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There’s nothing better than getting up on stage, plugging in, and hearing the deep, growling thump of your own bass wash over you (and of course your audience). But what type of bass amp is right for you? Let’s take a look at the two main categories of bass amps: tube (valve) amps and solid state amps.
Which is Better: Tube Amp or Solid State?
When choosing an amp, “better” is always subjective. And even though tube amps are known for making a major difference in the sound of an electric guitar, that difference isn’t as pronounced in bass amplification. Still, you’ll find some players strongly prefer one type over the other. And since the use of solid state amps by bassists isn’t quite as stigmatized as it is in the guitar world, you’re likely to find quite a few players who actually prefer solid state over tube tone.
Tube Amps vs Solid State: Comparison Guide
The solid state vs tube bass amp debate isn’t likely to end anytime soon, largely because each type has some major advantages. Before we dive into the details, here’s a helpful comparison table:
|Amp Type||Amplification||Best For||Downsides||Cost|
|Tube||Vacuum tubes||Maximizing tone||Heavy, unreliable||$$$|
|Solid State||Transistors||Gigging||Harsher tone||$$|
What is a Tube Amp?
Simply put, a tube amp is an amp that amplifies a signal using vacuum tube technology. That technology produces a sound that is commonly described as “smooth” or “warm.” When the input signal increases and the amp is “pushed,” it can also move slowly into a natural overdrive — a feature many bassists like. Tube amps are the original guitar and bass amp — they’ve been around since before solid state amps were invented.
What is a Solid State Amp?
Solid state amps, which hit the market in the 1970s, rely on all electronic technology to work. Thanks to rapid technological advances, many of these amps have gotten fairly close to emulating tube amp sound. They tend to be compact and reliable, and some professional bassists even prefer them to tube amps.
How Does a Tube Amp Work?
Lots of players love the sound of tube amps, but not many know how they work. When you plug in and play, the electric signal from your bass first passes through preamp tubes. These smaller tubes are where you dial in your desired tone. The signal then moves to the larger power tubes, where it is amplified further. The signal then moves through the speaker, producing the sound you hear.
When to Use Tube Amps
When it comes to thick, warm, powerful tone, bass tube amps are king. They’re an ideal choice if you’re looking for vintage-tinged bass sound. And if you’re looking for natural-sounding overdrive that avoids sounding harsh, a tube amp might be just what you need. Because they offer incredible tone but aren’t very portable, tube amps are an excellent choice for studio use, too.
Tube Amp Drawbacks
If you’re considering a bass amp tube vs solid state, keep in mind that glass tubes are delicate, and they have the potential to break if the amp isn’t handled carefully. Tubes also need to be replaced over time. But the biggest drawback of a tube amp is probably its size — even lower-wattage tube amps are heavy and can be inconvenient for gigging bassists to transport. And lastly, compared to other amp types, they tend to be very expensive.
How Does Solid State Work?
Solid state bass amps work using transistors. Your bass signal first enters into what is called an input driver circuit, where it is somewhat amplified (like it is in the preamp tubes of a tube amp). It then reaches output transistors. These transistors amplify it substantially, send it to the speaker, and create the bass tone that you hear.
When to Use Solid State
Compared to a tube amp, a solid state bass amp will deliver more volume in relation to its size. That’s largely because the transistor technology used to amplify your signal takes up much, much less space than vacuum tubes do.
These amps tend to be compact and relatively lightweight, and their all-electronic technology makes them far less likely to break. If you frequently play at gigs or otherwise need to transport your gear frequently, a solid state amp is a good choice. And because they’re more affordable, solid state amps are the logical choice if you’re on a budget.
Solid state amps are also a good choice if you would prefer to not have to do maintenance on your amps. With these amps, you don’t need to worry about purchasing and changing tubes in order to get great sound.
Solid State Drawbacks
When it comes to solid state vs tube bass amps, many players believe that tube amps will always have the superior tone. Solid state amps can’t produce natural overdrive like tube amps can. In some cases, solid state amps sound harsh in comparison to tube amps.
Enter Hybrid Amps
If you’re wishing there was some way you could get the best of both tube and solid state amps, you might find that a hybrid amp is just right. These amps blend solid state and tube technology to create a whole new breed of amplifier.
What is a Hybrid Amp?
Different hybrid amps have different circuits, but the most common design uses a tube preamp and a solid state power amp. Your tone is “colored” by the tube preamp before being electronically amplified. That way, you get some of the classic warmth of a tube amp without the bulkiness of the power tubes.
Hybrid Amp Features
If you like the amplifier for bass tube sound but also want the portability of solid state amps, the hybrid amp can deliver it. These amps save space and weight by relying on electronic technology (rather than vacuum tubes) for much of their power. And while the preamp tubes can really improve your tone, they don’t take up much space. As a result, hybrid amps are able to give you some tube tone in a compact, lightweight, and more portable package.
Hybrid Amp Drawbacks
The main drawback of hybrid amps is that a hybrid simply can’t give you the full benefit of either a tube amp or a solid state amp. It can’t give you the same full, warm tone that a tube amp offers, but it also can’t deliver the same compact portability of a solid state. And since it does have a tube or two, you’ll likely still need to do some maintenance from time to time.
Are Tube Bass Amps Better Than Solid State?
That all depends on what you value. Plenty of players will tell you that the tone of a tube amp can’t be matched — it’s deep, warm, and capable of an organic-sounding overdrive when pushed. But solid state amps are still capable of producing great tone, and when it comes to portability and practicality, they certainly have the upper hand.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Still undecided? Here are some common questions you may have:
Not necessarily. Tube amps aren’t as loud for their size as solid state amps, but both are capable of producing a deep bass response. The amount of bass has more to do with the quality of the amp and how you EQ it.
The short answer here is yes. The tubes and other amp components add a good deal of weight. They also take up space, so the amp housing itself needs to be fairly large. When you’re comparing a solid state amp and a tube amp with similar wattage, the tube amp will just about always be substantially heavier.
If you primarily play acoustic guitar or bass, which amp should you choose? Traditional tube and solid state bass amps are designed to work with electric basses. You could plug in an acoustic, but either amp type will color your tone. The best choice would be an amp that is specifically designed for an acoustic guitar or bass. Most of these are solid state amps.
For a lot of bassists, solid state amps end up being the preferred choice. Many higher-quality models come very close to sounding like tube amps, but they’re substantially more affordable.
If you’re a gigging bassist, you’ll find that solid state amps are less heavy and bulky, so they’re easier to lug around. Solid state amps are also more reliable and less prone to breakage in transit. They’re also very loud for their size. This particular combination of features makes solid state amps the clear choice for many touring, gigging, and student bassists.
So which kind of bass amp should you choose? We know that reaching any kind of final decision when it comes to your gear can be agonizing. So to help you decide, here’s a super-quick summary:
- Choose a tube amp if you value tone above portability and volume.
- Choose a solid state amp if you need something rugged, portable, and loud.
- Choose a hybrid amp if you want an amp that is extremely versatile.