SS versus Tubes

Boy is this an old topic. But everyone seems to approach it from a "ss sucks" or "tubes suck" perspective. And the solid state guys argue the tube guys just like distortion because there is demonstrably more of it with tubes. So, musing on this I got out my ss amp and my tube monos and spent some time figuring out exactly why I preferred tubes (couple of weeks actually). Hopefully this will be taken as a thread trying to explore the differences, not an attempt on my part to put the case for tubes. Here goes.

Playing with the two amps I was struck by the fact that I liked both but how utterly different they were. But to keep this post short, it did finally click for me. In an objective sense (although not objective at all in the minds of the measurement freaks) I could catalogue a longer list of things that were right about the ss amp than I could for the tube amps. Interesting. So why did I like the tubes? The only way I can describe it is this (once again, for brevity).

With the solid state amp, it was a little like watching a special effects movie - I enjoyed listening to the ss amp, and lots of interesting stuff was going on - open fast detailed, dynamic - but I was never once fooled into believing it was real!!!!! (Forget about the rubish about "tube-like" mids on a ss amp. They can be warm and smooth but they are never the same as tubes.)

And that was what was different about the tubes. Unlike the solid state which sounded like a facsimile of the real thing, with the tubes it was like "inside" somewhere in what I was hearing there were sounds that sounded real. With the tube amp I could listen through the distortion and crud and say to myself "I am listening to Ella, right here and right now". That for me is the "goose bumps" moment, and beats a special effects movie any day. I did not need an oscilloscope to tell me the tube amp was more distorted, and NO, I did not like the distortion I could identify. I enjoyed the thrill of "near reality" that was never achieved with the ss amp.

Am I arguing that the tube amp was more accurate at what counts for me? No, because I don't know if that is what causes the effect. If reality is coffee with one sugar, ss amps may be coffee without the sugar, and tubes may be coffee with artificial sweetener. So what makes tubes do that extra thing may well be an additive distortion, and by all objective measurements the ss amp is closer to the real thing. Then again it may be that tubes leave some of the sugar in the coffee. Which of these it might be is interesting, but frankly, just academic if I am to decide which amp stays in my system.

I reckon I go for tubes because I like vocal music that gives the vocalist room to work in. So that midrange has to be magical - just like the real thing is. If I listened to other forms of music more, then I can think of lots of reasons why the ss amp might be preferred.

I am interested in other thoughts from either side of the fence, but please, if all you have to say is "ss sucks" or "tubes suck", please don't - it has already been said and fails to enlighten anyone.
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and findings with us. I found it very interesting reading.

I am a tube "guy" wanting to find a solid state product I can live with. I have yet to find that product. I have tried, and like an infant, always come back to the bottle. I find, as did you, that every possible detail tends to be reproduced with solid state but there is something missing... harmonic texture. I find that for me, harmonic texture translates into emotion.
a very insightful post redkiwi, I understand and could not agree with you more. I too have a pair of SS monos and tube monos, and I do like what the SS amps do. to me, its like girls you dated in high school, SS amps are like that perfect girl, well mannered, the one your parents loved. tube amps are like that rough around the edges girl who while not perfect in any sense of the word, was simply more fun to be with tham that perfect girl.

Jtinn, if you are seeking a SS amp you can live with, ive tried a lot, Levinson, Rowland, Muse, Mccormack, etc...the ones that ive held onto are Krell KMA100's. A close second, would be a Symphonic Line rg1.
Thanks guys - I hope we hear the ss side too and this post not just be seen as a arguing tubes are better. And Justlisten, I am very pleased to say I married the rough around the edges girl, a nice analogy. Jtinn - I don't think a tube guy can be satisfied with ss, so even if you do buy one, my advice is keep your tube amp - you'll be back!
Hi guys. I've always read these "tubes vs. SS" threads but never responded. However, it seems that this thread is starting on a good note and although I hope it stays "civil" I would like to add a little to this thread before the craziness starts. In my experiences, I've come to appreciate tubes on more refined music. However, with more commercial music SS tends to shine more than tubes. I agree that vocals, acoustic and classical may generally sound better and benefit from the mid range superiority (IMO)offered by tube equipment. Modern R&B and Rock with their explosive "bottom end" and samples ands riffs all over the place impress most with a powerful SS amp than a "warm & toasty" tube amp. I find that Home Theater sounds much better with SS than tubes and is more cost effective going the SS route as well.

This was not intended to be law just my experiences.
Excellent thread RED!!
Martice states my case, too -- if I read correctly: tubes have given me the most "euphonic", musically better if you wish, results with acoustic instruments & voice. SS rise to the task with electric/onic instruments.

My down side: still having nightmares from the old times when I used to fire up Jadis -- and blow a tube sky-high; close heart-attacks at every unaccounted for tick / pop, etc., from the times I had problems with my OTL powered active electrostats...
Also, the headaches trying to determine the "best" tube replacement for my system... not to mention the recurring replacement cost.

I loved the tube sound despite, or perhaps because of, the "euphonic" distortion that, to me, sounded more human. So, closer to the musicians -- i.e. the humans making the music. Nevertheless, I am now using SS -- a S-Line, BTW; this amp, to me, does not sound like a tube. It is however reasonably "musical", has good transient attack and, in the long run, allows me to enjoy listening to orchestral music & lieder, and blues. I, for one, will agree with Red above, in that my experience with SS has been a "simulation" of music; with tubes, a simulation of reality.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, mate(s)!
Great topic raised with and(so far) discussed with class. Seems like we all agree IN GENERAL that while SS may be more "accurate" to the source, tubes can make a recording sound more "real." So the underlying source of the issue seems to be in the recording itelf.

Let's think about this for a minute. In the recording studio we take the complex, multi-dimensional sounds from instruments and vocals along with their interactions with the room and between each other and attempt to capture all this information with some microphones. It is then conveyed through God knows how many feet/yards/miles of some kind of cable into some sort of analog or digital recording device. A master is created and millions of copies are then made and distributed.

I think as audiophiles we would all agree that along each link of this chain some of the magic of the original performance is lost, so is it any wonder we look to our components to try to get some of that magic back? Thus the argument for tubes, which I have experienced and thoroughly understand. But, for me, I also have an internal flag that goes up when I sense I'm not getting what went into the microphone--something is being transformed, maybe for the better and maybe not. This is bothersome enough to me(even if it makes something sound more "real") that I'll often take the sterility of solid state over the euphony of tubes, especially on very good recordings, which brings me to my point.

I think the new formats(SACD/DVD-A) are going to serve to blur the lines more between good SS and good tube equipment. The reason I say this is I have heard on my admittedly revealing SS system the 24/96 DAD releases, and the better recordings that were originally done in the hi-rez format have a smooth, soulful, and lifelike quality about them that reminds me of what I found attractive about tubes(and vinyl for that matter) and why I dislike the majority of CDs.

Final point. If we're using tubes to recreate some of the "thereness" and the new formats are more capable of conveying that information from the software side, then might we eventually begin to prefer a more accurate reproduction of the recording rather than an enhanced interpretation of it? Keep in mind these new formats from both a software and hardware perspective are in their infancy and will improve dramatically in the coming years, so as impressive as it may be now(at least the better recordings on the better equipment as it stands) it will only get better from here--much better(remember the early/mid 80s CD recordings?).

My guess is that as these hi-rez formats evolve and improve, so will the electronics evlove with them. So I believe the tube and solid state gear will get closer and closer in their portrayal of the recording because the recordings will provide more of what we're looking for, thus demanding more accuracy and less interpretation. In short, I think the need for the warmer, more bloomy side of the tube world will shrink and many former tube owners will switch to SS--eventually. I also think there is something to the tube magic that may be more accurate and that SS may never capture, so I do think tubes will continue to survive and prosper, but on a smaller scale in the long run. The good news is, whether you choose tubes or SS, the quality of reproduced music is about to improve significantly for all of us.

Anyway, just wanted to add an opinion from a solid state perspective and introduce some food for thought with respect to the future. Thanks again for a great topic.

There is a great article in the current edition of listener Magazine by Harvey rosenberg the gizzmo.Read it it makes alot of sense and answers some hard questions about the differences between tubes and ss.
Excellent thread, Redkiwi, and some thoughtful posts too. After living for years with solid state and being gradually weaned into hybrid and then full tube designs, I guess that my feeling is that solid state will more faithfully reproduce the signal that it is given, thus giving a better rendition of the recording, but good tubed equipment more faithfully conveys the emotion of the musical event. The line between the two has been growing more blurred in recent years as the solid state designs get better and better, and Acssavings makes an excellent point that the new digital formats and better recordings may have something to do with that. I have compromised a little and use solid state amps for the bass in my 4-piece system (their better control and power down in those regions may actually do a better job in conveying the emotional content of music in that region), but I don't think I'll be changing to it on the midrange/highs any time soon.
I never had the opportunity to own a Tube Amp and the only reason for that is that I live in Brazil and there are no official retailer and support services for such equipment down here. I always heard that the tube amps needs more care on its handling and have a bigger possibility of needing services than the SS ones. Is that true?
My speakers are the Martin Logan Aerius i, and lots of people told me that the ideal amp for driving them would be the Tube ones.
One thing that solid state does not address that tube gear does and that is the owner participation of it's sound and performance. There are those of us who like to have a hands on experience with the equipment that we use. Cleaning inputs and dusting sometimes doesn't get it. I know the main goal is to listen to music more than anything but some people "get off" on tube rolling and comparing differences which sort of gives the tube lover a sense of personal involvement in the overall performance of the gear they use.
I guess you can draw similarities between the person who really likes the feature heavy electronics. It gives you a sense of musical control over your system as well as something to talk about when you have company over. To some this may seem silly but it is indeed very important to some folks.
This is pretty much a Coke/Pepsi thing. Each format has design strengths as well as weaknesses...and most of those have been covered well in the previous threads and this post. In the final analysis it all comes down to personal does 99% of all audio purchases. We all tend to listen to the music we like...and then rave about what makes it sound the best to "us". I have had many amps, both SS and tube, over the years, and now keep both handy...ready to play at the flick of a switch. "Some nights... burnt saxaphone just dosen't feel right"
We have invented machinery to measure the performance of our machines and tell us what we should like to listen to...all at the same time, forgetting that most likely no two ears on the planet, including those on either side of our own heads, hear things in exactly the same way.

Bottom line...the "ultimate truth" is: "They're ain't no untimate truth!"
Hi Redkiwi; nicely stated post. Last fall I purchased a well known 110 wpc tube amp ($5K list) and listened with it in my system for nearly a month. This amp had very nice mid-range and treble, but no more than acceptable bass. The amp was the same brand as my tube pre-amp.

When I finally put my SS amp ($5K list) back in my system and played some rockin' music I got a big grin on my face, and next day listed the tube amp for sale. Why? More than anything else music had greatly superior pace, rhythm, and timing with the SS amp. And of course a significant part of PRT is good quality-- make that excellent quality bass, which the SS amp provided easily and the tube amp could not approach. Also, in the case of this particular tube amp, it had to be played at a louder level to sound good, but I suspect that is a brand/model specific thing.

My SS amp also has a great mid-range and more detail than the tube amp. And the SS amp could be played at lower volume and still sound great. Note: I don't think I'd be willing to give up my tube pre-amp. Cheers. Craig
In general, I think we should clarify something for the uninitiated or novice tube follower. Tube products don't have to be round or blunted in dynamics, or bloated and ill-defined in the bass. I've never liked the "old tube sound". Actually, all of the tube units that I own are just the opposite. It is precisely their dynamics and swacky, punchy, articulate mid and upper bass that helps contribute to their realism. To top it all, I'm using SET gear which too many people think can't produce excellent low-end!! Though I find myself modifying and tube-rolling quite a bit, I've learned how to get my gear to sound anything but "old tube sound". However, I would not classify the sound as being more like solidstate.

Both technologies have (or can) take advantage in the improvement of passive components, and noise control (vibration, EMI, RFI,etc..). Both technologies have benefited from these areas, but I don't believe that this should necessarily imply that the two will eventually converge at some point. There will always be a difference between great solidstate and great tube gear.

Of course, system synergy can dictate one technology over the other (ie. low impedance, low sensitivity speakers).But speaker considerations notwithstanding, as previously stated, it comes down to recreating the "illusion" of a live performance, not just the accurate reproduction of a recording. To this end, properly implimented tube gear ultimately gets me closer to that illusion. Great topic, Redkiwi. Just my .02
I'm quite happy with my modern day,Multi-ethnic Hybrid SS power amp and Tubed pre amp system.
Excellent comments have been shared by all posters thus far. As Jctubes points out, a tube amplifier need not have any of that "old tube sound". As I listen to good solid state amplifiers and then to good tube amplifiers, I consistently find that tubes just have a certain magic that makes the music more real for me. With good tubes, there is a palpable quality, a tangibility, a "dimensionality" if your will, to instruments and voices, that I have just never found in even the best solid state amplifiers. I hear it in the harmonic overtone structure - instruments and voices just have a greater harmonic richness and nuance. Bear in mind, though, that my listening is almost entirely to acoustic instruments and voice.

By illustration, let me share this experience. Several months ago my wife and I were auditioning some Avalon Eidolon speakers played through some very nice Rowland solid state amplifiers. The sound was excellent - beautiful soundstaging, detailed, extremely quick, and quite musical in a very appealing way - but something was missing. A cut that we often use for such evaluations is from the Opus 3 "Depth of Image" LP: "Tiden Bara Gar" with folk singer Therese Juel. On listening to this cut, my wife's immediate reaction was "Where is the 'chuckle' in her voice? It's not there." The dealer also had a pair of BAT 60 watt tube amplifiers, so we switched those in. These little 60 watters were obviously not the ultimate pairing for the Eidolons, but my wife promptly commented: "Wonderful! The chuckle is back in her voice."

To me, finding "the 'chuckle' in her voice" is as good a summary as any for why we stay with tube amplifiers for our listening.
Well said Garfish. System matching and type of music will dictate more than anything on your preference. Another reason I dropped the tubes was reliability
Martice mentions owners' involvement and Rushton comments on contemporary tubes' "roadholding", if I may use the term. A pair of Kronos KR6000 monos I auditioned recently confirmed the latter -- but, do NOT allow the former. The tubes are proprietary so, no rolling.
They blew the socks off three people listening, myself included. There are, obviously, many other such machines. These in particular, came closer to what I said about ss in my previous post -- but, I felt a tube "warmth" that I haven't yet found with ss.
Again, my personal experience hence, limited.
Gregm, if you ever have the chance, try listening to a pair of Atma-Sphere MA-1 or MA-2 tube amplifiers. To my ears, they have all the best virtues of tube amplifiers discussed here, with the extension, quickness, neutrality and detail of the best solid state, but none of the detriments I hear with solid-state.
Amen Rushton. To all the ss guys that say nay to the valve
and all the valve freaks who say transistors don't pass
I say there is hope maybe compomise at last
and the answer it lay in OTL amps.....their fast!!!
Oh well, nothing's perfect.
Just a wee comment on the bass issue. I use tubes at home and ss at my beach house. I have played around with why I like it this way and not the reverse. In the end I have concluded that:

At home the ss amps tend to be so fast in the bass, the bass does not breath, and some of the bass note is swallowed. With the tubes, there is no sense of lack of speed or punch, but the bass notes are filled out properly.

At the beach, the ss amp's bass is spot-on, and the tube amp sounds a tad slow in the bass, without the upper bass rhythm Garfish refers to.

This is not a system phenomenom, because I have swapped stuff around between the two systems 'ad nauseum'. But it is a room issue. My room at home has a suspended wooden floor - it is upstairs, and tends to suck bass a bit. My room at the beach house has a concrete floor and I have had to tame the bass.

Therefore I have this theory that bass can be better using a tube amp, but only when the room construction is a little too flexible. Does this correlate with the experiences of any others?
Redkiwi and Rushton have captured my thoughts in considering moving to tubes. I'm gravitating more and more to acoustic and vocals, and want to bring those alive to the maximum extent possible. To accomodate those times when I may have a taste for something more dynamic, I'm considering adding a subwoofer. Perhaps with careful selection and integration, this could be the best of both worlds?
Rushton, will do. Thanks for the tip!
Redkiwi- My audio room is concrete slab, but tubes still rule in the mid to upper bass. High spl, 20 hz stuff, was accomplished best with OTLs. That is, right up to the point of tube failure! (Ouch, $$.) However, as I mentioned, I do put alot of effort into attaining these results with SETs.