Every major guitar amplifier manufacturer designs amps with the use of either solid-state technology, or vacuum tube technology, or a combination of the 2. Also, certain amps incorporate digital technology, often utilized for emulating the sound of other amps, be it tube or solid-state.
Before we dive deep into this article on tube amp vs. solid-state headphones, you need to know some interchangeable terms first. When we’re discussing tubes, you could also come across the term, “valve”, particularly concerning British amplifiers, such as Marshall or Vox.
Is there any difference between tubes and valves? Not at all: They’re merely different words that are used to refer to the same thing. Apart from that, you might also see that solid-state amps are called “transistor” amps or “transistor” tech. While this term could be growing out of use, it’s yet again another word for the same thing.
A couple of the major amplifier companies also like inventing words for their own specific, patented kind of tech or amp designs. Please, don’t get derailed by any of that as the essential thing to check is, whether the amplifier’s a tube amp or a solid-state amp.
Your headphones are good, but these amps will make them even better. Let’s compare and contrast tube amps with solid-state amps.
What’s Tube Sound?
Also called valve sound, tube sound is that characteristic sound, which is associated with a vacuum tube amplifier (or a valve amplifier), which is a vacuum tube-based audio amplifier. Tube sound, as a concept, didn’t exist at first owing to the fact that nearly all electronic amplification of audio signals was carried out using vacuum tubes, in addition to other similar methods that weren’t known or utilized.
After solid-state amplifiers got introduced, tube sound seemed to be the logical complement of transistor sound that came with certain negative connotations resulting from crossover distortion in early transistor amps.
An aspect that has been continuously debated among audio enthusiasts is the audible significance of tube amplification on audio signals. A lot of electric guitars, keyboard players, and electric bass in many genres equally prefer the sound of tube instrument amps or preamps. Apart from that, tube amps are also preferred by a number of listeners for stereo systems.
What’s a Solid-State Amplifier?
This kind of amplifier makes use of transistor circuits for converting an electrical signal into an audio wave. We can find 2 phases of amplification in instrumental amps: the preamp stage at the beginning of the circuit, and the power amp stage at the end. In between both amplification stages, the sound could be influenced by effects like reverb, EQ, tremolo, and vibrato.
How Are Tube Amplifiers Different from Solid-State Amplifiers?
The physical difference that exists between a tube amp and a solid-state amp is, unlike a tube amp that utilizes vacuum tubes (also called valves), a solid-state machine derives amplification from electronic transistors. Transistors work in a different manner from tubes since when they’re pushed to their limit, they don’t distort pleasantly. By contrast, the majority of players do say that a tube amp sounds its very best when it’s pushed to the maximum.
These are some other major differences that exist between vacuum tube and solid-state amps:
- Solid-state amps are ideal for players that see maximum headroom (also called a loud, clean and undistorted signal). However, without a slight natural distortion, you’ll notice that an electric guitar can sound slightly brittle. For this reason, solid-state amps are more popularly used by keyboard players and bassists, and not guitarists.
- This doesn’t mean that guitarists completely avoid solid-state amps. Jazz players, many of whom play with virtually no overdrive at all, often prefer solid-state amps. While this is partly due to tonal reasons, it’s also as a result of the fact that solid-state amps are nearly always lighter compared with tube amps. And several gigging musicians like the convenience of a light amp.
- Rock musicians also make use of solid-state amps. For instance, Andy Summers of The Police is famed for using the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus amp that’s unapologetically solid-state and also surprisingly loud.
Advantages of Solid-State Amplifiers
Solid-state amps offer multiple advantages over their vacuum tube counterparts; however, not all of them have to do with audio quality:
They’re cheaper: Nearly all solid-state amps are cheaper compared with tube amps. This is partly because they have fewer parts, and the parts they contain are comparatively inexpensive.
Solid-state amps are lighter: If you’re a gigging musician who needs to haul an amp all over town, a crucial factor is weight. Tube amps are nearly always heavier than solid-state amps. This is not due to the glass tubes themselves (as they’re hollow), but instead as a result of the circuitry needed for operating them.
They’re less fragile: Guitar amp tubes are designed with glass. If you drop your amplifier and its glass gets smashed, that means the amp will stop working. The amplifier won’t work without the tubes, and you’ll need to replace them before you carry out your next performance.
Solid-state amps need less maintenance: Vacuum tube amps need regular upkeep. The majority of gigging guitarists change their power tubes around once a year and replace their preamp tubes around every 2 years. Solid-state amplifiers, by contrast, don’t need the swapping of parts as they can keep working with all their original components for decades.
Disadvantages of Solid-State Amplifiers
Even though solid-state amps are lighter, cheaper, and easier to maintain compared with their tube counterparts, it’s not every guitar player that uses one. The primary reason is, nearly all players feel they don’t sound as good.
Solid-state amps aren’t versatile: Vacuum tubes produce distortion while operating, which can be a very mellow and sweet distortion, typically described as “warm.” (Tube amps on home stereos produce this same effect.) That warmth is a desirable option on many instruments, especially treble-focused ones, such as an electric guitar. As a result of its nature, a tube amplifier will lessen some of the piercing high frequencies in a guitar, while offering the preferred coloration to every one of its frequencies across the board. But solid-state amplifiers can’t do this. While their pure crystalline sound can be perfect for certain instruments, it’s not ideal for everything.
They can’t cope with heavy amp distortion effects. Also, certain guitarists make use of their amps to enjoy heavy overdriven sounds. Examples are Jimi Page’s wailing guitar tone on the solo, Stairway to Heaven, and the propulsive beats of Metallica’s Fight Fire with Fire. These are sounds produced from amplifiers — not pedals or other effects. Also, they can only be created using tube amplifiers because a solid-state amp won’t even come close. Thus, when it comes to heavy amp distortion, tubes are the best.
Advantages of Tube Amps
Response: A lot of players prefer tube amps due to the response they offer, which means that depending on the playing style of each guitar player, the vacuum tubes can create subtly different sounds. This ensures that the same amp can contribute to 2 separate styles of 2 different players.
Tube amps have more benign overload & distortion behavior: A lot of music comes with amazing dynamic signal swings, and it’s a well-established fact that in tube amps, the onset of clip or overload as max power is attained takes place gradually, and rising distortion has prevalently low even-order harmonic nature.
High levels of even-order harmonic distortion in comprehensive listening tests have been found to be significantly less offensive to the ear in comparison with small levels of the harsh and odd order harmonic distortion, which is produced by solid-state circuits when they attain their power limit and go into clipping.
In transistor amps, you’ll find that the distortion rises rapidly as the maximum power level’s attained, which produces nearly square wave characteristics as well as a high DC component. If not stopped, these can easily destroy loudspeaker drivers.
They’re the more linear and need less feedback: Unlike transistors that are current amplification devices, tubes are voltage amps. Consequently, tubes are a more linear amplification tech that needs less overall negative feedback for making the circuit linear. In a bid to reduce amplifier non-linearity & distortion, negative feedback re-injects a sample of the amplifier’s output signal back into the input, 1800 out of phase.
Negative feedback in practice often slow the amp down and sucks out the emotion & vigor in the music. While high feedback designs tend to sound sterile and drab, low or zero feedback designs offer you a more immediate & natural sound. Based on tech and the kind of output device used, generally, transistor amps require the use of more than 40 decibels of local loop or global negative feedback.
They produce nice, clean sounds: A lot of players prefer the warm, clean sounds of a tube amplifier, which can sound totally clean with a soft playing. However, the sound can distort a little bit on a heavily accented note. Certain players require a sound that is crisply clean, regardless of how hard they play. So, they prefer the crisper sound a solid-state amplifier brings.
They feature superior dynamic capabilities: Due to the higher working voltages in tube amps, they can generally withstand wider voltage swings, with better signal headroom before going into overload territory. With higher working voltages, we’ve also higher audible energy storage and with lower value capacitors. For this reason, a lot of listeners believe tubes sound more powerful.
Disadvantages of Vacuum Tubes
- High operating voltages needed
- Bulky and so less suitable for portable products
- High power consumption and require heater supply
- Lower power efficiency compared with transistors in small-signal circuits
- Produce lots of waste heat
- Low-cost glass tubes are physically fragile
- Cathode electron-emitting materials are utilized in operating the amps, which result in shorter lifetimes (usually within a range of 1 to 5 years for power tubes)
- More prone to microphonics compared with semiconductors, particularly in low-level stages
- Often have higher cost than equivalent transistors
- There are high-impedance devices, often requiring a matching transformer for low impedance loads, such as speakers
Frequently Asked Question about Headphone Amplifiers
What’s a headphone amplifier?
Any device with a headphone jack also contains a headphone amp within it. Be it smartphones, tabs, gaming consoles, TVs, laptops, etc., all of them feature headphone amplifiers inside, which are utilized for sending audio to your headphones.
So, this means that a headphone amp simply powers your headphones. A headphone amplifier can be used for powering headphones and also for controlling and adding more volume.
Headphone amps are often confused as sound systems or musical instruments of some type; however, for those in the know, they’ve become an essential gadget in today’s musically obsessed era.
What’s the function of a headphone amp?
An amp takes you on a completely different musical journey, which isn’t realizable solely via your average speaker system. It’s connected to your headphones, as well as the source of the sound, like an iPhone, Android smartphone, tab, PC or laptop.
When you directly connect your headphones to these devices gadgets (just like you normally do), you can enjoy quality music. However, the sound quality isn’t as great as with the amp aid.
As said earlier, your smartphones and PCs come with in-built amps. But they don’t come with the robust, developed, and power stocked features, needed to provide you with the audio experience you require.
In certain laptops and gadgets (like the MacBook Pro), we’ve amazing inbuilt digital to analogue converters (DACs). However, certain laptops like Dell and other makers deliver a sound of poor quality, and the headphones don’t really have powerful built-in amps to give. This is one reason why you need to buy an amplifier.
Amplifiers work by re-modifying and enhancing the sound quality to offer you rich music, and they receive the sound input and add more power, voltage or current to the sound signals due to the fact that the sound emanating from the headphones carries much more energy (as regards quality and sound clarity).
Amps essentially play with certain notes and frequencies to offer you the perfect musical moments. An average amplifier could be a USB-sized amp, a box (like the size of mini speakers in your home), etc. However, it’s not every headphone that requires amps, especially the one that have inbuilt ones.
We’ve listed some amps below which you can choose from based on your needs. It’s possible that the more expensive the headphones are, the greater the likelihood they’ll require an amp.
What advantages does a headphone amp offer?
Though the most obvious benefit is that a headphone amp can boost the volume of the audio even higher, headphone amps do offer some other advantages even if you’re not the type of person that listens to music at high volumes.
Generally, headphone amps give more power to your headphones, and no, that doesn’t necessarily mean more volume. Even without cranking up your music to high volumes, your headphone amp offers enough power, ensuring your headphones can handle audio better, unlike they do when there’s no external amp. This implies you won’t encounter any challenges, such as distortion at high volumes.
Your headphones will be able to handle more of a dynamic range and can also sound even better generally. A lot of headphone amp users state that making use of an amp with their headphones does give a punchier bass, in addition to richer & clearer midrange, and smoother high frequencies, which are less harsh to your hearing. They also have overall musical transparency & clarity.
Why buy a headphone amplifier?
If you make use of high-quality or high-fidelity headphones from makers such as ADAM Audio, Focal, etc., without a headphone amp, you may not be hearing the full range of the headphones and also may not be getting the most out of them. While the audio quality could be great without an amplifier, by adding an amplifier to the mix, you can take your listening experience to a much higher level.
How can you choose a headphone amp?
Though we’ve a lot of fantastic headphone amplifiers on the market, please consider finding a model that will work with the specific headphones you own. These are some factors to take note of when choosing an amplifier:
Connection in your headphone: You need to consider the kind of headphone jack will you need to have without the need to make use of a jack adapter. In nearly all headphone amps, either a 3.5 mm or a 1/4-inch jack is needed to be properly connected to your headphones.
Connection of audio source: You’ve to ensure the headphone amp you pick comes with the proper connections for connecting to your soundboard, computer, phone, or other device or gadget that you’ll be receiving audio from.
If the amp you select comes with a digital audio connection, you’ll require a digital cable (such as optical, coaxial, or USB). If you’re making use of an analog connection, you must get a stereo RCA cable or mini to RCA cable.
Headphone impedance: Impedance is a wide topic. However, to keep it short, we can consider impedance as a term that basically describes how much power your headphones will require to produce a good performance.
Headphones with low impedance will need less power from the amp, while those with higher impedance headphones will need more power from the amp. Bearing this mind, please choose accordingly. If you’ve no idea about the impedance level of your pair of headphones, you can get it on the maker’s site.
Battery life: A number of the more portable amps are powered by batteries; hence, ensure that you note the battery life of the amps you’re looking at, that it suits your needs, and that it also lasts long enough.
Selectable impedance or gain switch: In certain headphone amplifiers, there’s a gain switch or selectable impedance control, enabling you to properly match up the amount of power, which is utilized for powering your headphones properly. Those amplifiers that come with a gain switch are more versatile and will be compatible with more headphones. Thus, if you require flexibility, consider opting for an amplifier that has a gain switch feature.
Portability: If you listening to music on the move instead of being seated behind a desk at home, you may go for an amp that’s more portable, instead of a larger-sized option, which will sit on your computer desk. Please, note that headphone amps have different sizes and shapes, and there’s an option on the market for everyone.
Number of channels: Headphone amplifiers offer 2 – 8 channels. Sometimes, they can even have more. Please, bear in mind that the size of the amplifier increases with the number of channels.
Some of the Best Tube Amp Headphones
- Eddie Current – Studio
- Donald North Audio – Stratus
- Manley Labs – Neo-Classic 300B
- HeadAmp – Blue Hawaii Special Edition
- Woo Audio – WES (2nd Gen)
- Linear Tube Audio – microZOTL MZ2
- Thomas Mayer – Stereo Headphone Amplifier
Some of the Best Solid-State Headphones
- Wells Audio Headtrip
- iFi Pro iDSD Desktop DAC Amp
- DROP Mass Liquid Carbon X + SDAC DAC Amp
- Massdrop x Alex Cavalli Liquid Carbon X Amp
- iFi Pro iCAN Studio Grade Fully Balanced Headphone Amplifier
- DROP Massdrop Objective 2 Headphone Amp
In a Nutshell
Vacuum tube sound, also called valve sound, is that characteristic sound associated with a vacuum tube amplifier (or a valve amplifier) — a vacuum tube-based audio amp. On the other hand, a solid-state amplifier makes use of transistor circuits for turning an electrical signal into an audio wave. There are 2 phases of amplification in instrumental amps: the preamp stage at the beginning of the circuit, and the power amp stage at the end.
While shopping for headphones amps to take your listening experience to the next level, please consider keeping in mind the differences between tube amp and solid-state headphones explained above to make a smart buying decision.