Why don’t tube amps sound like tubes anymore?

When I hear the latest tube amps I’m more reminded of what a solid state amp sounds like than what I remember a tube amp once sounded like. I say that, with most tube amps I hear today, but not all. Gone seems to be the lush tones, warm glow and natural harmonics I used to hear. What I hear is more of a thoroughbred, faster, sharper sound when I listen to a modern tube design today. Then why use tubes?
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The short answer is it's the new production tubes that are the culprit.IMHO NOS tubes in front along with new production tubes for the output are the best of both worlds:-)
Its always tough to generalize, but the long term trend has been for solid state to less harsh and grainy and tubes to less lush and syrupy. Or solid state more full and rounded and tubes more tight and clean. However you want to put it.  

Why is probably because most of us are trying to get to the truth, and so over time the two approaches are bound to converge.

This is why i switched to solid state years ago plus i hated tubes going out and taking out tweeters.
Amp technology in general has improved over the years and more tend to sound better and hence more similar as a result.

Not to say there are not still other flavors of tube amp to choose from besides vanilla.
Because the extreme high end wants a certain sound and imaging that has changed over the last several decades.

The current trend is:

Exaggerated high frequencies and etched sound = "detail", biting unnatural attacks = "fast transient response", and unnaturally dry bass = "taut" and “tight”

There is something else to consider. The new valve preamps and amps have heat limitations.  They just can't get as hot as the old and be sold, as a retail unit.  The really great sounding valve units made today, are borderline with the heat issue, and probably tip the scales in the summer months..
Production runs of 5-50.  Not 500 to 5,000. 20,000.00 vs 3-5000.00
that 20,000.00 (sometimes) will get the "tube" sound back... The 3-5,000.00 model will keep the heat out, the sound., maybe.

The new VTLs might as well be SS they sound so, SS..LOL
Really, they remind me of the older Krells.


"Because the extreme high end wants a certain sound and imaging that has changed over the last several decades.

The current trend is:

Exaggerated high frequencies and etched sound = "detail", biting unnatural attacks = "fast transient response", and unnaturally dry bass = "taut" and “tight" "

Good argument. Fashion shouldn't be an issue when it comes to audio playback. 

Yet it often is, as any visit to a high end show will usually demonstrate.

One explanation given by a certain UK reviewer is that this is done as an attempt to grab the listener's attention as fast as possible. Particularly the elevated treble issue so commonly seen in many speaker designs which can give the impression of superior detail resolution in the short term - but lead to fatigue and headaches in the long.

Some used to even talk about sonic tastes varying from country to country, eg a French sound, an Italian sound, a German sound, or in America, an East and West coast sound. 

I wonder if this is still the case?

Anyway, as far as tube amps go, weren't Single Ended Triode (SET) amps the most representative of the classic tube sound of yore?


In my opinion the new tube gear sounds more like good solid state rather then the warm fuzzy sound of yesterdays tube components so why hassle with tubes any more?

8,881 posts
05-24-2020 1:31pm
If you ask me, it's the almost universal switch to the use of Wima caps.

LOL, I never though of it, but they are in just about everything new and older (not ancient). They sound great, close tolerance, and last just about forever..

Many tube brands are designing their current amps to sound more like SS, precisely because many people criticized the typical older models for being, well, too "tubey". Proves you can't please all the people all the time.
The use of metal film resistors in place of carbon. SS diodes in place of tube diodes in the power supplies! The disappearance of power supply chokes!
hiendmmoe Why don’t tube amps sound like tubes anymore?

 I found with many of the tube amps I owned (especially remember a pair of  100w switchable ultralinear/triode/pentode monoblocks 4 x NOS 6550 GE mil spec each amp I had), "and improved the sound" on over many months with better interleaved output transformers better caps, getting the tubes to work in the more linear part of their curves, power supplies etc etc.
The "better I made those tube amps and others sound and measure", the closer they got to the sound of "great high bias solid state amps", the rest is history for me with tubes, never again.

Cheers George
Great-sounding amps should sound more alike than different. It’s music, not ice cream.  Modern tube amps require no more maintenance than solid state. A great sounding tube amp will tend to be more affordable than a solid state amp of comparable quality.
Wima caps wee used in most of the Counterpoint power amps and preamps.  That being said, I would call those products not sounding like tubes even as hybrids.  The mosfets gave that warm sound.   Taking out the Wima for Nichicon and V-Caps retains the musical sound but more to what you are describing.  Replacing the mosfets with bi-polar transistors is another story.

Happy Listening.
Actually, it is more like modern SS amps are sounding more like Tube amps. Modern tubes are every bit as good as the NOS stuff. frequently better. NOS tubes are a seriously expensive joke. More like a rip off. 
I'm new to tubes and people have said (in forum posts and in articles) that tube gear sounds like solid state depending upon *which tubes* are used.

But the conversation above doesn't really talk about which tubes very much, and people are mentioning that the responsible differences involve "caps" or "resistors" etc. How much do the particular tubes used play into the final sound of the tube amp sound? 
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Back in the days of yore Peter Walker (of Quad fame) arranged a comparative listening test of a tube vs. a transistor amp. Speakers were the Quad 57's. The amps were the Quad II mono's and the 303 (SS).. 15wpc and 35wpc, respectively. Signal source was 15 IPS copies of EMI master tapes. Listeners were members of the British audio press and HiFi industry. After extensive listening to both amps the general consensus was that no difference could be heard - both amps sounded the same!
The info above came from an article in HiFi News & Record Review that I read decades ago! Peter Walker was asked if he listened to his amps during the design process. He said no! He replied that his amps were designed to specifications and that no final listening was necessary! And this from one of the great pioneers of the Golden Age of tube HiFi.
Sorry for the redundancy! My smartphone was acting wonky and I tried to cancel the double posting!
None of my McIntosh Tube components sound at all like Solid State.  I think it entirely depends on the manufacturer of the products in question.  I think some Amps have tubes for the look, not the sound
Your resistor type,and coupling capacitors hav3 a large say in its voicing , as well as the tube type and brand. Power cords And cables used also Can have a large effect in the voicing .many people forget even 10 years ago many things have changed.
@mijostyn +1

Actually, it is more like modern SS amps are sounding more like Tube amps.
I sold my tube amp because the Pass XA30.8 gave me everything my tube amp did plus what it lacked in low end grip, dynamic range, and a silent black background. I think Class A SS done right is very satisfying to tube lovers, especially when combined with a quality tube preamp.
In most circumstances at audio shows, I can tell when I walk into the room, sight unseen, if it is using tubes or solid state. There is still a difference in presentation though not nearly as much as, say, 20 years ago.
The old SS vs Tube battle arises yet ,,once again,,, I thought that war was finished and over for all time, ,,guess not,,battle lines have been drawn. 
I am a  front line warrior for tubes. 
For me, ss technology is ,,dinosaurish.
Now I will say  quality tube gear is expensive, and NOS tubes are essential only fior pre tubes,,,power tubes new is just as good/ better than NOS (which are wayyy over priced)
A Tele pre tube is worth every penny. These  are not over priced. 
Seems everytime ~~The Final Nail in the old ss coffin~~ just doesn't seem to hold,,out come the ss gear  rising from the grave.
Translation/bottom line : ss gear is over priced and over rated. 
Note: this is not to say there is NOT some crappy tube gear out there. 
2nd note: hard to find any ss gear to come  close(midrange fq;'s in reference, not bass/nor highs) to a  quality tube  unit. 
3rd note,,I've heard a tube amp intergrated retailed for $2100 back then, now like $3500+,,  make music sound live in your room. 
can you supply  the name of a  ss lab that can match that experience? 

+1 @mozartfan 

3rd note,,I've heard a tube amp intergrated retailed for $2100 back then, now like $3500+,, make music sound live in your room.
FYI: Quicksilver Integrated is $1995, right now.

I think it depends on the amp and also tube type. My first tube amp was a c-j Premier 11a I hated that amp it sounded like SS to me, and I swore of the 6550 tube then and there as well. Overall the trend has been to greater transparency and frequency extension but there's still gear out there that sound like tubes.

Tube rectification is a good place to start also I would never buy an amp with SS rectification.  My amp which was built by my dealer has a mix of modern and vintage parts and sounds very tubey in a good way. It uses vintage output transformers and output transformers are another key component.

Class is another issue some tube amps are Class A some are Class AB. Class A will sound warmer and more tube-like. Also how the amp is wired triode vs ultralinear. Plenty of variables, also in a very general sense higher powered tube amps will sound worse i.e. less like tubes.
They called it 'perfection': a dealer some time ago described a newly received Nightingale Gala vacuum tube amplifier as follows: "It's superb... One cannoot say whether it is a SS or vacuum tube amplifier.' 
Nonsense...especially with single ended amps. If clarity and improved design for clarity is to be questioned that's just silly, as well as SS amps that, as Nelson Pass says "sound more like tubes" in a good way. It's the harmonic rules you just can't break easily, although Nelson tries successfully to do just that. Read why he likes the transistors in his SIT stuff. Also many, many modern (Gold Lion KT77s anybody?) tubes sound great, just as old tubes sometimes don't. I do get that great tube amps can be expensive as my Dennis Had SEP was 1200 bucks! (it was 4 months old...so it WAS used) And my Freya...don't even ask...I've got nearly 2 grand in just those two things...wow! Note these are both very well made and seemingly noiseless. Also, many may not realize there's a very large market for "reissued" tube guitar amps (nobody reissues old hifi tube amps, do they?) of all sorts trying to exactly replicate circuits  from 50s Fenders and old Vox amps, etc. These amps are generally great sounding things, and I've owned both old and newer single ended and push pull tube guitar amps and either sound amazing.
As has been mentioned, components used by the builders has a profound effect on the sound coming from the speaker.

The SE triode amplifier I’m currently using came in kit form allowing the luxury of not just tube rolling, but component rolling.

Unfortunately, the amplifier does not have a vacuum tube rectifier. The kit came with Schottky rectifiers. I’d done some unrelated work with 3rd generation silicon carbide rectifiers. I know they have been demonized in some circles but perhaps those were earlier versions (1st generation or 2nd generation-"turn off" characteristics and the resultant current wave have improved significantly). I used a version made by ON Semiconductor which I had used in another project. Nice subtle detail emerged making the switch worthwhile. There wasn’t a lot of space to fit 10 rectifiers in TO-220 packages (the Schottky’s were tiny DO-27 packages) plus carefully bending the leads to fit in place of the tiny rectifiers.

The kit came with Takman carbon film resistors. Not a bad choice. I mean what’s the option, Ohmite phenolic body carbon resistors? (if I were looking for a ’50s or ’60s sound)

It was recommended that Mundorf Silver-Gold-Oil capacitors be used to couple stages (not included in the kit). I started off with them. Then curiosity got the best of me and I swapped the Mundorf’s with Jupiter Copper Foil/Paper Wax capacitors. At over $80 each (4 required), it’s little wonder not a lot of amplifier designers/builders specify them. That capacitor change was a watershed moment. After about 25 hours of burn-in, the audio suddenly went from a rather sterile 2D and flat sound (not necessarily bad depending on the rest of the system) to a very nice detailed presentation. I might have considered Miflex KPCU capacitors (similar construction, similar price) except they physically wouldn’t fit in the amplifier (Jupiters just barely fit).

One other recommendation were the cathode bypass capacitors. Finding a capacitor with very low ESR is desirable. Within the past few years, several Japanese capacitor manufacturers began making organic polymer capacitors that have ESR values in the 60-100 milliohm range. That switch added a bit more detail particularly in the mid-range.

The final roll were the output matching transformers. Lundahl makes very well respected transformers for many applications. They had a transformer that matched the 300B plate characteristics. I swapped the output transformers with Lundahls. This was the second watershed moment. The imaging suddenly came alive, the instruments could be placed in the room, the vocals gained a lot of clarity.

I won’t go into the tube rolling exercise but I will say that Telefunken 12AX7s and 12AU7s sound nice. Ultimately the best sound to my ears were RCA 12AX7As (early ’60s manufacture from Cincinnati, OH plant) and RCA 12BH7As (again, mid ’60s from the Cincinnati, OH plant) in place of 12AU7s. If your preamp or amplifier filament supply can stand the extra filament current draw of the 12BH7, the 30% longer plate/grid/cathode adds nicely to the overall sound stage. And I’ll probably get skewered for saying this, but after listening to 5 different manufactures of 300Bs, to my ears, you can’t beat the original Western Electric (1998 date code) version. The runner up was the Takatsuki 300B (worth a visit if you’re in the Kyoto, Japan area-call for an appointment). I’m still waiting on Charlie Whitener to begin releasing the newly manufactured 300B from Rossville (GA) Works (using much of the original tooling/machinery from the WE Kansas City Works).

Now, it must be pointed out that I have invested as much (maybe more) in component upgrade rolling as the amplifier kit originally cost. Not for the faint of heart, definitely. But the rewards, at least for my listening, has made it all worth the effort and, especially, the money.

Agreed.  If you are going to go through the effort of buying a tube amp that is going to be more expensive and deliver less power than a similarly priced SS, what is the point if it sounds solid state?  I read and article, probably in stereophile, talking about a reviewer paying a tube amp a "compliment" saying that it sounded SS and the other reviewer effectively said that is the stupidest thing he had ever heard since tube amps are more expensive and harder to maintain. 

As someone who imports a line of tube amps, I am not about to throw stones at other companies, but I can think of a bunch of tube amps that have lost any semblance of tube sound and sound SS.  I import SETs and lower power push pulls.  My most powerful amp is a 50w mono-block in triode.  

Part of it is component design. Part of it is newer tubes and the obsession with maxing out power leading to the usage of more linear and higher power 6550s, KT88, KT120, KT150s.  But even then, I have listened to two 6550 based amps produced 15 years apart from the same company and today's 6550 amp sounded more SS than the one 15 years ago.  This is evidently what consumers want.  
If your tube amp sounds "warm and tubey," there is something wrong with it. 
I still greatly prefer the sound of tubes vs solid state.  I also prefer the current, more neutral tube sound- however you can modify that with small signal preamp and input tubes.  
The reasons I use them-
1) they give you a much larger, spacious sound stage
2) the ability to alter the tone and quality with different tubes
3) typically greater transparency
4) a more refined sound, especially in the treble.  this is a key reason for me.  the modern tube sound is still ultra smooth and refined compared to comparable solid state amps.  

"Back in the days of yore Peter Walker (of Quad fame) arranged a comparative listening test of a tube vs. a transistor amp. Speakers were the Quad 57's. The amps were the Quad II mono's and the 303 (SS).. 15wpc and 35wpc, respectively. Signal source was 15 IPS copies of EMI master tapes. Listeners were members of the British audio press and HiFi industry. After extensive listening to both amps the general consensus was that no difference could be heard - both amps sounded the same!"

Yes, fair enough, but SETs sound different, don't they?
When I decided to get tubed components, it was after hearing one of the more "tubey" sounding units currently on the market.  The sound was very seductive, but I had a feeling that after a while I might tire of that less than neutral sound. 

My main system consists of Rogue Audio M-180 monoblocks, Modwright LS-100 preamp, and Manley Chinook phono stage.  They are all pretty neutral, but have just enough of that "tube magic".  At some point I may go to solid state amps, but don't see the LS-100 or Chinook leaving my system any time soon. 

All of my systems have tubes in them in at least one component.  Vincent SV-237 in one system, ARC Vsi55 in another, and my bedroom system has a W4S Class D amp with an ARC LS26 preamp.
The so called tube sound slowly disappeared as designers figured out how to further reduce certain distortions and noise. Modern tube amplifiers should not have a characteristic sound, although some may, they should sound like music. You could say the same thing about solid state electronics.
I run two pairs of fully rebuilt and cap-updated 60s tube monoblocks. They are anything but tubey or mellow. Fast, liquid, spacious, colorful, and transparent, with excellent detail, black backgrounds, and no electronic haze.
Is this the spectrum between the tubes and solid state: on one side is "neutral" and on the other side is "tubey"? Or is one end of the spectrum "analytical" and then "neutral" in the middle and "tubey" on the the other end?

I’m also curious how people define "neutral." With modern multitracked recording (w/ overdubs, reverb, panning, tonal choices, etc.) what is neutral? Here, I think of prepared dishes; take lasagna as an example. Is there a "neutral" lasagna? It would seem there are many recipes and many possibilities. If you serve me a hamburger, we’ll have a real problem -- but it will be a category mistake, not a problem with non-neutrality. Plus, since so much music is compressed -- mixed to be heard over non-audiophile gear -- how could a piece of audiophile gear seek to "get back" to "real music"? It's all a concoction, and one largely prepared for non-audiophiles.

With acoustic instruments, "neutral" makes more sense; there’s some degree of reality which can be appealed to; if a clarinet sounds like an alto sax, then there’s something not being reproduced faithfully. But beyond that, a clarinet can be played in different ways, in different halls, etc.

I see the word "neutral" being used to celebrate solid state amps; and for those folks, "tubey" is a put-down. (And we see that those terms "solid state" and "tubes" are largely placeholders for certain aesthetic preferences in sonic presentation.) But what’s really at issue here seems non-resolvable from the start; solid state amps (so to speak) present sound in one way, "tube amps" in a different way. Each presents something *as* music, and then each of us decides if we enjoy it. If not, get something else, roll a tube, pour a beer, etc.
@MOZART Fan: Can you name the integrated tube unit that sounded so natural to you?
I have my reasons to ask and familiar (and sold) many an amp unit "back then".
Perhaps we can get to the "why" this was evident to you if I'm familiar with the product.

If you really enjoy warm and tubey, why shouldn't you be able to go out and buy a nice-sounding warm and tubey amp?  It seems these days manufacturers (and to some extent, reviewers and magazines) want to dictate what listeners should be listening to, i.e. what they deem "correct".  Witness the move to a lot of very analytical speakers from many manufacturers.

There's a reason why SET amps, despite several significant drawbacks that require work-arounds, are still around and produced by a number of generally smaller companies.

I’m wasn’t  talking about overly warm, slow, tubby sound of vintage designs of yesterday, when I asked the question in the original post. What I said I wasn’t hearing when listening to modern tube designs is the life and breath that tubes are known for. It seems with all the gains tube designs have made in areas such as: bass, speed, definition, all the magic tubes are known for has been lost.

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@ arro222
Yes I should qualify some of my dogmatic, rigid ideas  vented on my above posting, I can agree there are some highly priced *refined*n ss amps, that have gorgeous bass/highs,, and mds,, not bad, not bat at all. But as others have chimed in, tube retification, provided the design is superior and tubes , pre are NOS, power tubes are high quality,,,can over take any ss amp ona  $ vs $  comparison. 

+ change out the caps in the tube amp to any faborite (mine are Mundorf Silvergold Supreme,,if they fit ,,if not go EVO oil), and now the tube easily over takes the ss priced point matched amp in the mids. 
The intergrated i am speaking of is the JOR with the screetchy EI90's, which made voice sound live right in your listening room. 
*Concert was on, live*.
all i had to do was add in Tele pre tubes, which i had no idea about then, as i felt too pricey,,I was wrong, and sold it for 1200. 
The Jadis Defy is perfectly *neutral* as others have described a tube amp sound vs ss sound which is not 
*pure ognaic, natural, life like staging**, ss is ss and forever will be &&Solid State*, yuckky.
Now agree the single ended  tubes, i am not a  fan of, due to my preferencev for inefficient 4 ohm speakers, 

But again, what ss amp  can match light jazz /vocals comming froma  300b/805/845 tube amp? Liquid magic. ss amps can never voice ~~ liquid magic~~
aagin to qualify, there are some tube amps that  do not live up to the ~~tube magic~~ in the mids. 

But tyhen there are no ss amps, that will ever voice ~~tube magic~~.
Look fora  new vid upload soon, maybe 2 weeks, as the 6550's Svetlana just arrived and randy is installing  electrolytics. 
2 weeks, should havea upload.

new orleans