The Tubinator: Just Exactly Perfect?

 

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The Tubinator: literally, a black box.

 

Dave,

Sorry it’s taken a while to get back to you. It’s been a long and winding road to get to a decision point on the Tubinator (I’ll continue to refer to your piece by that name, which I think is a better marketing name than the REAL-izer).[1]Since this has been such a unique experience, I wanted to share with you in some detail what it’s been like. You described to me the reaction of other people who’ve encountered the Tubinator as almost immediate and overwhelmingly positive; my experience was much more shaded and incremental, primarily because of three factors: synchronicity, lack of reference points, and price.

First, synchronicity. I’ll take this for what it is. I’ve been thinking about an upgrade to my McIntosh system for a while, considering the idea of a sub-woofer to give it more bottom, or new speakers, or maybe a new CD player (I have a lot of Grateful Dead and Phish on CD). I love the sound of my system, but after 10 years or so, I started wondering how it could be made better, or just exactly perfect. Then out of the blue, Dan[2]told me that you were back in business and he was reaching out to you. I was so happy to hear this news! I’ll never forget the experience of hanging out in your Walnut Creek shop and being introduced to vacuum tubes, turntables and quality speakers and cables. As you know, the Jolida-powered system I bought from you punched way above its weight and gave me many years of listening pleasure. I was sad when I heard the shop had closed and years later so pleased to hear you were back in business. So, when we reconnected and talked about my itch for better sound, it seemed almost scripted when you said, “I might have just the thing for you and I’ve already installed it in two McIntosh systems.” As we used to say in the news business, you can’t make this stuff up. So, it may not have been pre-ordained or even Jungian synchronicity, but it surely was a pleasant coincidence.

Second, the lack of reference points. The Tubinator is bespoke, which of course adds to the allure. But I am obsessive about research when I make major purchases. When I add a new watch to my collection, I scour the Internet for reviews and comments. When I add a new artist to the music collection, I get all the background I can from allmusic, Pitchfork, etc. I read Stereophile magazine in detail and have made purchases based on its reviews. I always use the point system as a guide to wine purchases. You get the idea. I value third-party input to augment my own knowledge and judgment, which may not be complete or infallible respectively. But now I’m confronted with a device that is literally a black box and a name still under development! It’s a reflection of the trust I have in your abilities that I even considered plugging the piece in. So, from the beginning there was an air of mystery shrouding this product.

Third, the price. I’m not sure what the tipping point is for something like this – the point where you go from “Sure, let’s buy this!” to “Wow, that’s a lot of money, I don’t know about this.” If it’s $X or less, I don’t think I would’ve blinked. But $X is psychologically an order-of-magnitude difference and activates my Scottish thriftiness. Combined with the lack of reference points, it became a significant complexifier (to borrow Jeff Bezos’s term) for my purchasing decision.[3]

OK, so now I have the piece in hand due to Liz’s efficient shipping. What I thought would be an easy installation turned out be more complicated because of the balanced/unbalanced inputs on the McIntosh MC275. Once we figured that out on the phone together, I was sidetracked due to loss of power to the turntable, but finally realized there’s a power switch on the plug of the M10 that I had to reset. So, after an agitating 30 minutes or so, I gave the Tubinator a listen. Honestly, it didn’t knock me over at first, but I chalked that up to my poor frame of mind after the installation and the time of the evening. I decided to give it a rest and come back to it the next day.

The following evening, I put it through the paces.[4]The effect varied from recording to recording, but overall there was a significant upgrade in sound. To me, the central enhancement was the creation of a bigger soundstage. The music seemed to be pulled from each of the speakers and integrated at the center, with peripheral balance remaining intact and strong; the overall effect was of the music leaning into you, surrounding you, embracing you. The bass was stronger and punchier, more detail came through, clarity was higher and there just seemed to be more dynamic space in the music, allowing me to get inside looking out, instead of being outside looking in. By this point, I had figured out how to toggle between balanced and unbalanced inputs so the Tubinator could be turned on and off at will to get a more dramatic contrast in sound. Again, the difference varied depending on the recording, but overall it was like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when the movie turns from B&W to color. During this first sound test I noted that “A given sound, heard for the first time, requires time to lodge and settle.” This was certainly the process with the Tubinator. The more I listened, the better it sounded.

But I am naturally skeptical and at times even distrust my own instincts. I wanted to counteract a possible “placebo” effect, where I was willing myself to hear better sound because of my respect for your skills, the allure of the “black box” and my desire to justify the investment. So, I recruited five test subjects: my wife, my cousin, a good friend and a couple who live next door. Each of them listened separately and provided feedback. All of them heard the Tubinator “differential” to varying degrees and were impressed. That effectively ruled out the “placebo” effect.[5]

I’ve been continuing to listen all week and the pleasure has steadily increased. Two moments stand out. I was listening to a long Phish song (aren’t they all long? Is this still “Lawn Boy?”) and toggling back and forth between the “old” sound and the “new” sound. I lost track at one point whether the Tubinator was in operation and realized I had lost an emotional connection to the music. I checked the switch and turned the Tubinator channel back on and boom! I had another Wizard of Oz experience: the emotion came rushing back in and the song took on another dimension. Another moment came during a close listening to the Dead’s “The Other One” recorded at Fillmore West on 2/27/69.[6]The sound literally placed me inside the Fillmore. I could see and smell the room, see the couches in back, the worn wood floors, the bar, the apples in the barrel, the posters, the be-bopping hippies, the energy. It was remarkable.

Do you think I’m a little neurotic about this purchase? Maybe a little bit. It’s been such an interesting, unexpected experience that I wanted to share it with you in detail.

So I’m a Tubinator fan now and ready to make a purchase. Two questions: 1) do you provide any sort of warranty on the product and 2) I would be interested in a semi-technical explanation of exactly what it is that the Tubinator does.

As you can tell, I’ve had fun testing the Tubinator!

Yours in sound,

Russ

[1]“Tubinator” references the internal technology of the device as well as a nod to pop culture and elicited a smile from almost everybody when I answered the question of “What is that thing called?” The “REAL-izer” only works in written form and even then is a little clunky with its use of all caps and hyphenation; the name should be as elegant as the piece itself.

[2]My great friend Dan Rosenstrauch, who shares my passion for music, absurdity and beauty. Dan and I now live far apart, yet still seem to be connected through a cosmic synchronous quirk; months can go by when we haven’t talked and then we just pick up the conversation as if it had never ended, discovering in the meantime we’ve thought, listened to or laughed at many of the same things. Love ya, bro!

[3]On this count, I rely heavily on my wife Kit, a consumer psychologist who’s written two books about consumer behavior. She’s an expert at divining and navigating my Scottish thrift and my Irish guilt when I make major purchases like this.

[4]My test playlist was mostly vinyl; selections were made based on sonic quality and personal passion, as well as capturing the range of my tastes. The first round of test songs, in order, included:

David Crosby“Music is Love”

Sinatra“One For My Baby”

Phish“Lawn Boy”(30-minute version from the ‘Baker’s Dozen’ run at MSG)

Grateful Dead“One From the Vault” (Sides 1 & 2)

Copland “Fanfare for the Common Man”and the Third Symphony

Patricia Barber“Bye-Bye Blackbird”

Pink Floyd“One of These Days”

Dead“Dark Star” (2/27/69)

Herbie Hancock“Maiden Voyage”

Beatles“Long, Long, Long”

Marvin Gaye“What’s Going On”

Rhiannon Giddens“Last Kind Word Blues”

Miles“Someday My Prince Will Come”

Jeff Beck“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”

Beethoven“Pastorale” (First Movement)

McCartney“Maybe I’m Amazed”

[5]All of my listening volunteers are aficionados to some degree. Kit has a gut instinct for the sound of music; she knows exactly what she likes and has zero patience for music she dislikes. My friend John, a PhD in chemistry, is a highly discriminating, lifelong listener with eclectic taste. My cousin Don is also a lifelong listener and as practical as the day is long. Our neighbor, Mary, is an audiologist by profession and her husband, Cliff, an amateur musician. There was some serious gravitas on the judging panel.

[6]This seminal four-night run by the Dead at Fillmore West was the apogee of their psychedelic period. They had perfected the “long, extended suite” that they were after and were deep into the group mind (or “hive mind”) that enabled sustained improvisation night after night. They had a live album in mind. So, they commandeered a 16-track Ampex tape console from Pacific Recorders and lugged it up the stairs to the ballroom (at that point Fillmore West was on top of a Honda dealership at Market and Van Ness). Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor recorded all four nights. The sound is full, powerful and defined, putting you “inside” the music, which was always Betty’s aesthetic intent. Coincidentally, the Dead’s sound system at the point was powered by McIntosh components, including the 275.

2 comments

  1. Russ so well written and fun to read on your experience with the Tubinator. You put it through the test with a great list of songs and opinions from other music lovers. Yes the box is mysterious by looks, how does it make such a difference? I so miss being there to experience the testing and hearing the difference, but your GREAT reporting is off the charts. I guess some things in life can’t be explained. Love ya bro!!

    Like

  2. This is so good. I am inspired to get a new sound system. Mine is embarrassing compared! Love this post. And love you. Lucky test subjects!

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