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Thread: Solid State vs. Tube Amps

  1. #1
    Steve Gonzales
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    Solid State vs. Tube Amps

    Solid State vs. Tube Amps












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    <!-- / icon and title --><!-- message -->I would like to hear about the difference in these two types of amplifiers. Maybe de-bunk some myths and some in-depth explanation of the pros and cons of both types. Other than the obvious differences, why does a low watt tube amp seem to be more powerful than it's rating would suggest?. I am a Solid State guy myself and even with 90db plus efficient speakers, I find that peaks of 200+ watts are not uncommon to see with today's Digital recordings and their wide dynamic range. I see tube guys freak-out when I mention that many watts, like I'm deaf and need 110db's just to enjoy the music. Nothing could be further from the truth. I also find that just the ambient noise level in the city causes me to double my average power level (duh) and wonder how some 8 wpc SET could EVER power, say, some Altec 19's or JBL L300's?. I realize that alot of pure horn designs of the golden era simply had to have sensitivity ratings in 100-105db + @1w/1m due to the state of amplifier evolution back then. I spoke to a good friend, Electronics Engineer and former JBL pro dealer, Mr Jack Sproul, about this and he said that when you get down to the nuts and bolts of a tube amp, it's old hat. Their distortion levels and performance (generally) can't even begin to compete with State of the Art SS amps. His opinion is that the tube "purists" are really in love with how a tube amp COLORS the signal!. That "warmth" that is often associated with tube amps is a by-product of component limits/characteristics, topology and is inherent in the basic tube amplifier design and that this produces a type of naturally occurring E.Q. I LOVE audio and admire and RESPECT EVERYONE'S CHOICE for their own set-up. I've listened to some REALLY GREAT tube amps recently (Audio Research) and must admit that they were DEAD QUIET, SWEET and projected a WONDERFUL SOUNDSTAGE!. I am curious to hear your opinions about this. My best friend, Mr David Brink, will be building a quad (as in 4)-amped system using 300B based amps on top and EL34 for mid/midbass and maybe a big CJ on bottom or SS Perraux. I can see where in this type of system, that a small amp can be used to power efficient drivers to deafening levels but, I can't see how you can power a big, passively crossed-over, relatively efficient speaker of 90db @1w/1m and get the most out of well recorded music. I must stress that this is not a FEUD!, no, I SEEK to be ENLIGHTENED by those with REAL WORLD experience. I will say thank you to all that understand and respond with that in mind. Lordy!, I'm almost scared to get into tubes, because if it turns out to be the next best thing to sliced bread, I might have to save some extra money for the divorce , Sincerely, Steve G






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  2. #2
    Senior Member 57BELAIRE's Avatar
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    Great question...I'm sure you'll get an engineer onboard to explain in depth the technical aspects, but I can offer some personal insight with tubes vs. transistors.

    Tube amps have always been the preferred choice for musical instrument amplification, especially electric guitar. There is a warmth and "musicality" inherent with tubes that was explained to me by a tech ""it's all about even harmonics". I don't know about that, but when I switched over to a s.s Standel amp from a tube Fender, that lasted about 5 minutes. The overall sound was harsh and brittle. Gone was that sweet "overdrive" and smooth distortion...a hallmark of tube amps.

    As power requirements for live performances increased, the need for larger amps paved the way for small, powerful, cheaper solid state designs. A typical 300 watt s.s amp weighed in at about 15 lb. compared to the all-tube Ampeg SVT at around 85 lbs. To this day an all-tube amp will usually cost twice as much as it's transistorized counterpart.

    Enter the "hybrid amps" which I happen to subscribe to. A single 12AX7 is inserted in the preamp circuitry and the power amp is solid state. The attack of the note is softened which results in a somewhat "sweeter" sound.

    As far as my personal preferences for home listening...I try to recreate the sound of a live performance, stage center, so give me gobs of clean wattage.

    So far 1200+ watts of transistorized power is doing me just fine...

  3. #3
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    Quad (the company) engineer speaks on tubes - ca 1978

    Mike Albinson: (Walker's engineering assistant) If you want a subject fraught with idiocies, at the moment there's this craze that valve (tube) amplifiers are better. and that Quad II valve amplifiers are now the best, in terms of reproduction. Read through the technical press of about twelve years ago and you will learn that transistors are much better than valves and the valve amplifier is dead on its feet. Now today it is having a grand revival! It's fashion - there's no reality to it. A modern transistor amplifier is better on any count you care to mention than the Quad II was, with the possible exception, that if you must go and overdrive the thing the valve amplifier does show marginal differences. There have been a few bad transistor amplifiers. It's easier to make a bad transistor amplifier than a bad valve amplifier. However you made the valve amplifier, it might hum or something. but usually it was reasonable linear.

    http://www.onethingaudio.com/FOR/QUA...GEN-HIS-PW.htm


    John Nebel

  4. #4
    RIP 2011 Zilch's Avatar
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    "Fraught with idiocies, there's no reality to it."

    [Just $$$$!]

    That about sums it up....

  5. #5
    Senior Member alskinner's Avatar
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    Good and bad

    Having tried numerous solid state and tube amps one thing is for certain it depends on who you ask as to which is better. There have been good advances in both. As for a personal preference I prefer tube amps driving compression drivers in that for me they take the edge or harshness off. In my four way four amped system I have a Audio Matriere Accordance EL34 based amp driving the 076 tweeters, a modified Dynaco ST-70 using the 16ohm taps driving the 2441 drivers, a Threshold Stasis 2 driving the 2 2012 midrange drivers and a Sunn SPL 9000 driving the 2235 woofers. I tried moving the amps arround to different drivers and found that for me getting the horn drivers to sound dynamic without harshness only worked with tubed amps. Also the soundstage really improved with this configuration. For Low Freq drivers I still prefer SS as I have found tubes for the most part to muddy up the bass. I know there are advocates for both sides of the issue. But for JBL Horns especially the older ones I haven't found anything better than tubes. Having said all that tube amps can be finicky and the brand or type of tubes can make a difference in the sound. But with a little electronic experience many of the old tube amps can be modified to produce some amazing results.

    Just my 2 cents worth

    AL

  6. #6
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    Thanks for that alskinner .

    I do believe there is a lot to this subject - just like I find that crossover caps need to be matched to the rest of the working system .

    F.I. : I find that MPP motor runs on horns "tame" the dynamics in certain frequency areas while being generous to the lower mids . This generally seems to offer a "lengthening of the tone or pulse" and is most dramatic on things like solo violin ( and specifically , Louis Armstrongs' trumpet playing - and he could always use a touch of added warmth to that horn ). This is not measurable with the standard complement of test gear . But these dynamic rearrangements readjust the harmonics and thus the timbre. This is all very apparent on compression drivers ( IME ).


  7. #7
    RIP 2010 scott fitlin's Avatar
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    Very much agreed!

    Quote Originally Posted by Earl K
    Thanks for that alskinner .

    I do believe there is a lot to this subject - just like I find that crossover caps need to be matched to the rest of the working system .

    F.I. : I find that MPP motor runs on horns "tame" the dynamics in certain frequency areas while being generous to the lower mids . This generally seems to offer a "lengthening of the tone or pulse" and is most dramatic on things like solo violin ( and specifically , Louis Armstrong trumpet playing - and he could always use a touch of added warmth ). This is not measurable with the standard complement of test gear . But these dynamic rearrangements readjust the harmonics and thus the timbre. This is all very apparent on compresion drivers ( IME ).

    Well said!
    scottyj

  8. #8
    Steve Gonzales
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    Lovin' it!

    Keep it flowing Gentlemen!!! Thank you!

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    Steve: Remember when I said "snake oil ?, I have not heard anything better than M Levinson or Krell, even moneywise, I do not want to spend that money, so I´m happy with a Crown K2, a Sony N77ES, and an N80ES.

  10. #10
    Senior Member alskinner's Avatar
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    Good Point Alex

    You are absolutly right about "snake oil". There are so many so called audiophile products out there that give marginal positive results for an extreme amount of money. Krell does build an outstanding amp but even the Krell I tried exhibited some harshness on the compression drivers being driven alone. That's why a lot of research has to go into designing an audio system that gives the personal pleasure that we all enjoy. In the world of "magical cables" and "status symbol" audio systems sometimes the best sound is found in experimentation. There are so many variables in audio reproduction that no single component will provide everything that's needed without all other components synced with it. I admit I am old school in a lot of ways, heck I remember winding my own chokes and inductors when I first got into ham radio., but also have a great appreciation of the advancements in audio technology. Same is true of solid state and tubed amps. There are a lot of high priced products that are built on the ability of the company to market rather than the quaility of the sound.

  11. #11
    Administrator Mr. Widget's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alex Lancaster
    Steve: Remember when I said "snake oil ?, I have not heard anything better than M Levinson or Krell...
    Well then there is personal preference. I have listened to several Krell amps over the years and I just haven't liked them. Obviously there are many who do and are willing to plop down big bucks to buy them.

    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Gonzales
    ...why does a low watt tube amp seem to be more powerful than it's rating would suggest?
    <!-- / message -->
    To quote Paul Klipsch, "B.S.!". The soft clipping typical of most tube amps gives them a warm fat sound as they are played beyond their rather low rated power. Essentially people are pouring in a bit of distortion into their musical mix. The distortion not only "warms" the music it also makes the music sound louder. If you compare a 40 watt SS amp to a 40 watt tube unit the 40 watt SS amp sounds painful at clipping and the tube amp "blooms". Obviously, if you go too deep into the distortion the tube amp sound goes to hell too.

    All that said, a really well made tube amp can have a very pleasing sound when used in multi-amp systems. There are also tube amps that do bass well, but they are rare and typically quite expensive.

    Widget

  12. #12
    Steve Gonzales
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    Now we're getting somewhere!

    Great USEABLE information!!!!. I realize that when a general question like this is posed, there are SO many factors that contribute to a what will be a person's own bottom line (taste in music ,system expectations, preferences,etc) is and consequently no one answer will cover this absolutely. I do appreciate the different trains of thought. I will try some tube amplification in my own system at some point, just to experience for myself. I now have a good baseline in which to start. I am glad to finally hear an explanation of why tube amps seem to have more power than their SS counterparts, thank you, that makes all the sense in the world Widget!. I also enjoyed the info about even harmonics. Great!. Also, thank you all for keeping it a discussion and not a war ( us vs. them). alskinner: you have almost the EXACT driver compliment as my Dream DYI JBL 4 way. They must sound "out of this world"!. Will you profile them in the new photo gallery?. Once again, thank you for sharing your knowledge so freely, Sincerely, Steve Gonzales

  13. #13
    Senior Member Steve Schell's Avatar
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    Hi Steve,

    Well, you've opened up a huge subject, one where folks are usually highly polarized in their preferences and beliefs (me too). The civil discourse here is such a relief from the usual flame war.

    I have been a fan of, and developed a preference for tube amps since I began building tube circuits in the mid '80s. The crummy looking little 6BQ5 integrated amp I found in the trash just seemed to make records come alive more than the solid state gear I had used up till then. I progressed through hotrodding Dynaco amps for awhile, checking my progress with comparisons to an Akai receiver and Sansui integrated amp. A friend and I dabbled with building up various single ended and output transformerless tube amps, some of which produced more smoke than sound. When Sound Practices magazine began in 1992 I moved into the world of directly heated triodes and large industrial horn speakers.

    When it comes to specifications and traditional measurements, it's no contest; a $150 SS receiver will outperform almost any tube amp. Setting that aside for a moment, there is this curious phenomenon where many thousands of listeners have come to prefer tube amplification. This goes way beyond being a mere fad. The popularity of tubes has been growing rapidly for more than twenty years now, and it is to the point where solid state gear is almost an endangered species at high end trade shows like CES. Could there be a reason for this beyond fad or fashion?

    It has been often stated that the simple triode is the most inherently linear amplifying device known to man. There is nothing warm, fuzzy, mushy, rolled off or distorted about a tube per se. The sound of any given amp is a result of its design and the behavior of the circuit under working conditions. Many of the common negative attributes of tube amps are due to inadequate power supply design, complexity, poor driver stages, bandwidth limited transformers etc. These can all be overcome by selecting the proper devices, using a good simple circuit, and building with the best quality parts. Sure, this costs money.

    Most tube amps will measure quite high total harmonic distortion. Many these days feel that THD measurements are grossly inadequate, as listening impressions so often disagree with the measurements. Tubes tend to be rich in low order harmonics and have very low levels of high order harmonics. Solid state circuits tend to have a more even distribution, and may measure much higher levels of upper harmonics despite a much lower THD spec. Low order harmonics, even in high levels, result in a slight change in the perceived timbre of sounds. High order harmonics, even in small amounts, can sound gritty, grating and harsh. Lynn Olson has suggested that harmonic distortion measurements should be weighted, with the amount of a particular harmonic being multiplied by its order, or perhaps even a square or cube of the order. There is little chance of this being adopted by the engineering community any time soon! Also, many amps of both types use high levels of negative feedback to achieve lower measured distortion, a technique that I have found to suck the life out of recordings, flatten the perception of depth and remove many subtleties such as reverberant decays and hall ambiance. Most of the best sounding, worst measuring amps use little or no NFB.

    My favorite home brewed amp uses all directly heated triodes in single ended configuration, with transformer coupling between the three stages and battery biasing of all tubes. This results in an extremely simple circuit, with no capacitors except for B+ filtering and only a small number of low value resistors. The transormers are all pricy, wide bandwidth designs. The output tube is a 45, capable of 1.6 watts, or as I like to say 1,600 milliwatts. Strange as it seems, it drives my system to very high levels without obvious clipping on all but the loudest demo material. Sure, it must be clipping transients some of the time, but I have yet to find another amplifier that makes recordings sound as real in my system as this one does. An amp like this can bring about an almost overwhelming sense of involvement with a good recording, providing more of a magic carpet ride than my Akai receiver and any amount of Maui Wowie did years ago.

  14. #14
    Steve Gonzales
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    order in the harmonics!

    Great post Steve. The distortion in the harmonics and their "order', is that like order=octaves and when you speak of timbre, I understand that to be the unique sonic signature of say a flute playing middle C as opposed to a piano? So, on paper, without the true weighting of the factors you describe, a tube amp is not as bad as specs would suggest. Interesting..., I was for years, playing the "numbers game", basing all my opinion on what HiFi magazine was reporting about Brand X's distortion figures. As you can probably tell, I just want to find out what can sound best, with an open mind, seeking out new things for improving the sound of my rig. This discussion has opened my eyes to more possibilities than ever before. I've just recently fell in love with compression driven horns and have heard and read about the sweet marriage between the two (tube amps & comp drivers). That response took some time to do and I appreciate EVERY second it you took to do so. Thanks Steve. Also, I hope to see some of your goodies in the new gallery section of the Forum, Best Regards, Steve Gonzales

  15. #15
    Super Moderator yggdrasil's Avatar
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    I have heard that tubes have limited lifetime and changes quite a lot over time.

    Can anyone elaborate on that?
    Johnny Haugen Sørgård

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