Easy answer: it all depends (on too many things to give a single answer conclusively in general).
Neither has the market cornered on delivering best results case by case. That's why both are still around and have substantial followings. Like Honda and Toyota....
The biggest negative (in my opinion) with a tubed phono stage is the expense and hassle of finding the quiet, high quality tubes that a phono stage generally requires. Even when they start out quiet, they often don't stay quiet. Worked out better for me with a solid state phono stage and getting the sound of tubes from the line stage.
I have an all tube Icon Audio PS2 phono stage which I use with my Ortofon 2M blue cartridge (I think the PS2 could take full advantage of a better cartridge). I love the sound. Others may prefer solid state devices. I'm sure there are excellent examples of both.
For some, Yes; for others, No.
YEs, getting quiet tubes needed for phono is a real consideration for tube phono.
My ARC sp16 has 3 tubes in phono stage. I learned from ARC when replacing that only one of the three must meet higher tolerance for low noise use in it. I appreciated ARC addressing this when ordering new tubes for me which saved me cost of three versus one very low noise replacement tube. So be aware of this issue for sure if you are into a tube phono in general.
It probably costs more to get a good tube phono stage. If you can afford one do it.
There is more to it than just tube noise.
A tube phono section can be built to operate with zero negative feedback and passive equalization. There is an advantage to this- less audible ticks and pops from the LP surface.
This is not because of less bandwidth (we spec our phono section to 100KHz for example). It is because there is a slight but measurable delay between the input and output of any phono circuit. This delay is called Propagation Delay and is something that occurs in all circuits.
What this means is if you use loop feedback (which is common in less expensive phono sections) to do the equalization, the result is that the feedback will be trailing slightly behind the actual signal. In a sense, it is as if you are injecting a slight echo a few milliseconds behind the original signal.
At low frequencies this is not much of a problem but it is audible at higher frequencies as it essentially introduces distortion, and short duration events (like ticks and pops) are slightly increased as they 'ring' in the circuit along with all the other high frequencies. This makes them more audible than the actual signal. I have heard this have a profound effect on the perception of the condition of the LP surface; the same LP playing with lots of surface noise with one preamp and not with another.
It is harder to build a solid state phono section that is zero feedback. Its fairly easy with tubes, and so there is an argument that while tubes are a bit noisier than transistors, they have the possibility of presenting less ticks and pops! Personally I go with the latter, and do as much as possible to keep the noise down (which usually means hand-picking the tubes).
You can of course install a stepup transformer to help with the noise, but IME any transformer also has the effect of reducing the musical involvement because of artifacts inherent in the transformer.
Good tubes are ever scarcer, many are fake as well, tube cost can/will exceed cost of item over lifetime.PITA
I think many tube phono stages are partly SS from what I have read in these forums in the past.
I also think it is probably best to consider specific Phono pre amps on their own, rather than lump them together. I use tubes almost exclusively, except in my phono stage, which is pure SS but fed into a tube pre.
I have a juicy music tercel, it sounds very good and not much tube noise if any. I just need to listen more and think less about all the what if's:)
Schubert, speaking just for myself, replacement power tubes can become an expensive proposition for sure. My amp takes 8 KT-120s and 4 6H30s. ARC charges over $100 per KT-120 (2000 hours life) and over $60 (as I recall) per 6H30 (3500+ hours life). You do the math. And that's just the power amp.
Yeah, retubing can be a PITA. After a while, even though I think ARC does a better job matching tubes, I use another vendor who charges about 50 or so percent of what ARC charges. That makes retubing a little less painful.
The real question is whether it's worth owning tube gear. I think so - at least for me. But different strokes for different folks.
I can't imagine life without a good tube phono preamp. Tubes seem uniquely good at preserving the subtle micro-dynamics that make LPs sound like live music.
Now, about the so-called tube noise. I have to disagree respectfully with some of the posters above. It all depends on the particular design of tube preamp. First of all, I am a big believer in using a stepup transformer for MC cartridges, and this essentially means that even the lowest output MC can be raised in output to MM levels totally noise-free. So we are really talking about the noise level of a moving-magnet tube phono preamp. Here is where the design makes all the difference. Some tube types are much quieter than others. In my main phono, I use a Siemens D3a as the first tube and it is very, very quiet. NOT like your typical 12AX7 or 6DJ8, but inky black quiet. Not to brag, but my tube phono preamp is quieter than any of the solid state phono preamps I have tried which include Threshold FET 10E, Audio Research PH-1, Lehman Black Cube, and Emotive Audio Circa. I realize these transistor units are not the latest megabuck models but still they were each considerably more noisy than my little tube phono using run-of-the-mill tubes purchased on Ebay. Admittedly the D3a is a pretty special low-noise tube but that's my point. Using the proper tube for a sensitive circuit like a phono preamp is the mark of a good design.
That's my rant for the day.
Is a tube phono better than ss?
Is SS phono better than tube? No.
I agree with Mechans and Salectric. Moreover, this tubes v transistors argument is a never ending bore, because a good design can ameliorate the issues that separate the two types. And that's your answer: identify a phono stage that you like, first of all, regardless of how it works.
My Zesto Andros AX7 tube phono is extremely quiet, very musical, and very detailed. A significant step up in detail and noise reduction from the $4000 solid state Tom Evans Groove I replaced.
You can find these used now for around $3k.
Part of this will of course depend on quality circuit design and having very low noise tubes. But I think not enough emphasis has been put on what type of cart you are using. Issues with tube-related noise are going to be much more important if you are using a LOMC without a SUT. If you are using a SUT (don't have any experience with these so can't speak to pros/cons) you are likely to have less tube noise issues since the phono is amplifying a larger voltage signal. For LOMCs that are very low output, you either need an exceptional tube design, a SUT paired with a tube phono designed for MM-level input signals, or a SS design, which again has to be high quality with very LOMC designs but will usually result in a lower noise floor.
However, Atmasphere's comment above gives some interesting food for thought, and I find that he is someone whose advice is usually worth taking into account, even if you decide in the end that you have other priorities or preferences.
So, yup, like many things it comes down to personal preferences and system synergy. The hobby is one of trade-offs and trial-and-error. Forum opinions can be valuable, but always better to hear for yourself, preferably in your own system.
Its complicated. I have both. My experience is that it mainly speaker dependent. Also a factor is whether the solid state is Class A circuit design. So, there is no clear answer to the question. Best to find a dealer that will let you try various equipment until your ears tell you the 'answer' has been found. It may take a lifetime.
I have been back and forth on owning tube or solid state phono preamps for aseverla years now and conclude that my personal tastes indicate that I much prefer a tubed phono pre over a solid state version. Smooth, grain free and midrange sweetness all appeal to my ears and are just not quite as nice with solid state. My local audio buddies concur. But then we all listen to high quality vinyl from the 60s and 70s, so perhaps the format of the time mandates the technology as well.
The tubed Zesto phone stage being quieter than the SS Tom Evans is saying a lot and suggests a very commendable design-implementation.
I agree completely with what Salectric posted. My own preference is for tube-based phonostages. I have also heard plenty of dead quiet tube phonostages (e.g., my Viva Fono) and some surprisingly noisy solid state ones (e.g., Boulder), so I would not generalize about noise issues. Most of the tube units I like happen to require the use of a SUT or have one built in at the front end of the unit, but, I cannot say that this is a requirement for good sound (Some that avoid use of a SUT have some noise issues because of the need for additional gain stages or use a transistor gain stage at the front end).
The only solid state phonostage that really interested me is the Lyra Connoisseur. I heard it at a show and the system it was in sounded great--very dynamic, harmonically rich and vivid. At lower price points, I've heard plenty of nice solid state stages even though they are not my absolute favorites. Some examples include the top of the line Naim phonostage and the much more modest Linn Linto.
Jmcgrogan, I have to respectfully disagree with you this one time.
Is a tube phono better than ss?
Is ss phono better than tube? Yes (no:) HA
"My experience is that it mainly speaker dependent."
I would tend to agree with that.
Its dependant on the overall system and the sound it delivers really, but I think teh speakers are the main thing that you build around and all the rest will fall into place around that based on personal preference more so than any inherent superiority of tube amplification versus SS.
No doubt many will disagree with me on this, especially tube amp lovers, who tend to almost always prefer tubes and the unique things that often only tubes can do.
Neither is better, any more than chocolate is better than vanilla or vice versa. IT all can be mighty tasty and appeal to the masses if done well. That's the key! Quality trumps technology when it comes to these things.
I will say that almost every reference system I have heard that I tend to prefer tends to have a tube or two in the mix somewhere, though not necessarily in the phono stage. The one I have heard that was truly reference quality with no tubes was a very high end and costly mbl system.
In fact, I think appeal of tubes is greater when used to add some needed flavoring to digital, though there is no basis to say the preferred results are quantifiably "better" than otherwise. The opposite is more likely the case.
I have no tubes currently in my second system which I think now sounds quite spot on and better than ever, even with tubes in prior. I do use an amp there though that is designed to be a reasonable SS alternative to a tube amp.
Just want to add an observation that is related Atmasphere's comment about surface noise. Perhaps we are talking about the same thing, but I would describe it this way (and acknowledging the dangers in generalizing):
To my ears, LP surface noise heard when using a tube phono stage often seems to be removed from the music content; almost as if it is occurring in a different plane, and as a result can be less obtrusive. Using a ss phono stage it seems to be more a part of the music and consequently more difficult to ignore. IMO and based on using many different pre's of both persuasions over the years.
Pops and ticks as an indicator of NF Ringing?
Hadn't thought about that but would seem to make sense.
Also I think I understand Frogman's comment about how lp surface noise sounds with tube amplification versus otherwise in general. I have been running a tube phono pre-amp for several years now and have not done direct comparisons with prior SS units I've owned, but in general I there could be some validity to saying the noise inhernet with tube amplification is less apparent than with SS.
Pops and ticks as an indicator of NF Ringing?
Hadn't thought about that but would seem to make sense.
Seen it. about 25 years ago a friend of mine and I both bought the same UHQR LP from a specialty store. For some reason his was noisy and mine was not- until he brought his over to my house and found that it was nice and quiet as well. Turned out his preamp was the problem (we had the same cartridge and tone arm).
It took some work; we found that both preamps had very good RIAA EQ, IOW that was not it. A big difference between the two is my preamp was tube and zero feedback, his was solid state with active EQ. When I put the units on the bench and ran some tests it was easier to see what was going on.
The slew rates of the two preamps and bandwidth (as you might expect) were nearly the same. Quite literally it came down to the use of active EQ. This was the first time but not the last that I have seen this phenomena.
I have a pet theory that cheap phono sections in inexpensive receivers has led people to think LPs are noisy all the time, which has led to general acceptance of CDs :)
Nice story Ralph. I'm not sure whether it means active EQ is always inferior though. My everyday tube phono uses passive eq and does not have any negative feedback, but I also have a very conventional 12AX7 phono with RIAA in the feedback loop, and they both sound good although rather different. Although I prefer the sound of the preamp with passive eq, I haven't noticed any differences in tracking ability or mistracking noise.
"Also a factor is whether the solid state is Class A circuit design"
I seem to recall all SS phono stages and SS Pre-amp circuits run in class A, so I don't think that's it.
I've had tubed and solid state gear. My tubed stuff was CJ Premier and Rogue and my SS was Adcom, Bryston, ML, and now Pass. I have always found SS to be quieter than tubed. Disclaimer- I never had a tubed phono stage but frankly, I think I'm going to be buried with my Pass phono stage as I don't think that it can ever be pried away from me, even from my cold dead hands.
But to get to the OP, I don't think any definitive statement of superiority can be made between tubed and SS. There are better and worse implementations of each. And even with a great implementation, you have no guarantee of success as system synergy forever lurks.
Best idea is to make a short list and try to audition with your gear in your environment.
Good luck and cheers!
I found atmospheres post most informative. Having said that I have owned several phono stages, some tube some ss. My last two both ss. Both extremely quiet with no pops or ticks. Both outstanding units. Both ss done right. My issue with tube set ups and why I no longer am an owner is the constant need for repair or replacement and the energy inefficiency along with the extensive heat they put out. I have read many complaints from audiogoners about how bad vinyl is do to pops and clicks. I had never, in the last 15yrs or so, experienced their complaints so always felt they were wrong or doing something wrong. But thanks to Atmosphere explanation I now understand it and why quality and engineering matter. Like all things there are infinite ways of getting from point A to point B. Not all equal but when done right all enjoyable.
YEah, I'm still where I started at the beginning of this thread. Each is different each has +s/-s. Neither is inherently "better". Choose your poison....
Need/expense of maintaining low noise tubes for phono is the biggest downside in either case for most. Good SS phono is more care/maintenance free. Yes there are many very GOOD ones!
Audiophiles are a picky and opinionated bunch. There is not a lot that all agree on, but they do tend to like tubes and phono more so than most. SO I think there is a bias that way there as a group compared to the norm. Myself included.
Audiophiles are also more willing to drop a ton of cash on their gear. That's a big factor as well! The only thing cost effective about tubes and phonos these days is the abundance of cheap used vinyl out there and the need for those with large vinyl libraries already to protect their investment.
Salectric, a lot has to do with how 'fast' the preamp is. If you have poor slewing rates that won't go well with active EQ IMO.
I also find almost any preamp with active EQ to be a little brighter (my guess is due to odd ordered harmonics but if so they are so low as to not show up on conventional test gear).
Cheap vinyl and protecting ones investment in a record library are both phono things. Tubes will almost always ADD cost, so one should be confident that the additional investment is a good one for them. THat's all that matters.
My tube phonoe stage has 8 tubes (4 x 12AU7, 4 x 12AX7). My cartridge output is .2mv, so I use a step up. My speakers are also very inefficient, so I have to turn up the volume on my preamp quite a bit.
Because of these factors I do hear a wee bit of tube rush coming out of it. I didn't hear that before I got this cartridge and speakers, using it with a higher output MM cartridge.
However, it makes no difference at all once the music starts playing. Truly enveloping sound.
I've heard several SS units sound very good on others systems. The differentiating factor there is that their vinyl sounded very similar to their digital, maybe a wee bit better. On my home system there is just no comparison. Vinyl rules outright (and I do have a very good digital player).