Saturday, September 4, 2021

Why I Prefer Solid State Amplifiers

My preference for solid state over tubes is not conclusive. I can imagine buying a tube (or hybrid) amp in the future, but I consider it unlikely for a couple reasons. First, the traditional sound-quality disadvantages of solid state (especially, perceived lack of warmth) have all but disappeared, while its traditional advantages of lower distortion, lower noise, and greater clarity have not. To be fair, tube and hybrid amps, especially those that cost over $3000 or so, have greater transparency, lower noise floors, and less distortion than those of the past. Still, there's no question that they remain noisier and higher in distortion than solid state, at least up to price points beyond my budget constraint. Those who tout the ability of tube amps to cast a wide and taller sound stage, separate and isolate instruments in the mix, etc., may be correct, but many of those advantages are, in fact, consequences of distortion. The tubes are, in effect, creating artifacts out of the original mix. Subjective preferences being what they are, I'm content to trade off those perceived benefits of distortion for less distortion, at least up to the point where a marginal increase in clarity and transparency results in more high-range sibilance and overall edginess, resulting in a more fatiguing listening experience. Based on what I hear, my (fairly new) Parasound JC 2 BP preamp casts an excellent sound stage and allows me to hear each instrument clearly, without being at all difficult to listen to for hours at a time. In fact, compared to other preamps I've had, it softens ever so slightly my more clinical-sounding VTV Purifi (Class D) power amplifier. Playing through my Harbeth C7 ES-3 speakers, the sound I hear from the combination of the two amps is wonderfully transparent, well-defined without being sharp, and altogether beautiful. 

Beyond distortion and lack of clarity, my other objection to tube amplifiers is that they give rise, almost inevitably, to the practice of "tube-rolling." As I found to my detriment when I last owned a tube preamp, tube rolling creates a slippery slope to madness. It would be naive to think that, for audiophiles, buying a tube amplifier (pre or power) is the end of a search. Rather, it is only the beginning of a quest. Almost as soon as the amp arrives at the house, even before the tubes are well burnt-in, the new owner begins to wonder (usually thanks to some of the same dangerous social-network commentary he or she relied on when buying the amplifier) whether the tubes that came with the amp are sufficient. After all, tubes affect overall sound quality more than  any other elements within a tube amp; and different power and rectifier tubes will alter the sound significantly (for better or worse depending on a combination of received wisdom and personal preference). After all, how do we know that the manufacturer selected the best stock tubes for the amp? Perhaps they selected the tubes to keep the amp at a certain price-point. Even if the manufacturer did believe it was selecting the very best tubes for its equipment, perhaps it was wrong. "Surely," you think to yourself, "it couldn't hurt to see what tubes other owners of the same amp have tried and like." That's the first step on the slippery slope. Pretty soon, you're stuck in a seemingly endless process of "tube-rolling." You might start with reputable audio dealers, but you quickly find yourself searching Ebay and sketchy websites, looking for tubular holy-grails among the thousands of surplus and "NOS" tubes from the 1930s to the present -- tubes built for military equipment or televisions or Hammond organs. Which ones should you try? Some old RCA Hytrons, GE black-labels, German Telefunkens, newer tubes made for the Russian or Chinese military? You think, "Maybe I should try a few different sets," each costing $100 or $200. "Or, maybe I should just go all-in and buy the $1000 set of tubes strongly recommended by three different owners (all complete strangers to me) of my amplifier." [As people with strong opinions, which they often confuse with actual facts, audiophiles hardly ever slightly recommend or contingently pan components.] "If I do follow their advice, from what source should I seek out these tubular holy-grails?" Of course, all the sellers that might have them promise they only sell well-matched tubes in great working or "nearly-new" condition. But how trustworthy are those promises? Some sellers have established better reputations than others among the audiophile community. Not coincidentally, tubes from the most reputable sellers are always the most expensive. 

Having spent several months deciding which amplifier to purchase, you now find yourself tweaking your amplifier with various tubes until the day you finally decide to sell the tube amp and replace it with a solid-state amp for which, thankfully, transistor-rolling is not a thing. I don't mean to disparage audiophiles who actually enjoy the never-ending quest to perfect their systems (whatever perfection means to them). Some people love the game of tube-rolling and are willing to invest all the time and money it takes to keep tweaking. Obviously, I am not among them. I operate on a "satisficing" model of audio-system quality. Given my tastes and budget-constraint, my goal is to build a really great-sounding audio system (actually, several such systems) that I can live with for a long time without thinking all the time about how it might be improved. Once I've satisfied that goal, I'd rather spend my time listening to music than listening to my audio system.

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