Most people get accustomed to their first amp, not knowing whether it’s a solid-state or a tube amplifier.
Musicians develop a distinct sense of hearing and a “taste” after playing on a certain amp for more than a few months, in which case the differences between tube and solid-state amps aren’t too important.
If you’re a beginner preparing to buy your first amp, a seasoned musician that may not be as tech-savvy searching for an upgrade, or an audiophile seeking a good amp to enrich your music-listening experience, you may want to learn the key differences between these two types of amplifiers.
Similarities Between Tube and Solid State Amps
Before pointing out the differences, it’s important to understand what brings solid-state and tube amps together.
It’s almost impossible to tell whether an amp is a solid-state or a tube amp by its outward appearance. Sometimes, tube amps with an open back (whether by design or customization) will reveal the valves.
Standard settings and controls, such as onboard equalizer, volume knobs, mesh guard, and inputs can also be the same for both categories.
Power-wise, both solid-state and tube amps perform relatively similarly, but tube amps need more time to “heat up”. Wattage doesn’t have a significant impact in this respect. Tonally, there are subtle but significant differences between the two.
Solid State Amps in a Nutshell
Solid-state amps came decades after tube amps, empowering the hippie, rock & roll, and alternative bands throughout the 60s and 70s.
All solid-state amps are equipped with an electronic transistor – a small box-shaped device that provides the amp with power.
As opposed to tube amps, solid-state transistors are light, small, and considered “standalone” pieces, whereas tube amps feature multiple valves, each contributing to the device’s performance.
The main argument musicians and audiophiles have in favor of solid-state amplifiers is the consistency of performance. Transistors are typically designed to last years or decades in the case of boutique solid-state amps.
Sonically, solid-state amps offer a cleaner sound with significantly more headroom, making them better suited to serve as “canvas” amps.
- Superb clean headroom
- Great when used as a “canvas” in conjunction with guitar/bass pedal effects
- Cheaper to buy and maintain in most cases
- Lighter, not necessarily flimsier construction
- Ideal for both musicians and audiophiles
- The lack of natural distortion leaves the tone bare and plastic
- Doesn’t tolerate high gain settings at louder volume levels
Tube Amps in a Nutshell
Tube, sometimes called “valve” amps rely on a set of glass-made valves for power. The first amplifier ever invented was made in 1912, but tube amps as we know them came around 1947.
The first thing most people notice when they plug in a tube amp is its innate distortion. The signal goes through the valves to a power converter. The valves are made of glass and heat up during this process, causing a natural distortion in the tone.
Aside from being worshipped by old-school rockers and musicians that prefer “dirtier” guitar and bass tones, many people love the vintage-like tones tube amps are known for.
Another important difference between tube and solid-state amps is that the tube amplifiers are considerably heavier, mainly because of the valves.
- Distinctively warm sound
- Slightly colored clean tones sound fuller
- Often equipped with a remarkably durable chassis to protect the interior components
- Bulky and heavy
- Less dependable than solid-state amps (valves can break or burn out at any time)
Solid state vs Tube Amps
Now that you’re familiar with solid-state and tube amplifiers, let’s dissect their main elements in a bit more detail:
Everything ultimately boils down to sound performance. Tube amps may be heavier and harder to maintain, but once the amp is placed in your home or on the stage, all you want it to do is deliver a quality sound.
Solid-state amps offer a non-colored sound, meaning that they are perfect for audiophiles and music listeners. Without any distortion present, the sound coming from your audio players will be as true to the recording as possible.
For musicians, solid-state amps are great when a specific kind of tone is pursued.
If you heavily rely on guitar/bass pedals that you use to define your tone, their original sounds will be more emphasized. For the keyboard and other electric instruments (violin, cello, etc.), clean tones are a huge benefit.
Tube amps are slightly colored and “warmer”. Rock and metal musicians often use the innate distortion of tube amps in synergy with other pedals and effects to create a range of different tones.
The “headroom” is the term used to describe how a certain amp responds to power/volume.
High headroom implies that an amplifier can consistently produce the same tone and sound at higher volumes without feedback interference.
Solid-state amplifiers usually have a better tolerance for “clean” power while valve amps handle distorted signals better.
Aside from natural distortion, tube amps tend to compress the sound on the spot (without any editing tools, apps, or effects). This helps them retain crunchy tones at higher volume levels.
Since tube amps are much older than their solid-state counterparts, the latter are usually far more versatile.
Even some of the oldest solid-state amplifiers provide players with more flexibility than younger valve amps in terms of inbuilt effects and tone controls.
Another important factor that impacts versatility is how easily solid-state amps can be modified. By simply purchasing and replacing the transistor, you can almost reshape the amp’s performance, both tonally and consistency-wise.
Many modern-day solid-state amplifiers are also digital amps, although this is not a rule.
Digital solid-state amps are versatile enough to eliminate the need for guitar pedals (onboard effects, a tuner, equalizers, and more).
Tube amps need to be handled with great care. Even then, the only way to be sure that the amplifier will make it through the evening is to replace the valves several days before the event.
Valves are very brittle, regardless of how well-made they are. A slight bump into a piece of furniture can break them, even despite the fact that they’re seemingly safely tucked inside the amp.
Solid-state amps, on another hand, perform predictably. All the major electrical components will eventually give signals when they should be replaced or looked at.
Despite being superior to tube amps in many respects, solid-state amps are usually cheaper. They’re easier to make, and since they’re a bit more practical handling and maintenance-wise, they sell quite fast.
Transformers in tube amps are also a bit pricier than solid-state transistors.
Additionally, the valves can be very expensive, costing roughly $50 a piece; multiply it by four, and you’ll have your starting amp maintenance costs.
Objectively, solid-state amps are superior to tube amps in several fields. Cheaper, more reliable, and cleaner, they are more popular among both beginners and seasoned musicians.
However, people who value the quality of sound above all tend to look past the imperfections of valve amps.
If you are planning on buying your first amp, it is probably smarter to buy a solid-state amplifier; the warm, crunchy tone of a tube amp is not enough of a benefit in comparison to how difficult it is to keep the amp functional.