The Black Volt White Papers...
By : Giovanni Loria on February 24th 2015
Vacuum tube amplifiers just won’t go away. Most other audio gear is solid state, Home stereos, computers, many bass amps, many new guitar amps, power amps etc. So why are there still vacuum tube amps with electronics technology dating back to the 1940's. A guitarist friend asked me that recently and it was hard to truly explain this phenomenon. What I basically said is that vacuum tube amps sound better than solid state amps to some people. I had no way to really follow up or prove my claim.
On many occasions, I have actually compared solid state amps to the vacuum tube equivalents and have used the same speakers. I could definitely discern a difference between the two. I do not really have the words to describe the difference. It is akin to comparing wines in a tasting. There are words for that but they are also vague and subjective to be sure. So it is with audio sounds. If I had to define the major sound differences, I guess they would be this:
1. Tube amps tend to have a warmer, rounder sound that will break up into a pleasing distortion when played loudly or pushed to their limits. This quality allows for a wider range of styles available through a tube amp.
2. Solid state amps tend to deliver a cleaner, brighter tone, but when pushed beyond their limits the distortion qualities can tend to be harsh and brittle. Some solid state distortions can even be downright unmusical and disturbing. But when played within their parameters, solid state amps can sound really amazing and in some cases even better than tube amps.
With that said, there are too many variables that come into play to try to prove which amp is actually "better". For example, solid state amps tend to cost a fraction of what tube amps cost, solid state amps tend to work great for jazz, solid state amps work very well with many colorful FX units like Chorus, Reverb, Delay etc…. Does any of that matter to a true tube amp enthusiast? Not in the least. No. Not at all!!!
So are vacuum tubes amps better? Most People would say yes. They do still sound very good and for me it also depends on the music being played. Guitar players almost universally favor vacuum tube amplifiers. There are certainly enough tube amp manufacturers to support the niche. I guess due to the fact that I work on so many amps I have learned to find the beauty in solid state amps. I have also modified many of them to try to emulate tube amps….. What does that mean exactly ? I won't try to answer that.
Here is a great book if you want a super detailed all inclusive manual on tube amps. "The Tube Amp Book" by Aspen Pitman. Known as the bible of tubes and tube amps it is a highly detailed book covering everything about all the great tube amp manufacturers from A-Z. A real nitty gritty book for hobbyists and serious manufacturers. For example, the book details things like how to bias amps, how to do basic troubleshooting and even includes schematics for most of the great amps. Aspen is a friend and an endless wealth of information for all things tube related.
At any rate, let the tube revolution rage on and stay passionate about the things that inspire you musically or otherwise, but always try to keep an open mind as that is one of the greatest assets we have to continue to be creative and keep learning.