(Last Updated On: September 9, 2019)

Vacuum tubes are as much about the sonics as they are about the aesthetics; celebrate great visual design in tube amplification with this list of our favorites!

With the relatively modest power needed by most headphones, tube amplifiers have made a comeback to many audio enthusiasts’ desktops and audio racks. While the circuits themselves play an undeniable role in creating quality audio, visual design also has its place in a user’s overall experience and enjoyment.

The gear we use is our interface with the music; in some cases, even the gear itself rises to the level of an art. Here are some great examples with a variety of aesthetic design influences!

Eddie Current – Studio

The slightly menacing Studio
The slightly menacing Studio

Most of Eddie Current’s amplifiers look like perfectly regular devices you’d find in your garage or basement…provided you are a uniquely progressive scientist intent on transanimating ghoulish sidekicks by way of high voltage electricity.

The Studio’s monolithic black-on-black style, control hieroglyphs, and subtle case details add up to an almost-sinister art deco feel. The hefty enclosure is a great complement to the candle-like glow of the (four!) 2A3 heaters; you could probably study a copy of the Necronomicon by the light of this amp. It’s a wonderfully cohesive visual statement without becoming overdone.

  • Retail price: $7,000 USD

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • Parallel single-ended 2A3 output stage improves damping factor and power over single 2A3 amplifiers
  • 417A / 5842Q driver (includes two 5842Q and two 6D22S tubes)
  • Cinemag output transformers with tertiary winding for lowest distortion
  • Interstage transformers eliminate capacitors in the signal path
  • High-frequency AC on output tube heaters
  • Hand-wired point to point signal circuit
  • Power bandwidth: 15-50kHz
  • Power into 32 ohms: 800mW
  • Dimensions: 19″L x 14″W x 10.5H (with tubes)

See The Studio on Eddie Current’s website!

Donald North Audio – Stratus

The sky-blue DNA Stratus
The sky-blue DNA Stratus

Whereas Eddie Current’s catalog of “apperati audiophili” evokes an almost Victorian laboratory vibe, Donald North Audio pushes the 2A3 into a candy-coated future. The technicolor Stratus has a glossy, cerulean paint job with natural aluminum accoutrement and laser-engraved badging.

Asymmetry in the Stratus layout communicates a simple form-follows-function design philosophy. In contrast, the combination of powder-coating, raw metal, glass, and bakelite dress the Stratus up in a pleasing mix of high-quality materials. As a whole, it’s a nice combination of vintage tech (vacuum tubes) and modern industrial design.

  • Retail price: $3,000 USD

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • Purist class A single-ended zero feedback triode design
  • Output transformers custom made to DNA’s specifications in the USA
  • Point-to-point hand-wired audio circuitry using carefully selected audiophile components
  • Quasi-dual mono power supply
  • DC heated signal tubes
  • Balanced choke-filtered 2A3 filament supplies
  • Dual 3-pin & 4-pin XLR and 1/4″ stereo TRS outputs
  • TKD volume control potentiometer
  • Dimensions: 8.5 ” H x 17″ W x 14 ” D (21.6cm H x 43.2cm W x 35.6cm D) including tubes and connectors & controls

See the Status on DNA’s website!

Manley Labs – Neo-Classic 300B

The military-grade Neo Classic 300B
The military-grade Neo Classic 300B

Manley Labs may be better known in the Pro Audio world for its outboard preamps, EQs, and compressors which have populated studio engineers’ racks since the late 1980s. This purpose-built rack-mount heritage comes across loud and clear in the Manley Neo-Classic 300B.

The “Manley-Blue” color of the front plate (with integrated rack ears) and chassis feet calls to mind the blued steel of firearms or bladed tools. The black oxide socket head cap machine screws drive home the impression that this amp is made for a rugged life. Eight stout octal-socket tubes, including a pair of colorful voltage regulator 0D3s, light up the top panel of the Neo Classic 300B.

  • Retail price: $6,100 USD
Manley Labs is an offshoot of the high-end Vacuum Tube Logic (VTL) brand.

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • All triode, pure class A operation
  • Tube regulated power supply for high ripple/noise rejection
  • Manley-wound output transformers
  • Two front panel 1/4″ headphone jacks
  • Headphone impedance switchable between 30-400 Ohms and 300-4000 Ohms
  • 2 x 300B Electro-Harmonix output tubes, 2 x 6SL7 Sovtek input tubes, 2 x 5AR4 Ruby rectifier tubes, 2 x OD3 regulator tubes
  • Frequency Response: 5 Hz to 50 KHz 1dB
  • Output Power (100 Ohm Headphones): 1W (10 V RMS)
  • Output Power (600 Ohm Headphones): 1W (25 V RMS)
  • Dimensions: 19″ wide x 13″ deep x 7.5” high

See the Neo Classic 300B on Manley’s website!

HeadAmp – Blue Hawaii Special Edition

A bling bling Blue Hawaii
A bling bling Blue Hawaii

The HeadAmp Blue Hawaii is available in ten (10!) different finishes of anodized aluminum. Colors range from an understated satin grey to a very royal polished purple and include coordinated feet, front panels, knobs, and accent rings around the tube bases.

If you own a pair of electrostatic headphones and can’t stand the standard gear pallet of grey, greyer, and greyest, Blue Hawaii is your amp. Beyond the color options, the Blue Hawaii has a nice modern hi-fi look with a slim profile, chunky heatsinks integrated into the side panels, and a (color-coordinated) outboard power supply.

  • Retail price: $5,999 USD

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • Low noise dual JFET input
  • 4x EL34/6CA7 vacuum tube output
  • Output jacks: 2 Teflon Stax Pro Bias
  • Frequency Response 5Hz-20KHz +/- 0.3dB
  • Output voltage: 1600V peak-to-peak (550Vrms)
  • THD: 0.003% at 1KHz/100VRMS
  • Dimensions (amplifier with tubes installed): 15.5in [394mm] W x 13.5in [343mm] D x 8.5in [216mm] H

See the Blue Hawaii on HeadAmp’s website!

Woo Audio – WES (2nd Gen)

The WES brings vacuum tube technology to space-faring listeners
The WES brings vacuum tube technology to space-faring listeners

Superbly symmetrical down to the dual rotary power switches that mirror the source and volume knobs, the Woo Audio WES takes the robot cake for futuristic design.

Height and placement of the spike feet lend the WES dual chassis the illusion of levitation.

The only thing missing to complete the space escape-pod effect is a HUD projected on the glass to show volume setting and tube life. As long as your pareidolia doesn’t scream robot face (Short Circuit, anyone?), this is an amplifier you’d be proud to show off.

  • Retail price: $4,499 USD

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • Tubes: EL34 power x 4, 6SL7 driver x 4, 5AR4 rectifier x 2, 12AU7 phase inverter x 2
  • Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) tube sockets
  • Fully-balanced design, Class-A operation
  • Transformer-coupled, point-to-point wiring
  • Pseudo-dual power supply
  • Output jacks: STAX Pro Bias 5-pin EarSpeakers output x 2
  • Anodized aluminum chassis, available in black or silver
  • Dimensions: Amplifier: 7½”(H), 16½”(W), 12″(D), Power supply unit: 4½”(H), 16½”(W), 12″(D)

See the WES on Woo Audio’s website!

Linear Tube Audio – microZOTL MZ2

The discrete microZOTL packs a lot of unique tech in an understated chassis
The discrete microZOTL packs a lot of unique tech in an understated chassis

If understatement is more your design speed, the Linear Tube Audio (LTA) microZOTL may be your headphone amplifier. As its name implies, the microZOTL is truly a small form factor for a full voltage tube amplifier, packing four tubes into its innocuous rectangular box.

The front panel is tastefully minimalist and well-proportioned and the sides and back are well-ventilated. Its one nod to audiophile obsession is the clear Lexan top to show off the tubes and circuit wiring. This is “little black box” done right.

ZOTL stands for (Zero hysteresis Output Transformer-Less), a patented technology for matching high tube impedance to (relatively) low headphone impedance without the use of traditional audio transformers.
  • Retail price: $1,235 USD

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • Push-pull Class A amplification without feedback
  • Transformer-less (OTL) design eliminates intermodulation distortion inherent in all transformer designs
  • Low impedance output easily matches a wide range of headphones and speakers
  • Hand-made outside Washington, DC
  • Output impedance: 2 ohms
  • Power output with 14-ohm load: 0.5W, 1% THD
  • Frequency response full power: (14-ohm load): +0, -1dB 5Hz-50kHz,
  • Dimensions: Amplifier: 9.5” (24.1 cm) wide, 4.75” (12.0 cm) tall, 7.875” (19.7 cm) deep (including connectors), Linear power supply: 12″ (30.48 cm) x 3.25″ (8.26 cm) x 4.25″ (10.8 cm)

See the microZOTL on LTA’s website!

Thomas Mayer – Stereo Headphone Amplifier

King of materials and proportions, Mayer's amps are at home in any mid-century modern studio
King of materials and proportions, Mayer’s amps are at home in any mid-century modern studio

If IKEA made tube amps, Thomas Mayer would be the lead designer. From the proportions, to the finishes, to the wood choices, Mayer’s German amps are the most Scandinavian thing you’ll find in headphone amplification.

Bolts to mount the numerous capacitors and transformers are generally hidden from view with a floating top plate. Red-letter etching, complementing the Neutrik locking jacks, leaps from the black anodized background. Most of Mayer’s amplifiers are stuffed to the gills with heavy chokes and oversized component parts, so the handles included here may be as practical as they are attractive.

  • Retail price: approximately $6,500 USD (includes 19% VAT)

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • One EL55 tube per channel in single-ended Class A operation
  • Hashimoto output transformers
  • 1W output power into 32 ohms
  • Up to 4 line-level inputs
  • Multiple output jacks for various impedance connections
  • Tube rectified power supply with multiple LC filters

See the Stereo Headphone Amp on Thomas Mayer’s website!

Decware – CSP3

Decware maximizes the tubes per square inch
Decware maximizes the tubes per square inch

Decware excels at squeezing as many tubes, knobs, meters, and jacks into as small a footprint as tastefully possible (see the TORII for another good example). The CSP3 with its coke bottle rectifier tube towering over the trio of smaller signal tubes and controls is no exception.

Decware manages to pack in a dizzying array of balance and levels adjustments, as well as inputs and outputs, without the amp looking cluttered. The portrait orientation footprint is a svelte 7.25” wide by 14.75” deep and the CSP3 is available with a variety of attractive wooden base options (shown above in walnut).

  • Retail price: $1,339 USD

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • Single-ended Class A Triode OTL
  • SRPP output stage lowers output impedance without the aide of transformers
  • ZERO negative feedback
  • Tubes: three 6N1P-EB or 6922 signal tubes, one 5U4 tube rectifier
  • Output: adjustable 0 ~ 30 volts
  • Lifetime warranty to original owner / 90 days on tubes
  • Dimensions: 8.5″ H x 7.250″ W x 14.75″ D

See the CSP3 on Decware’s website!

ampsandsound – Mogwai Special Edition

The Mogwai is the quintessential example of modern methods meet vintage design
The Mogwai is the quintessential example of modern methods meet vintage design

The ampsandsound Mogwai amp may not be carved from a billet of aluminum or dipped in pupil-dilating shades of outrageous, but the execution and materials used in the relatively conservative visual design are top-notch.

The engraved top panel is inset in a nicely figured walnut apron with a contrasting corner block. The black transformer bells and volume control disappear into the black top panel and put the glass of the tube envelopes and wood grain center-stage. The Mogwai’s tastefully classic design choices disguise the modern machining and PCB-based construction, giving the Mogwai a handcrafted, vintage construction look.

  • Retail price: $3,200 USD

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • Single-ended class A operation with zero feedback
  • Custom wound ultra-high quality output transformers from Transcendar
  • Self-bias output stage is compatible with array of tubes; compatible output tubes include 6L6GC, EL34s, KT66, KT77, KT88, 6550s and KT90
  • Input tubes: 6SL7 or equivalent
  • 32ohm power (KT88 output tubes): 4.6Watts RMS @ 1khz
  • 300ohm power (KT88 output tubes): 5.2Watts RMS @ 1khz

See the Mogwai on ampandsound’s website!

Toolshed Amps – Darling

Oh my, Darling!
Oh my, Darling!

The Toolshed Darling headphone amplifier has cottage-industry craftsmanship in spades: from the hand-picked highly-figured wood, to the intricate etching on every inch of exposed metal, to the internal point-to-point wiring. These are details only fanatics labor over.

The Darling Head Amp may be named for the classic circuit using single-ended 1626 tubes or it may be simply because the petite headphone amplifier is so darn adorable. In any case, it’s undeniable both Toolshed Amps and the Darling are exactly what they say on the tin: cute tube amplification elevated to artistry.

  • Retail price: $2,595 USD

Relevant Technical Tidbits

  • Class A, single-ended amplification
  • Tubes: one Type 84/6Z4 rectifier, one 12SL7/2C52 driver, two 1626 output
  • Custom-wound output transformers
  • 850 mW @ 32 ohm (low impedance OT’s)
  • 700 mW @ 300 ohm (high impedance OT’s)
  • <1.0%THD to either 32 Ohms (low), or 300 Ohms (high)
  • Frequency response: 25Hz-32KHz +/-3db
  • Point-to-point, hand-wired (no PCBs)
  • Hand-polished, finger-joined, 2-tone/figured-hardwood base
  • Limited lifetime warranty to the original purchaser (tubes 30 days)

See the Darling Head Amp on Toolshed Amp’s website!

Conclusion

Great visual design is not unique to tube amplifiers–there are some beautiful solid-state amplifiers as well–but vacuum tubes, with their subtle glow and glass envelopes, give designers an extra visual element to charm the listener. Of course, it should also be pointed out that unique design isn’t always cheap! The most economic choice on our list of beautiful tube amplifiers is still over $1,000 USD. Sorry about your wallet!