Saturday, 11 May 2013

The End of The Russian Triode Saga

Today I sent my last package of Russian triodes, ending a saga which began 15 years ago at an audio tradeshow in London.

In 1997 I bought my flat in London - the best investment I ever made. I looked for an audio system, and rather to my surprise discovered that everything they said about valve (vacuum tube) amplifiers was true - they really did sound a lot better. I bought a valve system for London, and was then so dissatisfied with the system I had at my main home in France that I set about creating a system there too. That led me to build the extraordinary and wonderful Atma-Sphere MA60 transformerless (OTL) valve amplifiers, and to spend a lot of time investigating all the possibilities of this new-to-me but very old technology.

Somewhere along the line, I became fascinated by the massive Russian 6C33C-B power triode. This was built like the proverbial tank - with good reason, since that's almost where they were used. Supposedly they were built as voltage stabiliser valves for use in Mig jet fighters. Somewhere on the web I indeed saw a picture of some Russian avionics with one of them in it, so I suppose it's true. They're huge, and can pass a continuous current of over half an Amp. This is amazing for a valve - they are really high-voltage, low-current devices (high-impedance in electrical terms). Getting one to pass this kind of current, at a fairly low voltage, requires some very special engineering. For driving loudspeakers directly, without a transformer to turn volts into amps, they seem like the perfect device.

They've been used in a few commercial designs. Atma-Sphere at one time sold an amplifier using them. A company called BAT - which I think is still in business - had another. But - so the story goes - it's difficult to get them to work reliably. This must have been very reassuring to the Mig pilots.

I went to a high-end audio show in London, and got talking to the UK importer for the Sovtek Russian valves. He offered me a great price on the 6C33C if I bought a box of 50 of them. As it happened, I'd just seen somewhere that the factory in Russia had just realised the value of what they were making and were planning to increase the price - like by a factor of ten. At that time you could buy them direct from Russia for about $10 each.

"Aha," I thought. "I can get enough for my own projects, and make a tidy profit selling the rest when the price goes up". We talked some more and eventually I agreed to buy his whole stock of 400 valves, for a really excellent price. I wrote him a check, shook hands and that was that.

Several weeks later, a delivery truck showed up at my home in France. I couldn't believe my eyes! I had no idea that these things were so enormous! Each one came in a cardboard box about eight inches long and four inches square, beautifully protected by foam spacers and more cardboard inside. There were eight huge cartons, each one about two feet on each side. I stacked them all in the garage - where fortunately I had plenty of space - and started to wonder what on earth I was going to do with them.

I looked around at the pricing on the web, and decided I could sell them at a decent profit and still be cheaper than anyone else. I wrote an advert and put it on my own website - in 1997 running a website was a lot more complicated than it is today.

The response was modest, to say the least. I sold a handful during the remaining couple of years I lived in France. So when I moved to California in 2001, I still had my eight huge cartons. Well, mostly. They'd been tucked away in a back corner of the garage, where a combination of humidity and mice had reduced one of the cartons to crumbs, and several of the boxes inside as well.

Once in the US, I had more success. I was selling them way cheaper than the only other supplier outside Russia, and I had a special deal on a whole carton of 50. This made practically no profit, but my main goal was to get rid of them, not to make money. In fact any possible profit was wiped out by the storage I ended up renting so they didn't take up all the available space in my garage.

I think I sold four complete cartons like this. One led to the best pasta I've ever eaten. A guy in Japan bought them, and since I happened to be in Tokyo around that time we got together. He took me to a tiny place in a basement somewhere near Ebisu station where I had the most marvellous tagliatella carbonara ever, a melt-in-the-mouth creaminess that I've never experienced anywhere else.

It may seem surprising that the best Italian food should be in Tokyo, but it isn't really. The best French meal I've ever eaten (including living in France for ten years) was there too, as well as the best French patisserie. When the Japanese copy something, they do it extremely well!

I was amazed by the number of people who'd inquire about them, often sending several emails, and then just not place an order. But I guess it's the same as when you sell a car, and people spend ages on the phone asking every possible detail, and don't show up as arranged. Some people must just have far too much time on their hands.

The pile of boxes in the storage gradually shrunk. Then one day I took my car for service and got a huge pickup truck as a rental. (This was quite common, the local Enterprise offloaded whatever they had for these one-day rentals. I had a Cadillac deVille once, too. Verdict: interesting but don't sell the Audi). I realised the pile had shrunk enough that it would fit in the garage, and emptied the storage.

The pile continued to dwindle, until finally there was just one carton left, plus a few mouse-nibbled boxes that I was keeping for myself. Then, on May 5th 2013, someone ordered eight of them. This left only a dozen, which I'm keeping just in case I ever want to build a mega-transformerless amplifier with them. It's not likely, but then that's true for an awful lot of stuff I keep just in case. And I'be annoyed if I did want some, and had to buy them at the current retail price of $75.

So that's it, the end of the Russian triode saga. Now, does anybody want any 6CW4 Nuvistors by any chance? They do take a lot less space, but I have 100 of them...

1 comment:

Trevor W said...

Ah, it's 100 2CW4s that I need. What a pity.