3. EF95 FAMILY
The EF95 family is the most versatile and widely available of the three families of tubes reviewed in this guide. I recommend beginning users to start tube rolling within this family because it has the most variety of manufacturers and models to choose from, and gives you the most sound for your money (particularly starting with the 6ZH1P-EV). Little Dot Mk-series amps are factory configured to use this family and the Darkvoice 332/3322 amps also use this tube exclusively.
Also known as: EF95, 5654, 6AK5, 6J1, 6ZH1P, 403B, CV850, M8100, 6DL5, DP61, PM05
3.2 Amperex 5654
First impression of these tubes came off a bit shy sounding at the 10 hour mark. With about 50 hours of burn-in time, the sound eventually matured and developed a good amount of detail without being overly bright or edgy. My main reservations about these tubes are its lack of bass ‘oomph’ and its upper-mids is too forward sounding and smothers the top-octave ‘air’, robbing the overall sound of a sense of immediacy.
3.3 Chinese 6J1
Manufactured at the Shuguang factory in China, these tubes are sometimes used as stock driver tubes for lower end LD amps and can be found cheaply from various overseas sellers on eBay (usually not matched). Sonically, these tubes are too ‘bright’ from the beginning, bass is muddy and undefined and vocals are masked by overpowering treble notes (which improves a bit as the tubes burn in), but in the end these tubes failed to approximate the ‘Hi-Fi’ sound and just do not do justice to the otherwise great sounding LD amps.
3.4 Collins 6AK5
These hard to find tubes have smooth and full bodied bass, somewhat recessed mids and a good sense of imaging. They have a peculiar ‘congested’ sound during complex passages such as full orchestral music and suffers from a smidge of sibilance.
3.5 GE 5654
GE is one of the most widely available manufacturer of the EF95 family of tubes and comes stock with many LD amps. Sound quality is average with a more upfront in-your-face sound. Listening to the notoriously close-mic’d Jack Johnson’s “On and On” can be a claustrophobic experience with these tubes due to its up front qualities but chamber music is complimentary.
3.6 GE 5Star 5654
These hand-picked broadcast quality tubes are surprisingly unlike the standard GE tubes. I like these tubes for their evenness and silence which really lets you focus your mind on the music, and their soundstage is even and expansive as long as you have a matched pair. I find myself tapping my toes listening to music with these tubes.
3.7 GE JAN5654W
These military spec tubes really have a sense of quality construction about them. The first thing I noticed about these tubes when they arrived is just how neat and solid its internals look. Their sound doesn’t disappoint either with incredibly good treble extension, clarity and quietness that reminds me of the GE 5 Star tubes reviewed above. Its upfront sound is in keeping with the GE family sound, violins sounded desperately beautiful with these tubes. In the bass department, PRAT and OOMPH are the first adjectives that come to mind. Compared to the Mullard M8100, these tubes are airier and their bass not as soupy. These tubes also have exceptionally clean vocal and lends itself well to modern jazz recordings such as Eva Cassidy’s “Live at Blues Valley” where the reverb of the room is clearly audible.
3.8 Mullard M8100 / CV4010
The Mullard house sound is much warmer compared to the GE tubes reviewed above. The warm tone is especially complimentary to female vocals where sultry voices such as Norah Jones and Dianna Krell’s come across as positively seductive. With rock music, the full body bass has a visceral impact. These tubes don’t have the sweetest treble of the EF95 family (that title goes to the 6ZH1P-EV), but they nevertheless manage to give the music a sense of presence and body. Trumpets and strings unfortunately don’t have the most prat or the most natural decay but these are sins of omission that I could happily live with.
3.9 RCA 5654 (Black Plate)
The first thing you will notice about these tubes is how solid their bass response is. If Mullard bass is too warm for you then definitely give these RCA black plates a try. RCA cranked these out by the thousands back in the day, and in my experience they are very easy to find. These tubes have a nice soundstage presentation and are extraordinarily good for classical music. The sound has good balance overall and improves with burn-in. They have the great quality of getting out of the way of the music and are a great middle-of-the-road choice.
3.10 Voshkod 6ZH1P-EV
I first became intrigued about these Russian tubes when several head-fi members began posting wildly contradictory comments about them – so dissimilar were people’s impressions about these tubes that I just had to find out for myself what they really sound like. After some research I discovered that many versions of this tube were manufactured in various factories in the former USSR, and by far the best sounding version is the Voshkod 6ZH1P-EV which was made for cold war rockets. I got my matched pair from Yen Audio and first impression out of the package proved that in keeping with its military heritage, these tubes are some of the most solidly constructed tubes I’ve ever encountered. Sonically, these tubes pleasantly surprised me with their stunningly clear and transparent treble and authoritative sounding bass that compliments my HD650 as well as my Grados. Vocals are similarly impressive with a level of realism that is what I love about the ‘tube sound’. These are my favorite EF95 tubes.
3.11 Sylvania 5654
Reserved sounding tube at first and needs burn in. Good balance of frequency extremes and good imaging. Effortless sound quality during complex passages, good decay of cymbals.
3.12 Sylvania Gold Brand 5654
These are the best tubes Sylvania made and are easy to identify as they have golden pins. They are warmer sounding than GE and RCA tubes, and have slightly better vocal than Mullards but sacrifice some bass performance. My matched pair required a lot of burn in and sounded much better after 20 hours or so. The thing that stands out about these tubes is their razor sharp 3D imaging, and their outstanding balance of detail and warmth without compromising either quality.
3.13 Tung-Sol 6AK5
The famed Tung-Sol has always been one of my favorite vacuum tube brands since day one of my tube rolling journey. The Tung-Sol 6AK5 didn’t disappoint, offering a smooth laid back sound. It has the richness and sweetness of the Mullard midrange but with better frequency extension in the top end. If Mullards are too warm for you then give this tube a try.
3.14 Western Electric 403B
The WE 403B has long been the standard bearer of 403B tubes. Unfortunately they suffer from microphonic issues and all 3 of my matched pairs have audible chime-like ringing during power cycles. I really wanted to like them as WE has a good reputation, but extended listening to these tubes always caused fatigue to my ears due to a high frequency glare and sibilance.
3.15 Westinghouse 5654
These tubes really like instrumentals and has great PRAT with guitar and piano recordings. Vocals are recessed sounding and anemic sounding bass make these a bad pairing for rock 'n roll music but they have their charm with jazz recordings.
Edited by Dept_of_Alchemy - 7/23/11 at 4:32pm