, for an extra £600, the 2A3 for the warmest and lushest sound possible at 16W. High end and versatile, this amp is great for a newcomer, but will not fail to impress even seasoned audiophiles. Its gloss black finish gives it a contemporary and demure appearance, for those who want the vintage sound as opposed to the look, and its sound will make you fall hard for these strange and wonderful beasts. We dare you not to upgrade after spending some time with this beauty.
What do they think?
‘Excellent starter tube integrated, with plenty of detail and an expansive musical sound.’ (HI-Fi World World Standards)
The Expert: Quad II Classic Integrated Valve Amplifier – £4,500
Supplied in a champagne finish, with a vintage-inspired design, the Quad II is the ideal upgrade for any lover of high fidelity. Its sound is phenomenal, praised for its high levels of exceptional detail and ability to handle even the most difficult of speakers. Quad have a name that is associated with quality, and the 5 year guarantee on one of these units screams confidence. This is an amp designed entirely for those who are driven by sound – and that sound being as close or ‘true’ as it can possibly be. A nice feature is the built in phono stage, which allows for effective amplification for a turntable. Combining the two allows for a sound that is pretty much as close to the original sound as you can hope to get!
What do they think?
‘Its appearance apes the Quad products of the past, but, in sonic attitude, it sounds as modern as valve amplifiers get. There’s plenty of drive and energy – both qualities similar designs fail to deliver. Few valve integrated amps have punch, but this one does.’ (What Hi-Fi Magazine)
The Master: Icon Audio MB81 Mono Block Valve Amplifier – £12,500
Upon its release, Icon Audio declared this mono block amp ‘the most amazing amplifier we have ever made’, and coming from Icon, that’s a pretty big deal! The hand wired and high grade MB81 is the limited edition version of the Russian GU81 – praised for its sonic abilities and tough build. By listening to customer feedback, Icon then went to the drawing board and built upon its success. The result was the MB81 – a valve amp with seemingly unlimited ability which can handle anything, from orchestral music to jazz to heavy metal and everything in between. And it does it all by creating a loud, vivid 3D sound stage. If you’re serious about hi-fi, there isn’t much better that we – or anyone else – could recommend for your amplification.
Valve amps are more than just a style of hi-fi unit: they’re a statement piece… that just so happen to provide the best possible sound possible. They’re lovingly designed and crafted, they usually look sensational – if not a little eccentric – and their increase in popularity is a testament to their quality and longevity. Whenever a customer calls up regarding a valve amp, the first question they always ask is regarding their perceived fragility. But believe us when we say, these are not the fragile little beasts they once were, these are powerful, robust and magnificent monsters that are ready – and willing – to take your music collection to heights it has never quite reached before. Dive in – we’re ready!