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Tube Amp vs. Solid State – Let’s Start The Debate

by Stuart Charles Black
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Greetings mate and Welcome aboard. Stuart Charles Here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions leading to a beautiful audio experience that will make you fall in love with music (NOT gear) all over again, so…

I’ve made a lot of amp recommendations here on the blog, but just recently thought about the fact that I don’t really have an article on Tube Amps vs. Solid State Amps.

Today we’ll dive in and see if there are any real differences between them so grab a snack, sit back and relax because…

You’ve come to the right place!!

Introduction

Way back before I started demoing gear, I never knew there was such a thing as a headphone amp.

Nowadays, I wish I could go back to not knowing. xD

If you’re one of my regulars, you likely laughed out loud at that one.

Once I got my feet wet in the audiophile world, I realized what an endless amount of possibilities there are.

I also realize now that I no longer give a crap.

There are so many different types of headphones and amps, that it can become overwhelming at times.

After many years of demoing stuff, I have a pretty good handle on this particular segment of the niche but there’s always more to learn.

Anyway, who cares about all that, right?

Let’s talk.

Solid-State Amps

These are the Amps you’ll come across the majority of the time when first starting out.

They, unlike tubes, use transistors, are driven by current, and can range from portable USB Amp/DAC combos like the DragonFly Red to Bluetooth Amp/DAC combos like the BTR3K, BTR5, and BTR15, to stand-alone Amps like the JDS Labs ATOM, to stand-alone DACS like the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100, and so forth.

My very first setup was The Schiit Magni 2 stand-alone amp paired with a Schiit Modi 2 stand-alone DAC.

This required RCA to RCA cables to work, but many DACS and Amps utilize both RCA and line features.

For instance, JDS’ ATOM DAC has RCA outputs, and their ATOM Amp has RCA inputs and a line input.

This makes it possible to connect the amplifier with many different DACS that utilize either/or.

A simple way of illustrating how to hook it up:

Computer/laptop —> DAC —> Amp —> Headphone.

So the DAC uses USB into your PC and also connects to the Amp via RCA or line cables.

Then you’d plug your headphones in and listen to music.

Simple as pie.

Topping A50s/D50s Review

The A50s/D50s is an example of a separate amp + separate DAC.

This is a relatively basic way of illustrating it.

If an amp is stand-alone, it needs a digital-to-analog converter so that your brain can make sense of the 1s and 0s that only your computer understands.

It functions much like an audio interface. The sound is a jumbled mess until it is converted to a signal that we can process.

This signal is meant to be of a much higher quality than your standard built-in DAC that comes with your PC/Laptop, but do note that internal DACs in consumer products have come a long way since I was rocking a Lenovo T510 (awful soundcard) way back when.

Characteristics

Most of the time, Solid-State amplifiers have a low output impedance, are more neutral, and aim to reproduce the music as accurately as possible while aiming for low distortion.

Contrary to what some people may tell you, a Solid-State amp can still be smooth sounding, but not always.

It may actually be a bit sterile and soulless. It just depends on the amp.

One of the main reasons I sold the Magni is because, to me, it sounded overly brash and had a tendency to make headphones sound way too bright and/or sterile.

It’s one of the very few examples of an Amp where I felt like there was a noticeable difference in the way it portrayed what was already there – and not in a good way.

Schiit Magni 2 Review

The famous “Schiit Stack”

Solid-State Amps like the original Objective 2, as well as the ATOM, are in my opinion designed better and provide that fast and detailed sound without feeling like you’re at the doctor’s office waiting to get a physical (The horror).

At times you may feel as though you’re in an actual studio space with the artists rather than hearing what they’re playing through headphone drivers.

This is because Solid-State Amps are incredibly revealing, sometimes uncovering even the most subtle and minute details in a track; i.e. the stuff you may actually hear as you’re standing there with the musicians.

Stability

They by contrast are a lot more stable than tube amps but are harder to tweak and modify by the user.

In other words, Solid-State amps rarely if ever break down, and I speak with experience on that front.

Out of over 70+, I’ve never had one cease to function, and that dates back to 2017 or thereabouts.

Affordability

Solid-State amps also tend to be a lot more affordable and are perfect for enthusiasts just starting, though nowadays you can get your hands on a decent tube amp and not feel like you’re mortgaging away your kidney in the process.


Vacuum Tubes

Vacuum Tubes, in contrast to Solid-State amps, are driven by Voltage via Output Transformers (those large heavy things at the back of your typical tube amp).

If you’ll recall from my What is Headphone Impedance? article, Voltage doesn’t actually represent movement and is static.

In other words, it’s the potential for power or put more simply potential energy.

xDuoo TA-20 Review

The xDuoo TA-20 is an example of a tube amp.

A lot of this depends on personal preference, but Tube Amps can certainly provide a different flavor than their Solid-Snake counterparts. Sorry, Solid-STATE counterparts. Forgive me.

For one, they tend to smooth over and warm up the track in question.

This is pretty much unanimous and few people, save for the most elitist of snobs, would argue with you on it.

These are the ones that are less likely to be found in abundance on Amazon.

I’ve seen some, but the vast majority of these babies appear on manufacturer’s websites or some obscure site you may happen to land on in your search.

They are said to be warmer, smoother, and more musical than their solid-state counterparts.

They also,

  1. Have Higher distortion than similarly priced solid-state amps.
  2. Roll-off at the limits of human hearing frequencies.

Tube amps are basically meant to “color” the sound in a very pleasing way and distortion plays a large role in this.

This characteristic can either be pleasing or not depending on who you are.

For many, tube amps give a nice texture to the music that sounds very rich, warm, full, and smooth.

A tube amp also kind of “rolls off” the higher and lower frequencies, rather than having them just come to a rough stop.

Some modern tube amps are being designed to mimic that of a more neutral, solid-state amp.

I too have experienced this phenomenon as some Tube amps I’ve tried didn’t sound all that much different from a typical Solid-State amp.

This is especially true for Tube Hybrids (a cross between the 2) such as the Bravo Audio Ocean.

I didn’t find it to sound all that much different than a solid-state amp, but I suppose that’s to be expected in some regard.

HiFiMAN HE4XX vs. 400i vs. 400S vs. Sundara

Rube Tolling

Another interesting thing that many audiophile geeks do is change the tubes on the amp, thus changing the sound to their liking.

The kids nowadays call this “Tube rolling.” Whatever.

This has almost become a hobby in and of itself!

There are tubes out there that supposedly take the amp to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL, breathing new life into old music.

Can you tell my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek?

Build and Practicality

One aspect different from a solid-state amp is that tubes seem to be significantly more fragile – especially the actual glass components.

This may be due to the nature of vacuum tubes and the high voltage that the circuitry uses.

Some people say they are easier to work on, but are less stable and have more frequent problems.

Others claim that they are actually very durable and can last a lifetime given proper care.

It may be the wax capacitors that wear out rather than the other components.

If you were wondering, a capacitor is just a device used to store an electric charge.

The materials used, including the Cathode electron-emitting materials, also seem to be less durable and have been known to break down anywhere from 1-5 years.

At the end of the day, there will always be differing opinions on each.

Tube amps are also typically a lot bulkier than their Solid-State counterparts and tend to take up a lot of space on your desk.

The TA-20 was one such example of that.

It barely fit!

By now you may be asking, where does the sound of tube amps originate?

Well, there are 4 primary locations:

  1. The tubes themselves
  2. The circuit design
  3. Components used
  4. Bias settings

To go into further detail, all of these things rely upon each other – so much so that any change in these 4 components will affect the overall sound.

As mentioned earlier, headphone nerds love to change stuff.

The easiest stuff to tinker with here are the tubes and bias. Some will swap out components, but only the super geek will alter the actual design of the amp itself.

AKG K701 vs. AKG K702

The Ocean.

Heat

No not the 1995 movie directed by Michael Mann.

Actual heat.

Another aspect of tubes that may bother you is that they run very hot and generate a lot of waste heat.

For example, even though the Bravo Ocean (pictured earlier) is a hybrid, you could almost fry an egg on it after a few hours. It’s extremely hot to the touch.

I was exaggerating a bit with the egg thing, but I most certainly always turned it off before leaving the apartment as a precautionary measure.

Now that we’ve got some of the main differences out of the way, let’s talk about necessity.

Does your headphone need an amp?

It really depends on the headphones’ impedance and sensitivity.

For instance, the AKG K701 and K702 both have impedance ratings of 62 Ohms, which would indicate you don’t really need an amp until you look at their Sensitivity rating of around 91dB/mW.

This means that both headphones are very inefficient and require quite a bit of power from an Amp to reach an acceptable volume level.

Lower impedance headphones typically have higher sensitivity and are thus more efficient, but the K701/K702 are exceptions here.

Some people simply won’t buy an Amp/DAC even if it is recommended, because they would rather try out the headphones for themselves first. This is a valid stance and I tell it to people often, but in the case of the K701 and 702, absolutely plan on investing in something.

Some recommendations

Ah, the fun part. I won’t really go into headphones specifically, but I will say that anything with a 250 Ohm rating and above almost requires separate amplification and is mandatory.

Some would argue that a lot of impedance ratings below 250 require one.

A lot of people claim the 300 Ohm Sennheiser HD 600 sounds just fine from a standard headphone jack or portable device!

I don’t agree with that, but I suppose it depends a lot on the headphones themselves, as well as your ears and preferences.

Great Solid-State options

JDS Labs ATOM 2 Review

Stand Alone

One of my most recommended neutral Solid-State Amps on this site was the Objective 2 until JDS discontinued it.

Now I’d look to their ATOM for a fantastic entry-level amp that won’t break the bank.

Again keep in mind that these are just amps and need some sort of DAC to pair with.

Amp/DAC Combo

If you want to cut to the chase, FiiO’s K5 Pro or K7 is just about my most recommended all-in-one entry-level combo and will serve you well for a long time!

Great Tube Amps

Bottlehead Crack

 

It’s an OTL (Output transformerless). 

This one is used a lot with the HD 600 and 650 and I got a chance to demo one at my friend Luke’s house.

It’s great for enthusiasts wanting to get their feet wet with a DIY project and isn’t hard to assemble.

It also does extremely well with a wide variety of headphone models like the Sennheiser HD600!

Tyll Herstens, a really knowledgeable and seemingly great guy had a sweet article on The Marvelously Addictive Bottlehead Crack!

He also goes into listening tests with the Woo Audio WA2.

The Best Headphone Amps & DACS

Taken from this video | Design: HomeStudioBasics

Final Word

If I had to break it down into bullet points:

Solid State

  • More neutral, and reproduce the sound accurately.
  • Perhaps a little colder, and lifeless to some (only a small majority of Solid-State amps are like this).
  • Considerably less expensive than their tube counterparts.

Tube

  • Warmer, lusher, more inviting. Colors the sound more. They also have high and low-end roll-off, rather than sudden/harsh dips. Reduces sibilance on headphones like the H800 quite a bit!
  • A lot more customization. It’s far less risky to take one of these apart or switch out some components. Tube rolling is the most common way of changing the sound up a bit.
  • Some say more fragile, others disagree and claim that with proper care, tube amps can last a lifetime!
  • DIY. The Bottlehead Crack is a fully do-it-yourself project, which is perfect for getting your feet wet.

The main takeaway is to try both types for yourself and determine which you enjoy more.

Some people like tube rolling and all the customization that comes with that.

Others just want a clean backdrop for their music.

I suppose I sit somewhere in the middle but lean more towards Solid-Snake.

I mean Solid-State.

Lol.


Well, my friend, that’s about it for today! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on Tube Amps vs. Solid State Amps and came away with some valuable insight.

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!

If you love what I do here and want to support the blog and channel in a more personal way, check me out on Patreon and discover all the value I have to offer you.

Just want to make a one-time donation? Click here. Your support is greatly appreciated and helps keep this site running!

Which type of amp would you be more likely to go with, and why? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…

All the best and God bless,

 

 

-Stu

[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

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8 comments

Dave Sweney February 7, 2016 - 6:49 am

Hi Stu,

A fascinating post on the world of amps. I learned more reading through your post than I expected. The new technology and old technology with a twist (vaccum tubes) that is now around and available is amazing!

Admittedly it has been some years since I was crazy about the possibilities of enhancing my music to hear what I expected and strived for. Life and a family pulled me away from that world.

Thanks for updating me as to what is out there now for lovers of pure sounds of music. I will jump over to some of the many links you most graciously have provided to dig deeper, so mission accomplished on your part!

You have me once again excited about the sounds I listen to…Bose, I love them, I have 3 setups in my place iin Germany. But I know there is more to squeeze out of the sounds and this has me interested in seeing what direction I can go…Thanks!

Reply
Stu February 7, 2016 - 4:58 pm

No problem Dave and glad to help! I’ve been learning so much about headphones and music with this site as well. It’s hard to believe how much gear there is. Sometimes it can become overwhelming. I try and narrow it down considerably before making recommendations.. I was just about to go with a solid state amp but now I’m really considering taking the plunge with a tube amp! Please stop back by anytime!

-Stu

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Farshid February 10, 2016 - 4:12 pm

Wow, very interesting post on the world of amps. It’s been years since I’ve bought an amp I still have my Crate amp which is a solid state amp. I didn’t even know they still made Tube amp. I remember Mesa boogie was a big maker of Tube amps when I played, however was very pricey. And as your post stated the reliability factor is much lower than the solid state counterparts. However it all depends who you ask which do they prefer you get a bunch of different answers which produces the best sound. I agree that Tube amps produces warmer sound, however my solid state amp has more options as far as producing different types of sounds.

Reply
Stu February 12, 2016 - 5:03 am

Very interesting indeed Farshid!

What kind of sounds can you get out of your solid state? I think a tube amp is a valuable option for a headphone that suffers from sibilant/harshness, such as the HD 800. Solid state is a great option if you’re just getting your feet wet though.

Mesa Boogie? Lol I’m gonna have to check that out, thanks!

Stop back by anytime as well.

-Stu

Reply
Mark April 17, 2023 - 8:14 pm

mesa Boogies are wonderful GUITAR tube amps – not for headphones or even high end stereos
tube amps are reliable and last a long time .
Looking at guitar amps and players most will use a tube amp because of superior tone they create .
Bass players commonly use solid state for the slam and dynamics of the instrument .
Back to tubes – if done right they sound more musical to most people willing to sit down listen and compare . With certain hip hop and rap music the need for “musicality” is often less important to many listeners .
So much to learn in this world . Most important – enjoy the music !

Reply
Stuart Charles Black April 22, 2023 - 12:45 pm

Thanks for the comment, Mark!

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JOHN HALL-FREEMAN September 30, 2023 - 9:03 pm

I purchased my first hi-fi amplifier in Liverpool UK in 1964 but was disappointed with it as it was an early Germanium Leak stereo 30 and sounded life less compared a new friend I made who I met in a record shop who had the same turntable as me a Garrard 301 plus SME tonearm and the top Shure cartridge and we also owned the same Wharfedale 3 way floor standing speakers, his was the same except hiss absolutely destroyed my system by having a Radford tube amp I can’t remember the exact model number but at the time it sure put a smirk on his face.
Nearly 60 years later I now use a KT 88 based Cayin tube amp which I have coupled up to 2 Vincent solid state power amplifiers for the bass using a cross over at 80hz which is connected via a passive electronic crossover so as not to alter the sound of the KT88’s which I tube roll from the best tube dealer in the world “Tube Depot “ from the USA every year or two! This is all driven by 3 analog turntables, an Oppo cd/sacd player and it’s own MacBook Pro for when I feel lazy and don’t want to clean and fuss over my large LP/CD collection and just want to paint or read a book.
Life has changed for me I was born and raised in the UK but after military service along side American forces in Germany I emigrated to the USA on a green card and met a bunch of surfers from Sydney who used to come in every day to the bar I worked in LA and they went on and on about the trip they were going to return home to Australia.
I eventually plucked up courage and asked them if I could join them on the trip they said yes so we went overland through all the places which today’s world would be difficult like Lebanon,Syria Iraq,Iran ,Afghanistan,Pakistan and from then it was easy through India,Malaysia,Indonesia etc , anyway the group fell apart,and I decided the best city I had seen was Perth in the vast state of West Australia where Texas could be swallowed whole and they have vast expanse’s of beautiful nature,well I’m now 80 and I listen to my analog/digital hi-fi system a lot and outside my windows are trees which seem to go on forever as I live on a mini hobby farm close to a national park.
The conclusion of all this is tubes are fantastic for most of the music and transistors are great for the bottom end, but honestly it’s all just about the music my favorites include everything by Miles Davis and company the Beatles and Stones and I love electronica like Boards of Canada the voice of Joni Mitchell and the sound of the cello, my dad who was a dentist and a cello player who used to play his axe between clients, I wonder how he got away that ? Buy a tube amp if you can afford one otherwise it’s transitory territory,just listen to all that great music out there.

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Stuart Charles Black October 5, 2023 - 6:49 pm

John,

Thank you so much for the comment! You’ve had quite a journey. I really enjoyed reading that. My friend and I were actually just listening to Boards of Canada a few weeks ago. He comes over 2wice a month and we veg out, watch films, eat snacks, and listen to music. I’ve known him since ’93.

What I found incredibly hilarious is that we were going to choose a couple songs to listen to off of their 2002 Geogaddi. As we’re scrolling through the songs, I notice they all have anywhere from 1-5 million plays each except for this one song called “I Saw Drones” which has.. wait for it.. 3,280. I immediately burst out laughing but we haven’t gotten around to listening to it yet. It blew my mind xD

In any event, how many LPs do you have? I had a record collection years ago (I sample hip-hop) but listened to them all and got rid of them. Back then, I could go to the local thrift store and buy ’em for .25c a pop. This year I’ve been getting back into making beats and went a couple of times. Just went yesterday actually. They still have records; but now they’re like 3 for $3.99 or something. Still cheap, but since I’m starting another collection, I go through them now with a fine tooth comb and only buy the ones that are still in great shape. A lot of them are in absolutely awful condition.
Years back I’d literally just buy every single one and take my chances hoping to stumble across some lost forgotten sound. I think the process is more fun now because I have to obsessively check each one.

Love Miles Davis and the Beatles! More so the Beatles when I was a stoner in high school, but I got into Jazz around 2015 and the first album I listened to was Giant Steps. Incredible record front to back. Still listen to it a lot. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Miles’ more esoteric stuff and man what a trip. That guy was on another planet lol.

Do you listen to any Clapton or Grateful Dead? I just went through a few documentaries recently: George Harrison’s “Living In The Material World”, Clapton’s “Life In 12 Bars” and the series “Long Strange Trip” from The Grateful Dead. All 3 were excellent and had some awesome parallels. Clapton in particular has been through a lot of shit in his life.

But yeah, I totally agree it’s all about the music. That’s something I’ve been harping on for many years now. That said, I’m not a huge fan of tubes as I prefer the neutrality of Solid-State amps, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s all personal preference!

Anyway, thanks again for the comment. Hope to hear from you soon!

-Stu

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