The debate over which amp is louder, tube or solid-state, has been going on for years. A lot of opinions seem to favor tube amps due to their power capacity, but others argue that this is just a myth.
With all the back and forth discussions, it’s time to put this everlasting topic to rest. Are tube amps louder than solid-state amps? Well, let’s find out!
The straightforward answer would be no, then yes. But before you get all worked up, I can explain. You see, a tube amp isn’t built louder than a solid-state amp of the same power rating. However, it does sound louder, which is entirely different.
This means that you just perceive the output of a tube amp as being louder when in reality, both amps are equally rated. So the question now becomes: why do tube amps sound louder than solid-state amps, given they have identical power to work with?
Why Do Tube Amps Sound Louder Than Solid-State Amps?
This is the result of several factors, but the most predominant one is the headroom and how each type manages the power input.
On one hand, we have tube amps that gradually clip and lose headroom, pushing the system into overdrive as you crank up the volume. This means that before completely flattening out into square-wave rectification, the sound will gradually become more harmonic and compressed as your tube amp maintains the sweet overdrive range.
If you’re working with a really high-powered tube amp, say like a 100-watt unit, you’ll be able to push it further and further before crossing the line and reaching the breakup point. Even then, the tube amp will demonstrate a slow increase in distortion.
So for tube amps, you can turn up the volume really loud but still get some incredible sound out of it.
On the other hand, solid-state amps have a totally different approach when it comes to cranking the volume. Unlike tube amps, there’s no gradual drifting into overdrive, and once you get there, you can’t ask for more. Things will only get ugly once a solid-state amp reaches its maximum accessible power.
To put it simply, if you’re working with a solid-state amp, you can only turn the volume up to a certain limit to achieve clear sounds. Otherwise, you may end up with a full-fuzz situation as the amp gets over distorted just past its limits.
Consequently, if you got a 50-watt tube amp and a 50-watt solid-state amp, you’re more likely to think that the 50-watt tube amp delivers a louder output. But now you know better, so you can be more accurate and say that the tube amp just sounds louder and it works better when you demand a louder performance.
After all, both amps are working with equal power, and as far as technicality goes, they’re of the same rating. The difference truly lies in the practical aspect of tube amps; they can do more with the available power than solid-state amps ever could.
This translates into tube amps having more headroom than solid-state amps, making tube amps extra capable.
If you feel like you still need some convincing, you’ll be pleased to know that this whole mechanism has been proved by actual scientific work done on tube preamplifiers.
It was found that when tube amps are pushed outside their linear region, the harmonics they produce for the first 12dB of overdrive will trick the human ear into perceiving that the sounds are getting louder. But in reality, the sound is getting gradually more distorted.
This acoustic trick is how tube amps can sound up to 12dB louder in comparison to a normal, undistorted solid-state amp.
Moreover, while a solid-state amp and a tube amp of the same power may distort at the same signal level, the distortion of the solid-state amp isn’t subtle or progressive. You’ll hear it as a fuzzy distortion rather than a “louder” sound.
Other Reasons Why Tube Amp Sound Louder Than Solid State Amps
As we mentioned above, there are additional factors that contribute to tube amps sounding louder than solid-state amps. It’s not just about the headroom, the quality of the connected components can make a significant difference as well.
Let’s assume there are two men of equal size and strength. We give one of them a steel hammer and we give the second a wooden hammer. Now, let’s ask them to hammer some railroad spikes.
Obviously, the guy with the steel hammer will do a better job, but not because he’s more powerful rather than he has the superior tool.
Applying the same concept to the topic at hand, we can expect a notable difference in “loudness” if we compare a high-quality tube amp to a low-quality solid-state amp. It doesn’t matter if they work with identical wattage ratings, the amp with the better “tools” will prevail.
Another similar case is when musicians tend to connect the usually more expensive tube amps to higher quality speakers. Since higher quality speakers will automatically have greater efficiency, people will probably judge tube amps as being louder, when it’s, in fact, the result of the speakers being louder.
The bottom line here is that watts shouldn’t be regarded as a direct correlation to loudness. We’re not saying that watts aren’t a big part of it, but by now it should be clear that a lot of other factors can affect the final loudness outcome.
It’s also worth pointing out that tube amps weren’t always the winner of the louder contest. Some older models of solid-state amps (from the 80s and 90s) could totally peel the paint off your walls, such as old Peavys and Kustoms.
So to answer the question “are tube amps louder than solid-state amps?”, we can safely say that it depends.
For the most part, tube amps will sound louder at identical power ratings due to their gradual distortion, as opposed to the full-blown distortion of solid-state amps once you go beyond their limits. In other words, the headroom gets the final say.