WADING into the waters of tubes and tube-driven amplification can be a tricky proposition, what with the multitude of options out there. More than ever, current production tubes are making brisk business, with the likes of JJ Tesla, Electro-Harmonix (EH), Tung-Sol, Sovtek, Gold Lion, Shuguang and more making it into tube amps today.
For tone hounds who swear by their vintage valves, the stakes are only getting higher with these relics from the past sky rocketing in price. Supply is finite, so as time goes by, the value of these valves will only head in one direction. If brands like RCA, Mullard, General Electric, Sylvania, Telefunken, Siemens, Philips, GEC or Bugle Boy strike your fancy, be prepared for a hefty bill.
Russian tubes may not exhilarate tone hounds, but vintage variants are fast catching on as great alternatives to American and European NOS (new old stock) versions. These are largely military-grade tubes from the Voskhod (in Kaluga), Reflector (Saratov) and Foton (Tashkent) factories from behind the Iron Curtain, and they offer the basics of preamp tube variants for the ubiquitous 12AX7, and power tubes of the 6V6, 6L6, EL84 and EL34 types. Their production dates can run from the 1950s right up to the 1990s (tubes from the Gorbachev administration of the 1980s onwards are said to have dipped a little in quality, but are good nonetheless).
The models line up as below:
6N2P = 12AX7
6P6S = 6V6
6P3S = 6L6
6P3S-E = EL34
6P14P (EV/K) = EL84
Paying exorbitant prices for NOS American tubes or over-priced current production ones isn’t the least bit fun, so I endeavoured to sample some of this Rusky fare.
I subbed a matched pair of EH EL84s in my Ceriatone 18-watt (Marshall 1974 clone) for a pair of 6P14P and was treated to some astonishing results – the first clearly being the marked volume increase. The midrange was decidedly more robust and the amp’s crunch factor took a major leap, too. The EV range is meant to sound sonically superior while the K variant handles vibration better.
Having amps with 6V6 applications the most, I was drawn to the black glass 6P6S, and everything from a Fender 5E3 (50s Tweed Deluxe) circuit, through a Harmony H306A and Silvertone 1482 combo amps sounded plumper and oozed more kraaang!
The 6P3S seemed happy in high voltage applications, drawing the round, spongy sounds of an early 1960s Fender Vibrolux in 3D detail. Perhaps most apparent with these tubes is the additional gain on tap which, while it can be a double-edged sword, still offers great tonal variety for players who are adept at handling their guitar and amplification.
These Russian tubes can work as direct replacements (drop-ins), though with the 6P3S-E (coin-based ones), it’s advisable to know the plate voltage tolerance for the tubes in your amp. But generally, everything should work fine.
But the 6N2P is the only outright exception with its pin configuration not matching a 12AX7’s, meaning, rewiring of the tube socket is required, though adapters (which fit directly into the original socket but is wired for the 6N2P) are easily available, particularly from sellers in China.
Word on the world wide web has it that these tubes take on vintage 12AX7s very easily. In fact, some clone and boutique amp makers in America are wiring their preamp tube sockets to accept the 6N2P from the get-go.
Also, kit amps from China are harnessing the bulk availability of these preamp tubes and the power tubes discussed here.
So, are these Russian tubes the final word on all things valvular? Let’s be fair – nothing is, but these rugged and sonically-pleasing tubes offer unbelievable value for money.
A matched quad of used 6P14Ps can go for as little as US$7 and that same number of tubes for the 6P6S may only set you back US$15. And it’s a similar tale for the other tubes, too, the 6N2P registering the greatest bang for the buck with 10 NOS tubes at US$10. That’s a dollar a tube!
While the supply of vintage American and European tubes might be fast depleting, looking towards Russia not only offers a great alternative in tonal and tolerance terms, but functions as a wallet-friendly option. So dive into eBay to see what you can find!