You may be familiar with solid-state and tube amplifiers when it comes to guitar amps, but today we’ll be talking about headphone amplifiers, which are actually no different. Past the budget all-in-one DACs and dongles, the next step would be to get a stack. It’s always easier to find a dedicated DAC that performs well but choosing an amplifier can be more difficult especially if you mainly run headphones.
Rather than look up recommendations on both types of amps, it’d be better if we discuss solid-state vs. tube amps so you’ll learn the differences between the two, which can help you decide which one to buy. Let’s get to it!
What’s a Solid-State Amp?
A solid-state amp is an amplifier that uses transistors and op-amps to amplify audio signals. Its sound profile is typically clean and analytical, making it an obvious choice if you want good accuracy and linearity.
What are op-amps?
Operation amplifiers, or op-amps for short, are integrated circuits designed for signal amplification and processing. They’re versatile and widely used in solid-state headphone amplifiers for various purposes.
- Voltage Amplification – Op-amps are commonly used to provide voltage amplification in the amplification stages of the headphone amps. They have high gain and are often configured to amplify voltage.
- Filtering – Op-amps can be employed to create high-pass, low-pass, band-pass, or notch filters to shape the frequency response of the amplifier and tailor the sound to achieve an inherent sound unique to a specific solid-state amp.
- Buffering – Op-amps can also act as buffers to isolate the different stages of the amplifier circuit and drive the headphone load effectively. Buffers help maintain a stable and low-impedance output for headphones.
There are portable amplifiers that allow you to access the op-amps and replace them, making room for playing around with the sound. Some notable ones I’d recommend are the ones from Burson and Sparkos. Under normal circumstances though, op-amps inside most solid-state amps are inaccessible.
What’s a Tube Amp?
Tube amps, also known as valve amplifiers, use vacuum tubes to amplify the audio signal. These amplifiers are characterized by their warm and harmonic distortion, which can add a unique coloration or “tube sound” to the audio. They’re often favored for their analog, vintage, and “musical” qualities.
What is a vacuum tube?
Vacuum tubes are the heart of tube headphone amplifiers. They consist of an evacuated glass envelope with various elements, including cathodes, anodes, grids, and filaments that heat up to amplify audio signals. Seeing vacuum tubes mounted on tube amps always elicits a sort of steampunk vibe that’s just as cool to see as VU meters.
Solid-State vs. Tube Amps: Which One To Get?
Based on just their inherent sound signatures, it’s easy to pick one over the other but there are many factors to consider. Apart from their sound, here are some differences between solid-state vs. tube amps.
Solid-state amps are typically compact and lightweight, occupying only part of a desk. They often run on low voltage and generate minimal heat. Some solid-state amps may be big but that’s only when you go up to the higher-end market.
Tube amps, on the other hand, are bulkier and heavier due to the tubes and transformers they contain. You may need a dedicated cabinet to place it as it may take up a considerable amount of space on your desk.
Solid-state amps generally have a longer lifespan and are less susceptible to wear and tear. Tube amps have a more limited lifespan because their tubes need periodical replacement.
Generally, solid-state amps are more affordable than most tube amps, making them more accessible to consumers. Tube amplifiers tend to be more expensive due to the cost of the vacuum tubes.
If you’re a tinker-head as well as an audiophile, there’s a good amount of customization that can be had with both solid-state and tube amps.
With solid-state amps that have a transistor circuit, there are various models like the Schiit Magni 3+, Schiit Heresy, or the Burson Audio Playmate 2 that allow you to swap out their op-amps.
For tube amps, you have the option to swap out compatible vacuum tubes. Generally, op-amps are easier to roll than vacuum tubes, as you’ll be asking manufacturers or referring to manuals to see what tubes work with your tube amplifier.
Tube amps are commonly beefy enough without the need for a gain switch but that also poses problems for more sensitive stuff like IEMs. High gain isn’t always better as some headphones begin to distort when subjected to higher voltages. Solid-state amps take the high ground in this regard without any aid from devices like iFi ieMatch.
Aside from this, you also might want to consider balanced outputs. Most tube amps don’t come with balanced headphone outputs, so you’ll have to make do with single-ended via the 6.5mm audio input jack, which is simply not applicable for balanced headphones.
Your single-ended headphones are fine but, for balanced use, it’s easier to get a hold of solid-state amps that have balanced ports than tube amps of the same price range.
Solid-state amps also have cross-feed circuitry, which tube amps inherently don’t have. You may or may not be a fan of cross-feed, so either way, it can be a pro or a con depending on your preferences.
What I’d Personally Pick
I think the audiophile’s way of thinking is to want both.
Although the point of this article is to help you narrow it down to only either a solid-state or a tube amp, experiencing both worlds would be ideal. After all, everyone in this hobby is in pursuit of audio nirvana – in whatever way they describe it.
As much as there are similarities between the two that may lead you to believe that you can get one without missing out on the other, there will always be trade-offs. This is why it makes sense to want to try both.
Distortion is Bad… Or Is It?
Much of a tube amp’s charm comes from the distortion it produces. Isn’t distortion bad, though? In some cases, it is. Take, for example, a preamp potentiometer left at past 12 o’clock that causes your vocal recording to clip.
On the other hand, we have electric guitars that sound good with them, so what’s up? This has to do with clipping. Clipping happens when the amplitude of an audio signal is turned up too high that a circuit can no longer recreate it.
The waveform’s peaks are clipped off, making the troughs of a sine wave look like a square wave. However, it’s fair to note that not all circuits clip the same way. Tube circuits produce soft clipping when overdriven, which creates a warm tone.
The compression is also gentler as the peaks of a signal gradually flatten. This is also referred to as saturation.
Hard clipping, on the other hand, flattens peaks more abruptly, producing a more aggressive sound. This typically happens on transistor-based circuits. The difference between hard and soft clipping is the type of harmonic distortion they produce.
Soft clipping produces mostly even harmonics, while hard clipping tends to produce odd harmonic overtones. These are called second-order and third-order harmonics, respectively.
Second-order harmonics produce a rich and pleasing sound while third-order, odd harmonics produce an edgier sound. While both transistor and tube circuits produce different kinds of harmonics, every circuit creates a different blend of these harmonics and a unique sound.
You could think of distortion as not really distorting the sound but merely coloring it, adding extra frequencies that contribute to the overall tone of the sound. With tube amps, different kinds of harmonic coloration can be sought after through the replacement of the stock tubes.
In any case, a new tube amp is likely to come with a set of vintage German vacuum tubes like Vokshod Rocket or Chinese tubes from Shu Guang.
Solid-State vs. Tube Amps: Final Thoughts
Solid-state and tube amps are two sides of the same coin, catering to diverse listener preferences. While solid-state amplifiers prioritize accuracy and low distortion, tube amplifiers prioritize warmth and musicality.
Ultimately, both of them offer amplification and you can look at it as that: amplification. But as you’ve gathered from this article, it’s not the sole reason you’d want either one. Aside from what we’ve talked about, you’ll still need to see if they’ll pair nicely with your DAC, so there’s that.
If you can, I’d suggest going to audio stores with your DAC and auditioning it with amplifiers of interest. This will ensure that you won’t suffer from premature “upgrading” after caving in from the curiosity of other units.
The world of audio amplification presents a wide plethora of exploration with solid-state amps being reliable and precise in their quest for sonic transparency and tube amps being masters of warmth and harmonic allure.
Each amplifier serves as a vast sky for audiophiles to take flight into. The choice becomes a symphony of personal taste influenced by the nuances of musical preference and listening environment. The very essence of what stirs one’s soul through the medium of sound is love for music.
And to what end do we chase these endeavors; man may not be satisfied but as long as you love your amp, you just might end up like my old gramps with our vintage Yamaha amplifier. It’s got bent switches and has seen some wear, but it’s undoubtedly still alive- and still older than me.
Gavin is a college student who has a lot going on. From collecting IEMs and modding mechanical keyboards, to different hobbies like digital drawing, music mastering and cooking. It is safe to say he is a complete multi-faceted geek (and he's kinda cool too)