Considering making the jump from solid state amps to tube amps?
Tube amps, often called valve amps, use vacuum tubes to amplify the signal from your guitar. Sure, they take a bit more upkeep (you sometimes gotta replace the tubes) but it's totally worth it.
Do tube amps sound better?
Well, it depends what sound you're going after. It's widely recognised that tube amps offer a warmer sound compared to solid state amps - but another key difference is the ability to create natural distortion. When you saturate the tubes (basically by turning the volume up) it sends more power to the tubes and breaks up the sound - making a natural overdrive (no need for a overdrive pedal).
So let's take a look at some of the better valve amps out there. Most are affordable tube amps (depending on your budget of course). I've also thrown in a couple of more pricey options to tempt you (see the last two options).
At a Glance: Our Choice Of The 7 Best Cheap Tube Amps On The Market
Vox AC4TV All-tube Practice Amplifier
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Let's take a look in a bit more detail...
#1: Blackstar HT1R Series Guitar Combo Amplifier with Reverb
A great cheap tube amp designed for practice use, it’s got a 1 x 8” speaker with reverb with 1 x ECC83 (12AX7) and 1 x ECC82 (12AU7) Power Tube. It also has an MP3 line input so you can have a backing track to jam along with. There’s also an overdrive button for when you need to raise a little hell, and if you decide to kick it up a gear then you can also plug this amp into an external speaker.
- Despite being only 1 watt, it mirrors the sonic profile of a 100 watt amp at a lower volume.
- Has one of the best reverbs available in such a low cost amp.
- ISF control allows you to dramatically alter the EQ to produce distinctly different tones.
- The clean headroom is rather limited.
- The backing track line is a little underwhelming due to being played through a single 8” speaker.
- As a one watt speaker, unless you’re extremely conscious about disturbing neighbours (perhaps if you live in an apartment) then the HT1 can seem too quiet.
#2: Vox AC4TV All-tube Practice Amplifier
Vox amps are great bits of kit, played by the likes of Elliott Smith, Neil Young, and many other guitar legends. This little beauty, featuring 16 ohm 10” speakers and options to choose between 4, 1 and .25 wattage makes for a versatile practice amp that lets you get the most out of this amp (depending on how loud you have the freedom to go when playing).
- At full power the amp really opens up, but even the lower watt settings still has a great sound.
- There are outputs for additional speaker cabinets so this can also be used just as a head.
- Very transportable thanks to its low weight.
- Very low headroom.
- The included speaker is a let down, and should be swapped for a better model if possible.
- Loses its value outside of a solo practice setting, as it lacks the power to match a drummer or full band.
#3: Laney CUB 10 Combo Amplifier
A basic 10 watt amp with 10” Celestion speakers, high and low gain inputs and volume, gain, and tone controls.
- Very high headroom.
- Literally impossible to break, probably due to its basic nature.
- When the overdrive does kick in it has a really nice raw sound
- No external speaker options, although at 10 watt you can still get a decent room filled.
- Being so basic, there are no additional features like reverb or effects looping.
- The gain is very low for a 10 watt amp.
#4: Fender Super Champ X2 15-Watt 1x10-Inch Guitar Combo Amp
A 15 watt amp with two 6v6 tubes and a 12AX7 preamp tube and a 10” Fender Special Design speaker. It also comes loaded with 15 effects and 16 different amp voices.
- The huge range of effects and amp types make it very versatile.
- With 15 watts you can really shake the walls and windows in smaller venues.
- There is a USB output for recording
- Midrange is weak.
- The footswitch is not included, which is a shame as it’s a great asset for live playing.
- The speaker is definitely upgrade material
#5: Bugera V22 Infinium
A 22 watt amp. Powered by 2 EL84 Tubes and 3 12AX Tubes. 2 channels, clean and dirty with a footswitch for easy changing between sounds. The speaker is a 12” Turbosound. You can also switch between different power levels, and select between 4, 8 and 16 ohms on the speaker.
- The tubes last much longer due to the Infinium Tube Life Multiplier.
- The speaker is really high quality.
- Can be used as a head amp thanks to external output.
- The dirty channel is average at best.
- The tubes could be replaced with superior choices.
- There are known manufacturer QC issues so you might want to be careful buying one without a return policy.
And a couple of more expensive options:
#6: Fender Blues Junior III
An updated version of the Fender Blues Junior, this is a no BS amp that costs more than you might expect for a “no frills” design strategy. It’s a 15 watt amp with 12” Fender Special Design Speakers.
- Outputs for external speakers.
- Capable of reaching high volumes for such a low watt amp.
- Very lightweight for its specs.
- No headphone jack for late night practise.
- The reverb sounds good but is known to be faulty.
- Both the overdrive and the clean sound could use improvement due to lackluster EQ.
#7: Marshall DSL Series DSL40C
Okay, this is the biggest amp size on the list coming in at 40 watts. It has a 12” Celestine speaker with two footswitches (classic gain and ultra gain), digital reverb, 5 EQ settings, level control and two modes for both channels.
- Has the top notch, readily identifiable classic Marshall tone that won’t leave you disappointed.
- Gets better with age like a proper tube amp should as it gets broken in.
- Reverb has a footswitch for easy use so you won’t need to spend extra money on a reverb pedal.
- At full 40 watts the high end frequencies can seem overly harsh.
- Shared EQ between the two channels is a bit of a design oversight. Whilst it’s easier to set up and go, it also reduces the versatility of having 2 channels in the first place (although this is the case with most amps).
- The reverb is okay at best. Other amps have better built in digital reverb and don’t cost much more, so if reverb is a big thing for you, take this into account!
So which is the most affordable tube amp?
You’ve probably noticed that all of these guitar amps play best in different roles, so it’s difficult to pick an absolute winner!
Having said that, two amps stand out. The VOX AC4TV is a brilliant little practice amp that you can also take along to rehearsals and small gigs, and the Marshall DSL40C has such a great tone that it’s hard not to feel drawn to it just for that.
However, tone is a very personal matter so if you can’t help but think that another one of these tube amps should’ve been given extra attention, let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe for more awesome gear reviews coming every week!
Buyer's Tips: What should I look for when buying a tube amp?
Deep or High?
- Smaller speakers deliver a higher frequencies, larger ones have a more powerful bass. At the same time, amps with a close backed design make for a more powerful bass sound. However, not all speakers of the same size are equally good.
Combo or Stack?
- A combo amp contains all of the various controls and amplification along with the speaker in one package. However, you can buy amps in speaker and head only configurations, which you can then link together, making transport easier and more flexibility in set up. For a cheaper all in one solution, you’ll probably be looking at a Combo.
Wattage (power rating)
- When using a tube amp, wattage doesn’t just come into play when you consider the size of the venue (bigger venue = higher wattage) but you also need to consider at what point you want the amp’s natural distortion to kick in. Higher wattage amps can take much more volume before losing the clean tone (also known as headroom)
- Some amps have additional little features such as reverb, effects looping, multiple channels and built in effects. Don’t be tempted to buy an amp purely because it has all the bells and whistles though, it should be suited to your needs. If you don’t have any effects pedals, then an amp with effects looping isn’t going to contribute any extra value.