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So you've decided to go for a tube amp rather than a digital, solid-state amp. Good choice. 🙂
That said, professional amps can cost thousands of dollars, and I know not everyone has the budget to get a more expensive one.
That's where this guide comes in!
Even in the $300 to $500 range, there are quite a few great amps available. Sure, they’re ideal for beginner to intermediate players, but even advanced players might be blown away by what’s available these days.
So, here are the best tube amps under $500, $400 and $300.
Best Tube Amps Under $500
The below are two of the best tube amps around. If you want top quality, one of these might be right for you:
You may have heard of The Edge. He’s only the guitar player of one of the world’s largest rock bands, U2. Well, though he does use other amps, it seems like you’ll rarely if ever catch him without a VOX amp (usually a few).
VOX amps are typically clean and begin to break up nicely at higher volumes. They also take external effects quite well.
The VOX AC10C1 is no exception, though it seems VOX added a little more dirt to the tone compared to classic models. It’s smaller than the infamous AC15 and AC30 amps, making it a highly portable amp. It comes with EL84 power tubes and 12AX7 preamp tubes, a custom 10” VX10 Celestion speaker, and a simple five-knob setup.
Overall, this amp has good reviews. The main reason it has any blowback is because of people who love their classic VOX amps, which are a little cleaner. But if you’ve never played through a VOX before, you wouldn’t know the difference.
Ibanez TSA15 1×12 15-Watt All-Tube Combo Guitar Amplifier
An Ibanez guitar amp? Who uses those anyway?
I know, I was skeptical too. But here’s the lowdown on the TSA15 – it’s basically a Tube Screamer in a box. And, if you’re a fan of the Tube Screamer, you’ll probably like this little amp too. Fortunately, you can turn the built-in Tube Screamer on and off at will, in case you need a clean tone. The clean tone is decent enough, but honestly, I think it sounds better with the Screamer on.
If you’re a live performer, you’ll be glad to know this amp could fill a midsize and even larger venue with your guitar sound.
For the most part, I’m not a fan of Celestion speakers, which is what this amp is equipped with, but honestly it does sound good with the Screamer on. Check out the Ibanez if you’re looking or a simple amp.
Best Tube Amps Under $400
Here we compare two different tube amps, both under $400 USD:
Fender Super Champ X2 15-Watt 1×10-Inch Guitar Combo
Fender is an iconic name in the realm of guitars. Sure, they might be more known for their guitars than their amps, but their amps are no slouches either. They tend to have plenty of brightness and a beautiful bell-like tone that complements their guitars.
The Super Champ X2 has got a great full-bodied tone. It comes with two 6V6 tubes and one 12AX7 tube, a 10-inch Fender Special Design speaker, voice knob that allows you quick access to various tones (Tweed, Blackface, British, Metal and so on), 15 effects, two channels and USB output for speaker-emulated digital recording.
Overall, this Fender is a great little amp with plenty of features. And, most customers have been impressed with this unit. So long as you aren’t expecting the best-sounding amp in the world (you get what you pay for), you'll be happy with it.
Blackstar HT1R Series Guitar Combo Amplifier With Reverb
In general, I find Blackstar amps to be a lot like Marshall amps. Having played through many Marshalls through the years, I’m guessing the Blackstar wouldn’t be my style. Even I was surprised by this, because I generally love players who play through Marshalls (Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, etc.).
But there’s no question that the Blackstar HT1R is an impressive little amp. It’s a 1-watt all-tube amp with more headroom than you'd think. It comes with one ECC83 (12AX7) and one ECC82 (12AU7) power tube, as well as an emulated speaker/headphone output and a MP3/Line input.
Truly, the Blackstar is a little monster capable of producing some heavy tones. Some customers say you can get better amps for the same money, which may well be true, but this is not a bad practice amp by any means.
Best Tube Amps Under $300
On a bit more of a budget? Then you may want to consider these tube amps:
VHT AV-SP1-6 Special 6 Combo Amplifier
The AV-SP1-6 is a six-watt amplifier with one 12AX7 preamp tube, a footswitchable boost mode, simple controls, and a mod-friendly eyelet-type board. So, one of the things that makes it unique is that it’s ideal for people who are interested in tinkering with their gear for optimal performance.
The VHT has a clean, tight tone. When boosted, it begins to break up nicely, and arguably it sounds like a nice stomp box would.
Affordable, great-sounding and portable. The AV-SP1-6 should be on your radar if your budget isn’t huge and you’d still like an amp that helps you stay inspired.
Bugera V5 Infinium
The V5 Infinium comes with five watts of power, a vintage look, simple controls, reverb, more headroom than you’d expect, as well as a EL84 tube.
This little amp sounds surprisingly nice. Sure, you get what you pay for, but the little Bugera is great bang for buck.
This amp won’t give you a ton of dirt, but if you’re just using it for practice, that’s not a big deal. If you really need to dirty it up, you could always use your favorite distortion or overdrive pedal with it.
This isn’t anything revolutionary, but if you’re on a budget, you’ll love the Bugera.
A Good Cheap Tube Amp Option For Live Performance Musicians
This section is brought to you by reader Jake Green (with minor edits done). He’s given a setup option which is over $500, but in his opinion the best lower priced live performance set up if you’re not currently able to spend the big bucks. Thanks for sharing your experience Jakob.
When it comes to performing, you want a tube amp which can play loud enough to use on a stage with a drumkit. Experience has taught me that anything below 15 watts better be A tubes if it's going to get heard, which limits the available amp choices quite a bit if you want to keep the price under $500 bucks.
And yes, I know people claim “My 10watt amp plays super loud and can totally be heard in the rehearsal studio” – and that's nice, but on a stage in a venue, the demands are higher. The sound disappears more, your amp needs to cut through the mix better and the audience function as a dampening element. Halfway second set, you will run out of volume while the rest of the band keeps going.
I've played blues live on stages for 24 years and have tried a ridiculous amount of amps and rooms. It’s far from anything that will be usable everywhere.
The best choice of amp depends on your style of music, your specific needs to clean sound, dirty sound, reverb, and so on. But generally the best lower price tube amp is a Fender Blues Junior. With the bright cap removed, tubes changed and the speaker changed to a Celestion Vintage 30 (which are cheap) it sounds very, very good. It’s also still portable, and plays loud enough for any smaller venue (and on bigger venues you'll mic it up anyway).
The modification isn't necessary, but just makes it sound even better. Which is nice because it means you can take a good amp and make it better later, and it won't cost a fortune.
Editor’s note: Celestion also have a ‘guitar speaker selector’ on their site if you want to check out other speakers too.
All in all, if you don't have a lot of money and want a quality amp, hit the used market as you get twice the value you'd get if you buy new gear. Yes, it requires that you know a bit about what you'd like, which is why guitar stores still have a reason to stay open – so you can try as many amps possible so you get an idea of what's out there and good for you.
Also, making a deal that requires the amp to be serviced at an amp doctor you know before final sale, is a good idea. Sucks spending 500 bucks on an amp and then find out you need to spend another $200 for repairs. Generally, it's hard to make that with private owners, but stores sometimes will.
* End Jake's input. Thanks again Jakob. 🙂
What Should I Look For In A Tube Amp?
Tube amps aren’t all created equal. From wattage to tubes, you can see from the above examples that they come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
To me, the most important thing is tone. If it sounds good, it will inspire you to play. But there are a few other things worth looking at. Here a few criteria I would consider if I were looking to buy a tube amp.
A Great Tone
In this price range, you’re going to be a little limited in what you can achieve tonally.
But generally, tube amps sound great. It’s just a matter of what kind of tone you’re looking for.
Some amps are more clean than dirty, so they’re not going to give you much crunch. If that’s the sound you’re going for, though, you could always add a couple of pedals to your signal chain.
Overall, you might be surprised at how good a smaller combo amp can sound. Many guitarists prefer to use small amps in the studio (and sometimes live) because of the amazing tones they can pull out of them.
Do a little research and listen to the demos. Find an amp that produces the kinds of tones you could see yourself jamming with.
If you’re going to buy a tube amp, you may as well learn a thing or two about the tubes available and how they affect your tone.
As is the case with the VHT Special 6, there are some amps that allow you to swap out tubes with ease. So, you aren’t necessarily stuck with what you buy. Of course, if you buy an amp with the intention of swapping out the tubes later, you’re going to end up spending more money on it.
Some tubes are better suited for crystal clear tones, while others allow for more dirt. If you have the opportunity, try experimenting with tubes a bit.
A Quality Speaker
In addition to tubes, the speaker can also have a significant impact on your tone. Sometimes, you would assume certain combinations would never work, and when you sit down and play an amp with an unusual pairing, you’re surprised to find it sounds better than you thought.
Earlier in this guide, I mentioned that I’m not the biggest fan of Celestions. But that’s also because I’ve never met a Marshall that I’ve thoroughly loved. I’ve played through a couple that weren’t bad, but it just wasn’t the amp for me.
Some players sound incredible through Celestions so they aren’t universally bad. It’s more a matter of whether you can achieve your desired tone with your gear.
Tube amps are generally considered a little more “delicate” than solid state amps. Fortunately, the worst that can happen is typically the need to replace tubes. You could either keep a few spare tubes on hand or buy additional ones as the need arises.
As with any musical gear, it’s best to take good care of your equipment and not just toss it around or abuse it unnecessarily. If you look after your amp, you shouldn’t encounter too much trouble with it.
Still, it’s a good idea to check the reviews and see if anyone has had issues with a specific amp. Then, you’ll know what to expect should any problems arise.
Which Amp Is Better – Tube, Solid State Or Modeling?
There isn’t necessarily a catch-all answer here.
Tube amps can give you great, warm vintage and classic tones. They tend to be more dynamically responsive too. Solid state amps tend to be lightweight, highly dependable and come with a lot of headroom. Modeling amps typically give you far more tonal possibilities than most tube or solid-state amps.
But these are all generalities and aren’t true 100% of the time. You can find tube amps that produce a lot of gain. There are solid state amps that produce a clean, transparent tone. And, despite their ability to produce a variety of tones, modeling amps rarely if ever sound as good as the real thing (though that gap is getting smaller by the day).
Some people say the pros primarily use tube amps. But even there, there are exceptions. Artists like George Lynch, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Alex Lifeson, Def Leppard and Allan Holdsworth all continue to use – or have at some point used – solid state amps.
So, the only way to know what amp is right for you is to try out a variety of amps and see what you like. It’s going to vary based on genre and playing style, the guitar you play, as well as your own preferences for tone.
As someone who’s practiced and performed with all types of amps, here are some of my own thoughts on each:
- Tube amps. Some of the best tone results I’ve ever achieved (based on my playing style and preferences) is with tube amps. The Mesa Boogie Rectifier and Peavey 6505 have both given me quality results, but of the two the Peavey stands out.
- Solid state amps. I’ve had a few solid-state amps through the years, primarily as practice amps, though I have used them for performance and recording too. Now, without a doubt, I loved my JC-120 and I’m a little sad I traded it away. But aside from that, I’ve never come across a solid-state amp I’ve thoroughly loved. I’m not saying there may not be one out there mind you.
- Modeling amps. I used to own a Peavey Transformer 112. I somewhat regret getting rid of it. This amp ended up sounding great both in the studio and onstage. And, since then, modeling amps have only gotten better. Again, there are a couple of downsides. One is that they can be quite heavy. Another is that they just don’t sound quite as good as the real thing.
Analog Vs Digital Tube Amps
The analog vs. digital debate will probably never come to an end.
In the world of guitar amps, there’s modeling, solid state, tube and hybrid amps. And, for the most part, these variants tie in relatively closely with the analog vs. digital conversation.
Modeling amps (and effects units) offer an all-in-one solution for your tonal needs. Modeling has gotten a lot better over the years, to the point where you can easily create tones on the fly you simply wouldn’t be able to with any other gear.
You don’t see too many people raving about solid state amps, but there are some incredible sounding ones out there, like the Roland JC-120, Randall RG1003H or the Orange Crush 20 RT.
Modeling and digital amps have taken quite a bit of attention away from tube amps, but many guitarists still hold them up as the holy grail. They tend to be more dynamically responsive, giving you the ability to shape your tone, as well as the leeway to affect it based on your attack and playing style. From classic to modern, the tones are all there. It mostly comes down to which amp you choose (Peavey 6505 is one of my favorites because of how versatile it is).
Top Tube Amps Under $500, $400 & $300; Final Thoughts
Tube amps are cool and are a lot of fun to play with. So, whether you’re planning to use it for rehearsal, live performance or recording, tube amps tend to be reliable and are generally a good choice for tone snobs.