Readers - please note this page is presented for your education, information and guidance only.

This paper refers only to the characteristics and performance of push-pull tube audio amplifiers without trans-stage or loop negative feedback.

For reasons detailed elsewhere in my website I have no interest whatsoever in either single-ended amplifiers or trans-stage negative feedback.

For full ratings and applications of specific tube types in which you are interested please refer to the manufacturer's catalogue.

Please note that no warranty is expressed or implied - see footnote notice.

The whole or part thereof of this paper and/or the designs and design concepts expressed therein may be reproduced for personal use - but not for commercial gain or reward without the express written permission of the author.

© Copyright: Dennis R. Grimwoood - All rights reserved.

Copyright in all quoted works remains with their original owner, author and publisher, as applicable.



Traditionally, the design of audio amplifiers has followed fairly clear and well established design principles.

Some of those principles relate to the way in which Screen Grids are used to control current flow in audio amplifier tubes, particularly power tubes.

Examination of professionally designed commercial circuits spanning more than 60 years' audio technology shows us there has been very little innovation in the way in which Screen Grids are used - ie little variation in, or departure from, conventional, traditional Screen-Grid application design concepts.

It is understandable why this is so, because innovative engineering was not encouraged in the consumption driven expanding global marketplaces of the 1940's through 1970's.

The post WWII market - ie the 50's and 60's era - was one of explosive growth and expansion in consumer and industrial demand, so it was primarily a seller's market. The market's natural wariness towards "way out" designs was high, so unconvention was not generally pursued. Few equipment manufacturers were brave enough to vary from the tried and true. Thus the prevailing audio design ethos was to "follow the leader".

In any event, unconvention often resulted in premature component failure, bad reputation, consumer wariness or rejection, and typically accompanied by an increase in manufacturing cost - and therefore selling price, with little perceivable benefit to the consumer.

Furthermore, programme materiel available to the consumer ex radio, phono or tape was generally of such quality that even the "critical listener" consumer was unable to discern audible differences between "good" and "superior" amplifiers.

Numerous documented scientific experiments since the 1930's demonstrated that most listeners were unable to discern the difference between a live and recorded performance from behind a screen. To the masses, there was no difference, so why pay more?

Audio amplifier equipment design became more or less a "variation on the theme" exercise in applications engineering, in much the same way as we now see design technology expressed in the configuration of CD players, DVD players and personal computers.

Vacuum Tubes in Amplifiers:

A very critical factor in tube amplifier design is the vacuum tube itself.

Electron tube manufacturing tolerances and acceptance test specifications are fairly wide, particularly in some types such as large power tubes, resulting in an audio amplifier design requirement for individual tubes to be individually adjusted, or "tuned" to specific circuit parameters for optimum performance - such as in high-power push-pull applications.

However amplifier manufacturers were reluctant to incorporate simple user adjustments into their products because that tempts (and provides the means for) the curious user to "play" with optimising controls such as Grid #1 bias or Grid #2 regulated supply, thereby ensuring poor performance, overheating, premature failure, or even self-destruction of the amplifier. Extra optimising adjustments also add considerable manufacturing cost to a base product, imply the amplifier is "dicky" or "temperamental", reduce reliability, and may offer the end user no real perceptible benefit apart from setting up the product to do what it is supposed to do in the first place and what alternative products do (or appear to do) without adjustments.

Although the absence of adjustments may lead to less than optimum performance, it does generally provide the consumer with a more reliable piece of equipment. One disadvantage, commonly found in parallel-push-pull amplifiers, is that 4 tubes or more may be supplied by a common bias supply, necessitating carefully matched tubes for reasonable dynamic performance and reliability. However, this arrangement ensures that whenever a single tube requires replacement, all four must be replaced together to preserve balance. During the 1950's thru 1980's, obtaining an accurately matched set of tubes was often a challenging task.

However in the long run, this simplified approach to tube selection provided the preferred choice for a safe solution and equitable warranty protection to both manufacturer and user.

Since the 1950's, the choice between cathode bias or fixed bias was often determined by the lower manufacturing cost of cathode bias and the self-protecting effect of cathode bias, so fixed-bias tended to be used only where high power was needed such as in public address or guitar amplifiers.

Cathode-bias was a natural evolution from the "back bias" used widely in early radio receivers, where the field coil of the loudspeaker served both as a filter choke and a convenient DC bias ("C" supply) voltage source. When the field-coil loudspeaker was replaced by the cheaper to manufacture "permanent magnet" style loudspeaker around the early 1950's, back-bias designs more or less disappeared from the face of the earth.

Back-bias requires more complex wiring than cathode-bias so it was seen as an unnecessary complication to wiring costs, for no realisable benefit to the end user.

Cathode-bias also offers inherently higher reliability than back-bias or fixed-bias, as well as providing a self-compensating effect for aging tubes. Cathode-bias also offers a lesser Plate Current swing from zero to maximum signal, thereby enabling power supplies having poor regulation to be incorporated with no apparent reduction in tested performance.

However, even with the simplicity of cathode-bias, many manufacturers still incorporated a single common bias resistor for at least two tubes in push-pull, resulting typically in tube mismatch - ie still requiring a matched pair of tubes for optimum performance.

The advent of loop negative feedback - ie negative feedback from output to input - further assisted some manufacturers to provide even poorer power supplies and driver stages, because audible hum could not be heard.

Loop negative feedback also facilitates the use of poorer quality lower-cost output transformers and wider tolerances on tubes and components, relying on the feedback to restore performance to an acceptable standard.

These "improvements" resulted in a performance situation where some amplifiers with feedback performed no audibly better than earlier design amplifiers without feedback - except under steady state conditions on the test bench into constant resistive loads.

The later introduction of silicon rectifiers and voltage doubler power supplies enabled further cost-reduction at the expense of transient performance. Advantages such as substantially improved power supply regulation gained from silicon rectifiers over tube rectifiers were soon offset by cost-saving measures.

The traditional filter choke was an early casualty of cost reduction. Good quality 1940's and 1950's amplifiers used a full-wave rectifer and a two stage choke input filter, however this progressively degenerated to the point where many popular amplifiers of the 1970's had a voltage doubler power supply with no filter choke at all, relying on the combined effects of larger electrolytic filter capacitors, loop negative feedback, and push-pull hum cancellation to produce an acceptable product.

Very few amplifiers included regulated power supplies for their Screen-Grids, because of increased manufacturing cost. Although the RCA Receiving Tube Manuals published schematics incorporating Screen-Grid regulation, the most common configuration was that the Screen-Grids were fed directly from the B+ supply - ie at high-voltage, often without any Grid-stopper resistor. One variant was to use a dropping resistor and filter capacitor, from the B+ to supply the Screen-Grids, but this arrangement results in poor Screen-Grid voltage regulation, with attendant drop in performance.

In other words, in an attempt to hold-down manufacturing costs over time, some tube amplifier manufacturers actually took the audio industry backwards in terms of performance evolution.

So, apart from the highly acclaimed triode connected Williamson (D.T.N. Williamson 1947 and 1949), followed by the magnificient tetrode connected U.S. McIntosh (F.H. McIntosh and G.J.Gow 1949) and later (but much inferior) U.K.Quad II (1953) amplifier, with their "unity coupling" power output stage, and the original  Ultra-Linear (D. Hafler and H. I. Keroes of Acro - 1951) design; there is little to show for 60 odd years' of progressive global technological evolution in tube audio.

Note: History shows the term "ultra-linear" was developed by Hafler and Keroes to define their specific configuration based upon the original 1936 British Patent of A.D.Blumlien, which was fairly generic in respect to transformer ratios. It appears that his innovative design was neither refined nor exploited commercially during the 14 year life of his patent, noting the British Quad II amplifier of 1953 bypassed this opportunity, however some researchers suggest it had previously been used in Australia as far back as 1933 - a fact that if true would have invalidated his patent. Perhaps the military demands of the WWII years diverted Mr. Blumlien's attention to his prolific innovative design activity covering a wide range of other technologies and the ultra-linear concept was left to others to further develop and exploit - however audiophiles remain indebted to his contribution. The wheels of technological progress sometimes turn slowly!!

It is relevant that all these designs relied heavily for their final performance upon extremely high quality output transformers - in the case of the McIntosh, bifilar windings (primary and secondary windings were wound together with no insulation between them or between layers, requiring very high quality winding wire and winding techniques) and fully potted construction were featured (a remarkable engineering achievement) - so manufacturing expense increased substantially in any event.

Despite the current raves for single-ended push-pull concepts, commercial attempts to exploit that particular technology inevitably failed in preference to convention. One approach by the Dutch Philips group in the 1960's, used an output-transformerless (OTL) single-ended push-pull amplifier connected to an 800 ohm Philips loudspeaker, requiring the consumer to purchase a complete system from the one supplier - not a popular concept for modular hi-fi component buyers (particularly those who already owned a fine set of loudspeakers), thus relegating this new technology to the mass consumer market - thereby destroying its appeal to the audiophile. This technology faded into obscurity along with demise of the "radiogram" all in one system.

Inevitably, all attempts to depart from proven simple audio circuit design principles resulted in increased cost, reduced reliability, increased downtime and service costs, and consumer anger.

The realities of global markets and a long way to a competent service shop resulted in manufacturers being forced by circumstances to limit their experimentation - or experiment to discover that alternatives to conventional design simplicity were not commercially viable products. Most manufacturers were limited to sourcing components from a small pool of suppliers so manufacturing costs were similar across the industry. Designs had to be both simple and cost-competitive.

Top Cap Tubes:

Another factor that produced suppression of innovation was the swing away from tubes for audio applications that incorporated top caps for their plate, or anode, connection.

Users often found themselves "zapped" when changing a tube, by inadvertently touching the cap lead or terminal - particularly if the amplifier was switched on - a most unpleasant experience.

Long Plate leads also present problems with induction to and from from nearby components, stray RF pickup, output stage instability, transformer mechanical construction and chassis layout.

Although widely used in professional broadcast and public address applications during the 1940's and 1950's, top cap style tubes - such as the 6146/QE05-40, 6DQ6A, 6CM5/PL36, 5B/254M, and the great 807, have not been popular for hi-fi or guitar amplifier applications - the largest commercial market segments for tube use in applications greater than about 5 W RMS output. Thus this style of tube, which offers considerably higher power outputs than no-top-cap standard octal socket styles, or all glass 9 and 12 pin tube types (eg 7868), has been little used after 1955 in hi-fi and guitar amplifier designs (although still extensively used in television receiver applications until the 1970's).

This pragmatic design philosophy forced tube manufacturers to develop tubes that produced more power from a conventional (usually octal based)  tube having no top cap - in a valiant effort to put amplifier performance back to where it had already been. Result - the EL34/6CA7 and KT88, both practically limited by the dielectric strength of the octal base and socket to about 600 VDC B+ supply - but both needing high Grid #2 ratings to offset the limited plate voltage as a means to retain adequately high power output.

It is of interest that the KT88 is identical to the TT21 transmitting tube, which has a rated Plate Voltage of 1.25 kV applied to the top cap connection. In the KT88, the Plate connection is relocated to the octal base. This modification results in a maximum rated Plate Voltage of 600 VDC for the KT88.

For 250 to 300 VDC supplies, there are also the EL84/6BQ5/7189, and the 6V6GT, 6AQ5/6HG5/6005 and 6CZ5/6973 families.

However, in all these types, analysis of manufacturers' data shows the proportionately high Screen Grid voltage needed to obtain maximum power output results in substantially higher harmonic and intermodulation distortion than seen in conventional RF beam power tubes combining high plate voltage with relatively low Grid #2 voltage for the same audio output power- eg typically 4 to 5% instead of 1 to 2% THD without negative feedback.

The suitability of the EL34/6CA7 and EL84/6BQ5 to ultra-linear connection offsets this disadvantage somewhat, albeit at reduced power output, but the original 6L6 family are not so fortunate being practically limited by their lower Grid #2 rating.

The original GEC KT88 thus became the only tube to offer a reasonable solution, providing up to 100 W RMS per pair, however they were expensive, of widely varying quality, required substantial free-air space for ventilation, supporting componentry and circuitry of professional broadcast standard, and were really a little large for an octal socket to support. Being heavy, the KT88 is not suited to inverted mounting (eg guitar amplifiers) without supporting straps to prevent them falling out of their sockets. However from the outset (about 1960), transistor amplifiers were easily able to match this performance (on paper) in a substantially cheaper, smaller, lighter and more reliable package, so the KT88 was soon displaced in the mass market.

In some industries that were high consumers of vacuum tubes, particularly in guitar amplifiers, there is also clear evidence that tube designs were enhanced to cater for limitations in the final product. That old favourite, the 6L6, has been upgraded over and over again, even though superior top cap versions (eg 807 and 1614) were available from the outset - albeit at significantly higher cost.

Manufacturing cost, profit margins, market share and sales revenue were each in their own right, powerful design engineering drivers and inhibitors.

Standard domestic quality driver tubes such as 6SN7GT, 12AT7, 12AU7A etc triodes and their popular pentode cousins, 6SJ7, 6AU6, 6U8 and EF86, have hardly changed throughout the 60 years since they were first released. Later improved "premium quality" versions rarely found their way into commercial audio amplifiers, primarily because they cost more, offered no detectable audible benefit to the listener, had electro-mechanical characteristics that provided in practice properties or performance only marginally different to the standard tube - if at all (eg rattles and microphonics in "premium" tubes), and frequently could not be replaced in the country of use - after all who wants a product that cannot be repaired or likely to be out of action for many months whilst waiting for an expensive imported tube to arrive? Not only that, but the replacement cost of a premium quality tube was often many times the cost of the equivalent standard type.


So a review of commercial circuits shows that for the whole of that 60 year period between 1940 and 2001, only a few basic types of tubes were used in all the audio amplifiers ever produced in the whole world.

The result is that:

1.    there is very little literature about Screen Grids
2.    there are are few examples of innovative design variants
3.    audio amplifier design standards reflected the need for simple tubes that could be overloaded and abused by users
4.    audio amateurs - ie hobbyists and project builders - have had to remain within a very rigid published design framework
5.    published manufacturer's tube data invariably fails to provide information about the effect of Screen Grid voltage upon
       Plate Current
6.    there is little published manufacturer's data available for non-popular tube types
7.    there is little practical knowledge available to facilitate experimentation with non-popular tube types
8.    a self-destructing commercial approach manifested that inhibited innovation in the tube based audio equipment
       industry, paving the way for their displacement by semi-conductors

This page attempts to quantify some of the major principles and possibilities regarding improving vacuum tube technologies in the area of Screen Grids.

I do not claim it to have any technical expertise or validity whatsoever and am happy to be challenged in the interests of mutual learning. If you can add any information that will benefit the audio enthusiast please email it to me.



The Screen Grid is an extra element added to the basic three element configuration of triode tubes to form a four element configuration tube called a tetrode.

Fig. 1:    Graphical Representation Of A Tetrode Vacuum Tube

The Screen Grid is also incorporated into multi-electrode tubes such as pentodes, heptodes and octodes.

The Screen Grid is assigned the functional title Grid #2, to indicate it is the second Grid from the Cathode.

The Screen Grid usually comprises a formed coil of wound turns of round wire, mounted physically concentrically between the Control Grid (Grid #1) and the Plate (Anode) in multi-electrode vacuum tubes and acts as an electrostatic shield between them.

The primary functions of the Screen-Grid are:

The most important attribute of the Screen-Grid - but one that is not clearly explained in Tube Manuals - is that it becomes the primary ANODE in the tube - ie when the Screen-Grid is energised to a positive potential to the Cathode, the Plate becomes simply a passive collector of those electrons emitted from the directly or indirectly heated Cathode that have been attracted by, and passed through, the Screen-Grid to it.

The RCA 1937 Receiving Tube Manual tells us this way at Page 9:

"The Screen is operated at a positive voltage and, therefore, attracts electrons from the Cathode. But because of the comparatively large space between the wires of the Screen, most of the electrons drawn to the Screen pass through it to the Plate. Hence the Screen acts as an electrostatic force pulling electrons form the Cathode to the Plate."

Thus when a Screen-Grid is present, IT is the ANODE and the Plate becomes a secondary or pseudo-anode only.

Understanding this fundamental design feature is crucial to understanding the significance of maximum Screen Grid rated voltages and their relationship to Plate voltages in all cases for triode, tetrode, pentode, beam power tube or ultra-linear configurations.

The first tetrodes were introduced to enable stable amplification at radio frequencies - ie to shield the anode from the grid.  As the screen was at ground potential for signal frequencies whist slightly increasing the input and output capacities the grid plate capacity was reduced to the point that neutralization was completely unnecessary.

However if the anode was operated with a voltage of less than the screen, dynatron oscillations could occur - which led to the
introduction of the suppressor grid , the function of it being to repel secondary emitted electrons back to the anode rather than
allowing them to be attracted back to the screen when its potential was less than the anode.

In output valves the evolution of the tetrode / pentode was needed for completely different reasons.  As efforts were made to increase the amplification by altering the tube geometry the resistance of the tube to DC went up, so the addition of the screen grid enabled the anode current to be relatively independent of the anode voltage.  This fact did however dramatically increase the AC resistance, which is not always a desirable result for an audio amplifier .

In some types of tetrodes and beam power tubes the Screen-Grids are positioned in-line with the Control-Grid (ie in-line with or behind the electron beam) and this configuration is described as "aligned Screen-Grids" - eg 6L6GC.

However in many types of pentodes and beam power tubes the Screen-Grid is not aligned and this configuration is described as "unaligned Screen-Grids" or "non-aligned Screen-Grids" - eg EL34. (Some users report that the early Philips EL34's had aligned Screen Grids, whereas later production ex other manufacturers were unaligned, resulting in increased tube failure and decreased performance - food for thought.)

In some electron tube designs, the coil is wound round and in others it is wound flat. Generally speaking, tubes having round - ie cylindrical - Plates would have Screen Grids wound on a round former, and tubes having rectangular Plates would have Screen Grids wound on a flat, or rectangular, former. This results in an arrangement whereby the Screen Grid is generally parallel with the conducting (electron collecting) portion of the internal Plate surface and the conducting (electron emitting) surface of the Cathode.

The usual arrangement is for the turns on the Screen Grid to be evenly spaced, however sometimes variable spacing is used for particular effect - such as in "remote cutoff" tubes.

Of importance to this paper is the physical spacing, pre-determined during manufacture, between the Cathode (negative terminal of the tube) and Screen Grid, and Screen Grid to Plate (positive terminal of the tube) - ie the relative positioning of the Screen-Grid between the cathode and anode of the device.

Philips introduced the penthode - (as that is how they spelt it) - but Mazda played with a critical distance tetrode or, as they referred to it, a "kinkless tetrode" , which works as per the description of a beam tetrode which, as a result of aligned grids and beam forming plates, simply concentrated the cloud of electrons which behaved as a suppressor grid. (this contribution thanks to Denis Cook)

The spacing between the grid and screen determines the ability of the screen in determining the characteristics of the tube. The screen anode spacing is also of great importance in that it determines the location of the space in which the electron stream is moving slowest and is therefore most concentrated so to act best as a virtual suppressor.

It is relevant to the concepts presented in this paper that in the case of directly heated filament tubes - ie where the Filament is the Cathode - for practical manufacturing and cost control reasons the diameter of the Filament wire is usually the same as that of the Screen-grid. However the length of the Screen-grid wire is usually substantially more than that of the Filament. This means that the electron collecting surface of the Screen-grid is substantially greater than that of the electron emitting surface of the Filament/Cathode. Consequently the Screen-grid has the capability to collect significant numbers of electrons emitted by the lesser surface area Filament.

RCA Transmitting Tube Handbook TT-4 at pages 7 and 8 explains the function of the Screen Grid in this way:

"When a tetrode is used as an amplifier, the Screen Grid is operated at a fixed positive potential (usually somewhat lower than the Plate voltage), and is bypassed to the Cathode through a capacitor having very low impedance at the operating frequency.

This capacitor diverts signal frequency alternating currents from the Screen Grid to ground, and effectively short-circuits the capacitive feedback path between Plate and Control Grid.

The Screen Grid acts as an electrostatic shield between the Control Grid and the Plate, and reduces the Grid-Plate capacitance to such a small value that internal feedback is usually negligible over the range of frequencies for which the tube is designed.

Because the Screen Grid is operated at a positive potential with respect to the Cathode, it collects a substantial number of electrons and, therefore, reduces the Plate current which can flow at a given Plate voltage.

The addition of a Screen Grid thus increases the internal resistance, or Plate resistance of a tube. However, it also gives the Grid No. 1 a greater degree of control over the Plate resistance, and thus increases the voltage amplification factor.

The voltage at which the Screen Grid is operated has a substantial effect on the Plate Current of a tetrode.

This characteristic makes it practicable to control the gain of a tetrode by variation of the DC Screen Grid potential, or to modulate the tube output economically by the application of a signal voltage to the Screen Grid - as well as to the Control Grid.

It is usually necessary, therefore, to remove ripple and other fluctuations from the Screen Grid supply voltage to prevent undesired modulation of the tube output."     (End quote)

SVETLANA say: "Regular tetrodes are rarely used for audio applications because of an effect called "tetrode kink", caused by secondary emission. Most of it is due to electrons bouncing off the plate, some from the screen."



It is important to understanding Screen-Grid function that one more aspect be considered for the case of POWER TUBES.

Compared with a Triode, the addition of the Screen-Grid to a Tetrode, Pentode or Beam Power Tube, dramatically changes the electronic behaviour of the Power Tube.

The characteristics of a TRIODE POWER TUBE are illustrated in the following graph for the 6BQ5/EL84 Power Pentode connected as a Triode and having a Plate and Screen-Grid Voltage of 300 VDC.

Graph Courtesy of Philips Miniwatt Electronics Handbook (1960).

In a POWER TRIODE the Plate Current is directly proportional to Plate Voltage

In a POWER TRIODE the Plate Current is directly proportional to the Grid #1 (Control-Grid) Voltage.

In normal POWER TRIODE amplifier applications, the Plate Voltage is fixed by the B+ supply, hence the Plate Current (and therefore power output) will vary in direct proportion to changes in the Control Grid Voltage (ie input drive AC signal). This has the effect that small changes in signal voltage produce large changes in Plate Current.

It also has the effect that in push-pull TRIODE POWER TUBE applications, BOTH tubes must be accurately matched by selection, test and Control-Grid Bias Voltage adjustment, to ensure both tubes amplify equally in the push-pull pair. Minor performance differentials between tubes will produce marked results in the amplifier output signal - a good case for single-ended TRIODE operation.

In an POWER TRIODE, careful examination of the Plate Current curves shows most POWER TRIODE amplifiers suffer from non-linearity between low and high signal input AC drive voltages. As Grid #1 voltage increases it causes the Plate Current to increase very rapidly, causing the Plate Voltage to decrease (by AC and DC losses in the output transformer windings and rectifier circuit), resulting in loss of peak power at the crest of the signal voltage - ie transient signals are diminished in magnitude by the output stage.

The above graph clearly shows that for any given value of Plate Voltage, the negative swing in signal voltage applied to Grid #1 will produce a different change in Plate Current to that produced by an equal swing in the positive excursion. This is why Class A amplifiers must use a value of Grid #1 voltage that is sufficiently high (less negative) to enable reasonably equal positive and negative Plate Current swings, whilst keeping within permissible Plate Dissipation limits.

It will be also observed that during the negative swing of the signal voltage, the more the Control Grid (Grid #1) swings negatively, the less linearly Plate Current follows changes in Grid #1 voltage.

Such requirement inherently introduces some challenges in TRIODE POWER AMPLIFIER design and component selection - particularly in Class A designs.

On the other hand, the addition of the Screen-Grid to create a Tetrode, Pentode or Beam Power Tube, dramatically changes the electronic behaviour of the Power Tube insofaras Plate Current is no longer dependent upon Plate Voltage.


The characteristics of a TETRODE, PENTODE OR BEAM POWER TUBE are illustrated in the following graph for the 6BQ5/EL84 Power Pentode connected as a Pentode and having a Plate and Screen-Grid Voltage of 300 VDC.

Please note this is the same tube and same applied voltages as shown in the above graph - just configured differently.

Graph Courtesy of Philips Miniwatt Electronics Handbook (1960).

The Plate Current curves for a Tetrode, Pentode or Beam Power Tube show that Plate Voltage can fluctuate markedly but does not affect Plate Current at all. So long as the Plate Current responds to the AC signal drive voltage applied to Grid #1, then the tube will produce a linear response to that signal.

The one requirement for this condition to be realised is that the Screen-Grid voltage be relatively constant, hence amplifier designs using a common B+ supply to both Plate and Screen-Grid inherently lose some of the aformentioned attributes of Screen-Grids.

This characteristic of Tetrodes, Pentodes or Beam Power Tubes offers tremendous options and benefits to the amplifier designer.

Because POWER OUTPUT is calculated as the square of the output voltage divided by the load impedance, provided Screen Grid voltage remains constant and Grid #1 Voltage is adjusted for correct zero signal idle current dissipation, power output may be increased dramatically by the simple device of increasing the Plate Voltage - ie within practical limits, the driver stages can be the same for more or less any configuration of Tetrode, Pentode or Beam Power Tube output stage.

That is to say, provided negative loop feedback is not used from the loudspeaker, any front-end can be matched to any power stage - a most beneficial situation for the home constructor.

It will also be observed from Plate Current curves, that Tetrode, Pentode or Beam Power Tubes are generally more linear between minimum and maximum AC drive signal conditions - particularly at the low-signal voltage end of the scale. Most high-fidelity audio amplifiers are operated at low volume in the home hence tube behaviour at the lower end of the Grid #1 voltage range is a critical issue - because the sound so produced is what the discerning listener hears.

On the other hand, public address amplifiers, guitar amplifiers and broadcast transmitters tend to be used at or near their maximum output, so more interest is in the neahviour of tubes under full output conditions (where other challenges face us).

Finally, it should be noted that when a Tetrode, Pentode or Beam Power Tube is configured by wiring to "Triode Connection", then it will behave as a Triode, with all the shortcomings (and benefits) of Triode operation.


To consider how the Screen-Grid affects Plate Current as described above, let us examine implications of the above statement from RCA that: "Because the Screen Grid is operated at a positive potential with respect to the Cathode, it collects a substantial number of electrons and, therefore, reduces the Plate current which can flow at a given Plate voltage. The addition of a Screen Grid thus increases the internal resistance, or Plate resistance of a tube." (end quote).

This is a little researched subject because in practical audio applications this relationship has been more or less of little concern to audio amplifier designers.

However it does matter.

Tetrode and Pentode connected amplifiers always supply the Screen-Grids either from the Plate Supply (B+) or a separate Screen-Grid supply, hence Screen-Grid Current is not usually a major consideration to amplifier designers - simply because Screen-Grid current needs are easily met by the power supply.

There is a direct relationship between Plate Current and Screen-Grid Current which we must be aware of if we want to build better amplifiers.

The following graph, courtesy of Philips Miniwatt, illustrates this very clearly.


Fig:2 - Philips Miniwatt 6KG6/EL509 Power Pentode

This rare original manufacturer's graph clearly shows us that under fixed conditions of constant Plate Voltage and Screen-Grid Voltage, both Plate Current and Screen-Grid Current increase or decrease in response to change in Grid #1 Voltage.

That is to say Grid #2 Current is just as much affected by a change in Grid #1 Voltage as is Plate Current.

Thus Plate Current and Screen-Grid Current are a direct function of Grid #1 Voltage. This characteristic is typical for all audio tetrodes, pentodes and beam power tubes.

However, the relationship between Plate Current and Screen-Grid Current is not linear.

In this case it can be seen that at -30 V Grid #1 bias, the Screen Grid Current is 1.7% of Plate Current, whereas at -20V bias is 1.9%, at -10 V bias is 2.5%, and at 0V is 3.3% of Plate Current.

These relativities could reasonably expected to be different with other values of Plate Voltage and Screen Grid Voltage

Although these differences may appear small, they tell us the tube is more efficient in Class A than in Class B, because the Screen-Grid Current is a smaller portion of total current (Plate Current + Screen-Grid Current) in Class A (low Grid #1 Voltage) than in Class B (high Grid #1 Voltage).

This phenomenon will be exacerbated by further changes in Grid #1 bias Voltage caused by the flow of Grid Current, such as in Classes AB and B.

In other words a higher proportion of the electron stream reaches the Plate in a Class A amplifier than in a Class B amplifier.

This means that in an amplifier having characteristics that produce a variable Grid #1 Voltage there will be some offset to the reduced power output resulting from reduced B+ supply voltage by the increased tube efficiency resultant from the change in Grid #1 Voltage.

For example, where an amplifier has a single common power transformer supplying the whole of its power needs, increased total current under peak signal conditions will cause reduced Grid #1 Voltage (from poor power supply regulation).

Note however, that the Philips Miniwatt 6KG6/PL509 video pentode shown above is not typical of audio tetrode, pentode and beam power  tubes - a point demonstrated by reference to 'typical operating conditions" published in Manufacturers' Tube Handbooks. These show that in a typical beam power tube, the Screen Grid current at maximum signal power is around 20% of Plate current. This ratio of currents appears to be largely independent of Plate voltage.

It would therefore be reasonable to assume that up to 20% of prospective signal power is lost in the Screen Grid circuit in a conventional amplifier.

(Note: Two notable exceptions are the 807 and 814 beam power tubes that incorporate advanced design technologies to increase tube efficiency and reduce distortion, however in the overall sheme of things this technology appears to have been limited to these two tube types - if you are aware of others please let me know)

The functional relationship between Plate and Screen-Grid is further illustrated by Radiotronics Magazine #90 of September 1938, which provides data for a pair of type 6L6 tubes operating as a beam power tube in push-pull Class A1, for an operating condition having a common Plate and Screen Grid DC supply voltage.

This shows:

Plate and Screen Volts 100 150 200 250 290 (max)
Zero Signal Plate Current mA 32.5 55 85 120 150
Max. Signal Plate Current mA 37.5 65 100 140 175
Zero Signal Screen Current mA 2.5 4.5 7 10 12.5
Max. Signal Screen Current mA 4.2 7.4 11.4 16 20
Grid #1 Bias  V -6.25 -9.5 -12.75 -16 -18.5
Load resistance 
P/P ohms
8000 6500 5600 5000 4600
Power Output 
Watts RMS
1.6 4.2 8.4 14.5 21.2

Notice how much power output changes when the Plate and Screen Grid voltages drop from 290 to 250 - a likely situation with a tube rectifer power supply - see rectifier forward voltage drop characteristics in manufacturer's tube handbook data.

A significant improvement to power supply regulation can be made by the simple change to full-wave silicon diode bridge rectifier, and preferably the inclusion of at least one filter choke, which leaves only the power transformer regulation to deal with.

Notice also how the ratio of Screen Grid current to Plate current changes between zero and maximum signal and between different operating voltages. This translates into non-linearity.

Plate Current - Control Capabilities of the Screen-Grid:

Let us also examine implications of the statements by RCA that :

"The voltage at which the Screen Grid is operated has a substantial effect on the Plate current of a tetrode."  (RCA Manual TT4)

"As long as the Plate voltage is higher than the Screen voltage, Plate Current in a Screen-Grid tube depends to a great degree on the Screen voltage and very little on the Plate voltage" (RCA Manual RC14)

Beyond the above basic design criteria, little discussion is offered in manufacturers' tube handbooks regarding the effects of Screen-Grid voltage on Plate current.

The approach generally taken is to promote the application and use of vacuum tubes by publishing "typical" operating conditions for vacuum tubes, including recommended Grid #2 operating voltages.

In the case of audio tubes there are copious examples provided that cover likely popular uses - often taken by designers  verbatim or as recommended by tube manufacturers, without researching alternatives - resulting in copycat, "more-of-the-same" designs. After all, why go the the trouble and expense of researching something that someone else had already pre-determined and/or recommended - particularly if that "someone" has the expertise of a tube manufacturer?

Curves are nearly always provided for Control Grid (Grid #1) modulation characteristics, but no so for Grid #2.

Hence little published data is available to demonstrate the effects upon Plate Current from varying Grid #2 voltage.

A complicating, and perhaps confusing, factor is that tube manufacturers often recommend for "typical" applications, the same Screen Grid voltage for a very wide range of Plate Voltages - particularly evident in high-voltage transmitting tubes.

There has also been no explanation as to why - except in the case of a small group of audio tubes - tube manufacturers typically recommend Screen-Grid operating voltages that are mostly only around only half their maximum Screen-Grid rated voltage - irrespective of applied Plate Voltage.

However one remarkable graph was published way back in 1957 that provides us with a deep insight into Screen Grid behaviour, and is reproduced here for your information.

Fig: 3 - Philips Miniwatt 6CM5/EL36 Power Pentode

This remarkable rare original manufacturer's graph, shows very clearly the influence that Grid #2 voltage (Vg2) has over Plate Current (Ia).

In this case, Grid #1 voltage (-1 VDC) has been selected to ensure it has negligible control over Plate Current, thus making Grid #2 the controlling electrode. (In this tube Grid #1 voltage would normally be set at up to -29V to control Plate Current.)

This graph clearly shows that Plate Current is a direct function of Grid #2 Voltage. It is typical for all audio tetrodes, pentodes and beam power tubes.

This graph also clearly shows that Plate Current is not a function of Plate Voltage in the useable range of Plate Currents - ie Plate Current is linear and very dependent upon Grid #2 voltage in a reasonably linear relationship within the boundaries of operation determined by the maximum plate dissipation rating.

It follows that the absolute limiting parameter of plate dissipation, although the product of Plate Voltage and Plate Current, is directly determined by Grid #2 voltage - in other words, overheating or self-destruction of the tube may easily be achieved by excessive Grid #2 voltage.

This graph shows very clearly why we should be concerned with the Screen Grid operating voltage and to take extra care that it will be set at a value that will not only provide optimum performance but also extend tube life by ensuring tube dissipation is within the prescribed limits.

Armed with the design knowledge provided by this graph, together with further analysis discussed below, we can make some determining assumptions regarding the design of appropriate operating conditions for Screen-Grids.



Thus, the primary functions of the Screen Grid in an Electron Tube are to:

a)    create an electrostatic shield between the Control Grid and the Plate
b)    minimise capacitance between the Control Grid (Grid 1) and the Plate
c)    control the electron flow in such a way as to make Plate current practically independent of Plate voltage over a certain
       range of circuit parameters
d)    control plate dissipation
e)    increase tube amplification and, in the case of a power tube, increase power output
f)     prevent feedback between the Control Grid and the Plate
g)    prevent unwanted oscillations of one type or another
h)    focus and accelerate the electron flow from cathode or filament to plate
i)     control electron flow to an extent more than that available from a single grid tube

In RF applications the screen grid may also be used to modulate the tube.

A further consideration is the mutual characteristic of a tube.

This term describes the inter-relationship between Control Grid voltage and Screen-Grid voltage and their combined mutually interactive effect upon Plate Current.

To maintain Plate Current at a constant value, it is necessary to increase (ie make more negative) Grid #1 voltage to offset an increase (make more positive) in Grid #2 voltage. The converse effect applies - ie decreasing Control Grid voltage (more positive) requires a reduction (more negative) change to Screen Grid voltage.

The mutual characteristic is important to optimising operating conditions within the tube's maximum Plate and Screen Grid dissipation ratings.

The following rare graph, which defines mutual characteristic for the ITT-Standard Type 4X150A Beam Power Tetrode, courtesy of ITT-Standard publication MSE/123 published 1963,  illustrates this phenomenon.

This graph clearly illustrates the inter-relationship between Control Grid, Screen-Grid and Plate with the variables being Grid #1 and Grid #2 voltages.

It also shows that to limit Plate Current to safe or permissible values, it is essential to reduce Control-Grid voltage as the Screen-Grid voltage moves closer towards the Plate voltage.

ITT-Standard Type 4X150A Beam Power Tetrode


For those who are theoretically minded, there is an excellent article on Screen Grid behaviour at http://www.burle.com/cgi-bin/byteserver.pl/pdf/tp122.pdf



The Screen Grid therefore, when connected for tetrode, pentode or beam power tube operation, should always be supplied by a suitable low voltage direct current supply, having a low-impedance path to ground - ie effectively AC earthed.

The screen-grid supply should be regulated - or have good regulation properties - and be independent to the plate B+ supply.

The screen-grid supply should be capable of supplying transient peak current sufficient to supply the screen-grids with adequate power to support transient signals - without incurring voltage drop at the screen-grids.

Voltage drop translates into significantly reduced gain in the tube, which translates into reduced transient peak power. Power decreases at the rate of the square of the voltage reduction divided by the load.

A full-wave silicon diode bridge rectifier circuit with choke input to filter and as much capacitance as is practicable - ie at least 1,000 uF but preferably 5,000 to 10,000 uF - is desirable to ensure the screen grid voltage remains practically constant - regardless of AC signal level and consequent DC Screen current.

Better still, a double section filter, comprising choke input to filter, followed by a second choke and capacitor, will ensure a high quality DC supply.

Of course, a fully engineered regulated power supply is best to accommodate wide fluctuations in Screen Grid current..

DC Supply - Essential Requirements:

RCA Transmitting Tube Handbook TT-4 states:

Note that if the Screen Grid supply is obtained from the Plate supply, both Plate and Screen Grid voltages will drop simultaneously with high input signals, resulting in reduced power output, increased distortion and non-linearity - ie reduced transient response in reproduction.

Effect of Plate and Screen Supply Regulation

When all element voltages change at the same time due to poor power supply regulation the change in performance will be very audible.

The Radiotron Designers Handbook 3rd Edition (1940) at page 295 says:

"With a triode valve, the rise in average Plate current at full output (due to rectification) causes a decrease in the effective Plate voltage, due to the resistance of the B supply. The result is a comparatively slight reduction in power output, since the drop in Plate voltage opposes the rise in current.

With a Pentode or Beam Power Tetrode valve, however, the effect is much more pronounced. If the Plate and Screen operate at the same voltage from a common supply, the drop in Plate voltage due to the resistance of the B supply also causes a similar drop in the Screen voltage. This drop in Screen voltage results in a complete change in valve characteristics, the zero bias then being lower than with full voltage. The cut-off grid voltage is then lower, and a lower grid bias is required for optimum operation, possibly also accompanied by an increase in the optimum load resistance. The combined result is therefore to reduce the maximum power output and to reduce the grid input voltage required for full output.

It is obvious that a Class A amplifier is less affected by poor regulation in the B supply than is a Class AB1 or other amplifier drawing considerably more current at full output than at no output." (end quote)

Unfortunately a change in tube characteristics means a change in sound quality so the amplifier will not have constant tonal characteristics throughout its dynamic power range - a very important attribute.

The amplifier will be non-linear when processing normal audio signals of say 20 db dynamic range.

Importantly, this non-linear quality will apply to all power stages relying upon cathode bias, which is one reason why guitar amplifiers, which rely heavily upon accurate dynamic signal performance for their "sound" - ie transient response - prefer fixed bias.

STC BRIMAR, in their Valve and Teletube Manual #8 (1959) state:

"The source resistance of the Screen voltage supply should be kept as low as practicable, and for most applications a potential divider network, or other voltage source having good regulation, is preferred to a series resistor.

This is particularly applicable to pentodes having aligned Grids, and to unaligned Tetrodes, where the Screen current is subject to relatively wide variation with operating conditions and between individual valves. In the case of Pentodes with unaligned Grids, the variation is smaller and series resistors may be used.

Where variable Grid bias is applied to control gain, the use of a high-impedance supply to the Screen will result in a lengthening of the Grid base.

At low anode voltages the Screen current tends to increase greatly, and care is required to avoid exceeding the Screen dissipation. The Anode voltage should not be removed while the Screen is energised." (End quote)

EIMAC, in their Care and Feeding of Power Tubes website, present a different and comprehensive view of Screen-Grid current flow and express concerns regarding secondary emission in tetrodes and pentodes.

Of particular importance is the concept of reverse current flow in the Screen-Grid circuit caused by secondary emission - requiring not only a low impedance power supply for AC signal circuits but also a low resistance power supply for the reverse current flow in the DC B+ circuit.

EIMAC recommend a current-bleeding resistor in the Screen-Grid supply circuit.

However these conditions are less severe with pentodes, due to the control over secondary emission by their Suppressor-Grid (Grid 3)

Unfortunately Eimac's copyright restrictions prevent me from reproducing it here for your convenience - you will have to look it up yourself at the above referenced link.



RCA Receiving Tube Handbook RC-19 explains at Page 7:

"The Screen Grid is operated at a positive voltage and, therefore, attracts electrons from the cathode. However, because of the comparatively large space between wires of the Screen Grid, most of the electrons drawn to the Screen Grid pass through it. Hence the Screen Grid supplies an electrostatic force pulling electrons from the Cathode to the Plate. At the same time, the Screen Grid shields the electrons between Cathode and Screen Grid from the Plate so that the Plate exerts very little electrostatic force on electrons near the Cathode.

So long as the Plate voltage is higher than the Screen Grid voltage, Plate current in a Screen Grid tube depends to a great degree on the Screen Grid voltage and very little on the Plate voltage" (end quote)

Important Notice: STC BRIMAR, in their Valve and Teletube Manual #8 (1959) state:

"At low anode voltages the screen current tends to increase greatly, and care is required to avoid exceeding the screen dissipation." (end quote)

RCA Transmitting Tube Handbook TT-4 at page 8 further explains:

"If the negative excursion of the output signal swings the Plate to a voltage less positive than that of the Screen-Grid, electrons moving from the Screen-Grid to the Plate tend to reverse their direction and return to the Screen-Grid.

The resulting decrease in Plate current causes a corresponding rise in Plate voltage, which terminates the negative swing of the output signal before it completes its full excursion. This effect, which tends to reduce the power output of a tetrode below that obtainable from a triode having equivalent plate-input rating, is emphasised considerably when there is secondary emission from the Plate.

The loss of a portion of the output energy which occurs in a tetrode under these conditions reduces the power-handling capabilities of the tube, and causes serious distortion of the signal waveform.

The output of the tube, therefore, contains harmonics of the signal frequency and other spurious frequencies which may cause considerable interference to communications service. Such distortion may also be highly objectionable to the ear or to the eye when a tetrode is used as an audio or video amplifier.

Although this effect may be minimised by reducing the amplitude of the plate-voltage swing so that the plate voltage never swings negative with respect to the Screen Grid voltage, this expedient imposes further limitations on the tube output."

"Dynatron Action":

"The abrupt rise in the plate-voltage of a tetrode caused by the reversal of electron flow tends to draw both primary and secondary electrons back to the Plate. Collection of these electrons then makes the Plate less positive than the Screen Grid so that the tube current tends to reverse again.

This interchange of electrons between Plate and Screen Grid, called Dynatron Action, may continue for several cycles, and is equivalent to an oscillatory current. Although dynatron action forms the basis of certain tetrode oscillator circuits, it is highly objectionable when a tube is used solely as an amplifier." (end quote)

RCA Transmitting Tube Handbook TT-4 at page 8 further explains that the dynatron action problem is intended to be overcome by the addition of a Suppressor Grid (Grid #3) in Pentodes which, when connected to the Cathode, establishes a negative electrostatic field between the Screen Grid and Plate, to effectively prevent both primary and secondary electrons from flowing backwards to the Screen Grid.

A different and comprehensive view of secondary emission in tetrodes and pentodes is provided by Eimac at their website - Care and Feeding of Power Tubes. Unfortunately Eimac's copyright restrictions prevent me from reproducing it here for your convenience - you will have to look it up yourself.

Essentially, there is a condition whereby the electron flow between the Screen-Grid and Plate cannot be controlled by Grid 1 - ie once electrons have passed through the Screen-Grid they are more or less free to do whatever they want. Some go on to the Plate but others return to the Screen-Grid.

Under certain conditions a situation of "thermal runaway" may develop, resulting in excessive Screen-Grid dissipation and potential fusing of the Screen-Grid wire caused by excessive current flow back through the Screen-Grid to AC ground.


However, notwithstanding the above propositions, RCA Receiving Tube Manual RC-19 also states at Page 8:

"In power output pentodes, the Suppressor Grid (Grid #3) makes possible higher power output with lower grid-driving voltage; in radio-frequency amplifier pentodes the Suppressor Grid makes possible high voltage amplification at moderate values of plate voltage. These desirable features result from the fact that the plate voltage swing can be made very large. In fact, the Plate voltage may be as low, or lower than, the Screen Grid voltage without serious loss in signal gain capability."

In the case of Beam Power Tubes, RCA Receiving Tube Manual RC-19 further states at Page 8:

"When a Beam Power Tube (ie a tetrode) is designed without an actual Suppressor Grid (Grid #3), the electrodes are so spaced that secondary emission from the Plate is suppressed by space-charge effects between Screen Grid and Plate. The space-charge is produced by the slowing up of electrons travelling from a high-potential screen Grid to a lower potential Plate. In this low-velocity region, the space-charge produced is sufficient to repel secondary electrons emitted from the Plate and to cause them to return to the Plate.

A feature of the Beam Power Tube is its low Screen-Grid current. The Screen Grid and Control Grid wires are wound so that each turn of the Screen Grid is shaded from the cathode by a Control Grid turn. This alignment of the screen Grid and Control Grid causes the electrons to travel in sheets between the turns of the screen Grid so that very few of them strike the Screen Grid. Because of the effective suppressor action provided by the space-charge and because of the low current drawn by the Screen Grid, the Beam Power Tube has the advantages of high power output, high power sensitivity, and high efficiency.

Fig. 4 - Beam Power Tube Construction and Operation (Courtesy RCA)

Fig. 4 shows the structure of a Beam Power Tube employing space-charge suppression and illustrates how the electrons are confined to beams. The beam condition illustrated is that for a Plate potential less than the Screen Grid potential." (end quote)

The design shown is typical of the 807 tube. Interestingly, the 807 (together with the 814) has the lowest Screen-Grid current of any of the popular output tubes - ie substantially more of the total electron flow reaches the Plate, resulting in a more efficient tube.

However, as will be seen below, increased Screen-Grid Voltage rating can only be achieved by increasing the physical separation distance between Grid #1 and Grid #2 in the tube - ie shifting the Screen-Grid closer to the Plate, and/or reducing the number of turns in the Screen-Grid wire to inhibit electron attraction - in such a way as to ensure compliance with the tube's published specifications - resulting in reduced control over electron flow and a change in the "sound" of the tube.

Thus a 6L6GC with its 500 VDC Screen Grid rating, will have different dynamic characteristics (linearity) and will sound different to a 6L6G with its 270 VDC Screen Grid rating - because its construction is different.

Theoretically, the earlier 6L6G tube having lower ratings should perform better than the later 6L6GC tube with higher ratings, because in the latter case, the Screen-Grid has less electronic control over electron flow in the tube.

The 6L6GC thus would reasonably be expected to demonstrate higher total distortion than the 6L6G when operated within the limits of the design ratings for the 6L6G, even though power output from both types should be the same when operated under these conditions.

For a very detailed explanation of Beam Power Tube design and construction, refer to the engineering paper BEAM POWER TUBES by RCA tube guru Otto Schade. Read with care, this paper provides the reader with an excellent insight into the design rationale and theory of Beam Power Tube design. This paper is part of a set published in RCA Electron Tubes Volume 1 (1935-1941) and Volume 2 (1942-1948).

Note: The original McIntosh amplifier applied 420 VDC to both Plates and Screen Grids, the latter being well above the rated 270 VDC design-centre value. It so happens that the much upgraded 6L6GC - and the better 7581 - are capable of handling the 420 VDC on the Screens with much less distress, so the 6L6GC and 7581 are therefore recommended as superior replacement tubes for the McIntosh. In this application, the hi-fi version of the 6L6 - the 7027A - is also suitable, however the pin connections are different and some rewiring of the socket connections may be necessary.

Further commentary on the screen-grid operating conditions of this amplifier was presented by Hugh Lockhart in 1956 - see http://www.tubebooks.org/Books/lockhart.pdf

Bruce DePalma, one of the few true Gurus of modern hi-fi amplifier design, presents an interesting and vital commentary on Screen-Grids and other related issues in his Design Paper - "Analog Audio Power Amplifier Design"

Bruce developed designs that enable both Ultra-linear and low Screen-Grid voltage technologies to be successfully integrated - eg Acrosound 6146 100 W RMS Hi-fi Amplifier.



To extend tube life and minimise distortion, it is recommended that the Screen Grid Voltage be as low as practicable - refer to manufacturer's tube data sheets for recommended screen grid voltages.

The following JETEC USA design specifications explicitely limit Screen-grid voltage to pre-determined criteria.

JETEC Specifications for Screen-Grid Operating Voltages
Courtesy of SYLVANIA 1959 Receiving Tubes Handbook

Note:    This JETEC design specification for operating conditions is also provided by RCA.

Notwithstanding the above JETEC design specifications - determined from extensive practical and theoretical research, design type tested performance criteria and endorsed by leading manufacturers'- numerous examples of  commercial Guitar amplifiers and Public Address (PA) amplifiers demonstrate typical design with a common Plate and Screen supply (as a cost saving measure) having B+ supply voltages well above the above specified maxima.

However this operating configuration does not promote either long tube life or high-fi standard performance - in fact some tube guitar amp designers deliberately configure the output stage to ensure desired distortion characteristics under sustained overload conditions. But it can also be a recipe for overheating, unreliability, short tube life, instability, parasitic oscillations and/or dynatron action in the output stage because the output tubes are running with the Plate Voltage less than the Screen Grid Voltage (because of DC voltage drop in the primary of the output transformer).

This is particularly true of low-cost output transformers having high DC resistance windings - not to mention low primary inductance and high leakage inductance which also facilitate parasitics.

Inaudible HF oscillations at full power output can easily damage loudpeakers - particularly tweeters having a "system power" or "music power" rating. RC filters across the primary windings are typically used by commercial designers to roll-off HF response in the output stage.

Remember, the purpose of the Screen-Grid is to accelerate and focus electrons towards the Plate. Excessive Screen-Grid voltage attracts excessive electrons, increasing Screen-Grid temperature, current draw, and temperature rise - yes it does matter!!

An important clue to Screen-Grid behaviour is found in the Tube Data Sheets for RF Transmitting power tubes. Here it will be seen it is common - for a particular tube type - that the Screen-Grid voltage is expressed at a constant value , irrespective of Plate voltage. Screen Grid voltage is always specified at a level substantially less than the Plate voltage.

What this practice suggests is that for a particular tube type, there will be an optimum value of Screen-Grid voltage that will be sufficiently high to attract and accelerate electrons towards the Plate - irrespective of Plate voltage - beyond which no significant advantage is gained.

The following examples illustrate this principle. Consider this sample of well known beam power tubes suitable for both RF and AF applications:

Furthermore, this engineering practice suggests that because the physical distance from the Cathode (or Filament) to the Screen Grid is fixed during manufacture, once adequate Screen Grid voltage is applied to do the job then no further significant benefit will be gained by increasing the Screen Grid voltage.

This statement needs to be considered alongside the reality that if Screen Grid voltage is increased then Plate current will increase disproportionately, requiring a corresponding increase in Control Grid (Grid #1) voltage (ie more negative) to compensate and keep plate dissipation within acceptable limits - thus reducing gain and operating capability to fully drive the tube to maximum prospective power output for the available DC supply voltage.

Excessive Screen Grid voltage reduces its capacity to control electron flow in the tube and therefore affects gain, power output linearity between zero and maximum signal, and increases distortion.

Another way of expressing this is to say that as far as the Cathode is concerned, the Screen Grid is the Anode. The rate of electron flow will therefore be controlled by the Anode (Screen-Grid) voltage. What happens to the electrons after they pass through the Screen-Grid and continue their journey to the Plate is of no concern to the Cathode.

It follows that the critical design element for a Tetrode, Pentode or Beam Power Tube is the Screen-Grid voltage, because this is the effective Anode voltage.

As a rule of thumb, the screen grid supply voltage should NEVER be more than the manufacturer's rating. Higher applied Screen-Grid voltage is likely to cause self-oscillation, parasitic oscillation, dynatron action or thermal runaway - any of which can easily destroy a tube and associated components. MINIMAL Screen-Grid voltage will provide better performance including cleaner, crisper sound with less distortion.

Tube Data handbooks typically recommend Screen Grid operating voltages at only half, or even less than half, the rated maximum for a given tube type, warning us of the great control the Screen Grid has in determining tube performance.

In the case of pentodes having a separate Suppressor Grid, it is also relevant that the Suppressor Grid is usually either connected directly to the Cathode inside the tube itself, or externally wired to the Cathode. Because the Suppressor Grid is thereby at Cathode potential, it follows that excessive Screen-Grid voltage is likely to cause difficulties through interaction with the Suppressor Grid.

It is also of importance to recall that the Screen-Grids of miniature amplifying tetrodes and pentodes as used in RF stages of a receiver, or pre-amplifier stages of an audio amplifier, generally draw just a few milliamperes. Consequently, the actual Screen current compared with the diameter of the Screen-Grid wire (hence its design-centre current rating) provides an inhernet safety margin of headroom in terms of Screen-Grid current rating of the wire.

This design attribute enables the Screen-Grid to be bypassed directly to ground (Cathode), effectively creating an AC short-circuit across the tube, with no apparent detrimental effect upon the Screen-Grid wire. One reason for this is the usually very high value of Screen-Grid supply resistor - often 0.5 MegOhm or more - which limits Screen-Current to safe values. However the same cannot be said for power tubes and further comments are made below on this subject.

Plate and Screen Dissipation of Tetrodes and Pentodes

The following rare graph, courtesy of ITT-Standard publication MSE/123 published in 1963,  illustrates how Screen-Grid current changes with applied DC voltage to either Screen-Grid or Control Grid.

It clearly shows at 1 kV typical Plate Voltage and 0 VDC Control-Grid Voltage, that when we increase Screen-Grid Voltage (above a critical value), the Screen-Grid current, and therefore Screen Dissipation, may increase dramatically.

Regrettably, corresponding data is not available for more negative Control-Grid voltages typical to audio applications

ITT-Standard Type 4X150A Beam Power Tetrode

Radiotronics Magazine No. 80 of October 1937 says:

"The power dissipated in the Screen circuit is added to the power in the Plate to obtain the total B supply input power. With full signal input, the power delivered to the Plate circuit is the product of the full signal Plate supply voltage and the full-signal DC Plate current. The power dissipated by the Plate in heat is the difference between the power supplied to the Plate circuit and the power supplied to the load.

Screen dissipation increases with load resistance. In order to visualise this relation, assume that the sum of the Screen and Plate current is independent of Plate voltage for zero Control Grid bias, or for a negative value of it. A decrease in Plate voltage causes a certain decrease in Plate current; it is assumed that the Screen Current rises by an equal amount. Hence, when the Screen Grid valve operates with a load which intersects the zero-bias characteristics below the knee, the Screen current rises to high values during low-Plate voltage excursions of the output voltage. This action produces a rise in the DC value of Screen current with signal. Therefore, the Screen dissipation with full signal input may be several times the zero-signal value. To reduce Screen dissipation, the load should always be chosen so that it passes through the knee of the zero-bias characteristic.

Increasing the applied signal voltage to a value higher than that for which the load is designed also increases Screen dissipation. For this reason, it may be advisable to use a value of load which is slightly less than the optimum value. This precaution has another advantage, which is especially important at high audio frequencies. The impedance of a loudspeaker increases with frequency. When the load is adjusted for the proper value at 400 Hz, the load is usually too high at 2000 Hz; thus a Screen dissipation limit may be exceeded at 2000 Hz even though operation is normal at 400 Hz. The use of a load which passes through the zero bias characteristic somewhat above the knee is desirable for these reasons." (end quote)

Note: The conditions described above are very likely in lead guitar amplifiers where the signal is of a single frequency nature.


The physical spacing between the cathode and anode in a vacuum tube is the gap across which the electrons must travel, and is the gap across which applied voltage is measured and present (Plate Voltage).

Hence it can be stated with certainty that the DC voltage gradient across the cathode to anode gap is essentially linear.

Note: For those technically competent, early texts (Spangenberg, Beck, Argimbeau, Chaffee, Reicht, etc.) clearly show this voltage tensor as having an exponential-shape, albeit not strongly, which starts at zero, then goes negative, then goes positive to cross through zero at the "virtual cathode" point, and then climbs (always lagging the linear DC voltage gradient) toward the maximum applied DC voltage. (Thanks to Earles L. Mc Caul for this contribution)

A simple example of this is seen in a vacuum tube rectifier, which comprises only a Cathode and an Anode - with a vacuum gap between them.

It is relevant to note that a triode tube is just a rectifier with a Control Grid inserted between the Cathode and Anode to regulate the electron flow through the tube - and hence through the circuit.

Examination of the physical construction of a vacuum tube, demonstrates that the control grids (Grid #1, Grid #2 and Grid #3 etc) are fixed in precise physical relationship to each other, to the anode, and to the cathode.

Further examination reveals that the relationship between manufacturers' Rated Plate Voltage and Rated Screen Grid Voltage is directly proportional to the physical distance between each of them and to their common Cathode.

Given that the Rated Screen Grid Voltage is a maximum value and directly physically correlates with Rated Plate Voltage, which is also a maximum value, it follows that when the actual applied Plate Voltage is less than the Rated Maximum - to maintain linearity, or equal distribution of the applied DC voltage gradient across the tube, the applied Screen Grid Voltage MUST be directly proportional to the linear relationship between Cathode to Screen Grid, and Screen Grid to Anode, within the tube.

If the Screen Grid Voltage exceeds the value indicated from the above method - as is common design practice - it can be predicted with certainty that the velocity of electrons between Cathode and Screen Grid will increase, resulting in increased Screen Grid Current, more secondary electrons produced from the Plate, increased distortion and greater propensity for the tube to oscillate.

More importantly, there will be a mismatch between the "natural" Screen Grid Voltage - derived from the voltage gradient created by its physical relationship in the electron stream gap - and the applied Screen Grid Voltage.

Thus this approach is suggested to determine the preferred Screen Grid voltage.

It assumes a linear relationship between Plate and Screen Grid voltages, by the formula:

optimum screen grid voltage =          actual plate voltage           X     maximum rated screen grid voltage
                                                        maximum rated plate voltage

Of course, plate and screen voltages are measured to the cathode or filament, as applicable.

This design approach ensures the Screen Grid voltage is optimised and will avoid unwanted secondary emissions and over-excitation of the tube.

Note: Where the applied Plate Voltage exceeds the Rated Plate Voltage - such as in guitar amplifiers - it would seem prudent to also proportionately increase the applied Screen Grid Voltage to maintain voltage gradient equilibrium. Note however there are risks with this form of tube abuse and premature failure is a likely outcome.


RCA Receiving Tube Handbook RC-19 states at Page 8:

"In the case of Screen-Grid tubes, the proximity of the positive Screen-Grid to the Plate offers a strong attraction to secondary electrons, and particularly so if the Plate voltage swings lower than the Screen-Grid voltage. This effect lowers the Plate current and limits the useful Plate voltage swing for Tetrodes." (end quote)

Thus, another method is to adopt a policy that to optimise performance whilst maximising tube life, the Screen-Grid voltage must never exceed the Plate voltage at full negative swing signal.

This is to ensure that the Plate will never swing negative in relation to the Screen-Grid thus causing the Screen to replace the Plate as the PRIMARY ANODE during that portion of the signal cycle where the Plate is more negative than the Screen Grid.

In other words, it is essential that the primary electron stream continue on past the Screen-grid to be collected at the Plate - otherwise the Screen-grid will conduct too much current and melt.

Note also that in power output stages, the Screen-Grids are normally connected to AC earth via the screen bypass capacitor. Thus if the Screen-Grids become the primary anode the signal will be partially short-circuited to ground, with disastrous consequences for distortion, linearity and tube life (very short).

Therefore, returning to the primary proposition of this article - ie that Screen-Grid DC voltage must always be less than its Plate voltage, an approximate value for optimising the DC Screen-Grid voltage may be determined by assuming the minimum AC Plate signal voltage will be 0.707 x the DC Plate voltage. This equates to the central axis of the rms sine-wave signal as seen at the centre-tap of the output transformer.

That is to say the DC Plate voltage will be NOT LESS THAN 1.414 x the MAXIMUM DC Screen Voltage for sine wave signals and more than that for dynamic asymmetrical peak signals such as electric guitar.

This fits nicely with the proposition described in my OPTIMISED ELECTRON STREAM © TECHNOLOGY page, that the Screen Grid DC voltage should be set at 40% of DC Plate Voltage - ie the DC Plate Voltage should be 2.5 times the Screen Grid DC voltage.

Obviously a lower voltage is desirable to ensure the electron flow continues past the Screen-Grid and on to the Plate, which is their intended destination.

Note that once the electrons have passed through the Screen Grid on their path towards the Plate, the Screen Grid becomes the Cathode in the Screen Grid to Plate circuit - ie becomes the negative terminal in that section of the tube. However the Screen Grid cannot carry the same current as the cathode or Plate so care is needed to prevent overheating or melting.

Remember too, that this suggestion is based upon the tube manufacturer's "rated" output power - ie not "actual" output power, which may be more if:

a)    the grid bias (Grid #1) is not set accurately, or
b)    the tubes have higher conductance than specified, or
c)    the amplifier is driven into overload, or
d)    a very high amplitude transient signal is amplified, or
e)    a different load impedance is used than that recommended by the manufacturer, or
f)    the reflected load impedance is different to the theoretical due to a variance between the stated and the actual loudspeaker impedance, or
g)    the signal frequency coincides with the loudspeaker resonance frequency (primary load may increase up to six times the nominal value). This situation is very likely with single note instruments such as an electronic organ or bass guitar, where no signal averaging occurs.

It is interesting to note also that although RCA state in Transmitting Tube Manual TT-4 at page 9: " Beam Power Tubes may also employ Suppressor Grids rather than space-charge effects to prevent the reversal of electron flow when the Plate swings negative with respect to the Screen Grid." - a study of tube specifications reveals that RF Beam Power Tubes always have a rated Screen Grid voltage substantially lower than the rated Plate voltage, thereby rendering the foregoing statement by RCA as somewhat theoretical for both Pentodes and Beam Power Tubes.

It is observed that when the tube manufacturer's maximum rated Screen Grid DC voltage is used for tubes fitted with a top Plate terminal, the AC signal voltage during its negative swing will still always be above the Screen Grid DC voltage, thus preventing adverse effects. However in my opinion, the 40% rule should always be observed where practicable.

eg compare these tubes of similar 125W rating:

Type                    Construction                     Max Screen DC Volts        Max. Plate DC Volts

4-125A                Beam Power Tetrode          400                                      3,000
4E27A/5-125B    Beam Power Pentode          750                                      4,000
803                      Pentode                               600                                      2,000
813                      Beam Power Pentode         1,100                                    2,250


All the above discussion assumes the signal voltage at the Screen Grid to be simple sine wave waveform - of course in practice it is not. This gives us yet another reason to further reduce Grid #2 voltage to ensure it always remains negative to the Plate.



RCA Transmitting Tube Handbook RC-19 states at page 60:

"The positive voltage for the Screen Grid (Grid #2) of Screen-Grid tubes may be obtained from a tap on a voltage divider, from a potentiometer, or from a series resistor connected to a high-voltage source, depending on the particular type of tube and its application. The Screen-Grid voltage for Tetrodes should be obtained from a voltage divider or a potentiometer, rather than through a series resistor from a high-voltage source because of the characteristic Screen-Grid current variations of Tetrodes.

When Pentodes or Beam Power Tubes are operated under conditions where a large shift of Plate and Screen-Grid currents does not take place with the application of the signal, the Screen-Grid voltage may be obtained through a series resistor from a high-voltage source. This method of supply is possible because of the high uniformity of the Screen-Grid current characteristics in Pentodes and Beam Power Tubes. Because the Screen-Grid voltage rises with increase in bias and resulting decrease in Screen-Grid current, the cut-off characteristic of a Pentode is extended by this method of supply.

This method is sometimes used to increase the range of signals which can be handled by a Pentode. When used in resistance-coupled amplifier circuits employing Pentodes in combination with the cathode-biasing method, it minimises the need for circuit adjustments.

When power Pentodes and Beam Power Tubes are operated under conditions such that there is a large change in Plate and Screen-Grid currents with the application of signal, the series resistor method of obtaining Screen-Grid voltage should not be used. A change in Screen-Grid current appears as a change in the voltage drop across the series resistor in the Screen-Grid circuit; the result is a change in the power output and an increase in distortion. The Screen-Grid voltage should be obtained from a point in the Plate voltage supply filter system having the correct voltage, or from a separate source.

It is important to note that the Plate voltage of Tetrodes, Pentodes and Beam Power Tubes should be applied before or simultaneously with the Screen-Grid voltage. Otherwise, with voltage on the Screen-Grid only, the Screen-Grid current may rise high enough to cause excessive Screen-Grid dissipation." (end quote)

RCA Transmitting Tube Handbook TT-4 also states at p62:

"The danger of excessive screen-grid voltages is present principally when screen-grid voltage is obtained from the plate supply through a series dropping resistor. In this type of supply circuit, sufficient resistance is connected between the screen-grid and the plate supply to assure that the screen-grid voltage and dissipation at the values of screen-grid current, bias and driving voltage required for full output are within the maximum ratings for the tube. Any condition which reduces the current through the screen-grid dropping resistor to a very low value, therefore, may cause the screen-grid voltage to rise to an excessive value."
(end quote)

These sentiments are also expressed by Philips and STC Brimar.

It is therefore preferable that the dropping resistor should be part of a voltage divider network to further stabilise the supply and to provide a direct current circuit to ground. All resistors in the voltage divider must be suitably rated.

When a dropping resistor is used from the B+ supply, a suitably large (ie large enough to offer a low-impedance path for the frequency range being amplified) bypass electrolytic capacitor is essential to provide a return circuit to bypass AC signal voltage to ground.  Note also that the power losses in such a resistor can be high, so a suitably rated wire-wound resistor is essential to cope with the heat losses - eg typically 10 to 20W continuous power dissipation rating. Note also that this resistor may become very hot after a while, so it must be located away from heat sensitive components such as electrolytic capacitors. The higher the resistor's power dissipation rating the lower will be its temperature rise (Noting that present-day IEC standards permit a substantially higher temperature rise than in days of old). A useful approach is to halve the resistor manufacturer's rated dissipation.

In all cases, non-inductive grid stopper resistors (eg 500 to 1,000 ohms) must be fitted as close as is practicable to the socket pin (read VERY close) to provide stable operation, minimise RF signal pickup, minimise inductance in the wiring, and prevent parasitic-oscillation in the tube. Note that carbon film resistors may self-ignite if the insulating coating is not of fire retardant material - be warned!! Composition carbon resistors may be a better practicable choice.

Philips Miniwatt put it this way in their "Miniwatt Electronics Handbook" (Australia 1960):

"The maximum value of peak Grid #2 dissipation is given to avoid the risk of impairing valve life by overheating the Grid #2 during long periods of excitation, which sometimes occurs with music or speech. In most cases, insertion of a non-decoupled series resistor of 500 to 1000 ohms in the Grid #2 lead will reduce the actual value of peak dissipation to a large extent and not seriously affect the output power.

During normal excitation with music or speech there will in general be no danger of exceeding the maximum value of Grid #2 dissipation when the valve is operated according to the published operating conditions.

In applications with a sustained sine wave input voltage" (bass guitar and electronic organ amplifier builders please note) "there is a great risk of exceeding the maximum value of Grid #2 dissipation, so that in general full excitation is not allowed.

In order to prevent the maximum permissible Grid #2 dissipation from being exceeded it is necessary to ensure that the Plate is always correctly loaded.

Hence the Plate lead must not be disconnected, nor must the loudspeaker be switched out, without replacing it by an equivalent resistor". (end quote)

In the case of tetrode and pentode operation, do not use excessive values of unbypassed (non-decoupled) Screen series resistance, because DC supply to the screen grid is likely to fluctuate substantially with screen current - thereby introducing non-linearity, as well as separating the screen from direct connection to AC ground.

Voltage drop from DC Screen Current is a particular challenge with parallel-push-pull operation. Care is also needed with conventional Class AB or Class B operation of single paired tubes.

Notwithstanding that though a word of caution:

Philips Miniwatt warn us in this way in their "Miniwatt Electronics Handbook" (1960):

"If the circuit is designed for operation of the valve below the knee of its plate current plate voltage characteristics, the Grid #2 series resistor must have a minimum value of * ohms in order to avoid the occurrence of Barkhausen oscillations." (end quote)

Some Food for Thought:

The usually recommended value of Grid Stopper Resistor is around 100 to 500 ohms (although to save on cost many commercial amps successfully connect directly, with no Grid Stopper at all).

This has been standard practice for more than 60 years.

Interestingly, all the early tube literature shows the Screen Grid connected directly to the B battery, with no bypass capacitor. This tells us that conceptually, early designers regarded the Screen Grid as being at a DC potential, with either no regard for the AC signal component, or a reality that the battery provided the necessary AC bypass return circuit path to earth.

However an empirical approach derived from the manufacturers' data described on my ultra-linear operation page suggests a value of around at least one half the Plate to Plate load impedance presented by the output transformer.

The basis for this proposition is that in normal push-pull tetrode or pentode operation there is little or no resistance between Grid #2 and the B+ supply, so therefore there will be no Screen to Screen load equating to the Plate to Plate load.

This is because the centre-tap of the output transformer primary is connected to AC earth (ground) via the bypass/filter cap at that point.

In other words, in the case of normal push-pull tetrode or pentode operation there will be an AC SHORT-CIRCUIT between the Screen Grids - and between the Screen-grids and their respective Cathodes.

Although this "short-circuit" - ie no load operation - will obviously increase Screen current, the AC signal current in the Screen Grids will not appear in the output because it is diverted to earth through the bypass capacitor.

However no-load operation of the Screen Grids will increase the number of electrons collected by the Screens - a phenomena we do not want - because we want the electrons to be only attracted to, but then continue on through and past the Screen Grids on their way to their respective Plates.

Thus electrons collected by the Screen Grids not only increase Screen Current, but also divert electrons from the Plates and therefore reduce power output.

It is this effect that results in the standard rating of "Screen Dissipation" - expressed in Watts. "Screen Dissipation" is the result of DC Screen Input Watts minus AC Screen Grid Signal Output Watts. Thus if AC Signal Output Watts is zero or close to zero, because the AC output between push-pull Screen Grids is more or less short-circuited, then the DC Input Watts will be maximised under all signal conditions.

What we want is for the Screen Grids to be at a DC potential sufficiently high enough to attract and accelerate electrons towards the Plates but, to maximise power output, not to collect and divert them to earth through the B+ supply.

Clearly there will be a particular value of Screen Grid Stopper Resistor that will provide optimum balance between the conventional "short-circuited" Screen Grid configuration and an arrangement whereby the Screen Grids are suitably loaded.

The optimum value will clearly be variable depending upon the particular circuit configuration and operating voltages.

However, as a rule of thumb, and noting the advice of Philips Miniwatt to instal a value of Grid #2 resistor of between 500 to 1000 ohms in each Grid #2 supply lead, we can assume that a value of 50% of the Plate to Plate primary load impedance is an approximate ideal for the Screen to Screen loading.

This will result in a grid stopper resistor value of:

500 ohms per Screen Grid when the transformer primary load impedance is 2,000 ohms Plate to Plate
1000 ohms per Screen Grid when the primary transformer primary load impedanceis 4,000 ohms Plate to Plate
2000 ohms per Screen Grid when the primary transformer primary load impedanceis 8,000 ohms Plate to Plate

For other values of Plate to Plate load, calculate on the basis that each Screen Grid resistor should be 25% of the transformer Plate to Plate primary load impedance

In all cases, pursuant to Philips Miniwatt advice, the Screen Grid resistor is "non-decoupled" - ie is unbypassed.

This resistor must be installed directly to the Grid #2 pin of the tube socket and be preferably non-inductive.

The Screen resistors must have sufficient heat rating to operate safely and reliably without distress.

When multiple pairs of output tubes are used in parallel push-pull configurations, the Screen currents can attain reasonably high values - eg 4 x 6CA7/EL34 = 100 mA. Ensure the Screen Grid resistors can handle this current without excessive heating, noting the resistors will conduct heat from the tube pin/socket in addition to internal heat losses and temperature rise.

In multiple tube operation, to accommodate variations between individual tubes and to minimise the risk of self-oscillation, each Screen-Grid must be supplied from its own individual grid-stopper resistor. This method also enables each grid-stopper resistor to be mounted directly to each individual tube socket.



An alternative to normal tetrode, pentode or beam power tube configurations is the ultra-linear circuit, that avoids the need for a separate screen grid supply.

"ULTRA-LINEAR" is a term, when applied to audio amplifiers, that describes the output stage configuration whereby the screen grids (Grid 2) of tetrodes or pentodes are fed from a tapping on the primary of the output transformer, instead of from a separate DC supply.

Ultra-linear is also known as distributed load operation.

Taking note of the above information regarding Screen-Grids, full details are provided in my separate ULTRA-LINEAR page.


Using the above knowledge about the behaviour of Screen-Grids, the following design rules can be applied to guitar amplifiers:

a)    BRIGHT, CLEAN SOUND (Minimum Distortion) - eg Lead Guitar, Country, Steel

b)    SMOOTH, NATURAL SOUND - eg Jazz, Rythm, Folk, Bass

c)    DISTORTED SOUND - eg Grunge, Heavy Metal, Blues




Please let me know if you can add to this body of new knowledge and I will add it to this commentary.

Of course the smart thing to do here is to use tubes that are already triodes - instead of messing about with compromises - but then none of the triodes are beam tubes and thus do not offer the benefits of  beam tube technology.

Also most of us have a junkbox stock of perfectly good tetrodes, pentodes or beam power tubes just waiting to be used - so it is a tough call.








For suggestions, critique or discussion re this page contact:

Dennis Grimwood

Email:    contact

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This page last amended 24 May 2014

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