Although technology has progressed quite a bit since the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, for many guitarists, vintage-style tube amplifiers still represent the high-water mark for guitar tone. And even the most popular digital amplifiers expend the majority of their processing power attempting to recreate the chest-thumping tones of old.
Tube amps often don’t come cheap. But the list that follows includes amps that span a wide variety of prices to help you find the ultimate valve companion for your budget – whether you want something pedalboard-friendly, easily overdriven, loud enough to drown out an obnoxious drummer or versatile enough for a small session.
Tube vs solid-state: what should you choose?
This is a question that’s been debated since the dawn of the transistor, but digital modelling technology has made major dents in the tube amp market in recent years. There’s also no denying that volume limits at live venues have become much stricter, and smaller, lighter amplifiers are becoming increasingly popular.
But convenience and practicality aside, there’s still something hugely inspiring and emotive about old-school tube amps. Their dynamic response, feel, articulation and harmonic complexity are still difficult for even high-end modellers to emulate.
Buying a tube amp: what should you look for?
If you’re stepping into the world of tube amplification for the first time, deciding on a power rating is a good starting point. Too high, and you won’t be able to properly turn your amp up to its sweet spot. Too low, and you’ll struggle to find any clean headroom – although some would argue that being able to overdrive low-powered tube amps at sensible volumes is a big part of their appeal. Identifying whether your amp will accompany you on stage or remain in your bedroom is another factor to consider when looking at wattage.
If you are able to mic up your amp through a PA, we’ve found that 15-30 watts is the ‘Goldilocks zone’ for most gigging players. It’s not so loud that sound engineers will hate you, but you won’t have difficulties being heard above the drummer. That said, speaker efficiency plays a significant part, so be mindful of that too.
Without a power attenuator or master volume control, a 15-watt valve amp will likely be too loud for home use – even a five-watt tube amp can be enough to make the neighbours bang on the walls. If you do have concerns about noise levels, you might want to check out a digital alternative for home practice instead.
Other points to take note of are clean headroom and tonal characteristics. Is your amp going to be a pedal-platform or do you want to bathe in glorious power-tube overdrive? Are you looking for Vox chime or Marshall grind? Black-panel sparkle or tweed raunch? Modern high-gain or stoner sludge? What about onboard reverb? There are a lot of choices out there.
The best tube amplifiers to buy in 2021 at a glance:
- Matchless Laurel Canyon 112r
- Fender 68 Custom Pro Reverb
- Fender 68 Custom Vibro Champ
- Tone King Gremlin Head
- Carr Super Bee
- Supro 1696RT Black Magick
- Bartel Roseland
- Black Volt Amplification Crazy Horse
- Two-Rock Studio Signature head
- Rift Amplification Aynsley Lister Signature
- Supro 1812 Blues King 12
- Orange TremLord
- Blackstar JJN-20R combo
- Lazy J J10LC
- Marshall Studio Vintage SV20H
Matchless Laurel Canyon 112r
+ Exemplary construction
+ Low noise floor and incredibly clear drive tones
The Laurel Canyon is a departure from Matchless’ usual fare of EL84- and EL34-loaded amplifiers. This 6V6-fitted combo is aimed at the rock and roll sounds coming out of LA in the ‘60s and ‘70s: think the drive sounds of the Rolling Stones and Neil Young. What’s not a departure is the high-quality cabinet construction and point-to-point internal wiring.
The result of the 6V6 experiment is a harmonically-rich, smoothly compressed drive sound when gunned, but on cleaner settings there’s still plenty of headroom for a 20-watt amplifier.
The amp also features a highly-interactive EQ section, with wide changes in sound across their respective frequency bands. There’s also a master volume control for full-blast tone at less-than full-blast volumes, and a 5AR4 tube handling rectification for some vintage sag.
Price: £2,995 / $2,780 Type: Single-channel, tube rectified open-back combo with effects loop and reverb, built in the USA. A non-reverb combo and head model are also available. Channels: 1 Speakers: 1x 12” custom-voiced UK-made Celestion Heritage G12H30 Tubes: 3 x 12AX7, 2 x 6V6, 1x 5AR4
Fender 68 Custom Pro Reverb
+ Relatively affordable, compact and lightweight
+ Gorgeous clean tones and raspy drive tones
– No master volume might dissuade some
The first of two Fender ‘68 reissues on this list, the ‘68 Custom Pro Reverb offers some absolutely sensational old-school Fender amp tones. With a tube-driven spring reverb tank and bias tremolo, you can easily dive into surf territory, but modern ambient washes certainly aren’t off-limits thanks to the long spring length.
While clean tones may be what you think of when it comes to retro Fender combos, cranking the volume knob still introduces quite a bit of hair to things. But because of the 40-watt power rating, lower volume settings aren’t exactly quiet, and at this end of things there’s lots of clean headroom if you want to let fuzzes and drives really speak for themselves, or use delay and reverb pedals without too much compression occurring.
Price: $1,299 / £1,349 Type: Single-channel 40-watt tube combo with tube-driven tremolo and reverb. Channels: 1 Speakers: 1×12” Celestion Neo Creamback Tubes: 3 x 12AX7, 2 x 12AT7, 2 x 6L6
Fender 68 Custom Vibro Champ
+ Compact, perfect for home and small gigs
+ Much more affordable than the genuine vintage article
– Won’t get loud enough for some
This could well prove to be one of the best home tube amplifiers money can buy, thanks to its diminutive size and power rating of just five watts. That said, it will also deliver a maxed-out tube amp tone for those small gigs where you don’t need to be overly loud. While there’s no dedicated overdrive section, the low-headroom of the small wattage means that it’s easy to push the amp beyond its limits, and introducing drive pedals into the mix will allow you to get a more characterful distortion sound.
The five watts drive a 10-inch speaker, and a simple set of controls: knobs for volume, treble and bass, as well as the amount of reverb and the speed and intensity of the onboard tube-driven tremolo.
Price: $749.99 / £799 Type: Low-wattage single-channel tube combo Channels: 1 Speakers: 1×10” Celestion Ten 30 Tubes: 2 x 12AX7, 1 x 6V6
Tone King Gremlin Head
+ Stylish and compact design
+ Two channels for a range of vintage tones
– Limited controls and low wattage might deter some
This tiny little head comes in a range of colourways, but more importantly gives you five watts of power aimed at replicating the tone of an old black-panel Fender amp cranked to full, while refraining from being too loud for home use. It offers two channels: Rhythm for more “bell-like highs” and higher headroom, and Lead for a tweed-style overdrive.
Providing these tones are two 12AX7 preamp tubes and a single 5881 power amp tube. The amp’s face bears a stripped-back layout: just two inputs (one for the Lead and one for the Rhythm) and two controls: tone and volume. The two inputs could be paired with an ABY pedal for footswitchable channel switching, or you could keep it old-school with on-the-fly cable switching.
Tone King has notably included a built-in Ironman II attenuator in the Gremlin, allowing you to distort the amp’s power section while staying at a reasonable volume. This uses a “reactive load” to keep the amp’s feel consistent, no matter the output level.
Price: $1095 / £773 Type: Low-wattage tube-head with retro sounds and aesthetics Channels: 2 Speakers: N/A Tubes: 2 x 12AX7, 1 x 5881
Carr Super Bee
+ Versatile selection of tones
+ Power attenuator lets you play at home volumes
– Expensive, and no on-board tremolo
The centrepiece of this amp is a three-position switch that chooses between different “alternate realities” of Fender Black Panel amp tones, described by Carr amps as “extra scooped beauty,” “Fullerton strut” and “heated 70s CBeeS” respectively. While the amp can run at a full 10 watts for a reasonable amount of volume, a built-in attenuator lets you take things down to 2 watts for some quieter practice.
Also present is an EZ81 tube rectifier. The full workings of rectifiers are too complex to go into full detail here, but in short, they convert alternating current from the wall into direct current in order to run the amplifier’s valves. With their slightly slower response in comparison to solid state rectifiers, tube rectifiers have more of a classic “sagging” sound when the amplifier is hit hard, as they take a little longer to catch up to large spikes in voltage.
Price: £2,399 / $2,490 Type: Vintage-styled tube amp available as either a 10” or 12” combo Channels: 3 Speakers: 1×12” Carr Valiant or 1×10” Eminence Copperhead Tubes: 1 x EZ81, 2 x 6BM8, 2 x 12AX7, 1 x 12AT7
Supro 1696RT Black Magick Reverb Combo
+ Magnificent classic-rock tones
+ Warm cleans
+ Atmospheric onboard reverb and tremolo
– Not the most versatile
Based on the fabled Supro that Jimmy Page used in the 70s, this 25-watt, 1×12 combo has a distinctive tone we’d describe as ‘old-school heavy rock in a box’. Overdrive is smooth, yet thrillingly ferocious; it hangs on to single notes with Rottweiler-like tenacity and the defining tonal characteristic is a fat and forward midrange. At first, it may seem slightly lacking in treble and headroom, but if you’re looking for a clear and clean pedal platform, this isn’t it – and it isn’t designed to be.
Price: $1,499/£1,529 Type: Tube combo Channels: 2 Power Rating: 25W Speakers: 1x Supro BD12 12″ ceramic Tubes: 4x 12AX7, 1x 12AT7, 2x 6973
Bartel Amplifiers Roseland
+ Clear, sophisticated tones
+ Extremely versatile
+ Great build quality
– Not cheap
This 45-watter is the Bugatti Veyron of guitar amps. The finish, build quality and tone are at the very top end of the boutique league, and it’s easily one of the most versatile and best-sounding amps we’ve ever reviewed.
There are only three preamp controls – but if you’re thinking there’ll be few surprises with just volume, treble and bass to play with, you couldn’t be more wrong. Beginning with all EQs at noon, you’ll be met with a big, room-filling sound, with soft trebles and impressive low-end girth. And it only gets more magical from there on out.
Price: $4,795/£4,699 Type: Tube combo Channels: 1 Power Rating: 45W Speakers: 1x Celestion G12 Alnico Cream Speaker Tubes: 3x 12AX7, 2x 12AU7, 2x 12AT7, 2x 6L6, 1x 5AR4
Black Volt Amplification Crazy Horse
+ Fantastic looks
+ Dark sparkly overdrive
+ Huge sound for a 1×10
– Niche appeal
We love this killer-looking boutique amp’s complex clean tones and its smooth and refined breakup. It offers a resolutely rootsy and old-school tone that makes you feel so connected with the amp that you may feel compelled to palm the plectrum and start digging in with fingers and thumbs. Granted, this 1×10 combo may not be as versatile as a tweed Fender – but it gets loud. Any preconceptions you might have regarding what a 1×10 combo is capable of should be left at the door.
Price: $2,300/£2,799 Type: Tube combo Channels: 1 Power Rating: 25W Speakers: 1x 10” Eminence Ragin Cajun Tubes: 1x ECC83, 1x ECC803S, 2x 6V6
Two-Rock Studio Signature Head
+ Big-bottle punch
+ A great pedal platform
+ Ridiculously high headroom
– No low-volume drive tones
If crystalline 6L6 tone and pedal-friendliness are qualities you seek then the Studio Signature Head from Two-Rock is a must-try. Big bottles and big iron supply plenty of clean headroom, and although smooth and refined overdrives are well within reach if you really crank its gain and master controls, this is an amplifier for those who worship at the altar of the Klon Centaur and Tube Screamer and won’t compromise on Strat tone.
Price: $2,699/£2,599 Type: Tube head Channels: 1 Power Rating: 35W Speakers: N/A Tubes: 4x 12AX7, 1x 12AT7, 2x 6L6
Rift Amplification Aynsley Lister Signature
The Aynsley Lister signature amp in combo configuration
+ Classy looks
+ Tonally versatile
+ Dynamic and responsive
– Boutique comes at a price
Rift Amps’ Chris Fantana and blues maestro Aynsley Lister have created an amplifier that covers an awful lot of ground, from characterful cleans with a Californian accent to late-60s British blues. This 35-watt, 1×12 combo even does the business for rootsy Americana too. The brief might well have been to deliver Aynsley’s sound in a box, but there’s plenty of scope here to find your own voice.
Price: £2,799 Type: Tube combo Channels: 1 Power Rating: 35W Speakers: 1x 12” 75W, 8-ohm Eminence The Governor speaker Tubes: 2x EL34, 1x 7025, 2x ECC83/12AX7, 1x 12AY7
Supro 1812R Blues King 12
+ Boutique tones on a budget
+ Great looks and build
+ Raunchy tones at home volumes
– At this price, nothing
Very few amplifiers score a perfect 10/10 with us, but this one sure did, leaving us wondering if the Blues Junior had finally met its match in the affordable 1×12 stakes. Other than adding a tremolo circuit, it’s hard to imagine how Supro could have crammed more into such a compact cabinet.
At both stage- and home-friendly volume levels, the Blues King offers a rich palette of Americana tones from vintage cleans to frayed overdrive and explosive fuzz. When you factor its price into the equation, it’s a no-brainer purchase.
Price: $900/£599 Type: Tube combo Channels: 1 Power Rating: 15W Speakers: 1x 12” Custom Supro BK12 8-ohm driver Tubes: 1x 12AX7, 1x 6L6
+ Characterful cleans
+ Inspiring reverb and tremolo
+ Switchable power options
– Don’t expect much dirt
Although this 30-watt combo has plenty in common aesthetically with Orange’s other modern offerings, plug in and it’s quickly apparent that this is no Dual Dark or Thunderverb. The retro-sounding TremLord is all about characterful cleans, inspiring reverb and pulsating tremolo, along with providing a punchy platform for modern pedal-lovers. Overall, the vibe here is decidedly more vintage than we’ve become accustomed to from Orange in recent years – we like it a lot.
Price: $1,299/£999 Type: Tube combo Channels: 1 Power Rating: Headroom (30/15W) or Bedroom (2/1W) Speakers: 1x 12” 200W, 16-ohm Lavoce speaker Tubes: 2x 12AT7, 3x 12AX7, 4x EL84
Blackstar JJN-20R MKII Combo
+ Great drive tones
+ Modern connectivity
+ Low power mode for home use
– Primarily voiced for rock
Channelling Jared James Nichols’ no-nonsense blues-rock sensibilities, this two-channel tube combo offers a range of sounds from rich and natural cleans to tight and aggressive drive tones. The 20-watt combo also sports Blackstar’s proprietary ISF control for fine-tuning the EQ, plus USB connectivity, speaker-emulated outputs and more.
Price: $729/£699 Type: Tube combo Channels: 2 Power Rating: 20W/2W Speakers: 1x Celestion G12T-75 speaker Tubes: 2x EL84
Lazy J J10LC
+ World-class clean and dirty sounds
+ Touch-sensitive dynamics
+ Superb power scaling
– Pro sounds at a pro price
One tube amp to rule them all? In a boutique market saturated with tweed clones, Jesse Hoff stands out because of his own twists to the classic recipe. Case in point: the J10LC. This 10-watt, 1×12 combo is one of the best sounding tube amplifiers on the planet, with harmonically rich clean and breakup tones, stunning dynamics and spellbinding onboard effects. It’s not cheap but this is an amp for life – it records wonderfully and, despite its comparatively low power rating, is a great gigging amp too.
Price: From £1,599 Type: Tube combo Channels: 2 Power Rating: 10W Speakers: 1×12” Celestion Blue Tubes: 1x 12AY7, 2x 6V6, 1x 5Y3
Marshall Studio Vintage SV20H
+ Authentic Plexi tones
+ Great for recording
+ Responds well to guitar controls
– High input is rather bright
Marshall’s SV20H channels the spirit of a vintage Plexi, while sporting a compact new form factor and a considerably more manageable power rating. The crystalline clean and thick drive tones you find in abundance here will be manna from heaven for vintage Marshall fans, while the five-watt mode means you don’t have to be standing on a festival stage to get the full Plexi experience.
Price: $1299/£875 Type: Tube head Channels: 2 Power Rating: 20W/5W Speakers: N/A Tubes: 3x ECC83, 2x EL34
Check out our picks of the best solid-state amps here.