A reader wrote asking the age old question--Do all amplifiers sound alike? "Mr. Guttenberg, I've been enjoying what you write about since I am a budding audiophile. A guy I know claims that amplifiers do not alter the quality of the sound and pointed me to a web site with a $10,000 challenge by Richard Clark that states that the human ear cannot discern the differences between amplifiers. What are your feelings on the subject and do you think there is any merit to this man's challenge?"
Well, I do believe that there are important differences between the sound of amplifiers. To my ears the better tube amps sound warmer and more like the sound of live music than solid state amps, but really good solid-state amps sound more detailed and have better defined bass than tube designs. Cheap amps can sound hard and crude--they tend to add an aggressive edge to the sound of music that high-end designs do not. More objectively, better designs are more powerful and have an easier time driving "difficult' speakers or "low" impedance speakers.
I definitely hear differences, but I'm not all that interested in proving that to non-believers--hell, some people argue about whether they can taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi. I've heard some folks can't taste the difference between chocolate and vanilla in blind tests. Some have a hard time differentiating between Bud and Miller and Coors and Michelob and Pabst beers. Talk about people who have too much time on their hands.
Back to audio and blind testing, I find the stress of being put on the spot to prove my ears skews the results. Please understand, I've heard countless "sighted" comparisons and sure, many amps really do sound similar. Actually, the least effective way to evaluate electronics is to switch back and forth between two designs; I much prefer to just live with the unknown amp for a while, say a week, get used to it, and then return to the original familiar amp. That approach can really highlight the sonic differences between amps.