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Do Tube Amps Really Sound Better? Let's Find Out

Do you know that scene in The Matrix where Morpheus asks Neo to choose either the blue pill or the red pill for the ultimate revelation?

Well, when it comes to guitar playing, this is kind of like that—only this time, the “red pill” represents tube amps, and the “blue pill” represents solid-state guitar amps. Also, every guitarist out there is Neo and might have to make a choice for the best-sounding guitar amp at some point in their guitar journey.

However, the choice is often not an easy one. In a land of many “red pill Neos” (guitarists who prefer the sound from tube amps), there are also others who would rather go for the “blue pill” sound from solid-state amps.

So then, the question remains lurking in the deepest parts of every guitarist's mind: Is the “red pill” (tube amp) truly the ultimate sound weapon? Or perhaps then, is there even a slight chance that this simply boils down to personal preference?

Let's find out together, shall we?

Basics of How Amps Work

First off, let's start by gaining a bit of basic knowledge on how amps work.

Put simply, an amplifier's job is to turn a small audio signal, usually generated by a guitar pickup, into a stronger electric current that can drive a speaker

In achieving this, amplifiers typically use two stages:

  • Preamp stage - This stage raises the small guitar signal to what is known as a line-level signal. It’s at this stage also that most of the tonal shaping is done.
  • Power amp stage - This stage amplifies the preamplified signal even further into one that can then drive the speakers. While there are some ways through which tone shaping can be achieved in this section, generally, there isn't a lot of tone-shaping done in this section.
  • Between the preamp and power amp stages, there’s often also a stage where a series of audio effects units such as distortion, compression, chorus, and flangers, amongst many others, can be used. This is the effects loop stage usually with a send and return section on the amp.

Click here for a tutorial on how to use an effects loop.

Types of Guitar Amps

Although the ultimate goal of every amp is the same, the components used to achieve each stage vary amongst various types of amps.

Guitar amps are then categorized into four main groups depending on the components they use. Furthermore, more subdivisions are made within the categories reliant on specific design differences in the components used in each stage.

  • The best guitarists out there aren't just good at playing guitar but also good at “playing the amplifiers.”

Tube Amplifiers

Tube amps—or valve amps as they are known in some parts of the world—are among the earliest types of guitar amps. Aptly named, they make use of different types of vacuum tubes/valves in the preamp and power amp stages to increase the electric signals from the guitar.

Typically, preamps use smaller-sized valves than the power amps. Today, while there are other types, most of the tubes used in this preamp stage are variants of the ECC83/12AX7/7025 (dual triode) tubes.

In contrast to these smaller tubes, power amps use larger ones such as the 6v6, 6L6, EL84, and KT66, among many others. These larger tubes do much of the raising of the preamplified signals into stronger ones that then drive the speaker.

While aesthetically most of these tubes look similar in construction to old-fashioned bulbs, specific makeup elements give each of these tubes unique sonic characteristics that offer a wide array of tonal possibilities. Equally, while tube amps contribute hugely to the overall tone, other components such as output transformers also contribute to the overall sound of tube amps.

Tube Amps

Advantages of Tube Amps

  • Many guitarists and listeners find the unique sound characteristics produced as a result of the components that make up tube amps to be pleasant. These include the natural distortion caused by the gradual smooth clipping of tubes in response to signal level changes, and harmonic content after clipping. This even-order harmonic content is what most guitarists credit with the warmer, fuller, and typically more rounded sound of tube amps.
  • Tubes also have a good dynamic response, sustain, and compression.

Disadvantages of Tube Amps

  • Tube amps are generally more expensive than other types of amps.
  • Tubes amps are bulkier as a result of the heavy components used to make them. This makes most of them impractical to use in situations where one has to play their music in different places.
  • Some tube amps tend to lose tone quality when played at low volumes. This can be quite an inconvenience for guitarists in some situations.
  • As tubes are made of glass, they’re prone to breaking if not properly handled.
  • The tubes used in tube amps wear out after some period of use, causing the tone they produce to change. This then means that they constantly need to be maintained and changed over time.
  • Some tube amps have a warm-up time, which means musicians need to wait for a few minutes before playing, to give the tubes time to reach optimum working conditions. This can sometimes be an inconvenience to musicians.

Examples of tube amps include Orange Rockerverb 50 MkIII Head, Marshall SV20C, Fender ’64 Custom Princeton Reverb, and the Blackstar HT-1R MKII Combo.

Tube Amps

Figure Orange Rockverb 50 MKLL HEAD TUBE AMP (Image credit: Orange)

Solid State Amplifiers

In simple terms, Solid-state amplifiers generally refer to amps that use transistors in the pre-amp and power amp stages as opposed to vacuum tubes. Technically, transistors and tubes perform the same functions.

Advantages of Solid-State Amps

  • They’re cheaper. The components used to make solid-state amps are generally much more inexpensive and easier to get when compared to those used in tube amplifiers.
  • The various components used in making solid-state amps are also way lighter, making solid-state amps more practical for use whenever one has to perform in different venues.
  • Solid-state amps require less maintenance, as the materials used to make the parts are much more robust and unlikely to get damaged when compared to the glass used in making tubes.
  • Solid-state amps can maintain their tonal qualities over low volumes, making them good for practicing and engaging in other musical activities that don't require a high volume.
  • Solid-state amps offer a quick solution for some music genres that prefer clean tones. An example of this can be seen in some guitar jazz music, where guitarists rarely use distortion.

Disadvantages of Solid State Amps

  • Many musicians find the sharp clipping qualities to be non-musical and less pleasant to the ears in comparison to the gradual smooth clipping of tube amps.
  • These types of amps are slowly getting replaced by modeling amps.

Examples of solid-state guitar amps include Boss Katana 50 (MkII) Combo, Marshall CODE100, and the Fender Tone Master Deluxe Reverb.

Tube Amps

Figure ROLAND JC 40 JAZZ CHORUSS (Image credits: Roland)

Digital/Modelling Amplifiers

Modeling amplifiers imitate the sound of guitar amps, cabinets, and effects. For instance, the Fender Mustang GT-100 is modeled to imitate the sound of a real Fender tube amp.

More than often, you might find that some of these amps may also make use of solid-state and tube amp components such as transistors and tubes in their makeups. Even then, because of the sound 'modeling' characteristics, these amps are then still classified as being digital.

Advantages of Modelling Amps

  • The greatest advantage of these types of amps is their versatility to imitate and produce any of the many given unique sounds of various amps out there. Some are equipped with features that make the addition of new sounds possible.
  • Like solid-state amps, they too are made of light components, making them suitable for carrying to various performance venues.
  • They’re cheaper in comparison to tube amps.

Disadvantages of Modelling Amps

  • Some older versions don't quite get the sounds of the amps they try to imitate, often sounding too 'digital'. However, recently there have been technological advancements, and the imitations have greatly improved in most of these amps.
  • More than often, modeling amps don't teach you anything about getting desired sounds, as most of the work can often be achieved just by turning a knob or pressing a button. This lack of knowledge gained can leave you exposed in the event you find yourself in an environment with the other types of amps that may not be as easy to use in achieving specific sounds.

Examples of modeling amps include Boss Katana 50 MK II, Vox Valvetronix VT20X, Blackstar ID: Core Stereo 100, and the Fender Mustang GTX100

Tube Amps

Figure VOX VX II MODELLING AMP (Image credits: Vox amps)

Hybrid Amplifiers

These types of amps combine components from the various guitar amp types, more often from solid-state amps and tube amps. For instance, consider an amp with a tube preamp and transistor in the power amp.

Equally, some digital amps that use transistors can also technically be considered hybrids. The definition of what exactly a hybrid amp is has over time continued to change with advancements in guitar amp technology.

An example of a hybrid amp is the Boss Katana 100 MKII.

Tube Amps

Figure BOSS Katana 100 MKII (Image credits: Boss)

The Big Question: Do Tube Amps Really Sound Better?

Now that you’ve gathered some basic knowledge on how tube amps work, you can probably make up your mind on whether tubes are the better choice when compared overall to other types of amps.

A close in-depth look reveals that on average all types of amps have qualities that make them uniquely pleasing to guitarists with specific needs—whether it be the portability of solid-state amps, the versatility of digital amps, or the clipping qualities of tube amps.

It also becomes clear that a lot of what makes an amp the best choice is subjective to the music style, environment of use, and ability to afford the product, amongst many other factors.

To add to all this, technological advancements continue to add to the wide array of achievable sounds, and even the ability to digitally recreate almost similar sounds to older versions in much cheaper and efficient ways.

So then, do tube amps really sound better? The answer to this is yes, no, and it depends? Or rather, it all boils down to preference.

This, as the issue of what sounds good and what doesn't, is largely subjective and dependent on the specific needs of each musician and the genres they’re playing in.

So while, for instance, the unique distortion abilities of tube amps may be appealing to some musicians in genres such as rock, other musicians from different genres such as jazz may prefer the clean sounds of solid-state amps. In addition, with modeling amps continuing to perfect the art of emulating specific sounds, it makes the process even more complicated as to which types of amps ultimately have the “better sound.”

It's all simply preference. What may be the “better amp sound” option for some musicians or genres may not be the best choice for another!

What Type of Amp Should You Choose?

When choosing an amp, you must consider various factors. These include the following:

  • What your budget is: If looking for a cheap budget-friendly amp, a tube amp may not be the way to go, as they’re quite expensive. Alternatively, solid-state and modeling amps offer various types of options with budget-friendly prices.
  • Where you intend to use the amp: If you plan on moving a lot with your amp (e.g., going on tour), tube amps, as they tend to be heavy, may not be the best option. Equally, the need for some tube amps to be cranked up to produce quality sounds may prove to be inconvenient in some instances. For recording in studios, smaller amps are often the better choice.
  • The genre you want to play (and more specifically the sound you are going for): If you’re just starting, a little research into what specific types of amps sound like may prove to be beneficial.
  • The effects and other special features: If you want to learn how to use effects, you might consider amps that don't do the work for you, as these types might leave you with no knowledge on how to achieve the sounds. Even then, such amps give a good feel of what certain sounds sound like.
  • The versatility of sounds: Some modeling amps offer a wide array of sound choices, which is quite convenient.

How Often Should I Replace the Tubes on My Amp?

In theory, tubes can last anywhere from a few months to many years, depending on their quality and how often you use them

How Do I Know It's Time to Change the Tubes on My amp?

Often, you’ll get drastic tone changes when the tube quality diminishes. On some occasions, the tubes may not even power on. When this happens, it's time.

Why are Tube Amps so Expensive?

More often than not, tube amps are made with parts that are more expensive to make and lower in demand.

How Long Should You Warm up a Tube Amp?

On average, most tube amps take between 10-20 minutes to warm up.

Should You Leave Your Tube Amp on Throughout the Day?

No, you should not. Tube amps generally deteriorate with more usage. Only turn on your tube amp when you’re about to use it.

Final Thoughts

We hope that you’re now fully equipped with knowledge that will help you in making your next amp choice. While the task of choosing an amp can be quite difficult due to the numerous options available nowadays, experimenting with different sounds to find the amp that best suits you can be quite fun. As a parting shot, always make sure to test out an amp before you purchase it!

Author

  • Tube Amps

    My "day job" used to be teaching but I decided to give that up to play music full time. I have gigged all over the world playing in bands or as a solo act since then. I still have a passion for teaching others anything related to music. Writing content for InciteMusic.com gives me an opportunity to combine my love of music and education.

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