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The Debate: Solid State VS Tube Amps

Which is better: A Solid State Amp, or a Tube/Valve Amp?

While the answer may be easy for you to decide, this debate has seems to be fairly equal in both camps.


There is an interesting article at epinions.com, where the author did a sound test and apparently they participants couldn’t tell the difference between a solid state amp and a tube amp.

Guitar amps have come a long way since the electric guitar was first conceived. However, the advances in technology has not had the impact on amplifiers that one would have predicted. Tube Amplifiers, for now, appear be the king of tone in the guitar world.

Tube amplifiers use a series of old fashioned tubes to provide power, distortion, and tone. Solid State amplifiers rely on transistors, and sometimes software, to provide the tone. They both have the same job, to amplify the sound of your guitar, however they both sound totally different, with good points and bad.

Solid State Amps

The Pros:

Solid State Amp

Solid State Amp

  • Usually have clean sounds, crisp and accurate.
  • Quick and responsive to your playing.
  • Can take more abuse in moving since there are very few fragile parts.
  • Require less maintenance.
  • Can emulate many different amplifiers at the push of a button.

The Cons:

  • Lacking “warmth” – Usually sounds cold and sterile.
  • Distortion is usually sharp sounding “like razorblades”.
  • Lacking Individual Tone. Most Solid State amps all sound very similar and will sound the same with almost any player.

Tube/Valve Amps

The Pros:

  • Tube Amp

    Tube Amp

    Tube amps are best known for their warmth. They are pleasing to the ear, something you can not justify in a laboratory. Scientists have no way of measuring the warmth, which is probably the reason that they have not been able to duplicate it in a solid state amp.

  • Each tube amp sounds different, each with its own unique tone. No two guitarists will sound the same through the same tube amp, as the amp will respond to the individuals playing technique in a totally different way. Tube amps have been described by many veteran guitarists as “Tone Monsters”.
  • Tube amps sound fat and thick, and will sound even fatter as the volume is turned up, creating that famous wall of sound. Tube amps sound HUGE!
  • Tubes, by their very nature of operation distort sound, and do so in the most pleasing way to the human ear, by Pushing and Pulling on each other. You can read more about how tubes work on wikipedia.
  • Tubes compress your sound in several ways, usually when to much power is demanded from the output transformer. The transformer can not handle the signal peaks and softly rounds them off, causing even more distortion. Trust me, it’s a good thing.
  • Unmatched in power and clarity (ie. 20W tubes can easily match the power of a 200W solid state)

The Cons:

  • Dosen’t sound as good at low volumes. Sounds better when you play them loud.
  • If you play every week, tubes will last a little over a year before they start to loose their tone. They need to be replaced and that will cost anywhere from $80 to $250.
  • Tube amps cost a lot more than a solid state.
  • You can’t instantly get access to different amps “emulated” sounds with the click of a button. Generally, if you use a tube amp, you would use guitar pedals to create different sounds. Here’s my list of the top 3 pedals you’ll need.
  • Tube amps in general are very heavy.

In summary, every guitarist is searching for that the ultimate tone producing guitar, amp and pedal combination. As we grow as guitar players, we will no doubt make many different purchases, and every now and then hopefully we will come across something magical. When you play the perfect guitar and amp combination, it’s a feeling like no other!

What do you prefer playing through, solid state or tube?

14 Responses

Mar 24, 2010

Just for the record, I prefer playing through a Tube amp by far!

Mar 25, 2010

I like both, personally… I’ve had a lot of both and it is all wide-open and nowhere near as clear cut as “solid-state = bad/generic” or “tube = warm/personalised”. I can get nice warm sounds with rounded, harmonic sustain using my current rig, a L6 PODxtLive through a solid state bass amp (!), whereas the Randall tube amp I used to have was virtually incapable of producing anything other than thin, “buzzsaw” distortion or sterile, dead, clean tones. Courses for horses…

Mar 25, 2010

I hear you Johnny.. Solid State amps have definatley come a long way in the last few years. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for guitar amps..

Mar 25, 2010

Just out of interest, what’s everyone’s favourite tube amp or solid state?

Mine would be:
Tube: Vox AC15
Solid State: Line 6 Combination of some sort

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Mar 26, 2010

The never ending battle ;)
Personally I prefer a tube sound. I am currently using a modelling unit w/ tube, using a small tube practice amp. Not too bad at low volumes. Its a Vox Tonelab in combination with a Laney Cub10. I can use it for heavy metal / and nice shred sounds

Mar 27, 2010

As far as favourites go, for valve, it’s the 50w JCM800 model 2204, utterly killer amp. Solid state, it has to be the Roland JC120, mmmm, crystalline… ;)

Mar 27, 2010

Nice.. I’m actually about to do a review on the new Roland Acoustic amp. Roland make very nice amps..

Mar 29, 2010

Wont be long before were playing through our iPhones with some sort of native instruments plug-in!
hahaha

Mar 29, 2010

I actually wrote a post recently on an iPhone App that Line 6 is working on called Guitar Rig: http://www.thedailyguitar.com/control-your-line-6-amp-with-the-iphone

May 20, 2010

In my opinion, you have to decide for yourself. This question always leads to very heated debates. I can only offer my opinion. When I’ve used low priced power amps (sub $300) the tube amps I’ve used are without question superior in terms of musicality. They are however very low power (8 watts or less) and require efficient speakers.

In the upper price ranges ($500 to $20,000) it gets increasingly difficult to tell the difference as the price goes up. I can say that every time I listen to a quality tube amp setup I have a Wow! experience. I can’t say that for every SS system I’ve heard. Generally, I find that solid state systems, especially those with digital sources, sound a bit lifeless, lacking the 3D effect of good analog systems and I’ve heard some very, very good systems.

Jun 15, 2010

For me it really just comes down to feel. The feel of a tube amp is different than solid state and for many it just “feels” more reactive to what you are doing. Some players enjoy that and other may not miss it. As far as tone, I really think you can get a great tone from either. I’ve been using Line 6 amps for about 10 years and while in the beginning I often missed the feel of my tube amp I knew the tone was good. Also, I used to run a lot of jam sessions so I had the benefit of hearing many other guitarists play through my amp and what I noticed about Line6 Flextone amps is their great ability to cut through the mix at a moderate volume so the guitarists wouldn’t have to crank it up just to be heard, a great benefit for jams. Now, I play a SpiderValve so I have the best of both worlds. All the tone shaping possiblities you get from Line6 modeling and a great tube amp from Bogner. Some very practical and usable built in effects too.

May 20, 2013

No, solid states do not emulate at the touch of a button. Solid state amps with digital signal processors in the preamp do that. You’re mixing digital into the debate, which is misleading.

It’s misleading because a preamplifier that digital modeling and presets and whatnot can be used with a tube power amp! And such a thing is done.

You have to compare tube power amp with solid state power amp (two categories) and tube preamp distortion with solid state preamp distortion with digital distortion (three contending categories).

May 20, 2013

There is no difference betwen “tone” and “feel”. The “feel” comes from the sound pressure levels which reach the ear from the speaker. If you put the speaker into a sound-proof room so you cannot hear it, all feel of the amplifier would be gone.

If there is a subjective difference in feel, it has to be traceable to a difference in the movement of the speaker and the electronic waveform that is driving it.

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