High Octane Fuel for The Pan Am: A Tube Roller’s Notes

High Octane Fuel for The Pan Am

About the author - Valentin

A cost/benefit approach on increasing the sound quality of The Pan Am

The Pan Am. In my opinion one of the best transportable amplifiers for the LCD-3 and HD800* in the “reasonable” mid-price category. Playing the role of the chronic improver/tweaker, this quality (read: vice) has progressed my quest for the best sound possible from this tiny little cubic wonder. Thus the scope of this text. Let’s squeeze out every possible drop of audio ambrosia**.

For starters if you want to make your Pan Am truly transportable, check out the pics in this review. A lot can be done with double-sided foam-tape, custom cables and 3M-DualLock-tape. If you’re on a tight budget and only have the stock cable for your cans. Ain’t it grand that the Pan Am also has 1/4″ TRS output? Just plug it in. You might be bummed out that your cable may be a little to long or stiff, thus asking yourself “wouldn’t an aftermarket-cable be a good investment”? Yes and no. They usually cost quite a bit, when compared to the pure sonic benefits they bring to the table. If it’s all about sound/cost, we sure are lucky that there is an abundance of good and cheap NOS-tubes. They make substantial difference without reducing your upcoming culinary experiences to chinese noodles and ketchup.


* Most certainly for a whole lot of cans, however not having heard it with all flagship phones one might want to name-drop, that remains to be elucidated by others; **Pushing them further into Audio Nirvana with other transportable amps, will be the theme for one or two future reviews, with help from Red Wine Audio. So expect a cost-no-issue approach. Soon.

 

 

Tubes compatible with The Pan Am

If you’re new to tubes, they can be very confusing at first. Triodes, pentodes, rectifiers, drivers, outputs and a whole lot of numbers and letters. Different names in different countries. The easy thing would be to stick to the tubes offered by ALO Audio, at quite a favorable price too by the way. But that’s too easy, right? If they sell these tubes stock, they can’t be all that? We’ll get back to that topic. Meanwhile, I’m saving you the time to read up on the pin-layout, voltage and heater current and google translating german enthusiast web sites. Because once again. Information is pretty scarce on these. So here I bring to you the fruit of my research. All these tubes are identical*, regardless of their name: EF95, 5654, 6AK5(W)**, 6AJ5**, 6ZH1P-EV, 6J1-Q, 5591, 403A, 403B, CV4010, M8100, CV850, 6F32(V). There are a few other denominations, but since I haven’t found any tubes currently for sale under that nomenclature, I suggest we skip them.

NOS-tubes can at first glance be tricky to order. What should I get? So many vendors, so many types, so many manufacturers. Different vendors have different tubes. Priced very differently. And last but not least, how do they sound? Generally I would say that there’s a huge lack of comparative reviews on NOS-tubes. Word-of-mouth or trusting an eBay-seller – that probably doesn’t even own the amp in question – is not something I advise others to do. There are however exceptions, well-established audio tubes like 300B, KT88, 12AX7’s, 6922”s etc. Tons of information. Why? Well those NOS-tubes are so rare and [sic] expensive, that there isn’t room to own all rare NOS-ones, so cooperation (or should we say: boasting) in the audiophile-community is quite established. The other part is, that even though you know which is “the best”, you most certainly can’t find it/afford it. So in those cases it’s a compromise between lower grade NOS-tubes or re-issues/new designs by modern tube manufacturers (e.g. JJ Electronics, Shuguang, Tung-Sol etc). This is not an issue with the driver tubes for The Pan Am. Yes, the sun sure is shining down on us on this glorious day.

My aim with this article/review is to try to help you both sonically and economically. I’ve spent far too much on these little miniature tubes (and could spend a lot more, there are at least 20 different tubes more that I’d like to hear) simply because there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to high quality transportable audio. Even small differences count.

Let me introduce you to a question I often pondered: “How can something that is built to – almost – the same specs, sound so different?” Since I am not a vacuum tube enthusiast in my late 60’s with a funky Zappa-mustache and flannel shirt (yes, that is the stereotype image projected in my mind), I will try to use common sense and some minor flashbacks from high-school electronics classes. Readers are free to correct me on the following: Different materials. Higher or lower tolerances of performance (retail/industry/military/audiophile-grade etc.) in different aspects of the desired specifications etc.


* Theoretically, or have minor practical differences e.g. heater current 150mA instead of the usual 175mA-180mA, an obvious example 403A = 175mA, 403B = 150 mA** Just to clarify: It so happens to be that 6AJ5 and 6AK5 are identical. However, this is not valid for changing the J or K to anything else. So don’t go there.

 

Continued on Page 2, Making something subjective as objective as possible

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Valentin is a mid-20’s multi-tasker. Played a lot of instruments from the age of 5-6 and onward. Grew his hair, experimented with 4x12” Mesa Boogies whilst growling in front of a mic. Cut his hair and DJ’d electro beats at clubs. Grew a moustache and people started calling him Dr. Hogea. Has ravaged through all genres you could imagine. A playlist with Warren Zevon, Dissection and Dead Prez is the daily diet. Preferably in a transportable manner. Life is too short for a desk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/muscle.ninja Nathaniel Nguyen

    Beautiful piece. Found it very informing and concise.

    • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

      Thanks Nathaniel! Hope it helps you in your future tube rolling!

  • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

    Great review V!

    • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

      Thx L! By far the most time-consuming so far. Note to self: “No more tube rolling guides!” ;)

      • Trent_D

        Nice to know that ALO is selling some great tubes to use with the Pan Am!

  • http://www.facebook.com/yago.vazquezmontes Yago Vázquez Montes

    Great review Valentin, I always wanted to try the Pan Am with my HE-400.

    Fantastic music too, I just download some of your albums ;)

    Bests.

    • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

      Hi Yago! Thanks! The Pan Am is a convenient little thing. It’s portability is it’s favorite trait in my book.

      Mind sharing what you liked?

      /V

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.quan.90 Steven Quan

    Hey Valentin, thanks for the article. Really helps with first timers looking into tube-rolling. Getting ready to purchase the Pan Am and wanted to know if you had the chance to try out the Telefunken Tubes ($49/pair) that they offer. Thanks again!

    • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

      Hi Steven! Great that you found it informative. It really puts one to the test. To stay objective, thus avoiding what one thinks they would sound like. The answer to your question is yes and no. I have a pair of Telefunken, but one of the tubes has a crack so the getter has turned all white, meaning it’s a no-go. I understand that you’re curious since they sell the tubes from stock. All I can say is “try”. However, at 49 USD, if I were you I’d buy the 9 USD Voshkods and pick up a pair of Mullards. It should end up at aprox the same cost.

      Just because it says Telefunken and costs 49 USD doesn’t make it fantastic.On the other hand, I have no substantial proof it isn’t. I’m just saying. Either take a chance and/or play on a safe bet.

      /V

    • http://profiles.google.com/garysaville Gary Saville

      Nice and clean sounding, but lack body and bass. I wouldn’t recommend them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Meoow.TheCat Minh Duc Nguyen

    Should do a tube rolling for WA6 as well XD

    • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

      Hahahaha… Not this decade! ;)

  • http://profiles.google.com/garysaville Gary Saville

    Thanks for the review. Where did you order the Mullard tubes from?

    • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

      I’ll have to check it out. From ALO Audio’s facebook, I get the impression that they’ll try to get a hold of a supply of Mullard’s to have in stock. So maybe from them? ;)

  • http://twitter.com/Original_Ken Ken Stuart

    Your survey is very sophisticated in terms of sound qualities, but somewhat less so in terms of the tubes. Some additional info that may be helpful:

    * – The “brand name” on the tube (or box) does not reliably tell you
    everything, since all the various manufacturers – from time to time –
    made tubes for the other brands (in other words there are “G.E.” brand
    tubes made by Mullard, and Mullard tubes made by other brands, etc)
    * – So, you need to use the tube manufacturing codes, which tell you the date and the actual manufacturer.
    * – Amperex is a US company who did not make tubes. Most Amperex tubes
    were made in the Phillips plant in Holland… but not all of them.
    * – Date matters somewhat. Late 50’s and Early 60s are best. 70’s less so.
    * – When buying tubes, the most important information is test results. A
    brand new unused tube in a box for 50 years can operate poorly, while a
    slightly used tube can work perfectly. Stereo tubes (like 12AX7)
    should be as “balanced” as possible.

    Information about the codes, and various manufacturers and tubes and many other things, can be found at the following link. The seller has top quality tubes that are highly expensive. If money is tight, research the info there are then check ebay:

    http://www.audiotubes.com/audtube.htm

    • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

      Hi Ken!

      You are very correct regarding the information above. Several 60’s Amerex are Mullard’s. If I were unclear, that’s what I was trying to say.
      The manufacturing dates to the Amperex are mentioned in the review. I didn’t research further than that. I stopped at the “this is not the same quality found in 1980’s Mullard’s”.

      If we’re just discussing tubes in general I find it a bit generalizing to say that 50’s 60’s tubes automatically are better than later.

      All tubes were purchased NOS and I have their exact emission test data, but felt that this info was a bit too much for the review.

      I find it complicated to give a more in-depth answer since it’s a bit unclear to me if you’re discussing Amperex/Mullard or all the tubes mentioned in the article or “tubes in general”.

      Merry christmas!
      /V

  • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

    I can also highly recommend this FAQ as a beginners info for tubes. It’s not the final say, but a good place to start! :)

    http://ken-gilbert.com/vacuum-tube-faq

  • http://www.facebook.com/muscle.ninja Nathaniel Nguyen

    are you guys going to get hold of a WA7 on release? i think it would be very interesting to see how it stacks up against the Pan Am. Pan am + passport is approx the same price as the WA7 pre-order price

    • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

      I can only speak for myself, and the WA7 isn’t next on my list.

      Mike has the Pan Am too, and did the official review on it, so it’s not impossible that he’ll get a hold of a review sample and therefore can make a comparative review. Let’s see what he has planned…

      • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

        Can’t remember having talked about the WA7 with Mike…

        • http://headfonia.com/ Valentin

          What I was trying to say, that can be misinterpreted. I for one will not do a WA7-review. Mike who did the Pan Am-review and therefore would be able to do a comparison to a WA7, has not to my knowledge this planned.

          • Trent_D

            I bet there will be a WA7 review.

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              I will try to do one but Woo hasn’t said anything so far.

              • http://www.facebook.com/muscle.ninja Nathaniel Nguyen

                Wonder what tube rolling on that thing will be like. Apparently it only accepts 6c45’s.

  • Joseph

    Awesome Review – thx! Question for ya:

    I’m a tuby, mid-junkie audiophile and looking to get a portable tube rig for my mobile laptop rig. Choosing between the (1) Continental V2 + Cypher Algorythim-dB DAC, or (2) the PanAm + Passport. The total cost and size is about the same (the PanAm slightly larger option). For portability & noise-rejection, I’m an IEM guy, currently (suffering) w/ an old pair of Ety 4S’s, and looking to upgrade to some JK-13’s.

    Don’t need much volume or power to drive IEM’s, just want sweet tuby mids & pristine DAC front-end. Which way would you recommend?

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  • Sasmit

    Hi Valentin,

    what was the source of your 6ZH1P tubes? did you get them from ALO?

  • lcamtai

    I really want to ask this question for a long time? Between The Pan Am (with Mulard) and WooAudio WA6 (with Sophia Princess). Which one is the best match for HD650? I mostly listen to Pop, Slow Old Rock, Jazz, and other vocals. Thanks and this post is really important because I am going to order one but have still not decided which one.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I think both are nice. The Woo is cleaner and more spacious, more dynamic, more solid-state like in those qualities. The PanAm is warmer, fuller bodied, but less spacious.

  • Brian N

    Before people read this and go and discount the Western Electric 403B tubes, I would like to note that it appears that you had a set of 1980 Western Electric 403b tubes. I have the Pan Am and I have several sets of 403a/b tubes from the 1950’s and from that era the tubes are very good in the Pan Am.

  • BattousaiX26

    hello sir just want to ask if you already tried the siemens tube? and which do you think would be a better pair for dt990, the siemens or russian tube?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      The russian has a better bass impact, but more rough in sound quality. The siemens has a fuller and smoother midrange and

      • BattousaiX26

        ok i see how about between siemens and mullards who gives a more mellow/tubish sound? :)

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Not sure about the mallard. The Siemens is not mellow though. Smooth clean and full bodied but not mellow.

          • BattousaiX26

            i see, thanks very much mike :)

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      The russian has a better bass impact, but more rough in sound quality. The siemens has a fuller and smoother midrange and is more spacious. I would go for the siemens.

  • Tronco

    Hi Valentin,

    I got my PanAm some months ago and initially I was was perfectly happy with the stock tubes. Now I am tube tolling and thanks to your review it was very easy to get started and to know which tubes to get.

    Just wanted to thank you for your tube roller’s notes, it has been a big help! Good work, it is very much appreciated!

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