The Tube vs Solid State Amp debate is slowly but surely coming to an end!

Jan 20, 2004

Popular Products in Amplifiers and Preamps
The Bottom Line The future of modeling amps will be two-fold: the first will appeal to "tube-purists" and will include a tube-power-amp-section, while the second will appeal to the more "modern" guitarist.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve played many guitar amps, hundreds upon hundreds and perhaps even thousands when you factor in all the multiple models of the exact same guitar amp that I’ve had the pleasure of toying with. In the late 70's and early 80's, there was no question or debate surrounding tube amps and solid state amps. The tube amp was simply the guitarist preferred gigging tool. What a difference 25 years can make?

I must also admit that in 1997 and 1998, there was still a definite audible difference between tube amplifiers and solid state ones, especially when a tube amp was pushed hard and being played by a blues guitarist. Many electronic engineers who conducted double-blind sound tests comparing tube amps with solid state ones all concluded that same basic thing. The soft clipping overdrive “tone” of a tube amp was most noticeable with a blues guitar players’ particular style of playing. It was next to impossible to differentiate the clean setting of a tube amp (with no overdrive) over a solid state one, or the high gain setting of a tube amp with that of a solid state one.

Isn’t it amazing what 5 years of electronic technological advancements can do for guitar amplifiers? A couple of weeks ago, my buddy said to me that he can still tell the difference between a tube amp and a modeling (solid state) amp. I challenged him to a blind sound test! For the test, the studio owner made the following selections that nobody was allowed to know before hand: my Line 6 DuoVerb, a Vox Valvetronix AD120VT, a Yamaha DG80-112 and the Fender Stage 100 DSP-112. And for the tube amps: my pals Marshall JCM2000-TSL602, a Fender Deluxe Reverb II, a Traynor Custom Valve YCV20-WR and a Vox AC30.

Since we all agreed that it was impossible to differentiate between a tube and a modeler on the cleaner and higher gain sounds, we concentrated the exercise on the “soft clipping sound” of those tube amps when pushed into overdrive. We agreed on a young talented musician, who in turn took notes and tips from each amp owner regarding ideal settings for their amps and the different guitars and pick-ups he was to use. Every amp - 20 we’re brought into the studio but only 8 we’re selected - each was set-up in my buddy’s basement studio and our featured guitarist got to fool around with all of them before we arrived for a bonafide sound test experiment that would hopefully end the tube vs solid state debate once and for all.

The musician was out of sight and nobody was allowed to view the “setup”! 11 musicians and guitar amp owners with an additional 7 non musicians participated in the exercise as “judges”...

We all had to answer one simple question: “Tube Amp” or “Solid State Amp”? Each amp was played in random order, 3 separate times at slightly different settings and with different guitars. So what were the results?

First, some astonishing facts:

- every single tube amp was mistaken for a solid state amp, and
- every modeling amp was mistaken for a tube amp.

Our analyses of the results:

- we all agreed that many had chosen “solid state” simply because all of the sound samples could not be from tube amps alone!

- there was no correlation between tube amp owners, modeling amp owners and non musicians when it came to distinguishing between a tube or a solid state amp.

And the big winner was...

“Tube Amps” continue to rule when it comes to its’ mild overdrive soft clipping sound and tone!

Close to 90% of our listening audience could tell they we’re listening to a real tube amp when it was set to a soft clip overdrive tone. The big winner in the modeling samples on hand was the DuoVerb, 70% had mistaken it for a tube amp on both the Fender and Vox settings. While the Vox Valvetronix faired just as well as the DV on its Vox settings it did very poorly on other settings for an average of 35% overall, the lowest percentage of all modeling amps on hand which still managed to fool some who had mistaking it for a tube amp. The Fender Stage 100 did really good, considering 55% had mistaken it for a tube amp. The other surprise was the Yamaha DG80-112. It came as a complete surprise to many when it was announced that close to 60% of the audience had mistaken it for a tube amp.

What can we conclude from this little sound test?

One of the biggest realizations was that those supposedly “subtle things” like “tube feel” that “tube purists” say they can hear on their tube amps, well they also appeared to be present on “Modeling Amps” as well. :)

Obviously, with every new generation of modeling amps, the accuracy of modeling technology is only getting better and better. With each new improvement, modeling amps are getting closer and closer to mimicking those “subtle things” and will eventually equal the tone generated by the tube amps they model. Consider the fact that manufacturers continue to expand on their modeling amps capabilities and overall flexibility, that future modeling amps will not only faithfully model a tube amp, but it will go far beyond the limited capabilities of the original tube amp it modeled. Most already do!

Now that we have “modeling” technology being introduced in “tube” amps such as the all new Atomic Amp - check it out at - it is only a matter of time before “tube purists” see the light. Professionals have already been using their modeling pre-amps with a tube power amp for a “sound” that is exactly the same as using an all-tube amp. Use a modeling unit to drive an all tube power amp with suitable speakers and adequate equalization and that folks is really what “sound and tone” is all about! Whether you are looking at it from a “tube purist” or a “modeling” point of view, the advantages of combining both technologies are obvious and astonishing!

When you take into account that, with each new generation of improved gear, the value and afford-ability of the product is no longer becoming an issue, it won’t be long before we see a $500 modeling amp going head to head with a $2500 all tube amp, and no one being the wiser. Still think you will be capable of telling the difference in a couple of years? I doubt it! All participants in our sound test agreed that modeling amps have come a long way.

Our featured guitarist who owns several tube amps said he was very impressed with the modeling gear on hand. He would have liked to have had more time with them all, confident that he could have fooled more into believing they were all tube amps. Though, he was even more impressed with the very affordable Traynor Custom Valve YCV20-WR and the Fender Deluxe Reverb II.

When I showed everybody a printout of the Atomic Reactor 112 Tube Amp which was designed to take a PODxt or other similar modeling unit, all were very much in agreement that “modeling” technology is definitely here to stay and will forever revolutionize a musicians gigging setup.

Bottom line, go with whatever you can afford and with the gear that ultimately meets your needs. Modeling amps can only mean good things for musicians all over the world. Especially those musicians on a budget who will have access to more affordable gear, more flexible than ever with a wider variety of options not available to them 5 years ago?

Which will you choose?


Other related reviews I’ve written on the subject:

Tonal Expression is from the fingers, not the amp

Tube vs Modeling SS “emulation” amps

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