The Ultimate Guide to Tube Rolling: Introduction

the ultimate guide to tube-rolling

Asking what tube you should get is like asking what ice-cream flavor you like. But dammit, we're going to try and answer you

The results of tube-rolling are dependent on your audio components, the room, and your ears. There is no “best” tube. A tube that adds “top-end sparkle” to one system, can be bright or harsh in another system, or to another listener. A tube with a wonderful “liquid midrange” might sound too rolled off and warm to some listeners. Tubes are a personal choice, so anything in this guide is just that, a guide. There are no definitive recommendations, and beware anyone who gives you any. First, a few basics: 

Tube changes are not essential 

PrimaLuna products, for example, come stock with a wonderful tube selection. The amps and preamps are voiced using those tubes and there is absolutely no need to change them. Tube rolling is about experimentation and fine-tuning. 

Tube-rolling doesn’t fix problems 

Issues such as bloated or absent bass, or excessive harshness are usually traced back to speaker placement, room issues, or component mismatches. They cannot (and should not) be fixed by changing tubes. 

Tubes might have a sound, but so do circuits and systems

Every day we get questions about how a particular tube will sound in a product we’ve never heard, and often, haven’t even heard of. We simply don’t know the answer. A tube in one circuit can sound different from a tube in another. The best source for information on how a tube would work in your component is the manufacturer of that component. Tell your manufacturer to create a cool guide like the PrimaLuna Tube-Rolling page

This is supposed to be fun 

“Thanks for nothing” is a common response when we are unable to provide a definitive answer to “Which tube is best for my Acoustic Chutney Mk 4.20 that was made in a garage in San Ramone by a misunderstood audio legend who died in 1986?” If you want to change tubes in your component, understand that trial-and-error and uncertainty are intrinsic to the hobby. If tube-rolling is a chore or cause for anxiety (and rudeness!), then maybe stock tubes or solid-state amps are best for you

Nothing in this guide is definitive

This bears repeating. This guide points you in the general direction, it does not--and cannot-- promise you will hear exactly what it suggests. 

Some housekeeping 

Yes, when you order a set of tubes Upscale Audio, they will be matched. That’s what the Gold, Platinum, and Kevin's Stash grades are, a tight match, a tighter match, and the very tightest match. Even Gold Grade is the Ivy League: getting into the Upscale grading system results in a huge number of rejects from each batch.  

No, tubes are never discounted, no matter how many you buy, or how big a system you’ve bought from us. The testing process is time-consuming and extremely fiddly. For example, when we test for microphony we are listening to each and every tube in a specially designed phono preamp. Plus all those rejects we mentioned? Extremely expensive.

It isn't profitable to invest this amount of man-hours into every tube we sell. We do it only because we're crazy about how our own tube systems sound. We hope you appreciate that and also consider buying all of your equipment from Upscale Audio.

Small-Signal Tubes

12AX7 / ECC83

These are miniature dual triodes with a high voltage gain, commonly used in preamplifiers. They are still in production, made by New Sensor in Russia, Shuguang and Quanzhen in China, and JJ Electronic in Slovakia.

12AU7 / ECC82

A medium-gain dual triode tube with many names for identical variants, or others that are designed for certain characteristics such as long life. They are still in production, made by New Sensor in Russia, Shuguang in China, and JJ Electronic in Slovakia.

6922 / 6DJ8 / ECC88 / E88CC / 6N23P / 6N11

A miniature nine-pin medium gain dual triode with a very high transconductance. First developed by Amperex / Philips for use an amplifier in TV tuners, and later used in high-quality oscilloscopes.

Power Tubes

EL34 / 6CA7

A power pentode with an international octal base. In general, known for a beautiful midrange.

6550 / KT88 / KT120 / KT150

The 6550 is a beam tetrode, and is often interchangeable with the KT88. The KT88, another beam tetrode that offers high power and low distortion. The KT120  and KT 150 are beam pentodes developed for even higher power.