In this buyer’s guide, we look at the best attenuators available at the moment, from basic, cheap and cheerful products to those with all the bells and whistles you could dream of.
It’s a known fact that tube (or ‘valve’) amps don’t sound their best at low volumes. They produce their best tone when they’re cranked, or when their volume is turned up to the ‘sweet spot.’
The problem is that this ‘sweet spot’ is often past ‘3’ on the dial, which – depending on the wattage of your guitar amp – is very loud. So, the sacrifice many guitarists make is to play at lower volumes.
Here’s where an attenuator works its magic: it ‘bleeds off’ some of the volume being sent to your amp, so you get that great cranked sound without having to play your amp to its maximum volume. This gives you a way to practice relatively quietly while still enjoying classic tones.
As there’s a lot of variation in these products, we’ve taken a look at some of the best around and what separates them. If you’re in a rush or an expert in these matters already, here’s a quick peek at our favorites.
If you’re new to this, I recommend you read the whole article. That way you’ll get a comprehensive view of what they are, how they work, and how to buy the right pedal for you.
Guitar Amp Attenuators: Product Guide
The Rivera RockCrusher is a passive, reactive attenuator that interacts with the tubes in your amp to achieve the best possible tone.
It has 8-ohm and 16-ohm impedance options and can handle any wattage up to 150. It can match a wide range of amps and has an attenuator dial and two-level dials for the two different outputs.
There are also easy-to-use EQ switches that turn either ‘edge’ or ‘warm’ on, to bring out any sounds which you feel are lost in the volume reduction.
As well as this, there’s a switch to bypass the attenuator, meaning that you can keep it plugged in even when you don’t need to use it.
This unit is for those who want a professional, clear sound and are willing to spend some money on achieving it. Studio professionals, session musicians, and recording artists will easily be able to justify the extra outlay of cash.
It’s less suited to those who want something a bit simpler, or to those who require something which can handle something other than 8 or 16-ohm.
- Switches between 16-ohm and 8-ohm impedance, so you can use it with multiple amps.
- Edge and warmth switches help you to shape the tone.
- It has a high thermal capacity and is well built, so it will run coolly and live long.
- No option for 4 ohm.
- On the pricey side.
Universal Audio Electric Guitar Single Effect (OX)
If you want to go high end, look no further than the OX from Universal Audio. This reactive atttenuator can work with 4, 8 and 16 ohm amps and has it’s own effects simulations built in (speaker, cabinet, microphone and classic effects).
The audio quality is to die for, and the overall build is sheer class (it’s built like a tank). It’s very intuitive to use too. It will leave a sizeable hole in your bank account, but if money is no object you can’t go wrong with it.
- The ultimate high-end attenuator.
- Unbelievable audio quality.
- Works with 4, 8 and 16 ohm amps.
- Vintage looks.
- Beyond the budget of only the most serious guitarists.
Bugera Power Soak PS1
This unit from amp maker Bugera is passive (doesn’t need a power source) and can handle amps up to and including 100 watts. It has inputs for 4, 8, and 16-ohm amps (which makes it pretty versatile).
It has a line output with a dedicated level control and emulates a microphone in front of a speaker cab.
That’s pretty much it. There are no fancy bells and whistles, which one assumes is how they’ve managed to keep the price so low.
The one downside is it can muddy the tone a little, but this is easily remedied by adjusting the EQ on the amp (dial down the gain) which usually sorts it out.
If you’re on a budget, even if you’re not, this is definitely worth checking out.
- Value for money (significantly cheaper than most other products)
- Passive (doesn’t require any power source, you just need a speaker cable)
- Multi-impedance inputs (4, 8 and 16 ohms) to match most amps
- No bypass switch. Once you plug it in, there’s no way to bypass it.
- Get’s mushy quickly, though this is usually fixed by turning down your gain a bit.
- If you’re bothered about US-made gear, this is from China.
- Limited to 100 watts (though this is plenty for most)
Two Notes Torpedo
The Two Notes Torpedo is truly sophisticated and packed with features.
As well as level controls and an impressive amount of impedance options, this product has a ‘Replay’ function, which allows you to achieve the popular recording effect of ‘re-amping your guitar.’
This multi-functional device also comes with ‘wall of sound’ software that’s compatible with Cubase, Logic, Pro-Tools and more, making it an excellent option for those who work in a recording studio or are serious about home-recording. There’s also an overheating warning, which might be necessary when you’re putting in those long hours.
It’s probably less suitable for those who want a simple unit for quietly practicing at home.
- Impedance can be set to 4, 8 or 16 ohms, making it extremely versatile.
- Has a replay option to achieve interesting studio results with ease.
- The ‘match’ function takes the hassle away from switching amps.
- Very expensive.
- The additional features might be surplus to your requirements.
The KLD is simple in both looks and features. It has just two controls: attenuation and level, so that you can set the amount of volume reduction on the amp and also have control over the output.
The attenuation dial twists down to true bypass, so you can leave this plugged in without it affecting anything when you don’t need to use it. There are just two jack sockets: input and output, making this one of the most easy-to-use products on the list.
It also comes in solid, alloy casing which helps to prevent the device from overheating.
This is great for people who like to keep things simple and only want to use it now and again. It’s less suitable for those who want something smart for the studio, or for guitarists who are using amps beyond this attenuator’s limit of 100W.
- Simple, sturdy and easy to use.
- Compatible with amps up to 100W.
- The alloy case prevents it from overheating.
- There are no EQ controls to compensate for the lack of perceived tone at lower volumes.
- It’s not very stylish to look at.
What is a Guitar Amp Attenuator?
A guitar amp attenuator is a device that’s connected between the power and the speaker sections of your amp, or between the head and the cab. They convert some of the energy between the power and speaker sections of your amp from sound into heat. This energy conversion allows your amp to let out the signal you’ve dialed in, the tubes naturally breaking into overdrive, without the speaker volume that typically goes with it.
Are there any downsides to using one? As the volume is reduced, some guitarists complain about a loss of tone. This is sometimes true, of course, but on many occasions, it’s more of an audio illusion. The way we perceive quieter sounds is different from how we hear sounds at a higher volume. Look for one with decent EQ controls to compensate for any perceived loss of tone.
Some of these products are compatible with footswitches so that you can stamp them on and off on stage. These are useful for performers who are using the devices to control their on-stage sound and sometimes might want to use them in reverse for a boost.
Get the Best Tone From Your Amp
If you have family or neighbors living close by, you’ll rarely have the option of cranking up your amp without receiving a hellfire of complaints. It’s too loud, turn it down. Ughh.
You can have one of the best tube amps that money can buy, but if you’re rarely allowed access to its best tone, what’s the point.
Well, attenuators let you find your amps sweet spot without annoying anyone – it’s also helpful if you want to play at low levels for practicing all those scales you’d rather not blast out.
Stadium-Level Sound at Small Gigs
Similarly, many gig venues won’t appreciate your 100 watt behemoth cranked up too much either.
Sound engineers at smaller gigs are very likely to request that you turn your amp down when it’s at ‘sweet spot’.
Ultimately your band will sound better at a low, balanced volume than with one guitar drowning everything else out, even if its tone is superior.
Big Sounds in the Studio
Many recording engineers or producers prefer to use low studio volumes, yet also want to achieve the ‘realness’ of a cranked valve amp.
These devices allow the best of both worlds, helping you get top recording results.
Buying Guide – What to Consider When Buying One
Most of these units are passive, which means that they don’t need any additional power to function. Active attenuators need the power to work and can be more versatile than passive attenuators. They have a mini amplifier inside them, which – as well as reducing volumes – can boost too.
Matching Amp Impedance
Not all attenuators are compatible with all amps – it’s essential to get one that matches your amplifiers’ impedance. Many amps have an impedance switch on them so that you can match it up to your attenuators. If you have a few amps already, find an attenuator with an impedance selector too.
So, Which Should I Buy?
The cheapest and best-bang-for-buck attenuator is easily the Bugera. In fact, there is nothing that competes at this price point.
If you’d rather go high end and get something American made with a few more bells and whistles (EQ settings) then the Rivera RockCrusher will tick all of your boxes.
Here’s a good comparison of the Bugera vs the Rockcrusher: