Audio EL34 Tube Review

Audiophile Review – EL34 Family Tube Comparison

A re-post from Wall of Sound (review by Tim Smith)

When Jon Esau of www.thetubestore.com offered a set of five EL34-type tubes for review (JJ KT77; JJ EL34 II; Svetlana EL34; Genalex Gold Lion KT77 and Mullard EL34) I jumped at the opportunity. We agreed that I’d throw a few of my own tubes, including the Tung-Sol EL34B and Shuguang 6CA7-Zs I purchased from thetubestore.com over the years, into the mix. As a diehard EL34/6L6 tube addict, I could not imagine living like Hans Gruber, “on the beach, earning 20%,” without a little Musical Paradise MP-301 amp by my side decked out with EL34s or 6L6s. Alas, between the receipt of the tubes last fall and the publication of this review, work and family life got busier than anticipated. The silver lining is that a drawn out review process made me work more carefully than I might have otherwise. Consider this a slowly marinated review.

Frankly I’m glad it has taken so long, since I fear that had I rushed in I might have fallen victim to what scientists call ‘experimenter bias’, which occurs when expectations regarding results bias the outcome. Each and every tube I review below–including the relatively unheralded inexpensive ones–is eminently listenable, a testament to the high-quality production levels of today’s Russian and Chinese EL34 manufacturers. I can recommend them all. I do not belong to the Church of the NOS Mind; in my experience two of the least satisfactory of my 6L6s and 5881s are ‘Holy Grail’ US-made NOS tube from the 1960s.

The benefit of using tubes with a small single-ended amps like the Musical Paradise MP-301 mk3 or the Coincident Dynamo mk1 is that it’s easy to shield the amp from view and do blind tests. I had my wife help out on a few occasions and I must confess that the only tubes that were readily identifiable were entry level Shuguang (not under review here) with their occasional touches of glassiness and a less than ravishing midrange as well as the fabulous Shuguang black bottles and the Gold Lion KT77s, which together stood out from the crowd due to their tighter bass and greater sense of dynamics. Having said that, I could not distinguish between the Shuguang and the Gold Lion but together they stood out as equal or better to NOS tubes I’ve tried. With the other tubes under review, I could not tell them apart when I listened blind, except on one occasion when I guessed the Mullard–but it might just as well have been the Tung Sol, which can sound similar. It’s far easier to distinguish between a merlot, a cabernet sauvignon and a malbec than it is to distinguish between vacuum tubes, especially when one is evaluating more than half a dozen at a time. I had no way of measuring ‘noise’ so I did not try but I will comment on detail retrieval which might serve as a sort of proxy for noise evaluation. The equipment used to conduct this review was as follows:

Amplifiers: Musical Paradise MP-301 mk2 and mk3 Deluxe version; Coincident Dynamo SE34 mk1 and the mk2 version I just reviewed for www.6moons.com

Loudspeakers: Harbeth Compact 7 ES-3; Tekton Design M-Lore; Pioneer SP-BS41-LR; Mordaunt Short Carnival 2

Sources: Project RPM 10.1 with Dynavector 10×5 and Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V; Marantz SA15-S2 Limited Edition SACD player; Marantz CD 5004 as transport with Muscial Paradise D-1 DAC with Western Electric 396A tubes; Marantz CD 5003 as transport with MHDT Labs Paradisea+ DAC.

Music (a very partial list…):

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The level of subjectivity involved in a multi-tube review is probably quite high–so high that I hesitate to put numbers or precise rankings down on paper. Having said that, I can state without reservation that, to my ears, three tubes stood out time and again: the Gold Lion KT77, the Shuguang Treasure series black bottle 6CA7-Z, and the new production Tung Sol EL34B. The Gold Lion and Shuguang are so good I am uncomfortable declaring an outright winner so I have awarded them a tie for 1st place. Taking price into account, however, would give the Gold Lion a slight edge.

You’ll notice above in the photo that I also used tubes from my own collection including two that are no longer in production: the RFT Siemens and the SED Winged C. I won’t comment extensively on these tubes but I’d probably rank the RFT just below the two first-placed entries by Gold Lion and Shuguang. I’d place the SED with the Tung-Sols and Mullards. Without further ado, here are my conclusions.

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1st Place (tie):  Genalex Gold Lion KT77   ($49.95 each. All prices in USD)

Essentially, a perfect tube. Quiet and unfussy. It works with every musical genre. The sound quality is right up there with the Shuguang black bottles but this comes at half the price. This tube does it all–huge reserves of power and headroom, a massive airy soundstage but in this case airiness is not a sign of thinness or an unsaturated midrange. For hard rock and complex orchestral music, here’s your tube. It’s no slouch with jazz but tone freaks seeking an even more saturated midrange might prefer the Mullards or the Tung-Sols. Highs are unusually detailed and well defined but never glassy or edgy. This tube excels in scraping up micro details. The bass is deep and dry, not quite as punchy and elastic and ripe as the SED Winged C or the Tung Sol EL34B, but bone dry. There is a touch of warmth but this tube is not a tone freak’s dream. It’s more neutral. This is the only serious challenger to Shuguang and Psvane’s best offerings, and again, it’s half the price. My vote for the King of the EL34-family.

 

1st Place (tie): Shuguang Black Treasure 6CA7-Z   ($97.95 each)

It’s a photo finish with the Gold Lion KT77 and it comes down to personal taste and my factoring in price to the equation. This Shuguang might be, objectively and regardless of price, the better tube. This tube has slightly deeper bass than the Gold Lion KT77. If money’s no object I’d go with the Shuguangs. The only drawback of this tube is that even after hundreds of hours of play–and perhaps for the life of the tube–you will get start-up rattling until the tubes arrive at a stable operating temperature. This has no effect on the sound unless you are using headphones with a small amplifier like the Musical Paradise or the Coincident, in which case, this tube may not be suited to a desktop setting unless you’re willing to wait ten minutes after start-up to do serious listening. These caveats aside, the Shuguang is a wonderful tube, equal to NOS legends in many ways. It is above all a powerful sounding tube with a relentless sense of drive, of propulsion. It’s got a bit of that 6L6 SED Winged C elasticity or bounce to it, which I find highly addictive. It’s warmth level is similar to the Gold Lion. This is the very best tube for complex hard rock and orchestral music–nothing you throw at it will lead to congestion. Guitars are piercing, unusually well defined, with a bit of that bite and tonal compression associated with Sylvania 6L6s from the 1960s and 1970s. Where the JJ KT77 is open and airy, this Shuguang is more tightly coiled. And when it pounces–bam!–it’s arresting. In a word, it’s a perfect tube. And highly reliable. This was from my personal stash; I have used these tubes for three years with no problems. Build quality is without parallel among modern production EL34-types.

 

2nd Place: Tung-Sol EL34B   ($27.95 each)   GOLD STAR WINNER

Move over Mullard and let Tung-Sol take over. I have only one burning desire; let me listen to this fire bottle. I was once smitten with the new production Mullards–fine tubes to be sure–but once bitten by these Tung-Sols I’m a believer. In my setup, simply the very best value in current production EL34 family tubes. This is a warm, thick, dense tube with world-class tonality for lovers of guitar music from Esteban to Stevie Ray Vaughan. This tube is to the EL34 family what the Tube Amp Doctor 6L6s are to that variant: a taste of the very best at an Everyman’s price. The Tung-Sol has no obvious shortcomings. What it does, it does well. It does not try to dig too deep so it doesn’t fall victim to bloat nor does it shoot for the stars. It is seamless from top to bottom. No particular frequency calls out for attention. I doesn’t break up or sound hollow when pushed in my two amps. Works with everything, and makes guitars and vocals eerily lifelike. Perhaps the most musical and pleasant tube on review here. Not a trace of ‘clinical’ sound to be heard. This was from my personal stash. I bought these tubes from www.thetubestore.com about 16 months ago and they have not failed me. GOLD STAR WINNER FOR UNPARALLELED QUALITY AT SUCH A LOW PRICE.

 

3rd Place: Mullard (new production) EL34   ($25.95)

Most of what I have said about the Tung-Sol applies to the Mullard. I find them to be similarly warm, similarly elastic. But in my setup I find the Tung-Sol to have a bit more drive, a bit more punchiness. When I want to warm my bones beside a thermionic fire, this is the tube I choose. Just like when I had an EL84-based amp–I always dusted off the new production Mullards for warmth. This EL34 is a bit rolled off on the top which makes it well suited to poorly recorded, bright 70s Prog Rock. Until I tried the Tung-Sol, this was my favourite affordable EL34. There’s a hint of that famous SED Winged “C” tonality but at a more agreeable price. In any case the Cs are now NOS (and thetubestore.com has some supplies). Shed no tears over that: here’s a pretty good replacement. When I want George Benson or Jim Hall’s notes to float like liquid dollops of butter, this is the tube I reach for. Warm and musical with never a touch of brightness and a rich midrange. Bass is adequate but nothing to write home about.

 

Just Missed the Podium:  JJ KT77 ($19.95 each);  JJ EL34 II ($19.95 each);  Svetlana EL34 ($23.95 each)

Let me reiterate that I would be happy using either one of these three fine tubes and perhaps in a different circuit they might outperform some of the tubes above such as the Mullard and Tung-Sol. Don’t let the low prices of these tubes bias you against them: they’re wonderful products. I put all three of these tubes in one category because they are excellent and I don’t trust my ability to rank tubes to within a hair’s width, meaning, really, what’s the difference between a sixth and seventh-ranked tube?

My personal taste, however, probably leads me to shy away just a touch from these tubes. They all display just a little too much openness or airiness in their highs for me to place at my top. The Svetlana EL34 surprised me in this regard: trumpet was wonderfully airy and realistic as were highs of all sorts, but in calling attention to itself in this manner it made the tube seem voiced a bit too much in that direction, reminding me that its bass prowess was not comparable to its ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Others might prefer this sort of characteristic. I am a meat and potatoes and gravy warmth hound, not an open/airy/details freak. Other than the startling highs, I found this to be an entirely ordinary (in the good sense) tube that did most of what I want. It’s reasonably fast and powerful with good tight bass. If I had never heard the tubes I have ranked higher, I would be very happy with this Svetlana. Highly recommended for those who like a little more air than moistness and density.

I can easily see how some listeners might put the JJ KT77 right up there with the Gold Lions. This may well be the very best value in the whole lot of tubes reviewed here. Holy dynamic swings Batman! The JJ is a fabulous tube: powerful with tons of headroom. Great with hard rock, great with Chris Squire’s bass. Wonderful with classical, conveying a great sense of air and soundstage. JJ could easily double the price of these fine tubes–they’re worth it, and then some. Since I crave a bit more warmth, and don’t care too much for crunch, I have knocked the JJ off my podium but in the spirit of ‘progressive’ education, Rudy can’t fail and everyone’s a winner here. Seriously, it pains me that I cannot declare all of these tubes ‘winners,’ including the JJ EL34 II, a tube I struggle to describe–which might be its virtue in the sense that first, it does no harm. I could find no obvious faults with this tube–and no obvious category-winning attributes either. It is pleasant and it does the job. In a crowd of stars, it is perhaps overshadowed but its peers are tough acts to follow.

Take these rankings with a teaspoon of salt: I am personally biased against kinkless tetrodes whether of the 66, 77 or 88 sort. Each one I’ve tried except tonight’s co-winner, the Gold Lion KT77, comes a bit short of floating all my boats. If I want solid-state crispness, I can get that in my solid state amps. I don’t need it from my tubes. Your mileage may vary. You might want just one good all-rounder tube and the JJ KT77, JJ EL34 II and Svetlana EL34 certainly fit that bill. NOS you say? I ain’t gonna go your way, Lenny. Save your money. Buy any one of these seven tubes. These are the best of times.

15 Responses

  1. Kitt Thompson
    Kitt Thompson at |

    I felt like I was reading .. Magna Carta.
    so very long, in tube analysis. I fell asleep
    mid way through.
    all that butter and jam, I lost the subject
    matter… really

    Reply
  2. Ian Oakshott
    Ian Oakshott at |

    Nice review Tim. Just got a set of gold lion kt77’s. An excellent valve. Goes great in my dynamo, being fed by my mapletree line 2b se, thanks for that one as well!

    Reply
  3. John Simms
    John Simms at |

    I’m afraid of the Shuguangs. Should I be? It seems they sound great for a long time. And then out of the blue they die and take out a heater fuse. Has this ever happened to you? They do sound good. But I’m afraid to buy them again. I did not buy them here.

    Reply
    1. bob barcus
      bob barcus at |

      I have used the Shuguangs in my 1993 Marshall plexi 100 watt..The main thing is to get from a good seller..you have to be ready for one to fail..Once you get a good quad your ok…I have had to do this 5 out of 6 times…Also look for any flaws in the glass..Some seller sell you there crap,so you need to be nice but firm…They are good tubes but a little bit of a hassel…They hold up to the 450 volts and 170 watts when driven past 5 on the volume,thats loud as hell…Thats my 2 cents..A good rep store like theubestore.com should be good to deal with..Stay off ebay to save a few dollars unless you have a tube tester…Hope I did not freak you out.

      Reply
  4. David
    David at |

    Great review
    As a note the response and function of most output tubes are affected by the bias current
    it may be useful to note these numbers in future reviews.

    Reply
  5. Sammy Alper
    Sammy Alper at |

    Great article thanks for posting! I’d arrived at similar conclusions about the Gold Lion KT77’s and was pleased to find a qualified opinion hear that upheld my ears.

    Reply
  6. David Norman
    David Norman at |

    Great and informative article. Wish i had seen it last year. Having said that I revalved my Audio Innovation 500 amp with the JJ KT77. Wow, they are everything the reviewer says and brought the amp to life – well up in the “best value for money” category, which is good as I live in the UK and had pay international shipping. Having read the review my next purchase is likely to be the Golden Lion KT77.

    Reply
  7. Fred Bowman
    Fred Bowman at |

    Great review of the El-34 used in the Musical Paradise MP-301. Plan on getting this amp and an definely going to upgrade the tubes. Btw in doing this review I curious in what pre-amp tubes you were using and/or recommend. I’m figuring on spending around $100 for tube upgrades. Thanks in advance for any assistance you can offer.

    Reply
  8. Bob Robins
    Bob Robins at |

    My Hiwatt dr504 (1976) just started blowing the main fuse with my el34 mullards so I swapped them for 2 more(from a quad matched set that I got from the tubestore). So now I will need backups. Would you recommend the Gold Lion k77 for a Hiwatt?(if thats even possible) I love the Gold Lion 12ax7s I have in the amp. Is biasing the kt77s all that would need to be done?

    Reply
  9. Ric Wieging
    Ric Wieging at |

    How about preamp tubes, you did not mention. Is it better to have higher end preamps, as the EL34 can only project what it gets. I agree, did you drive the bias amp to limit, or leave a lititle room. The new Mullards in a 100 watt Marshall, suggestions on amps to optimize, I have plenty of volume.

    Reply
  10. Rob O'Donnell
    Rob O'Donnell at |

    Great write up. Now time for the 6L6 audiophile review 🙂

    Reply
  11. Vincent T Dragani
    Vincent T Dragani at |

    I have the opportunity to have a custom made tube amp build for me from and old Magnavox amp. Putting on 2 new Edcor CXPP50-5K – 50W, push-pull tube output transformers. Now I need to pick out tubes. I’m looking at JJ Electronics EL34, JJ 6L6GC or JJ 6CA7, mostly because of cost. Can anyone offer a suggestion on which direction I should go of offer alternatives?

    Thanks,
    Vince

    Reply
    1. Sandra @ thetubestore
      Sandra @ thetubestore at |

      This is a tough question that will open up a huge can of different opinions. What tube type you choose will depend on your ear along with your preferred musical preference. The 6L6 is far less commonly used in home audio but we do have a review that can help you out if that is the direction you choose blog.thetubestore.com/audiophile-review-6l6-type-vacuum-tube-shootout/
      As for brands, it again has a lot to do with your ear and very subjective. Generally speaking JJ Electronic is known for having a lot of presence and ideal for the detail and fluidity required in jazz, classical and female vocal. The Preferred Series line would be more suitable if you are looking for versatility with more richness, warmth and balance. Tung-Sol lends itself to a more vintage tone with deeper bass and classic feel. Ultimately the choice is yours.

      Reply
  12. William
    William at |

    I have the MP-301 MK3 amp. To my ear the amp is a bit on the bright side. So with that in mind….
    So far i have tried GL KT88, JJ6550, Tung-Sol 6L6G, and SED Winged C EL34.
    Preamp being RCA MR 6SJ7GT, Sylvania 6SJ7WGT, RCA red can 5693.
    Which sounds the best to my ears? For all around i use the Winged EL34 and the Sylvania 6SJ7WGT.
    For me and my set up it gives the best all around detail, sound stage and separation. Once the Sylvanias broke in they were not as bright and opened up better. If i listen to a CD i put in the RCA 6SJ7GT’s. They cut the harshness back and brings out a bit more of the low end. I found the RCA Red Can ones to be a bit harsh and bright. Based on reviews i bought 2 sets of those with the same results.
    The EL34 opened up the stage, brought out more range, detail and provided a better “3D” sound to the music. The others seemed a bit closed even after long break in periods.
    That being said the source music and how it was produced and engineered makes difference. So i have started marking my music with the tubes i think sound best with that recording. I can compare tube rolling to playing with an EQ.
    I play vinyl through the now discontinued Musical Paradise MP-P1 MM MC Tube Phono Preamp.
    Between the amp and the phono preamp i have many tube combinations to try! Older vinyl sounds better too. They knew how to do analog better back then. All the sound isnt just piled up right in the center. So I find tube choice more critical for vinyl than for CD’s or even my FLAC music.
    Speakers are Fluance bookshelf type and their powered subwoofer. My TT is a Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB which i modified to bypass the internal preamp and added better RCA cables. Cartridge is an AT120Eb and for mono an AT-Mono3/sp. All properly weighted and aligned.
    I listen to mostly older rock on vinyl, my daughter listens to old vinyl 1920’s to late 60’s. For digital i tend to go toward hard rock to very heavy metal type. To me it does sound better on tubes than solid state, just not as loud.
    To keep noise down turning off the lights stops any buzzing. Just a mild hum at high volumes. I use Deoxit on all the pins, even on new tubes. My cables are decent ones, not the $200 a foot type and of a proper length. I run my power cord separate and away from the other cables.
    Not being a rich guy i did like everyone else…..check the boards for the best sounding tubes and went for those first, decent but not overpriced cables, modifications i can do myself and common sense solutions to lower noise.

    Reply

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