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Could an Old-School Tube Amp Make the Music You Love Sound Better?

Music systems, which those of us of a certain age just call “stereos,” started out filled with vacuum tubes, then went to transistors, and finally computer chips. What’s the difference, and which is best? There are a lot of factors involved. The leap from tubes to transistors meant smaller, safer, longer-lasting, and less power-hungry components.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, electronics manufacturers started bailing on tubes because solid-state components were all the rage. In part, it was because the electronics industry wanted something new to sell (sound familiar?), but transistors represented a major improvement over tubes, even if it was a hassle to replicate their linearity, for the simple reason that unlike tubes, solid-state components did not wear out.

“Tubes are it, tubes are the ultimate, but tubes are completely messed up,” Hansen says. “They wear out the minute you turn on a piece of equipment.”

But did those stereos, speakers, and amplifiers lose something in the process? Many audiophiles say that the quality of sound was much better with vacuum tubes. An article at Collectors Weekly runs down the history of sound amplification, the difference between tubes and transistors, and whether it ultimately matters in the experience of fine music.


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I think the crux of the matter is, enjoyment of music is subjective and therefore can be influenced by a lot of things including preconceptions about the equipment being used to produce the sound. It's why cable makers were able to market ultra high cost cables that had no measurable difference in quality from average cables...the folks that bought them SWORE they made a difference.
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The distortion from tubes shouldn't be enhancing either parity of harmonics, and just having roll off with frequency. Solid state amplifiers can cancel out even harmonics in distortions, but it depends on the amplifier topology used. And a properly sized amplifier can be designed to not introduce any distortions.

It is one thing if one is producing music and wants to distort things to get a designed sound, but to me is another deal when trying to add distortion on top of stuff already produced instead of trying to reproduce it cleanly. Even so, there are many ways these days of modifying the signals, yet some of the ones chosen by audiophiles varies from obtuse to snake oil. I find it funny when when some way overpriced products are advertised with specs that are quite poor compared to cheaper electrical engineering tools that can handle signals far beyond what is detectable by the human ear in various ways (although not as cheap as the junk in typical big box stores).
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What was missing from the article was any quantitative data. No superimposed traces from valve against transistor showing a difference. No frequency response diagrams etc. Just lots of talk with no attempt to prove anything. Certainly in terms of playback, the sound engineer at the mixing desk has more effect than (within reason) the playback equipment.
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I have been hearing this argument for so long, I had thought it had died. I, for one, Love the hyper realistic sound of digitally mastered music. On the other hand, I will never tell someone else that my way of enjoying music is better than theirs.
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