If you think tube-based audio gear is only for high-end audiophile snobs, think again: Samsung is bucking the longstanding mainstream trend toward transistor-based gear with several premium products that are powered (in part) by vacuum tubes.
Actually, the new products actually employ a hybrid design, using tubes in the preamp section along with digital power amps. Many audio enthusiasts feel that tubes can deliver a warmer, more natural sound than transistors, and using a tubes in the preamp section can help reduce the harshness that sometimes comes with solid-state amplification.
Of the new systems, my personal favorite is the DA-E750 Audio Dock ($800, pictured at right), which like my iPod dock at home, uses tubes to sweeten the digital sound from Apple iPods, iPhones and iPads. The DA-750, which also works with Samsung's Galaxy S II smart phones, has two striking-looking wood finishes—either high-gloss mahogany or piano black—with the top-mounted tubes visible through a circular glass window on the top of the unit. Thanks to the dual docking structure, your Galaxy phone or iOS device will charge while streaming music.
The DA-E750 uses a 2.1-channel design, with woven glass-fiber speakers and 100-watt built-in subwoofer. The system uses Samsung's DLNA-based AllShare Play feature to share multimedia content with compatible smartphones, tablets, cameras and computers, or you can use AirPlay to stream audio from iOS devices. There is also a composite analog input and Bluetooth connectivity.
HTIBs also get tubed
Tubes are also coming two two new Samsung Blu-ray 3D HTIB (home theater in a box) systems, including the 5.1-channel HT-E6500W ($800), and the 7.1-channel HT-E6730W ($1,000, shown at right). Both systems, which arrive this spring, have built-in 3D Blu-ray players for use with a 3D TV.
Samsung's flagship system, the HT-E6730W, is a 7.1-channel system that comes with two tower speakers, two swivel speakers that can be mounted on the front speakers to fire upwards (with the sound cascading down on listeners), two wireless rear speakers, and dual-unit passive subwoofer. All the speakers have glass-fiber cones, and the preamp tubes are visible from either the front or above the unit. Other features include built-in Wi-Fi, Samsung's Smart Hub interface for apps and Internet content, and AllShare Play.
The HT-E67630W is similarly configured, except it's a 5.1 system with smaller( though not small) front speakers. Both systems have built-in Wi-Fi, access to several streaming movie services, and full Web browsers. They also include the the company's disc-to-digital service, which allows you to place a movie (Blu-ray or DVD) in the Blu-ray player's disc drive and then get access to a copy stored in the cloud, which can be accessed from any Internet connected device. (Walmart recently announced an in-store program that does the same thing.)
Although using tubes is an interesting and differentiating approach, tubes do tend to wear out over time—something to which I can personally attest, as I own several tube-based audio systems and a few tube guitar amps. But replacing a preamp tube is a lot easier than replacing a power tube, which often has to be properly biased by a trained technician. Let us know whether you find tube-based gear intriguing, and whether any of these new systems from Samsung catch your fancy.
—James K. Willcox