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What’s best, Solid State or Tube? Debating the pros and cons of hi-fi amplifier technology

Written By: 
Michael Friedman
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Background

When committing to hi-fi audio gear you’re going to have a lot of choices, and among the most crucial is whether you’ll be looking for a tube or solid state amplifier. 

For decades, this enduring debate within the audiophile community has divided fanatics into two camps. As with all aesthetic arguments — Beatles vs. Stones? Biggie or Tupac? — ultimately it comes down to taste as to whether tube amps or solid state/transistor amps offer a more precise document of the studio session. Both approaches generate a similar result: quality audio reproduction. But they do sound different. 

Declaring, as many gearheads do, that tube amps will bring you more joy is akin to arguing that a vinyl copy of a record will always sound better than a digital source. Anyone who’s purchased a poorly mastered new release on wax knows that’s not necessarily the case. At best, vinyl delivers a depth and sonic richness that CDs don’t  attain. But lossless digital files can sound more accurate and, when remastered correctly, more precise than a record. Comparing solid state and tube amplification prompts similar conversations.

As a way to help you make more informed decisions, what follows is a primer on the differences between tube and solid state amps.

Construction

When comparing the sound of tube versus solid state amplifiers, take into consideration that these machines work in different ways to generate their sound output. Solid State amps are driven by current throughout the output’s devices. They typically have only one power transformer, and utilize silicon with current. 

The basic triode vacuum tube has three parts—the cathode in the middle, the grid that surrounds it, and the anode beyond that. Pins deliver electrical charges to these various parts. Via Electronic Design
Basic Triode Vacuum Tube Design. Via Electronic Design.

Tube amps, by contrast, are driven by voltage and as such need output transformers. If you’re looking at, for example, a Luxman- SQ-N150 integrated tube amp, these transformers are the three large, heavy, black square-looking objects located in the rear of a tube amp. They convert the voltage from the output tubes to current that runs through wires and into the speakers to create sound. The tube amp gets its power through glass vacuum tubes with voltage. 

r/audiophile - Gorgeous McIntosh Setup at Echo Audio in Portland
McIntosh Setup at Echo Audio in Portland

Solid State Amplifiers

Silicon transistor-based amplification technology has come a long way over the years. Listeners who prefer the sound of solid state often cite their ‘clean,’ more detailed sound. Solid state amps can be more robust, durable and power efficient than their tube counterparts. They tend to offer more watts-per-dollar, so to speak, and can pretty much blow tube equipment out of the listening room in terms of sheer power. Bass control, say proponents, is tighter and allows for faster gain control — which results in a more immediate punch and overall presence to the music. 

The sound of music played through silicon transistors is crisp and technically more accurate. So much so in fact, that higher-end solid state equipment will give you music replication playback that is as close to original source as is possible, minus any sound coloration. And because the ‘noise-floor’ with transistors is close to nil at 0.005hd (harmonic distortion), they provide an almost distortionless listening experience. This is one reason why electronic and classical music enthusiasts often prefer solid state over tubes. 

McIntosh MC122 MC 122 Power Amp Amplifier-Near MINT-Cleaned Inside/Out+New  Lamp-Sale Pending Photo #780366 - US Audio Mart
McIntosh MC122 Solid State Amp

It doesn’t hurt that you can get a lot of sound for your buck going the transistor amp route these days; they’re a great option for the audiophile on a budget. That said, detractors argue that solid state sound can be sterile, brittle and even harsh compared to the warmth that tube amps can provide. This brittleness, critics say, can lead to sound clipping at high volumes and listening fatigue.

Some find the transparency and accuracy of transistor amplification counter productive. Tube fans suggest that since many recordings aren’t precisely engineered and mastered, allowing for a more forgiving and rounder sound can smooth out the music.

Dynaco ST-70 Tube Amplifier

Tube Amplifiers

Vacuum tube amplification has been around for more than a century and is still regarded by many as the best way to achieve sound excellence. Also known as valve amps, fans argue that tube amps sound sweeter, with a warmer and smoother sound. They add more texture and realism to vocals and instruments and deliver a richer, fuller mid-range than traditional silicon transistors amps. 

Tube enthusiasts cite the ‘holographic effect’ as a central draw. An apt description of holographic sound is to imagine yourself walking around the singer and having the ability to hear each performer individually as the music played — as well as the space between them. Every detail of the acoustic guitar and every snare hit creates its own bubble, resulting in more layered, virtually three-dimensional sound. 

Vintage Tube Ad. Photo: Randi Klett.

In addition to the organic natural sound that vacuum tubes deliver, tubes can be swapped out and customized to a listener’s liking, a term known as ‘tube rolling.’ To achieve a desired feel tubes are replaced with warmer sounding, and sometimes larger, tubes of better quality. They’re often imported from Japan or China, and the process can become an expensive hobby. But it’s part of the fun for hi-fi enthusiasts and music professionals alike, many of whom are continually chasing the elusive perfect sound from their systems.

One downside with tubes is that they can put off a slightly audible hum. At low volume this can add to the noise floor of your listening experience. But this minor harmonic distortion is easily combated by volume adjustment. And while tubes are held in very high regard, they are fragile music conduits not unlike lightbulbs. They can burn out or even break, and need to be replaced from time to time. 

MC30 Tube Choices | Audiokarma Home Audio Stereo Discussion Forums
Vintage Genelex Tube Ad

Still, most tubes will play for more than 10,000 hours (about 10 years) without any trouble at all. They do ‘run hot’ at times and can even heat up a room once in a while — a nice bonus for a frigid day — but keep the small children and house pets away. That said, most quality tube amps are encased in a cage that covers up and protects the valves. 

Are you a tube person or a solid state person? To figure it out, determine the sound you’re seeking based on listening habits and what kind of music you like. Do your research. Test and demo equipment when possible and always ask questions. Countless resources are available online and any reputable specialist at an audio retailer should be able to guide you. 

In the end, all that matters is connecting as closely as possible to the music itself and building a relationship with the art — whatever the engine that drove us there. 

Tube Amp Recommendations

Reisong- A12 Integrated Vacuum Tube Amplifier – $500.00

A relaxed sounding entry-level tube amp that will bring excellent midrange and transparent depth to your listening experience. 

Line Magnetic 34IA- Integrated Tube Amplifier- $1999.00

This handmade, push-pull tube-integrated amplifier employs point-to-point wiring and high quality capacitors to deliver dynamic natural sound. With its interchangeable tube selector, the Reisong A12 is a current favorite for audiophiles seeking to customize their sound performance. 

Luxman- SQ-N150 Tube Integrated Amplifier- $2995.00

Japanese-built tube amp that plays with alluring transparency, this beautiful Luxman has built-in MM/MC phono pre-amps, classic-looking meters and a headphone jack. A masterpiece receiver that is as fun to look at as it is to listen to.

Audio Research VSi75 Integrated Tube Amplifier – $9500.00

This super high-end tube amps sets a new benchmark in lifelike reproduction of music. With a strikingly detailed resolution and silky highs, this Audio Research model possesses immediacy and delicacy, to say nothing of its ability to recreate an immense soundstage leading to a euphoric listening experience.

Solid State Amp Recommendations

Yamaha A-S501 Solid State Integrated Amplifier- $549.95

This clean and simple machine has an elegant design and delivers high quality sound with a wide range of features, including a host of digital inputs. 

Leak Stereo Integrated Amplifier- $1195.00

With old-school design and modern functionality, this excellent integrated amp has a stellar phono pre-amp and a built-in DAC.

Technics SU-G700 Integrated Amplifier  $2499.00

A grand-class integrated amp, this unit is loaded with cutting edge technology while conveying energy, dynamics and details of music with effortless finesse. 

McIntosh MA5300 Integrated Amplifier – $5500.00

With the company’s trademark blue meters, this state-of-the-art 100-watts-per-channel amp is a serious heavyweight. Flexing with latest audio-grade circuitry, including six analog inputs, a USB port, a proprietary ‘MCT CD transport,’ power guard, phono stage and a built in DAC, this beast delivers the fine-tuned, rich sound that has come to define McIntosh amps.

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