One man’s quest to revive the great American vacuum tube


Predictably, it was harder than Whitener thought. It took two years to convince AT&T, which had not made tubes since 1988 but still owned Western Electric, to license the brand and sell its tube-making equipment. He set up shop in a former Western Electric tube plant in Kansas City, Missouri, where mothballed machinery was stored.

During a visit to Bell Labs, Whitener struck up a conversation with AT&T employees, tracking down Sylvania and RCA veterans with experience in tube making, and then stuck with Northeast. When his factory started producing 300BS in 1996, his more than 20 employees were almost all veterans of the tube manufacturer.

Western Electric was operating again, but in 2003 AT&T sold the building. Whitener moved the company to Huntsville, Alabama, a NASA stronghold of professionals that was convenient for the Defense Department’s tube contract. In 2008, he moved the company to Rossville, Georgia. It was there that he began to update vacuum tube designs that were over 70 years old.

Whitener’s team invented a way to apply an atom-thick layer of graphene to the anode of a vacuum tube to extend its life by improving heat dissipation and reducing emissions. Those upgraded tubes were released in 2010. They will be on the market in 2020. Quality control—Whitener’s former field—has become more automated, and he says more than 90 percent of tubes now pass offline inspection.

Western Electric sells the 300B pair in a cherry wood presentation box with a certificate of performance and a generous five-year warranty—yours for $1,500. The 300Bs copycat sets offered at the same price are sold with a 30-day warranty. Most tubes have a 90 day warranty.

Whitener spent more than a decade preparing for Western Electric’s next move. In the year In 2006, it won a tender for the machinery and equipment needed to make 12AX7 tubes. The pieces started life in Blackburn, England, but were then based in Serbia. It took a five-year legal battle with competing bidders before the intervention of then-Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and the US Embassy gave possession. (Corker did not dispute Weiner’s behavior as reached by staff.)

In the year Equipment was installed on Whitener’s factory floor in 2007 with additional machines shipped from Slovakia. New machines are peppering in that automate processes such as manual bending of the wires needed to make 12AX7 tubes. Electricity 300 b. Depending on the day of the week, the space may contain the sound of lath-coiled molybdenum wire around the side shafts, or the click of gas-flame heaters and sealing glass bulbs.

A very pleasant distortion

The prospect of better sound is, like most things among high-fidelity fanatics, open to fierce debate. Some hear a wide difference between tube brands or individually made tubes. Others will tell you that each tube is indistinguishable from the next. Most would agree that tubes generally sound almost like transistors, circuit boards, and algorithms, one that is often described as warm, rich, or romantic.

“Tubes distort things in really interesting ways,” says Daniel Schlett, sound engineer at Strange Weather, a Brooklyn studio known for the analog punch he gets from tube-powered mics, amps, consoles and equalizers. Artists who sought Shelley’s signature sound are as diverse as Ghostface Killah, Booker T. (of MGs fame) and the Drug War genre. “Tubes are part of the equation,” Schlett says. “It’s big and bulky, and it has voodoo on it.”



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