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Vacuum tubes were actually invented in 1906 and they mostly have been replaced by the transistor which was firstly created in 1947. And that basically makes vacuum tubes a relic of the past. Well, if you search for tube amplifiers on eBay or Amazon, then you can actually still find lots of products that feature those old school vacuum tubes. Which begs the question, what makes them so special that after 100 years?
I actually found someone who ordered such a tube amplifier and in this post we will have a closer look at it and whether it truly makes sense to still use them. Let’s get started. First let’s have a closer look at the tube amplifier that he bought himself in the name of science for around 80 euro. I have to say that I really do like the effects and that you can easily replace the tubes and the all metal enclosure which looks and feels pretty high quality.
All the knobs and outputs/inputs also made a very good impression because you can either connect a stereo signal through wires connected to the amp or via Bluetooth. And for the outputs, you can either hook up speakers or simply plug in headphones. Now before taking anything apart. I actually played back a couple of songs with this amplifier and then compared it to the audio output quality of my phone.
DO TUBES SOUND BETTER THAN TRANSISTORS ?
I’m certainly no expert but by listening to both devices side by side, I have to say that the tube amp offers a more pleasant sound spectrum. The only real advantage that tube amps offer is that they do not clip like transistors or solid state amps when over driven.
We keep trying to qualify these things as better or worse without putting them into context ; transistors circuitry is better for a number of things but not everything just as tubes are better at some things and not everything. For example, vacuum tubes, unless you’re a guitar player are not great for power amplifiers. That’s not a great use of a vacuum tube because it is basically a voltage amplification device. That’s where it’s sweet spot is when they work in other applications.
I mean vacuum tubes were used as bridge rectifiers for many years which powered every radio station and television station in the world putting up 50,000 watts with these massively big tubes. I mean, yes they can do it because every power amplifier ever made had them for years. All vacuum tubes. Now they have to be transformer coupled in general and there’s all kinds of tricks you have to do to control the flow of current through a vacuum tube. Again, not the best application.
Take that back over to transistors. Transistors or solid state amps are basically current amplifiers depending on if it’s a MOSFET or a BJT or your regular bipolar transistors that are definitely in current amplifying devices and they can be used as voltage amplifying devices in the same way that voltage amplification devices can be used to do current.
So we have to be specific in what we are looking at when making a judgement on them. Tubes are used in higher end products but they should be used where they fit perfectly and give us great musical benefit in the input stage where it’s a pure voltage amplifier.
There’s just almost nothing as good as a vacuum tube as a pure voltage amplifier. MOSFETS get close but they’re not as good as a vacuum tube. What are the restrictions ? Well I mean tubes are expensive and are also hard to power.
So therefore the question is, Why bother getting a tube preamp ? And for me the key word here is holographic and air. Every time when I go listen to a preamp and listen for this, when you close your eyes, if you can imagine yourself able to walk around a singer and walk between the instruments, that’s a good vacuum tube preamp.
You can say, “Well my solid state does the same!” What I mean is that it can separate equipment very well. I’ll put it this way. If you have a $3,000 top of the line solid state amplifier and a $3,000 top of the line tube, the tube will be doing maybe 50% better than the solid state.
So if, for those of you who are into solid state and you think that right now my system is very holographic, and I can really separate the instruments, just multiply that by 50%. That’s what a tube does.
I will say it like this, if you’re using solid state, you have to squeeze in between the instruments, if you picture yourself able to walk around it with a tube preamp, you can walk around each instrument easily. And there’s a sense of layer and stage and 3d holographic-ness. Once I heard that, I got it. And then every time when I listened to the setup, I listened for that. It’s that ability to walk around the singer and the ability to walk around the illusion of walking in between instruments.
If you combine a solid state amp with a tube preamp, yeah you have that sense of air but it’s just not the same with a full setup. So the downside of having a tube setup is flow noise for me, and of course bass control is just not the same. That’s part of the reason why I moved away from that setup because I felt like, you know, it’s not good enough as the solid state in terms of bass control. So there’s pros and cons to both.
HOW COMES TUBES SOUND DIFFERENT ?
So to summarize it all, tubes sound different because;
- The distortion factor there is high. Some like the sound this distortion brings and refer to it as sounding warm and sweet. Some people see this as making them sound better than solid state amplifiers.
- Tube amps produce lower levels of high level distortion vs solid state amps
- Many of the audible differences come from the single-ended Triode Class A designs.
- Class AB push-pull Tube designs using many output devices often measure and sound similar to solid state designs.
However, solid state designs is the future and the modifications being made to them every year are making them better and better. Therefore it comes down to your level of sound preference. I must admit that the tube amps look nice and have a catchy design that looks very high end. It would appeal to those people who enjoy having that type of antique finish.
Tube amps are also more expensive to make, are less efficient (take too much power and space) as the frequency response changes with the load being provided. They also have a worse noise figure, reduced resolution of fine details at low levels.
There are also some solid state amps that look nice and have that modern feel to them that other people may like. In terms of sound, the major difference is how the sound stage is presented. Tube amps are for you if you want a more holographic sound stage that you can picture yourself walking through the stage as the musicians play the instruments. For raw power and bass, the solid state amps will be the ones to go for.
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