Devoting a whole chapter in a modern electronics text to the design and function of electron tubes may seem a bit strange, seeing as how semiconductor technology has all but obsoleted tubes in almost every application. However, there is merit in exploring tubes not just for historical purposes, but also for those niche applications that necessitate the qualifying phrase "almost every application" in regard to semiconductor supremacy.
In some applications, electron tubes not only continue to see practical use, but perform their respective tasks better than any solid-state device yet invented. In some cases the performance and reliability of electron tube technology is far superior.
In the fields of high-power, high-speed circuit switching, specialized tubes such as hydrogen thyratrons and krytrons are able to switch far larger amounts of current, far faster than any semiconductor device designed to date. The thermal and temporal limits of semiconductor physics place limitations on switching ability that tubes -- which do not operate on the same principles -- are exempt from.
In high-power microwave transmitter applications, the excellent thermal tolerance of tubes alone secures their dominance over semiconductors. Electron conduction through semiconducting materials is greatly impacted by temperature. Electron conduction through a vacuum is not. As a consequence, the practical thermal limits of semiconductor devices are rather low compared to that of tubes. Being able to operate tubes at far greater temperatures than equivalent semiconductor devices allows tubes to dissipate more thermal energy for a given amount of dissipation area, which makes them smaller and lighter in continuous high power applications.
Another decided advantage of tubes over semiconductor components in high-power applications is their rebuildability. When a large tube fails, it may be disassembled and repaired at far lower cost than the purchase price of a new tube. When a semiconductor component fails, large or small, there is generally no means of repair.
The following photograph shows the front panel of a 1960's vintage 5 kW AM radio transmitter. One of two "Eimac" brand power tubes can be seen in a recessed area, behind the glass door. According to the station engineer who gave the facility tour, the rebuild cost for such a tube is only $800: quite inexpensive compared to the cost of a new tube, and still quite reasonable in contrast to the price of a new, comparable semiconductor component!
Tubes, being less complex in their manufacture than semiconductor components, are potentially cheaper to produce as well, although the huge volume of semiconductor device production in the world greatly offsets this theoretical advantage. Semiconductor manufacture is quite complex, involving many dangerous chemical substances and necessitating super-clean assembly environments. Tubes are essentially nothing more than glass and metal, with a vacuum seal. Physical tolerances are "loose" enough to permit hand-assembly of vacuum tubes, and the assembly work need not be done in a "clean room" environment as is necessary for semiconductor manufacture.
One modern area where electron tubes enjoy supremacy over semiconductor components is in the professional and high-end audio amplifier markets, although this is partially due to musical culture. Many professional guitar players, for example, prefer tube amplifiers over transistor amplifiers because of the specific distortion produced by tube circuits. An electric guitar amplifier is designed to produce distortion rather than avoid distortion as is the case with audio-reproduction amplifiers (this is why an electric guitar sounds so much different than an acoustical guitar), and the type of distortion produced by an amplifier is as much a matter of personal taste as it is technical measurement. Since rock music in particular was born with guitarists playing tube-amplifier equipment, there is a significant level of "tube appeal" inherent to the genre itself, and this appeal shows itself in the continuing demand for "tubed" guitar amplifiers among rock guitarists.
As an illustration of the attitude among some guitarists, consider the following quote taken from the technical glossary page of a tube-amplifier website which will remain nameless:
Solid State: A component that has been specifically designed to make a guitar amplifier sound bad. Compared to tubes, these devices can have a very long lifespan, which guarantees that your amplifier will retain its thin, lifeless, and buzzy sound for a long time to come.
In the area of audio reproduction amplifiers (music studio amplifiers and home entertainment amplifiers), it is best for an amplifier to reproduce the musical signal with as little distortion as possible. Paradoxically, in contrast to the guitar amplifier market where distortion is a design goal, high-end audio is another area where tube amplifiers enjoy continuing consumer demand. Though one might suppose the objective, technical requirement of low distortion would eliminate any subjective bias on the part of audiophiles, one would be very wrong. The market for high-end "tubed" amplifier equipment is quite volatile, changing rapidly with trends and fads, driven by highly subjective claims of "magical" sound from audio system reviewers and salespeople. As in the electric guitar world, there is no small measure of cult-like devotion to tube amplifiers among some quarters of the audiophile world. As an example of this irrationality, consider the design of many ultra-high-end amplifiers, with chassis built to display the working tubes openly, even though this physical exposure of the tubes obviously enhances the undesirable effect of microphonics (changes in tube performance as a result of sound waves vibrating the tube structure).
Having said this, though, there is a wealth of technical literature contrasting tubes against semiconductors for audio power amplifier use, especially in the area of distortion analysis. More than a few competent electrical engineers prefer tube amplifier designs over transistors, and are able to produce experimental evidence in support of their choice. The primary difficulty in quantifying audio system performance is the uncertain response of human hearing. All amplifiers distort their input signal to some degree, especially when overloaded, so the question is which type of amplifier design distorts the least. However, since human hearing is very nonlinear, people do not interpret all types of acoustic distortion equally, and so some amplifiers will sound "better" than others even if a quantitative distortion analysis with electronic instruments indicates similar distortion levels. To determine what type of audio amplifier will distort a musical signal "the least," we must regard the human ear and brain as part of the whole acoustical system. Since no complete model yet exists for human auditory response, objective assessment is difficult at best. However, some research indicates that the characteristic distortion of tube amplifier circuits (especially when overloaded) is less objectionable than distortion produced by transistors.
Tubes also possess the distinct advantage of low "drift" over a wide range of operating conditions. Unlike semiconductor components, whose barrier voltages, β ratios, bulk resistances, and junction capacitances may change substantially with changes in device temperature and/or other operating conditions, the fundamental characteristics of a vacuum tube remain nearly constant over a wide range in operating conditions, because those characteristics are determined primarily by the physical dimensions of the tube's structural elements (cathode, grid(s), and plate) rather than the interactions of subatomic particles in a crystalline lattice.
This is one of the major reasons solid-state amplifier designers typically engineer their circuits to maximize power-efficiency even when it compromises distortion performance, because a power-inefficient amplifier dissipates a lot of energy in the form of waste heat, and transistor characteristics tend to change substantially with temperature. Temperature-induced "drift" makes it difficult to stabilize "Q" points and other important performance-related measures in an amplifier circuit. Unfortunately, power efficiency and low distortion seem to be mutually exclusive design goals.
For example, class A audio amplifier circuits typically exhibit very low distortion levels, but are very wasteful of power, meaning that it would be difficult to engineer a solid-state class A amplifier of any substantial power rating due to the consequent drift of transistor characteristics. Thus, most solid-state audio amplifier designers choose class B circuit configurations for greater efficiency, even though class B designs are notorious for producing a type of distortion known as crossover distortion. However, with tubes it is easy to design a stable class A audio amplifier circuit because tubes are not as adversely affected by the changes in temperature experienced in a such a power-inefficient circuit configuration.
Tube performance parameters, though, tend to "drift" more than semiconductor devices when measured over long periods of time (years). One major mechanism of tube "aging" appears to be vacuum leaks: when air enters the inside of a vacuum tube, its electrical characteristics become irreversibly altered. This same phenomenon is a major cause of tube mortality, or why tubes typically do not last as long as their respective solid-state counterparts. When tube vacuum is maintained at a high level, though, excellent performance and life is possible. An example of this is a klystron tube (used to produce the high-frequency radio waves used in a radar system) that lasted for 240,000 hours of operation (cited by Robert S. Symons of Litton Electron Devices Division in his informative paper, "Tubes: Still vital after all these years," printed in the April 1998 issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine).
If nothing else, the tension between audiophiles over tubes versus semiconductors has spurred a remarkable degree of experimentation and technical innovation, serving as an excellent resource for those wishing to educate themselves on amplifier theory. Taking a wider view, the versatility of electron tube technology (different physical configurations, multiple control grids) hints at the potential for circuit designs of far greater variety than is possible using semiconductors. For this and other reasons, electron tubes will never be "obsolete," but will continue to serve in niche roles, and to foster innovation for those electronics engineers, inventors, and hobbyists who are unwilling to let their minds by stifled by convention.