Reviving the Great American Vacuum Tube: A Singular Pursuit

As expected, it was harder than Whitener thought. He hasn’t made tubes since 1988, but it took him two years to convince AT&T, which still owns Western Electric, to license the brand and sell tube-making equipment. He opened a shop in Western Electric’s former tube plant in Kansas City, Missouri.

After a visit to Bell Labs and a chance encounter with retired AT&T employees, Whitener scoured the Northeast tracking down veterans of the famed facility, Sylvania, and RCA, who knew the secrets of tube building. When his plant started producing the 300B in 1996, nearly all of his 20 or so employees were tube-making veterans.

Western Electric started operating again, but AT&T sold the building in 2003. Whitener moved the company to NASA’s home base of Huntsville, Alabama, where there were skilled workers convenient for tube contracts with the Department of Defense. In 2008 he moved the company to Rossville, Georgia. There, he began modernizing tube designs that were more than 70 years old.

Whitener’s team has devised a way to apply an atom-thick layer of graphene to the anode of a vacuum tube to improve heat dissipation and reduce polluting gases, thereby extending its lifespan. These reinforced tubes will hit the market in 2020. Quality control, Whitener’s former field, has become more automated, and he claims that more than 90% of tubes now pass inspection on the line.

Western Electric sells a pair of 300Bs for $1,500 in a cherrywood presentation box with a certificate charting performance characteristics and a generous five-year warranty. The 300B copycat set, offered for the same price, is sold with a 30-day warranty. Most tubes come with a 90-day warranty.

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Whitener has spent more than a decade preparing for Western Electric’s next move. In 2006 he won an auction of the machines and tools needed to make 12AX7 tubes. The production started in Blackburn, England, but at the time it was in Serbia. The involvement of then-Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and the US embassy led to a five-year legal battle with a competing bidder, Whitener says. (Corker, contacted through an employee, did not dispute Whitener’s characterization.)

Currently, this equipment is being installed on the site of Whitener’s plant, with an additional machine shipped from Slovakia in 2007. Electric continues to produce 300B. Depending on the day of the week, the space can click to the sound of a lathe winding molybdenum wire around a side bar or the wild hiss of a gas flame heating and sealing a glass bulb.

very enjoyable distortion

The promise of better sound is the subject of vicious debate, like most things, among fidelity fanatics. Some people hear huge differences between tube brands, or even individual tubes of the same make and model. Others will say that each tube is indistinguishable from the next. Most people would agree that vacuum tubes usually have a sound that transistors, circuit boards, and algorithms can only approximate. These sounds are often described as warm, rich, and even romantic.

“The tubes distort things in a very pleasing way,” says Daniel Schlett, sound engineer at Brooklyn studio Strange Weather. Artists who have pursued Schlett’s signature sound are as diverse as Ghostface Killah, Booker T. (of MG fame), and The War on Drugs. “The tube is part of the equation,” says Schlett. “It’s loud, amplified, and has a voodoo vibe to it.”

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