If you ever want to watch a whole bunch of guitar players get mad at the same time, go to a busy guitar store and yell out “TUBE AMPS SUCK’!!!” Then watch the reaction. This one has been debated since transistors started to replace vacuum tubes in amplifiers in the 1970s. There have been countless scientific studies done on performance of these two styles of device and even more opinions on them. Well, here is one more!
The timing of my existence on this planet coincides well with the changes in modern music technology. I am old enough to have owned record players, 8 track players, dual cassette (my first real stereo system had all of those combined!!) and plenty of tube amps and young enough to have tried much of the newer digital and transistor based technology. Since I play guitar and bass as well as being in the audiophile business, I can comment from a few different perspectives.
So is one better than the other? It depends on what your uses are. For my live bass amp rigs, I have several options. The top of the heap is one of those big ol’ Ampeg refrigerator amps. It has 8 10” speakers in its 165 lb cabinet and 300 watts powering the beautiful blue glow of 5 vacuum tubes inside the 80 lb amp housing. Fire that thing up with a nice P bass and you can’t stop smiling. It sounds awesome and feels awesome too; feeling the pulses those speakers are pumping through the air. Any bass player knows about these things. I haven’t played mine in about 6 years. Why? Because I am not lugging around almost 250 lbs of amplifier and I will shake the very foundation of my house if I use it there.
You know what I use now? A small Class D transistor amp about the size of a car stereo that weighs 4 lbs, a 12-inch speaker that weighs about 30 lbs and a bag for some cables and a few pedals. I can carry the whole rig and my bass in my two hands with no problem. I used this at the last show I did at an outdoor venue with about 1,000 people. I had it turned up about half way on the volume. This little rig sounds pretty good and gives you a little thump since the cabinet is high quality and obviously the logistics of carrying it are far better.
So even though that great big amp sounds a lot better than the little rig, it is just not practical to drag it around. The other end of that is in live playing. Oftentimes you are thrilled to get a stage sound that sounds even a little good to you. Bass in particular is hard since its sound waves are long and where you are standing can have a big impact on what you hear. Every venue is a little different too. So to me, the sound quality loss I get from using the little transistor rig is virtually unnoticeable on stage. Combine that with the very portable amp and speaker and the fact that the transistors are much less likely to break down in the middle of a show than their tube counterparts, it is hard to argue against the transistor amps – even the smaller inexpensive ones.
Also, the public address (PA) systems have come a long, long way in their volume and quality. The reason my giant bass amp and those big stacks of Marshall amps all the guitar gods used to play were built was because the PA systems were not big enough to get enough volume in the big clubs and stadiums. So those amplifiers were built for the audience to hear as much as the musicians. Now with monster PAs and terrific monitoring systems for the musicians, you can let the PA do the work for the audience and you can bring your overall stage volume down and use smaller amps.
The other newer technology I have got into is the guitar amp simulators and emulators. Basically what they do is use computer programs to simulate different types of amplifiers (tube and solid state), speaker cabinets, effects pedals, even different rooms and ambiances, etc. Again, the convenience factor of the new technology is amazing. You can get all that stuff in something you can hold in one hand.
So if you pull out your favorite Strat, dial up the Marshall Plexi amp with a 4×10 cab, add a wah and a little distortion, you can sound like Jimi Hendrix in a couple of minutes. Or change it to a Supro amp grab a Les Paul and its “Whole Lotta Love Time.” All those things are in there and honestly, they sound really good. It is the same thing as my bass amp or does it sound as good as the big tube amp? No, it really doesn’t; but all the conveniences transistor and digital devices offer – plus their cheaper cost – make them very hard to beat for live performances. I would argue that it would be hard for almost anyone to tell the difference in sound between a real tube amp and a simulated one at a live concert. I once was involved with setting up the sound for a concert Les Paul himself was performing. He asked for a Fender Twin Reverb (tube amp) and a Roland JC 120 (solid state). There is obviously a place for both designs!
Let’s move on to the studio now. Here is where the tube amps can really shine. I have used high quality audio simulator programs many times in my recording for bass. In fact, most of the recording of bass I have done doesn’t involve an amplifier at all. I typically will run direct into the recording counsel and let the engineer play with the sound. It usually sounds very good. But this is bass and it is a little different animal than the guitar.
If you aren’t familiar with recording, you might be surprised how a guitar or bass tone that sounds excellent in the room, doesn’t end up mixing as well with the other tracks on the recording. If you get too much noise in the same frequency ranges (most rock instruments and voice overlap frequencies a bit) it can really make a mess of things. Conversely, the guitarist might have some really shrill high midrange tone that sounds bad on its own, but mix it in with the rest of the group and it sits right where it should in the mix.
For the electric guitar, the sounds of a good tube amplifier are hard to beat and in the controlled environment of a studio, you can really transfer that sound into a recording and in my opinion it is noticeable. There is also a certain feel of the amp that is more noticeable to me in a tube amp than solid state. In some cases a very clean dry sound is called for; and solid state amps are great for that. The simulators and new digital effects are getting really good and have their own unique sound and offer new palettes for artists.
So in the studio, the tube amps definitely have certain characteristics to them that people really enjoy. If you want to sound like the big guitar gods of 50s-80s or the old blues masters, there really is no substitute for a tube amp. But the new technology is really pushing that stereotype and offers other sounds and luxuries the old tube amps can’t possibly keep up with.
I haven’t really touched on car and home stereos and I am already getting long-winded, but the same principles apply here too. For car stereos, home theater surround sound systems, outdoor entertainment areas, etc- transistors are the only real way to go. The biggest issue there isn’t even sound; it’s size, heat and energy. Without getting into all the details of the different types of amplifiers, one big disadvantage to tube amps is they eat and waste a lot of electricity. They are very inefficient (especially class A). Most of the energy is turned into heat so they get very hot and requires large heat sinks which are very heavy. Tubes are made of glass and are also fragile and require more service so you need to be able to get at them. You can get much more volume and efficiency out of smaller transistor components, they are considerably lighter, cheaper, very reliable, oh and they sound great. In my opinion, if you are listening to CDs or streaming files – Mp3s etc. (even at home) – solid state is the way to go. Although I have not heard any in person, the audiophile grade Class D amps are really creating a wave in that world too so check some out if you get a chance and let me know what you think.
For some of the vinyl lovers (myself included), the old tube amps are the best. There is something just kind of magical about the glow of the tubes and listening to music that was recorded with tube equipment on tube equipment. I would like to tell you that you could blindfold me and I would be able to tell you instantly if it was vinyl or digital or came from a tube amp or not, but the fact of the matter is I probably couldn’t. But I guess it is like a placebo. It sounds, looks and feels better to me; and so it is. Purely opinion of course; but my argument isn’t so much that the tubes really sound significantly better – it is the whole package. It’s kind of like a full moon on Halloween or the smell of the rain on a summer’s day. Some things just seem right together. So if you can do it and are into vinyl, I would highly recommend a nice vacuum tube amplifier. I am in the process of putting a new system together for myself as I write this. It will be a tube amp based system and it will be for playing vinyl only. I will post some pictures when I get it done.
Try listening intently yourself using a few different mediums. At the very least, you will probably notice you hear different aspects of the same song come out on different devices. For example, listen to ‘“Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” on your headphones, your car stereo, your home theater, on tape, vinyl and CD – if you have them all. You will probably notice you hear the piano more on one device or the drum cymbals really come through on another. Let me know what you discover!!