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Can a tube amp just sound bad?

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In this world of digital modellers and profilers, many of us still maintain that a good tube amp still sounds better, even if the digital rig is lighter, more versatile, has better volume control, etc.


What about tube amps that just never sounded good?  Not all of 'em are created equal, and some just plain should never have seen the light of day.  What tube amps have you owned that just didn't sound good?  I'll start with a particularly wretched example of audio flaccidness:


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You betcha. 

Question is how do you define bad.  If you asked Leo Fender (or my parents who were about the same age) what bad is, anything that creates distortion was terrible. He designed amps that targeted high fidelity for the particular instrument it supported (bass guitar , bass tones, Electric guitar, Mid tones etc.  Saturated guitar hadn't been defined as being good until it had been exploited in the 60's an that's when a whole different kind of music was invented, saturated guitar using amp drive and fuzz boxes. 

If you stick with Fender's thinking where an amp sounds distorted when turned up then sure, there are just as many horrid sounding tube amps out there as there were Solid State. At least there used to be back in the day. How many actually being great for overdrive, bad meaning badass, the popular ones are still being used and cloned today.  Tube circuits really don't change that much besides how many gain stages are used and where you might place the tine stacks.  The reason the circuits don't change a lot is because there hasn't been any new audio tubes invented in the past 60 years. Tubes are a dead technology for everything but a few applications like Radio transmitters and musical instrument amps. 

The quality and design can of course vary and building amps on a shoestring invites bad quality everything.  Chances are a bad design actually becomes vintage is low. Most weren't worth repairing and wound up in in the garbage.  . 

The really bad ones didn't sell very well either.  Most amps were sold by word of mouth and the ones that were junk were quickly identified by not only the people buying them but the people selling them.  

That's another key piece of the puzzle.  Most musical gear that predated the internet were sold through music shops.  (Other then a few chain stores very few were sold through the mail via mail order catalogs other then your Sears, Montgomery Ward etc).   Many Music shop owners who sold amps usually had a pretty good handle on what were decent amps and what was garbage.  They may have had a budget amp or two for beginners but most didn't want to get a bad reputation selling garbage so most would sell stuff that ranged from OK to professional quality.  Many had dealerships with the Manufacturers and licensed to sell gear from Gibson, Fender and others. 

I guess in the later 70/s 80's when the clone wars began it became harder to keep the imports from filling shops because of the huge profits that could be made. As far as bad sounding tube amps?  I repaired them for a living so I'd not only come across them I was paid to make them sound good. Its like anything else, you basically get what you pay for.  If you can only afford to buy a cheap amp or somebodies used gear the odds are the amp probably didn't sound as good as others that cost more. 

As far as the stuff I'd repair I'd say a good 50% of the bad amps sounded bad because they were either poorly maintained, or poorly matched with the guitar or speakers being used, or its a poor choice for the job the musician needs it for.  Practice amps may sound great in a bedroom but placed against an actual drumselt in a live show it may sound like trash.  The pickup, the amp, the speaker, the cab all work together and when they don't you have problems.  When you add drive on top of that it gets even more complex. 

Other then really bad imports, most amps sounded pretty good depending on the class which ranged from a small practice amp all the way up to the big guns.  As far as great goes? Even most of the top end Fender and Marshall amps could be vastly improved by using higher quality speakers.  I got spoiled at a very early age. The first tube amp I bought was a Blackface Bassman which had the speaker cab upgraded to Altecs. Speaker upgrades to Aletc or JBL were common back in the 60's and most of your pro's had better sounding amps because they had better speakers.  The stock speakers like Utah, CTS Jensen, Eminence and the like sounded OK but they didn't hold a candle to the top end speakers.  I compared my Fender to others for 50 years and never came across another that sounded as sweet.  I even bout several and ran them side by side and the difference was obvious..  Swap the can with the other fenders and the quality moved to whatever head was plugged in. 

Moral here is any amp can sound bad with unmatched cab/speakers and even instruments and players.   




Edited by WRGKMC
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I had an "all tube" Peavey Triumph for a while that had two solid state diodes placed, with opposite polarity, across the signal path. The amp sounded horrible, especially at low volume. I was trying to figure out why so I looked at the schematic. I removed the diodes and the amp sounded more like one would expect from a tube amp.

I was visiting a music store with a friend and they had a Peavey Triumph there so I demonstrated how horrid the amp sounded at low volume. A member of the staff came running out yelling "what did you do to my amplifier?"


As daddymack pointed out, tube amps can certainly sound bad - the very thing that makes them great is also their weakness. I gave up on tubes a while ago and replaced my last tube amp about a year and a half ago with a Boss Katana. The thing I like the most about not using tubes any more is the consistency of the sound, night after night, week after week and year after year there is no longer that slow degradation in tone quality as the tube gradually wear out.


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I had this big heavy Peavey Heritage 2x12 that sounded awful (tube power section SS pre-amp lol) but it had a whole bunch of knobs to dink with, too bad none of them could make the thing sound good. I bought a Marshall jcm 800 after that, vast improvement. 

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