An amp for every taste

About the Amplifier Shootout

This will be an ongoing event until I run out of amps. I need to warn you that it is not a scientific test – mileage will vary with taste. For instance I have found that each person brings different recordings which spotlight a different aspect of sound. I was happy listening to mild acoustic recordings using my Arcam receiver but visitors brought more stressful material that showed its shortcomings. I had to acknowledge what they pointed out, but when I went back back to quieter listening of my less stressful material the differences between the Arcam and the Bel Canto were not so obvious.

The difference that as large as the difference between amps is the difference between listeners. I just don’t notice some flaws in reproduction unless prompted, and even then I don’t necessarily care. For example, in my storefront days I had car stereo customers who only cared about booming bass. Conversely we had one customer who kept insisting we add tweeters. Before he was satisfied we had installed 12 2″ piezo tweeters in each door. Audiophiles always prefer a far more accurate sound, but even so there are high-end amps that appeal to different types of listeners

Categories of amps for types of listeners

Low wattage tube amps (2 to 20 Watts) have many fans who value the midrange of these amps above all else, usually citing realistic voice and small ensemble music. A kind subscriber has loaned me a 10wpc Sophia Electric Baby amp, so I will soon get a taste of that.

Classic tube amps (45 to 100+ wpc, both new and vintage) that generally are said to have fine 3D midrange, soft bass and sweet highs. I once had a Dynaco Stereo 70 (who has not?) and fondly remember the warm fuzzy sound.

Modern tube amps are often reputed to have the accuracy of solid state amps yet retain whatever tube qualities that please the listener. A great idea except that higher power men much higher price. I have just sent off a 1960 Harman Kardon Citation II amp for complete refurb. It is said to have an extremely accurate sound, not the classic tube sound.

Hybrid amps use vacuum tubes for the initial stages of amplification and solid state for the final stages. The idea is to combine the tube sound with high power at reasonable cost. Many times audiophiles have used tube preamps with solid state powers amps for the same goal. Vincent Audio does a lot of that, as does John Hillig of Musical Design.

Solid state amps are abundant, so no even vague generalizations can’t be made, though most regard high power and well controlled bass at lower cost as the virtues. At higher cost a few, like Pass Labs, Herron Audio, et al achieve the goal of a more perfect solid state amp, with reviews quoting tube like qualities.


The Difference between tube and transistor amps
according to Roger Sanders of Sanders Sound systems.

In audio differences of opinion are often presented as differences of fact. A subscriber suggested that I read a white paper by Roger Sanders. Below are excerpts

“You will find that conventional, direct-radiator (not horn-loaded), magnetic speaker systems of around 90 dB sensitivity, require around 500 watts/channel to avoid clipping. More power is needed in larger rooms or if you like to play your music more loudly than most.

The key point I’m trying to make is that audiophiles usually are using underpowered amplifiers and are therefore listening to clipping amplifiers most of the time.

What all this boils down to is that clipping tube amps sound rather soft and smooth. Clipping solid state amps sound harsh and edgy. I think it is safe to say that we would all agree that if you must listen to a clipping amp, a clipping tube amp is more pleasant than a clipping solid state amp.

If the amps aren’t clipping, or if you are using a component that doesn’t clip (like a preamp), you won’t hear any significant difference between well-designed tube and transistor equipment.”

Full copy at this link –


I have read many times that our usual listening level is under 10 watts, and accepted it a proven scientific fact. In a world where amplifiers and speakers have been in use since the days of talking motion pictures shouldn’t such disparate ideas be impossible? Shouldn’t we have some genuine proven facts as the basis for our ideas?

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