Tube and SS pairs


I was wondering what are the advantages/ disadvantages of tube preamp with SS amp versus SS preamp with tube amp combinations.

I can see the cost advantage of wanting to add more of a tube sound to an existing SS amp. But I was primarily curious about the different sound characteristics of each set up, theoretical and hopefully from your experience.

Thanks in advance
recluse
I used to have a McIntosh C50 solid state preamp paired with an MC452 solid state power amp.

One of my buddies implored me to try a tube preamp, so I snagged a McIntosh C2500 and immediately noticed that vocals, acoustic guitars, pianos, violins, etc. sounded "smoother" and "more musical".  When I replaced the stock tubes with Gold Lions, the sound was even "more musical".

I'm not an engineer but I believe that solid state power amps are better at controlling loudspeakers.  Back in the 70's I had a tube power amp and used it quite often, after about a year it seemed that it wore down the tubes, once replaced, it sounded more alive and resolving.

So count me "in" for a tube preamp/solid state power amp vote!
As with all things audio, generalizations are well.....generalizations. 

For example, I've found that my Soundlab electrostatic speakers are better controlled and produce deeper more controlled bass when using CAT or Atma-sphere tube amplification vs Mark Levinson, Parasound and Pass Labs solid state amplification.  When first inserted, the CAT's control and bass abilities were quite profound and instantaneously recognizable.  Now, that's not to say a solid state wouldn't be better, simply because I've never heard one that is.  In the scheme of things, I've heard very few amps with my speakers. 

The ss vs tube question is such a difficult one because the variables are so unlimited -- i.e. dozens, if not 100's of applicable ss amps, an equal or greater number of pre-amps, cables and front ends.  Which supports my generalization point.  I've found tubes to work with my speakers.  But a ss amp may work equally as well or better.  I just haven't found one yet.  So the tube vs ss question is NOT one that is easily answered, or in my mind, really relevant.

But an electrostatic speaker's amplification needs are different than a cone and dome speaker's needs.  With different speakers and even different models of the aforementioned solid state amplifiers, the results could have been different; hence my point about generalizations.   

So, with any certainty, unfortunately, it's impossible to generalize about the use of a tube pre-amp as opposed to a ss pre-amp coupled to a ss amp or even a tube amp.  

I can understand your question, because I've been there many times.  But until I auditioned a CAT JL1 amplifier against my Mark Levinson 336 ss amp, and Parasound JC1 monoblocks, I too wouldn't had thought the difference would be so dramatic.  Now, I may have simply run into a tube amp that was different from the pack.  The CAT having house-wound 55lb transformers in each monoblock, certainly makes a difference.  Whose to say that sort of design decision doesn't significantly blur the tube vs ss generalized differences.  Which brings up the fact that I believe the designer and design is more important than the amplification path (ss vs tubes) that is chosen.    

I guess what I'm saying is you not only need to try a tube pre-amp, you need to try several dozens of pre-amp brands in order to judge what tubes do in your system's case.  If you picked several different tube and ss pre-amps, you may be surprised to find that the difference between them based solely on their design (tubes vs ss), isn't as easily discernible as they are oftentimes generalized to be.
   

  
In my case, I ended up with a tube pre- & SS amp because of my speakers, Thiel CS 3.5’s. When I first got the Thiels (I’m the second owner), I was driving them with a SS integrated. With it, the Thiels were ruthlessly revealing...poorly recorded material was so harshly presented, it was almost unlistenable. 

So, in effort to tame some of that harshness, as well as introduce some of that tube-sound into my system, I got an Audio Research LS-7 line-stage. I looked at matching the LS-7 with an ARC tube amp. However, I got a lesson in component matching from several great members here:  the Thiels were simply not a great match for the tube amps that were in my budget. Additionally, because of the music I listen to the most (mostly rock, rest Latin/Bossa nova & Jazz), I really didn’t need that extra warmth tubes were going to provide. What I needed was dynamic speed, bass & control. So I went with an ARC D-240 Mk. II SS amp. The two ARC pieces together have been wonderful. Since then, I’ve added an ARC PH-3 tubes phono-stage as well. 

IMO, if you’re going to mix & match, you can’t go wrong with having tubes in the source & pre- stages. However, depending on your speakers & the type of music you prefer, SS may be a better option. I will admit that the advantage of ease-of-use & maintenance are other SS advantages, but I would put those aside because if you’re looking for that lush, warm glow that only tubes provide...you have to go all tube. 

Hope you’re enjoying the music...

Arvin
Audio Research Ref 2 into Pass X350 into Martin Logan Ascent i. Generally I think SS amps are less critical of speaker loading than tube power amps and it’s easier to get more power and current from SS.

With that said there are plenty of good tube amp / speaker combinations out there it just takes a little more effort to find that combo.
Thanks for the replies and examples posted.

I realize my question was a little vague so I would like to rephrase it just to look at it from a different angle:

If you were to build a system from the ground up, would you get a SS amp to mate with a tube pre amp or a tube amp to mate with a SS preamp? I'm mainly interested in the difference of sound it would produce - theoretical or from experience. Maybe there is no answer or significant difference or it hasn't been studied so to speak. 

Thanks again
Not to make the question more complicated, but if your source was cd, preamp -SS, and amp- tube, would you then have more signal/information loss, maybe more harmonic distortion than a simpler, one time, digital to analog conversion?

On a different note, once I bypassed my preamp and connected my CD player to my SS amp with short directional audioquest cables and was amazed with the improvement - I had to be careful though with the recording level of the CD. Most CDs were too loud for this.
So the system I mentioned above, ARC REF 2 (Tube) + Pass X350 (SS) + Martin Logan Ascent i, the preamp seems to be dominant in how the system sounds and while the Pass has it's own sound changing the preamp or rolling or replacing tubes in the preamp has a more noticeable delta in sound.

A third system I have is made from ARC LS3 (SS) + VTA ST70 (tube) + Altec Model 19. The 19s are an easy load and the 35 WPC from the ST70 easily does the job. The LS3 has that ARC house sound and is quiet enough to be used with these sensitive speakers. Rolling tubes in the power amp can change the sound. Again the tube component dominates the sound.

The second system is an ARCLS25 (tube) + ARC Ref 110 (tube) + JBL 4430. While on the surface the 4430 seems like a simple two way studio monitor it's very sensitive to the amp driving it. I've had these for years and they are very forward sounding, with the wrong amp they can be too much. I was using an Adcom GFA 5802 (SS) and was pretty happy with it. I got the bug to try a big tube power amp and picked up an ARC VT100 (tube). Everything from the midrange on up I liked better than the Adcom. Percussion in particular. Problem was a lack of deep bass. Managed to find the Ref 110. With the KT120s it came with it had more bass but the thing sounded congested and floppy. Retubed with new 6550s and now I have about 90% of what I had with the VT100 plus nice articulate deep bass. But it also lost some of that presence that I liked.

So I guess where I'm going is the tube component will probably dominate the overall sound of the electronics in the system. Also as I said before matching a tube power amp and speakers might take a little more work.

Direct connect to your source is just cheating. Just kidding. I haven't really spent any serious time with that configuration.

 
@mrmb  's  response focuses on the point that there are no clear or absolute answers. The other posts are also confirming this. 

I believe conventional advice is Tube Pre > Solid State Amp  but IT Truly depends on your components and what you are trying to accomplish.

As an example, a recent demo of a tubed integrated demonstrated this for me. A Solid State Pre bypassing the integrated's Pre was superior (to my ears / in my system) driving the integrated's tube power amp section.
Regarding the previous post, all that experiment demonstrated was the SS preamp had a better quality than the built-in pre I the integrated. Nothing more. Try that same experiment and insert an ARC Ref 6, for example, instead of that SS pre and the results will be significant different. 
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Thanks for everyone's contribution. As most conclusions are, it seems to depend on specific equipment synergies. It must be nice to be a dealer of multiple high end brands :-)

I was mainly looking for some simplification of perhaps an enhanced "tube-like" quality that would reflect on the final product as a result of using a tube amp as the final component in the signal path. It would seem that this generalization cannot be made.
Thanks again
@recluse  It's simple, but we audiophiles excel at overcomplicating (myself included). 

Let us know what you end up figuring out and choosing.

Over the past two months, I've been struggling with the very same things you mention in your opening post. Do I go with separates, both tubed, both solid state, a mix of each, etc. 

I chose to go with a solid state integrated solution after considering some representative options (all tube, all solid state, a mix, and separates vs integrated units). What I learned is that there wasn't an ideal choice; there is an overabundance of terrific gear; the options and pairings really are endless; and final choices (imperfect though they are) have to be made. 
What I learned is that there wasn't an ideal choice; there is an  overabundance of terrific gear; the options and pairings really are endless; and final choices (imperfect though they are) have to be made.

Yep, unfortunately nothing, absolutely nothing, replaces auditioning; especially auditioning a component in our rigs. As much as we would like, because it’s easy and involves little effort, we can only believe little if anything, we read. What we can do, is add what we read to our knowledge base and continue building that, until a personal experience proves our tentative conclusions. But until we find someone with our exact same system and we know that our audio priorities are similar to theirs, making conclusions, especially buying ones, isn’t recommended. But unfortunately because of logistics, it’s understood that buying unheard, can't be prevented.  

If an audio store isn't nearby, attending an audio show (albeit not great conditions, nor easy to judge what a specific component is doing in the chain), provides a highly recommended learning experience.  

As a long-term (read old) audiophile, I can't tell you how many times my preconceived ideas about brands, component types (ss, vs tubes, analogue vs digital, digital direct to amp vs pre-amp to amp, cones & domes vs panels vs horns vs open baffles etc.) have been modified, crushed etc.... Thus, with all things audio (and life in general) one should always try to maintain an open mind. If that is done, surprises and forehead slaps abound and great finds and experiences will be the result; these will be in place until another surprise avails itself and we again learn and decide to move on…and so it goes.


Beautifully stated @mrmb  and sage advice.

I'll limit my answers to the question at hand.*

Typically ss pres to tube amps will better match sensitivities.

Typically ss pres to tube amps will better match impedances.

YMMV!!!

*The matching of ss or tube amplification to speakers is typically more important!

IMO with a hybrid system you still miss a certain organic sound that only all tube systems provide..Todays tube amps use the best power transformers available and can control properly chosen speakers with just as much authority as SS.Gross miss matches aside the best systems will always be:
All tube...
Hybrid (Tube Pre/SS amp)...
By accident, I placed a "ifi Microitube 2 preamp" as a *buffer*, between the oppo 205 and my old SS class AB amp and was floored by the improvement. Been enjoying this set up for months without fatigue.

The ss preamp that was designed for the amp will now collect  dust.

I have also gone back to listening to my bipolar speakers which seem to break up the limitations  from the small room I am in. 

I would highly recommend this small addition to anyone who feels their SS amp is too harsh or clinical sounding.

Clearly, contrary to my flawed logic, tube preamp and ss amp versus ss preamp and tube amp is the right a d cheaper way to go.

Thanks for everyone's input
If you were to build a system from the ground up, would you get a SS amp to mate with a tube pre amp or a tube amp to mate with a SS preamp?
If you have to have some solid state, then I think it better that you get a tube preamp. The issue is that in general, transistors tend to lose low level detail and essentially replace it with brightness (both due to low levels of higher ordered harmonic distortion which tubes lack, which is why tubes sound 'smoother').
No matter how good your amp or speakers are, they won't make up for a loss of resolution upstream. So you want to get that bit right.