When it comes to listening to those sweet sounds, we all know just how much a tube amp can enhance the quality of those sounds and the listening experience. When it is a choice between the sterile coldness of a solid-state amp, versus the warm tones from a tube amp, it is no wonder that people go for tube amps.
One of the problems that can arise for people, not familiar with choosing a tube amp, is how to get value for your money. After all, few people will have a limitless budget. If you want to experience the best that tube sound has to offer, while at the same time getting as much bang for your buck as possible then you need to know about these tube amps.
When it comes to talking about tube amps you will quickly realize that this can be a hot topic for some people, with a wide range of differing opinions to be found plastered across the internet. This can make it difficult to know who is right and who is misguided. And by misguided, what we really mean is wrong.
When it comes to the best value for money when buying a tube amp, it can be especially important to get this right. We have voted the following tube amps our winners, when it comes to value for money, based on researching the opinions of actual users.
Best Headphone Tube Amp
Best Stereo Tube Amp
Best Headphone Tube Amp
Let's take a look on our top recommendations for the best headphone tube amp:
Winner: Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier
The Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier was an easy winner, in the headphone tube amp section. Bravo is a little known, niche manufacturer of audio amplification technology, that has been getting positive reviews for the quality of the sounds their amps produce.
The key criterion that everybody is going to want to know when it comes to a tube amp, is going to be the quality of the sound produced. The Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier has an aluminum body, that acts as a heat sink for heat produced by the tubes. This is important given the waste heat generated by some tubes.
The Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier does not disappoint. With the delightful warmth that we associate with the tube sound, this amp will truly delight listeners. The quality of the sounds produced, made the Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier, our winner in the headphone tube amp category.
While the Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier is a headphone amp, it is gratifying to see that it is capable of accepting input via one of two different types of jack sockets. A 3.5mm jack or an RCA jack. This flexibility for input is something that is not found in all headphone tube amps, so this just adds to the reasons why we think the Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier is a winner.
This flexibility for input is extended to output sources, where the Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier is capable of connecting to three different possible output jack types (though this is not intended to be simultaneously).
While many headphone amps may limit themselves to a 3.5mm stereo output jack, that is certainly not so for the Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier. The Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier is capable of connecting to output speakers via a 3.5mm jack, a 6.35mm jack or an RCA jack. Now that is what we call versatility.
With a headphone amp, we would expect a reasonably lightweight and small package. While clearly not expecting an amp comparable in size and weight to an equivalent solid-state amp, we would none the less expect portability.
The Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier meets this requirement easily; with a maximum size dimension of less than six inches and weighing in at a mere one and a half pounds. The Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier really is a remarkable headphone amp for such a small investment. When you try it out you will understand exactly what we mean and why it was our winner.
Runner-Up: SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier
The SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier was our runner-up in the headphone tube amp category, for reasons that will be obvious. The SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier produces the sweet warm tube sound that we would expect from a tube amp that was significantly more expensive than this one.
The SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier incorporates helpful blue LED indicator lights that will flash when initially turned on, changing to solid blue once the SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier has warmed up. This will generally take just over a half minute for the amp to do. We like this feature, as it indicates a level of thoughtfulness on the part of the engineer who designed it.
Unlike our winner (the Bravo Ocean Tube Amplifier) the SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier has inputs and outputs solely via 3.5mm jack sockets. While greater selection would have been nice, in all fairness the humble 3.5mm jack is the common jack type for the kind of output sources that a headphone amp like this is intended for.
Whether using it to amp the sounds from a computer, smart phone or other portable music device, it is highly unlikely that it will have any other type of jack than a 3.5mm.
Now, if its sole input and output was via a 6.35mm jack we really would be concerned but the common industry standard of a 3.5mm will more than adequately suffice for 99% of people, wanting a headphone amp.
We do like the fact that the SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier has a maximum dimension of 3.5 inches and weighs a lightweight 1.26 pounds. The SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier uses an elegant scratch resistant aluminum, which also acts as a good heat sink for the tube amp.
Overall, when it comes to value for money and having those sweet tube sounds, it is easy to understand why the SMSL T2 Tube Amplifier won our vote for Runner-Up.
Alternative: Nonsound NS-08E Tube Amplifier
When it comes to the tube sound, the previous two amps are easy choices. On the other hand, if you are looking for a more budget alternative, we would have to recommend the Nobsound NS-08E Tube Amplifier. The Nobsound NS-08E Tube Amplifier produces a tube sound using tubes as a pre-amp while using solid-state transistors for the actual amplification.
While this is not technically a true tube amp, it is certainly a great hybrid of the tube amp sound with the benefits of the lower cost of a solid-state transistor amp.
While the purists may not be happy with the Nobsound NS-08E Tube Amplifier, it certainly can be a good introductory amp for those on a budget, and don’t sneeze at it just because it is a hybrid, that would be a mistake.
The Nobsound NS-08E Tube Amplifier has a maximum size dimension of 4.4 inches and weighs in at a paltry 12.8 ounces. Convenient and lightweight, the Nobsound NS-08E Tube Amplifier will produce a good tube sound, for people looking to amp up their high-performance headphones.
The Nobsound NS-08E Tube Amplifier is limited in its input and output jacks, in that it only uses 3.5mm jacks, however as mentioned previously that covers such a large majority of the audio devices you would use this amp for, that we don’t really consider that to be major.
Ultimately, when it comes to quality sound, value for money is critical, after all it would be easy to spend thousands, or even tens of thousands on trying to get the perfect amp. Unfortunately, the amounts spent do not mean a hundred-fold increase in quality.
In some cases, an audiophile could spend a small fortune for no discernable improvement in sound. If you are looking for a good entry level headphone tube amp then the Nobsound NS-08E Tube Amplifier makes a good alternative to our winner and runner-up.
Best Stereo Tube Amp
Here are our top picks for the best stereo tube amp:
Winner: Gemtune X-1 Tube Amplifier
When it comes to an amplifier for your stereo that will have the warmth and wonder of the tube sound, our easy winner is the Gemtune X-1 Tube Amplifier. When it comes to amplifying the sounds of your beautiful sound system, you will want the best value for money amp that you can get.
The Gemtune X-1 Tube Amplifier is our easy winner in this category. Ultimately, a great value stereo tube amplifier will produce the wonderful tube sound, at a price that makes you think somebody made a mistake and accidently undercharged. In our opinion, that is the Gemtune X-1 Tube Amplifier.
The Gemtune X-1 Tube Amplifier uses four tubes, in this Class-A single ended amplifier to produce eight watts of output power. When looking for those rich tube tones, this amp is definitely all that. The Gemtune X-1 Tube Amplifier is 100% hand-made, speaking to the artisan nature of its manufacture.
With a maximum dimension of 10.6 inches and weighing in at 18.95 pounds, this is a solid shelf amp, ideal for a home stereo setup.
You will not want to lug this amp around, and neither you should, but when setting up your home entertainment system, you will be as impressed by the beautiful sounds that this produces, as many of those who have bought and reviewed this online have been.
When it comes to the rich warm sounds of a stereo tube amp, you will understand why so many people who have bought the Gemtune X-1 Tube Amplifier were stunned by just what great value for money this is.
If you are looking for a stereo tube amp, you will be impressed with the Gemtune X-1 Tube Amplifier.
Runner-Up: Gemtune GS01-M Tube Amplifier
Our runner up in the stereo amp category is the GS01-M Tube Amplifier, also by Gemtune. The Gemtune GS01-M Tube Amplifier is a better-quality amp than the X-1 Tube Amp, and consequently has a price tag to match.
While the price tag is greater than that of the X-1 Tube Amp, it is still remarkably good value for money, which is why we have made this amp our runner-up. For those looking for the best tube amp under $500, the GS01-M Tube Amplifier is what we would recommend.
There are many things to like about the GS01-M Tube Amplifier. This amp is housed in a high quality rolled steel casing, with a matte black finish.
The GS01-M Tube Amplifier has five tubes that it uses to amplify and produce those warm, sweet tube sounds. This differs from the Gemtune X-1, which only uses four tubes. The additional tube of the GS01-M Tube Amplifier helps to provide more body to the bass ranging sounds. Input and output for the GS01-M Tube Amplifier are via RCA sockets.
The GS01-M Tube Amplifier weighs in at 25 pounds and has a maximum size dimension of just over sixteen inches. While clearly not lightweight, it is this solidity due to greater components, that helps to give it the awesome warm tube sound.
When people who have purchased the GS01-M Tube Amplifier are comparing it favorably to much more expensive amps, it is easy to understand why the GS01-M Tube Amplifier was an easy choice for runner-up in the best stereo tube amp category.
Some Terminology Simplified
This section is intended to explain some of the various terminology that buyers will come across in their search for the right audio equipment. Just so that there is no misunderstanding from the start, explanations for these terms have been simplified.
Okay, some people will probably say over-simplified. This is intended to provide a rudimentary glossary for people who aren’t exactly sure about something, rather than a technical glossary for purists.
Something that makes an electrical signal “bigger”. When we talk about bigger, it is important to remember that sound is made of waves. An amplifier makes the waves bigger. Ideally, an amp should do this without changing anything else about the wave. Ideally.
Class A Amplifier
Amplifiers are rated according to one of four (usually) classes (A, B, C or D). The different classes refer to the amount of time that the actual amplifier is able to amplify the signal. Technically it refers to the fraction of time that the actual device has electrical current passing through it.
Class A amplifiers are amplifying for all the time, whereas other classes amplify only a part of each individual wave signal. When it comes to the purity of the sound, a Class A Amplifier will provide a better-quality sound, but will consequently be more expensive and require more componentry. Audiophiles usually prefer Class A amplifiers.
DAC (Digital-To-Analog Converter)
A DAC takes the digital ones and zeros of your music source and changes them back into the original analog wave that made the sound. Ideally the outputted analog signal will be as close as possible to the original sound wave as possible.
In practice, there will always be some loss of information, though a good DAC will do so in a manner that is unnoticeable to the human ear. Almost all modern devices will have a built-in DAC.
The decibel is the unit to measure the loudness of a sound. The decibel scale uses a logarithmic scale meaning that adding ten decibels to a sound increases the volume ten-fold. Whether you are going from 30 to 40 decibels or 80 to 90 decibels, each jump will be ten times louder than the start. This means that 80 dB is actually 100,000 times louder than a 30dB sound.
This is an amplifier that combines a pre-AMP and a power amplifier into a single unit. This is generally more common today than using two separate units.
This is a special type of amplifier that will boost a low powered electrical signal to make it stronger. Once it is stronger, it can be amplified again by a power amplifier.
This amp will take an input signal and amplify. Essentially it makes the waves bigger by adding more power to them. We did say that this was going to be an overly simplified explanation of things.
This is an amplifier that does not have a built in DAC (digital-to-analog converter) on the same chassis.
The unit used to measure power. This is the amount of energy something uses per second. Amplifiers take a low wattage signal and change it into a larger wattage signal.
Hopefully these terms clarify a few things for people who are unsure. For those of you who were already aware of the meaning of these terms, and who are somewhat horrified by our over simplification, we apologize.
What Features To Look For In A Tube Amp
When looking to purchase a tube amp there are several factors that a discerning person will want to consider. Here are some of the key things that you will want to consider, when making this decision.
This is the amount of power (watts) that an amplifier produces. It is the output power that will be fed to the speakers. The output power indicates the strength of the amplification.
Theoretically the more power, the more sound however, the quality of your speakers will also play an important role. While it might be easy to think that you want as much power as possible, this is actually a misunderstanding.
For most users who are not planning on using their amp to produce stadium rock concert levels of music, too much power is simply costly and wasteful, since you are unlikely to ever be able to max it out. As an example, a headphone amp will often have its output power measured in the tens of milliwatts (thousandths of a Watt).
If your speakers are not able to handle the output power… well you can probably guess what it means for your speakers. If you are unsure there is a classic scene at the opening of the Back to the Future movie (starring Michael J. Fox) that will help to clarify.
Vacuum Tube Used
it is the very qualities of the vacuum tubes that the amp uses, that will determine the quality of the sounds produced. Different tubes have different characteristics, and as a result have an impact upon different parts of the amplification process.
As a very general rule of thumb, the more tubes than an amp has, the better it is able to amplify the different parts of the sound. When you consider that audible sound covers quite a diverse range of frequencies, it should be no surprise that having tubes dedicated to specific ranges will produce a better overall sound.
That is why the Gemtune GS-01 M Tube Amp (with five tubes) has a better-quality sound but is also more expensive, than the Gemtune X-1 Tube Amp (with four tubes). The extra tube of the Gemtune GS-01 M Tube Amp is able to provide just that bit more depth to the bass sounds.
When it comes to buying any piece of electronic equipment, you will want to know that there are some guarantees available. No matter how good a company’s quality control department, the chances are that at some point they are going to ship a faulty product. Not intentionally. Not maliciously.
Purely because nobody, no matter how good they are, is perfect. For this reason, we would recommend buying from a reputable online store, such as Amazon, who will stand behind the products that they sell. It is also wise to look for a manufacturers’ warranty to provide that extra layer of protection.
The power sources for amps can differ depending upon where it is intended to be used and in what market. A common question that people will often ask online is whether an electrical device is available in 110 V or 220 V.
Given the many different power types available, we would strongly recommend that you check whether the amp you are considering will be compatible in your area. You may be able to solve any potential problem with an appropriate adaptor but don’t take this for granted.
There is an almost magical warmth and beauty to the sound produced by a tube amp, that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to beat. If you are looking for value for money, we would recommend one of the amps in this guide.
When it comes to buying an amp for your sounds, we would recommend a good quality tube amp, in order to get the most from your music.