Tubes? Transistors? Which are better?

It's an audiophile debate: Which are better, tubes or transistors? I have a been a big fan of transistors for a long time, but recent auditions have turned me into a partial tube head. Which tube designs sound best? Do transistors sound better?
Why can't you have your cake and eat it too? KR Enterprise gives you the best sound from both worlds with their state-of-the-art "Vacuum Transducer" amplifier design. Sound Stage and Stereophile have noticed recently what these amps are capable of...
The one that sounds the best to you is the best. Its always been astonishing to me how people will argue over the hardware, when it's the software (music) that we are really trying to appreciate. The best hardware in the wrong room, or set up improperly, will not please the listener. Audiophiles should learn more about acoustics, especially standing waves, nodes, antinodes, reflection speed, backslap, etc., before spending the price of a car on hardware. The biggest problems stem from putting the wrong speakers in a room, and positioning them improperly. In my 25+ years experience, I have found that most loudspeakers with woofers bigger than 8" will overload the average room in the average North American house. Lets face it, we all live in different houses, but they are all basically "standard" in many ways. The furniture industry, the appliance industry, the wall covering industry, carpet industry, window covering industry, etc., have all settled on "standard sizes" for the majority of their core products. Think about this when you try to shoehorn the latest Vomitron 500 loudspeakers with the 4 15" woofers (per channel) into the average living room. I'm not saying the amplifier, tube or transistor, is secondary to the loudspeakers, both items play an equally important role. Getting the acoustics right will bring out the best in any system, tube or transistor, cheap or expensive. I have a colleague who engineers, designs, and installs custom home theatre systems in the $100-250k range. He is always amazed at how easy it is to sell the system, but how difficult it is to sell the customer on the idea of treating the room. Most refuse to spend any mony at all.
I cannot agree with you more. Room acoustics have such a profound affect on a system. No matter how good the equipment, a system's sound can be wrecked by room problems. It is also unfortunate that to correct room problems, one must frequently spend a great deal of money demolishing and then painstakingly reconstructing the room. I also have a colleague in the Home Theater/Stereo System installation business and he tells me the same thing. People are not willing to spend the money on the room, they just want top notch equipment. When the client finally listens to their $150,000 system, they are not pleased. It is then that they finally understand the benefits of room treatments and listening room planning. It makes a great deal of sense to spend the extra money upfront when it is inexpensive to treat the room rather than later. It also makes sense to spend money upfront on elements that are difficult to change. A PreAmp or Speaker can be upgraded later with relative ease, the room is more difficult to upgrade after it has been completed. The absolute WORST thing one can do to a system is equalize or otherwise modify the audio signal. The room should be as transparent as possible - just like all the other pieces of equipment in the signal chain.
A very general response. Tubes in the preamp, transistors in the power amp. Of course it depends on 1000 things not considered in this response.
Three things affect the sound quality you hear. First is the hardware and the differences between many offerings is very difficult to identify. Second is the music itself, and the quality of recordings varies greatly. Third is the listening environment: the acoustic properties of the listening room. Without adequate attention to all three matters, there will be no real audiophile satisfaction. Each element by itself simply cannot do what is asked.
It is like a choice of steel,different applications require different types.But what is even more important is that what this particular designer is used to work with.I would not buy tube amplifier from,say,Jeff Rowland,nor would I want solid state from Jadis.Besides,tube amplifier of comparable quality and power should be more expansive(at least twice or so).Ideally,I would have two separate systems.Still,at their best,tubes are probably closer to the reality.
Interesting question. Transistors are very revealing and often sound harsh and non musical in my experience. Even if you can't hear it directly, there's something irritating and unnatural in the transistor sound a lot of the time. On the other hand tubes sound nice and musical but they soften the music and put in colouration. After trying a lot of transistor and tube gear I now how a Pass Aleph L preamp and a Pass Aleph 3 power amp. They combine the simpicity of tube design with the benefits of transistors, e.g. accuracy, dynamics. The sound is fantastic, no harshness at all but tons of detail and best of all you can feel the emotional content of the music is left intact. Try a Pass Aleph combination and get the best of both worlds. Good luck.
I had to make this decision recently as well. I listened to about a dozen tube and solid state amplifiers in my price range. I gradually realized that with the exception of the mccormack amp, I kept remembering the tube amplifiers as sounding good. They do sound different. The tubes will have a more musical sound, but solid state is (maybe ) more detailed, but definitely stronger in the bass. You might want to consider the type of music that you listen to. If you like rock and modern pop like metallica, madonna, G&R (am I dating my college years or what?), you might want to go with solid state. If you are into vocals, jazz, sparse instrumentals, you might be happier with tubes.
I think solid state sounds more detailed on initial listening, but after awhile, it seems that the details are just too forward. The details are still there with tubes, it's just that they aren't presented in an exaggarated fashion. I also find that tubes sound better on rock music because so many rock recordings are shrill sounding and can be unbearable with solid state and a bright CD player. I would like to hear other people's opinions on this point.
To Audionut: The right cables fix the problem of "details being too forward". To "Uliver": You have to decide for yourself. Which is better, MAKING YOUR OWN DECISIONS, or doing what others do FOR THE SAKE OF FOLLOWING THE HEARD? Or doing what your dealer says, because "he wouldn't possibly steer me wrong...and he just happens to have what he thinks I need in the store, so we'd be helping each other out..." heh heh heh...
Carl, the cables I used are the ones Dan D'Agostino highly recommends with his equipment. It's not the cables, Krell is very forward sounding.
If D'Agostino said to jump into an empty swimming pool, would ya? IT IS THE CABLES, so get over yourself. You're just biased against Krell, and don't have the guts to admit it, dude... Dan has been wrong before about cabling, and we all forgive him ahead of time for any gaafs he makes (procaliming that "two channel is dead", etc.)!! He does well enough to have a company that makes superior amps without needing to decide what cable is best with them anyway. I CAN HEAR BETTER THAN YOU AND ALL YOUR BUDDIES THAT DON'T LIKE SOLID STATE!!! The only tube amps I've heard that actually made music, SOUNDED ALMOST INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM SOLID STATE ANYWAY...
Carl, I do not have any reason to be biased towards Krell. I sold my Krell and bought tubes, I enjoy listening to them much more than my Krell. I still have some Krell equipment, which I do enjoy, but TUBES BRING ME MORE SATISFACTION. As for your statement "I CAN HEAR BETTER THAN YOU AND ALL YOUR BUDDIES THAT DON'T LIKE SOLID STATE" you are wrong on both counts. If you can hear better than me, you wouldn't make a statement like "...SOUNDED ALMOST INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM SOLID STATE...". Secondly, my buddies all prefer solid state and sometimes they even trash my tubes, but I'll continue to listen to whatever gives me the most pleasure.
If your tube amp brings you the most pleasure, then that's great. I'm sure if I heard your system, I'd probably think it's a good match for the rest of your components/room, perhaps. BUT YOU STILL ARE TOTALLY WRONG ABOUT KRELL, and if you heard my system you'd realize it. IT'S ALL IN THE SETUP. As for who can hear better than who...I can hear a 20 kHz sinewave from a test CD (and the artifacts that must accompany it from that limited medium), referenced to a 1 kHz signwave when it is at about 79 dB at the sweet spot (because my SPL meter's mic isn't accurate at the frequency extremes). I can also hear a CRT TV's 15.6 kHz sweep from the other end of my house. ALL I'M SAYING IS, just like all tube amps don't sound alike, neither do all solid state ones. PERHAPS THE KRELL YOU HAD WASN'T FUNCTIONING PROPERLY, or was a "lemon"...
Wolcott tube monoblocks are the best tube amp I have heard. They have an output impedance of ZERO ohms which gives a high damping factor. This gives you the bass control which so many tube amps lack. Solid-state amps rarely meassure below .0025 ohms. So your getting the sweetness of the mids and highs which is why your buying tubes in the first place and all the moxie in the low end.
A TUBE AMP WITH INFINITELY HIGH DAMPING FACTOR?? If that's possible, I'D LOVE TO HEAR IT. Let me borrow yours a while, why don't ya??
"...sweetness" mentioned above is nothing but the "coloration" of which tube amps are known for. You would have to spend some $$$ to find good tube amp. And will sound just like good solid state.
Wolcott Amps 0.000 Output Impedance Infinite high damping Contact Hank Wolcott to see if he's correct.
I purchased the Wolcott Amps several months ago. They matched better with my Dunlavy V than any other of the amps auditioned to my taste. I'm looking forward to checking out the Sierra Denali Monos next even though they are sstate
Theory is a wonderful thing. Even a necessary thing if you are a designer. But theory is only useful if it reliably explains/predicts reality. I used to think the theory of tube pre and SS power seemed to make sense. But I tried just about every SS power amp I could get my hands on before reluctantly trying tube amps. I found a tube amp that not only had a better midrange than the SS amps, but outperformed them in the highs and the bass (and on low impedence Thiel and Martin-Logan speakers). Faster bass and more slam than an SS power amp? It didn't fit the theory, but so what? I have now settled on a tube power amp and a solid state preamp - against all my preconceptions, but in tune with the music.
Output impedance isn't theory at all. It perfectly describes the power amp's ability to control the cone motion of a dynamic speaker, which is what I was talking about. I suspect I would like the sound of your system, Redkiwi, but it's possible I could improve on it...Not to diminish the time you spent evaluating, but I forget, do you use room treatments?
I do use room treatments Carl, but one of my rooms (I run two systems) is problemmatic and hard to deal with (the main problems being squareness 24'*26', and hard floor). But with the narrow vertical dispersion of Martin-Logans I get very good results sitting about 9 feet away in this room. By the way, I was not referring to your comments on output impedence in my earlier post, but to the seemingly generally accepted wisdom of tube pre with ss amp. My fault for dropping into the conversation out of context. I switched from ss to tube power amps for a simple reason. When I went to live concerts I was always struck by a kind of beauty in mid-range instruments (particularly voices), that did not seem to be present in my recordings. When I heard my current tube amps - I recognised the beauty right away - and knew it to be real, and not a coloration. The fact that the amps gave me better bass than the ss amps was an unexpected bonus. The problem of course is that I may never know whether the same thing might have been achieved by the change of some other component.
As long as all of us are touting our favorite poison here, I must confess, I am a tube guy all the way. One main reason that tubes sound more musical is that they don't "switch" on and off like transistors do, and when tube designs produce distortion (ALL amps have distortion) the tubes do it in "even" order harmonics, just like music does. Transistors do distortion in "odd" order and also contribute IM distortion in the process. This can sound like detail, but I find is stressful and distracting, and less convincing than the presentation of tubes.
Try Jeff Rowland with Michael Green Designs Chameleon loudspeakers,Albert.Tell me later if it is not convincing.
I have heard Jeff Rowland's amps, and for transistors they are one of the three best I have ever heard. The others being Griphon from Sweden, and FM Acoustics from Switzerland. I still prefer tubes, for the same reason I stated before. It after all, is a matter of choice, and I certainly understand why you like what you do.
I feel as many (most?) reviewers do: That tube amps emphasizing even order harmonics (that are "consonant" with the music) doesn't BEGIN to explain the positive aspects of a tube amp...BECAUSE most all tube amplifiers DON'T JUST have higher even order harmonic distortion; they have MORE of BOTH ODD AND EVEN order harmonic distortion (than do ss amps, usually). And no, TRANSISTORS DON'T SWITCH (completely) ON AND OFF, and don't do it at all in a class A circuit. Any class AB circuit's output devices will switch on/off to some degree, WHETHER IT'S TUBE OR SOLID STATE. One should not dismiss ALL solid state amps until one has heard them all in one's system. I think the flaws with solid state (when they exist) have more to do with what a higher (than a tube amp's) slewing rate does when it's not controlled well enough. IT OVERSHOOTS THE SIGNAL, etching a false "glare"/"grain" onto the resulting waveform. This is evident when a square wave test is done, when you can see obvious overshoot. Most tube amps round off the corners of a square wave, lending a more "rounded" quality to the music. ALSO, all these guys touting the Sony SCD-1 need to realize that it doesn't even have a discrete output has op-amps!!! My CD50 has HUGE BIPOLAR OUTPUT DEVICES THAT RUN IN CLASS A, so it can easily mop up the floor with an SCD-1 when playing CD's "only"...besides the fact that it doesn't need a linestage, and that it's output stage is "beefier" than many stand alone linestage's outputs...
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Elizabeth I would agree that a tube amplifier is higher maintenance and can get pricey when replacing tubes but a tube pre-amp is another matter. The tubes will last for a very long time, even when left on providing you go with the right design. I have owned 5 different tube pre-amplifiers over the last 15 years with VERY minimal problems. Yes I have had to replace caps but that is to be expected over a period of time. I suggest you listen to a good tube pre-amp (ARC are very reliable and well engineered)before you go out and buy an Adcom 750. A tube pre-amp is MUCH more like music. Try before you buy and then decide. Good solid state pre-amps cost bucks. The cheaper designs don't fare as well against their less expensive tube counterparts IMO.
Elizabeth - You are far from the only one that has had problems with Counterpoint electronics. To me they were one of the greatest sounding products available in the 80's and early 90's but they also had a notorious reputation for self destructing. Example of a design taken to the extreme limits and beyond. Don't use the Counterpoint as your only frame of reference in tube designs. They are one of the worst examples,(early Jadis also comes to mind). Conrad Johnson in addition to ARC is another well designed product. I had a PV-7 preamp where the tubes lasted over 4 years and were still going strong until I sold the unit along with a complete NOS tube set that I never needed. It is sad that many people don't try tubes because of a bad experience or what they have heard.
Tubes are like a car I once owned. Before Ford involvement, Jaguar ownership was very much a love/hate relationship. Transistors are like a car I now own. The performance of my 13 year old Porsche is exciting in a different way. But it is very much more reliable. And I don't even have to carry a spare fuel pump with me.
Tubegroover is right on every count. As far as which is better, I prefer tubes. I cannot say that solid state couldn't make me or another person happy. But, I do know there is a certain rightness to me with tubes that doesn't come along very often with solid state. Some people accept NO substitute for tubes. The best analogy along those lines I have heard a person put it is tubes are like having a dog. Yeah, they mess on the floor, need to be walked, fed, etc. But, they are a real, living thing. Solid state is like a stuffed dog. No maintenance, but nothing else(feedback, reciprocation, realness, etc.) either.
tubes may *not* be as reliable as solid-state - so what? that's why i won't sell my electrocompaniet ec-1a solid-state preamp - a very nice piece in its own right, it can be used if/when the melos music director is getting fixed! (like now!) :>) i can't imagine *any* solid-state preamp coming anywhere near the sonics of this piece, at anywhere near the price ($1800, used). definitely worth the trouble. doug
I have tubes in my pre-amp (BAT) and solid state amp (Marsh). However, I am a big advocate of pure solid state sound. Good solid state equipment these days does not have the drawbacks traditionally associated with solid state (ie. harsh sound). You get a much more accurate reproduction of the source with all of its glories and limitations. Tube amps are in my mind either "over-engineered" or colored. The colorings in my case detract from musical enjoyment. I find it curious that many tube proponents would rather die than hear to the colored sound of certain mass equipment, yet they are themselves coloring their music, though in a very different way. I do not believe everything is a matter of taste: educating and developing your taste are what it;s all about, whether it be in music, audio, wine, art, or whatever. Underlying this, I believe, is a quest for truth. In this case truth is quite easily defined as getting as closely as possible to the recorded source. I believe the good solid sytate amps of today, with prices starting at around $1,500, accomplish that better than any tube amp.
hey joe, where ya going w/that toob preamp in yer hand? ;~) i can't afford a solid-state preamp that sounds as good as a lower-cost toob-unit! i tink ya gotta spend at least 6k for a solid-state unit to avoid the "drawbacks" that less-expensive tube pre's avoid, even if tubes have their colourations. what preamp are ewe considering replacing yer bat with? doug
(1) Carl E doesn't appear to be saying "I can hear better than you" at all. Carl appears to be (correctly) projecting that 'quote' onto D'Agostino. (2) I'm now a hardline solid-state fan, converted from my early years w/tubes. High maintenance & too much heat were my main tube complaints, not so much their sound. But with SS, it's the TYPE of transistors which make the difference IMO. Bipolar output amps sound harsh to me too. But FET's are a whole different story. I have a McCormack DNA-1 and two Ayre V3's; both mosfet designs. The Muse 160 is another of this breed, which I haven't heard, but have read about its similar signature. I had an older Luxman, also mosfet; same experience. I dunno, but I think someone told me that Rowland's are also FET topolgy? Could this be the key to warmer-sounding SS design? Now what about this KR Enterprise "Vacuum Transducer" amplifier design? What in the world is that? I'll check this out, but I'd like to learn a bit more from y'all if you can enlighten me please?
Well Joe the truth is that *accuracy* in reproduced music does not always equate to what sounds to me like music when I hear it live. That is one reason I am living with old tube gear from the 80's because the newer more *accurate* stuff that I have heard really hasn't justified my purchasing it. But I keep on looking. The only thing that is *accurate* to these ears is real and everything else I hear regarding recorded is an opinion and taste. Tube sounds more real to me and solid state sounds more real to you. Guess what, we're both right! When you find the real truth (that is reproduced that is as real) please let me know.
Tubegroover, You're correct. You're both right. De gustibus non est disputandum. I have found the truth. It's in the concert hall.
I am intrigued as to why truth and accuracy are so important to some in a medium as emotional as music. Where do you draw the line? Is the written score an "accurate" representation of the composer's thoughts? Is the performance an "accurate" representation of the score? Is the recording an "accurate" representation of the performance? Why then is the "accurate" reproduction of the recording so important? For "truth"? For beauty? For the American way? No, because Audiophilia Nervosa demands accuracy for the aural senses but inaccuracy in all others is revered. Do you ever wear sun-glasses on a bright day? Or spice your food? Educate and develop your senses all you want but it's all about enjoyment. And isn't audio about enjoyment? And what sense is never colored to enhance enjoyment? And who really cares? And I didn't write this...
hi waldhorner, lotsa folks argue about which *concert-hall* is most accurate, where does it stop? ;~) doug
Khrys: Since you didn't write the above, I didn't write this. The issue of truth and accuracy in audio reproduction is the raison d'etre for this industry. For many of us, the ideal is to faithfully (high fidelity) replicate the aural experience of the original event. Since we can almost never know how that original event sounded, we must rely upon our own sensitivities and experiences to determine how closely what we are hearing comes to that imagined original. If you have spent a lot of time in the concert venue, both on stage and off, you should have a better sense of what that reality is than one who has not. It's sufficient to say that for me, several decades of critical listening has provided me with a good sense of how closely a reproduced sound comes to my remembered aural experience base. I have learned from years of interacting with and sharing this hobby with many others that there are legions of listeners who have little or no idea of what a real orchestra (for example) sounds like in the concert hall or anywhere else. The orchestra, or jazz ensemble is a good reference standard for the sound of an audio system. This type of musical group is, for the most part, comprised of unamplified acoustical instruments. And these instruments are, at least for now, still the predominate source of most of the music we hear. So ideally, according to this concept of accuracy, the less corrupted the source material, the better......... I have a 50 year old art book at home which is filled with photographs of many of the finest 17th-19th century masters. This book was printed in the early years of color photography. The color was originally not especially accurate and has faded considerably since. These photographs are indeed color representations of those masterworks. They are interesting and emotionally moving at times. But they are not ACCURATE. I know this because I have seen a few of those paintings in person and can see many more of them in recently printed art books. So for some, accuracy is a kind of truth. And truth has greater beauty when it is not corrupted or distorted.
Waldhorner, I don't find much enjoyment wondering if what I'm hearing sounds like the imagined original(?). I just listen to it and like it or not. I tune my system to like most of what I hear. You want to "faithfully replicate the aural experience of the original event." Could you please teach me to do that? BTW, I'll take that 50 year old art book off your hands any day.
Khrys I don't wonder at all whether what I am hearing sounds like the original, I know it doesn't. Real unamplified acoustic music is my reference. It is THE ABSOLUTE SOUND PERIOD!!! And the ultimate enjoyment for me is my passion for live music, not audio. The line is when it sounds real. Sorry if I’m a dreamer and always use real as my reference. Is it too much to hope for? That said I feel quite confident that those Genesis 200’s in the room of my dreams might get me a bit closer than I currently am. Performance, interpretation and the like aside the point Waldhorner is making has do with the ultimate emotional connection one gets from a live performance that is missing in reproduced audio. Tell me Khrys, do you really enjoy listening to reproduced audio in the same way and get the same enjoyment that you do from a great live performance? Or is it a compromise that you are currently content with? If you do, all I can say is I envy you. I say this because I see from your posts that you are a music lover also and not just an audiophile. Don’t tell me they are two different experiences. Let’s face it we wouldn’t be spending all this dough if we didn’t hope that we could connect better with the music, would we? So why did you spend 10K on your Vandy 5 (right?). To get closer to the real thing. Sounds to me from your post that you are a little more satisfied than I am at the present moment that’s all. It will probably change. That is one thing for certain about audiophiles, our moods and perceptions change like the weather. My discontent (it happens almost every time I go to a concert) arose over my recent attendance of a great concert consisting of a great orchestra performing a great piece of music and topping it off with a great performance. Damn, I hate that when it happens. Now I have to get that great performance out of my mind and get on with life. It is really hard listening to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto after that. It puts me in an “upgrade” mood. I don’t like it when that happen either. Just spending money on a little improvement that gets me about as close to the realness of that performance as voice lessons will get me closer to being a great singer. “How you going to keep em down on the farm after they’ve seen Parree?” Waldhorner I sure hope the reason for the hi-end industry is for the ultimate truth and accuracy in reproduced audio. If not we’ll be in the same place 20 years from now talking about the same things. Maybe the latest power cables from the transformer to the service panel will be the new fav.
Tubegroover, good points above. However, I avoid "ultimate truth and accuracy" in audio like the plague. Half the reproduced music I listen to never occurred in real time anyway. But if it did the last thing I would be worried about is what it is supposed to sound like. How will you ever know? You aural memory? Good luck. My enjoyment of audio increased exponentially when I stopped listening for what I was not hearing.
Khrys The ultimate truth is dealing with a bigger issue, the obvious differences between real and recorded. The fundamental stuff like, harmonic integrity, and timbre accuracy and dynamics. The stuff that jumps out at you. Audio with all its inherent colorations and limitations obsures the realness of music, it masks it. It doesn't take aural memory to differentiate between the truth and reproduced. It is as obvious to me as the difference between a cat and dog. No I certainly don't have ANY problem with studio recordings, rock and alternative etc. that are altered through mix downs, overdubbing and the like to get a particular sound. That type of music is not my reference nor should it be a reference at all. The fact is if you get real unamplified acoustical instruments to sound real, everything else will fall into place. Isn't The Absolute Sound the ultimate objective or are settling for less because a. It will never happen or worse, b. it really doesn't matter?
Khrys: You obviously are concerned above how your system sounds. You obviously have some sort of personal standard which drives or has driven you to discriminate in your selection of equipment. Ostensibly you have invested a fair amount of coinage in your system. And you are obviously intelligent enough not to have done that without any personal criteria. In these ways we are the same. Your personal experiences have, I would speculate, contributed largely to the decisions which you have made. I think that I was sufficiently clear in explaining my personal rationales. If your personal system were not capable of at least the degree of naturalness which you prefer, I don't believe that you would find it acceptable. I conclude that you do have standards and that you do demand a certain degree of accuracy for your personal enjoyment. The imagined original is explained in a previous post. You can read elsewhere here that I believe that personal taste is absolutely valid and that listening pleasure can be derived from even the most modest of playback systems(AM portable radio). I would also submit that the reason we are taking the time to construct comments and rejoinders is that this avocation is important to us and that it's in the details that we find the distinctions. Good listening to you. (double entendre intended)
Sedon: The concert hall is part of the total live music system. Each hall is distinctive and as an indispensible part of any given particular concert experience is "accurate". That's not to say that the same hall would be considered good. Some are actually fairly bad (we could discuss "good" or "bad" at another time). Consider the design modifications which have been made to certain major concert halls over the years(at considerable expense). As part of the total sonic event sequence, a hall simply "is". A good recording of a bad concert hall should sound like a bad concert hall.
waldhorner, re: your comments about differing concert-hall sounds - my point exactly! yust like w/stereo systems. live, unamplified music can sound way different in different venues. which one is right? who knows - whichever one ya like the best, i guess. that's what i try to do w/my home rig... of course, i want a flute to sound like a flute, & not a saxaphone! ;~) doug