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Do You Prefer Tube-Based or Solid-State Audio Gear?

This debate has been raging since the invention of the transistor over 60 years ago. Tubes are big, hot, and delicate, while transistors and their solid-state progeny, integrated circuits, are small, relatively cool, and robust. Also, tubes are finicky, and they must be replaced periodically, which is becoming more difficult and expensive as the number of sources for these glass throwbacks continues to dwindle. Finally, tube-based power amps typically generate a fraction of the power offered by most solid-state amps, though this isn't really a problem with high-efficiency speakers.

Despite all their apparent drawbacks, tubes have retained a loyal following among audiophiles because of their characteristically warm sound. By contrast, solid-state audio gear is often described as sounding much more "analytical," which many consider to be a more accurate representation of the source content.

Which leads me to this week's question: Which do you prefer, the warmth of tubes or the accuracy of solid-state audio electronics? Keep in mind that I'm talking about analog electronics here—mainly preamps and power amps—not digital or class-D amps, which are a different story altogether.

Vote to see the results and leave a comment about your choice.

Do You Prefer Tube-Based or Solid-State Audio Gear?
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COMMENTS
prepress's picture

I favor solid-state for practical reasons. I prefer its much simpler maintenance.

brad.clarkston's picture

I've owned both tube and solid state systems for years and I've never had to "mess with tubes". I'm not sure where that FUD comes from but most low to medium priced tubes will run four thousand to six thousand hours of use before they begin to wear out and military grade tubes should run longer than that.

I've run my 'Little Dot MK III' Headphone tube Amp about 4k hours this year without doing more than turn the power switch on or off. I do keep a spare set of tubes on the shelf for when one does blow but I doubt that happens any time soon and even when it does it will take about 2 minutes to find the tubes and replace them. Hardly work, and the fun part is I have a few different brands to try.

** My low end tube computer system
1.) Mac Book Pro
2.) Kimber Kable GQ Mini Cu 1/8" to 2 RCA's cable ($90.00)
3.) Musical Fidelity V-DAC ($299.00)
4.) Blue Jeans Cable LC-1 interconnects ($30.00)
5.) Little Dot MK III ($194.00)
6.) Grado SR80i headphones ($99.00)

While not "Hi-Fi" it isn't 'Best Buy' quality ether. Very low maintenance with good enough sound when I'm at my desk and I have a pair of Paradigm Atom bookshelves setting around for when I don't want to use headphone which isn't often but still good enough to surprise people who own the Best Buy systems.

** My living room solid state HT system
1.) Vizio 55" TruLED LCD
2.) ONKYO TX-NR708 AV Receiver
3.) Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray/SACD Disc Player
4.) Rega RP1 Turntable (used)
5.) Roku XD/S set-top box (Netflix/Amazon/etc streaming)
6.) AT&T U-Verse set-top box
7.) Paradigm Monitor 7 right/left channel speakers
8.) Paradigm Monitor CC-290 center channel speaker
9.) Final S110B Subwoofer (hell of a deal from outlawaudio.com)
10.) Paradigm Mini Monitor rear right/left channel speakers

All of the interconnects and speaker wire are from Blue Jeans cables.

Again not "Hi-Fi" but good enough and easy enough for the wife and kid to use with a Logitech Harmony One remote. Personally I like the tube warmth I get from the Little Dot III but the HT has more versatility and power at the price of costing allot more.

** I won't get into my 2 channel mono-block tube monstrosity I built during my army days. Let

uavtheo's picture

Scott,

My take on the data in general is that most people have an AVR and thus solid-state. If anyone goes to a big-box store, it's only solid state. In many of the high-end dealers, you still only have solid state--especially if they cater to the AV market (that's my perception but don't have stats to back it up). So, my opinion is that people who say they prefer solid state are either:
1) Of the camp who have only had access to or experience with solid state or
2) Don't have anyone around them who deals with tubes of haven't sampled

I've been into audio since the late 80s. In all that time, I haven't sampled a single tube-based system. Now, when I listened to some high-end speakers, they were played on Audio Research hardware, so it's **possible** that the pre-amp and/or amp was a tube or hybrid. My personal experience in-home for amps has been Lexicon, Anthem, and Proceed; my AVR experience has been with Marantz, NAD, and Sony; and my preamp experience has been with NAD and Anthem.

While I'm very happy with my current setup given what I have vs. what I can afford, I couldn't tell you if I'd be happier with tubes. I hear just about every audiophile mag and site gushing over tubes, but you start to wonder if the conventional wisdom becomes self-fulfilling.

So my bottom line take is that I would love to hear a tubes-based system. It may knock my socks off and then again, I may find out that based on the type of material I like to listen to (both 2-channel music and multichannel movies) that solid state is perfect for me. Based on what I *read* I would probably fall in love with a hybrid system as it would give me both the warmth of tubes with the raw power and dynamics of solid state. But, I just don't know. That's what's fun about this hobby and if you read the specs of the top of the line Audio Research products 600 Watt mono TUBE amp... hmm... can we have a contest for that? :-)

Scott Wilkinson's picture

I think a hybrid approach that combines tubes and solid state is quite interesting. I haven't heard many such amps, but it seems an excellent way to get the best of both worlds. Your memory is very good; Home Theater reviewed the Butler TDB 5150 5-channel hybrid tube/solid-state amp along with the Epos M22 speaker system in February 2006:

http://www.hometheater.com/floorloudspeakers/206epos/

I understand that not everyone will find the G1 Giya visually attractive, but I do. Then again, I'm a big sci-fi geek, and its aesthetic definitely appeals to that part of me. And from everything I hear, it sounds fantastic, which, for me, is always the bottom line for audio gear, regardless of how it looks. So if form does follow function as you surmise, I'm all for it.

I'll be profiling the GoldenEar Triton 2 very soon, so stay tuned for that.

Yes, please upload a picture!

uavtmsorosk's picture

There is some exceptionally good solid state gear out there now , I don't think I would want to go back to messing with tubes .

Edwoo's picture

I haven't heard it before, but my buddy uses a hybrid system, namely, a Peachtree Decco (used as a tube preamp) with a solid state 2ch amp (Accurus?). He swears by the sonics and says he has the best of both worlds: the tube's warmth with the solid state's power & punch.

What I have heard is this combination in reverse (ss pre w/tube amp). I don't remember the brands, but the dealer mentioned the amp was around $5k. I immediately noticed thin bass response (speakers were PSB Image T6) from an HDCD recording I am very familiar with, and was not impressed with the expensive tube amp.

uavK.Reid's picture

I have never heard any true A/B comparisons between tubes/solid state of similar quality.

I would love to hear a Mark Levinson Monoblock compared to McIntosh's best Tube Amp.

Scott, what do you think about hybrid tube/solid state amplifiers? Such as the 5 channel hybrid from Butler Audio? I believe professionally reviewed in Home Theater several years ago.

As an aside, over the weekend I went down to Overture AV in Wilmington, DE and was able to see but not hear the G1 Giya. All I can say is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder because that speaker to me is not aesthetically pleasing at all and I suspect would have no SAF - SAF being Spousal Acceptance Factor. I can only surmise that the cabinet design was driven solely by the acoustical characteristics desired - low coloration, reduction of standing waves, etc.

I was able to finally hear the Magico Q5 loudspeaker with a David Sandborn SACD that I brought along. Such great sounds that loudspeaker makes. Next, I went across the street to the HiFi House to hear Sandy Gross' Triton Two loudspeaker under his new company Golden Ear Technology. For some reason, I preferred that ribbon's sound to that of the tweeter in the Magico. The jazz tracks I heard on Q5 and Triton - both at opposite ends of the price spectrum - really had my foot tapping!

At some point I will have to upload a picture.

brad.clarkston's picture

Biased much?

I love your podcast to death but really? Any non scientific poll can be slewed anyway you want with a carefully worded question which in this case it was.

I

Scott Wilkinson's picture
Of course, you're right that any non-scientific poll can be skewed depending on how the questions are asked. I'd go one step farther and say that any poll, "scientific" or not, can be skewed by how the questions are asked. My only intention with the UAV poll questions is to be thought-provoking, and clearly, I provoked some thought on your part, which I really appreciate you sharing with us.

You're also right that I prefer the accuracy, stability, and longevity of solid-state, but I tried to lay out the basic issues as clearly as I could without a lot of bias—after all, tubes do suffer from the problems I mentioned, and solid-state does not. Still, perhaps I wasn't as successful at that as I had intended. For example, I probably shouldn't have used the term "throwback" to refer to tubes, since it could be construed as derogatory—I meant it to refer to old technology. BTW, I had to laugh at using the term "bias" in this particular case, since some tube-based amps include a control to change the bias voltage!

Your point about quality tube amps vs cheap solid-state models is well taken. On the other hand, comparing tube and solid-state amps of similar "quality" (whatever that really means) is a valid exercise in my view. Some people will prefer one and some will prefer the other based on their sonic characteristics, and that's what I'm really asking in this week's poll question. Perhaps I should have included a proviso about considering tube and solid-state amps of similar build quality, cost, etc. in my text.

Finally, I'm very glad you enjoy the podcast; thanks for listening!

johnny mo's picture

spent the week end comparing an entry level tube Grommes PHI 26 to an older Denon PMA 550.

Tube clarity is out standing throughout the spectrum, voice is detailed and separated, strings, violins and guitars again are outstanding. Bass is accurate.

However, I voted for solid state. In the price range I can afford, entry level tube, I found the bass response to be too low, even when supplemented by a powered sub. I could not get the bass that I wanted. Without tone controls I am left at the mercy of recording engineers and their choices (conditioned on their equipment, music content, and personal preference). I am not willing to let my interests be dictated by others.

So I am compromised once again, no bass and tone flexibility or mid-range and upper end sound stage.

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