Beginning in the middle of the last century, the electronics industry, audio amplifier manufacturers included, set off on an all-out drive to phase out valve-tubes in their product’s circuitry. To electronic manufactures, the new solid-state transistors that were massively retiring the glass valves were cheaper, less demanding in peripherals, sturdy in form, and much easier to install.
On the other hand, electronic equipment end-users could now enjoy the portability of the more compact solid-state designs, with the added bonus of low power consumption. Equipment durability and cheap, occasional spares is another bonus to users.
However, the demise of the tube valves wasn’t universal and final: tube valves were destined to linger a lot longer in audio amplifier applications.
You will rarely find tube amps in hi-fi sets or home theater equipment, but some professional and hobbyist guitarists and sundry music-lovers still use tube amp amplifiers in preference over solid state amplifiers.
Main differences – Tube Amp vs Solid State
Although there are many angles from which one can argue in favor of one or the other type, there are proven and claimed merits of either type that commends it over the other and overlaps too…
To start with, the cost is the primary, sometimes prohibitive consideration to make before choosing your type of amplifier. Old, used tube amplifiers are considered elitist possessions, for which audiophiles, elder, nostalgic citizens and antique collectors pay high prices in auctions and internet sites.
Even for a tube amp of recent manufacture, the price tag is a bit higher compared with a solid state amp of comparable wattage.
On top of the higher initial cost, the tubes themselves breakdown occasionally with normal use. The damage results from the very mode of operation, where a cathode filament within the tube is heated to incandescence.
The high temperature causes to the tube’s characteristic glow, and occasional failure – think of a light bulb blowing – and you’ll, therefore, need to regularly buy exact (sometimes rare) replacements. Attendant to a tube amp’s heat dissipation is its high power consumption, without a commensurate gain in output sound volume.
So if you are thinking of a portable, outdoorsy audio amplifier for use in picnics or such scenes, you will be hard-put choosing a tube amp, which is usually bulkier, delicate-handling, and it normally draws power from the wall socket.
Although there are smaller low-watt tube amp models that run on batteries, they don’t perform for as long as would a similarly-rated solid state amp fitted with the same batteries. These later amps are generally smaller because they use ICs (Integrated Circuits), which are greatly miniaturized and require fewer peripherals components.
Additionally, tube amps demand the use of closely- matching speakers for you to realize the best tone and volume characteristics. As such, you may have to shelve your old speakers and spend more dollars on compatible speakers.
On the other hand, the ICs used in solid state amps are more robust, durable and cheap. Furthermore, the physics of ICs allows low temperature operation, and the adaptable circuit dynamics allow you to use almost any kind of speaker with minimal drawbacks in sound delivery.
So, what attributes have assured the survival of tube amps, in the face of the above blaring shortcomings? For a start, some senior people will hold onto vintage amp tube amps for nostalgia’s sake, or for the high collectors’ value.
These aesthetic and monetary values are of little concern for you as a music lover, what counts are the audio properties of the amp. To begin with, as many enthusiasts testify, tube amps reproduce an earnest, fuller tone that is closer to the actual recording, while IC amps give a coarse and stiff effect to the same.
Moreover, the distortions introduced by a tube are less discordant thus pleasant sounding. Note that these benefits are lost at high overdrive volumes, a fact that disfavors use of tube amps in the power stage. This is why manufacturers have for a long long been making combination amplifiers (combos).
In combos, a tube preamp feeds a well-shaped tone to a solid state power stage. When you choose this kind of amp, you get the best of both worlds: the lively, coherent and sustained harmonics of a tube amp, and the tidy, powerful and reliable output of a solid state amp.