Solid State vs. Tubes - What if Transistors came first?

What do you guys think?

If transistors came first, and then decades later tubes were invented, would we have any tube amps we would call high end?

Wouldn’t they all fail to reach the height of performance and transparency set by transistor amps?



P.S. I love Conrad Johnson. I'm just wondering how  much of our arguments have to do with timing. 
Peter Walker (Quad) did a study comparing the sound of his own amps (Quad II and 303) tubes vs. transistors. He used RTR dubs of master tapes and presumably Quad ESL's. The two amps are well matched power-wise. It was a very thorough listening comparison using a written scoring system. He and his panelists could not distinguish between the two, until driven into clipping. It was a blind test - the amps were labeled A and B. The music chosen was various selections presumably from Decca and EMI masters. This is the most thorough test comparing tubes and SS that I am aware of! The listening panelists were recording professionals and musicians. Peter Walker's conclusion was that all well-designed amps operated below clipping will sound the same. I will point out that this was not your typical "get together in a basement with your buddies for a few hours swapping cables between two amps". It was a carefully planned and set up experiment (matched levels) - now forgotten and unaware of by today's hobbyists. 
The listening panel used a statistically-based scoring system. They did not know the identity of the amps under test - only that they were amp A and amp B. Musical selections (RTR tape) were kept short and varied to minimize listening fatigue. So there you have it. As thorough a test of two high quality amps as possible to do, under controlled conditions!
The conclusion from this is that either topology (tube or SS) can be made to achieve identical sonic quality!
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So the conclusion is, if we had transistors first, then all tube amps would be trying to be as good as transistors? :) 
Tubes, in my view, are a waste of time and money, but it is a hobby....
This is a good question and I suspect that people would just be used to whatever came first (at least for some time). Tubes would have to match transistors, I think. But really, if we had transistors, there's a good chance tubes would have never been used/invented.
I began with tubes decades ago, and was glad to see them wane....
Sort of funny, I think. For most of us transistors did come first! Then there was the tube 'Renaissance'. Wonder why anyone was interested if  transistors were so good? :-)

I can remember trucking SS amps home to match my Thiels, amp after amp after amp. My back still hurts. Then I got an ARC SP 10 and a Threshold SA3.  It worked just fine. Only took me five years to get the issues solved. Thank god for the tubes. I just sold that old pre a few years ago at a profit, no less.
What a fatuous question. Why do people drive old cars?  Play records?  Tape decks?
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My point, exactly. His question and implied answer were fatuous. 
@newbee "Sort of funny, I think. For most of us transistors did come first! Then there was the tube 'Renaissance'. Wonder why anyone was interested if transistors were so good? :-)"

Such an EXCELLENT point!

I grew up with transistor audio, and felt happy enough.  I really only cared about power.  Ideally, with low distortion figures, though they all seemed to have that.  Solid state amps of the late 80s - mid 90s delivered on that, for sure.  As I began to roll in the money from teenage jobs, I moved up the audio ladder, chasing more power, loudness, blow you back thumping bass, and adrenaline. Tubes seemed archaic, technologically backward, and stupid since they produced so little power in comparison.  I even disliked the look of exposed tube amplifiers.  Even worse, the old Dynacos I kept reading about (and all their mods) in the likes of The Sensible Sound looked like an invitation to getting electrocuted.  Who could be dumb enough to own something like that?

Spending a lot of my spare time hanging out in the local stereo shops in my late teen years, I began to hear tube amps from the likes of ARC, CJ, Cary, Counterpoint, Quicksilver, etc.  Back then, lots of guys used to congregate in the shops in my ares.  Those who I befriended in those places talked them up as not being as ridiculous as I considered them.  As I opened my mind and my ears, they provided a different, and in many cases, what I considered better sound than I'd previously experienced.  Yes, they still played loud (100 dB and more) enough, but I began to listen for different things, and could hear more nuanced and beautiful aspects I didn't previously hear.  It actually changed the sort of music I listened to, and opened up an entirely new world for me.  Eventually, I found better tube amplifiers from Air Tight, Jadis, and VAC and decided those amplifiers felt best to me, and I bought one.  The rest is history.

So, transistors DID come first for me.  And I ended up with tube amplifiers
Wow this is very important ill think about it and get back to you ASAP!!!!!!
With all the tube amps I've built/owned/modded (SE, PP, ect). The better I made them sound and measure, the closer to the better transistor amp/s they got.

Cheers George
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erik wrote:
". . . Peter Walker’s conclusion was that all well-designed amps operated below clipping will sound the same."

A Peter Azcel posit? (The Audio Critic)

Just because two amps can be made to sound identical, it does not follow that all amps sound identical.

For example, I can cripple my class A amps and make them sound like any number of indistinguishable mid-fi offerings. I doubt if Walker would fail to hear differences between high end built-to-a-price-point and cost-no-object DIY.

The big problem with tubes is that there are damn few positronic ones.
Trolls were living under bridges before the internet. Wish they would go back. Tubes were the gateway to this little hobby of ours. 
Man, how clever. Suppress discussion with labels. Tubes suck. 

You may have a point, maybe nobody would have designed anything with tubes.  I wonder what television would have looked like?

Tubes suck. I am laughing my ass off. Guess you just don't know tubes.

Happy Listening to my Lafayette KT-550 tube amp now with my DHT tube DAC and DHT tube preamp. And really enjoying the music.

Both tubes and transistors suck and hybrids double that. I wait for the third way to be invented. But since no-one invents anything significant anymore the wait might be for nothing. Still hoping.
We are as far from real sound in reproduction as we were before tubes and transistors. Sure, best examples of both can sound acceptable, let's just not fool ourselves. Well, that was wrong, let's keep fooling ourselves. But it is getting more difficult for me.
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kosst / That would just be sad
In the beginning, i had trans.-amps. ( 90s). With the little money i had that time, i bought a Kelvin-labs 25 W. Pure Class A (trans.) with magnasphere speakers (Magnat) In that time, the amp.always had to be under tension.He always made a slight hum,but the sound was greath. After, i bought Copland CT 405 (tube) ,audio analogique maestro,from then on Audio Monitor PL 300 speakers.THe sound was good, but not so “to the point”. THe speakers were very good,but i missed something in detail, and dynamic. After i bought Perreaux (trans), Primaluna, jadis D-03, Unison research 845.: the sound is “warm” very clear,dynamic,but not stll “to the point”. Very Nice to listening,not exhausting . The most of the cd’s i have, sounded good to exellent. Now , back to trans. :the esoteric f-05: the problem is ( if it is a problem).the sound is more detailled,natural,to the point,acoustic, holographic. Now with the ilumnia magister speakers. It sounds greath !!  But good recordings are good,bad- sounds bad. Is this what i want? Yes, but it is no longer worthy of cd’s to listen to , because of shortcomings in the recording. It’s a choice:lovers of tubes, love the warmth of the sound. Trans-fans, love the depth and the pure accuracy of th music. This are my feelings. And now,i think this installation will be with me for a long time ( with the Luxman sacd D-06). But yes,what does the future brings... to all off you: enjoy your music!
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I really can't understand the hoo-ha about tubes , it is outdated technology and with some exceptions riddled with distortion. I was born in the early fifties and then everything was driven by valves and that dosen't mean tosay we all enjoyed the experience. I have had all the Quad products through my hands with the exception of the 63's in my early years in this hobby and I have to say all the ampliliers were muddied by excessive hum which came about from those awfull DIN plugs and sockets. In the sixties and seventies I tried out many amps and still was not happy as we were comming out of the valve era and into the transistor period. It was not till the eighties that I got my first as I would term it real honest to goodness high end amp and that was from Audio Synthesis and that baby was a real eye opener. I still would not go back to valves even if you wanted to make a present of it. My best sound that I had with a conventional setup was Active speakers from ATC and the sound from those were magical as each amp is powering only one driver and I have never heard them clip because my ears gave in before the amps did. Now I have become an old f##t I only use headphones and with the highest Sennheisers and Stax to listen to I do not even want to go back to or even listen to conventional hi-fi.
Tubes suck? What a revelation!  And here I thought they were inanimate objects.  I will have to go back to biology class to find out what their various support systems are.  Obviously you are either a genius or, well, we will use the Bambi and Thumper saying I learned long ago rather than call out what you actually are.  HINT:  Begins with "a."

So, tubes and transistors can be made to sound any way an engineer/designer wants them to.  Isn't this proven every day when people comment on the "sound" of various components in a/their systems? 

If you liked Screech on TV, you will LOVE transistors in your listening path.  Enjoy the music if you can identify music, that is.
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Tubes still suck. A.  
The tube renaissance coincided with the release of early digital.  Boy, those early DDD recordings were real ear-bleeders.  Ever heard massed violins on a DGG disc from that period?  Ouch!  Tube preamps and amps were the perfect remedy.  It drove me to Sonic Frontiers and Cary 300B.
The tube renaissance coincided with the release of early digital
Oh no, not even close. The tube renaissance  really began with William Z. Johnson and his Audio Research Corp. The SP-3 was an extremely influential component and helped define the high-end; that was around 1974.
Interesting, because Dr. Leach’s paper on building a low TIM solid state amplifier was also around that time:

It could very well be the time was right in 1974-1976 for an overall HI-Fi revival.
If you grew up in warm incandescent light, then you'll likely find "Daylight" bulbs harsh.  If you grew up with Daylight bulbs, you'll probably find incandescent bulbs very yellow and dull.

The heyday of Mcintosh tubes was the era of low efficiency acoustic suspension speaker, so perhaps they sounded drop-dead gorgeous because the had deep power reserves and clipped softly compared to all those solid state receivers.  I love incandescent tubes.
I Just want pleasant sounding with good realism. Presence and reality. We are all so lucky to be hearing music reproduction at the level our systems deliver. 
Some of my thoughts on this thread were about taste and taste-makers. 

Some of it however was wondering about the interaction of mastering engineers, speaker makers, and amplifier makers. 

In a very real way, THX film sound has things MUCH easier time than we do in music. There are objective measurements for frequency response and room acoustics which must be rigidly adhered to so a mastering engineer/sound editor isn't guessing about what speakers you might have, or amplifiers. 

That's not the case when it comes to music. There's tons of value judgements and expectations being made by the artists/engineers. 

I wonder about how this interaction defines the high-end. 
I remember a story,perhaps in Mix, about the producer for U2 using a boom box to check his mixes. 

Between that and Stop Making Sense, and the hyper-compression of the 1980s you can see some of the problems I am alluding to. The decision makers for the final mix are trying to guess how the audience will listen. 
If you look at a SS transformer diagram and internals, you will see is the logical consequence of a triode vacuum tube- emitter, filter, receptor. 

What if the Nazi’s won World War Two?

I've owned Macintosh Solid state amps and have listened to Macintosh Tube amps. In my personal opinion the tube amps are more enjoyable to listen to. If transistor amps are superior or equal I don't think you would be seeing new production of old tube technology, specially given the cost. My current amp is a Music Reference RM-9. I think it also depends on what speakers you are listening to. I'm not saying high end transistor don't sound good, but given the choice it would be tube for me.


I have only used tubed audio components since the late 1970's.  I still have yet to find a modern SS/Digital amplification device that I would retire my valves for, but I will always remain open to anything that sounds better to my ears.  Still waiting.....  With new and modernizing tube manufacturing facilities, the NOS supply drying up is less of a worry.
Let me put this another way.  Mom or Dad's cooking. If you grew up with it, isn't that the standard you judge everything else by, for good or ill? 

Do we do the same with electronics and speakers? 
I grew up with tubes. Pure dee crap. In fact, I was in school with one of De Forest’s grandsons, for what that’s worth. 👀💩🚽

"As a growing competitor to the tube amplifier comes now the Bell Laboratories’ transistor, a three-electrode germanium crystal of amazing amplification power, of wheat-grain size and low cost. Yet its frequency limitations, a few hundred kilocycles, and its strict power limitations will never permit its general replacement of the Audion amplifier." – 1952
If transistors had come first, the world of rock and roll would be vastly different!! You can't overdrive solid state amps very well at all; rock depends on that overdrive clipping sound that is still only available from tubes.

As to hifi, the discovery of an invention that does not have the harsh distortion coloration of typical solid state may well have given birth to the idea of high end audio, equipment designed to operate according to how we hear rather than specs sheets which are only designed to *look* good.
What would be so sad about a world without vinyl? Technically and sonically it doesn't hold a candle to digital lossless or 7.5ips tape. I've never understood the fascination so many have with audio technologies that predate the invention of the telephone.

Vinyl can easily exceed tape in all regards- wider bandwidth, lower noise, lower distortion. No-one is interested in wax cylinders or shellac 78s at this point, but the LP is certainly around for more reasons than high end if Best Buy, Target, Barnes and Nobles and so on are any indication.
There would not have been a golden age of classical music, either.
Wax cylinders, that’s the ticket, and when combined with acoustic playback, ne plus ultra!  💩
in high-end audio transistors were used prior till consumer realized how cool to use tubes instead.
The Federal Aviation Administration mandated tube radios for air to ground communications be switched out for solid state radios back in the 80s. When the new solid state radios were finally implemented at all the centers, pilots and air traffic controllers commented, “Hey, what happened to all the air and warmth?!”