01.06.2023 | Education

Behind The Sound®: How to find the best tube amp for your turntable

McIntosh turntable home audio system
A McIntosh home audio system featuring an MT5 Precision Turntable and MC275 Vacuum Tube Amplifier.

Over the past few decades, audio technology has evolved in major ways. The world has run through cycles of vinyl, cassette tapes, CDs, and now streaming. But the most dedicated audiophiles still swear by the sound quality of a turntable. The tactile experience of playing vinyl records on a turntable feels personal and rooted in history, which is something digital simply can’t offer.

Quality is key
Investing in quality gear is key if you want to experience all the rich fullness vinyl has to offer. While solid state amplifiers offer modern convenience, as they can connect to speakers without transformers and offer ample power and clean sound, many vinyl lovers prefer the classic warmth of vacuum tube amplifiers.

Since the early 1900s, tube amps have made it possible for music lovers to hear the songs embedded in the grooves of their favorite vinyl records. Tube amplifiers create sound by using different charged sections, the anode and cathode, to move electrons through the vacuum. This creates an output powerful enough to be channeled as sound through a speaker.

McIntosh MC1502 Amplifier
McIntosh MC1502 Vacuum Tube Amplifier.

The ending effect is a warm, layered sound that fills the room with the fullness of a musician playing live in the room.

How do you pick a tube amp?
Even audiophiles who already love tube amps face difficult choices when pairing a tube amp with their turntable. Finding the best tube amp requires a combination of know-how around technical details, as well as self-knowledge around listening priorities. The beauty of building a high-end analog audio set-up lies in the details. But before you pick your tube amp, you want to take your turntable into consideration.

Do all turntables pair with tube amps?
It’s important to make a distinction between record players and turntables. Many people use record player and turntable interchangeable, but there’s a crucial difference. Oftentimes, record players come with a built-in phono preamp, and some all-in-one builds even include a built-in amp and speaker. If you have a pre-built record player with its own amp built into the circuitry, connecting it with separate tube amps would not be necessary.

The word “turntable,” on the other hand, specifically refers to the part of the apparatus that houses, spins, and plays the vinyl records. This means some turntables come with a built-in phono preamp, and others don’t. Unlike some record players, most turntables don’t contain a phono preamp and amplifier in one piece, which means you can usually pair them with separate tube amps.

McIntosh MT10 Turntable

The McIntosh MT10 Precision Turntable is a great example of a high-quality turntable that can be paired with the tube amp of your choosing. Equipped with a high performance platter, motor drive assembly, a precision tone arm, and a low output moving coil cartridge, this McIntosh turntable was constructed to preserve the tradition of warm vinyl while giving listeners cutting-edge sound quality.

Ideally, you want to be able to shop around different tube amp options for your turntable, and the MT10 turntable is compatible with all McIntosh stereo preamplifiers or phono preamplifiers, which means you can easily set up a system with your ideal tube amp.

McIntosh MP100 Phono Preamplifier
McIntosh MP100 Phono Preamplifier.

The main kinds of tube amp
Once you’ve confirmed you have a pairable turntable, you’ll want to pick the kind of tube amp. There are two main types of vacuum tube amplifiers: push pull and single end tube (SET) amplifiers. Push pull amplifiers use two vacuum tubes to break up the negative and positive charge of the musical signal, then they reunite the sound into a musical wave.

Single end amplifiers, on the other hand, use a vacuum tube with a single triode per channel, which means the signal’s negative and positive parts are never split.

Those who prefer SET tube amps boast good sound detail at lower volumes, because the music is channeled through less signal pathways than a push pull. However, because SET creates lower wattage, they require high efficiency speakers.

Conversely, push pull amps have a relatively higher power output, which means they work with a wider range of speakers, deliver better bass sounds, and risk less distortion. Still, because push pull amps have a more complex signal path, there is a potential loss of detail.

Luckily, those seeking a push pull to pair with their turntable will find the McIntosh MC275 Vacuum Tube Amplifier combines the benefits of a high power output with the preservation of musical detail. With 75 watts of power per individual channel, improved bass control, and thermally quiet circuit design, it’s an ideal match for optimizing the headroom of any hifi set-up.

McIntosh MC275 Amplifier
Two generations of the McIntosh MC275 Vacuum Tube Amplifier: a 1st generation model that was manufactured from 1961 - 1971 (back right), and a 50th Anniversary Limited Edition model manufactured from 2012 - 2015.

Consider your speakers
If the pros and cons of both SET and push pull tube amplifiers sound equal to you, one deciding factor is your speaker set-up. If you already have speakers purchased, you’ll want to check if the power level and efficiency capabilities are more compatible with SET or push pull. You’ll generally need high efficiency speakers for SET, while push pull are compatible with a larger variety of speakers. If you haven’t purchased speakers for your set-up yet, then you’ll still want to narrow down what kind of tube amp your turntable model and ideal speakers best match with according to their power ratings. The joy of creating a quality build of audio components is all in the customization.

What genres do you prefer?
Whether you’re more drawn toward push pull, SET, or you don’t have a strong preference, another consideration is your listening habits. If you play old jazz records and want to make sure every deep booming bass sound and vocal melody is at full power, then a push pull amp might be ideal. Whereas if you’re listening to ambient music with detail at lower noise level, then an SET might be preferable. Luckily, when you depend on high-quality brands such as McIntosh, it’s all comes down to preference, not sacrifice.

The actual set up
Once you’ve picked a tube amp to pair with your turntable, you’ll need to actually hook them up. This part is relatively straightforward. If you have a turntable with a built-in phono preamp (or if your tube amp includes its own phono-preamp), you can connect your RCA unbalanced cable from your turntable to the phono input in the amplifier. You’ll also want to securely connect the groundwire to help prevent hum or room noise.

If your turntable doesn’t have a built-in phono preamp, then you’ll need to connect the turntable to the preamp, before connecting that to the tube amplifier. With two pairs of RCA cables in hand, you’ll connect the RCA cables and groundwire to the RCA output of the turntable. Then, you’ll take the other end of the RCA cable and connect it to the external phono preamp’s RCA input. Next, connect the other end of the groundwire to the external phono preamp. After that, you’ll take your second set of cables and connect the preamp’s RCA phono output to an available input on the tube amp.

Now, you can lower the stylus onto your favorite record, and feel the room warm up with the glorious sound of vinyl.