Predictably, it was more difficult than Whitener thought. It took him two years to convince AT&T, which had stopped making tubes in 1988 but still owned Western Electric, to license the brand and sell him its tube-making facilities. He established himself in the former Western Electric tube factory in Kansas City, Missouri, where the mothballed machines were stored.
After a chance meeting with retired AT&T employees while visiting Bell Labs, Whitener scoured the Northeast for veterans of the famed facility, Sylvania, and RCA who knew the secrets of tube making. When his factory started producing 300Bs in 1996, almost all of his 20 or so employees were experienced tube makers.
Western Electric was back in business, but in 2003 AT&T sold the building. Whitener moved the company to Huntsville, Alabama, a NASA stronghold with skilled workers convenient for his DoD tube contracts. In 2008 he relocated the company to Rossville, Georgia. There he began modernizing vacuum tube designs that were over 70 years old.
Whitener’s team developed a way to deposit an atom-thick layer of graphene on the anode of a vacuum tube to extend its lifetime by improving heat dissipation and reducing contaminating gases. These improved tubes will be released in 2020. Quality control – Whitener’s former area – has become more automated, and he claims that more than 90 percent of the tubes now pass factory inspection.
Western Electric sells pairs of 300Bs in a cherrywood presentation box with a certificate showing their performance characteristics and a generous five-year warranty—yours for $1,500. Replica sets of 300Bs offered at the same price are sold with a 30 day warranty. Most tubes are only guaranteed for 90 days.
Whitener has spent more than a decade preparing for Western Electric’s next appearance. In 2006 he won an auction for machinery and tools needed to manufacture 12AX7 tubes; The plays had started life in Blackburn, England, but ended up in Serbia. It took five years of litigation with a competing bidder before the intervention of then-Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and the US Embassy gave him ownership, Whitener says. (Corker, reached through a staff member, did not dispute Whitener’s characterization.)
Today, this equipment is being installed at Whitener’s workshop along with additional machines shipped here from Slovakia in 2007. Penned in are new machines that automate processes such as manually bending wires needed to manufacture 12AX7 tubing. All the while Western Electric continues to produce 300Bs. Depending on the day of the week, the room can click to the sound of a lathe winding molybdenum wire around side bars or the jagged hiss of gas flames heating and sealing glass flasks.
Very pleasant distortion
The promise of better sound, like most things among high-fidelity fanatics, is hotly debated. 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 come close to matching, and is often described as warm, rich or even romantic.
“Tubes just distort things in a very nice way,” says Daniel Schlett, an audio engineer whose studio Strange Weather in Brooklyn is known for the analog punch that tube microphones, amps, consoles and equalizers create. Artists who have sought Schlett’s signature sound are as varied as Ghostface Killah, Booker T. (of MG’s fame) and The War on Drugs. “Pipes are part of the equation,” says Schlett. “It’s big and reinforced, and it’s got the voodoo on it.”
https://www.wired.com/story/one-mans-quest-to-revive-the-great-american-vacuum-tube/ One Man’s Quest to Revive the Great American Vacuum Tube