Shuguang, Valve Art, TJ, Full Music, Sophia Electric. All I knew for certain was that 300Bs thus branded originated in China. From which factory though? And who were the makers and who were the rebadgers? Similar confusion -- to the less than fully informed at least -- reigns in Eastern Europe between AVVT, EAT, EML and KR. When KR and Vaic split, AVVT rose, then collapsed, to be just partially resurrected by EAT with a handful of tube types. EML is produced under exclusive license by former AVVT personnel as we learned from Jac van de Walle. What else might one learn about the present-day Czech-based 300B makers?
I was advised to query Brian of DIY HiFi Supply on the Sino scene since he'd sold Valve Arts and TJs for year. Brian kindly took time out of his busy day to paint the Chinese picture based on his personal experiences living and working there: "TJ started as a joint venture between a Taiwanese company and Mr. Liu, former chief engineer for Beijing Tube works (maker of tubes for the military from the 50s-80s). Their brand name was Allmusic. The cooperation fell apart and the Taiwan side withdrew. Mr. Liu then starting manufacturing under the Fullmusic name and continues today as the Fullmusic tube factory in Tianjin, about 50km to the west of Beijing on the coast.
"At first the Fullmusic brand was sold through Wiwi tubes in Hong Kong (I'm sure you know about them - aka bugleman) and New Sensor. Also, a 2.5v/300B replica of a Japanese made 300B did well in Japan for a time. Fullmusic's main product at first were the Western Electric tube numbers 300B, 205D, 274B, 102D and 101D. Stanley Chu of Hong Kong, now sadly now deceased, and I were introduced around 1999 to 2000 to Mr. Liu. He gave us some samples of his new mesh plate 300B, the solid-plate version and the 205D, 274B etc. We were both impressed with the 300B tubes and decided to help promote Mr. Liu. I sent a pair each of the 300B mesh plate and solid plate (and the Valve Art tubes reviewed) to Thorsten who did his comparative review in EnjoyTheMusic. Although the mesh plate garnered the most attention, I always preferred the solid plate.
"Stanley and I wanted to distance ourselves from the Allmusic/Fullmusic names because we felt at the time that the names were tainted with confusion and there had been a lot of QC problems. We each got a Sofia curve tracer and curve traced every tube we received. We started selling the Fullmusic factory tubes under the TJ name. We rejected hundreds of tubes but Mr. Liu was always very good at replacing the faulty ones and later the numbers rejected dropped considerably. After the TJ name became quite well known, Richard of Sophia began to sell Fullmusic factory tubes under the Sophia brand name. Basically the difference between Fullmusic, TJ and Sophia is the printing on the base and the screening as done by the distributor.
"Stanley and I pressed Mr. Liu to manufacture some non-W.E tube numbers such as the 2A3, 45, PX25, PX4 and so on but the most successful by far has been the 300B mesh plate. At first Mr. Liu kept coming up with new tube creations that wouldn't fit any existing amps. It's taken a long time to get the message across that most customers will not build an amp around a tube.
"About Valve Art, this is Jadson and Ouyang's company (the original VA tubes had O&J on the bottle). Jadson is an engineer who works out of the Shuguang tube factory in Changsha, Hunan. He personally supervises the production of tubes for Valve Art's branding and has up until recently had some models produced especially for Valve Art. The owner of Shuguang told me that audio tubes were only about 10% of the factory's business so their focus was elsewhere but they would continue to develop that side of the business. However since that time, demand has outstripped the factory's capacity to produce so I'm not sure what new things will be on the horizon for the audio tube world. Recent new releases with 845 etc seem to be semi-finished products with loads of QC problems. Also, our waiting time for tube orders has gone from 2 weeks to 2 to 4 months now.
"As far as Fullmusic using SGTF parts in their product - well, the two companies view each other as competitors. At one time Mr. Liu told me he had to buy the filament wire from SGTF but even so, he has his own way of processing the wire before he uses it. Especially Mr. Liu (the smaller of the two) carefully guards his trade secrets. When I toured his factory, I could see that he makes almost everything by hand. Here's a link to the factory tour I did in 2003."
|Jozefina Krahulcova of EAT who lives in Vienna added this about the Czech connection: "I have my own factory in Prague. I produce mainly 300B and KT88 tubes and some accessories like the Cool dampers and small ECC803S and ECC88 tubes. Since 2001, I worked with Tesla Vršovice in Prague. After an offer from the director ( I was the main and strategic customer for their 300B and KT88 tubes), I decided to buy the factory. I took over the same people, technology and machinery. I will send you some photos from Leland's visit in Prague [samples below]."
|On Tesla Electron Tubes' site*, one learns that from 1992 onward, the production focus has been on "transmitting tubes and high-power klystrons for use in broadcasting and television transmitters with high frequency output power ranging from watts to megawatts; power grid tubes for use in R.F. heating and industrial applications; and vacuum interrupters for use in vacuum contractors for motor control." A quick stroll down their product pages shows not a single consumer|
|audio valve. From this one might infer that Jozefina bought a small satellite production assembly within the industrial Tesla umbrella to continue the Tesla legacy of consumer audio valves which the mother ship has long since abandonded. Jozefina provided more facts:
* Tesla Vršovice operated from 1948 until 2006. However, the full history goes back to 1922. In 2006, Tesla was bought and moved out of Prague by a new owner and under a new name. The smaller part of Tesla Vršovice which Jozefina acquired had from the very beginning specialized in transmitter tubes. There were about 20 different Tesla factories in the former Czechoslovakia spread all around the country. Every Tesla factory produced different electronics. For instance, Tesla Litovel produced kitchen and home appliances like vacuum cleaners, mixers - or even turntables. Another plant of the conglomerate produced industrials maschines - and Tesla Vršovice produced transmitter tubes.
"There presently are three producers of audio valves in the Czech Republic - KR Enterprise, s.r.o. ( Ltd.); EAT EuroAudio Team Production, s.r.o. ( Ltd.); Mr. Schönfeld (producer for Emission Labs and Ayon). In the beginning we had Mr. Kron who hired the young Prague engineer Alesa Vaic. Two years later they separated. From 1996 to 2000, Mr. Vaic operated his new company AVVT - Alesa Vaic Vacuum Technology. After the first year in Prague, he decided to move to Roznov pod Radhostem in the eastern part of the Czech Republic to minimize production costs of the valves because Prague was getting more expensive. This lasted for about 3 years when Mr. Vaic was forced to close his Roznov firm. The reasons were unreliable products and dissatisfied customers. Mr. Vaic was a very creative and excellent development engineer but not a finisher or good businessman. Nowadays he deals in used cars and has no desire to return to the HiFi industry.
"Mr. Schönfeld used to work as a materials supply manager in the AVVT Prague factory. When Mr. Vaic moved operations to Roznov pod Radhostem, Mr. Schönfeld could not leave Prague due to family and age. For compensation, he received some machines from Mr. Vaic when they separated. Afterwards, Mr. Schönfeld worked in one of the old Tesla plants as a standard employee. I think 2 years later he got in touch with the Austrian Ayon company who begged him to produce big power triodes which they needed for their own amplifiers. After the big AVVT issues with quality control and tube life, Mr. Schönfeld developed quite reliable power triodes just 3 years later. Eventually Mr. Jac from Germany approached Mr. Schönfeld for what would become his brand Emission Labs.
"In the beginning, I assisted communications between Ayon and Mr. Schönfeld who spoke neither German nor English. Later, I established my own company EAT -- I was a student at the time -- and Mr. Schönfeld produced small tube quantities for me and Ayon. Perhaps you remember Joe Fratus of Art Audio. He lost much money first with Vaic and then with certain EAT-branded Schönfeld valves, especially the powerful 52B and 32B triodes. After these bad experiences, I searched for a new valve supplier. There was one left - Tesla Vršovice in Prague, a huge company of formerly 400 employees, later 80. They produced transmitter tubes. However, Mr. Malenicky, their director, was a hifi fan. He dreamed of having his own tubes in his amplifier. He began 10 years ago with KT88s and later 300Bs. He had a financial background and bought some good machines from Switzerland. After some cooperation, I convinced him to produce tubes with my EAT brand name. This worked very well. Two years ago Mr. Malenicky offered me to buy out the whole audio tube department and I took over the same people, equipment and technology. Then I moved my factory to a new place in Prague about 3km from the original old Tesla Vršovice factory.
"I no longer have any interest to produce the big triodes. Regarding assumptions that my tubes are produced in the same factory as EML, you might ask yourself why EML sells no KT88s. To produce KT88s, you need completely different machines. That is a huge investment. KT88s are far more difficult to produce. They use a much more complicated inner structure than all the triodes, taking about twice the production time of 300Bs."
Which gets us to JJ Electronic whose tubes often are referred to as Teslas. According to JAC Music, the JJ/Tesla moniker is a misnomer in the same way that Yugoslavian EI tubes today are made on old Philips machines without being referenced as EI-Philips. When Tesla discontinued manufacture of EL34s and KT88s in favor of transmitter tubes, vacuum capacitors, klystrons and military devices, Tesla machinery from the Rosnow plant to produce those audio valves eventually got moved to the JJ factory. Hence certain JJ tubes continue to be made on original Tesla equipment today but by different people. The Tube Store calls JJ "the newly reorganized Tesla factory, recently relocated in the Slovak Republic. This legendary tube factory has built many OEM tubes under brand names such as Telefunken, Siemens, Amperex, Mullard, and Brimar." The Tube Depot's version of the history is identical. "Formerly known as Tesla, JJ tubes are made on some of the original European equipment that was used in the heyday." Euro Tubes has a factory tour.
Visiting Tesla's own site recounts history as follows. Tesla itself began as Radioslavia Ltd in 1922 as an importer of radiotelegraph transmitters before competition from Philips and Telefunken shifted focus to defense contracts for military equipment four years later. By 1932, Radioslavia Ltd. began cooperation with the British Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. to assemble radio receivers. Four years later, Radioslavia produced transmitting tubes for Marconi. After WWII, Radioslavia relocated to Prague where it remains today. It became known as Tesla by 1948 and in the 70s had specialized in big radio transmitter tubes where ceramics replaced prior glass parts and power outputs peaked with 250kW triodes. In 1980 Tesla merged with the Research Institute for Vacuum Technology for 10 years before becoming independent." The implied subtext in all of this isn't subtle. To dedicate your business to the dwindling numbers of valve consumers in home audio is - well, bad business. While EL34s, 6V6s and KT88s continue to be consumed in attractive numbers by guitar wranglers -- plus the small-signal driver and preamp tubes associated with guitar amps -- the esoteric vintage triodes that are valued by audiomaniacs really are an endangered species.
To maintain the specialist equipment and trained personnel that can continue to make 300Bs, 2A3s, 45s, PX-4s, PX-25s, 274Bs and such is a challenging proposition. The reduced demand hardly justifies the effort. To then author monsters like the unique KR Audio T1610 and one's own Kronzilla amps to plug them into is near madness - the kind only true enthusiasts and passionate people can appreciate. Audiophiles thus should feel thrice blessed also by the vacuum tube renaissance in Chinese consumer audio. As long as enough listeners consume exotic triodes in affordable valve amps to create sufficient demand, a few dedicated makumaniacs (those who fabricate these valves) may continue to support our rarefied habit. Put differently, direct-heated triode bliss is directly subsidized by musicians; those 'common listeners' who prefer less exotic pentodes over DHTs; and the large number of Pacific Rim tube fanatics. Clearly, the triode mafia owes thanks to literally thousands of folks who never get any mention. Taking things for granted is the surest way to hasten their demise. In that spirit then, muchas gracias to all the keepers of the flame, directly and indirectly... (heated).
How tubes are made - a visit to the KR Audio factory by Marja & Henk on the next page.