Tubes Vs Solid State

Tube vs Solid-State – Why Do Tubes Sound Better?

10:24 am


There is no shortage of opinion about the answer to this question. Most people do not really care; they just want to hear music as they go about their business, and pay as little as possible to do so. However, there are those that care deeply about the sound they create, or the sound system they listen to, and this piece is for them.

Usually this debate centers on the premise that one type of amplification system is clearly superior to the other. The creation of the transistor was the start of the debate, and it has continued for decades. In this article, I would like to take a balanced look at the subject. Unlike many articles you can find, I will not be using mathematics, physics or the science of psychoacoustics. Each of those fields requires its own College degree to talk about intelligently. I simply want to compare and contrast the key features of both Vacuum tube and solid-state amplifiers, and offer my observations.

Specifically I want to look at:

  • Amplifier Construction and Operation
  • Costs
  • Tone

Construction –

At the most basic level tube and solid-state amps are the same. They all have a chassis, electrical components and an enclosure. Instrument amplifiers may have internal speakers while most home audio requires separate speakers. The big difference is in the details.

Tube amplifiers use a high voltage DC pathway to produce amplification and carry a much lower level AC music signal. This blend of AC and DC requires the use of addition components to isolate potentially lethal voltages from the user and the equipment. To deliver their potential, tubes need high voltage. Solid-state devices generally do not need high voltage so their power supplies are far simpler and much cheaper to make. Both solid-State and Tube amps have power transformers to run their power supplies. Tube amps generally raise the incoming voltage, rectify it, clean it and send it to the circuit at various voltages, from 6 volts to 500 volts. Solid-state amps reduce the incoming voltage, rectify it, clean it and send it to fixed power rails that service all the devices attached. These voltages are typically in the range of +/- 5 volts, 12 volts, 15 volts. The highest voltages in a Solid-state amp typically come from the output devices that drive the speakers.

While we are on the subject of output devices, let’s look at the second biggest difference between solid-state and Tube amps. Solid-state amps do not require an output transformer. High voltage vacuum tubes have a high output impedance and require a transformer to decouple the high voltage DC from the much lower power AC music signal sent to the speakers. Speakers will not run on DC, they will melt. The output Transformer also changes the high impedance signal of many thousands of ohms to a low impedance signal in the 2 to 16 ohm range to match with the speakers you connect. The transformers are the most expensive components in any amplifier. By eliminating a transformer, solid-state gets a huge cost advantage.

That leaves us with the Elephant in the room. Tube amps need vacuum tubes and that affects the entire design and construction process. Tubes are electro-mechanical devices that run on high voltage and produce a lot of wasted energy in the form of heat. In order to operate, a vacuum tube moves a controlled flow of electrons from its cathode to its anode or plate. A red-hot filament heats the cathode and a cloud of electrons forms. High voltages of varying levels feeds different elements within the tube to direct the flow of the cloud, while a small AC control voltage regulates the flow volume. Hence, the British term, valve. This process generates heat in vacuum tubes that could be 200 degrees Celsius. Water boils at 100 degrees C. As such, the enclosure for a tube amp has special requirements for safety, to protect the user and innocent passersby.

As scientific research improved, the use of a combination of dissimilar elements combined on silicon wafers to create voltage amplification occurred. Home audio and musical equipment manufacturers jumped on this new technology. So did NASA and the U.S. space program. Most builders of vacuum tube equipment, viewed solid-state devices as a threat to their business or an opportunity to improve their bottom line if they modified their designs.

Since solid-state construction can be smaller, lighter and less expensive the elimination of the vacuum tube seemed to make sense. This opened the door to mass production and printed circuit boards. Most amplifiers today use some type of printed circuit board to mount their required components; both for solid-state and for Tube designs. Early printed circuit boards just eliminated the mounting points for components and the wires that joined them. Components were soldered to the boards by hand. Modern solid-state amp construction is usually done on multi-layered printed circuit boards. The components are installed by robots and then soldered in an automated process known as wave soldering. The primary goal is to make them fast and cheap by eliminating work done by people. You can get much higher quality solid-state amplifiers but the price rises quickly if you demand higher quality. Some guitar amp builders are still using non-conductive component cards with eyelets or turrets to mount their components. This is well suited to vacuum tubes but not so much for solid-state.

Cost –

When it comes to cost, solid-state amplification really shines. Things like transistors, FET’s, rectifiers and integrated circuits are all machine made in enormous quantities using high-speed assembly lines. This reduces the price of individual components to pennies. Since most designs do not use an output transformer there is a huge saving on that one item. After purchase, solid-state amps have virtually no ongoing maintenance costs. They run cool, unaffected by vibration and will operate for days without a care. Failure in solid-state amps usually occurs very early in their life span, due to manufacturing defects.

Vacuum tubes on the other hand, require a lot of manual labour and are produced in relatively small batches, making their cost to produce hundreds of times higher than equivalent solid-state devices. The average tube amp has ongoing maintenance costs. Tubes are fragile and subjected to intense cycles of heating and cooling. Vibration and heat will degrade tubes and they are susceptible to developing stray noise and microphonics. Over time, the cathode coating material will be depleted and tubes become weak. Tube replacement is inevitable and in the case of power tubes, technical skills are required to ensure the amp is correctly set up for proper, safe, operation. Most people do not have the skills to work safely on high voltage equipment like a tube amp, and must hire somebody to do this work for them.

Both solid-state and vacuum tube amplifiers are available as both cheap consumer products and very expensive professional grade equipment. After purchase, tube equipment will cost more to own.

So far, I have compared the manufacture and relative costs of vacuum tube vs. solid-state equipment. It would seem that solid-state has everything going for it. Cheaper, lighter, cooler and less expensive to operate. If this is true, why is vacuum tube technology still around after all these years?

Tone –

Here is the rub. Within that group of audio enthusiasts and musicians that really care about their sound, there are those that think vacuum tubes simply sound better and those that think solid-state is just as good or better. Solid-state enthusiasts can provide highly technical data that supports their argument, as can those that favour tube based designs.

There are really two sub groups when it comes to amplifiers. Those designed to create music and those designed to reproduce music. Both use completely different audio sources as inputs and very different speakers to handle the output. Musicians want amps that can provide a wide range sound, from sparkling clean to highly distorted and harmonic laden. Home audio enthusiasts want amps that will reproduce the original source material as closely as possible. They do not want to create distortion they want to reproduce the distortion made by others.

Distortion is one of the key selling points for tube amp lovers. Solid-state amps do not seem to distort as musically as vacuum tube designs. The primary reason is that when you drive tubes hard the distortion comes on gradually and presents itself as gradual compression that blooms into distortion. The high voltage supplied to vacuum tubes ensures that the output of the device seldom exceeds the voltage that runs it. Solid-state amps use lower voltage supply rails to operate and the output can exceed the supply voltage. When that happens, they do not start to compress and gradually clip. They simply cut off the output signal at that level. Sine waves become square waves immediately and the sound is not pleasant. Solid-state distortion in its pure form sounds something like bees in a tin foil bag. Not the best for musical instruments and completely unacceptable for home audio enthusiasts. The nature of clipping and distortion also affects the harmonic content of the output signal.

Even and odd ordered harmonics

But the main reason both musicians and audiophiles alike love the sound of tubes is their even-order harmonic distortion. The primary difference is even-order versus odd-order harmonic distortion. Perhaps a lesser known type of distortion, harmonic distortion of tubes is what fills out the sound and adds warmth. Without getting too technical, all amplifiers will have sympathetic distortion related to the original signal. Tubes have mostly even-order harmonics (referred to as second, fourth, and sixth). Solid-state devices have more odd-order harmonics (third, fifth and so on). It is the even-order harmonics that will provide positive embellishments to the original signal, making it sound fuller. A technical article written by Russell O. Hamm published in 1973 in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society described this as a choral or singing sound. This is largely what provides the “tubey” sound, the full, deep, warm sound tube amplifiers are known for. The odd-order harmonics produced by solidstate amplifiers produce a edgy or cut-off sound. Often this is viewed as more “accurate” sounding, but the reality is it is also largely the cause of listener fatigue. It is not natural distortion or add to the original signal positively, and good ears with tire of it quickly.

Dynamic range is another point of contention between the camps. Solid-state does not seem to handle peaks or transients in the music signal as well as tubes. Essentially, I am talking about sound that goes bang or thump. This is likely due to that fact that tubes naturally have soft clipping and compression to handle transients and smooth those peaks and valleys. The amplification of bass guitar is an exception to this general rule. Low frequencies require more power to amplify than high frequencies. A tube amp designed specifically for low frequencies requires a lot of output tubes and massive transformers to generate the power that most bassists require for live performance. This makes them very hot, very big and very heavy. The Ampeg SVT is widely regarded as king of the bass tube amps but it only delivers 300 watts while modern solid-state sound systems can deliver thousands of watts in a much smaller, cooler package by using advanced operating modes such as class D.

If you are a skeptic, you should look at the direction taken by manufacturers of solid-state guitar amps. The advertisements usually feature genuine tube tone as a major selling point. In order to deliver on this selling point additional solid-state devices were developed that more closely mimic the clipping characteristic of tubes. Helper circuits create things like asymmetrical clipping and distortion on demand, using simple diodes. The technology has really gotten good over time. The advent of amplifier modelling is perhaps the biggest chance for solid-state amps to sound like tube amps and has been a real bonus for recording applications. Just add a computer to your amp and season to taste.

However, there is a cost associated when manufacturers create proprietary devices and circuits to emulate the sound of tubes. When the product ceases production, any proprietary parts also cease production. Most popular tube amps are variations of circuits that have been around for more than 60 years and use a standard range of components. In their glory days, manufacturers of tube gear did use oddball tubes to fit their designs and today you will occasionally find amps that use tubes no longer in production. Most currently produced tube equipment uses standard, popular, vacuum tubes in their construction. There is not enough sales volume to warrant the creation of new tubes due to their high production cost. If you have a tube amp today, you are likely going to be able to get replacement tubes in the future. What happens when your modelling amp loses its CPU? Are they still making it?

Finally, we should compare the ease with which a user can change the sound of their amplifier. When it comes to modification there is nothing better than a tube amp. Since the tubes are socketed, they can easily be removed and replaced by users. This starts you down the road to the land of tube rolling. The quest for a tube that sounds different or better than the one you used before it.

Many folks consider tube rolling to be one of the best reason to own a tube amp. They are on a quest for the ultimate sound and tube rolling feeds the need. Output tubes do require some tech chops to replace if they are using a fixed bias scheme. For example, a 6L6GC would appear the same from tube to tube. Because they are made by hand, a lot of variation is introduced due to differences in the alignment and spacing of the tube elements. If you were to grab a random selection of these tubes and install them, each would operate differently in the circuit. Some may run too cold and some may run too hot. The bias voltage has to be set to compensate for the variations and get the output tubes running at the desired operating current. Some high-end tube amps have test points and bias adjusters available to the user. If you know how to use an electrical multi meter and a screwdriver, you can probably bias the amp yourself.

If you want to tweak a solid-state amp, you have to open it up. Advanced solid-state circuits are more complicated and easier to destroy than tube circuits because they have a very low fault tolerance. Simple static electricity can kill solid-state devices, as can the heat from an improperly used soldering iron. If you want to tweak a solid-state amp, you will need a qualified tech to do so. Tubes fit into a socket only one way, while solid-state devices are easy to install improperly if you do not know what you are doing.

Conclusion –

Comparing the two, solid-state amps are cheaper to purchase and cheaper to operate than their vacuum tube rivals. The humble tube amp is more expensive to buy and operate due to the increased cost of parts and the fact that they require ongoing maintenance for optimum performance. People will pay the extra money for tube amplifiers because the sound makes it all worthwhile.

This has been a very simplistic review of the subject. I have tried to highlight the key points so the reader can explore those points in more detail and to the technical depth that they desire.


42 Responses

  1. jb
    jb at |

    oh geez, there’s so many things wrong with this article. i started a mental list but it got too long.
    please get a proper authority on tubes to write these, i hate to see tube myths propagated.
    here’s a few items offbase:
    even vs odd. it’s not the tubes, its the FINAL TRANSFORMER filtering out the odd harmonics. a SS amp with a final transformer would behave the same as a tube amp. but it’s not cost effective so you would never see one on the market.
    tube amps need more maintenance. no, a poorly designed tube amp (re Fender) will need more. a Scott tube hifi will run for 50+ years with original tubes. I have several, only the caps need replacing.
    SS amps have low voltages; yes, but not +/-12V, usually +/- 40 to 60VDC. go look at any SS tube amp schematic.
    tubes are electro-mechanical devices. well, so are solid state transistors. EVERYTHING in an amp is…electro-mechanical. now, if you meant that component spacing in a tube is important, well, true that. but also in…a power transistor.
    a bunch of other things but too many to cover.
    I design and build all manner of electronic and electro mechanical devices, tube amps on the weekends. i’m too busy to blog or twit or whatever the hell people do today (i just wasted 10minutes here), but i do mentor and try to educate musicians i meet and play with at the local bar scenes. please work with me and the rest of the tech/music community, do some homework before you write, vet your work with other techies before you publish.

    1. Eric D.
      Eric D. at |

      You’re such a pretentious and arrogant “mentor” to reply in such a way to John Templeton !

      I would not chose you as my mentor Sir !

    2. John G.
      John G. at |

      You are VERY off-base! Tube do, by design, produce even-order harmonics more so than odd-order harmonics. And, as Eric said, you are a pretentious jerk.

    3. Marc VdV
      Marc VdV at |

      Quote : “but it’s not cost effective so you would never see one on the market.”……. I’m surprised that you state this, as you must have heard of McIntosh……..they do use output transformers in solid state equipment…… (no offense, but if you want to correct others…………)

    4. Duckson
      Duckson at |

      I have never seen a good comparison of tube and Solid-state amplifiers supported by the physical measurements. Is there any technical article. It is so easy to test. You put input sine wave and measure the output.Compare. Make a conclusion. The one that has the output closer to the input is better. Simple. And by the way each good amplifier has such a spec list where many of the required parameters are listed. Just compare the specs.
      Instead of that all debates are filled with “warm and full sound” bullshit. Just before writing your opinion test your hearing first. Are you sure that you can hear 20 kHz sound or just 14?
      Are you sure that you loudspeakers can reproduce signals with the accuracy provided by your amplifier?

    5. Tom Schlatter
      Tom Schlatter at |

      I purchased a Magnatone tube amp 5 years after this article was written- yes I could have saved a lot of money by purchasing a s.s. amp, but would have been REALLY sorry for the lack of sound quality.

    6. Dietr
      Dietr at |

      Ummm… your comment, ” it’s the FINAL TRANSFORMER filtering out the odd harmonics. a SS amp with a final transformer would behave the same as a tube amp. but it’s not cost effective so you would never see one on the market.” this is complete B.S. I have a McIntosh MAC7200 that would disagree with you. Cost me $8000 and weighs nearly 80 pounds. However, you are correct, in that the Final Output transformer is key. My McIntosh sounds very tubie, as they say, but it is Solid State all the way through. There is something to be said for Tube-Solid State hi-breads, though. The ones I have listened to sound very nice.

  2. james in seattle
    james in seattle at |

    got rid of the groovetubes and got tad el84 tubes in blues jr. holy hell now it sounds great. its become my main amp.

  3. Eric Ravensclaw
    Eric Ravensclaw at |

    As a bass player I have found that in lower frequency amplification it’s not so much the wattage of the amplifier as it is the ability of your speakers to move lots of air with the wattage available that is critical. My 300 watt tube amp is plenty loud and moves tons of air thanks to the 8 10 inch speakers in my cabinets.

  4. richie brouk
    richie brouk at |

    As another bass player, nothing was mentioned about tube amps and the low notes vibrating the tubes so much you could hear the vibration. I’m a solid state man now with an old Sunn ss amp, no vibration. Goodby old tube Fender Bassman.

  5. jb
    jb at |

    For bass, true that tube amps are not the best any more. a good quality class D bass amp is extremely efficient, lightweight, relatively cheap, durable, has no microphonic feedback, maintenance free, has a small footprint, and long lasting. who really wants to lug around an SVT, with those crazy heavy transformers, eleven tubes, at 80 lbs, to get 300W? no need to any longer. I have a decent 200W head that weighs about 2 lbs, and I get good reviews on it.

  6. jb
    jb at |

    but for my strat and telecaster, well, give me a pair of EL84’s in a fender blues jr or pro jr, pushing 18 watts of distortion, NICE!

  7. Benny Højvælde
    Benny Højvælde at |

    Tubes vs Transistors.

    30 years ago I studied acoustics at Aalborg University Centre in Denmark.
    It was part of the M. Sc. EE education.
    We made some of the first experiments in 3D sound. 3D sound is used to among others in the F16 jet aircraft.

    We measured the nose and the ears sound distortion.

    What we measured was very special.

    An audio source that is diagonally to the right (eg. Speakers) will be distorted with typically 2% of the nose on the way to your left ear.

    The external ear also provided typically 2% distortion.

    Both the direct sound (right ear) and the sound that crossed the nose and went to the left ear.

    The distortion was in both case only even harmonic like vacuum tubes. Therefore, I believe that the brain has accustomed to even harmonious distortion and do not like the odd harmonics distortion.

    You can not hear 1% even harmonious distortion, but you can hear the 0.1% odd harmonic distortion.




    1. Rene de Ruyter
      Rene de Ruyter at |

      That’s a very interesting research!

    JD BRADSHAW at |

    To each their own….I play the same way through tube amps and solid state amps..I have recently settled on Quilter Labs “Mach 2” line of amplifiers and very happy with their products!

  9. D. White
    D. White at |

    I think what is being missed here is the purpose or application of the device, whether tube or solid state. If the application is to cleanly and transparently reproduce and amplify the full range spectral content of the source material with as little noise, distortion or added artifacts as possible there is no question; solid state, hands down, every time. It may sound “pleasing”, but a tube amp will never reproduce what the mastering engineer heard in his reference monitors and headphones. A tube amplifier will add measurable noise and distortion and will measurably change the frequency response.

    If on the other hand if the objective is to create or produce music or a particular sound, a tube device is just another tool in the artist or producers box. A telecaster and an overdriven vibrolox (or a Les Paul and and Plexi – choose your weapon) has a certain sound that is partially due to the tubes. Likewise, a producer may opt for a tube preamp on a vocal track, foregoing transparency to add some “air” or to fatten up the sound. These can be emulated in solid state or digital / software technologies, but if you are trying to create a tube sound, why not use tubes?

    1. Lloyd Croad
      Lloyd Croad at |

      I am looking at buying a valve guitar amp. You have confirmed my prejudice. I don’t want a “make bigger” amp, I want one that is not linear, but in a feelable way that I can exploit in what I feed it. I think valve characteristics are similar to the way you can hit a drum in the middle, near the edge, on the rim, or on the body.
      Who would want a coldly “Accurate” guitar that just produced sine waves from the strings? Likewise amps, in my view.

  10. maximiliaan1951
    maximiliaan1951 at |

    For all reasonably in many diferences between SS Amps vs Tube Amps
    1). Tube Amps much more easy for all maintenances and renewable.
    2). SS Amps very much difficult for all troubleshooting and not easy to replace by spare part.
    3). SS amps made by robotics and not by hand, nobody can see by open eyes and unreadable.
    4). Tube Amps made by hand and everyone can do much better because readable.

  11. Pete
    Pete at |

    Oh, BTW: Solid state amps can be as hazardous as tube amps to work on. They have lower voltages but much higher amperage. Also in transistor amps, if one transistor is accidently shorted, or shorted as a defect it can take most every other transistor in that channel down with it. Early transistor amps were notoriously unreliable. Tube amps, by far, were more reliable and a good tube can last many years without replacement.

    1. Kazinator
      Kazinator at |

      It’s the voltage that matters, not “amperage”. Even if you have a current-drive power supply: one that tries to push a constant number of amperes through the load, it actually works by adjusting the voltage in a feedback loop: more voltage to push the amps through a higher resistance, less voltage to push through a lower resistance. Pushing more amperes through your body requires a higher voltage.

      When have you ever seen a warning label “caution: high amperage”?

      > it can take most every other transistor in that channel down with it.

      This is true, and in fact the transistors in a blown amp that still *seem* good can have hidden problems.

  12. mark
    mark at |

    I love tube amps. I don’t have anything against solid state amps. I been poor for a while, so I bought a Monoprice 5 watt. It sounds pretty nice, but sometimes it goes wild and I have to turn it off. I removed the reverb pedal and it seems to be doing better. I’m ready to pull the trigger on a California Set5; the black one. I think I could replace a tube by myself. You’re supposed to unplug the amp right? I would never mess around with live wires. My Dad bought my brother and I a large Sears and Roebuck tube amp back in 1972. That was our first amp. Sometimes the amp would pick up the local radio station. I don’t read music very well and I am not technical, but I know what kind of sounds and tones I like. I really enjoy the sound of most tube amps. It’s true they are expensive and require some maintenance. When I was growing up, all my guitar hero’s like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Stones, ZZ Top, Hippy Rock that was really cool tube sounds! Every time I buy a cheap solid state amp, I get board with it. All that matters to me, is the sound. That’s very subjective. I think I could even say that Tube amps are a tradition among Rock N’ Rollers and blues men. You can bend a string and stand on it until it goes to hell on fired up tube amp. I like that! My only concern is: Do the lesser know, cheaper tube amps use proprietary tubes that will be very hard to find or replace?

  13. Andy Munteanu
    Andy Munteanu at |

    You can debate this subject for years,….
    It comes down to education, experience and most likely preference when comes to audio.
    You can believe what ever you want, you can buy what ever you want,…..
    My 30 years experience in audio makes me a firm believer that perfection of vacuum cannot be reproduced by chips,…..never ever will that be possible.
    My religion is and for ever be vacuum tubes…..if you don’t understand there is no point explaining or trying to convince you.
    You can cheapen out and go with chips and solid state, you have that right.

    1. Kazinator
      Kazinator at |

      Many guitarists drive their V1 tube with a pedal, like the Ibanez Tube Screamer. This uses cheap op-amps on a single-voltage supply, with some back-to-back silicon diodes in a feedback circuit for soft clipping. This sounds great; it can be heard on all sorts of rock and metal albums over the past 40 years.

    2. Duckson
      Duckson at |

      Believes do not require proofs.

  14. timo malkki
    timo malkki at |

    Preference at the end of the day is THE deciding factor. Nothing else. Could be preference for the sound, preference for the looks, preference for the tech, preference for the hand-crafting, whatever the case may be. Education and experience do not come before preference. Preference is an opinion. So that means my preference is as valid as anyone else’s, whether more educated or more experienced or not. And the good news is that this is an opinion too, so if you don’t like it, great! And we won’t pretend that each and every one of us hears exactly the same way with exactly the same ears at exactly the same age, huh….cheers to all, this is the BEST hobby in the world, IMHO:-)

  15. Sunder Subramaniam
    Sunder Subramaniam at |

    I have been hearing the same recorded music in India from 1958. The radios and tape recorders then were tube operated. Grundig tape recorders and Philips, Nordmende, Siemens, Grundig,Telefunken valve radios gave silky soft sound with home made wooden speaker enclosures. Even stereo reproduction came into use only after 1960. The Sony tape recorders of 1958-1962 were mostly tube driven while Akai introduced transistorised tape recorders in 1965. The 1950 Philips valve radios performed well with original tubes for well nigh 25 years. The Nordmende 8050 model of 1961 valve radio that we all used is still doing well at my cousin’s house in Bangalore in India. I now have for listening only solid state equipment, but the valve amp sound is being missed.

  16. Todd Hupp
    Todd Hupp at |

    The KT 88 was specifically designed for music. It is a “musical instrument.” Nothing has ever reproduced music with the fidelity of KT88s.Benny’s comments were fascinating- reinforcing the arguments for “natural sounding” tubes.

    1. Lou
      Lou at |

      I love my Gold Lion KT88s!

  17. Lou
    Lou at |

    I know this, tubes outputs are the signal, transistors outputs are modulations, that is representations of the signal. A transistor cannot possibly reproduce transients as well as a tube. Furthermore, no matter the device, it distorts the sound, passive, active, it matters not, it all impacts the sound to some degree. In audio (stereo) amplification, tube circuits are more difficult to design well, and due to their transparency, make associated components more critical. Due to loading, reduced transient response, etc., transistor circuits are more forgiving. This is becoming less so due to the demand for ever faster solid state circuits, but I have yet to hear a solid state amplifier that is nearly as transparent is are my tube amplifier. I was a solid state fanatic for decades, I didn’t want to have to buy tubes all the time, etc. It was hearing the difference in my own system with which I was well aquainted that changed my perception of tube gear. Anyway, there are also often less components in tube amplification to distort the sound. Tubes do have issues with microphonics, some types and or brands more than others. For me though, the transparency of tube equipment rules the day. Perhaps if I had tens of thousands of dollars to waste on electronics, I might find a solid state amplifier or some solid state amplifiers that could better my tube gear, but I have better things to do with my money. Guitar amps are not something I know enough about to weigh in on.

    1. Kazinator
      Kazinator at |

      > *A transistor cannot possibly reproduce transients as well as a tube.*

      Not only it can, but we can measure how well. We can send the input and output signal into an oscilloscope and plot them against each other (X-Y) mode to see that there is a flat line: output follows input exactly.

  18. Kazinator
    Kazinator at |

    This is nonsense. A single-ended “class A” amplification stage produces even harmonics due to the assymetric clipping. A “push-pull” class B output stage produces symmetric clipping and hence odd harmonics. This is true regardless of the devices used: tubes or transistors. Solid-state guitar amps use a wide zoo of distortion techniques. Some use class A stages in the pre-amp, mimicking the tube designs with their assymetric clipping. Some use back to back diodes in various ways (e.g. feedback loop of an amplifier stage): symmetric clipping.

    The biggest factor in what makes a pleasing distortion is the treatment of the input signal before, and equalization after. If there is too much high end in the input, you get a dense soup of harmonics: roll off before distortion is needed. The distorted signal needs sculpting: careful removal of the high end fizz without losing clarity and all that.

  19. Kazinator
    Kazinator at |

    > “Solid-state does not seem to handle peaks or transients in the music signal as well as tubes.”

    If so, almost none of us have heard true transients, because we all listen to music through transistor-based equipment. When the music was recorded and mastered, it also passed through numerous solid-state stages, so none of these transients have actually made it to the recording.

    The only way we an experience these amazing transients is when a guitarist plays live. (And, note, not mic-ed through a solid-state PA system, either.)

  20. PB Jacquemin
    PB Jacquemin at |

    I have heard a Mesa Boogie preamp and amp play out in distortion mode. Amazingly musical. Tried hard as I may to duplicate that sound texture with solid-state JFETs, OpAmps and diodes and the result was always distasteful. Harsh and non-musical. I believe solid-state architecture and materials technology is still chasing down that magical tube sound quality. Assuming that I am not an idiot designer and builder then could anyone else comment on this type of experience??

  21. Tom
    Tom at |

    Thanks for taking the time to write an article that normal people can digest and get a feel for whether or not they should invest in a tube amp. I have vivid memories as a child bearing witness to the reverberations of a tube amp and the warm sound is what I never hear anymore these days.

  22. Michael
    Michael at |

    For me it all boils down to smooth transitions in the music.
    I listen to music at least 12 hours a day, and have found that tubes never give listener fatigue, at least to my ears. The only solid state amplifiers that I could listen to for an entire day without fatigue was running pure class A circuitry, and it is about as efficient as the tube circuitry and also creates a lot of heat.
    A one watt triode amplifier is all that I need for clarity and transparency. I run 4 way speakers with no regrets with compression drivers from super tweeters to midrange, and 15″ full range for bass. The horns are not “shouty” as many exclaim, all they need are properly setup crossover networks.
    I like my solid state JBL for sub bass frequencies only until I finish working on a sub bass frequency amplifier which will return the audio chain to operate entirely with vacuum tubes.
    Sorry solid state guys and gals….
    All in all it depends on your personal preference, and budget. Cheers

  23. Robert Burns
    Robert Burns at |

    Great article. Makes sense to me. I enjoy both technologies, with KT66 tubes in my Quad 11 and the transistor sound of my Quad 303. Both sound magical on the QUAD ESL 57. But if had to choose…the “bloom” in the sound stage of the tube amp is something that I never grow weary of.

  24. MH
    MH at |

    SS has no transformers which has lot lower distortion, today’s SS power amps have hundreds times lower distortion than speakers. I think today’s SS power amp distortion doesn’t have lot meaningful help to overall sound quality. If a SS has enough power and never clips it should produce more “true” sound but not everyone like that kind of “true” sound, someone may like tube distorted “warm” sound. SS also has lower output impedance which normally can damp speaker quickly to reproduce more “true” sound, on other hand tube output transform doesn’t damp that quickly and it creates “warm” feeling. It really depends on what you like “true” or “warm”.

    1. Duckson
      Duckson at |

      Solid state is definitely better as in all scientific measurements solid state amplifiers are used.
      Some people believe that in 70s women were more beautiful.
      Well, again believes do not require proofs.

  25. Kendra Everett
    Kendra Everett at |

    I cover both ends with hybrid equipment. Specifically, I listen through headphones and have a couple of Little Dot amplifiers. Their Mark 1+ units have just one tube stage per channel and a solid-state output. Granted, they cost more and use more electricity (at least ten times as much) compared to the pure solid state.

    But, the sound is better. For example, I love Boney M singing “Rivers of Babylon” … if I dial it through my computer it sounds okay, but running it through the Little Dot from a compact disc it sounds fuller and smoother. It’s a subtle difference, not major, but cannot be denied.

    So, I use solid state in the car. I use hybrids at home. And tubes do improve the sound.

  26. Robert fetty
    Robert fetty at |

    Look guys nobody is on same page when it comes to tubes vs transistors
    My best transistor amp was LUXMAN M-4000 and it was the best I have heard
    one is not any better than the other just does it in a different way
    It costs a lot of money either way to get good sound
    And also I love to build my own
    So that being said ,buy what you love to listen too.
    I buy both,because I can

  27. A-A-Ron
    A-A-Ron at |

    I love valves in my headphone amp, currently using a Schiit Valhalla2 with Sennheiser HD-650 cans. My main system uses a valve pre-amp and solid state for power hungry Magnapans. I find valve front end with solid state works quite nice for my needs, but I do find that I use the headphones with pure valve setup way more than my main stereo since I picked up the Schiit…

  28. Steve
    Steve at |

    Lol! Guess I got lucky when I bought my Fender Twin Reverb and Concert tube amps around 40 years ago, cause both amps are still in perfectly good working condition and not once did I ever have to change a tube. And he said Fender amps were poorly made. Maybe these days, but 40 years ago, I have to disagree. Don’t get me wrong though, a Marshall Full stack was the way to go back then.


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