Tube vs. SS Dilemma

Hi there Audiogon Community
Need some serious help and don’t know who to talk to but you guys. I have been upgrading my system for the past year and a half now, selling and buying stuff. First I went the tube route, bought an Atlas Magnum Amp, Cary SLP 03 Tube Preamp, was dreaming the liquidy tube dream, was amazed at the upgrade from an old and tired hybrid amp I had. Sources: estoteric DV50 for cd and vinyl via a Lenco TT and Ear Phono. Mainly listen to jazz, classic rock and some bits of classical.
But got a hold of a Mark Levinson Preamp, a 380 model and had a spare Krell 250a amp, hook the esoteric cd player to this second setup and was just blown away, I always thought that my heart would always be glowing with tubes or at least a tube/ss setup, but man am I enjoying the SS turn, the bass carácter of the Krell is addictive.
So my question is: What is happening? Am I just shocked “temporarily” by the ML/Krell combo? Should I just wait for a while and do a second and third shootout between setups? Or the fact that the ML/Krell combo is much better – in terms of the models I have vs. the tube models – part of the reasons that explain the differences and should look for better tube amp/preamp before seriously comparing the two?
As soon as I listened to the ML/Krell combo, my first thought was to keep upgrading my system the ss way, instead of the tube route, but before I make drastic changes want to hear from you guys’ experience. I don’t want to make this a tube vs. ss question, therefore I hope the details of the inquiry help steer away broad answers in that regard.
Should add the speakers I’m using with all these setups: GoldenEar triton 2’s. Thanks in advance. I always enjoy reading the forum, but now I had to ask the question before declaring this a case of mild audiophile schizophrenia.
I don`t see a problem, your clearly prefer the SS components more,so you know what you like and that`s good. This should be your foundation and now you can build upon it. No one can tell you what you should like more,that`s your call.

I agree with Charles that it is good that you listened to alternatives and know what you like. My only caveat is that you should hear as much as you can of both kinds of equipment before actually deciding. There is a WIDE range of sounds for equipment from both camp and an even WIDER range of interactions between components so that it is hard to draw conclusions from just hearing one representative set of each kind. With tube gear, in particular, there is an incredible range of sound, with plenty that will sound warm and sluggish and lacking in dynamics, some with astonishingly fast and dynamic sound, and some that sound very lean and brittle.

I have not heard your specific combinations of gear. I do own a Levinson No. 32 preamp (big brother of the 380). This is a somewhat atypical solid state piece--it is very smooth and reasonably rich sounding, but is a bit "polite" sounding (dull) by top end solid state standards. Some might mistake this for being a "tube" like sound, to me it is still solid state but without an artificial "edge" to the initial attack of notes. There are other examples of solid state that will sound much more dynamic than the Levinson, so you should hear other examples to get a more complete picture.

I am currently running all tube gear and prefer that sound, but, I could easily live with the sound of some solid state amplification gear I've heard, e.g., Ayre, First Watt, Momentum. On the tube side, see if you can hear some output transformerless amps (something quite different from what one normally expects from tubes) such as Joule and Atmasphere.

I would listen to more examples of each kind-you may discover even more surprises.

Good luck on your search. It sounds like you have the right attitude and an open mind when it comes to evaluating gear.
Hi Larryi,
As you pointed out,there`s such a wide range of sound quality in tube components,you can love one and totally dislike another(same for SS gear as well). You read the forums and for some people there`s much angst and frustration with choosing and building an audio system(little apparent joy). It should be fun and pleasurable. Musicgeorge11 has the happy aspect covered already so IMO just enjoy what you`ve found and avoid the obsessive behavior that`s often found in this hobby.
Stick with the speakers you like (especially for your room) and decide what amp
complements their character. If you go to the YOUTUBE GREEK AUDIOPHILE SOCIETY video there is a guy who has been through over a dozen amps (mostly tubes) which i think is hilarious, but the point being that if you can nail those two pieces down, it will help you find the right preamp. then you have to determine if you want to be thrifty on the source component or not.
If you should someday become bored with rock and pop, it will/might push you in a very different direction than liking everything (which is fine, too).
Some rock is horribly recorded (like the freaking Beatles!) but i put on a Fleetwood Mac album the other day and "surprise" it was excellent. gee, i now wonder how the FM/Peter Greene albums sound...?
this hobby is a real "pain" (sometimes)...
Many thanks guys, I really appreciate this, and I acknowledge the fact that this state of affairs is not definite, as french fries says, maybe someday not only my equipment will change, but my musical tastes also.
Larryi raises a really good point I ignored, the character of the ML 380 amp., it tends to be more smooth and in a sense tube-like, maybe this aspect triggered the whole thing, the ML 380 stands in a reasonable middle place between my beloved tube gear and the now amazing SS setup I'm enjoying. In my last SS setup a nice Exposure 3010S2 Preamp was doing a good job, but, as mentioned before, the ML put things in a different perspective.
So for now I will enthusiastically grasp the SS horn of the dilemma and continue to explore.
But if possible would like to hear more from other members.
Musicgeorge11, it may be that your speakers were not particularly tube-friendly. If so you will not get your tube investment dollar out of the amps. You didn't mention your speakers in your post, so this is mere speculation. What kind are they?
Thanks Atmasphere!
Speakers are GoldenEar Triton 2's and I did and a/b/c/d comparison, i.e., played with different combos with another set of Paradigm Studio 60. But with the GoldenEar's the tube setup was not as detailed and clean - I need a better word here - when I turned the volumen up at some difficult parts of the same recording. What I mean by difficult is a section of the recording that had many things playing at once: brass section, acoustic bass, drums, female voice, etc. a grand finale of sorts. The ML/Krell was asking for more volumen in these parts, the tube setup was asking a way out. Don't know if I'm explaining myself.
Atmasphere is right,the amp -speaker match determines so much regarding outcome. A good tube amp on a proper speaker has no problem reproduing complex musical passages. This tube amp just may not be appropriate for your speaker that`s all. But again you do seem to have a very good match with your SS electronics so everything`s fine.
Hey just to throw this out there as it sounds like you are having fun, have you tried pairing the Cary preamp with the Krell amp? Might be interesting to listen to, I am a firm believer in tubed preamps adding a lot to a system.
I second the tube preamp and solid state amp combination. Right now using all solid state because I like the equipment powered up all the time. Will be buying a VTL tube preamp very soon to add a different sound when I get bored with the current setup.
This is not a tube vs SS issue. ML is extraordinary in it's signature sound as is Krell. This a comparison of two different systems. The OP has decided that the two examples off different systems are representative of most tube amps and most SS amps. The comparison is being made on the basis of these assumption which we know are not true.
I agree though that if you found what you like your one step ahead and can build your system around what you know really makes you happy.
Again thanks for your comments, all of them. To answer Jond's and Phd's question: Yes - in a quite desperate attempt to cling to some tubes in my system, I was getting really nervious at this point (phono stage does not enter the negotiation, love my Ear)- I did try the Cary/Krell combo, and it was better - in the sense already described - much better that just tubes, but not as detailed and specially the soundstage with the ML is dead centre, perfect, a perfect balance, not with the Cary, it leaned more to one side. Then I started to wonder if this ensued some tube rolling research for the Cary, but I just stopped and acknowledge the fact that I just liked the SS better, then I decided to start this thread, etc.
Did I answer your questions? Let me know, I still want to learn more about this. Maybe a different tube preamp will work wonders with the Krell amp.??
I am also partial to the tube pre and ss amp. I have an Audible Illusions 3A w/John Curl MC phono section and had the AI 2D for over 20 years and loved it. Only traded up to the 3A so I could go back to using low output MC cartridges. The 3A is quite a bit better and has the latest tubes AI recommends. The 3A now has it all--lucid mids, tight bass, see through sound at all frequencies and you can get one for about $1300-1600 with fresh tubes if buying pre used. I have an old 1999 Edge M6 SS amp but added 3 Star Sound small flatter Audio Points between the transformer and the amp chassis, thus replacing the 5" rubber gasket that was there. The sound became much more lively, dynamic and detailed without ANY harshness. I also use Sistrum racks from Star Sound. The use of them under all components had the same gains only like double in quantity. Also have the super Lenco ala Jean Nantais with most of his recommendations and a Modwright 9100 Signature Truth cd/sacd with all the tube mods. I have VMPS RM40 speakers with all the upgrades. The sound at this point is marvelous. The AI with your Krell amp would probably give you the best of both worlds--tube and SS with very little or no regrets. Think about it--I was satisfied for 20+ years with the same preamp even though I obviously got the upgrade bug like most everyone else on Agon. No remote, but the sound is fantastic.
System synergy is a "dark art" and, unfortunately, the right combination can be elusive. I can relate to your quandary but advise that you go where ever your tapping toes lead you. Who cares about the technology as long as you have a smile on your face?

However, if after several weeks you find yourself missing the tubes, you could try some more modern tube systems that strike a balance between the virtues of tubes and solid state. Unfortunately, those set ups are very pricey. The ARC Ref 3-5 preamps come to mind as well as Conrad Johnson's CT5/ET5 pre's. These are all very transparent tube units and can easily handle the most complex and dense musical passages you could ever find. I use a CT5 with a Conrad-Johnson solid state Premier 350SA amplifier and this offers the best of both worlds to me. But my Thiel 3.7's are nothing like your Golden Ears, so there's no way to know if such a combination would work for you. Golden Ear owners with tastes similar to yours may have discovered some killer combinations you've never thought of.
Hi Musicgeorge,

I have a pair of Krell monoblocks 400E with an Audio Research Reference 5SE and it is wonderful.
I suspect other combinations of Krell/ARC will work also well together.

"System synergy is a "dark art" and, unfortunately, the right combination can be elusive."

That can be true, but I feel that letting component selection evolve to "dark art" status, is a choice more than anything else. Every audiophile builds 2 systems. The one in his head and the one that ends up in his listening room. You want them to be as close as possible. Otherwise, yes, it will definately turn into a dark art.
A tube preamp/linestage feeding a solid state amplifier certainly can work, but, my experience has been that the results are even more unpredictable than the general unpredictability of component interaction. One MUST try the specific combination first because it is not simply a case of trying to balance or combine attributes of the two; often the result is bad--murky and dull sound. I find solid state feeding tube to be more predictable (you can get very nice sound but with the slight loss of the large scale and emersive soundstage of all tube electronics).

Cary and Rogue tube gear is like ALL tube gear--it comes with tubes that are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Most listeners are happy with what they get, but, it is possible to significantly change the sound with alternative tubes if one has the patience and the resources to so do. The customizable sound of tube gear is a positive attribute to me, but, it can be a source of frustration to others.

As for the Cary/Rogue vs. ML/Krell comparison, isn't the solid state combination many multiples in price of the tube combination at original cost?
I agree with Larryi. I would say it all depends on several factors: your speakers, your room and the type of music you listen to. Others will say cables also play a role.

Given that your speakers have a built in ICE amp to handle bass, I would lean toward solid state or Class-D. The reason being is that you will have a mismatch in speed and dynamics between your bass/mid-bass and mid-range/highs.

Unless I'm mistaken, the crossover point on your speakers is 35hz. That's fairly good in that it shouldn't interfere with the mid-bass.

So, I would suspect, what you are hearing is a better pairing of amp/preamp for your entire speaker. Built in Class-D amps to handle bass can be a good thing....but they can also cause some challenges too (as you are finding out).

FWIW - I would look at the Classe CA-2300 (or CAM600's) and CP800 as a possible pairing. The Classe amps are wickedly fast and may mate very well with your Class-D inside your speakers.
Hi Larryi,
All good points as usual.
I also feel that higher quality tube equipment(with appropriate speakers) would be a more realistic comparision/assessment to his present SS components.
I find the best SS and tube setups sound more alike than different to me. The end results/overall synergy of components working together in your room is all that matters.

If you like the SS sound, then it is possible that tubes may not do much for you. There is no rule that says tubes are always better, though some that like "tube sound" will lean that way.

I have heard the Goldenears but not extensively and not with any tube gear. On paper, they appear to be amenable to either tube or SS amplification, say 80 w/ch or so or more, depending on user preferences.

With a suitable amp in place for the GEs, then it might be worthwhile to experiment next with different pre-amps to see how each sounds. Tube pre-amp might have something to offer over many SS pre-amps. I would not use a tube pre-amp however unless amp input impedance is 30K ohm or higher in order to help keep distortion low and sound more defined. Different DACs, ICs, etc. might also be tried as additional tweaks if needed.
My guess also is that GOldenears are not designed mainly to be run off a tube amp, though on paper I would expect that many larger, better tube amps might do quite well. A good SS amp is probably a safer bet in general with those. Tha might explain what you are hearing.
Also I have not seen impedance curve metrics for those Goldenears, but, from what I read and having heard them, I would be willing to bet that they might be a challenge for many amps, cettainly many tube, even some SS, to drive well. It would be worthwhile to find out more about the impedance curve if measured anywhere somehow if available. That would be telling!

Regarding, tube versus SS pre-amp, I love my ARC tube pre-amp, but again there is certainly no rule that says tubes always outperform or even just always sound better than SS. You've tried some things and compared so just trust your ears. Maybe you have not quite found the right tube pre-amp yet. Or maybe what you have is just fine, tubes or not. Trust your ears, not the hype and spin.
I glanced at impedance/phase measurements for the GEs from Stereophile review. Issues present appear to be in teh midrange more than bass. IT appears relatively tube friendly, but different amps might sound much different in midrange, depending. That is consistent with what I heard. GEs were running of NAD amp I believe, and midrange and overall tonal balance accordingly sounded significantly off to me, compared to smaller Aon 3 Ges for example running off similar amp. So in case of Ge Tritons, I think "best" amp could be either SS or tube, depending. Your ears will be the judge.
After looking at the Stereophile review, I suspect that this speaker is better being on the four ohm tap than the 8 ohm tap of many tube amps.

Musicgeorge11, it is also obvious that you had some bad tubes in your equipment- refer to your comment about channel balance. If the tubes are bad all bets are off! Any tube amp or preamp will play center fill information just as well as any solid state- often better. But not if you have bad tubes! I prefer tubes to transistors generally, but if the tubes are shot I'll take the transistor amp 'till the tubes are fixed.

Speaker/amp matching need not be such a 'dark art', see for more information.
I would agree that there may be a tube problem if there is a channel imbalance problem only with the tube linestage, but not with the Levinson set at even balance. But, if you used the Levinson balance control to get that dead center image, that is another issue (one reason why I insist on a balance control on any linestage I own).

The ability to change channel balance in .1 db increments with the Levinson (and doing so by logic switching of a single set of stepped attenuators instead of using another set of balance control attenuators), is such a useful feature. While it is challenging to hear a one db change in overall volume playing music, it is actually easy to hear a .2 db change in channel balance. The incredible control flexibility is the primary reason I've kept the Levinson even though I haven't used it for a long time (in a friend's system).
To the OP- if you want some advice regarding tube rolling in your pre amp, I might be of some assistance. I will gladly share what I come to know as a tube roller/collector/hoarder esp. with 6SN7s. One thing I don't have experience with are the newer expensive Chinese Treasures and Psvanes.
I have been vigilant on the various comments and enjoy reading them all. Several things I should address: Thanks for the tube preamp recommendations, wrote them down for future upgrades, if I found myself missing the tubes. On the other hand, Larryi raises a really good point found in my opening remarks: Maybe the 2 setups are incommensurable in the sense that the SS is more reference than the tube setup, maybe it is unfair for the tube side of the dilemma, and with Larryi’s comment I come back to that same question I had before. The different tube preamp recommendations (and tube rolling) opens a space for some tubes in the setup. And thanks Mapman and Mbovaird on all fronts, you make it necessary for me to do more research on the speakers itself.
And Mechans, thanks, let me do some more listening with the Cary SLP 03 Preamp. and the Krell combo., since many people favor the Tube Pre/SS Amp.
I might have disregarded this option too quickly. After doing some more listening I may have a better idea on what questions to ask.
Let me take a different tack considering the comments on the GoldenEar speaker specs and the need to attend the power amp and speaker combination.
What would be a good speaker to consider if I'm using the Krell 250a and the Mark Levinson 380 preamplifier. Maybe I can consider this different speaker to get the most out of my SS setup.
Revel Studio 2

I would see no issue with the Krell and Geoldenears. Powerwise, its probably overkill, if anything. Nothing wrong with that. Its more how does it sound to you and what if anything different or better are you looking for with the sound?
I am not casting aspersions on anyone's advice here, but I stick by my earlier statement that system synergy can be elusive. Whether it's a dark art or not depends upon how confident one is when advising someone about a system one has never heard. I, for one, would exercise caution and not encourage you to start swapping things out in a system that you say pleases you. I have seen people spend thousands of dollars chasing the holy grail only to make things worse. If you're happy with what you have, why not just live with it for a while? What is lacking when you listen to the ML/Krell combo? Why would replacing the Golden Ear speakers fix/solve/improve? What would your ideal/dream system sound like? The answer to these questions might help you and others find what you're looking for.

"I am not casting aspersions on anyone's advice here, but I stick by my earlier statement that system synergy can be elusive."

If you were referring to my post, you may have gotten the wrong meaning. I was agreeing with you. I just took your idea and went a little further with it. The dark art applies when you are building a system in your head. Things like reviews and comments on threads like this give one ideas as to what they want to do. The problem is verification occurs, more often than not, after the purchase, and not before. The darkness.

Your 2nd post is as good advice as can be given. If the system sounds good, just be careful. Its far easier to make a good system sound bad than a good system sound better.


The Krell/ML combo is a good sounding, neutral and powerful base to build a system on. They should sound very good with a very wide range of speakers and sources.
I agree with Vhiner, maybe a should cool down a bit and enjoy this SS setup that I encountered almost by accident and one that had me playing music for days and days, the "tapping toes effect" indeed, and down the road answer those questions you are asking.
Thanks Zd542 it looks like we are all in agreement here, that is also good.
If it ain't broken.......

Thanks for the clarification. No offense meant nor taken and I fully agree with you and the others. Consensus on A'gon is not overly common, so I am glad to find such a wise and level-headed group.


I'm very glad you've found something that has you lost in the music. It makes it all worthwhile when that happens. More money for records!
I think consensus was easy to establish in this case because of common sense. I f you`re truly happy with a system why screw around and change it?

I wouldn`t however draw any conclusions about tube vs SS based on the OP`s experience here.As Larryi pointed out, a higher level of tube components are available if you`re going to attempt meaningful comparisons to a relatively high level of SS gear.

Bottom line, if your system makes you happy,appreciate that and enjoy.

"I think consensus was easy to establish in this case because of common sense." I agree but you *do* realize that there are those extra smart people who have not weighed in yet, right? LOL
"Most tube amps and preamps are much easi­er to listen to for longer periods because they are typically smooth and musical sounding with more second order harmon­ics. To many listeners, most solid state amps are less musical, flat sounding, have wimpy mid-range and brittle highs."

--Vacuum Tube Valley Magazine – Issue 1
"08-28-13: Musicgeorge11
Thanks Zd542 it looks like we are all in agreement here, that is also good."

Of course we are all in agreement. People on this web site disagree with each other? I don't buy it.
Both technologies have their merits. I'd say that solid state is advancing rapidly and some of these advancements are balancing out both. System synergy has it roll in both directions. A tube fan might like solid state better with my speakers and source. I'll be finding out soon. I'm delving back Into solid state after many years for reasons I care not to discuss. I'm just as excited with this move as I was moving to tubes. Hopefully I'll keep both but highly unlikely. I'd probably keep the ss and upgrade the tube amp.
I just want to applaud the tone of this thread. So nice to see a nice discussion of the topic that doesn't include putdowns and dogmatism.
I also like a tube preamp and a SS amp. That said, some SS preamps are very good too.

I think you are dead on in staying open on the tube preamp issue. I rolled tubes in my preamp until I had synergy with my warm McCormack SS amp. I found that synergy with the cool stock tubes. They complimented each other with an overall more neutral sound that I preferred. I changed to NCore amps and found the system sounded very thin. Rolling warmer tubes in the preamp, I found much greater synergy. If I relied on just that quick test, I might think that the tube preamp or the NCore amps suck. It was just that I was just using tubes tailored for the first amp. FWIW, the NCore amps sounded great bypassing my tube preamp and going directly into the amps too. However, I am a tube guy.

Wenn you want speed, drive, a very musical and involving sound and a stunning deep and 3-dimensional image Pass is one of the only few who can give this. The DV-50 and the ML 380 are not that special. But wenn you ara happy with this. I love speed and drive as well. That is why I have a Pass Labs X 0.5 series poweramp. But I want a warm and musical sounding amp as well. And I also want an extreme deep and wide 3-dimensional brand. Then there are not that many which can give this.
My story goes something like this: My love affair with tubes began when I bought a Music Reference RM9 amp. At the time it was paired with the legendary Dolan PM1 SS preamp and sounded glorious. The bug kept biting so to scratch the itch I bought a Music Reference RM5 tube preamp, like the PM1, it had a killa phono section, and it sounded glorious. Still had the itch, so I bought an Audio Research LS15 tube preamp AND a PH3 tube phono preamp. Sounded very good and hey, now I had a remote! Sold the RM5 to offset the Audio Research prices (shouldn't of done that, talk about seller's remorse!). A few weeks ago, that itch started again but instead of buying something, I pulled the Dolan PM1 (SS)out of the closet and removed the AR gear. Can you believe the sound is glorious again!? Here's the thing that I came to realize; you can't/shouldn't assume that one tech is automatically better than another (tube vs. SS). There's different levels of performance and in my case I clearly can hear that the Dolan PM1 is simply a better-sounding preamp than the Audio Research LS15/PH3. Is it better than the best tube preamps? Probably not, but until that damned itch starts flaring up, I'm good!;) Meanwhile, I've got some AR gear for sale!
Bob, Gee, though very nice amps indeed, I've never thought of the McCormack amps as "warm".
Unsound, “warm” might not be the most accurate word for it. Euphonic might be a better word for the McCormack. Or, maybe I could describe it as more pleasing and less plain!? Do you have a word for it?

I have owned the McCormack DNA .5 rev A and now own a DNA 500. I would not typically call either one "warm" but I do believe that one of their best traits is a very nice and musical and extended bottom end.

If the bass is good and deep then you might think an amp is "warm" compared to one that doesn't quite handle bass that well, or one that focuses its shine (literally) on the top end.
BTW - I am using a tubed pre (Audioprism Mantissa) with my McCormack to good effect. Nice transparency and some additional bloom and spaciousness from the tubes.