Can tube amps play loudly?

Hello Gentlemen,

I'm in process of upgrading my current system. It's all junk...Onkyo receiver, Wharfedale speakers, etc. I've finally finished grad school and have decided it's high-time to upgrade to a quality two-channel system.

I've heard tube amps in various settings and love the way they sound. I'm strongly considering starting with one of the modified Cayins on the market (Bizzy Bee or PrimaLuna versions).

I’ll preface my question by noting that I am a total tube “newbie,” and I’m sure my question will speak volumes about my relative youthfulness. Here goes: Can tube amplifiers in this modest price range play loudly?

I realize this is dependent on the speakers and their sensitivities. What I'm looking for here is a relative ballpark estimate. There are so many good speakers on the market that I don't even know what to start looking at seriously. If I could weed some out based on their sensitivities, that would help me out a lot.

So, does anyone have any rough decibel ratings for tube amps similar to the Cayin? If so, what sensitivity are your speakers? I do realize that decibel ratings vary widely depending on amp power, speaker type, distance, etc. All I want is a rough estimate.

Any thoughts from anyone would be appreciated. I’d like to be able to narrow down my speaker choices before I start shopping seriously, because I don’t want to waste my time or a dealer’s. Plus, I’d like to know whether I can even achieve respectable volumes with tube amps on my modest budget.

The DB level all depends on how much power you feed the speakers, and how efficient the speakers are.

For every 3 db increase you must double the power to some speakers. So if you want to use a lower-powered tube amp you will want some high effeciency speakers.

Here is an example, lets say the Tube amp pumps out 30wpc

If you get some speakers that have a sensitivity of 87db@1meter then...
87db @ 1w
90db @ 2w
93db @ 4w
96db @ 8w
99db @ 16w
102db @32w

So, you can get about 100-101db at 1 meter with 30w on 87db speakers. Thats a pretty decent amount of volume, but you wont be tearing down the walls.

there are always other factors to include, too many for me to even scratch the surface, but if yer looking at a tube amp it helps to go with some speakers at least 90db effeciency.

I could totally be wrong though on my math, but imn pretty suure you have to double power for every 3db increase in output
Tube amp distortion is easier on the ear, so the power ratings on tube gear are sometimes quoted at higher percentage distortion levels than they are for solid state. Compare carefully among tube gear brands.

Some of the most respected musical instrument amplifiers are tubed and they get plenty loud. The best ones distort richly, sweetly and beautifully.
All guitar players prefere tube amps since they could scream louder than SS ones so do your figures...
ok guess slappy didn't ditch math class too much. Hey slappy you got a speeding ticket yet in your new ride?
Thanks for the help, guys. Slappy, I appreciate your detailed explanation. Those sorts of volume levels would be completely acceptable to me. In fact, I'm surprised I could get that kind of volume with relatively un-sensitive speakers.

Chris- There are plenty of 89-92 dB speakers out there that a decent tube amp can drive you right out of the room with. Slappy seems to have his math right (go figure!) but remember that volume also drops off by 3 dB (I think) with each doubling of distance. So your 102 dB @ 1m w/32w using his example, becomes 6 dB at 4m.
I drive Aerial 10T's with Rogue M150's .Aerial's are power hungry.Whem my wife is home she keeps telling me to lower the volume .I was just listening to music with my secondary system Mission 753 and Conrad Johnson MV55(45W/side)and it was pretty loud at 11:00 o'clock volume position.
Happy listening.
"Slappy, I appreciate your detailed explanation. Those sorts of volume levels would be completely acceptable to me. In fact, I'm surprised I could get that kind of volume with relatively un-sensitive (SIC) speakers."

Uuh...those levels are at ONE METER from the speakers, Chris. I THINK the sound-pressure level will decrease 6dB for each doubling of distance.

Is that a loss of 6dB per watt, or are you saying that at 4 meters, the TOTAL output would only be 6 dB?

This may be a terrible stereotyping thing I'm doing here, but I might suggest merely by the content of your query that you may want to investigate your reasons for wanting to go in the directions of tubes more thoroughly than you are in this query. There are some things tube amps do bette than SS amps (create a 3 dimensional soundstage and palpability that SS cannot approach), and there are things SS can do better (dynamics, headroom, micro-detail, reproducing very complex/layered/dynamic music). All of which may be arguable to some extent one way or the other by those far more knowledgeable than me on such subjects. Playing "Loudly" is perhaps a poorly chosen criteria, at least in my interpretation of your question, as to understanding the differences between the two. What kind of music do you like listening to "loudly"? If the answer is head-banging rock and roll, or complex orchestral music, sure tubes can reproduce it loudly, but SS will probably be able to give a more "accurate" pacing and do that kind of music more justice than most tube amps could. The short answer to your question is tubes can play music loud enough to drive most folks out of the room, and when thoughtfully paired with the right speakers do that without audible distortion (distortion that can be measured by instruments is another story). My 8 watt SET system can play loudly enough to fill a huge space with very realistic music that is loud enough to wake the dead. If I paired the same 8 watt amps with less efficient speakers you may wish you were dead if it were cranked that loud as you'd hear only distortion...very loud distortion at that.

Try to find some dealers in your area who are big on tubes and do some listening with the kind of music you like to listen to. If you are not in an area that offers such resources, post as much here and perhaps a generous A'goner may let you hear what tubes can do (and what they cannot).

Personally I choose tubes, but I do not think there is one single answer as to which is "better" in any respect. It is entirely a personal choice.


I've heard enough quality SS and tube equipment on good speakers to understand the differences between the two. I've decided on tubes because of their warmth and the "life" they breath into music.

I listen to all sorts of music, including jazz, bluegrass, classic rock, indie rock, and even some techno and metal. For the most part, I listen at relatively modest volumes. However, on occasion, I like to rock the house down.

Maximum volume isn't really a "criteria" for my decision. I've already heard enough equipment to know that the tube sound is what I want for 75% of my listening habits. What I'm after here is whether tubes can play loudly enough to satisfy the other 25% of my listening. I understand that for loud listening SS is better (having always owned SS equipment), but given that it accounts for such a small percentage of my listening habits, I'm willing to sacrifice some quality at high volumes as long as it's loud. For the other 75% of my lower-volume listening, I much prefer tubes over SS. Note that I said SOME loss of quality at high volumes. I don't want it to sound like a giant pile...

More specifically, what I want to know is whether a tube amp in my $1500 price range can accomplish what I want (with proper speaker mating) or whether I need to wait until I can afford something more powerful.

You only mentioned amps - but the higher end integrateds have become very good and you'll save the cost of one extra set of interconnects too. For beginners that actually have an ear for good music, some of these integrateds are too good to pass up.

Unless I get talked out of it, my next purchase will be the Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 integrated amp ($1500 or less used). With all the good stuff out there (and the quality of care given to 99% of audiophile equipment) I almost will not buy new anymore. I'd rather be a year or two behind the curve and pay half price. But that's just me. I don't think you could go wrong with this integrated amp.

If you are going to run your CD player (with variable outputs) directly into an amp, there are several C-J MV-55's for sale on agon. I believe these have 10 wpc more power than the integrated version.

I'm not up on speakers right now (well, I've been considering Magneplaner and Martin-Logan so that's of no help to you). However, I would pick up this month's issues of Stereophile and The Absolute Sound as they each have their "best equipment" picks for 2004 included. If you know little, you can learn a lot about equipment in your price range in a very short amount of time.

You'll get some good advice here; for a good overview of what's going on in the equipment world, the latest issues of these two mags will quickly further your education.
Er, Swampwalker & Jeffreybehr, I think on a log scale like db, 3dB is double. I also believe that SPL drops off as the square of distance, so 6dB for 2x distance seems right. But, 4m is only double 2m and 2m is double 1m, so I'm thinking a total SPL dropoff of 6+6dB or 12 dB, which still gives you 90 dB SPL @ 4m, no?
go to this site and find the article "Power, How much do I really need?"

It has a chart that will probably answer your question pretty well. It shows for a given loudspeaker efficiency how many watts are needed to hit various loudnesss levels. Of course these aren't absolutes but I think it will answer your question well enough.
Make sure you get an amp that has a volume knob that goes to "11."

Many tube amps will rock your house down. Achieving volume won't be your quandry. Finding an amp that will cover the wide range of your musical genres will. It's a little like playing golf with five clubs in the bag. It can be done, but you will notice the gaps in the tool kit.

My wife and I went through a similar audio journey, and we settled on two systems run from one CD player. We owned and auditioned many tube amps--even as powerful as 140W-- and while they had the warmth and 3-dimensionality we loved, we could not find one that had the bass impact we wanted for rock/metal/blues. Again, not a volume issue. Rather, more of a tonal requirement.

If we had only one amp, we would keep our hybrid. It is not the 'best' at anything, but it covers every genre quite capably. That is not to suggest that it would be right for you. Rather, I would say that it is most important to look/listen for the amp (and speakers, which are just as crucial) that will answer to YOUR listening needs. In the end, you may notice those 'gaps in the tool bag', but there are some amp/speaker pairings that will ultimately satisfy you on all counts.

All the best,

You might also consider getting a tube pre-amp and a solid state amp so you can get the best of both worlds. Dan
Chris- So then the answer to your question is an resolute "yes" tube amps can play "loudly" and be very satisfying at those volumes. My point was that it may not necessicarily be the information you were after as it really speaks nothing to the quaility of the presentation. Having identified yourself as a "tube newbie" I took it you were after a more thorough explanation. To answer the other question you posed in response to me: "Yes" again, there are plenty of tube-based offerings in the $1500 range, both new and used, that would be stellar performers and make for a huge improvement over your current system, at least from my musical preferences (which lean strongly towards acoustical, vocals, jazz, folk, blues and not much rock (though some) in the mix. Seek out further info by searching the archives both here and on Audioasylum. Off the top of my head, and from direct experience, I could recommend the following: Jolida 302B or 502B (the later with a bit more power and bass authority), Quicksilver Mini-Mites (most of the Quicksilver offerings would serve you well, but research before you invest there), Mesa Baron (this tube powerhouse would lean more towards the rockin' out side while giving you quite a bit of latitude in choice of presentation (switches between pentode and triode as well as in between - but this amp is also expensive to re-tube as it requires a lot of tubes). Of Hybrid amps they may also provide you with a great solution to your needs, I'd agree there. Not much experience to speak of, but I haver listened at length to the Unison Unico in two similar systems. Loved it the first time and was lukewarm the second (different room, different comparisons). There are also some SS Class A amps that may float your boat combining the warmth of tubes with the dynamics of SS. Pass Labs Aleph series does this quite well (my experience was with the Aleph 5 which is a very sweet amp indeed. The 3 and 30 are more affordable used. That brings up two more questions that you may want to answer for more focused advice from others: How big is the room you are going to be playint this system in, and does your budget have room for a preamp, or are you looking for an integrated? If you are stuck on tubes my view would be that most good push/pull designs are a good compromise for all types of programming. If you are going to go pentode you may want to consider the hybrid alternatives, or go SS as my experience with pentode is that it leans more in that direction taking away alot of the dimensionality that many associate with tubes better served by PP, Triode and SET designs. As always, just one more opinion in the fray.

"I’d like to be able to narrow down my speaker choices before I start shopping seriously, because I don’t want to waste my time or a dealer’s."

If you had to go out tomorrow and purchase a system, you could do worse than the modified Cayin's you mentioned, or either of the C-J integrated or amplifiers I mentioned - coupled with Vandersteen 2Ce Signature speakers. I have always liked these speakers as they have a wonderful ("lifelike) midrange for jazz and vocals, but still do well with rock and roll as they are a box speaker. Stereophile Class "B" for two or three or four years running; for $1675 (new, with stands) they are a real deal.

From their web-site: Vandersteen 2Ce Signature

7 ohms nominal 4 ohms minimum.
86dB with 2.83 volts of pink noise input at 1 meter on axis.
40 to 160 watts per channel into 8 ohms.

Other options: Stereophile mentions the Pathos Acoustics Classic One as a Class "A" integrated amp ($2295 new) - as best I can tell it is a hybrid unit, with 70 wpc @ 8 ohms and 130 wpc at 4 ohms. Any of the Musical Fidelity units seem to be good - they are solid state but more tube sounding than most (I am told). Their X-150 is class "B" rated and would do well with Magnepan MG12's or 1.6's - but I don't think a planar speaker is the way you want to go, based on what you have said.

"The Absolute Solund" lists the Maggies and Vandersteens listed above as "Best Buys" in their price categories; also listed under integrated amplifiers are the Musical Fidelity X-150 and Audio Research VSi55 ($2995 new, less than $2000 used (?)).

I don't ever see Jolida mentioned anywhere;I expect they are just good but not great - as stock units. I talked to the owner of Underwood Hi-Fi in Atlanta briefly and he seems quite competent - he would sell you a new, with full warranty, Jolida 502b with mods for $1600 plus shipping ( Or, there are used Jolidas on Agon.

Hope this is helpful; to summarize, an audition of a decent tube integrated amp with Vandersteen 2Ce Signatures would be a great place to start. If you like the speakers, you can then find a tube amp to suit...
Cds9000, I'm a budget-minded person who opted for the modded Cayin from Bizzy Bee about a year ago. I can tell you that the 30 wpc it produces seem louder and more efficient than the 65 ss wpc my Yamaha receiver produced. I've tried a variety of speakers in my living room and the Cayin plays them all as loudly as my ears can tolerate. Unless you plan to set up your 2-channel system in an auditorium, I think you'll be pleased as can be with a modded Cayin.
Phew, that's a lot of info. I'll start at the top:

First, my budget is about $1500 for an amp. Delsfan, I should've been more clear. Integrateds are what I'm looking at, not stand-alone amps. I'm also looking to spend about $2000 on speakers.

Soliver, thanks for the link. That's exactly the kind of figures I was looking at to answer my intial question.

Dlr/Dan, you touched on something that I was going to ask later, but since you brought it up, I'll ask now. Tube pre-amps with a SS amp seem to offer the best of both worlds. Obviously, there's a compromise by going this route. What is it?

Winegasman, thanks for the direct comments on the Bizzy Bee. What kind of speakers do you have, and what type(s) of music do you listen to the most?

Another question: I've heard people who claim to have had great success pairing Def Techs to tube amps. The theory goes that their self-powered bass section provides all the bottom end you'll ever need, while freeing up your amp to power the bipolar section. Anyone have any direct experience with this?

One more note to help you guys understand what I'm after in terms of sound. I heard a pair of Totem Arros paired to a small SimAudio amp, and I LOVED the sound.

Sorry to be "Johnny 10,000 Questions" guys, but I really do appreciate all the info. See, when you're in my position (relatively young, lacking in personal experience with true high-end, and on a tight budget) your choice of internet forums is limited. I can go to the average-joe sites and listen to them talk about how great their Best Buy Kenwood receivers and Yamaha speakers are, or I can come play with the big boys and actually learn something. Thanks for all the help.

I've owned both tube and SS amps. I think the Cayin is in the 30-35 wpc range.

As some others have mentioned; GENERALLY a 30wpc tube amp as opposed to a 30wpc SS amp will play louder. They both only have 30wpc,no getting around this. But the way a tube amp "clips" allows it to play louder before distortion and clipping sets in. So effectively the tube amp has more usable watts. Most say 1 tube watt equals 2-3 SS watts. So the Cayin probably would be more comperable to a 60 wpc SS amp.

Second on your question about DB's. Swampwalker was talking about speaker effeciency. As he mentioned those in the 89-92db range should be able to play plenty loud.

A speaker with 89db will put out 89db sound pressure at 1 meter. A 92db speaker 92db at the 1 meter range.

Hopefully this may help: A 3db increase in sound pressure is a doubling of the volume. So the 92db speaker will play twice as loud as the 89db speaker with the same 1 watt. But the same 89db speaker with the same 1 watt will be twice as loud as a 86db speaker. This again is a general rule and still dosen't tell how loud the speaker will play or how difficult it will be to drive.

The catch though is that as humans we don't usually perceive a doubling in volume until it reaches near the 10db range. So the 92db speaker will not sound like double the volume though it actually is.

Bottom line after all this is; yes the Cayin should be able to play plenty loud if the room isn't too large and the speakers are reasonably effecient.
Cds9000, I have used the Cayin with Klipsch RB-5IIs, B&W 602.3s, Morel 403.5s, and I in-home demoed the Meadowlark Eagles. The Klipsches sounded the best. I put that in the past tense because 3 nights ago my long-awaited GMA Callistos arrived...and my year-long speaker search is DONE! I will post about the Callistos soon, but, for now, let's just say that they excel at both voicing individual instruments and maintaining engaging rhythm. They also cover the bottom end better than any speaker with a 6" woofer has a right to. Roy J. sure did his homework for this speaker. Anyway, I listen to a wide assortment of music -- am spinning Ahmad Jamal as we speak, just had Beethoven's Violin Concerto on, before that was spinning Indigo Girls, Dakota Staton, Paul Simon, various modern woodwind quintets, the Beatles, Santana, Miles and Monk at Newport. No hiphop, no trance, no techno though. Given your budget, I have to say that the Cayin and the Callistos deserve a serious listen. Good luck. Enjoy the search.
Many volume controls advance in 3 dB steps in their lower range and taper to 1.5 dB steps in the middle. A 3dB increase in sound pressure requires twice as much power. A 10dB increase is twice as loud. So in your example, a 96dB speaker is the one that will play twice as loud as an 86 dB one.
Audio Research makes (made) a good integrated with remote control which you should be able to find used for your price without a problem. It's a damn good match with ProAc Response series speakers which, if you're real lucky, you might find a pair of 2.5s for $2,000.00. I once heard a Manley Stingray integrated sound nice with Coincident floor standing speakers.

But to answer your question (even though most everyone else already did), yes - you can find a tube integrated which will play your speakers as loud as you want. I've been doing same for 20 years. Actually had a Mesa Baron which in pentode (although a bit sterile sounding) will blast music and can "rock a party". However, with the right speakers they can do this in triode for a much smoother, more natural sound. The Baron can be listened to in full pentode, 2/3pent-1/3tri, 1/3pent-2/3tri or full triode. They are actually two mono amps on one chassis but you'll need a pre-amp (or even a used Creek remote volume control for $150.00 if damn nice).
Hi Rockvirgo. No thats not exactly what I meant.

Yes a speaker that plays at 86bd with 1 watt will require 2 watts to play at 89db and 4 watts to play at 92db. This of course does not take impedance and other factors into consideration and is a genaral rule.

No the 96db speaker is not playing twice as loud as the 86db speaker. 89db is actually twice as loud as 86db. But the human ear does not generally perceive a doubling in volume until around 10db although it is actually playing much louder then the doubling in volume we perceive.

I don't really understand your reference to the differences in volume control

Best Wishes MaxxC
if you match a SS poweramp to a Tube preamp,make sure the preamp is capable of delivering the low end you want to the poweramp or youll be amplifieng soft bass,
MaxxC, lots of volume controls are designed to increase loudness level in discrete steps, typically 3dB at a time. In this way it takes three plus clicks to make your sound twice as loud. That is, until the volume control nears the center of its range when the steps often become smaller, typically 1.5 dB apart. The ritziest preamps offer even finer 0.5dB steps.

The dB scale is all about perception. The threshold of human hearing is 0dB. If a 3dB increase were twice as loud, but not perceived by a human as twice as loud until +10dB, to whom or what would a 3dB bump be "actually twice as loud" as you state?
I guess you are refering to step attenuators. My amp adjusts from 0-99. One click at a time.

The db is a scale of scientific measurements just like the weather or how we are able to determine what Hz a instrument is capable of playing.

Simple as I can say it. A increase of 3db on actual measurements is twice as loud. Although the sound pressure MEASURES twice as loud we don't perceive it as being twice as loud. In actuality it is twice as loud.

In otherwords going from 86db to 89db will MEASURE twice as loud. But the normal listener does not perceive it as being twice as loud untill it nears the 10db mark.

So its measured versus perception.

So the 3db increase
Great stuff, guys. I've got plenty of reading and research to do now. I'm surprised no one yelled at me about one of my earlier posts. I mentioned that I heard Totem Arros and a small Simaudio and liked the sound. Whoops. Doesn't make any sense if I want a tubes, does it? I meant to say I heard the Arros with a small Unison integrated. Guess I shouldn't be interneting at 2 a.m.