A can of worms has been opened, I fear!

Hot on the heels of my little article yesterday about the re-emergence of vinyl record sales and the benefits of valve amps over transistor/IC powered ones, emails have been pouring in from readers all over the place, some supporting my thinking, others deriding it!

That’s all very healthy, I think. At least it creates a kind of forum where these things can be intellectually discussed.

Lots of people are asking why I think valve amps give better sound. Well, questions like these are like lighting the touch-paper to a stick of dynamite with me…..electronics has been my career in the past….I spent around 20 years in the field, dealing with valve (tube) circuits and then working with transistors and IC’s too. So you see, once the subject is open, there’s no stopping me and I tend to kind of get carried away with things!

To address the question then….why are valve amps better sounding? Firstly, it’s a purely subjective thing. Something that sounds really cool to me, may sound like absolute trash to you….it all depends on the faculties Nature has given us, namely our ears and how our brains process what we hear.

However, in a nutshell, and without getting too technical, the main reason why people like me keep pushing valve amps is because they produce “harmonic distortion”. Now distortion is generally a no-no in ant piece of electronic equipment…in general, the lower the percentage, the better the equipment. That is one reason why circuitry that is extremely linear is needed to cater for the performance of semiconductor digital devices these days. Things have gotten so advanced, that increasingly better and better supporting devices are necessary to cope with such a high level of quality.

But valves are inherently not very linear devices….they are prone to producing harmonics and semi-tones, and it is these harmonics and semi-tones, especially even harmonics, which give valves that extra something that semiconductor devices lack…..this pleasing effect is sometimes called “analog warmth” by hi-fi nerds, or “BD”, meaning before digital…see how fanatical some hi-fi enthusiasts can be!

As they say, a picture paints a 1000 words, so take a peek at the graph (promise it’s not too technical!) below, which shows the difference in outputs between valve and solid state devices:


Here you can clearly see that the valve amp output is not linear at all, whereas the solid state device is almost perfectly linear…..it is this linearity that gives digital audio it’s “clean” sound, but in doing so, we lose the benefits of non-linearity given by the valve device. (the numbers 10, 100, 1k, 10k refer to the audio frequency spectrum that we humans can hear; in general, human hearing ranges between 20Hz to around 20kHz). Still with me? Good!

It’s not only valves that provide harmonic distortion, but also another component in a valve amp, which is the transformer. This also adds harmonics (caused by a wonderful thing called hysteresis and saturation…but we won’t go into that here…too techie!) to the overall out put sound of a valve amp, so at the end of the day, we get a conglomeration of pleasing sound coming out of the speakers.

Such is the general acceptance of this warmth from valve amps, that even engineers nowadays are trying to add that feeling somehow to their solid state (semiconductor) devices.

It’s the same with our digital cameras…..enjoyment of the end result is not always about precision or accuracy…..many times, it’s about the mood, the subtle enhancements and character that will make the end result more vivid and interesting.

So there we have it, folks….these are the main reasons why some people keep pushing valve amps for their hi-fi uses rather than present technologies. If there are any readers here who have a slightly technical bent like myself, here’s a typical valve amp circuit for you…and please do let me know what your views are on this whole subject…..

all photos flickr.com


About filmcamera999

ME & MY PASSION! ok, you probably looked at the length of this "about me" page and thought, god, what's wrong with this guy!....does he have to start telling us his life story or something!!? well, youve come here now anyways, so why not hear what im like as a person, eh? ive been using film cameras for well over 30 years...my first one being the family yashicamat twin lens! over the years, ive both bought sold and collected film cameras...too many to tell the truth! in fact, ive been buying and selling cameras well before the internet came on the scene, so anything you purchase from me is backed by my self-styled moneyback promise.....if you dont like what youve bought, send it back within 14 days and you get all your money back...no arguments!! WHERE I STAND ON THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION! yes, i do use digital as well, but only as a ready-reckoner...i try and take most shots with my simple 2megapixel digicam....if the shot looks good, i pull out my film camera and shoot! i most defintely do not believe in digital manipulation of photographs....that in my eyes is not photography...its cheating! WHERE I USED TO LIVE, WHERE I AM NOW & WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO DO! i used to live in Ontario, Canada, but moved back to the UK a little while ago (its a long story..!)...but now i'm living in the one place i always wanted to be...Vancouver, BC..the next best thing to paradise on earth! as i work as a freelance writer as well as other things, i often find hat my work takes me to europe for short spells, so i get to travel a lot...not a blessing, as i just hate long flights! im a qualified Quality Assurance guy (you know...ISO 9000, auditing, documentation etc) ....99% of my skill-set is transferable so i can handle any admin or documentation-related roles....see you in BC! otherwise, i specialise in ISO 9000 auditing and documentation. my dream? to have my own thriving camera shop in Vancouver BC, whilst living in the mountains somewhere.....the best of both worlds!
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10 Responses to A can of worms has been opened, I fear!

  1. I have a very simple take on the digital/analogue debate. Digital tends to be ‘is’ or ‘is not’ while analogue is ‘maybe’ – and we know the potential in ‘maybe’.
    (and as for MP3 and the like……)

    • good way of looking at it! i beg to differ there slightly, steve….dont know if youre a techie guy, but in digital electronics, everything is either 1 or 0, which translates to a voltage level at the output of any IC of 2.5 to 5volts for the “1”, and from 0 to 0.8volts for a “0”….with valves you also get zeroes and ones….ir either on or off…..albeit at higher voltages…!

      • Oh, sounds technical,
        I had it in my mind that with digital, somewhere along the line a choice had to be made, either a 1 or 0 but in analogues things were infinitely variable. So in digital sampling subtle differences can be lost (certainly this will depend on ‘granularity’), but in analogue sampling you can take everything. Similarly in digital output – you can either have this value or that value and nothing in between – analogue is ‘tweakable’.
        Of course, analogue isn’t necessarily ‘best’ – I’m not aware of an analogue compression technique, for instance – and long distance transportation is a problem – though as far as I know digital sits on top of analogue for that too.

  2. Derek says:

    So you can say the vacuum tube has a mind of its own and it tries to add warmth and style to the music at its own will. 12ax7 for the win!

    • hehe…i wish that was true, derek!
      the vacuum tube or valve does not have a mind of its own…rather, the way it operates creates harmonics and distortion, which sound pleasing to the human ear….digital ICs and transistors do not do this, at least not to the same extent as valves…

      • Derek says:

        I do like using my tube amps for guitar over ic. Or my portable tube turn table. I know I like them better but now I can use your words to help explain to them when they wanna get technical and argue. I have 2 giant boxes of assorted tubes in the basement that I acquired for 10 bucks. I don’t think I will run out of tubes anytime soon lol.

      • well, thank you for that, sir…but trust me, man….im no expert! i just happen to have worked with tubes and semiconductors for a long time…both have thier advantages…i mean, can you imagine a spacecraft running on vacuum tube technology…;)

  3. reocochran says:

    I am all about the history of old things and always glad to see them come back, too. I am a little off with my thinking today so did not quite grasp the whole details. But I am happy when you are happy, my friend!

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