The ups and downs of tube vs. SS...


I’d like to hear from the people that have had both. Why tube? Why SS? What are the ups and downs of both? How does owning one or both differ? I’ve always owned SS, but also lusted after tubes....
jtweed
jtweed
Tubes sound better. They can be slightly more upkeep than SS but not by much at least not to me. My amp and preamp sound great and have been totally reliable for over 10 years with minimal hassle other than replacing tubes. I specifically chose an amp that uses EL34's as those are relatively cheap and thus my tube costs are not high either. That is my experience as with all things YMMV.
Agree strongly that tubes sound better.  I've been in this hobby 30+ years and have had many different set ups but when I have tube gear, I tend to keep it much longer than when I have SS.  When I have SS, I'm never really satisifed as I am when I have tubes.

There are lots of different ways to go with tube gear, each tube type has it's own signature and each brand of tube differs as well, so there are lots of nuances.  Also whether it's push pull, single ended triode, single ended pentode, push pull triode, or OTL, you will find differences sonically between all of those as well.  Solid state amps with tube preamps are also another great way to go too......

Single ended is like having a really great tasting grapefruit, no need to put added sugar on top of it.  Push pull is like adding the extra sugar or stated differently SE is like a beautiful nude woman, nothing better, PP is like the same beautiful woman in a bikini.  I've never heard OTL amps before, so I can't comment on it.  The late Harvey Rosenberg of Moscode fame once wrote in Listener magazine that true 4 pin triode tubes run in PP was better sounding than in single ended triode.  

I've also heard lots of different tube types and to me the low powered triode amps in SET sound best.  It's all dependent on your associated gear and what tube will best match your speakers, room, and listening habits. 

So, Jtweed, what gear do you have now and what are your thoughts regarding trying tubes, how big is your room, what do you listen to and how loud, and what is your budget???  With that information, we can head you in the right direction.
Tubes glow and look way cool.   SS just sits there. 

The best tube and SS setups I've heard  tend to sound more similar than different.  

   

I’ve put a deposit down on the new Belles Virtuoso. As I have small children, and also run 2 small companies, my time at home is very precious to me. Sometimes I am only home for 2-3 hrs, and want to make the most of it. My current gear is an Adcom pre/Pro, an Oppo 205, and a pair of Funk Audio 6.1P’s. I also have a pair of Kef R300’s, and a pair of old Mission 781’s. My wife and kids also like to listen to music. I want something that is family friendly. I’m seriously looking at putting a near field tube system in my office. I need the main rug to be simple enough for anyone to run. 
Thougts?
jtweed
If you want something simple and family friendly, I would suggest the Parasound HINT for the main system.  It's a Swiss army knife of an integrated, sounds great (especially with the R300s) and it doesn't cost so much that you won't freak out if the wife or kids get PB&J on it. 
Tubes are just like Ferrari, Porsche, Rolex -- toys designed to entertain
Solid states more like Toyota, Honda, Swiss Aarmy --  instruments designed to deliver.
For a near field desktop system and to get into tubes, check out the miniwatt 6AD10 single ended amp.  It's 3.5 wpc, single ended, and won't set you back much.  You'd be surprised just how loud 1 watt can get with the right speakers and they are saying the 6AD10 is superior to a 6BQ5.

The Sophia Baby is also a nice sounding 6BQ5/EL84 amp.  I believe it's about 10 wpc push pull.  The EL84 is one of my favorite tubes, it's very neutral and sweet sounding and has excellent bass.

It all depends on your budget and speakers too.  
Tubes, at their best, do sound better but the cost is not insignificant .
If you want REALLY good tubes the cost can easily be twice the original
cost of the amp over its lifetime .
Love "June Cleaver" preparing a beautiful roast with a smile while dancing around a food card of SOTA audio components in the middle of the kitchen "serving" up maybe Rosemary Clooney or Doris Day? Ya just got to love it!
What are the ups and downs of both?
In the end, its all about your investment. Tubes are hotter, and the power they make watt for watt is more expensive.

If the closest you can get to real music is your goal, tubes are the way to go. If its anything else (sound pressure, low heat), probably solid state.

The reason is simple: the ear perceives sound pressure via the presence of higher ordered harmonics- the 5th and above. It does **not** gauge the fundamental tones! This is probably due to the fact that pure fundamental tones are very rare in nature.

Tubes might seem to make more distortion when you look at amp specs on paper, but the harmonic distortion they make tends to be the lower orders- the 2nd - 4th, to which the ear is far less sensitive!

So a simple way to put it is that tubes more closely obey the most important rule of human hearing which is how we sense sound pressure. So it is much easier to build an amplifier that sounds natural to the human ear with tubes.

Another way to look at this is that the ear hears volume on a logarithmic scale.  In a way, it comes quite close to sensing harmonics on a log scale too- being so sensitive to the higher harmonics that they can easily be detected by the ear even when the THD is only 0.005%.

We don't weight the harmonic distortions electronics make under our current measurement regime. The 2nd order (which contributes to 'richness') is given the same importance as the 7th! This is quite odd, because we've known since the 1930s that the ear is more sensitive to higher orders (see the Radiotron Designer's Handbook, 3rd edition). In the 1960s, General Electric did a study confirming this, that showed that humans don't care if up to 30% of 2nd order is present, but object quite a lot of 0.1% of the 7th order is present. Yet despite having this knowledge, we continue to ignore the implications (probably because of the money; transistor amps are simply less expensive to make and often have higher profit margins).

This is why there is a solid state/tubes debate; its why tubes are still around after being declared 'obsolete' in the 1960s; and the debate won't be going away any time soon. When our testing systems continue to ignore some of the most important aspects of human hearing/perceptual rules, you can count on the spec sheet not telling you how the equipment sounds (or doesn't) just as spec sheets have done for the last 60 years.
I started off SS.  Then I discovered Cary 300B.  Loved the presentation, but it needed at least 1/2 hour warm-up, couldn't be left on constantly, so spontaneous listening sessions were sidelined.  Short of time, like @jtweed, I switched back to SS (Ayre).  Then I heard CMII, much shorter time to get going (if not at best), and switched back.  Still not quite there.  Now I'm thinking SS with some tube-like qualities, either Belles Virtuoso or preamp[TBD] + Pass XA25.
I have had both and I am now using Pass Labs XA mono-blocs and I am very pleased with the results. Tubes are fun to play (rolling) with but can require much more maintenance and I can't say they are sonically superior to my Pass XA Mon-Blocs. Pass class A SS better bass control and the XA amps give me that mid to high frequency detail and delicacy I desire.
It really comes down to you the listener as I can certainly understand the desire for vacuum tubes and have considered picking up a Cary 300B integrated for the fun and beauty of a vacuum tube amplifier.
Also I had a power tube let go once and the main fuse didn't blow, there is a reason they call them fire bottles.

Chuck 

Confessions of a former tube roller:

Schubert is right. The cost of tubes can be significant. IMO rolling tubes can be habit forming, but isn’t that part of being a true audiophile, never leaving well enough alone?
If you think the cost of tubes is high, and I’m talking about really good NOS Bad Boys and Orange Globes and Bugle Boys and so forth, wait’ll ya get a load of the cost of tube dampers, especially when you do what I did and use two dampers per tube. That’s right, two! And I’m talking about the Herbies dampers, not the cheap little elastomer jobs that don’t do anything.
It depends.... And nobody should argue with that. 

Unlike solid state, valve owners obsess over their gain devices. A lot of them can tell you how well the devices are paired, how they're biased, what type of devices they are, who made them, and what mode they're operated in. I think if solid state users took that kind of interest in their gain devices instead of obsessing over passive parts like capacitors the opinions might be a bit more balanced. Beyond that, a strong argument can obviously be made for simple topologies which is the rule for tubes. You just can't throw tubes at problems like you can transistors. Simple solid state topologies can be very competitive with tubes if the same attention to detail are applied. 
After years of hearing this debate, I ended up getting a pair of Atma Sphere MA-1's and I have to say they are the finest amps I have ever owned.
As Ralph pointed out, they do get hot, and in summer can challenge the AC system.
So, I also bought a pair of Ayre MX-R's.
I have to say they really give the Atma's a run for the money.
Perhaps it is the zero feedback in both designs. I don't know.

But, at least I can use the tubes in winter and SS in summer.
HTH
Bob
I’ve owned both, tube preamp, SS amp, SS preamp, hybrid amp.  I won’t overextend myself and state tubes sound better.  I’ve purchased pricey NOS tubes and less expensive Gold Lions.  In the end, I always found myself looking past if it’s tube or SS and relying more on what my ear prefers.  My ear prefers my SS preamp over my previously owned tube preamp and my ear prefers my tube input/mosfet output amp configuration vs. strict SS.  
Hundreds of threads on this topic over the years with hundreds more to come. As most here will likely concede either choice is capable of producing very good sounding components, that has been my experience.

If I could only have one I would choose tubes. Why? In my opinion tubes at the end of the day just sound more natural. I believe this is what Schubert, Lou_setriodes and Atmosphere are expressing. The ear has the innate  ability to detect and identify natural character (real vs artificial). I believe that tubes come "closer" to real.  I concede that transistors will win the current standard of measurement battle. They can look beautiful on paper.
Charles
If you're into them, tubes can be rewarding on an esthetic level (it's rare that anybody says their transistors are beautiful to look at), harmonic level, tube collecting bragging rights for the insecure (therapy?), and others will perceive you as simply more sophisticated and perhaps better looking if you're a tuber. Not unlike a peanut.
@schubert makes an important point. The cost to retube a power amp should be figured in to the price to buy, and can be considerable, especially in amps that run their tubes hot. Lots of people use tube pre's with ss amps, a good compromise.
“The best tube and SS setups I've heard tend to sound more similar than different”

Best answer. And on the other end of the spectrum, a very cheap tube gear sounds as bad (or as good) as a cheap SS piece.
Atmasphere
I am a tube guy for quite while. I'm like to read articles concerning human hearing & perception of sound pressure levels and the effect of different levels of harmonic d istortion on human hearing. Any suggestions?
Nick
From my experience, you have to spend a lot to get good SS sound, whereas a cheap, beat up, vintage tube amp can sound delicious. I'm not sure about the cheap Chinese tube amps, since I've only heard one, but I'm afraid of Chinese electric items. They look great, but I question reliability, safety, and quality of components.

Guitar players almost always choose tubes.
Solid State vs Tubes. What about Solid state 'with' tubes?

By that, I mean hybrid amps, of which there are a few out there and I am in the middle of building one myself; it's sounding very nice.

The idea of a hybrid is to use tubes to amplify the small-signal voltage (phono and pre amp) and use transistors (in my case, Mosfets), to provide the current to drive the speakers (power amp).

The attraction of a solid state power amp is that is much more efficient and uses less electrical energy (juice!) for a given power output than tubes. The whole thing is more compact, cooler, requires less maintainance than a tube power amp and you have a much wider choice of speakers because tube power amps tend to only work their best with very sensitive speakers.

My phono and pre-amp both have 2 12AX7 tubes and 1 12AU7 tube in each. The 12AX7s provide gain and the 12AU7s work as buffers to match impedence with the following stages. I'm using some enhancement mosfets in class A mode as a gain driver in the power amp, followed by lateral mosfets working in AB mode (push pull). Some might sneer at AB push-pull but the crossover distortion is practically nill with these kinds of transistors so there's little reason to overlook them.

Anyway, have fun discovering your sound and look at some of the hybrids out there.
For the Record a great solid state amp with a tube preamp is what the majority to for you get the speed dynamic slam and better leading edge image focus
The tubes gives you that 3 dimensional depth and soundstaging that solid state can't quite match .   That being said I have just rebuilt a Canary push pull 24wpc quad 300b tube amplifier  that does music in a more live 3D presentation. Then ha solid state amp.
300b tubes one of the most Linear ever made  and only draw back is need a speaker in the 93db + range or better to excel.  
I’ve found that yes, hybrids are ok in pre-amps and phonos,
but you get the worst of both in amps
 That said, of  the twenty or so tube pre-amps that have passed through my hands
in the last 50 years , the one’s with tube rectifiers were better .
@schubert does that include ‘in line’ tube rectifiers between source and amp? For the main rig, I plan on a ‘tube sounding’ amp, and trying to figure out a tube system for my office. My budget for my main amp is around 10k, and for my office rig, around 5-7.....
jtweed
I love the sound of tubes. I ran tube amps of various configurations with either a Sonic Frontiers or Melos hybrid tube preamp for over 25 years in my main system. About a year ago I bought a pair of single ended solid state Valvet mono blocks. Since then I also purchased audio alchemy's latest preamp with it's optional power supply. I bought it initially as a dac but it really sounds great with the Valvet monos so it's replaced the melos preamp for the time being. Very surprising to me but, I'm not ready to sell the tube equipment yet... The Valvet amps sound very similar to the SE 6550 amp that was in the system prior. The difference is the 6550 (or KT88's) are a little (and I mean very little) fluid in the mids than the Valvets. The Valvets on the other hand have removed the distortion that I didn't realize was there to the extent it was with the SE amp. I'm not ready to say one is better than the other.
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jtweed, beats me , don’t think I ever heard one .

boxer12 , The SS Valet amps which I have heard several times with Classical music on Brodmann speakers are the most musical SS amps  I've heard .

I have heard and owned several tube, hybrid, and ss preamps and amps over the last 40 years.

I found my pass labs x1 with pass labs xa30.5, xa 60.5, or son of ampzilla 2000 is clearer, dead quiet, and more life like than anything previously..
Tubes all the way!Todays tube amps especially have done away with sloppy bass and have staging and imaging that I've never heard in a SS system...
I have owned Denon, then Classe, then Bryston solid state. Not the pinnacle of solid state for sure but then I heard an AR classic 30 and everything changed. Not gone back to solid state. Music has more dimension and tone. Currently own Quicksilver, Allnic and Unison tubed. Recently tried some class D kit and detail , speed, extremely low noise floor but was still missing a hard to describe tonal beauty. ( maybe coloration) Just sounds more musical 
I recently switch from SS to tube amp. The tube amp sound less fatigue than SS and the impulse/dynamic is simply great. The only thing is that in the low end the energy is that strong as a SS. I wondering if a half-active loudspeaker (bass with SS) and the middle and trebles with my tube amp would be the best of both worlds. Does ATC have such kind of loudspeakers?
Too much generalization. There are some good, great, ordinary Tube components. There are some good, great, ordinary Solid State components.

There is also the issue of compatability. Some Tube Amps suit certain Speakers, some Solid State Power Amps suit certain Speakers. For example, difficult loads, like big Apogees,would generally be better suited and have more options in solid state Power Amps.

It would be foolish to discount either topology. All my Pre-Amps until recently incorporate Tubes. I hadn't owned a Solid State Pre. for 16 or so years and had written off S/S for Pre's as all my Tube Pre's thrashed my previous Pre. an ME25. About 3 months ago I acquired a Solid State Pre. a Vincent SA-94. OMG, it has blown me away and beaten out some good Tube Pre's. when matched well. Shows how wrong to write off either topology. However it does require careful matching.

However prefer Tubes so far for my Phono stages, and yet to hear similarly priced S/S CD Players get close to my Tube CD Players. For Power Amps it's my big Solid State Mono Blocks for driving my Revel Ultima Studios, but hybrid's for driving my active bass Speakers.
@schubert Have you heard the Vincent hybrid SP-T700 Mono Blocks? Have the airy top end and warmth of tubes with a nice punchy Solid State bottom end. Obviously not the slam of higher powered S/S Mono's.
Yes , I have . For the Classical music I listen to I didn't much like it .
Of course , we all listen with our own" hears " .
Most audiophiles care about their systems, and tubes provide that "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" ethos that allows interaction and care of a quality product.  In contrast, solid state is something you bought that just sits there.  

I also think the soft clipping of tubes is kinder than the brittleness (ugly harmonics) of solid state when it gets peaks that exceeds its range.
Speaking of hybrids and Vincent, I’ve had my SP-331 stereo amplifier for over three years and couldn’t be happier. I’ve tried more than a handful of different amplifiers borrowed from friends and family, some a lot more expensive, and this amplifier compared well against most of them at least in my system. One obvious exception was when I put in my brother’s Bryston 7B-ST monoblocks and they buried the Vincent. A tad bright for my taste but the overall detail and the added bass was quite impressive.
I am a tube guy for quite while. I'm like to read articles concerning human hearing & perception of sound pressure levels and the effect of different levels of harmonic distortion on human hearing. Any suggestions?
There is precious little about this specific topic- for example GE's study is not online. But you don't need to read anything if you have the right test equipment- a sine/squarewave oscillator (as opposed to a generator), an amplifier of any kind, a speaker and a VU meter.

Set the oscillator to sine and drive the amp through the speaker. Put the VU meter in the circuit and set the level at 0VU. Then cover up the meter, and switch the oscillator to 'square' and set the level so it sounds at the same level as before. Uncover the meter, and you will see how much more sensitive our ears are to the higher ordered harmonics!

The tube amp sound less fatigue than SS and the impulse/dynamic is simply great. The only thing is that in the low end the energy is that strong as a SS.
If you want the bass energy in the tube amp to be right, the bass range of the speaker should be as high or higher than that of the mids and highs. Also, you will want to avoid 4 ohm speakers- with almost any output transformer, there is a loss of low frequency bandwidth driving from the 4 ohm tap as opposed to the 8 ohm tap (plus the amp will be smoother and more detailed driving higher impedances, which is true of **all** amplifiers). Also, keep your speaker cables short (under 7 feet!) and the connections at either end tight.
One obvious exception was when I put in my brother’s Bryston 7B-ST monoblocks and they buried the Vincent. A tad bright for my taste but the overall detail and the added bass was quite impressive.
@kalali Just think if you found it a tad bright now how you would feel after an extended audition? Even that extra detail can start to wear and just not with SS amps. I had a pushpull 45 amp on loan when Deja Vu was recapping my amp and I found it too detailed. All the details were making it hard to focus on the music.
I like tubes as well. Keep in mind however that not all tubes sound good. You can't just buy any tube amp/preamp and expect good sound. Not sure what your interests are but for others a good starting point is a single ended amplifier with appropriate speakers. Beware small tubes and beware tubes that produce lots and lots of power. Don' get more power then you absolutely need. Make those little tubes work a little bit. 
Two audio shows really shaped my opinions on tube gear.  One was a single ended symposium put on by Stereophile mag in the early-mid 90's in Philadelphia and it was the first time I heard SET gear.  That day I heard 845 amps, 300b, 211, and 2A3 amps from very well known designers.  They were all incredible sounding but the one that caught my ear the most was the least expensive and lowest powered amps the FI 2A3 monoblocks.  At 3 wpc, they were able to fill a 40 x 40 room with 104 db horn speakers.

Several years later, I went to another show in Central NJ sponsored by Vacuum Tube Valley magazine.  That day I heard great solid state systems, several digital class D amps w/tube preamps and many different tube amps both push pull and single ended.  I heard KT88, 6550, EL34, 6L6, 6BQ5, 6BG4 tubes in push pull and 300B, 2A3, 45, 50, 10 SET amps and again, to my ear, the best sounding was the lowest powered amps.

In PP, I thought the best was a moded Dynaco ST70 using 6BG4 in PP triode for 12 wpc along with an 18 wpc Dyna mk II which used 6BQ5 tubes; however, my overall favorite was the very low powered SET amps that were 2-3 wpc.  

Of course it's all about system synergy in every system you put together.  In the 5-7K range, I would tell you to spend about 2-2500 on a 45 or 2A3 amp and a nice pair of single driver Omegas and just save the rest of the money as I don't believe spending double will get that much better.  The 300B amps will get you double the power but replacing 300Bs can get very expensive.  

Keep us posted on what you end up with
@schubert Thanks for the reply which reinforces even more that there is no size fits all in the debate. The SP-T700's sound superb with rockier material, especially Americana, Alejandro Escovedo, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle etc. No doubt ancillory equipment, Speakers, Power, Cables, matching etc. room, differ. This is why there is no definitive.

So to the OP, as you can see there are too many factors to rule out either topology, and as you've just seen musical preferences can be a big factor.

If finances allow get both!


@jtweed - If you are looking for a "personal" office system I recommend you research the Linear Tube Audio MZ2.  It is (take your pick) either an integrated amplifier for high efficiency (Klipsch, Tekton, Devore, Decware) speakers, or a superb preamp (as I'm using it), or as a headphone amp (my other intended use).

LTA gear is tube driven, designed by David Berning.  The MZ2 starts at $1,200, tubes last 10-20 years, and the sound is amazing (a reference pick by some despite its price).  Plenty of professional reviews to back that up.

As to your original question, the best electronics are those that mate the best with your choice of speakers.  The more a speaker leans to a revealing transparent/neutral sound, the more tubes seem to please.  SS gear tends to do best with speakers having multiple drivers with complex crossover designs, or are of lower efficiency.  These later types tend to love/need higher wattage, making SS a more practical decision.

I use electrostatic speakers with all tube electronics from LTA.  I'm in heaven, but I used to have systems that sounded best with SS.  You need to pick your speaker first, IMO. 

I agree with jsm71, pick your speaker first keeping in mind that the more inefficient the more power required from the amp. Not only that but impedance dips may further require more current demands from the amp. I personally prefer speakers that are efficient making low to medium tube amps an ideal match. Yes, some ss amps can sound very good but the better ones, to my ears, are either lower powered class A designs, or for greater power requirements, Class A/AB. Neither of those choices, the best examples, are cheap but can sound excellent. 

The fact that you have to replace tubes is part  of the deal. If you don't want to bother, you go ss or go with a tube design that have long life outputs, i.e Berning, Music Reference, many SET designs, my ancient McIntosh MC-60s and many others.  Remember this as part of the debate, do you ever hear "great tube amp that reminds you of the best SS designs" the best complement for either might perhaps be "this design really make the debate of ss vs tube a moot point". All said and done I am still in step with my monikor, ymmv.   
Tweed,
Tubegroover makes two really salient points,
1 Proper speaker and amplifier mating is mandatory, it truly is the metaphorical marriage. A high  quality tube amplifier can sound poor with the wrong speaker choice.

2 There are definitely tube power amplifiers that are very easy on tubes and there are tube with inherently long tube life. In some cases you can go years before having to change these tubes. For one example I currently use a tube (EML XLS 300b) where older versions are approaching 40,000 hours of use and yet continue to test new! That’s a lot of years of music loving enjoyment 😊. I believe for another example that the Atnma-Sphere OTLs provide long tube lifespan. These in addition to what Tubegroover mentioned above.
Charles
Two audio shows really shaped my opinions on tube gear. One was a single ended symposium put on by Stereophile mag in the early-mid 90's in Philadelphia and it was the first time I heard SET gear. That day I heard 845 amps, 300b, 211, and 2A3 amps from very well known designers. They were all incredible sounding but the one that caught my ear the most was the least expensive and lowest powered amps the FI 2A3 monoblocks. At 3 wpc, they were able to fill a 40 x 40 room with 104 db horn speakers.
@lou_setriodes , I'm betting that this show was actually the Philadelphia Triode show and it was more like about 1998 or so. I was at that show (and played our amps), and the speakers used were made by what is now known as Classic Audio Loudspeakers, and the Fi was indeed quite impressive. I thought it was the best sounding of all the SETs presented.
I swing both ways.

SS is suitable for headbanger music that requires huge current input, but can also work well with acoustic music if you choose the right amp.

Tube amps are lower output and tend to soften transients (a gross generalization, but...) while presenting a very fluid replication of the music.

Both will work, but how well depends on the rest of your system.

I drive some very inefficient electrostats that have impedance curves that drop to 1 ohm with big class A power amps.

I listen to my main speakers (92 dB) using a 70 watt tube amp that sounds just delightful despite a part of the range being at 3 ohms or a bit less.  When I switch to video use, I switch in a power amp that puts out around 400 watts.

define what sort of music you listen to, and how efficient your speakers are and that will tend to indicate what sort of power amp you should look at.