IMAGE:Tube amplifiers still offer premium sound
Tubes are king when it comes to the sound quality of both electric guitar amplifiers and home audio systems.
For anyone who has ever listened to classic rock or blues recordings or attended a live concert, chances are the guitar players were plugged into rigs equipped with some type of prime tube amplification helping them pump out their signature sounds. Audiophiles will tell you the most expensive stereo amplifiers are the models that have vacuum tubes.
Also known as valves in England, tubes rule and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon, especially for guitarists and serious music enthusiasts.
Even iPods have tubes
It’s interesting to see how the current wave of digital music players, such as the Apple iPod and other similar devices, can plug into vacuum tube docking stations in order to achieve that highly sought after “tube sound.” Why else would iPods and the like have retro designed docking platforms featuring vacuum tubes? Digital audio sources, including compressed files like mp3’s, which some enthusiasts maintain are inferior music products to begin with, sound better played through tubes.
Let’s face it. Digital files are marvelous at reproducing musical sound. Add to that the negligible total harmonic distortion (THD) of solid state transistors, compared to vacuum tubes which can be up to 15-20%, and the results are pretty hard to argue with; digital sound passing through transistor circuits is much cleaner than traditional tubes.
On the other hand, whether it’s an mp3, WMA, WAV, flac or some fine digital file played on a home stereo or entertainment system with the best speakers and subwoofer, the highly desired analog sound often referred to as “tube warmth,” may be digitally imitated but never completely duplicated without the use of the real thing.
What are modeling amplifiers for guitars trying to imitate?
In many instances, transistors equipped with computer algorithms are capable of altering electric sound signals, like the ones from a guitar string when it’s picked or plucked, in order to resonate like an authentic tube amp.
In the world of contemporary guitar amplifiers, modeling amps featuring transistors are said to be state-of-the-art because they can imitate most of the characteristic sound of the classic tube models of the 50s, 60s and 70s and not break the bank in doing so. Voila! No need for vacuum tubes anymore. Well, not exactly.
The question, what are modeling amp manufacturers ultimately trying to duplicate, isn’t hard to answer; its genuine time-honored tube sound they’re after.
Music sounds better when you’re tubing
When an electric guitar is played a signal is generated, which leaves the instrument through its cable and flows toward the amplifier where it’s converted to sound. For vintage amplifiers, before that signal becomes audible, it passes through glass vacuum tubes inside the amp which impedes the signal’s path toward the speaker.
Due to the fundamental laws of nature and physics, if vacuum tubes are hot enough and if an amplifier is overdriven to near capacity electrical output, called clipping, an already vibrating guitar signal will vibrate faster. Vibrating at twice the rate before entering vacuum tubes, the signal becomes distorted.
The distorted signal then continues on to the speaker. Note that vacuum tubes have all the air and atmospheric gases removed, making it easier for the passing signal to increase its vibration and reach distortion levels.
Rock and blues musicians especially, turn their settings up extremely high on tube amps in order to create a distorted guitar signal which is satisfying to the ear and therefore most sought after by players.
Tubing with home stereos
Home audio systems that utilize vacuum tubes are highly desirable for reasons that are different from guitar amplifiers. Opposite of a guitar amp, driving a home stereo to its maximum capacity on any level of performance will likely be detrimental to the system.
Home audio systems with tube components can generate large amounts of power, a needed requirement when matched with respectably sized woofers and tweeters. Additionally, tube systems are louder than transistorized stereos.
Similar to guitar amplifiers, tubes in a home stereo don’t produce as clean a sound as transistors though it’s this same distortion that makes the listening experience so pleasurable. The distortion created in the vacuum tubes, technically called “even harmonic distortion,” as opposed to “odd,” adds fullness and texture to the music being played.
Tubes can provide a definite listening improvement
For a home stereo, transistors and digital files provide consistently even music reproduction from top to bottom but tubes can bring satisfying brightness to mid-range sounds due to the warm harmonic distortion. Tubes might not make a bad recording sound good, but they can make it a bit better. Good recordings are great when tubed.
Are tubes the end all and be all for serious music listeners? Maybe not, but they’re incredibly close.