Tube vs. Solid-State Amplifiers - What's the Difference / Which is Better?
By Ben Bodine - MCM Electronics Product Manager for Pro Audio
Solid-State vs Tubes?
Picking out the right guitar amplifier can be a confusing task. There is a lot of conflicting information out there and debates rage between players that prefer either the rugged reliability of a solid-state amplifier, or the rich responsiveness of a tube amp. So which one is better? Before we tackle that question, let’s take a look at the pros and cons, and the differences of each type.
What's the Difference?
All major guitar amplifier manufacturers build their amplifiers using either vacuum tube technology, solid-state technology, or some combination of both. You might also hear solid-state amplifiers referred to as “transistor” amplifiers, and hear tubes referred to as “valves” (mainly in Europe). But don’t worry, they’re just different words for the same thing. Physically, the main difference between solid-state and tube amps, is how they amplify the signal. Solid-state guitar amplifiers use solid-state electronics (diodes, transistors, etc.), while tube amps use one or more vacuum tubes to amplify the signal.
So what’s the difference in tone between the two? The main difference comes from overdriven tones (gain, distortion, break-up). Tube overdrive tends to be much smoother, richer and more responsive than solid-state. With a tube amp, even how hard or soft a player picks can influence the tone. Tube amps tend to be louder as well.
Even compared to a solid-state amp of the same wattage, a tube amp will be louder. This is important when trying to be heard and cut through the mix of a live band, but it has another benefit as well. Tube overdrive happens when the tubes are pushed hard. That means that the higher the volume, the harder the tubes are pushed. The harder the tubes are pushed, the more tube saturation you get. And tube saturation is what gets you that sweet tube tone that everyone strives for. This has caused a trend in the last few years for guitar players to switch to lower wattage tube amplifiers. Why? Because the point of break-up and tube saturation happens much quicker on a 30-watt amplifier, than it does on a 100-watt amplifier. So it allows you to achieve that saturated tube tone without ruining the hearing of yourself and everyone else in the general vicinity. Many guitarists are using this approach both for recording in the studio, as well as in live performance situations. Preferring to close-mic their amplifier to capture the overdriven sound of a small, low wattage tube amp, and send that signal to the recording console or PA mixing board.
Clean tones on a tube guitar amplifier have been described as being warmer and more organic than that of a solid-state guitar amplifier. But this is one area where the two types are very closely matched. So with all the great tones that you can get from a tube guitar amplifier, why would you want to get a solid-state guitar amplifier? There are actually many benefits to solid-state amplifiers. In the past, to get even close to the tones of your favorite professional player you had little choice but to purchase a tube amp. But today, solid-state amplifier technology has all but caught up to the tube market. Modeling amplifiers can now let you dial in tone from a specific brand, model, and even year of tube amps. Solid-state amps now also have sophisticated circuitry designed to emulate and act like tubes. But just like anything else, some are better at it than others.
Solid-state guitar amplifiers are generally less expensive to purchase than tube amplifiers and are also less expensive to maintain. Tubes have a limited life span. Much like light bulbs, they can go out at any time and will need to be replaced. Solid-state amplifiers can go years without little to no maintenance at all. Tubes are also fragile. When the guy helping you load your gear into the next gig accidentally drops or bangs your amp on the way to the stage, you will be left trying to figure out why your amp suddenly doesn’t want to work.
Which One is Better?
Can you hear the difference between a solid-state guitar amplifier and a tube guitar amplifier? Maybe. Maybe not. It really depends on your ear and what kind of tone you are trying to achieve. But which one is better? There’s really no right answer here. Good tone can be achieved with both solid-state and tube amplifiers. In the end, it comes down to 3 things. What sounds good to you, what works for your situation, and what you can afford.
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