Your Guide to Buying Vintage Tube Amps

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Your Guide to Buying Vintage Tube Amps

Complete vintage sound systems,, including record players,, preamplifiers,, amplifiers,, and other components, have become increasingly popular in recent years. They lend a touch of retro style to any room, and they can serve as interesting conversation pieces for family members and guests. To build a vintage sound system, buyers need a source component such as a vintage CD player or record player. They also need two kinds of amplifiers. One is a preamplifier to process the sound and to eliminate unwanted noise and interference. Following the preamp is the regular amplifier, sometimes called a power amp.. This guide will differentiate between sound system amps and instrument amps and will provide some useful information for buyers who are interested in purchasing a vintage tube amp..

Tube Amps and the Term "Vintage"

Some buyers may wonder which tube amps and other sound system components qualify as vintage items. Typically, the word vintage is used in reference to items such as clothing,, electronics,, furniture,, home decor,, and personal accessories.. It describes any item that is anywhere between 25 and 50 years old, and sometimes older in some cases. When items are 50 to 100 years old or older, they are often referred to as antique rather than vintage. Objects that are centuries old are referred to as historic or ancient and are usually worth more than vintage or antique items are due to their rarity. As part of the development of audio technology, tube amps are only a few decades old and therefore the earliest models would fall into the vintage category.

Types of Vintage Tube Amps

Before buyers begin to shop, they should think about the purpose of the tube amplifier that they plan to purchase. Will it be part of a home audio system that involves a record player or a vintage CD player, or will it be hooked up to an electric instrument such as a guitar? Determining the intended purpose of the amplifier is crucial to making the right selection.

Instrument Amplifiers

Both regular amplifiers and instrument amplifiers include a preamp and a power amp. However, manufacturers combine and design these components differently depending on whether the amp is meant for a home audio system or for a musical performance. Instrument amps offer musicians additional freedom to work with the preamp and amp to create special effects. Many music styles, including rock, make use of this extra flexibility by overdriving the amplifier tubes to create intentional distortion. The distortion extends the length of some notes and is often used with a bass or a guitar during the performance of rock music. A vintage tube amp for instruments may not offer all of the options that a more modern device would, but it lends a classic rock flair to the musician or band.

Combo Amp

For instrument amps, the preamp and amp components often come in a single unit along with a speaker. This unit is called a combo amp.. All that a musician needs to do is to plug their electric guitar,, their keyboard,, or their bass into the combo amp and then plug the combo amp into the wall. When the musician begins to play, the preamp processes the sounds, the power amp amplifies them, and the speaker broadcasts them to the audience.

Amp Head

Another type of amplifier that musicians commonly use is called an amp head.. This device holds both the preamp and the amp. It is then connected to an external speaker or two, which are enclosed in a unit called the speaker cab..

Sound System Amplifiers

Regular amplifiers are used in a home audio system. The system is typically connected to a source component such as a television,, a CD player,, or a computer.. In the case of vintage amps,, the system will likely have a source component of compatible vintage quality, such as a record player.

As previously mentioned, the broad category of amplifiers includes two different components: the amplifier and the preamplifier. The chart below describes the different purposes of both types of amplifiers within a typical home audio system.

Amplifier Type



Preamps precede the regular amplifier, which is sometimes called the power amp. Preamps clean up the electrical signal, removing disturbances, noise, and interference from the audio before it reaches the power amp. Preamps often include a number of control options for treble and bass frequencies. Instrumental preamplifiers also facilitate the inclusion of sound effects.

Power Amp

The power amp takes the clean and processed signal from the preamp and magnifies or amplifies it to make it more powerful. It is the final step before the audio signal reaches the speakers. For instrumental amplifiers, the required wattage is significantly higher, particularly if the amp is being used with a bass.

Integrated Amp

Integrated amplifiers include the preamp and the power amp together as one unit within a stereo system.

Buyers will need to ensure that they have both a vintage tube preamp and a vintage tube power amp to complete the amplification component of their sound system.

Function of Vintage Tube Amps

Vintage tube amps are made using thermionic tubes, rather than by using the transistors that are seen in solid state amps.. Many musicians prefer tube amps and preamps for their instruments since they are said to add character or color to the music. A large number of music lovers also prefer tube amps and preamps for their sound systems. They enjoy the unique richness and the clarity of the sounds that are produced by the tubes.

The color and richness that listeners hear is a result of tiny distortions in the sound signal as it passes through the tube preamp and the tube amp. The stronger the signal, the more noticeable these distortions become. However, the unique shape and design of tube amplifiers cause these distortions to be harmonic rather than discordant. The distortions provide another layer to the sound, resulting in the extra depth and warmth that listeners perceive.

Availability of Replacement Tubes

Buyers who want to purchase a vintage tube amp and preamp should be aware that they will need to invest in new tubes for their amps every year or so. The tubes typically wear out within the span of six months to one year. While some buyers may see this as an annoyance and an extra expense, other users enjoy the opportunity to try new tubes out in their sound systems. Each brand and style of tube provides a slightly different flavor of sound. Buyers should refrain from stocking up on tubes until they are sure that they have discovered their favorite type of tube for their system.

In addition, buyers should be sure that their vintage tube amp will accept the more common types of tubes that are available on the market. Some models require a specific tube that may be difficult or impossible to replace. If buyers are seriously considering a particular amp, they should ask the seller or retailer about the availability and pricing of replacement parts. Before buying the amp, they should be sure that they will have no problem finding new tubes.

Additional Considerations

Since vintage tube amps generate a good deal of heat, buyers will want to place their sound system in a spacious room with sufficient airflow. They should also ensure that the amp and preamp that they select are self-biasing. If the amps are not self-biasing, the owner will have to make the appropriate voltage adjustments as needed, a process which will likely require a voltmeter and some experience with the technology.

Some types of tube amps and preamps have a unique design that leaves the tubes exposed to the open air. These fragile tubes can be easily broken by a jumping pet or a flying toy. If buyers own active pets or have small children in the home, they may want to avoid exposed styles.

Buying Vintage Tube Amps on eBay

Online auction sites and retailers such as eBay usually provide the widest selection and the best prices on vintage devices such as tube amps. Some additional brick and mortar locations where you may find vintage tube amps include pawn shops, estate sales, yard sales, thrift stores, and consignment shops.

eBay, however, offers a number of buyer-friendly features, such as the option to save your searches.. This feature allows you to enter a search term such as "vintage tube amps&" and receive notifications whenever sellers post new listings for vintage tube amps that match your exact search terms. This way, you can check out new items to see if you might be interested in purchasing them. Another way to search is to start on eBay's homepage and click the Electronics category. Next, select TV , Audio & Surveillance,, then Vintage,, and then Vintage Audio & Video.. Then, you can select Vintage Amplifiers & Tube Amps and filter by brand, by condition, by price, and by other factors.

Many eBay sellers have been awarded the Top Rated seller seal, which means that their previous customers have left excellent feedback about their transactions. Consider purchasing from one of these reputable sellers. You will also want to look for sellers that promise to ship the vintage tube amps for free or that specify a return policy for their products. As you shop, be sure to read each listing thoroughly so that you know exactly what you are getting. You can ask eBay sellers for more details or photos of a vintage tube amp by clicking Ask a Question within the item listing or by clicking Contact Member on the seller's profile page.


While the purchase and assembly of a vintage sound system may seem a little daunting to buyers, it can be easily accomplished with a little research and an understanding of the various components that comprise a system of this nature. Buyers should look for a vintage tube amp that has a fairly new tube and is in good condition both internally and externally. Since buyers will need to invest in replacement tubes from time to time, they may want to stock up on a few tubes once they have found a kind or a brand that they like. Once all of the sound system components have been ordered and received, buyers will be able to set up their new system and experience the rich sounds of their favorite music played through a vintage tube amp.

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