Valve Amplifiers: The Sweet Lie

Reason tries to stand in one's way: it is out of date, it uses too much power, it is fragile, it has a delicate bill of health, it starts glowing red hot for the slightest reason, it distorts reality… 

But your heart only sees the emotional involvement, the musicality, the sweetness of voice and the luminous halo which glows in the dark like the embers of a fire. The happy days you spent together come back to you, the music fills every part of your soul like the all-pervading warmth from the fireplace in a house where the best performers live, the discs following one after the other while you wish no more than wishing well. 

Reason tells me that valve amplifiers are untrustworthy. What sounds like sweetness is, after all, no more than bitter harmonic distortion: the truth never shows itself in its original nakedness, but rather through a diaphanous veil of euphonic colouring. There are those who, having analysed them close to and from a distance, concluded that valves paint musical reality with the crazed gaze of Van Gogh, the shapeless extravagance of Dali, the formal disintegration of Picasso, the chromatic subtlety of Matisse, the crepuscular luminosity of Turner.

However, to the methodical and clearly defined, but cold, outlines of the transistor, I infinitely prefer the trembling hand, guided by burning passion, of the vacuum painter; to the mathematical precision of angles and perspectives, I prefer the chaotic interaction of lines and the ambiguity of the shadows. With one condition: out of the apparent chaos of forms and colours the artistic object must be born. Art does not have to be nature itself or even a faithful copy. Exact reproduction is limited by reality. Art is not. 

Listening to a valve amplifier has the cathartic effect of a Greek tragedy; the therapeutic effect of the moderate laughter of classical comedy.

A joke, Kant says, is a powerful anticipation, which disappears in the act of laughing itself.

Comedy is different: it teaches, makes one think, stays in one's memory. In this context, there are many amplifiers around which are no more than a bad joke. Valve amplifiers are not perfect. But listening to one dissipates the anxiety of having to live with original sin, and helps one to accept them as just another idiosyncrasy which derives from the fact of our being merely human - and like them, imperfect.

Listening to valve amplifiers produces in one an indefinable feeling of well-being, which is both emotional and physical: the illusion of presence, of space and especially depth of the sound stage is so real, so palpable, that it cannot just be an illusion. Harmonic richness gives the sound a body, which to use a wine critic's jargon one can almost 'chew'. On testing, valves 'taste' of fresh fruit: plums, with an exotic touch of cinnamon, rounded tannins…

More rationalist minds will say: yes, but this is no more than a trick produced by the clever manipulation of harmonic distortion, which laboratory tests can prove. I do not deny the power of science to debunk the superstitions, which surround the myth of superiority of valves over transistors. But I would like to see the laboratorial proof of the beneficial effects of the maturing of wine in casks of French oak. And yet they exist: just taste…

When hearing 'When I look in your eyes', the valve amplifier undressed Diana Krall with kid gloves, revealing details which I had never heard the previous thousand times: the 'on top' recording, in an obscene close up which makes Diana sound larger than life itself; the orchestra which was recorded in a different acoustic seems to have been added as an afterthought, like adding cream to an already made cake; the saxophone bursts into the mix only for the engineer to lower the volume in the middle of a phrase.

All this is obvious even on the car radio. It is not necessary to have a great amplifier to reveal what one already knew: there is no rose without a thorn. But only valves convey the extreme sensuality of the bubbles of saliva caressing the sweet lips of Diana Krall, or allow one to identify the amplifier (valves, too!) of Russell Malone's guitar, whose RF interference (from a nearby radio station?) can be heard distinctly on the right channel at the beginning of 'When I look in your eyes'.

José Victor Henriques in Air Luxor magazine, June 2003