What sounds better, tube or solid-state electronics?

Solid-state technology all but obliterated the vacuum tube market in the early 1960s. So why are tubes still popular with audiophiles and musicians?

I thought it would be fun to contrast and compare the tubes vs. solid-state debate with the analog vs. digital standoff . I'd readily concede that solid-state/transistor components are, watt for watt, cheaper, more reliable, cooler running, smaller and lighter in weight. But if solid-state is so terrific why haven't tubes become extinct in the half century since transistors came onto the scene? Maybe, just maybe, because tubes sound better?

Tube technology may be 100 years old, but it still sounds great to some people. Steve Guttenberg

Ultimate AV Magazine recently conducted a poll, "Do You Prefer Tube-Based or Solid-State Audio Gear?," and the results demonstrated a nearly two-to-one preference for transistors over tubes (41 vs. 21 percent). So even among audiophiles, tubes aren't always favored.

I've owned tube and solid-state gear, and I like both for different reasons. Tubes, like analog recordings, have a more full-bodied sound than transistor gear. There's a "roundness" to tube sound that solid-state gear never equals. Tubes are less forgiving about mismatches, so to get the best out of a tube amp it must be used with just the right speaker. Solid-state amps are nowhere as fussy about speaker matching.

I would never say tubes are always better-sounding than transistors, or that analog audio is always better than digital. The excellence of the design, or the recording play their parts. Some naysayers think tubes just have higher levels of distortion, and that some audiophiles like the sound of that distortion. I wouldn't go that far, but I can't say that accuracy should always be the top priority for any hi-fi. The goal, I think, is to make the majority of your music collection sound good. Thing is, most recordings don't sound good, so the most accurate rendition of their sound might be counterproductive.

When the solid-state guitar amp arrived in the late '60s, it may have been technically superior to tubes, but guitarists preferred the warmer richer sound to the "harsher" or more "brittle" sound of early transistor guitar amps. Even now, old tube amps fetch big dollars on the used market. To some players, transistor amps don't sound right.

If you own a tube hi-fi or guitar amp, tell us about it in the Comments section.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.


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