Predictably, it was harder than Whitener thought. It took him two years to persuade AT&T, which had not made tubes since 1988 but still owned Western Electric, to license the brand and sell him its tube-making equipment. He moved into the former Western Electric tube factory in Kansas City, Missouri, where the mothballed machinery was stored.
After a chance encounter with retired AT&T employees during a visit to Bell Laboratories, Whitener traveled the northeast in search of veterans of the legendary facility, Sylvania and RCA who knew the mysteries of tube manufacturing. . When his factory began 300B production in 1996, nearly all of its 20 or so employees were tube-making veterans.
Western Electric was operational again, but in 2003 AT&T sold the building. Whitener moved the company to Huntsville, Alabama, a NASA stronghold with skilled workers, which was convenient for his tube contracts with the Department of Defense. In 2008, he moved the business to Rossville, Georgia. This is where he began modernizing vacuum tube designs that are over 70 years old.
Whitener’s team has developed a way to apply an atom-thick layer of graphene to the anode of a vacuum tube to extend its life by improving heat dissipation and reducing contaminating gases. These improved tubes hit the market in 2020. Quality control – Whitener’s former domain – has become more automated, and he claims that more than 90% of tubes now pass offline inspection.
Western Electric sells pairs of 300Bs in a cherry wood presentation box with a certificate showing their performance characteristics and a generous five-year warranty — yours for $1,500. Copycat sets of 300B, offered at the same price, are sold with a 30-day warranty. Most tubes have only a 90 day warranty.
Whitener spent more than a decade plotting Western Electric’s next act. In 2006, he won an auction for machinery and tooling needed to manufacture 12AX7 tubes; the pieces had begun their life in Blackburn, England, but were then in Serbia. It took five years of legal battles with a competing bidder before the intervention of then-Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and the United States Embassy, Whitener says, gave him possession. (Corker, reached through a staff member, did not dispute Whitener’s characterization.)
Today, this equipment sits on the Whitener factory floor, along with additional machines shipped from Slovakia in 2007. New machines that will automate processes such as the hand bending of wire needed to make 12AX7 tubes are being developed. Meanwhile, Western Electric continues to produce 300Bs. Depending on the day of the week, space can snap to the sound of a ride winding molybdenum wire around side rods, or the irregular hiss of gas flames heating and sealing glass bulbs.
Very nice distortion
The promise of better sound is, like most things among hi-fi fanatics, subject to a vicious debate. Some hear big differences between tube brands, or even individual tubes of the same brand and model. Others will tell you that each tube is indistinguishable from the next. Most agree that tubes in general have a sound that transistors, circuit boards, and algorithms can only approximate, a sound often described as warm, rich, or even romantic.
“Tubes distort things in a very nice way,” said Daniel Schlett, an audio engineer whose Brooklyn studio, Strange Weather, is known for the analog punch he gets from mics, amps, consoles and EQs. with lamps. Artists who have sought out Schlett’s signature sound are as diverse as Ghostface Killah, Booker T. (of MG fame) and The War on Drugs. “Tubes are part of the equation,” says Schlett. “It’s big and amplified, and it has voodoo on it.”