Tube Amps vs Solid State Amps (Headphone Amplifier Guide)

There are 2 common types of headphone amplifiers. There is a solid-state and tube headphone amplifier. There are several distinct differences. The first one is how they physically derive their amplification. 

Solid-state amplifiers derive their amplification from electronic transistors while tube amplifiers use vacuum tubes. Tube headphone amplifiers use a cathode ray tube in order to produce sound. 

The second difference is how they color the sound of the headphones.  Solid-state headphone amplifiers such as the Beyerdynamic A20 give an accurate sound that is free from coloration.

beyerdynamic A20 Headphone Amplifier - Silver
Beyerdynamic A20 Headphone Amplifier (Image: Amazon)

Tube amplifiers on the other hand such as the Schiit Lyr 3 may introduce some distortion that you may perceive as added warmth to the sound. 

Schiit Lyr 3 Headphone Amplifier Without Module
Schiit Lyr 3 Headphone Amplifier (Image: Amazon)

Tube amplifiers have been around for longer are often associated with vintage gear. Tube Amps generally add coloration to the sound of the headphones. This added warmth is preferred by users who have bright sounding headphones and wish to tame the peaks in the treble area. Tube amplifiers also have a modular aspect since the vacuum tubes can be replaced with different types giving various effects. Hybrid tube amplifiers such as the Schiit Lyr 3 have the ability to sound like a tube amplifier as well as a solid-state amplifier. 

To summarize these points, a tube headphone amplifier is more of a modular unit that can have various effects on the sound but is not totally accurate. Solid-state amplifiers, on the other hand, give less coloration which gives a more accurate sound. Depending on what your needs are, one might be a better fit for your setup over the other. 

Let us discuss the main difference between these two types of Amps in more detail so you know one is best suited for your music listening preference.

Tube Amps vs Solid State Amps (For Headphones)

Tube AMP for headphones. Image Credit:

Tube Amps

Tube Amps are also known as vacuum Amps and thermionic valves. This traditional amplifier utilizes valves, as the name suggests, and controls the electrical current through this vacuum-sealed glass valve. This technology has remained pretty much the same for decades, which is a testament to its quality in design and performance.

Tube Amps are known to deliver a smoother and more responsive sound quality. This can be further improved upon with the use of high-gain pedals. Subtlety is where the tube amps genuinely shine, and this, in turn, allows music to be produced at a more precise level.

This type of amplifier can also be significantly louder, which makes this the go-to amp for guitarists in a band as they need to match up with the sound volume of the drummer to avoid being drowned out. Due to this amp being able to produce much louder sounds, a good range would be somewhere in the 50-watt tube Amps. 50-watts is more than enough to deliver what you need.

Another unique characteristic of the tube amp is its ability to deliver warmer and more natural sounding sounds. However, this increases the level of distortion as well.

Pros:

  • Added warmth can tame bright sounding headphones.
  • Tube Amp sare inherently more powerful than solid-state Amps.
  • It is aesthetically pleasing with its glowing filaments.

Cons:

  • Is susceptible to heating issues/problems.  
  • The distortion level is quite prevalent unless you incorporate a transformer.
  • Bulkier and heavier design.

 

Bravo Audio headphone Tube Amp. Image Credit Guy Sie

Tube Amps like this one by Bravo Audio made our list of top AMPs/DACs for Sennheiser HD headphones.

Solid-State Amps

Solid-State Headphone Amp (Image: CreativeCommons)

It took some time for solid-state amplifiers to get where it is today. Back then, most would look at the solid-state amp and automatically consider it as an inferior alternative to the tube amp. That is not the case now. It has evolved to the point that it can match the tube amp blow for blow, and even manage to surpass the tube amp in specific categories.

A solid-state amp incorporates transistor circuits that can convert the electrical signal into audio. In terms of sound quality, the solid-state amp can produce some of the cleanest tones. It is also quite versatile in that you can quickly switch between different styles thanks to its emulation, which is already built-in into the amp. This capability makes the solid-state amp an excellent choice for those who enjoy listening to a wide variety of genres in music.

One aspect that the solid-state amp exceeds at is its reliability. Keep in mind that tube amp design has remained virtually the same for decades. This leaves the tube Amps vulnerable to issues that range from the easily repairable to complete breakdown of the system and everything in-between.

Compared to tube Amps, solid-state Amps are designed to be far more reliable. Many Solid-state Amps are also less expensive.  They are also generally durable in construction and more portable since you don’t have to worry about banging the tubes and breaking them in transport.  Also, you can expect the solid-state amp to further evolve down the road as technology advances.

Pros:

  • Accurate sound, free from coloration
  • Generally more affordable.
  • Cleaner audio and transparency.
  • It is lightweight and more compact 

Cons:

  • Harder to replace parts.
  • Cranking the volume to the max will cause sound quality to dip visibly.

How to Decide Which Amplifier is for You?

Deciding between a tube and solid-state amp will boil down to personal preference. All things considered, it will be your style and tone, which will help you determine which amp will suit your style the best. Also, try to find your price range as well. Quality tube Amps can be quite expensive, and most solid-state amplifiers are versatile enough to cover your needs at a more affordable price.

Here are a couple more factors to take into consideration to help you decide:

Choose the tube amplifier if you…

  • Like the warmer, vintage sound.
  • Comfortable with occasional maintenance, changing tubes.
  • Can afford the higher price tag.
  • Looking for a powerful amplifier.

Choose the solid-state amp if you…

  • Want accurate sound without coloration
  • Want a more portable and sturdy Amp.
  • Prefer modern build and want to avoid dealing with tubes.

Hybrid AMP (Tube & Solid State)

iFi Pro iCAN Professional Studio Grade Fully Balanced Headphone Amplifier and Line Level Preamp with Tube and Solid State Output Circuits
iFi Pro iCAN Preamp with Tube and Solid State Output Circuits (Image: Amazon)

There are also hybrid Amps that use Amp tubes and Solid-State Output Circuits like this iCAN Professional Studio-Grade from iFi.

This is a first of the kind on the market with two individual input circuits: one tube and one solid-state. Find out more here on the company’s website. 

The Bottom Line

Headphone Tube Amplifier & Pre-amplifier (wikimedia.org)

Both Tube Amps and Solid-State Amps can deliver exceptional performance. If you have money to spare and desire that classic rock guitar sound, then the tube Amp is the perfect choice with its warmer range. For those who are looking for something more portable, budget-friendly and designed for producing more accurate and modern sound with the versatility to cover other genres nicely, a solid-state amp is your best bet.

At the end of the day, the decision in choosing between a tube and solid-state amp will fall solely unto you. We made this comparison as a guide to point you in the right direction. Answering which amp is the best will differ on who you ask. Traditionalists will always pick the tube amp while modern musicians will stand by the solid-state amp’s practicality and versatility.

The question you need to ask yourself is what music genre do you prefer and which type of musician are you? Once you answer that question, the answer will be abundantly clear.

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