For tube sound, which is more important: preamp or power amp?


I have always loved the “tube sound” - warmth, midrange, soundstage. Through the years (since about 1975), I have owned many tube and solid state amps and preamps, in various combinations. Presently, I have a tube amp and a solid state preamp. But like most of you, I am thinking of making changes, again.  Not to cloud the discussion, the specific brands are not important.  I also listen to acoustic music, females vocals, love mini monitors, EL34s, NOS tubes, and don’t care that much about bass.  So you can see that my taste fits the tube sound very well. But I have had systems that are too warm, not enough dynamics or details, and fat in the low end, too.

okay, now to the discussion.  To produce the tube sound, which is more important: the preamp or the power amp?  Let’s talk in general, and (if possible? May not be) not tied to one specific piece/brand/model of equipment.  I know there are exceptions to any general rule.  Not sure if it makes a difference to your comments, but I have no phono and am running line stage only.

As an attempt to prevent the conversation as going in a big tangent, let’s assume equality of price/quality. i.e. not comparing a $10k power amps contribution to a system to that of a $1k preamp.  Let’s also assume that the amp (tube or solid state) can drive the speakers just fine, such that compatibility does not limit the decision. And ignore mono blocks versus stereo amp differences.  

two follow ons: I have  the perception that preamps give you more bang for the buck - meaning that it takes less money to get a great tube preamp compared to a great tube amp.  Agree/disagree? And second, I have never owned a tube dac or CD player, and will assume that tubes in either of these is less critical than in a preamp or power amp. Agree/disagree?

i am interested in your thoughts.

Bill
meiatflask
I'm happy with my tube pre-amp (ARC LS-27 Mk II) and a quality SS amp (Sunfire), but may get a newer amp.  Benchmark or Schiit Vidars or ...
I have both a tubed amp and preamp and have had several of both over the years and to me the preamp has made the biggest difference always.
VERY rough take:

Preamp in sweetness, sense of space and imaging.  Amp for dynamics.

Amps are most speaker fussy however.

If you have hard to drive speakers, the usual recipe is a tube pre with beefy SS amp. YMMV, and not all tube amps, but this is _generally_ the understood solution to wanting to have an ESL speaker with tubey goodness.

Best,

E
Purist approach is either both tube or transistor. I would make an exception for hybrid Ypsilon and Lamm power amps. I would never do solid state preamp and tube amp, the other way around may be okay.
Ive had every combination and keep coming back to tube pre and amp......
I should add that in my experience the preamp is the most important of the two
The tube power amp provides more of the "magic"
The tube power amp provides more of the "magic"
Agree with Keith
+2 Keith. I have beard virtually every type of combination of tube and transistor components over the years.  IMO tubes impart more overall sonic influence via power amplifiers than as preamplifiers. I suspect I'm in the minority and most responses will favor the preamp 😊. Both obviously matter but I find that the amplifier is dominant. I am using tube pre and power amplifier. 
Charles 
 In my experience the pre-amp is much more important. Infind as you deal with smaller and smaller signal levels the component can impart a greater imprint on the sound.  However I would only use a solid-state amp for bass duty or if I had a speaker that was tough to drive. 
 I really feel that using terms such as "tube sound"  are very misleading however. I find as you approach state of the art  both topologies tend to sound more and more similar. Good tube sound is not lush and warm. In my experience good tube sound just tends to have slightly more realism, palpability, and is better at Soundstaging. 
 An additional benefit is that good tube gear seems to hold it's value better than solid-state. It makes me chuckle how there are these very expensive state of the art solid-state amps and 10 years down the road they're worth 1/20th of what they were initially. 
I generally agree that as you approach very high levels of design and implementation the distinction between tube and SS  is diminished (but does not disappear). I find this narrowing more so for preamps rather than power amplifiers (the gulf is larger). This is why I have found tube amps more of a difference factor than tube preamps which can sound more like their SS counterparts. The tube amps seem to impart more of the  flesh on the bone or 3 D palpability aspect.
Charles
Analogluvr 11-12-2017
Good tube sound is not lush and warm. In my experience good tube sound just tends to have slightly more realism, palpability, and is better at Soundstaging.
+1. Excellent comment, IMO.

My experience, though, has been consistent with the comments by Keith, Charles, and Hk_fan, with tube power amps having tended to contribute more to those three qualities than tube preamps. I should add, though, that my experience with tube preamps has not been particularly extensive, and for the most part has involved well regarded vintage units (e.g., Marantz 7, Marantz 1’s). Also, to provide context, most of the speakers I have owned over the years have had benign impedance characteristics, and medium to high sensitivities.

Regarding your ground rule of...
... equality of price/quality. i.e. not comparing a $10k power amps contribution to a system to that of a $1k preamp.
... and your statement that...
I have the perception that preamps give you more bang for the buck - meaning that it takes less money to get a great tube preamp compared to a great tube amp. Agree/disagree?
...I agree, at least in the case of medium to high powered tube amps. Tube watts tend to be expensive, for a given level of quality. So if highish power capability is needed in a given application, comparable quality between a tube power amp and a tube preamp might be hard to find at comparable prices. Which may tip the balance in favor of a tube preamp/solid state amp combination.

Regards,
-- Al

Preamps have to drive the amplifier so consideration to proper impedance matching is needed. Once addressed a high quality tube or SS preamp should both perform well in the sense of "driving" the amplifier. listeners will then decide which sonic presentation they prefer. Power amps must contend with driving a speaker’s load which is the more daunting task in most cases. the differences between tube versus SS output devices are more prominent and stark. This is largely responsible for why I believe the power amp is the more crucial variable given its interaction with the speaker load. Preamp driving power amp is less demanding. As Al mentioned benign speaker loads, this compared to a difficult speaker load has definite implications regarding the chosen amplifier .My point is you’ll hear the tube/SS differences with the power amp and due to their innate sonic distinctions.







I've had so many amp/preamp combinations through the years.  Both solid state and both tubes and any combo within.

Because of the speakers I use, (Electrostatics, Planar Magnetic, Ribbons), the use of a tube amp that will drive these has pretty much been out of my financial reach, (I have owned some really nice tube amps, however).

My favorite combo is a tube preamp and a solid state (Class A) amp.  For me, this has produced the best sound for what I use and what I listen to.
Power amplifier, no doubt
My experience is with both home audio and guitar amps over about 106 years (musician years are different due to the effects of smokey bars and frequent string changing). I currently am using a very clean and detailed balanced SS preamp paired with an amazing SEP "Fire Bottle" tube amp (unbalanced, like me) from Dennis Had and it's the best sound I've found with this particular gear pile, so there's a vote for that approach. Sorry Inna, you be wrong. I agree with both Almarg and the "handsome and talented Charles1dad" that impedance matching or ultimate grunt are points worth considering as my SEP amp would clearly wilt with anything other than efficient speakers, which means I'm in an "efficient speaker trap" with no way out, although "I like it, it's good" (Robbie Robertson line). I am going to try a Schiit Freya preamp (back ordered) soon though, and that's an output hat trick design that can be used with its tubes, passive, or FET circuits allowing instant response to this thread. I hope the Freya works…I worry...I've used about 372 guitar amps over the years including a tube pre/SS power amp (Legend A60) which sounded really good, a Music Man SS pre/tube output (OK but made my hot rodded P90s in a Les Paul Special squeak like mofos), and an all SS Fender "London Reverb" that me and a few of my compatriots jumped on initially and soon bagged. Along with these anomalies it's been all tube otherwise, both vintage and modern…now primarily using a 15 watt 6V6 based all tube push pull combo (Reverend Goblin…pretty rare but highly recommended), and an EL84 tube rectified 18 watt class A single ended Burris Royal Bluesman head. Tubular.
Over the years I've had many tube pre's mated with tube and ss amps.I agree with those who have opined that the tube amp has more influence than a tube pre amp.That said,I'm now using a highly rated passive pre with a tube amp and together they yield a distortion floor lower than any combination I've used.It's all good.
Tube amp since that's where your speaker is directly connected to. 
Inna said that best approach was either all tube or all transistor, speaking high level gear. Wolf, get your "unbalanced" balanced then talk.
I recently bought my first tube preamp. I am in sonic heaven ever since. I was very skeptical about owning a tube preamp, the cost of tubes, their sudden failure, etc. kept me away from tube amps all this time..
I recently purchased an Aesthetix Calypso, and I could not believe the kind of music it makes. 
It is like "watching" a concert, live, you are there, with all the musicians and backing vocalist, and there is zero element of fatigue factor, with both, LPs and CDs.

The four tubes based Aesthetix preamp with Levinson 431 and PMC twenty one speakers,  takes the musical experience to a level I never thought existed.


Inna,
Both Al and Wolf use SS preamps with tube power amplifiers and I have no question that their sound quality is  stellar.
Here’s an example Robert Koda preamp(SS) with Wavac amplifier (tube). Bet that this would sound superb.
Charles
Tubes are inherently great sounding devices when implemented properly in a circuit design.  Tubes always make the best rectifiers in a circuit.  If I didn't love the sweet sound of my SS amp I really would consider a tube amp especially as it doesn't have to power the deep bass which is handled by two powered subwoofers.

One note of caution...Some tube types are becoming a bit harder to find. ex. 5687.  I would love for Gold Lion to start producing these.  There are still some NOS available but demand is high.
Tube preamplifier SE tube amplifier best sound quality! 🙃😉
I’ve been very stable with my current system, it’s a tube phono preamp driving a hybrid line stage (tube power supply, solid state stage) driving a single ended tube mono blocks.

I’ve owned a tube dac and the tubes in the dac were just as important as any other tube in my system. It all adds up. I currently own a solid state battery dac.

I have stayed with one brand, because there is very high synergy in the phono preamp, line stage, amp triad.
Some tube types are becoming a bit harder to find. ex. 5687.
Weird.  I've never had any problems finding 5687's.  I have a drawer full of them.  Haven't needed to look for any for awhile though...
What is the rationale to have solid state phono or/and line preamp and tube amp ? Noise? Cost? Other ideas ?
Besides, I didn't say it would by definition have a poor sound. I said I would not do it, it makes no sense to me. I would pair Wavac with Wavac, I guess. 

The objective is to assemble a fine sounding audio system. My point is simply that there are numerous ways of doing this successfully. I went with one brand (Coincident) and their all tube components. This approach worked out very fine but so do other alternatives.

I can appreciate you’d never combine SS preamp with a tube amplifier, that’s your call. I was providing examples of two very experienced and knowledgeable people (Al and Wolf) who’ve done this successfully. The Koda and Wavac is a hypothetical match that would be excellent sounding in my opinion. Many roads get you to Rome 😊.
It may not make sense to you but it understandably makes sense to others. 
Charles 
I can't think of any top amp designer who would do this BS. Not many roads lead to Rome, just a few, don't fool yourselves.
I've said this before and I'm sure I'm not the first: If it sounds good, it's good. Period.
That is a loaded question .Having owned a Audiostore for years in the UK.
universally a SS amplifier,Vacuum Tube preamp is by far the most popular 
for one heat , big tubes throw off a lot of heat ,and cost . Solid state has much more current capabilities,and vacuum tubes more voltage driven ,your speaker now has a say 
in what is required a maggi for instance is far better with a big SS amp 
having a tube preamp there are many choices and will still influence the signal .
a tube amp ultimately being the last.stage before the speakers will dictate finally sonic flavor. That being said many great SS amps such as Vitus,Pass Labs Gryphon have a Tube l8ke character. I recently purchased the latest Son of Ampzilla which uses Bipolars
on the outputs have a very detailed slightly warm  Tube like nature but loads of control.
a lot to think about to make a Synergistic match for your amp,or preamp together.
Well your all entitled to an opinion.....






I guess 





even if even if it's WRONG!     :)
Are some of us becoming a little too "dogmatic"?  And yes Inna, there really are many roads to Rome, so to speak.  I am often astonished to hear about the combinations of components and wires and other set-up tweaks that yield great results for listeners.  But there you are.  We are human beings not machines.  We all have unique hearing mechanisms and have diverse ways of listening and spaces in which we listen.

Who are any of us to tell others what THEY are hearing?
Inna,
Wolf is correct, if the outcome of a pairing of components sounds good then that pairing is by default good. The sonic/sound quality  "outcome" is what matters . Components are just the conduit to get you there regardless of their make up.
Charles
@inna What drives a designer to design such products? For some, cost is no object in their designs, so it becomes a matter of performance at the cost of trade-offs.
Price may be high but manufacturing cost not necessarily.
@willemj Good point, there are two prices a designer has to think about, the cost of manufacturing and the retail price of the product.
IME, it depends on the tube amp.  With a push pull KT88 based amplifier, I would say that a tubed pre-amp contributes more to the tube sound, but change the amp to a single ended triode, all bets are off. 
when comparing tube amp prices, remember some are quite expensive to maintain with regular new tubes, some not so much, but all way more than re-tubing a pre...
@ everyone  This thread has been a great read. Thanks to all for your contributions; good to be learning!

Inna's point(s) have me thinking....

I realize expertise and business models and marketing and customer base all play into this,

But are there major / well-thought-of players who:

- build and pair pure solid state and tubed components, either order (I don't mean hybrids)?

- show off their premium solid state component with another brand's tubed component, especially a solid state pre with a tubed amp?

If so, what are your takes on the combos, if you have heard them?
I have a clear preference for solid state as a superior technology for often better sound and for lower power consumption. If a simple plug in can reproduce the tube sound, it should make you think.
Charles, thank you for your characteristically sage commentary.

Inna 11-13-2017
What is the rationale to have solid state phono or/and line preamp and tube amp ?

... I can't think of any top amp designer who would do this BS. Not many roads lead to Rome, just a few, don't fool yourselves.

Inna, obviously there are countless audiophiles who use tube power amps with fine results, and obviously there are countless audiophiles who use solid state preamps with fine results.  And typically a solid state preamp will have no problems driving a tube power amp.  So it seems to me that the question should not be what is the rationale for combining the two, it should be what is the rationale for describing such a pairing as "BS."

Regards,
-- Al
 
Indeed! I'm a proponent of a tube pre/class D amp setup, but that's because of the power needs of my speakers. There's no reason the inverse couldn't sound beautiful.

Willem - I'm not sure a plug-in could recreate a tube component with anything other than a cursory listen.
@toddverrone What kind of speakers are you using?
Al,
Thanks for your kind words. I have the same thoughts regarding inna. It's perfectly fine if he doesn't want to go a particular route with certain components.  However it's the dogmatic stance that this approach is BS,  how so?  What informs this conclusion?:That people have done SS preamps/tube amps very effectively is counter to a BS result.
Charles 
Does not matter.

What does matter is that the tube amp be matched with speakers that the tube amp is capable of driving properly.

Also what matters is that if a tube preamp is used (higher output impedance) look for a power amp with higher input impedance as well to better mate with the tube pre-amp.

Results will be better dynamics and lower distortion, always a good thing.

Results may always sound "good". "good" is totally subjective. But by following these basic guidelines you can better cut to the chase and avoid discovering down the road that properly mated components work better together and hence almost always sound better as well.
Another reason to stay with 1 designer, they will make sure their components have synergy.
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