I wrote the initial cut of this in response to the endless debate in the alt.guitar.amps news group, on Wed, Cinco de Mayo, 1999.

TUBES VS TRANSISTORS

For years there's been a debate as to whether tube-based or transistor-based audio equipment (from stereos to guitar amps to whatever) sounds better.

``What's to debate?'' you ask. ``Tubes waste energy, and they're archaic!''

Vacuumheads will tell you that tubes just sound better, and many believe tube amps will sound louder, as well. Sandheads will retort that transistor amps are cleaner, more efficient, and ``a watt's a watt''.

Who's right? My musings won't settle the debate; they're just my musings. But they are the musings of someone raised on tubes, converted to transistors, and now prefers... well, read on and see.

My Amplification Journey

Once upon a time, there were no transistor amps. We all had tubes, and we were all happy as clams. Oh, the living room might get a bit toastier in the summertime, but the sound was wonderful.

I was a kid during the tail end of this era. ``Real'' audio equipment in the 60s was tube-based. I learned electronics by taking apart an old, tube-based portable my Mom gave me. I couldn't put it back together, and learned almost nothing taking it apart, so I got some books and started studying. Soon I was salvaging old TVs and radios, repairing equipment, designing things, converting PA amps into guitar amps...

Then along came mass-marketed transistor electronics. And the designers and sellers and marketeers talked about durability, and power usage, and heat dissipation, and we all got excited. And they dropped prices, and we practically wet our collective pants.

And when we first heard them, they were different. We weren't always sure just what the difference was, but they were definitely different. And there was marketing hype, and they were new, and the whole world was big on change for change's sake (``all change is progress, and progress is good!'') So most of us went with transistors. Without a real clue as to why we did it.

The living room was definitely cooler. We could hear the music better at the beach (whether we wanted to or not), and the batteries lasted a lot longer, and portables were much lighter, and you never had to replace transistors!

Or at least, you usually didn't do it yourself. Because even transistors died. Not for the same reasons tubes died, or in the same way, and maybe not as often - but they died. And nobody but a repair shop or savvy electronics enthusiast or EE was likely to replace them. Oh, well, things were cheap. We just bought new ones.

And almost anyone could afford a loud amp. Because the transistor was so small and produced so little heat, clever engineers came up with more and more functions in the equipment, and we got things we might never have gotten with tubes, from sophisticated tape decks to guitar amps with 10 effects built in to a computer in nearly every home.

I threw out my tube collection.

My EE profs scoffed at tubes for anything except big power applications, and assured me that one day those, too, would be handled by transistors. I shrugged my shoulders and went along, even though transistor theory was much hairier than tube theory.

And everyone was happy.

Almost.

There came a day in the 1980s when I had to sell one of my practice amps. It was no contest. The transistor amp went. It was a 10 watt Stage, and the main thing it had going for it versus my old 5 watt Kalamazoo (which sounded louder and better, other than lacking a bit of high end clarity) was that it made a great fuzz sound. But I had a Big Muff Pi for that, so who cared?

I also went through various, larger amps. The only tube amp I owned that wasn't that great was a Univox, a low end clone of a Fender Twin Reverb which had apparently been mistreated by various amp techs and owners. The only solid state guitar amp I've really liked was my Lab L5 (which I wish I still had). But I'd have to do a side by side comparison before I'd consider giving up my Peavey Heritage, even for the Lab.

The Heritage VTX is an "integrated" amp - solid state preamps and tube output stage. But I got it for $200, and it sounds really nice. It does the tube sound well enough for now. Meanwhile, my kids and I are looking for old, trashed out tube amps to recycle. Maybe I'll build something I like more. We'll see.

So, yeah, I have to say, the tube amps just sound better. It wasn't easy to give up my EE prejudice for the vastly superior transistor, and transformerless outputs, and all that other stuff. But I did.

Some people say that tube amps color the sound. Maybe so, but they sure do color it nicely! Maybe they colorize something that gets lost in the input (microphones, whatever) process. Maybe they just do something in a way that matches how the ear functions, or the brain processes sound. I don't know. I just know it sounds better.

But I'd sure hate to go back to the days of vacuum tube computing.

And I'm hanging on to my Big Muff Pi.

Related Thoughts

There are only a handful of tube manufacturers left, in Europe, China and Russia. One of the major factories in Yugoslavia was bombed by Nato, so things are even tighter.

NOS (New, Old Stock) is a big force in the market as older, unused tubes come out of various warehouses (mostly military).

Tube facts and lore, until recently going the way of the dodo, are slowly crawling back. While original manuals are collectors' items, reprints and new versions are appearing.

Vacuum tubes are wasteful of energy. It would be really nice if an R&D group would put some serious money and thought into ways to lower tube heater power requirements.

(For those of you who don't know, tubes use a ``filament'' or ``heater'' to heat one of the internal elements. This is necessary to produce an electrical flow in a tube. Since the heat is necessary for tube operation, it's not really wasted, but tubes are definitely less energy efficient than transistors for almost all applications.)
If you've never heard the difference, go to a music store and play an instrument through different types of amps, or check out a stereo/hi fi shop that has some tube equipment. Decide for yourself. If you don't hear the difference, or prefer the transistors, then by all means, stick with transistors!


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Last updated: 26 January 2001

Copyright 1999 Miles O'Neal, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.

Miles O'Neal <meo@XYZZY.rru.com> [remove the "XYZZY." to make things work!] c/o RNN / 1705 Oak Forest Dr / Round Rock, TX / 78681-1514