The 8 best budget valve amplifiers and how to avoid getting ripped off

The 8 best budget valve amplifiers and how to avoid getting ripped off

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Nothing screams audiophile authority like a valve (or tube) amp. But these gorgeous, warm, glowing pieces of kit needn’t be completely out of your league. While ‘budget’ is all relative where valve amps are concerned, Paul Rigby runs down the eight best affordable models on the market and what to look out for when buying on the cheap.


Words: Paul Rigby


Valves. Don’t they power the electronics in Lancaster bombers, crystal radio sets and mad professor’s laboratories who have ambitions to reanimate stitched-up, left-over body parts? Of course they do but they also sit at the heart of some beautifully sounding hi-fi kit.

Known as tubes in the USA but valves in dear ol’Blighty, these ancient sealed glass technologies were used to power amps and more back in the ’50s and ’60s and then largely fell out of fashion but then have roared back into fashion again during the past 20 years or so. Such is the current demand that new valves are actually being manufactured again while discovered caches of original valves can fetch high prices.

Utilised as an alternative to modern solid state technologies, the valve, at first, seems like an anachronism but the reasons for its popularity include: it looks nice, it provides a retro feel, it’s a talking point at parties and, most importantly of all, it sounds great.

“Sounds great” needs clarification. In general terms, valve-based amps tend to lack deep, roaring bass (there are amps featuring large valves known as 845s which solve that problem, mind you) but they do offer exquisite midrange and treble performance. They also excel in detail, clarity and transparency.

Valves also come with a reputation which says that valve life is finite and replacements can be costly, valves run hot and may threaten to replace your home’s central heating and valves coat the sonics with a sepia-like warmth. This is all true. Sometimes. Many valves are longer lived than others and many will outlast the life of the product itself. Many valves run quite cool and you’ll never know that they are there and many valves don’t colour the sound at all.

As you can see, despite their reputation, it’s dangerous to generalise with a valve.

Most people reading these words will not be familiar with valve-driven anything. Hence, the point of this piece is to offer an introductory blend of quality and price. You will also learn that ‘budget’ in the quality valve amp world is rather higher than in the turntable world, for example.

Yes, ok, the market is swamped with low cost valve products but, just because you see a box with a valve sitting in it, doesn’t mean that it’s any good. It takes money, skill and in-depth knowledge of the breed itself to produce a top quality valve amp. In fact, there are far too many bandwagon jumpers out there who see valves as a tasty way to make a quick profit and rely on the novelty factor and the fact that some people go weak at the knees (and the wallet) when they see glowing glass tubes.

Just because you see one poking through a box top or shining its light inside a window, don’t automatically believe that it represents a gateway to audio heaven. Treat it like any other piece of hi-fi and, ideally, give it a thorough demo before you hand over your cash. This is the reason why you won’t see any new valve amps listed here for a couple of hundred pounds, for example.

Which is not to say that such a beast will automatically sound nasty. But treat it with the caution it deserves, nevertheless.

Similarly, anyone seeing complex, impressively-styled valve amps for sale direct from China via the Internet…beware. Most Chinese valve amp designers are enthusiastic, dedicated and, no doubt, honourable chaps. Experience also says that many are lacking in valve amp design experience or utilise less then reliable production facilities or treat safety measure with abandon. Don’t go there. But do go here…


Fatman_cropped

FATMAN iTUBE 182 & iTUBE DOCK
Price: from £100
www.ebay.co.uk

I dislike Fatman. There, I’ve said it. It represents one of the better known valve bandwagon jumpers out there and, mostly, produces great looking kit that’s quirky and rather groovy that sounds decidedly mediocre. Not actually bad. Just mediocre. This one, though… Well, it ain’t bad. Not bad at all. You can only find it second hand, though, as it’s now delisted.


icon-mp3

ICON AUDIO MP3
Price: £450
www.iconaudio.com

From the highly respected UK outfit based in Leicester, this is one amp that most of the media has (criminally) ignored but is a great, small footprint (for the company, at any rate) valve-driven device that includes a headphone socket at the front with a neat, two-position, input selector and volume control. It allows you to plug in a CD player and a digital audio device at the back plus speaker terminals. An excellent design for a small flat or house or second system for an office or bedroom.


Leak

LEAK STEREO 20
Price: from £700
www.ebay.co.uk

One of the true classic amplifiers from a legendary British hi-fi outfit. These amps were built during the 50s (yep, the 1950s) but can still be found in full working order. Not for beginners but if you are confidant in handling valve kit, it will bring many hours of joy. Valve amps are complex beasts, I recommend buying second hand in fully serviced/restored condition only: the price here reflects that. Look out for other vintage UK models from the likes of Quad, Armstrong and Rogers.


Icon ST20PP

ICON AUDIO STEREO 20 PP
Price: £750
www.iconaudio.com

Offering a headphone socket, this design is basically a modern incarnation of the above classic amplifier design, Leak’s Stereo 20 with just 15W of power. Offering little bass, although available low frequencies are characteristic and track so well that you tend to forget about that issue, this amp is supremely transparent with beautiful clarity. An amp that sits easily in a budget or high-end system.


Ming

MING DA PICCOLO B902
Price: £995
www.mingda.co.uk

A valve amp with a Chinese heritage that you can trust! Like the Icon Audio designs, this unit has been hand built and uses point-wiring which basically means that no robot arms have been within 30 feet of the thing. Real humans have built it from the ground up. Comes with a remote control volume control and a headphone socket.


Peachtree2

PEACHTREE AUDIO iDECCO
Price: £1,000
www.unlimited.com

This one is a bit weird because it’s a hybrid machine. That is, it’s part valve and part solid state and you can connect and disconnect the valve element if you wish. I prefer the valve side in the circuit, if truth be told. It’s packed with options and serves as a bit of a hub providing headphone inputs but also a fully fledged DAC plus an iPod dock.


Jolida2

JOLIDA JD1501BRC
Price: £1,050
www.jolida.com

Unlike the Icon Audio and Ming Da, which display their valves proudly and the Peachtree hybrid, which displays its valves through a sealed window, the Jolida hybrid looks like a basic solid state amp and is ideal if that is the form factor that you want in your system. This hybrid doesn’t really sound like a solid state or valve amp but somewhere in between. Arriving with 3.5mm mini-jack for MP3 players, this heavy piece of metal offers value for money.


cayin audio a55t

CAYIN AUDIO A-55T
Price: £1,460
cayin.com

This amp bristles with valves and provides a classic design with the valves positioned at the front with heavy transformers behind. Like many amps of its class, the bass is a little lacking in the extremes, treble is rather sweet while the detail is excellent. All in all, the amp is very musical. That is, music flows easily without effort and forces a series of foot and finger-tapping motions from the listener. Darn it.

  • Jon Jones.

    Budget? Have you you always been a mental or do you just have lots of money?

    • Paul Rigby

      Hi Jon
      In relative terms and when looking at valves then, yes, this is a budget list.

    • Eric James

      Considering people spend 10’s of thousands of dollars/pounds on the combination of preamplifiers, amplifiers, speakers and turn tables. 1500gbp is definitely budget.

    • GentlemanJim666

      Yes, budget old chap. Decent hifi costs thousands.

    • Jean Edwards

      Have you seen what I high end Home theater amp costs? Just the amp, no speakers.

  • Kevin Atkins

    How could you forget the little Rogers Cadet 3 vintage amp? This is a lovely sounding unit from the 1960s that has a loyal following today. It isn’t powerful (around 8 – 10W per channel) but partnered with sensitive loudspeakers can provide a very satisfying sound. Two variants were produced – an integrated all-in-one chassis, usually housed in a wooden sleeve, and a separate pre-power affair, with the two connected by an umbilical cord. The latter incarnation was designed for building in to a cabinet. For those new to valve gear, the integrated chassis is the best way to go, but either is a great introduction to valve gear. Prices now are around the £400 mark – and will probably rise. 20 years ago, you could pick these up for peanuts, but it seems people have caught on to their charms. I rather wish I hadn’t sold mine….

    • Paul Rigby

      Thanks for the Kevin

  • Warren Wilding

    It’s a shame that all but the last of these do not have phono preamplification, something which I would have thought would be a priority on this site. How about a feature on valve preamps or fully valve integrated amps?

  • Guest

    The Peachtree Decco is the best of the bunch, hands down.

    • Dr.Thrumpkinz III

      It’s one on my short list, or any Peachtree really. I’m already sold on all features. But as I haven’t ever heard one, I’d be keen on hearing about it’s acoustics.

  • abnegative

    does not need to pre owned. I am looking into a valve front, but run a vintage Nelson Pass design power amp with Phil Jones AAD 2001 monitors . All 2nd hand to me for around 1500$ . I have listened to systems 8x the price to equal the sound. Have yet to better it under 12k.IMHO. Pass design & some Luxman vintage ss are very warm & musical as well. I do enjoy added detail and openness with a valve pre connected. Thus shopping.

  • Subramoniam Sivaramakrishnan

    You need to spend more than a solid state for a decent sounding tube amp. If you can solder on Elekit TU 8200 is a very good amp that has auto bias meaning you can tube roll too.

  • Will MacCormac

    Surprised the cheaper Line Magnetic or Melody amps didn’t get a mention.
    Anyone tried TS Audio amps from Thailand? They look rather good but no reviews anywhere..

  • Aleksander Krawczyk

    Hello, please look at ifi audio retro 50. It has valves/tubes, great phono stage, great dac, really good headamp, and whatnot. Sounds splendid too.