Tube amplification vs solid state

Summary:

Are tube guitar amps any "cleaner" than solid state units?

Main Question or Discussion Point

I am certain this has been answered...but I missed it. Why do so many guitar players swear by TUBE amps? My son-in-law says they just sound better. Because I was a TV/Radio service tech for 20 years with a degree from Elkins Institute, he asks me why? My guess was, maybe amplifying a signal through a vacuum is "cleaner" than amplification through a solid device. Many amps clean up the signal by clipping some frequencies and it could be good stuff is also lost. I graduated in 69 and got out of the business in 89...asking me tech questions is like asking Henry Ford about today's computer-controlled FI systems and smog devices.
 

Answers and Replies

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The whole audiophile area is a morass of emotions and irrationality. Perhaps as it should be as a subset of musical entertainment. After all, whose to say if distortion is good or bad, or whether acoustic guitars are better than electric?

Different amplifiers will sound different, at least in the opinion of listeners. I'm not sure it matters why, or if it can be explained well by an engineer. The story behind the equipment is often as significant as the sound it makes.

Honestly I gave up on trying to understand technology as perceived by audiophiles a long time ago. They never make sense from my perspective as an analog circuit designer. You will hardly ever here anyone talk about frequency response plots, output impedance, or IP3 distortion specs in this world; they prefer terms such as brighter, cleaner, richer, etc.

Furthermore, IMO, the consumer marketing to audiophiles is 99.999% crap.
 
davenn
Science Advisor
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Summary: Are tube guitar amps any "cleaner" than solid state units?

Many amps clean up the signal by clipping some frequencies and it could be good stuff is also lost.

clipping produces distortion, not a cleaner signal
 
460
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IMO guitar amps are more "instrument" than "reproduction system", that's why they talk about the sound of a marshal vs fender.

As soon as you want your amp to change or contribute to the original input, its no longer "clean", that does not mean its bad, its just now the design of it has a different intent.
 
367
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Sorry, if I implied that your question was dumb. It's not. I just don't expect that you'll get an answer that makes sense. Since the ultimate standard is "what do humans like".
 
tech99
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It has been suggested that a triode has lower intermodulation than a transistor because it does not require negative feedback for its linearity. Although NFB reduces the harmonic distortion, it involves feeding back harmonics to the input, where they can mix with the input signals, giving rise to intermodulation products. I don't know if this is borne out in practice. I agree with the comments about marketing to audiophiles.
 
718
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I'm a guitar player with several valve (tube) amps, and some modelling amps as well. I believe that the distortion produced by operating the valve in the non-linear region of its characteristic gives a nice sounding distortion and the associated signal compression gives a nice feel. I know these are emotive and very subjective ideas.

I also think it is difficult to replicate those characteristics with solid state components (although I am no expert) but not so with modelling. I think that using DSPs it is possible to replicate the operating characteristics of a valve amp very well, at least to my ear.

The people that say you must have a valve amp and nothing can compete with it often put cheap solid state devices called pedals in front of the amp.

Fender have just come out with modelling amps that replicate some of their more famous valve amps and from reviews it seems they are very comparable in sound and feel to the originals.

YMMV.
 
phyzguy
Science Advisor
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You can also find audiophiles that will swear that cables made with "Australian copper" sound much better than any other cables. Since I suspect any copper wire is equivalent, I strongly doubt that anyone can really hear the difference if given a double-blind test.
 
Averagesupernova
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Furthermore, IMO, the consumer marketing to audiophiles is 99.999% crap.
You need to add a few 9s on the end of that. Like out to the bazillionth decimal place.
 
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Are tube guitar amps any "cleaner" than solid state units?
Tubes may not be "cleaner" than solid states, but tubes does better than solid states in certain aspects.

Even-order harmonic distortion (second-order, mostly) is very easy to achieve with tubes. It's the type of distortion that makes music sound "full," while odd-order (3rd, 5th) distortion sounds harsh.

Traditional BJ transistors tend to clip rather abruptly, which leads to the harsher sound.
Tubes tend to clip in a more gradual fashion compared to solid state. Actual clipping leads to the odd-order distortion that spices up the sound--adds some bite.

Solid-state amps are cheaper to purchase and cheaper to operate than their vacuum tube rivals. The humble tube amp is more expensive to buy and operate due to the increased cost of parts and the fact that they require ongoing maintenance for optimum performance. People will pay the extra money for tube amplifiers because the sound makes it all worthwhile.
 
Bandit127
Gold Member
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I am also a guitarist and have built a few valve amps.

In addition to the even order harmonics that Alan stated earlier, tube power amp sections tend to compress the volume of the signal when they are working at higher levels (being pushed). This is desirable for a lot of guitarists and makes them sound more musical than transistor amps.
 
I am also a guitarist and have built a few valve amps.

In addition to the even order harmonics that Alan stated earlier, tube power amp sections tend to compress the volume of the signal when they are working at higher levels (being pushed). This is desirable for a lot of guitarists and makes them sound more musical than transistor amps.
I am also a guitarist and have built a few valve amps.

In addition to the even order harmonics that Alan stated earlier, tube power amp sections tend to compress the volume of the signal when they are working at higher levels (being pushed). This is desirable for a lot of guitarists and makes them sound more musical than transistor amps.
 
I get the impression my question was much like asking, "How high is up?" All the answers were what I expected but now I at least have others opinions to show my son-in-law. THANKS.
 
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Valve amps are reputed to sound warmer than solids. I have heard a comparison of the two and I do buy that part, but otherwise see little difference.

Another factor is the visual display of glowing filaments, like the thing is really DOING something.

Also, many guitar music enthusiasts prefer music from between 1950-1980 when valve amps were more common. When they play, they like it to sound like the music they like.
 
718
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Also, many guitar music enthusiasts prefer music from between 1950-1980 when valve amps were more common. When they play, they like it to sound like the music they like.
I tend to agree, a valve amp on 10 (or 11) is the sound of rock music, and for psychological reasons is good.

Cheers
 
Baluncore
Science Advisor
7,059
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A pretentious critic will not describe the differences they claim to hear in scientific terms.

Valve power amps usually differ from solid state power amps in a couple of ways.
Negative feedback can be applied to a DC coupled solid state amp. It is difficult to do the same with an AC coupled valve amp due to phase shifts in the output transformer.

Capacitor coupled valve amplifiers originally had better low frequency response than solid state.
The output transformer used on a valve power amp reduces high frequency response.

So solid state amps now tend to be more linear with a flatter frequency response and provide a more “honest” reproduction, but some people just prefer the sound of a valve amplifier.

It is best to think of valve amplifiers as coming in two distinct types. The first was designed for low distortion reproduction from vinyl or tape, and so used the curvaceous 12AU7 valve. The second type was designed to provide power gain, guitar amps that used a sharp cutoff 12AX7, asymmetric clipping to maximise harmonic distortion, but limit the highest harmonic amplitudes with the output transformer.

The comparative analysis ignores the speaker system, the position in, and the characteristics of the listening space. It also ignores the position and age of the listeners, or problems with their hearing.
 
I got into a similar debate on the "automotive" site when I said old points ignitions work fine up to about 5K rpm. That was proven by MSD company (Multiple Spark Discharge). Between 1000rpm and 5000rpm electronics work better at some rpm's and points do better at others. A back and forth win/lose situation. Because I am putting an 85 Ford 2.3 4-cylinder in a sportscar, I do not need a super hot ignition, but a dependable one. Contrary to popular thinking, points were not big failure items, and if they went bad, a simple readjustment got you home. At 76 I have run points for decades, and being an electronics tech I understand that also...to a point. Points systems make a good long spark while high-output electronics make a very short spark, and that is why MSD was invented. I love electronics and old cars (ASE mechanic/gunsmith/old TV service tech) and have nothing against electronic ignitions...but see no reason to install one if points work as well. Tubes work but I think much of the "warm" sound is hype...but then, I have 76 year old ears.
 
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Tubes work but I think much of the "warm" sound is hype...but then, I have 76 year old ears.
At that age you should already understand that the correct word is not 'hype' but 'nostalgia' 😉
For me the moment of enlightement came when I met these little bugs 💡
 

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