…An examination of provenance, quality and production costs in the murky world of audio tube manufacture
I recently bought a quad of Sophia Electric Royal Princess 300Bs (shortened to SERP hereafter) and found that, to my ears and in my system, they perform better than even vintage Western Electric 300Bs, with considerably more bottom and top end extension and a faster, more agile sound.
When a ’wammer asked the community if WEs are worth the stratospheric prices now being demanded by sellers. I posted that I thought not, given the price of the Sophias and what I judged to be their better sonic performance relative to WEs.
Sophia has taken a bit of a bashing on Internet audio forums. A commonly made accusation is that that they are just re-branded TJ Full Music tubes. I was motivated to try to get to the truth.
Why bother? Well, part of me was wondering if I and other Sophia customers had indeed been suckered by slick marketing. There’s the evidence of the eyes for one thing. Hold a TJ Full Music 300B/se in one hand and a SERP 300B in the other and what do you see? You see what look like a pair of the same tubes, but each bearing a different brand name.
Frankly, I was bracing myself to make a public admission of gullibility.
I started by asking in an email the obvious question of Sophia’s Richard Wugang: are SERP 300Bs re-branded TJs? His unequivocal reply: “No. Sophia Electric tubes are unique from design to execution. Sophia Electric is not a reseller.”
He then went on to explain that Sophia Tubes are made in the same factory as those sold under the TJ Full Music brand. However, the best performing are cherry picked from the production line by Sophia and subjected to a further quality control regime that Wugang describes thus:
“Russian, Eastern European and Chinese tube factories only test plate current. They have no way to test the dynamic parameters of a tube, nor would they think it necessary.
“Without gm testing, a tube with gm=2000, I=70ma and gm= 5000 and I=70ma could potentially considered as one pair based on current matching. However, the end user’s amplifier has to operate the tube in a state of constant dynamics, not the zero signal static state.
“Our regime is unique. Even now, there is no readily available tube tester to test the way we do, so we had to build our own. Tubes are tested at the factory in China before being shipped to our facility here in Virginia where they are tested again. Western Electric tested their tubes at 300 Vdc only. At Sophia we test 300Bs both at 300Vdc and 350Vdc to reflect real world amplifier operating voltages and working conditions, looking at plate current, trans conductance and residual distortion. They are then run for 20 hours in one of our amplifiers, then tested again and matched. We can be confident that tubes passing this regime will sound great and we can predict that they will have a long life.”
Quality control, or rather the lack of it, seems to be a primary issue for tube manufacturers, and what I heard from talking to others involved in the audio industry is that whatever they claim, few factories are getting it right. Tube manufacturing is slow and highly labour intensive and even in countries where wage rates are low, it is very difficult for factory owners to make meaningful profits.
Wugang reckons a minimum of 30 people is required to manufacture 300Bs, and some of the stages require skills that take a long time to learn and to perfect. All the variability introduced by the manual production stages makes its presence felt in the finished tubes, and the resulting range of relative electrical and sonic performance can be very wide indeed.
A major North American reseller of Chinese tubes, Grant Fidelity, makes great play in its marketing about selling ‘premium’ products only. The clear implication is that the quality of tubes rolling off of the production lines is very variable, and a company aspiring to sell them to western consumers who have certain expectations of a level of performance, longevity and after-sales care needs to select carefully if it is to avoid being sucked into a vortex of customer complaints.
Grant Fidelity currently sells Psvane and Shuguang, but it did also offer TJ Full Music until discontinuing them, it seems in about 2010, signing off with this message: ‘Although this is a wonderful tube, we have no choice but to discontinue it due to the exceptionally high shipping damage ratio. It is not financially feasible for us to continue carry this product anymore. Thanks for previous customers’ patronage and we hope you will find an alternative 300B tube from our current product line.’
Most audiophiles’ experience of different brands of tube is by default pretty limited. We tend not to buy that many tubes. However, I spoke with another contact in the audio industry whose company buys a lot of tubes every year to fit in its own products. His comments will have to remain unattributed for reasons which will be obvious: “Most valve manufacturers have the motto ‘Let the customer do the testing’, a bit like (name of a global software company removed) I guess. The test flowchart is along the lines of: ‘Does it light up?’ ‘Yes’- sell it legitimately. ‘No’- sell it out the back door. And, if it makes the customer’s amp catch on fire blame the amp manufacturer for poor design, which is what (name removed) do.
“We’ve had terrible problems with 2A3s from (name removed) Not only do they sound shite, the reliability is shite as well. But, according to the factory they never had a single failure. And don’t talk to me about KT88s…So, if Sophia is doing anything different at all it’s a bonus. In fact, the Chinese manufacturers are very much better than the Eastern Europeans/Russians nowadays. They seem to have sorted out their technology and they want to sell you good products.”
Throughout our communication, Richard Wugang was approachable and thoughtful. But, although I wanted in my gut to take him at his word, I also found his replies frustratingly opaque. He’d detailed with enthusiasm the extra layer of QC applied to Sophia tubes, and yet despite several attempts on my part had declined to fully engage with elephant in the room. At no time did I feel that he was lying – just that I wasn’t getting the whole truth.
In the end, I pointed out that if he wanted people to understand the value of his brand then he’d have to be more forthcoming.
Finally, we got to it.
Back in the day, there was a tube manufacturer in Tianjin called All Music. It produced a 300B with a perforated plate. The All Music ‘Mesh Plate’ as it was erroneously called quickly developed a reputation for wonderful sonics and, almost as quickly, a reputation for very poor reliability. All Music went bust, and the factory owner Mr Liu, who was already at retirement age, probably assumed he had made his last tubes.
As he tells it, Richard Wugang and his father were looking for a manufacturing partner for tubes to use in their own Sophia products. They were fundamentally dissatisfied with most of what was coming out of China and Eastern Europe, but saw real sonic promise in Liu’s 300B design. What was missing, primarily, was western-style quality assurance rigour, plus better choices of basic materials and an informed ear to voice the tubes. Mr Liu was an engineer, not an audiophile.
Richard Wugang visited Mr Liu in Tianjin and agreed a deal under which Sophia Electric would help get the factory back on its feet by providing quality control and materials IP input, and by helping Mr Liu refine his tube designs. The payback was that while Mr Liu’s facility would be free to produce different tubes to sell to others, it would also produce tubes for Sophia Electric, made exactly to Sophia’s specification, using materials specified by Sophia, and to Sophia’s rather exceptional quality standards.
It seems to me that while off-shoring manufacturing to China may offer compelling advantages, particularly in terms of production costs, it also brings its own particular set of challenges. With the Chinese unrestrainedly cloning anything from mobile phones to designer underwear, protecting the intellectual property of an audio tube must be a nightmare challenge. Perhaps, at the end of the day it’s mission impossible, and a company like Sophia just has to accept that copies go with the territory. Maybe the most practical and pragmatic response is to institute a quality control regime that enables the brand to put clear blue water between itself and others with a guarantee and level of after-sales care that rivals can’t be bothered to emulate.
I twice put this personal hypothesis to Wugang and twice he declined to comment, but I sensed an underlying current of frustration in his replies and pressed him further. After a couple more exchanges he opened up and his response is both revealing of the fundamental honesty of his earlier statements about Sophia design and materials know-how, and about the reality of off-shoring to China.
Said Wugang: “The relationship with the factory has existed for more than a decade now, with Sophia continuing to carry out R&D and transfer the IP to the factory. The most recent result of this collaboration has been the launch of the Sophia Electric Royal Princess in 2011, a tube that we believe combines the openness of the earlier perforated design with the sonic weight and robust emission of the later carbon-plates. It is our best yet.”
“Sophia remains the factory’s largest customer. However, we don’t buy every tube – only those that clear a prescribed and very high QC hurdle – so the factory is left with the problem of what to do with the rest of its output. Meanwhile Chinese wages have increased by 30% each year since 2005, and materials and shipping costs have risen too. Of course, the factory does the obvious thing and sells the graded production at a discount to other parties. It’s either that, or we pay the factory to destroy those tubes that don’t come up to spec – and that would mean the premium price Sophia already pays becoming unfeasibly high.”
So there we have it. When Richard Wugang says his tubes are a Sophia unique design, he is telling the truth. Sophia is also not a reseller, it is having tubes to its spec, using materials it specified and to a design that it developed, made in an overseas factory. However, the realities that go with off-shoring manufacture to China mean that Wugang has had to bite his tongue while his manufacturing partner sells to other brands the graded remaining production.
But I can’t help wonder at the situation that this symbiotic and deliberately ambiguous relationship has led to. It’s muddied the waters around the Sophia brand, leading to Sophia Electric not receiving the recognition that its investment in R&D effort and intellectual property deserves, and enabling it to be incorrectly dismissed by some as the over-priced re-seller of someone else’s design. That is a cruel irony, but it has to be said that it is largely a self-inflicted one.
Meanwhile, the SERPS that I bought and which precipitated this whole mini odyssey are doing sterling duty in my monoblocks. They are in my view sonically truly exceptional. Having had multiple exchanges with Sophia’s Richard Wugang while developing this article, I have now invited him to send me a pair of Sophia 6SN7s to review alongside the SERPS. He says they will be ‘night and day’ compared against the NOS drivers I currently use. We shall see. With the kind indulgence of Mr HiFiWigWam and the moderators I intend to post this product review shortly.