Top Tube Amps – Guide & Comparison
After looking through scores of tube amps reviews, we’ve settled on 11 particularly good ones which cover a wide range of function. While technically not the best tube amp, since it uses solid-state transistors, we couldn’t help but place the Marshall MG30CFX at the top of out list, since it is remarkably popular with common users and specialists alike. This is considered to offer the closest tone you can get to a tube amp, while doing away with fragile and expensive thermionic tubes. If you’re dead set on an actual tube amp, then the Fender Champion 20 is considered a reliable choice for everything but big venue usage.
Highly Recommended Choices – Reviews & Comparison
Finding the right guitar amps is never easy considering the high amount of research required to ensure you make the right pick. To ease your task a little, we went through scores of reviews of tube amps and highlighted only the most popular models below.
The MG series from Marshall is almost unanimously regarded as offering the closest thing to a tube amp tone while still using William Shockley’s transistors for both stages. This aspect allows it to handle a wide range of effects while on no less than 4 storable channels, a clean, a crunch and 2 overdrives.
Needless to say, this gives it a great range, and you can tackle pretty much any music genre in a small to medium sized venue, with a 30-Watt, 10-inch speaker which offers a good medium between rendering high and low sounds.
As to the effects, you’ll get the usual reverb and chorus, together with a phaser, flanger, a delay, and an octave. A new feature with the MG series is that you can switch between pre-set effects by using the pedal, which is extremely convenient, as it allows you to change the sound settings quickly between songs.
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Fender Champion 20
What’s it doing on a list of tube amps, you wonder? Well, it can simulate the sound of historical Fender amps fairly well, and it features presets that imitate anything from the 60s British tone to 2000s metal with various degrees of success. There’s only one channel, however, so most of your reverb will come from the appropriate effect on the pre-amp.
There’s about 3 types of reverb, 2 choruses, delay+reverb, vibrato, tremolo, and much more, up to 13 effects in total, which should satisfy any tinkerer. The high options range will also make this a good practice amp for bands that are still looking to define their sound, or even for (small) stage acts that do a lot of covers.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($99.99)
This unit uses lamps for both stages, the pre-amp, and the power while also offering quite a lot when it comes to effects. The manufacturer doesn’t mention an overdrive, but it does use 2-foot switchable channels, gain, and ultra-gain, which offer a clean and a grungy tone respectively.
It also has 3 volume settings, one that limits it at 1 W for bedroom jamming, a 5 W half-volume for garage playing with friends, and a full volume at 5 W, which coming from a 10” speaker on a tube amp is enough to fill a small venue.
The DSL5C series can also be purchased in 15 W for a little bit more volume, gain and money spent.
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VHT AV-SP1-6 Special 6
A 12 AX7 tube is used for the pre-amp, while the main stage works with a 6V6, for very good bass and high gain tones. You will, of course, get natural overdrive, as with any other tube amp, but this model also features a foot switchable gain boost function, similar to the DSL5C discussed above.
This allows you to effectively switch to an overdrive lead at will, similar to what players do with solid state amps. There is also a high-low power switch, which artificially lowers the wattage for better tone quality at lower volumes.
Usually, 5 Watts will be enough for a small venue with a tube amp, but since this boutique unit is a bit more special, it gives you a maximum of 6 to play with.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($349.99)
Fender Super Champ X2
These should handle lower tones particularly well, while also delivering fuller highs and mids, but the way this sounds will mostly come to your preferences, as Fender offers no less than 16 different amp presets and 15 effects for this unit.
The amp 16 amp styles will prove a great aid for cover bands, as it will allow them to switch through anything from tweed to British rock and metal at the flick of a knob. Like in most other modern tube amps, there is also an option for effectively pedal switching between channels but this slightly more complex unit also allows for TAP tempo control and delay time/modulation rate adjustments.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($399.99)
Vox AC10C1 Guitar Amplifier Head
As old school as such amps can get, the AC10C1 features “simple but effective” gain, bass, treble, reverb and master volume controls. Some of you might notice that an equalizer was thrown into the mix, which apparently only works with 2 bands, and on top of that, there’s a by-passable effect loop and a jack for additional speakers, if the 10-inch one that’s incorporated in the casing won’t prove sufficient.
Both the pre-amp and the power stages work with tubes, which means you can get some extra-crunchy gain when dialing it up to 11 and some great sound definition at lower volumes out of the EL84 servicing the main stage.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($465.04)
It does have a little more in the way of options compared to the AC10, including a top boost channel, alongside the “normal.” There are also tremolo and spring reverb effects to toy with, which can be switched via a VFS2A pedal which isn’t included in the unit price.
You might want to keep this unit away from baseball bats and nihilistic friends, as it contains quite a bit of tubing for its price, namely three 12AX7s for the pre-stage and a pair of grungy EL84s for the power amp. The speaker has also been upsized to 12 inches, so you’ll get the most out of those colorful lows.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($849.99)
Blackstar HTCLUB40C HT Venue Series
It uses a pair 12AX7 for the pre-amp and 2 EL34s at the power stage for some rich heights that will definitely differentiate your early 90s grindcore band from the likes of Terrorizer and Napalm Death.
It also offers quite a number of effect to tinker with and a 3-band equalizer so you can crank up the treble to the max.
Blackstar kept it traditional when allocating the channels, with a clean and an overdrive, but went a little bit further by allowing 2 modes for each, boutique and modern for the first one; classic and modern for the overdrive.
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The relatively low cost doesn’t come at the expense of tone, however, as Monoprice seems to have cut on an equalizer, effects box and other assorted signal altering devices to make this come out at just under one hundred (or slightly above, depending on where you’re shopping from).
So it should sound nice, if a bit samey, with a 12AX7 for the pre-amp and a 6V6GT in the power stage. There is, however, an option to reduce overall volume, if you want to get the best override during rehearsals without terrorizing your neighbors. All in all, this amp seems to offer good value for every cent spent.
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Bugera V5 INFINIUM
It does, however, come with a power attenuator which offers a 5W full volume option for small gigs and practice sessions, a half-volume for when the drummer isn’t around, a 1W for home practice and a 0.1W for when everybody’s asleep but you still want to jam.
It also offers a headphones input which is reported to provide a particularly faithful tune, provided that some high-end ones are plugged in. Other than that, the sound will come out of a single 8-inch speaker, which is well fitted with an EL84 lamp, known for the superior performance it offers in the high and mid frequency ranges.
Finally, this particular unit is quite portable at only 22 pounds in weight and a nice handle on top.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($199.99)
Fender ‘57 Custom Champ
The manufacturer provided specifications extensively cover its style, and by that, we mean the actual way that it looks since its features aren’t anything to write to prospective customers about. It’s got two lamps for the first stage, a 12AY7 and a 12AX7 for a gain that’s bound to make shoegaze fans go wild and a good old 6V6 for the power. Only one channel, of course, but some nice natural reverb.
And the best part about it is that it doesn’t have a back panel, so the tubes can easily be accessed by foot.
Buy from Amazon.com for ($999.99)
Yearly Guide & Report
Although thermionic tube technology is decidedly antiquated in nearly all other fields, it is still commonly used for guitars and, somewhat less often, sound system amplification. This is because a good tube amp can offer a warm overlayer to the tone, which many musicians appreciate.
There aren’t any other advantages in choosing this over a solid state, but given the paramount importance of tone, there’s really no need for more. Vintage guitar amps can be a little poor when it comes to features and versatility, but manufacturers do outfit new models with modern pre-amps which offer the full range of possibilities of the latest in transistors amps.
A little more about tube amps
Again, the best guitar tube amp will give a warm, slightly grungy overlay to the tone, which some find to sound “more natural” than the cleaner sound of a transistor unit. Paradoxically, this is due to the tubes slightly altering the signal in a harmonic way, which tends to be more pronounced at higher ranges of volume, and especially noticeable if the reverb channel kicks in.
That’s why a lot of players prefer to use slightly underpowered units for whatever application they intend to get out of it. A 1 Watt or 5 Watt unit is commonly paired with the best acoustic guitars, for example when country, blues or any form of slow rock are approached.
This also makes the amp smaller and easier to carry around, which is particularly important since bumping it into things will very likely cause the precious tubes (sometimes referred to as lamps) to crack. If you envision getting the amp through a lot of doorways, and corridor, it’s better to go small.
Another note about durability — some units don’t feature a casing for the lamps in order to allow for better ventilation. This also allows for anything from unruly pets to flying beer bottles and drunk friends to get to the tubes, so these should definitely be avoided by those whose daily lives consist of a lot of rough and tumble.
How much wattage do you need?
We’ve mentioned previously that the power tube breakup these type of amps are so well-liked for is more noticeable near the high end of the unit’s volume range. Depending on how much you want this effect to occur and the intended use of the amplifier, you should choose accordingly.
For example, some players appreciate the slightly less warm but clearer sound a tube makes at the low to mid-range, especially if they are pairing it up with acoustic guitars or electric violins while others might want to go for a lingering low reverb if they’re playing any type of “core” genre.
For home use or small stage gigs in clubs 10 to 30 Watts might be enough, especially as a tube amp can get around twice as many decibels out for the same power than a solid state model. If you want to emulate the old-school British sound, you might go as low as 5 Watts without worrying that people at the back of your local club or church will find it difficult to hear.
An important note is that at higher ranges, power will give diminishing returns. For example, a 100 W model is only 3db louder than a 50 W one, while substantially larger and heavier.
The types of tubes
Lamps are pretty easy to wear out, and people who play often should expect to buy a new set once every six months or so. This can be seen as both a bug and a feature since some players aren’t all too keen when it comes to regularly forking out the necessary cash while others love the opportunity to experiment with new tubes.
There are a handful of types out there, each one with its own “character.” The 6L6 offers a nicely rounded sound, with a good deal of clarity and punch, as opposed to the EL34 that commonly has tight lows, crystalline highs, and a nice mid-range. EL84 won’t give you a lot of bang, but it offers a smoothness and distortion similar to the 6V6, which is appreciated for the full sound it gives at low frequencies.
Similarly good low end performers are the big and powerful 6550 and KT88, with a very clean sound in the highs and mids and a lot of bass resolution.
Parts of the amp, heads, and combos
Although there are integrated amps which combine these two parts, most tube models generally consist of 2 parts, a pre-amp and the “regular” amp, also known as a power amp. The first stage cleans up the signal, amplifies it to a small degree and alters it following the user specifications if an effects box or equalizer is present.
The power amp is where this signal gets amplified enough to be picked up by the speakers, which might be integrated or separate in their own cabinet. Many a good tube amp under 300 will only feature lamps in this stage, with transistors used for altering the signal due to the broader range of options this technology offers.
Integrated speaker amps are usually called combos, and their main advantage is ease of transportation since what’s essentially a small piece of furniture won’t have to be hauled around from gig to gig.
Channels, effects, and other aspects
A quality tube amp will most likely offer a lot of options for altering the sound, although there are still bare models available for sale. Nearly any amp will allow you to switch between at least two channels, a “clean” one for crisp sounds (ones made by pinching the strings) and a reverb which adds a little personality to riffs and long notes.
Even a cheap tube amp might feature an equalizer, which can be used to separately alter the volume of separate frequency channels, commonly the three found on most audio devices — bass or lows, treble or highs, and mids. As a quick mention, the size of the speakers will affect how well each frequency will be rendered, with bigger ones favoring lows and twitters making themselves more noticeable on smaller units.
Also, keep in mind that the more features get added, the higher the price, which means that for cheaper units to offer a lot of options costs must be cut from somewhere else. The best tube amp under 500 might very well be simple and focused if you don’t have too many expectations and are realistic about how good cheap amps can really be.
Frequently asked questions about tube amps
How to clean a tube amp?
First and foremost, it is not really recommended to tinker inside a tube amp unless absolutely necessary, so make better use of other maintenance activities, such as replacing a faulty tube as an excuse for some cleaning. This is a complicated enough process to warrant clearer instructions than we are able to provide here, so make sure to check a number of tube amp guides before setting out.
However, what you should always bear in mind is that the power is turned off before proceeding and, if possible, the electric cord isn’t plugged in an outlet.
How does a tube amp work?
By thermionic emission, a cathode is heated within a vacuum bulb (the tube or lamp) such that electrons are “boiled” off. A metal cylinder called a plate surrounds the cathode, and electrons are attracted to it if a positive charge is applied, either from a DC battery or from an AC outlet. The electrons will form a current by flowing from the plate through the battery to the cathode.
A resistor is placed in series with the plate, so that the plate current can be varied by the applied grid-cathode voltage, altering the signal for different tones.
What is a tube amp effect?
Basically, any desired alteration of the signal to translate into a certain tone can be called an effect. These are generally regulated in the preamp stage, but many units contain dedicated effects boxes between the preamp and the power.
Good, expensive models can offer up to 2 dozen effects, from half a dozen types of overdrive to the perfect guitar metronome. A common effect that can be encountered with tube amps is the sag, which is not always desirable. This happens when the amplifier load increases and the subsequent voltage drop decreases the distortion of the output.
Which Fender tube amp is the best?
This, of course, depends on what you need to get out of it and not in the least, the person you ask and his or her preferences. If you’re not looking for something too pretentious, many Fender fans swear by the DeVille Blues, since at 60 Watts it can handle any gig.
For something smaller, the Deluxe Reverb Reissue is a name often passed around as it offers the classic clean Fender sound and a lush reverb while the Deluxe Reverb is bound to serve well people of slightly higher means.
Can I leave my tube amp in the cold?
If you are facing anything less than Siberian weather a tube amp should handle the cold decently, although the bulbs are made of glass which might contract to the point of breaking at arctic temperatures. However, there is a far more pressing issue to worry about, in that the amp must always be warmed up before use if it’s been previously stored in a cold environment.
So always wait for something like half an hour before a gig for the amp to reach room temperature before turning it on. Really, this is advisable with most pieces of electronics.
Can a tube amp overheat?
Sure it can, as it uses electric current. Furthermore, where there’s glowing, there’s usually heat to go with it, but most players don’t consider this to be such a major issue unless they are really careful about extending the life of their bulbs.
Open-backed amps will heat less than fully enclosed ones, and smaller tubes have a tendency to give out less heat. Speaking of open units, you can have a fan blow cool air into their workings to decrease the running temperature to an extent, which should increase overall working life, but this is far from a certainty.
Best tube amp brands
Fender’s been around for quite a while, and everyone and their cat has heard about them. Mostly good things, that is, especially about their combo amps, famous for their power, volume, but also the trademark clean, crystalline tones and smoothe overdrive.
While their reputation is based on classics like the Twin, Princeton, and Bassman which get occasional re-issues, the Hot Rod Series is currently their best-appreciated powerhouse, while the 15-watt Blues Junior is the delight of country singers and indie acts the world over.
Fender also looks towards the future with their Mustang series of high-tech modeling amps, which are small, portable and gig-worthy.
What Fender is to the combo amps, Marshall is to the cabinet, with their massive 4×12 set-ups that can easily fill a large venue in some epic rock tones. If you’ve seen a band play a stadium, you’ve surely seen a Marshall.
They did diversify since their early days in the 60s, and right now the British manufacturer makes a bit of everything, from the small solid-state MG series that generally gets paired with good beginner electric guitars for some classic Marshall tone in the small form to the mighty DSL100. They also took a try at the modeling amp market with the Code Series.
Slightly more famous for its guitars, Ibanez also has a line of electronics under its belt. The Tube Screamer Amplifier series of combos is the smallest and cheapest of the bunch, but still gig-worthy at either 5, 15 or 30 Watts.
The Iron label combines a good clean sound coming from a pair of 12AX7 for the gain and EL84 power tubes with some interesting effects out of 80 Watts speakers. This should be enough to fill a large venue in guitar sound while the bass section will be covered by their P115CC and P410CC lines.
The favorite brand of the British invasion of the 60s, VOX made a name for itself powering the tunes of famous acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Like everything else in Britain however, VOX fell on black days in the decades since.
However, it made something of a comeback after getting acquired by a Japanese company, and their smooth tube overdrive can still be heard on re-issues of the classic AC-30. You won’t need a lot of Wattage from a VOX to fill a room with the trademark 60s sound to the delight of hipsters and nostalgics the world over.