Best Tube Amp – Buying Guide, Advice and Reviews for 2019

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The tube amp is the gold standard for guitarists. While solid-state amps have come on leaps and bounds in recent years, ‘tube tone’ is still more popular. How so?

Well, it comes down to three key things:

  • They produce a much smoother, warmer, more natural sound
  • They produce natural overdrive when you push the volume
  • Variations in the signal from your guitar are more accurately represented (they’re more subtle)

Sounds good, doesn’t it. There is however a slight downside: they’re more expensive, they take a bit more looking after (the tubes can blow out) and they take a bit of warming up when you switch them on.

tube amps

Anyway, negatives aside.

If you’re on the hunt for the best tube amp, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we walk you through the buying process – what to look out, key buying considerations, and finally some recommendations from us.

We look at various sizes: small (5 and 10 watts), mid-sized (15 watts), and large (up to 85 watts) and we also look at the difference between ‘combo’ and ‘amp heads’ too, as you need to know about that too.

At a Glance: Our Pick of the Best Tube Amps on the Market

5 – 10 Watt

15 Watt

30 Watt and Above

Amp Heads

Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.

Ok, let’s get started. Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

What are Tube Amps and How Do They Work?

As we mentioned in the introduction, tube (or ‘valve’) amps produce warm, fat tones as well as generate natural distortion.

They’re also incredibly responsive – if you pick gently, for example, they respond accordingly.

So how do they work exactly?

Well, there is heaps of information written about the science of how they work which we won’t go into here, but broadly speaking ‘inside the box’  there is an input stage, a pre-amp, power-amp, and one or more speakers. These elements are constantly interacting with one another (and your guitar of course).

Buying Guide – Key Considerations

Wattage

You get the best tone from a tube amp when the tubes are pushed hard. That means playing it loud. The problem is if you buy a 100-watt amp you’re going to have to play it really loud to get anywhere close to pushing it.

That’s why, unless you’re planning on playing mid to large size venues where you can properly crank it, you should buy a lower watt one and push the volume up to get the sweet tube tones (or ‘cook it’ as it’s called). Amps anywhere from 5 to 20 watts basically are great for jamming, practicing at home and playing small gigs and are still plenty loud enough.

If you’re buying one for gigging, 30 watts upwards makes more sense. Just remember the higher the watts the louder you’re going to have to push it to get the best tone, unless you use an amp attenuator device that lets you drive the amp at lower volumes (but these things aren’t cheap).

Tone & Voicing

Because of the smooth tones, tube amps are also popular with guitarists who prefer a clean tone and not distortion soaked (e.g. jazz or folk players). If this is you, you should look for one with plenty of ‘headroom’ before it starts to ‘clip.’ Conversely, if you’re an overdrive junky and distortion is precisely what you’re after (e.g. hard rock or metal) then you want something with less headroom.

If you’re looking for an amp which can do both well, look for something with two channels. This lets you set up a clean and a distortion channel separately, and you can just flick between the two.

Some amplifiers emphasize highs and lows, whereas some focus more on mids and punch. If you’re looking for one which delivers American rock sounds, something which emphasizes high and low frequencies is preferable.

If you’re looking for a more British rock sound, you want one which emphasizes middle frequencies and punchiness.
Heavier players might like something with included distortion, and lots of EQ controllability.

Combo amp or Head & Cabinet

Whether you go for a combo or a head and cabinet depends on how big the venues are that you’re going to be playing. Some combo amps are big enough for small venues, but as the size of the place gets bigger, they might struggle to fill the room.

A head and cabinet are capable of pushing out more sound, plus you have the option of just taking the head to a gig and using the venue’s speakers.

EQ

Another consider are EQ controls: some amps have plenty of EQ controls, others have just one tone control.

However, what I’d suggest is if you want to be able to shape your tone using just your guitar and your amplifier, look for one with at least a high, mid and a low control.

Otherwise, you’ll have to use an EQ pedal to manage this, which has it’s advantages and disadvantages too.

Attenuation

Some products have built-in power attenuators. This allows you to lower the power rating and make the amp quieter. Reducing the power like this also lets you crank the gain at more modest volume levels, so you can achieve superior tones without playing at an excessive volume.

You can get hold of external attenuators, but if it’s something you’re going to require, then it makes sense to have it all in one unit.

Speaker Size

As you’d expect, the size of the speaker has a bearing on the tone.

  • Smaller speakers tend to produce higher frequencies than larger speakers
  • Larger speakers are usually more effective at bringing out the low end.
  • Mid-sized speakers are best at bringing a mid-range emphasis.

Preferring the sound of a smaller speaker doesn’t mean that you need to sacrifice your right to be loud, though. With some decent mic-ing up, you can gig with small amps, and many artists choose to as they prefer the sound.

Speaker quality varies, too. Celestion speakers, in particular, are renowned for their ability to produce a loud volume that remains crisp and clear.

Cabinet Types

If you’re considering an amp head and external speakers (we call these speakers ‘cabinets’) you’ll have some thinking to do too, as come in a few different shapes and sizes.

  • Closed-back cabinets push the sound of your guitar forward, producing a bright and punchy tone. They are easy to mic up, so are often the preference of sound engineers.
  • Open back cabinets have as you can guess open backs. They let the sound spill out of the back of the amp as well as through the front, and they fill the stage better.
  • Ported cabinets have small ports at the back, which some sound leaks through. They tend to emphasize low-end frequencies, so can be the preference of ‘beefier’ players.

Build Quality and Durability

How tough do you need your tube amplifier to be? What are you doing with it? Are you keeping it at home, gigging a lot, taking it on tour?

When moving it from gig to gig, it’s likely that they’re going to get bashed about. Good corner protectors are worth looking out to avoid inadvertently bashing the corners while transporting.

The thickness of wood used to construct the cabinet can also make it more sturdy, as well as improving the quality of sound. When a thin wood is used, there’s a risk of the speaker vibrating until it is loose. A thickness of half an inch or more will sound strong and last well.

Other Stuff You May Want

Input/Output Options

Some of these amps have more than one input, which can be useful if you need to plug in more than one instrument.

There are also sometimes multiple output options. If you need additional speakers on a larger amp, look for a speaker out. If you’re seeking silence as you practice, look for a headphone out on a practice amp.

Many modern amps these days include a USB in/out so that you can hook it up with your smartphone or computer.

Effects Pedals

Do you want some effects thrown in. While most seasoned guitarists will turn their nose up at amp based effects (preferring pedals), you may fancy some built-in effects such as reverb, delay or chorus so you aren’t always reliant on messing about with pedals out.

To control the built-in effects, or to switch between clean and overdriven channels, they often come with footswitch pedals.

These are extremely useful for performers who need to swap channels on stage but even for those who are practicing at home will appreciate not having to walk over to the amp to change their sound.

Product Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Tube Amps

Monoprice 611705 5-Watt 1×8 Combo

Monoprice 611705 5-Watt 1x8 Guitar Combo Tube Amplifier - Tan/Beige with Celestion Super 8 Inch Speaker, 12AX7 Preamp, Versatile and Durable For All Electric Guitars

The Monoprice 611705 is a 5-watt amp, but it can be adjusted so that it’s 1 watt if you need less volume with the same sweet spot.

There’s a Celestion speaker which is of excellent quality and gives it a bright sound which is warm as well as crisp.

As well as the 5W/1W attenuator, it has a tone control and volume control, keeping things simple and allowing you to memorize your settings quickly.

Who is this best suited for?

This is perfect for the guitarist who wants to practice at home with something that sounds good and doesn’t want the hassle of multiple EQ controls or more than one channel. It will be less suited for those who need to quickly switch between clean and overdriven sounds or those who require more control over their EQ.

PROS

  • Simple controls keep the tone of your guitar transparent.
  • One watt /5-watt switch enables you to attenuate the signal and get a meaty sound at a lower volume.
  • The Celestion speaker offers a detailed and crisp sound which has well-balanced mids and highs as well as a warm low-end tone.

CONS

  • There’s no onboard reverb.
  • There’s no headphone output.
  • There’s just one channel.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon

Check out how it sounds:


BUGERA V5 5-Watt Class Amplifier Combo

BUGERA V5 5-Watt Class Amplifier Combo with Infinium Tube Life Multiplier Black, (V5INFINIUM)

The BUGERA V5 is another 5-watt amp with a built-in attenuator. As well as being able to adjust it to 5 watts, you can also turn this one as low as 0.1 watts, making it the quietest one here.

There’s a built-in reverb so that you can replicate classic rock tones and there’s also a gain, volume and tone control.

It also comes with a headphone output, so you can practice without your neighbors hearing you at all, and it has a nice vintage look about it.

Which sort of player is this for?

It is perfect for those who want something to practice on that won’t disturb those next door. It will also suit traveling guitarists who want something that they can use in a hotel room. It would be less suited to guitarists who need something with more advanced EQ controls, or who aren’t interested in being as quiet as they can be.

PROS

  • The power is switchable between 5W, 1W and 0.1W, so you can achieve overdriven sounds even at a minute volume.
  • Has gain, tone, volume and reverb controls which allow you to shape your sound to achieve classic rock tones.
  • Includes a headphone output, so you can practice without disturbing even those in the next room.

CONS

  • There’s no footswitch option.
  • There’s just one channel.
  • It seems to focus heavily on lower frequencies, giving it a bassy sound which might not suit everybody.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon

Let’s take a listen:


Vox AC4TV

Vox AC4TV All-tube Practice Amplifier

The Vox AC4TV is very stylish, and can be adjusted to 4 watts, 1 watts or ¼ of a watt.

Like the Monoprice above, it has just two simple controls for tone and volume, making it easy to use and great for the beginner.

It has an external speaker output, should you wish to create a bigger sound, and includes a high-quality Celestion speaker which gives it clarity and smoothness.

What type of player will love this?

The styling is very vintage, and it will be suited to those who want something that will double up as a piece of furniture. It will be less suited to those who are looking for anything more advanced, as there are no effects on here and there’s only one EQ setting.

PROS

  • Simple controls keep the sound of your guitar transparent and responsive.
  • Output level can be adjusted to 4W, 1W or 1/4W.
  • It has quality vintage styling which will make most guitarists swoon.

CONS

  • There’s no built-in reverb.
  • There’s just one channel.
  • It seems to focus heavily on top end tone, which might not suit everybody.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon

Here’s how it sounds…


Orange ROCKER15

Orange Amps Amplifier Part (ROCKER15)

The Orange Rocker 15 is another great looking machine which offers exceptional versatility.

There are two channels on this one: ‘normal’ and ‘dirty,’ and these can be flicked between using either the onboard toggle or a footswitch.

Like the others, there’s an adjustable output, so you can quietly practice at 0.5 or 1 watt, get a bit louder with 7 watts and perform a small gig at 15.

There’s also 3-band EQ on this model, so you have a high level of control over your tonal options.

It has classic Orange styling and will look equally good in any practice room or on a stage.

Who is this ideal for?

It will be suited to those musicians who want something that they can take around with them and use at an open mic night or even a gig. It will be less suited to musicians who want something straightforward, although it is by no means hard to use.

PROS

  • Four different output levels give you lots of volume options.
  • There are two channels so that you can flick from normal to dirty with ease using either the toggle or a footswitch.
  • Bass, middle and treble controls give you full control over shaping your sound.

CONS

  • There’s no built-in reverb.
  • It’s pretty pricey.
  • There’s no headphone option.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon

Take a listen:


Ibanez TSA15 1 x 12 15-Watt All-Tube Combo

Ibanez TSA15 1 x 12 15-Watt All-Tube Combo Guitar Amplifier

The Ibanez TSA15 is great for rockers.

It has three channels, one of which is the ‘tube screamer’, that’s capable of sounds which combine tube tone with legendary distortion effects. The other two channels are clean and boost, so you get some real versatility here.

There’s a Celestion speaker, giving it a crisp, detailed sound which still manages to stay warm, and there’s a standby switch so you can let it warm up without turning it fully on and ease the power off slowly without damaging the valves.

It includes an attenuator which makes it 5-watt, so it’s suitable for practicing with at home as well as for taking to small gigs.

Who is best suited to this?

It’s perfect for those who require something a bit heavier-sounding than a standard valve box. It will be less suited to jazzier players, who require sweet clean tones.

PROS

  • Combines tube overdrive with classic distortion effects so that you can achieve some real heavy sounds.
  • Includes an attenuator which lets you take it down to 5W.
  • The Celestion speaker offers a detailed and crisp sound which has well-balanced mids and highs as well as a warm low-end tone.

CONS

  • There’s no built-in reverb.
  • Although its compatible with a footswitch, this isn’t included.
  • There’s no headphone output.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon


Fender Blues Junior IV 15 Watt

Fender Blues Junior IV 15 Watt Electric Guitar Amplifier

The Blues Junior is a beast, even at its relatively small size.

There are separate bass, middle and treble EQ controls, which allow you to shape the sound of your guitar to exactly how it suits you.

There’s also a ‘fat’ button which you can use as a booster to instantly fatten up your sound. The Celestion speaker gives it a crisp and bright tone, making it perfect for vintage blues sounds.

There’s just one channel, but it’s perfect for those who like to get a tone and stick to it, perhaps just ‘fattening’ it now and again.

Who will love this?

It will suit bluesy players who want to keep things pretty clean. It will be less suited to those who want to shift between clean and overdriven or distorted sounds.

PROS

  • There’s a ‘fat’ button to instantly ‘fatten’ your sound.
  • Plenty of controls including separate bass/middle/treble EQ allow you to shape the sound extensively.
  • Includes reverb, giving you easy access to classic rock sounds.

CONS

  • There’s no footswitch option.
  • It doesn’t have an attenuator.
  • There’s just one channel.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon

Check out how it sounds:


Egnater REBEL (30 watts)

Egnater REBEL -30 112 MARK II 30-Watt Two-Channel Tube 1 x 12-Inch Combo with Tube Mix, Reverb and Silent Record, 2 x 6V6, 2 x EL84 Power Tubes, 5 x 12AX7 Preamp Tubes

The Egnater Rebel 30 is perfect for the studio, with an output which feeds directly into a mixer without any volume coming through the amp. Pretty neat.

It also has two separate channels, and there are EQ controls for each. Like a bit more low end on your overdriven sounds? No problem. There’s a lot of controllability here.

There’s an effects loop send and return which allows you to insert effects between the preamp and the power amp, allowing you to experiment with effects pedals and achieve the most effective sound.

You can shift the power from 30W down to 20W or even down to 1W, making the Egnator a great all-rounder for gigs, rehearsals, and quiet practicing.

Who is the ideal customer?

The Egnator Rebel 30 will suit techy musicians who like to do their recording. It will be less suited to those who like to keep things simple.

PROS

  • Two separate channels with EQ controls for each.
  • Effects loop send and return allows you to insert effects.
  • Speaker mute mode enables silent recording.

CONS

  • There’s no headphone socket.
  • It’s expensive.
  • The clean channel has fewer EQ controls than the overdriven channel.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon


Fender Blues Deluxe (40 watt)

Fender Blues Deluxe Reissue 40-Watt 1x12-Inch Guitar Combo Amp - Tweed

The Blues Deluxe is legendary with a vintage look and vintage tones.

There are two channels so that you can switch between clean and overdriven sounds with ease and it comes with a footswitch so you can tap from smooth to edgy with your toes.

There are bass, middle and treble EQ controls, so you can shape your sound to suit you, and there’s also a reverb feature which gives you access to some sweet, classic bluesy settings. The classic tweed finish and chicken-head pointer knobs aren’t to be sniffed at either.

Who is this best suited to?

It will suit the Fender fanatic who enjoys the vintage vibe. It will be less suited to those looking for something modern.

PROS

  • Bass, middle and treble EQ controls.
  • Clean and drive channels to flick between.
  • Includes footswitch which controls drive and reverb.

CONS

  • EQ controls adjust both channels simultaneously.
  • There’s no built-in attenuator.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon


Fender Twin Reverb (85 watt)

Fender '65 Twin Reverb 85-Watt 2x12-Inch Guitar Combo Amp

The Fender Twin Reverb has an exceptional clean tone, partly thanks to its celestion speaker.

There are two channels, each of which has treble, middle and bass EQ controls and one of which includes vibrato settings.

You can turn the reverb and vibrato on and off using the included footswitch, and there’s a small button to boost the brightness.

Who is this for?

It’s well suited to jazz, thanks to its ability to deliver deliciously smooth clean tones, but this is also at home playing country music, blues rock or anything else that requires quality clean tones. It will be less suited to those looking for overdriven sounds.

PROS

  • Treble, Middle and Bass EQ controls for each channel.
  • Includes reverb and vibrato.
  • Celestion speaker gives you a well-balanced tone.

CONS

  • There’s no effects loop.
  • There’s no built-in attenuator.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon


Marshall DSL Series DSL100H 100-Watt

Marshall DSL Series DSL100H 100-Watt All-Tube Guitar Amplifier Head - Black

The Marshall DSL100H is a head which can be attached to 4, 8 or 16-ohm cabinets, making it versatile and a great addition to any studio or venue.

There are bass, middle, treble and presence controls which allow you to shape and sharpen your sound, including a reverb setting. You can turn the reverb on and off using the included footswitch, and you can adjust the amount of reverb that comes through both of the channels.

There’s a standby switch, so you can let it warm up before you play and ease off the power slowly.

Who will love this?

It will suit touring musicians who want a classic rock sound – it will be less suited to those who are playing at smaller venues and want something a little cleaner.

PROS

  • Footswitch included which turns reverb on and off.
  • Multiple speaker outputs for 4 / 8 /16-ohm cabinets.
  • Bass, middle, treble and presence controls allow you to shape the sound.

CONS

  • There’s no tremolo.
  • The wattage isn’t adjustable.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon


Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister

Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 20 Deluxe Head Black

The Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister has three channels: lead, crunch and clean, making it a great tool for shifting between different high quality, organic sounds at gigs without the need for pedals.

Each of the channels has its EQ settings, and there are master volume settings for each of them.

The wattage of this head can be adjusted from 40 right down to 20, 5, 1 or even 0 watts, making it versatile in terms of volume.

There’s an effects loop, so if you do use effects you can plug them between the preamp and power amp, and this head also has a standby option, allowing you to warm it up before you start playing and ease the power off slowly without damaging the valves.

Who is this for?

This is for musicians who like to use overdrive and need more than one overdriven channel on their amp. Less suited to jazzers, or country players who need a consistently clean tone.

PROS

  • Two overdriven channels with 3-band EQ for each, and a clean channel.
  • Effects loop, so you can plug external effects in between the preamp and the power amp.
  • Adjustable wattage from 40 to 20, 5, 1 or 0 watts.

CONS

  • There’s no built-in reverb or tremolo.
  • Although it’s footswitch-compatible, it doesn’t come with one.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon


Fender Super Champ X2 15-Watt

Fender Super Champ X2 15-Watt Guitar Amp Head

The Fender Super Champ has a lot of extra features which you don’t usually find in heads units.

As well as reverb and vibratone effects, there’s a chorus, tremolo, reverb, and delay built into this amp. This will make those who rely on the built-in effects of transistor amps jump for joy.

As well as a variety of effects, this head has a voicing knob which makes it sound like 15 different amps, and there’s a USB output for digital recording.

You might have gathered, as well as being a valve unit, the Super Champ has digital features, but that doesn’t influence the pure, organic tone which is produced when the valves are pushed – and this machine is more than capable of sweet, subtle overdriven sounds.

Who is this best suited to?

It will be suited to musicians who miss the digital features of solid-state amps but crave the tone of a tube amplifier. It won’t suit tube-purists, who are looking for something vintage and natural.

PROS

  • Includes reverb, tremolo, chorus, delay and vibratone effects.
  • Treble and bass EQ controls allow you to shape the tone.
  • Two channels with volume control for each.

CONS

  • The EQ controls adjust both channels simultaneously.
  • There’s no attenuator.

Click to Learn More / Buy from Amazon


Decision Time… Which Should You Buy?

As you can see, the amps we’ve reviewed offer a variety of different features which will be suited to different needs and players.

If you’re on a budget, you might be worried that all of these products seem to be a bit on the pricey side. However, there are a couple of them which won’t break the bank.

The Monoprice 5-watt is a very budget-friendly practice amp that isn’t mouse-like in volume. It has a high-quality Celestion speaker which gives it a crispness alongside its warmth, and it’s easy to control with just one tone control and volume control.

The Bugera V5 is also not too expensive and has added features including built-in reverb and a headphone output for those wanting to practice in private.

If you’re looking for something bigger, which you can use on stage, you’re going to be spending a little more, but the most budget-friendly option that’s also stage-friendly is the Ibanez TSA15. It can kick out some volume as well as some impressively heavy distortion and has a standby switch so that you can allow it to warm up without turning it fully on, and turn it off slowly without damaging the valves.

If you’re looking for a practice amp, one of the 5-10W models will suit you best. If it’s simplicity you’re after, the Monoprice 5 watt will be best, if you want reverb and the option to use headphones, the Bugera V5 will suit you, and if you can’t resist vintage looks and tones, then the VOX AC4TV will be right up your street.

If you’re looking for something a bit bigger, which you can use for practice as well as small gigs (or larger ones, mic’d up), the Orange Rocker 15, Ibanez TSA15 or the Fender Blues Junior will be best suited to you. The Orange Rocker is exceptionally versatile, with two channels which each have their EQ and a built-in attenuator. The Ibanez is excellent for rock, with its ‘tube screamer’ option and the Blues junior offers exceptional, lightly overdriven blues tones.

The Fender Blues Deluxe and the Fender Twin Reverb are a bit bigger, and both offer classic tones, the first of which is more suited to blues-rock and mild overdrive, while the second works particularly well with clean jazz and country sounds.

If you’re looking for something for the recording studio, the Egnater Rebel has a silent recording option as well as multiple EQ settings, two channels, and a reverb option.

If it’s a head you’re looking for, to be used with a separate cab, there are several options. The Marshall DSL100H is perfect for classic rock, both aesthetically and in tone, whereas the Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister offers a little more versatility with its extra channels. The Fender Super Champ is unique in that it has built-in effects and combines analog and digital circuitry, making it the most innovative of all of the models.

If the cost is putting you off, or you want to get to know a bit more about the different tones of various tube amps, you can try using a modeling amp.


Featured image: jboylan67 / CC By 2.0

Ged Richardson

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He's a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango' and a lover of all things music. When he's not ripping up and down the fretboard, he's tinkering with his '79 Campervan.