Are Tube Amps worth it?

Despite their awesome tones, many musicians shy away from using tube amplifiers, instead opting for solid state alternatives. And that’s not a bad thing- solid state amps can sound great too, and it’s all a matter of preference at the end of the day. There are many perceived downsides to tube amplifiers that make potential users hesitant to make the jump. However, these are not necessarily the deal breakers that many make them out to be.

Here are some commonly perceived downsides to using a tube amp and why they might not be as big of a deal as you think.

  1. Tube life: Nothing lasts forever, and both preamp and power amp tubes will have to be changed out. However, it’s not as often as may think. Depending on how often you play and the amp you’re using, power tubes can last for up to 10,000 hours without needing to be changed. Preamp tubes usually last around five years or even more! So owning an all-tube amp doesn’t mean you’ll be changing tubes all the time. Good tubes are quite durable.
  2. Maintenance and repair: New sets of tubes can be pricey, along with trips to the tech to replace and bias them. With a tube amp, it pays to be proactive about maintenance. Don’t wait for your amp to go quiet before taking it in to a tech. Many tube amp aficionados actually have their tubes changed routinely to prevent any issues, similar to how car owners will take in their vehicles for routine checkups. Owning a tube amp simply requires that more care be given to the maintenance of your equipment, but it’s not much more than simple math. As long as you know the average life expectancy of your set of tubes, and keep track of when they were last changed, you’ll know when the time comes.
  3. Reliability: The simple, plug and play nature of solid state amps makes them highly appealing, especially for those who gig frequently and can’t afford to have a tube go bad during soundcheck. However, most tube amps don’t just give up the ghost on the gig- when tubes are going bad, there are warning signs. Significant drops in output volume, strange noises like squeaks, squeals, hum, feedback, and a weak sound are all signs that the power tubes need to be swapped out. You can also tell by visually inspecting the tubes- if the usual glow is fading or gone, or the tube looks burned, then the tube has reached the end of its life. Preamp tubes are a little more difficult to gauge, but they too will generally exhibit symptoms. Any kind of whistling (tube becomes microphonic), humming or strange noises indicate bad preamp tubes. In any case, a good tech should be able to quickly isolate and rectify the problem. So rest assured- your tube amp will likely not fail on you out of the blue. But it is up to you to inspect your rig before performances and rehearsals to make sure all is as it should be. Gigging with a backup is also a great practice regardless of what kind of amp you use.
  4. Weight: Tube amps are heavy, there’s no doubt about it. Those looking to streamline their rig might find themselves at odds with the size and weight of tube amps. However, not all tube amps are heavy and cumbersome to move, and there are many all-tube micro amps on the market that can get you your tube tone fix without breaking your back. You can also get tube tone in a small package with the Carvin Amplifiers VLD1 Legacy Drive Preamp Pedal, which has real 12Ax7 preamp tubes. The Legacy Drive pedal fits in your gig bag and you can go direct into a mixing board, plug in headphones for practice, or use it to drive a power amp.

In many cases, tube amps do not require the amount of maintenance that they have a reputation for. As long as you properly take care of your gear, owning a tube amp is simple and very well worth it for the tone. Have you ever made the switch to a tube amp after much consideration? If so, how did it work out for you? Let us know in the comments.

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