Advice for a "starter" tube amp, et al.
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sinenomine

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I am planning on taking my first foray into tube amp territory in setting up a smallish audio system for my home office, but I don't really know where to start.  I've lurked enough on these forums that I thought I might get some sound advice here.
 
My budget is pretty limited for now, say $300-$500, but I was hoping to find something to drive a pair of smallish stereo speakers (Dayton B652s at the moment, but I'll want something better as soon as I can afford it), and that can hopefully act as a decent headphone amp (the Grado SR80i for now, but waaay down the line I'm aiming at something on par with the Hifiman HE-500).  The main source will be an old iPod loaded with Apple lossless files, but I wouldn't mind adding either a good CD player, or a transport and DAC at some point.  
 
I'd like something fairly small, reasonably decent-looking, and most importantly with a genuinely "tubey" sound if you get me - warm and sort of lush, like I remember a cousin's hifi sounding when I was a kid.  It doesn't have to play particularly loud or anything, since I'll be sitting quite close to it.  While I know I won't find anything mind-blowing in my price range, I'd like to get something decent enough that I'll always want to make a place for it.
 
 
So, can anyone recommend a decent tube amp in the $300-$500 range that will play nicely with the Grados and Daytons I mentioned, but still have room to grow into better headphones and speakers?  For that matter, if you could also recommend an upgrade path for (smallish - on par with Paradigm Atoms or Wharfedale Diamond 10.0s) speakers with whatever amp you suggest, I'd be grateful.  
 
Thanks in advance!
 
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Uncle Erik

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The vast majority of tubed headphone/power amps put out under 8W of power, usually just 2W-3W. That's OK if you're running highly efficient horns or singledrivers. They won't be very good with the typical speaker.

Instead, I'd look for a vintage integrated with tubes and a headphone jack. You'll find reasonably priced ones from H.H. Scott and Stromberg-Carlson. Those will give you somewhere between 25W and 50W, depending on the model. A couple of caveats. One, the tubes are on the inside. You won't see them, but they'll still sound great. Second, most of these units are around 50 years old. They will need modern guts in the power supply, if not new caps and resistors throughout.

The good news is that upgrading the electrical giblets is a DIY proposition. What makes tube DIY difficult is building the case and laying out the parts. But these come with a nice case and someone has already done the layout. Removing and replacing parts is not so tough. A little learning and a few inexpensive tools will do it. If you don't go boutique, you can get all new caps and resistors for $30-$50.

Another route to take is to pick up a tubed headphone amp that doubles as a preamp. Then you can connect it to a tubed poweramp. I do this - the Zana Deux is connected to a Conrad-Johnson MV-52 driving the speakers. I can run headphones or speakers easily. The problem is that this won't fit your budget. You could get the headphone amp/preamp now and save for a tubed power amp. The least expensive good tube power amp is the Dynaco ST70. A classic and you'll find used ones for $300-$500 or so. These are hugely popular amps - you'll find hundreds of upgrades and mods for them. There are even replica kits now. I almost bought one, but picked the MV52 because there's a special place in my heart for the EL34 tube.
 
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sinenomine

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Thanks for the suggestions, Uncle Erik!  I hadn't even thought about going with a vintage model, but this sounds like it could be a fun project.  I don't have much experience doing work like that just yet, but the thought of bringing a quality piece of hardware back to life and getting great sound out of it is pretty good incentive to learn.  The main reason I got the B652s was because I figured I could try out modding them, and if I messed them up I wouldn't be out very much money, lol.  I think I'm going to search around for one of the amps you've suggested for my living room setup, actually.  I have more room in there, and it would be great to have something I've put work into in my main listening setup, you know?
 
I stumbled across a more "turn-key" possible solution for the office this morning - the Musical Paradise MP-301 Mk II.  It's pretty compact and seems to be well reviewed from what I can tell.  The consensus seems to be that it isn't the end-all-be-all of headphone amps, but that it does sound pretty good.  Like you said, I'd need something more efficient than the Daytons to get much out of it, but to those with more experience than I have - do you think they would work well enough until I could save up for a better speaker?
 
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Uncle Erik

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I have a thing for the vintage tube gear, especially from the Golden Age that's from the end of WW II through the early 1960s. They have nice point-to-point wiring and are easy to work on.

A side benefit is appreciation. Tubes seem to continually grow in appreciation. Not entirely sure why, but there's a deep appeal to a lot of people. Something like an old Stromberg-Carlson might jump in value overnight if it becomes fashionable. I still kick myself for not buying vintage gear in the 1980s. I've been attending the W6TRW electronic swapmeets for a good 25 years. Back then, I saw heaps of classic gear going for next to nothing. I was a kid and had no idea. But had I picked up stuff back then, I would have had a great system today and be a few years closer to retirement.
 
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sinenomine

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Yeah, I've been looking at vintage gear since your suggestion, and I think I'm going to have to pick something up once I have more time at the end of the summer.
 
And the Little Dot looks pretty sweet, too.  
 
Ah, one day I hope to have enough money and time to enjoy spend on this hobby!
 
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