Tube amps and solid-state amps create sound in fundamentally different ways. Tube, or valve, amplifiers use glass vacuum tubes to amplify sound, whereas solid-state amplifiers use solid-state electronics with transistors and diodes. Tube amps were the original amplification method, unrivaled until the '60s and '70s when solid-state amps came on the market, replacing many tube amps. Over time, both amplifier types have proven to provide desirable features, and both have retained steady usage over the years.
Let's see how they stack up in terms of tone, maintenance, and selection.
In a world without price tags and liabilities, the only question would be what these amps sound like.
The characteristic sound of tubes is what sets them apart from solid-state amps. In essence, tubes create a distortion in sound when played at a high volume for the particular amplifier (say, any time the volume knob is turned up more than halfway). This distortion is highly sought after for its pleasant warm sound, and it's the quality that characterizes the difference in sound between the two amp types.
Many solid-state amps have built-in overdrive features that mimic the sound of "driven" tubes, and while many guitarists argue that there's simply no substitute for the classic sound of tube distortion, solid-state distortion can be applied at any volume. This is a huge advancement in practicality, as tube amps need to be cranked at a high volume before they start to "break up," or exhibit that desired distortion.
Neither amp requires any kind of extensive maintenance, but eventually, your tubes will need to be replaced. You can tell a tube is going to fail long before it actually does from imperfections in the sound such as volume dips or crackling.
Tubes are also far more fragile than solid states, so if you're shipping your tube amp or checking it on an airline, it's recommended to remove the tubes first. Just unscrew the glass tubes, wrap them in something cushiony like bubble wrap or a fluffy towel, and tuck them back in to the back of your amp.
Today, you can find a wide selection of great-sounding tube, solid-state, and even hybrid amps that fit your budget. One especially popular hybrid amp is the industry-standard AC30 from Vox, which features a tube preamp and a solid-state power amp.
Tube amps will typically cost a bit more than solid state, but depending on your needs, it may be worth it to shell out the extra cash for a good tube amp.
So, are you turning up to 10 or keeping it down for the neighbors? Hitting the road or hitting the studio? Think hard about what you want out of your amp, and purchase an amplifier you're going to love!
Max Monahan is a bassist and a writer living in Los Angeles. He spends his time working for an audio licensing website and shredding sweet bass riffs.