Tube vs solid state (with all apologies)


So… I’ve been building guitar amps for a few years… and very familiar with tubes and circuitry…  and just entering the audiophile world. 
Is there a definitive opinion or discussion somewhere for help in determining where and or when to apply either?
smolder
As a guitar player myself, you are basically asking should I use coated or uncoated strings…or a Marshall vs.Fender. Lots of opinions and reasons for either one. You will also get lots of opinions on this question. However, I will jump in and say a lot of folks go with tubes for the pre-amp, SS for the amp. You get most of the tube sound with more power and much less heat, and normally less cost.
For me, I went with an integrated SS class A amp to avoid the minor hassle of tubes, but I get very close to the tube sound. 
For my guitar I use a fender tube, tried the digital versions and never warmed up to the sound. 
Hope this help a bit.

unleash the tornado….

but a great designer with ears and taste can extract awesome sound out of either tubes or Ss or a hybrid…. just like a great guitar player….

now, where did i put that fret less bass… ?
When looking at guitar amplifiers, the entire goal here is creativity of sound texture. This is an artist area where the artist dials in and decides how the guitar is "supposed to sound". The circuits for guitar amps are radically different because they focus on how to "create a tone" based on the guitar string electro-magnetic pickups and adjustment dials available for the player. Things like tube signal sag, tube saturation distortion and coloration have a huge impact here. To this date, there is not a solid state device that can -exactly- reproduce the texture and coloration of tube distortation and saturation/breakup. There are some devices that can come close, such as Axe-FX hardware and many VST plugins available for audio DAW software.

On the other hand, home audio equipment is really focused on "reproducing the tone". Essentially, the "reproduction" of the signal exactly as it enters the preamp/amp. There are many opinions here. Some advocate a completely neutral/transparent reproduction with no coloration at all. Others prefer some sort of coloration that could be represented as a lush or warm or smoothed type of sound. These are very subtle effects, but they can mean a world of difference to the audiophile listener. Even there there is this slight "coloration" to the tone, it is NOWHERE near as drastic or extreme as you will find in guitar amps.
Obvious that you're new here. There are more discussions on this subject than any other. Do some research on the forums. Just know that you'll come out of it more confused than you already may be.
All told, I guess I'm just a tube guy. I loved my genuine Pre-CBS Vibrolux dearly. With my Custom Shop "Pre-CBS" Fender Telly plugged into it, it gave me the finest twang in existence. It made my Les Paul roar. I sold the Vibrolux to a buddy who was more into playing than I was and replaced it with a tubed Carr Rambler, an amp that gives me a bit more flexibility than the Vibrolux did, but which still has 90% of the Vibrolux's tone. On the stereo side there were the Quicksilver Mono Amps, and now the PrimaLuna. It's not that I don't like trannies, it's just that I like what I got and I'm just not into shuffling stuff around any more.
I once used an in for repair long time loaner VOX AC30 as the amp and speaker combo for my turntable with a Linn solid state RIAA amp. That rocked! 
There are pros and cons with each, and each situation is different, so there are no absolutes here. Obviously guitar amps and hifi amps are completely different animals with different objectives (a fact that should not to be overlooked), but for hifi use I just have not been able to replicate the sound I like with SS, so I go with tubes, and likely always will.

Not sure I’d be as picky about the sound of a guitar amp, but it’s understandable that folks who play want a certain sound. Always best to just go with what you like.
Smolder, tubes are a PITA. There is some variability between tubes and performance may not be consistent. Some people love playing with their equipment and like seeing things glow. Others do not want to be hassled. Tube rolling is an expensive way of driving yourself crazy. There is some excellent tube gear out there. There is tube gear that sounds very solid stateish, There is solid state gear that sounds very tubeish. The difference in sonics is not near as dramatic as with instrument amplifiers where the amp is really part of the instrument.
@smolder -

If you get the RIGHT tube amp (and there are many) you will be happy
  • you can try different tubes - tube rolling - to tailor the sound
  • Manley make some nice amps, but there are many others
  • My foray into tubes was a disaster, but I relied on the retailer - not good,
  • tubes can be amazing, but they do get quite hot
  • Ask for opinions on this forum for brands
Solid State - again, choose wisely
  • I chose a NAIM amp once and while I liked the sound very much, having to replace all the caps after 10 years I thought was unreasonable
  • I now own a Bryston, which comes with a 20 year warranty (i.e. from the date of manufacture) and it has a similar tone to the NAIM, which I like a lot, but with more details, clarity and punch
  • There are several solid state designs now available, e.g. high current and symmetrically balanced - each have their quirks
  • Some high current solid state amps do not like speaker cables that have a high capacitance, which can result in component failure - tubes do not suffer from this problem
  • again, there are many awesome solid state amps out there, so ask for opinions on this forum for brands
Cables are important, perhaps more so with solid state amps.
  • power cables can make a difference, but as you move up in amp quality, you have to also use higher quality cables
  • Speaker cables can make or break the sound of any amp and can impact dynamics, details, clarity and imaging, so choose them wisely and you’ll save a bundle
  • Since you’ve built amps you might want to take a look at this link for DIY cables - My Audio Alchemy (image99.net) - BTW, if you have any questions just ask

If possible get out to stores and listen for yourself - I trust my ears much more than magazine reviews. And don’t be afraid to ask them to connect different amps and speakers.
  • I have no shame in requesting that a $600 bluesound streamer be connected to an $80,000 system. It sounded very nice :-)

Good luck with your quest - there is no right or wrong - just as long as you are happy :-)

Regards - Steve



Thank you, thank you! Very helpful… I knew this would be a common topic, and having just found Audiogond… I’ll be reading other discussions. A bit more detail…

I just purchased a set of used Martin Logan reQuests. They replace Snell E5 Mk2’s. 
In the last year I replaced an Adcom 200wpc with a McIntosh Mc 2100. I’m very close to buying a second and bi-amping these speakers.

I currently have an NAD solid state preamp. We mostly stream live music… soundboards via iTunes and wifi / bluetooth. 

I’ve got well over 100 old stock 12AX7, Y7, U7, etc… most all brands… so a lot to choose from.

like most people, I’m looking to assemble a nice system that I can enjoy… I don’t intend to be in a constant state of upgrading. While I’m far from rich… I do have a bit to spend as I look down the barrel of retirement in the next five years. 
I’m thinking solid state amplification, and in the next year or so upgrading to a full tube preamp. These are large purchases to me… and I am looking to do as much research via Internet opinion before I make the truck to a store ( I’m 40 or so miles in the mountains east of Denver).  Thanks again… I’m sure I’ll have more questions.
Always funny how people on a budget make decisions guaranteed to get the least out of scarce funds. I don't know how it works with guitar amps, but with audio every wire and connection matters. In general the more complicated you make something the harder you have to work to overcome your complications. Like even going separate vs integrated adds a power cord and interconnect. All this stuff sounds better on springs so add a set of those. Fuse, ditto. You just upped your cost profile hugely merely by going separates instead of integrated.    

You want to bi-amp? Now in addition to the extra amps you need even more power cords, interconnects, springs and speaker cables. Plus oh yeah now you need a crossover. With power cord, interconnect, etc etc etc. Multiply times three or four.    

You really want to have a great system to enjoy for years and years? Don't try and reinvent the wheel. There's good reasons hardly anyone does what you are talking about doing.
I hear you and appreciate your point of view. So far, at every juncture I’ve heard a significant difference.

The speakers have internal crossovers, with separate inputs for bi-amping. Martin Logan also recommend 100-200 watts… with a second amp I’ll be at 200 wpc as the top spec. And, the oversize speaker cables I have are set up already, I just haven’t used both sides. I’m looking to optimize not complicate things. 
Unfortunately you have already complicated things by choosing speakers that severely limit amplifier choices. There are a great many excellent sounding speakers that are so easy to drive you can do fine with as little as 20 watts. Mine have no problem with 106dB at the sweet spot with my 20W amp pumping out bass dynamics and detail you simply must hear to believe.      

A little knowledge goes a long way. The range of components that are out there is incredible. The combinations are near infinite. If only we had infinite funds and time we could afford to go at it like you are. Being short on both I restrict my choices to things I know will work well without foreclosing on other good options. Like your speakers have foreclosed on the option of running a superb 20W tube amp that you could buy for far less than what you will spend on preamp, amps, etc trying to bi-amp ML. Better sound for less. Or a science project. Your system, your call.   

There is an excellent book, The Complete Guide to High End Audio by Robert Harley. There's some guys here, not just me, extremely adept at wringing the most from their audio dollar. There's also guys with a knack for spending, complicating, running in circles. Happy to tell you what you want to hear, not so good at what you need to know. Time well spent figuring out which is which and who is who.  
the Martin Logan choice wasn’t arbitrary. I’ve known one of the founders for many years having lived in Lawrence, Kansas most of my adult life. I had the chance to do a service swap, but at the time needed to pay bills, feed kids, etc. I’ve been listening to them however for the better part of thirty years. My bias… I own that. 
I’ll check out the book! 
In guitars vacuum tube amp,in Audio personally 
Solid state has much similarities , Mosfets , Jfets, bipolar transistors come pretty close in sonics in a good quality solid state amps ,and more current ,control for drivers 
and sounds very good , if you want a bit of bloom or perhaps a bit bigger soundstage a vacuum tube preamp. To add to it. 
I have owned many tube amps ,and just tired of tubes to replace ,or blowout unexpected and taking out a channel ,
if you don’t mind then enjoy ,myself as I get older over 60
i want things a bit easier .

Good manufacturers can and do get the most out of either, tube or s.s. amplifiers. The signatures of each are much closer to each other than they have ever been. A bigger consideration is heat, both in the room and on your rack.
Yes, manufacturers of ss and tube have been converging on more accurate sound for decades. Both have improved significantly decade after decade;  You could generalize that solid state tends to provide greater detail and tube tends to provide a more musical experience at any investment level. The greater the investment the better the sound.

That said, over the last 50 years as I upgraded and made my personal assault at the highest end system of greatest sound quality, one by one each piece of equipment has ended up being tubed. By far my current system is the best and most satisfying… all tubed, except the streamer (which is battery powered).
Buy what you like and do it your way. Period you have to live with it.

One mans food is another mans poison.
Enjoy the journey, as it never really ends.
For me the fact that SS amp manufacturers often quote a "tube like" quality says it all. My listening rig (amp and preamp anyway) and my guitar amps are all tube. Great sounding SS amps are abundant of course and I use mega powerful SS stuff for live shows, but tubes got that mojo I crave. I and many other guitar players tried various SS amps when they appeared in the 70s (the Roland JC 120 was and still is popular), but meh...tubes mo bettah...
Just one 'set of springs' Miller?
Why, you're reforming!
Boing boing.

By the way what's this got to do with amplifiers?
I remember hearing ML Requests paired with a Krell FPB 300 a long time ago.  Possibly the best sound that I've ever heard.  It's probably been so long ago to just be anecdotal at this point, but it made an impression that I've never forgotten.  FWIW, I only own tube amps at this point, but still remember that ML Krell pairing.
Based more on equipment reviews than personal experience, I believe there are better tube options that sounds great at a midfi level (2k-5k) versus SS where you have to get to a Hifi level (5k-10k) before you see the better products. Personally I am 100% tube. I’ve spent years replacing SS equipment. Another consideration is your OCD level. Sounds like you’ve got a good selection of input tubes around. Would you be satisfied with a SS piece that can’t be tweaked? Cable and isolation tweaking is common to both options. 
millercarbon-

Robert Harley' book is a great pragmatic guide on how to set up a high end audio system. I also highly recommend a book from Floyd E. Toole called "Sound Reproduction: The acoustics and psychoacoustics of loudspeakers and rooms."

I have not glanced at the new "audiophile's guide" from Paul McGowan (PS Audio) because I have been told it is for the layperson...
Ive owned; tube systems, SS systems, and mixed (all true balanced). As of late, the lines have been blurred with the availability of the LSA Voyager 350 GaN amp @ $3000!!! It is smooth as a tube amp, but unlike most, it has a lightening quick leading edge to the notes (an issue I had with all the tube amps Ive owned. The lone exception being OTLs, but they are $$$$$, oh, and its' powerful, too. No tubes to deal with, leave it on 24/7 as its idle current is small. What's not to LOVE?


Check out the threads here on AGon to see the many converts
hth
If you can build tube amps then it seems that is the direction to go. Make your own. Maybe look at https://www.diyaudio.com/  and google "DIY audio" to find sites with kits, or parts and circuits. Lots out there. Since you can build your own,, I bet you'll find it more satisfying and engaging. Being hands on, listening and tweaking as you go, you will get to know and hear all the shades of difference between tube types and circuit designs just as you have with guitar amps.
Clearthinker, the springs inside the power tubes push the music out. transistors do not have springs.
Tube vs ss.
 Mids and high frequency to me are much sweeter with tubes. Ss is most dominant in the bass. Bi- amp your speakers have the best of both worlds 
Tubes if you are a hobbyist and like to fiddle around and roll them and deal with problems (how often depends on the amp). You can get a great sound for solid state with no hassle. My motto KISS.
When it comes to reliability questions in the tube vs. solid state argument, I can only say that over the years I've gotten more reliability from my tube gear than from my solid state gear. I ain't gonna name names here, but if pressed I might lose my composure and begin to blab.
Use tubes wherever you need to amplify a signal and wherever you rectify a signal. 
@edcyn - clearly you are the exception. Please let us know the SS amps you had problems with and the tubes that are super reliable, long lasting and maintenance free (for decades without periodic tube replacement).
First off, I admit to being on my third set of tubes with the PrimaLuna integrated, but to me tube replacement for tube gear is the equivalent of getting an oil change or new sparkplugs/brake pads for your automobile.

On the tranny side, I've had trouble with two NAD integrated amps (one a 3020, the other a larger model I can't remember which). A Transistronics preamp. A Marantz integrated (I can't remember which). A Moon phono stage (I can't remember the model). Sorry I can't be more specific here, but memories of failed stereo gear thankfully fade into the past for me. Finally, yes it might have been a mechanical problem and not a transistor problem, but I also went through a Marantz CD/SACD player that, one day, just decided to stop playing one of the formats. 

I must also say that I'm not including noisy volume controls or switches that I could easily quiet with a dose of Deoxit.
Thanks all!

I’m not at all adverse to swapping out or dealing with tube life. Most of the tubes I own are old stock and lots of longevity left… plus I’m familiar with them. Of more of a concern to me are the transistors which are also likely to go out at some point, with little notice.

I appreciate all of the input. I’m going to stay solid state in the amplifier selection and move towards a tube preamp. Then rethink the amp situation.
Excellent tube preamps are not cheap. Like amps, typically cost more by a good amount. Unless cost isn’t a major issue, I’d trade for a really nice SS integrated, or add a SS preamp.
I run tube pre/ss amp combo in two systems. That is the sound that makes my feet flutter.  That may not be the case for you. There are great combinations of everything.  The only thing that truly matters are your ears,and your budget. jerryg123 touched on this point.  There is no way to know what you like until you hear it for yourself. Like any other hobby,one size does not fit all.   Build your system to impress one person,YOU.  Enjoy the music,and the journey.  
I’m biased towards ML speakers as well. I’ve owned over 12 ML speaker types in my life. I’ve owned Requests. They’re over 20 years old, so I hope yours have had a panel replacement. I currently own Spires and drive them with a 45 watt tube amp which has all the headroom one could use. I’d be willing to bet that my amp will drive your speakers. It’s not an ultra expensive tube integrated. It might work for you. Your Requests aren’t nearly as efficient but those panels would be better served by a tube amp than a SS amp. This is well known amongst ML owners. Tubes rule. How much an amp you need or can get by with is for you to determine.
The immediate plan is to horizontally bi-amp with an Adcom GFA 585 on the low end and the mc2100 on the high end. The Mc is a lot sweeter sounding in bi-wire mode than the Adcom. If that doesn’t balance out, I have the budget for a second 2100 and will go vertical. I don’t at the moment want to spend the bucks on a 275 tube amp.

I’ll be planning for either an mc275 or a tube preamp as a next step.

(oh, and the reQuest panels have been replaced)
@edcyn. 

Holy cow. I have never heard of so many problems with solid state electronic gear. I probably have owned 200 - 300 new (I’m throwing in iPads, iPhones, PCs, as well as audio equipment) electronic devices over the last 30 years and couldn’t come up with that many failures. A Sonic Frontiers CD player transport failed twice (but not the tube components), one iPhone… that is it.

I have never had a piece of audiophile gear fail in over fifty years (Unless you count the Sonic Frontiers Tape Deck… but I would not). No tubed gear problems either. I have a big pile of extra tubes I bought for equipment that I no longer have but never needed.
Wow...what goes on at edcyn's house??
clearly you are the exception. Please let us know the SS amps you had problems with and the tubes that are super reliable, long lasting and maintenance free (for decades without periodic tube replacement).


Hardly an exception. I have an Audionote SE that uses 6550. I have had the same power tubes in it for around 20 years. Before that I had a set a quads. The power tubes where the originals the amp came with - the amps were over 40 years old.

In over 40 years of owning tube amps, I have never ever had to replace a tube that wore out. I have only ever replaced for sound. I have bought a few I didn’t like, a few were noisy, but they arrived like that.

I have heard of a few folks who have had to replace worn out tubes, sure. I have heard of lot more folks who had to replace or repair transistor amps that failed.


@pauly - you definitely are the exception. Everyone I hear from talks about replacing tubes after some cycle time depending on the amp, environment, usage, volume, etc. You must have some super tubes!  Or maybe they are replacing them because of sound degradation and that doesn't bother you.

Not sure since I never owned tubes and don't plan to. SS can deliver just as good SQ, depending on the amp.

Post removed 
@tvad - then why do tubes claim certain life expectancy? 
Post removed 
then why do tubes claim certain life expectancy?



Those are usually just an average, it can be less or more depending on how the circuit is designed. I have a preamp that uses two 866a rectifier tubes that will last decades until the filament burns out.
@sokogear

Old stock tubes should last 10-20 years… especially in audio gear. Even being hauled around in guitar amplifiers (a rough life) they can last that long. Preamp tubes are sensitive to being beaten up and sometimes become microphonic. Rectifiers either work or don’t… but have minimal impact on tone. Power tubes driven hard or bias’d hot have shorter lives.

modern made tubes suck by comparison, almost regardless of the brand stamped on them. Both in tone and longevity btw.
@smolder - so if new tube amps use new tubes because they can't get a quantity large enough to standardize a model design with old stock, that further adds to the cost and complicates things as you need to shop for tubes as well.

All the more reinforcing my SS decision, not to mention the heat they produce, not being able to leave them all the time so you have to wait until they warm up to sound up to snuff, etc. etc.

I think they are fine for hobbyists who like to tinker, but they are not necessary for highest quality sound and certainly not for simplicity of operation.
@sokogear

no disagreement here. Fortunately, I have boxes of tubes (many are for tv’s unfortunately) that my father passed on when he retired. SS is surely the low maintenance way… which is what prompted the original question. Listening to my mc2100… it’s easy to hear a warmth that my Adcom does not have, in spite of both being SS.
Of course there is tremendous SQ difference among SS amps, just as with tubes, just that tubes will be substantially more expensive for a similar SQ.

I have no problem with tinkerers - I can't even fix my bicycle.