Tube amps and solid-state amps are two of the most well-known and widely used amplifiers on the market. They’ve been around for several decades, but they both work completely differently. Knowing the various intricacies of each amp will help you find out which one is right for you.
The difference between tube amps and solid-state amps is that tube amps use two or more bulb-shaped vacuum tubes that heat up and amplify sound signals, whereas solid-state amps use transistors. Both amps can use pedals and speakers, but they use different wattages.
In this article, I’ll show you all of the differences that you should know between tube amps and solid-state amps. I’ll also provide the pros and cons of both kinds of amplifiers. Enjoy!
Differences Between Tube Amps and Solid-State Amps
There are many things that separate tube amps and solid-state amps, including their size, shape, and the way they work. They also have different electrical demands and maintenance requirements.
While they can sound similar under the right conditions, these amplifiers are far from the same.
Here’s a list of differences between tube amps and solid-state amps:
- Tube amps require vacuum suction to amplify the noise output. They look much different than transistor amps that don’t need vacuum technology or suction power. This vacuum power source heats the bulbs (also known as tubes and valves) to produce sound. They have an input and an output tube.
- Solid-state amplifiers use transistors to amplify digital signals. Transistors pull low-noise signals, which is why you can play an electric guitar that doesn’t produce a lot of sound without an amp. When the input signal completes (via gain), it sends the signal to the output, which is controlled by the volume.
- Solid-state amps look like boxes, whereas tube amps have large bulbs on top of them. You’ve likely seen far more solid-state amps because they’re much more common these days. They’re the traditional box with a mesh-looking grate on the front. The internal speaker sits behind the grate on a transistor amp.
- According to Guitar Space, tube amps are naturally more forgiving than solid-state amps. They don’t buzz or break if there’s too much input or gain. You can gauge the distortion level and tune it to your preferred style. All tube amps have unique sounds, making them much more unique than solid-state amps.
- Tube amps typically require less wattage than solid-state amps to produce the same volume. If you have all of your gear plugged into the same breaker, a tube amp could prevent you from causing a short circuit. Additionally, you can power it with low-wattage extension cords without any issues.
These differences might not seem like a lot, but they’re enough to sway most musicians one way or the other. If you’re interested in learning more about where tube amps outshine solid-state amps and vice versa, read on.
Pros and Cons of Tube Amps
Tube amps have all sorts of pros, including the fact that they’ve been around much longer than transistor amps (aka solid-state amps). However, they’re not without fault.
Before you decide which amp is right for you, it’s time to dive into the advantages and disadvantages of tube amplifiers below.
Pros of Tube Amps
- Tube amps usually have a smoother sound than solid-state amps. It’s only noticeable when you have an extremely high-quality amp, though (unless you’re an audiophile with a trained ear). Nevertheless, it’s a huge perk for musicians who want to bring subtle tones to the surface.
- Laney explains that tube amps don’t require a lot of watts, making them ideal for people who don’t want to overload their wall outlets. However, it doesn’t sacrifice their noise output. Make sure you check the tube amp’s maximum dB rather than concerning yourself too much with the wattage.
- You can adjust the distortion on a tube amp simply by playing the strings harder or softer. This benefit is massive for experienced guitarists. You can avoid distortion pedals by picking or strumming harder, which adds new layers of unique sounds and effects. It also brings clarity to fingerpicking patterns.
Cons of Tube Amps
- Tube amps require a lot of maintenance compared to most other music equipment. You have to change the tubes and make sure they’re always completely stable. If the tubes aren’t level or tightened, they’ll stop working properly. Unfortunately, it can quickly lead to quality reduction.
- The tubes on top of tube amps are relatively fragile. They can break almost as easily as glass light bulbs. This means they’re harder to transport, and it can also cause durability problems when you’re constantly traveling for tours or gigs. However, it’s a non-factor for those who never move their amps.
Pros and Cons of Solid-State Amps
Solid-state amps are much more modern than tube amps. They grew in popularity in the 80s and 90s, which is why you see a lot of musicians choosing them over old-school tube amplifiers.
Much like tube amps, solid-state amps have their fair share of issues. I’ll cover everything you should know about the ups and downs below.
Pros of Solid-State Amps
- Solid-state amps don’t change the tone, regardless of how much you adjust the volume. This is because you can easily monitor the digital gain, which prevents the audio from clipping or breaking apart. Beginners can greatly benefit from this process, but there’s no doubt that experts can appreciate the easier play style.
- Solid-state amps are ready to use right when you plug them in. Some tube amps have to heat up for them to be able to produce sound; otherwise, the noise output will be muddy. You can hook up a solid-state amp and play it the second you turn it on. It’s perfect for impatient musicians like me!
- Killer Guitar Rigs claims that most solid-state amps are more affordable than tube amps. If you’re a musician on a budget, there’s no doubt that a solid-state is a better option. You don’t really have to deal with quality drops between the two types since most of the issues are based on personal preference.
Cons of Solid-State Amps
- Solid-state amps don’t change with a guitarist’s play style without manual adjustments. You can strum as hard as you want, but it won’t add any distortion or flair. You’ll have to keep making adjustments on the amplifier until you’re satisfied with the results. The other side of this issue is that it builds your technical understanding of amps.
- These amps are more prone to cause buzzy feedback and speaker issues. Minor signal input issues can cause buzzing noises. You’ll have to switch cables or try different gain settings. These problems are much more common when you’re dealing with low-quality transistor amps.
Are Tube Amps Louder Than Solid-State Amps?
Tube amps are louder than solid-state amps because they process sound waves much more efficiently. What you hear coming out of the tube amp is exactly what’s going into it rather than dealing with digital wave distortion. This means that a 30W tube amp will be louder than a 30W solid-state amp.
According to ADK Guitar, solid-state amps clip and reduce the incoming signals before sending them through the speakers, whereas tube amps maintain up to 90% of their power throughout the process.This means a solid-state amp needs a lot more power to achieve the same volume that you’ll hear from a tube amp.
It’s not uncommon for tube amps to need less than half of the incoming power of a solid-state amp. That being said, extra-large solid-state amps only use about 100 watts or so. This means that even the biggest amps don’t need dedicated circuit breakers or GFCIs.
The issue doesn’t lie in the amp’s power consumption as much as the noise output. It can be a bit tricky, but you don’t need to worry about a tube amp not being loud enough if it doesn’t require a lot of watts.
Do Solid-State Amps Last Longer Than Tube Amps?
Solid-state amps last longer than tube amps because they don’t need their parts to be replaced nearly as often. Additionally, they don’t require heating, nor do they have issues if they’re left on for too long. The more you play a tube amp, the quicker it’ll wear out.
So, why don’t tube amps last as long?
According to Rock Guitar Universe, tube amps need valve replacements every 6 months to 2 years, depending on how often you play the amp. Furthermore, longer playing sessions can cause wear and tear much quicker than you’d notice if you had a solid-state amp.
Tube replacements can be tedious, causing more maintenance expenses than other styles.
The chances of breaking a tube amp are much higher than breaking a solid-state amp. This issue means the individual parts rarely last long. However, you can replace almost every part of a tube amplifier without swapping out the main box.
You’ll still save money by not having to buy a brand-new model, but frequent damage can be frustrating.
You can’t leave a tube amp on around the clock. It can overheat each of the valves, rendering them useless. Additionally, playing a tube amp for prolonged periods can make it too hot. While it’s not much of an issue for some people, tube amps are known to heat up a room.
Fuel Rocks estimates that solid-state amps can last up to 30 years with minimal maintenance. Those chasing low-work amplifiers should always go for a solid-state amp. You can pick up an amp and keep it for a generation.
What’s not to love? However, there’s a lot to consider before choosing which amp style you should choose.
What To Consider When Choosing Solid-State Amps or Tube Amps
There’s a lot to consider when choosing solid-state amps and tube amps, including the wattage, where you’ll be using the amp, and which settings you prefer. You should also consider the materials they’re made of and how many inputs there are.
Here’s a detailed look at these considerations:
Generally speaking, higher wattage produces more volume from an amp. If you’re looking for a loud amp that you want to wake the whole room up with, I suggest getting one with 60 watts or more.
On the other hand, an amp with only 30 watts will suffice for small rooms and those who don’t want to shake the walls.
Solid-state amps are usually better for those who play in smaller settings. You won’t risk losing any quality or distortion by reducing the amp’s volume. The same can’t be said for tube amps, which lose quality if the volume gets too low.
This is one of the main issues musicians face when using valve amps when they need to be quiet for their neighbors, roommates, and so on.
Both types of amps offer numerous effects. If you want to control your distortion without using the knobs on your amp, a tube amp is a solid option. Strumming a little harder gets the job done.
If you want to control all of the artificial adjustments in one place whenever you need to, a solid-state amp is the modern choice for you.
Amps are made of plastic, metal, wood, and more. You can find these materials in solid-state amps and tube amps because they aren’t exclusive. Keep in mind that the materials impact the sound coming from the amp, especially if you’re relying on the amp’s built-in speakers.
Wood and metal resonate more than plastic, but they’re more prone to corrosion.
Inputs & Outputs
How many inputs do you need on your amp? If you only have one instrument plugged into it and you don’t need effects pedals, then you obviously only need one input. Check the outputs, too.
You can use external speakers, computer hookups, and headphones on most amplifiers. If you’re in a band with multiple guitarists, a dual-input amp is worth trying out.
According to Fender, solid-state amplifiers hold their tone and quality at low volume levels much better than tube amps. If you have to play quietly (such as in apartments, condos, or at night time), a solid-state amp is going to be the better option. Tube amps need a bit more volume to reach their full potential.
Should You Get a Solid-State Amp or a Tube Amp?
You should get a solid-state amp if you’re always on the go or you don’t want to swap out the tubes and other parts. On the other hand, you could get a tube amp if you prefer clarity, nostalgia, and adjustment distortion from your strumming and picking.
Ask yourself these questions to know if you should get a tube amp or a solid-state amp:
- Do you perform at a lot of gigs? If so, a solid-state amp is likely the better option (unless you have high-quality protective cases for your amp). These amps can handle a lot more wear and tear without breaking any parts. If you’re usually performing or practicing in one location, a tube amp will be a great choice.
- How experienced of a musician are you? If this is your first amplifier, I suggest going with a solid-state amp. They’re easier to work with, not to mention the fact that they don’t need a lot of maintenance. Experienced musicians usually love the smooth, rounded, natural tones coming from a tube amp, though.
- What kind of music do you play through the amp? If you prefer a wide range of genres, a solid-state amp is a great choice. Additionally, solid-state amps are much better for people who are into modern pop-punk or pop-rock. Modified distortion from new-age music is much easier to achieve on a solid-state amp.
- Do you want to mimic old-school musicians? Those who enjoy old-school jazz and classic rock typically prefer tube amps, but there are plenty of solid-state amps and modeling amps that copy the vintage tones. If you’re into nostalgia, nothing beats a classic tube amplifier. They’ve been around a lot longer, so they’re used on old records.
- Do you prefer natural sounds or customizable music? Tube amps are known for sounding natural. What you play on your instrument is almost exactly what you get through the speaker. On the other hand, solid-state amps are more customizable, so their sounds are a bit unnatural and unique.
Choosing your amp directly impacts how you play your guitar. It doesn’t take too long to learn guitar basics, but it’s best to pick the gear that allows you to play the way you’re most comfortable.
If you’re used to tube amps, choose them! If you’re used to solid-state amps, roll with them!
While tube amps sound a bit smoother and louder, a solid-state amp is and will always be an excellent choice. Both kinds of amplifiers are worth trying out to know which one you should roll with. You can produce similar quality and volume if you know how to adjust them properly.