One of the longest running debates amongst musicians and audiophiles is the question of tube amps vs solid state amps. On both sides of the debate you’ll find both reasoned rationales and slavish devotion – when it comes to shopping for a new amplifier, how can you understand all the different perspectives and make a good decision? I’m here to help!
In our tube amp vs. solid-state standoff, we will explain each type’s features, pros, and cons. So, keep on reading to learn everything you should know about tube amps and solid-state amps.
Tube Amps and Solid Amps: What are They?
Amps or amplifiers are electronic devices that are used to make electronic signals stronger. In the case of a guitar or a keyboard, they’re used to make the output volume higher and stronger when it’s connected to speakers.
There are four different types of guitar amps, and each one of them is used to create a unique effect.
- Tube amps.
- Solid-state amps.
- Modeling amps.
- Hybrid amps.
Tube amps and solid-state amps represent the two basic types that the other types emerge from. So, we will focus on them in this article.
If you’ve ever been around guitarists or audiophiles, you’ve probably heard them talking about tube amps. Also known as valve amps, they represent the core of amp technology and are known to produce the best and most versatile tones in several settings. Even with the evolution of other amps, tube amps still hold a soft spot in the hearts of many guitarists.
The name of the tube amp refers to the vacuum tube, which represents the core of its operation. The process is explained by the simple laws of physics that state the negative charges are attracted to positive charges.
Inside the amp, a vacuum tube with a cathode carries a slight positive charge and an anode that carries a positive charge. When you play the guitar after connecting it to electricity, the cathode is activated and starts to release electrons inside the tube. These electrons hit a grid that stands between the cathode and the anode, which they try to reach. This movement creates the amplified signal that increases the volume and adds effect to your tones.
When you crank up the tube, the filaments will get hot enough to break up the signal to create an overdrive. This is why tube amps are known to produce warm tones, although there are more versatile models that add distortion and buzzing.
One of the factors that make tube amps more appealing is that they add an element of vintage. Since this is old technology, many audiophiles love to stick to this ancient yet reliable technology that was used by the world’s legends.
While they’re quite popular, choosing the right amp is a matter of personal choice and research. Tube amps work for almost every genre, but you as a guitarist should have your personal input and style. This is why you need to do a little research to make sure that you’ve picked an amplifier that fits your needs.
Things can become quite challenging for a novice guitarist because tube amps are quite popular. However, you need to understand that they’re not for everyone.
As the technology evolved, a new type of guitar amp was invented. Solid-state amps amplify sound signals, just like tube amps. But they look and function differently.
Instead of a vacuum tube, a solid-state amp has a transistor on a printed circuit board. This transistor is durable and lightweight. It’s also easier to maintain and doesn’t burn out.
Solid-state amps have become more appealing to amateur guitarists and audiophiles because they represent a huge drop in weight and price. However, professional guitarists usually think otherwise.
Although they’re not bad per se, compared to tube amps, solid-state amps seem cold. They might work for you if you want clean and smooth sounds when you’re playing Jazz or electronic. However, they lack the texture, body, and uniqueness that you can achieve when you crank up a tube amp.
For this reason, tube amps are more popular. They can be manipulated to produce different audio outputs, while solid-state amps will only create one clean output.
In addition to these two types, there are other amps that combine several features that appeal to music lovers.
Modeling amps are also called digital guitar amps. These represent an evolution over solid-state amps as they try to reproduce a tone from a different type of amp. They’re flexible as they provide access to an unlimited number of modes, effects, and presets.
Some guitarists, especially professional ones, immediately started hating these amps when they were first introduced. It’s true that the early models weren’t impressive, but there’s no doubt that digital modeling amps managed to overcome their shortcomings over time.
These improvements quickly narrowed the gap between a real amp and a digital or modeled amp. Today, we can safely say that it might be difficult to distinguish between a real and a modeled amp.
Nevertheless, there are still audiophiles and guitarists that still believe that nothing beats the real thing. Think of it as someone who chooses to go without a smartphone in a world that is becoming more digital by the second.
Modeling amps actually grant you access to the guitar tones that can be achieved using hundreds of different amps in a single unit. This is why they’re quite popular among novice guitarists and hobbyists, as they can allow you to experiment with different styles. They’re also easy to transport and use.
However, some professional guitarists still find them fake and lifeless. They would rather stick to the good old amps with all the limitations that actually make them feel real.
As a matter of fact, this “perfect” sense that modeling amps try to deliver is the very same reason why some guitarists hate them. As nothing about music should be perfect, and what is the definition of perfect anyway? They feel that they lack depth, although they try to mimic it.
Despite being flexible, light, and usually more affordable than other types, modeling amps are still not quite popular. However, their technology keeps on improving, so you might fall in love with them one day.
Hybrid amps represent a mix of different amp technologies. They’re designed to give you the best of both worlds, the warm texture and unique tones of tube amps and the flexibility of solid-state amps. In theory, the idea seems quite tempting, but hybrid amps can be quite disappointing in reality.
As a matter of fact, only a few guitarists prefer these amps simply because they lack character. They’re trying to achieve too many things at the same time and usually end up achieving nothing. In short, they offer a compromised version of how other amps work, offering versatility instead of quality.
However, for some guitarists, a hybrid amp will be a chance to experiment with a modeling amp. It will be more real than a modeling amp that depends solely on mimicking how a real amp works.
Again, choosing the right amp is a matter of personal preference as there’s no right or wrong. Needless to say, that for amateur guitarists, experimenting with several amps can be a fun learning experience, as you still don’t have to commit to a single one unless you’re sure about what you really want.
If this is the case, a hybrid amp will be a good choice as you literally try a slightly compromised version of how different amps work. Compared to modeling amps, the hybrid ones are heavier and more expensive, as they provide access to more tones and effects. However, in most cases, the difference in performance might not be worth noticing.
Transistors Vs Tubes
The main difference between tube amps and solid-state amps is the heart of their construction. Tube amps use vacuum tubes, while solid-state amps use the more modern transistors. Tube amps started out in the first part of the century and dominated the market until the 1970s.
Tube amps work thanks to three elements: the cathode, the plate, and the grid. The cathode heats up and creates a cloud of negatively-charged electrons. The plate is a positively-charged electrode which then attracts all of these electrons. In the middle is the grid. It disrupts the electron flow between the cathode and the plate depending on the input it receives from an instrument, which helps reproduce the sound faithfully.
Solid-state amps work differently. There are still three sections though. First, an input driver circuit directly amplifies the input signal by a factor of 20 to 50. Next is the output circuit. This has output transistors adding current to the amplified signal. The signal is then sent to the speaker. The third section powers it all by converting 110V / 22OV AC mains to 2 DC. This powers the entire amp.
Solid-state amps have that name is since electricity moves through solid material instead of the vacuum of a tube. Theey first hit the scene in the 60s and have become a major part of the market since then.
Whether tube amps are better because of these differences is up in the air though. Let’s go through them anyway so that you can learn more about the factual basis of the tube amp/solid-state amp debate.
One of the big advantages that tube amps have is in the creation of harmonic distortion. Distortion sounds like a bad thing but for musicians it is something they want to happen. Guitarists early in the 20th century managed to create distortions by turning their amps to their highest volume setting.
Distortions from tube amps are usually second-order. This means it is the same sound, but an octave higher. The result is an interesting musical effect that is actually quite pleasant to the ear.
Solid-state amps do not have this because they actually reduce the amount of distortion. The result is a clearer sound. But, there are no pleasant surprises that come with the distortion. This is why a lot more people think of tube amp-produced sounds as more natural.
Tube amps also encourage distortions. Distortions naturally occur as you play an instrument louder. The distortion created is harmonic in nature, which means it actually sounds like it is a natural part of the sound instead of an addition.
Tube amps add even more to the distortions as the sound progresses higher. When sound technicians measure tube amp performance, the distortions increases as the sound goes up in volume. Solid-state amps actually reduce the distortions as the volume increases. It actually starts to clip as it goes higher, resulting in low-quality sound.
Clipping is a specific sort of distortion that happens when an instrument hits its audio limits. A lot of people like it when it happens. Electric guitar players are one example of those who want their guitars to clip.
The effect is like having a sound hit its limits and go no farther. Audio recordings of solid-state amp sounds have this as a wave form with a flat top. Tube amps have a different way of handling overloads. Instead of a flat clip, it is actually gradual. This is because there is no definite limit to their capacity, so their waveforms curve more than a flat termination.
Tube amps have a more realistic setting for power levels and sound outputs. Solid-state amps often have strange extremes. They often reach wattage that is unreasonable and have a range of sound that is too wide.
Most of the time, music only needs a few watts to perform well. Tube amps range from 8 to 80 watts. Solid-state amps can reach 300 watts. This is terribly inefficient since only concert hall performers would need that high a range.
The audio differences are just one part of the mix. Tube amps and solid-state amps exhibit physical differences, too, thanks to their mode of construction. For one, tube amps tend to be heavier.
This is because of all the components that require. Tube amp parts also tend to be a lot bigger than solid-state amp parts. Solid-state amps have circuit boards and not much else to worry about.
Another problem that pops up with vacuum tubes is their fragility. Notice that the cathode heats up during operation. You can only guess how much punishment it goes through when it is in use. Eventually, the tubes break down and need replacement. Solid-state amps keep on working no matter what.
You may also notice the price tag. A lot of tube amps have hefty price tags. For beginning musicians, a solid-state amp is their primary choice for a starting amp.
What are the Pros and Cons of Tube Amps vs. Solid-State?
As we explained earlier, most guitarists will either fall in love with tube amps or solid-state amps. In most cases, this can be related to the music genres and setup they usually go for. However, there are several exceptions, and it shouldn’t be surprising to see a Jazz performer rocking a tube amp or a metal guitarist cranking up a solid-state amp.
Because each one of them works according to a different mechanism and produces different sounds, we needed to analyze the pros and cons of each amp to help you choose the right one for you.
Pros of Tube Amps
The oldest amplifiers come with a list of advantages that have managed to make them the number one choice for many audiophiles and guitarists.
- Tube amps produce textured tones that have character and depth. For many guitarists and music lovers, they’re considered to create the best tones. But because the definition of “best” is relative, they usually refer to the dimension that tube amps add to the music.
- Tube amps add the vintage effect to music performances. These amps have been around for decades, with no or little change in the way they’re made and operate. As a result, when you’re using a tube amp, you know that you’re using a technology that rock and metal legends have used to create their masterpiece.
- Compared to other amps, tube amps are actually simple to use. The technology is quite simple, and you can easily fine-tune your amp to be more suitable for your music style.
- You can actually build your tube amp. Although this is an extensive DIY project, it’s not impossible.
Cons of Tube Amps
Although they’re extremely popular, solid-state amps come with some disadvantages.
- Tube amps are heavy.
- Although they’re simple, they require more maintenance and are quite fragile. Unless you’re careful, the vacuum tube can be easily broken.
- Tube amps are also heavy.
Pros of Solid-State Amps
Designed to produce different tones, solid-state amps represent a good alternative to audiophiles and guitarists. Here are some of their pros
- The transistor on a solid-state amp is highly durable compared to the vacuum tubes on a tube amp.
- Solid-state amps don’t require regular maintenance.
- Solid amps are lightweight, so they’re more suitable for practice lessons.
- They’re cheaper than other types of amps.
Cons of Solid-State Amps
The limitations of solid-state amps turn off some guitarists.
- The clean sounds produced by solid-state amps lack texture and depth.
- They’re less versatile than other amps.
- They’ve lost some of their previous popularity to modeling amps that try to overcome their shortcomings.
Should You Build an Amp?
Building a guitar amp from scratch is a fun project that allows you to customize the music output according to your preferences. However, for most musicians and audiophiles, the cost and time needed to build an amp might not be realistic.
Nowadays, there are several types of amps that come in every shape and size to cater to different needs. However, if your main goal is to learn about electronics and how amps work, building your own can be an amazing DIY project. Here are the pros and cons of building your own amp.
- Creating your own DIY amp is an affordable option. This is true, especially if you’re a hobbyist on a tight budget and want to crank up your amp to the maximum. If you can’t afford one of the most powerful models, building your own can be the next best thing.
- It’s a good chance to examine and understand the different components of an amp and how it affects audio.
- You will have a better understanding of different audio components as you build your own amp.
- You need to buy a lot of tools and spend quite some time before your amp is ready for use.
- Dealing with several electronic components can represent a safety hazard.
- The overall quality of the finished amp is questionable, so you might still have to buy a ready-made one.
When and Which Amplifier to Use?
Now that you know the differences between types of amplifiers, you’re probably wondering about when to use each one. Yes, it’s true that tube amps are extremely popular, they’re not the most suitable amps to use in every situation.
In addition to guitars, amplifiers are used in every device where you want to boost its signal. Here are some of the applications of amplifiers and which ones to use.
Amplifiers represent a crucial component of stereo and audio systems. Installing a solid-state amp will produce an output sound that is as close as possible to the original sound recorded. It lacks all color, effect, or texture that might appeal to a few.
Depending on your favorite music genre, installing a solid-state amp might be what you need. Electronic and classical music sound better through a solid-state amp that recreates clean and smooth tones.
However, if you enjoy other genres that focus on depth and character, a tube amp might be what you need. The color and dimension it adds to music make every musical composition more unique and layered.
A tube amp allows you to have more control over how an instrument sounds. You can walk around every instrument, isolate it, and manipulate it to create a customized audio version. In short, tube amps create a holographic image for your audio, so they’re more popular in stereo devices.
In most cases, installing a tube amp will create the needed effect while you’re playing in a gig. A tube amp will not only amplify the volume but will also add the needed texture and layer that your music might otherwise lack.
Tube amps can be fine-tuned to add this texture that works for various music genres. You can add a little effect or go over the top, based on the setting and music genre.
Modeling amps also work because they’re versatile. They can be used to add the effects created by tube amps, but they’re easier to control. Some musicians prefer solid-state amps in gigs because the clean and relatively flat tones are what they really look for.
Although tube amps add the needed texture, they might not work for you if you’re recording live. The reason is that all these layers can become undesirable once the performance is recorded and edited.
In this setting, a solid-state amp might be a better option as it allows music editing to be more straightforward. Different digital effects can be later added to the music unless it’s required not to edit or change the music produced in the first place.
While watching your favorite movies and TV series, you want the sound output to be clear and precise. For this reason, a solid-state amp is the most appropriate option as it reproduces the audio just the way it was produced in the first place.
Solid-state amps make speech dialogues clear and easy to understand and don’t alter the music score created by a famous composer. Any texture or distortion that would otherwise work in a different setting would be less desirable in a home theatre.
Nevertheless, some people go for tube amps as they can be easily manipulated to isolate different audio components. They can be customized to add the needed audio effects whether you’re listening to music or dialogue.
With different types of amplifiers on the market, finding the right one can be a little tricky. A tube amp is more popular, especially among hardcore audiophiles and guitarists. However, in some cases, the clean and flat tones created by a solid-state amp can be desirable. Therefore, it’s crucial to think of your music genre and the setting before picking an amp.