Are tube amps really just glorified equalizers?

In the "Letters" section of the September 2004 issue of <I>Stereophile</I>, veteran audio engineer Richard Burwen essentially says that some audiophiles like tube amps because they act as tone controls. Do you agree?

Are tube amps really just glorified equalizers?
20% (39 votes)
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23% (44 votes)
48% (91 votes)
No opinion
9% (17 votes)
Total votes: 191

audio-sleuth's picture

What isn't?

Michael Westwood's picture

First of all, the issue of "what tube amps are/do/sound like/etc," is beyond boring, beyond tired, beyond beaten into the fell depths of the earth. Maybe Richard Burwen should address the issue of why tube amps are used in many to most recordings of merit—as the amplifiers inside microphones and other recording equipment. The fact that recording engineers continue utilize tube-based equipment seems to support the precept that tubes are something more than tone controls.

C.  Healthgut, M.D., FACS's picture

The question is worded in such a manner that one might interpret it as asking "does tube amplification possess a certain character that renders it unique?" I submit that tube amplification has a "sweet" character that transistor and even MOSFET designs simply cannot produce. My Marantz 9 original tube amps, which I have owned for 35 years, have afforded me the aural bliss via those glowing "tone controls."

Al Earz's picture

I think I have associated that "warm" sound as a tube amp. I have purchased McIntosh solid state amps because I always felt they preserved some of that tube sound but benefited further with the speed and reliability of solid state.

Teresa's picture

Tubes offer a sonic realism that solid-state cannot approach. With tubes the timbre is closer to what one experiences live and tubes are more relaxing and enjoyable. While different tubes do have different sonic attributes, they do not color the sound the way transisters do.

Norm Strong's picture

A good tube amplifier sounds just like a good solid-state amplifier. If it doesn't, then it isn't good. I think many audiophiles simply like the idea of vacuum tube amplifiers—it's part of the retro-audio movement.

JCS's picture

Actually, tubes are more linear than transistors.

Daniel Emerson's picture

Yes, in a way. But so are all amplifiers, no matter what the propellorheads of the "solid-state uber alles" tendency may say.

CDman's picture

Surely, the whole point of hi-fi magazines and reviews is that all amplifiers have a "sound", and it is just a question of which sound we prefer.

Al Marcy's picture

Wire with pure gain is only an ideal for flatliners.

Stephen Curling's picture

What's a tube amp?

Jim Germann's picture

If they are equalizers, I like the sound they produce. I've had two, a McIntosh 240 and a Conrad-Johnson MV-125, which is in use now. I like them far better than any solid-state amp that I auditioned here! And there have been a lot of them. This could be a good thing, seeing how CDs of late are damned near screechy!

Anonymous's picture

That is absurd!! Maybe those folks are tone deaf. Tone Control!! Maybe some people like tube amps because they can serve as heaters during the chill of winter??

Graeme Nattress's picture

There's a lot more to it than just being a tone control. Tube amps can certainly act as tone controls, but they act as so many other music manipulation devices, too. But the end result is that they sound, to my ears, more like enjoyable music. I don't think anyone can argue that a well built transistor amp can be more accurate to the source input into that amp, but a good tube amp can sound more like good music. You have the choice—accuracy to a source (which, after all, just plays back a recording of a musical event), or a distorted, tone controlled, innacurate reproduction of the source, but which can, perversely, sound more like the music that was recorded to make that source.

Dick Stevens's picture

We have tube equipment that sound solid state and solid state equipment that sound tube.

Brent Tucker's picture

Tubes done right are acruate than solid state.

Joe Hartmann's picture

All amps are tone controls. I listen to some very high priced amp and I wonder if the designer was interested in getting anything but the base right. I am always struck not by what gets done right but by how much gets done wrong.

Wavelength's picture

You are kidding; right!

Donald N.'s picture

Tube amps can make recordings sound musical. They do sort of act like a tone control. Rosy sound and usually not completely accurate.

scott higgins's picture

Are you kidding? Solid-state seems more like EQ to me

Aaron Trocano's picture

No. Too cross the boundary into something that just plain sounds 'real' you need tubes.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Just like your furniture, carpeting, your speakers, high-jitter CD player, and all too many poorly engineered recordings.

Anonymous's picture

You can't make a solid state amp sound like a tube amp no mater what you do with the tone controls. Tone deaf engineers like Richard are the reasond CD recordings sound so poor. They should stay away from the recording room. edd Denver, CO

Mike Parenteau's picture

Many tube amps measure quite well in comparison to their solid-state counterparts these days. It is generally accepted as fact that in the higher end of the price spectrum, expensive tube amps and expensive solid-state amps sound more alike than different. When switching from a solid-state to tube preamp last year, I wanted accuracy and information retrieval with a neutral response above all. If there were noticeable frequency response differences between the two, that would have been a turn-off for me. I would say that interconects and speaker cables are the true high-end tone control, not tubes.

Michael Blackwell's picture

tube amps seem to reproduce more natural sounding harmonics

Mike Z's picture

I'll admit that tubes do have an effect on the frequency response of a system, but that's not why I like them. I like them because they sound more real to me than any solid-state amp I've ever heard.

Anonymous's picture

So what? If it makes your monkey bone vibrate....

Don D.'s picture

I honestly don't see why this remains a controversy. With tubes, just as with transistors, bad design will lead to bad results. However, good tube designs can easily outshine transistor designs on an equivalent dollar basis. I enjoy tubes more than solid-state, becaase in my case, the tube amp that replaced an SS amp (MOSFET) provided better bass response, sounds more realistic, and is just more enjoybale. All from a 5W 300B.

Tony P., NY's picture

No, tube amps are glorified eliminators of odd-order (anharmonic) distortion.

jocko's picture

Can't you make the same argument about most electronics, cables, and speakers?