What Is Solid-State?Solid-state amplifiers employ solid-state electronics such as solid-state transistors, for example, in place of vacuum tubes used in more traditional and high-end amps. In almost any other application, solid-state electronics serve exactly the same purpose as their predecessors, and in many cases, do so even more efficiently. Vacuum tubes are incredibly inefficient and can be very costly because they frequently have to be replaced. It was this characteristic of vacuum tube technology that drove the popularization of solid-state electronics in almost every other industry.
What Are Some of the Advantages of Solid-State Amplification?
CostIn general, solid-state amplifiers are relatively inexpensive when compared to their tube-powered big brothers. While tube amplifiers run anywhere from $500 to $10,000 (or even more in some cases), solid-state amps can be purchased for less than $100. Even the most expensive solid-state amplifiers, such as the Kemper Profiler and the Fractal Axe FX, only cost about $2000 to $2500.
PortabilityFor many guitarists, portability makes a piece of gear that much more attractive. Solid-state amplifiers are usually much lighter than tube amps. While some solid-state combos can weigh less than twenty pounds, tube heads alone can weigh upwards of forty and fifty pounds. Many amplifier companies also make headphone/speaker-emulated outputs more readily available on their solid-state models. Though many musicians prefer to mic their amplifier, these headphone/emulated outputs provide a good alternative when space, house gear, or an experienced sound staff is unavailable.
MaintenanceWhile most guitar players would argue that tube amplifiers sound much better, most would also agree that they can be a pain in the butt. Tube replacement alone can be frustrating and costly, but beyond basic tube maintenance, tube amplifiers require a more intensive amount of upkeep and are much more susceptible to break-down. Solid-state amplifiers generally require no or very little servicing such as biasing or cleaning, and in many cases, they're much more durable than tube amplifiers.
FlexibilityMost importantly for a lot of players, solid-state amplifiers provide a level of flexibility unmatched by their tube-bearing counterparts. Digital modeling has become very popular within the last ten years, and products such as the Fractal Axe FX and Kemper Profiling Amplifier have convinced many guitarists to rethink their opinion about solid-state. At any rate, many guitarists have sacrificed what they perceive to be a superior sound for a more flexible, convenient modeling unit. This is especially appealing for the gigging musician that needs a piece of gear that can nail almost anything along the tonal spectrum, as well as provide studio-quality effects.
What Are Some of the Disadvantages of Solid-State Amplification?
Tone QualityThe disadvantages of a solid-state amplifier are largely subjective based on individual taste and other such variables, but many guitarists agree that for the most part, solid-state amplifiers just don't sound as good as tube amps. There are some exceptions to this rule, as is the case with the Roland Jazz Chorus line of amplifiers. Some jazz guitarists swear by these amplifiers because they refuse to break up and offer some of the tightest squeaky-cleans of any amplifier on the market. Usually, however, the guitarists that favor solid-state amplifiers over tube amps comprise a minority. Vacuum tubes offer a warmer and deeper sound, and many musicians favor the overdrive that can be achieved with a tube amplifier as opposed to diode-clipping, which is used primarily in solid-state amplification.
FeelAs solid-state technology moves forward, the sound continues to improve. Admittedly, I can barely tell the difference between some high-quality digital modeling amps and the amplifiers they're supposed to emulate. Even so, I still prefer tube amplifiers for one big reason: they feel much better. Tube amplifiers have a bit of a saggy response and are far more sensitive to things like pick-attack and volume roll-offs.
What Does the Future Look Like for Solid-State Amplification?Solid-state technology has come a long way. We're finally emerging from the awkward, teenage years of solid-state amplification and seeing many new and exciting products like the Axe FX, Kemper Profiling Amplifier, Orange Crush series, and Roland Cube. These have begun to demonstrate that solid-state amplification is no longer just for the guitar player seeking a cost-effective option or bedroom practice amp. Even as the guitar community begins to embrace solid-state technology, there are still many questions that remain unanswered. One of which is this: how will solid-state technology affect the future of amplification?
AttitudeI think one of the most noticeable changes to be seen will be the attitude toward solid-state technology. Digital modeling has an incredible amount of potential, but with its introduction, the expectation toward solid-state amplification shifted drastically. Suddenly, people began to judge the quality of a solid-state amplifier by its similarity to a tube amp. Amplifiers like the Roland JC were popular simply because they sounded different; they offered unadulterated cleans that were simply unattainable by any other means. That's not to say that the JC had a better clean sound, but a different one.
It's for this reason that I get so excited about the Orange Crush series of solid-state amplifiers. Instead of building a solid-state amplifier that aims to sound just like a tube amp, Orange decided to build a solid-state amp that sounds just like a solid-state amp. Hopefully as solid-state technology continues to improve, we'll begin to see other companies follow suit.