Although technology has moved on somewhat 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 covers set.
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 and 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 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 in 2020 – at a glance:
- Supro 1696RT Black Magick
- Bartel Roseland
- Carr Telstar
- Fender Blues Jr IV
- Black Volt Amplification Crazy Horse
- Two-Rock Studio Signature head
- Rift Amplification Aynsley Lister Signature
- Supro 1812 Blues King 12
- Orange TremLord
- Fender Hot Rod Deluxe IV
- Blackstar JJN-20R combo
- Lazy J J10LC
- Marshall Studio Vintage SV20H
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
+ Tonally unique
+ Wide range of usable tones
– Lush mode can be loose sounding
Carr’s amps are fêted for their genuine point-to-point wiring, mid-century modern styling and above all, fantastic tone quality. The Telstar ticks each of these boxes, but its unique selling points are thin-wall cabinet construction and mismatched power valves: a push-pull stage pairing an EL84 with a 6L6 to generate 17 watts.
This results in a tonal character that defies easy characterisation. Fundamentally, however, the Telstar provides an impressive range of clean and driven variations that are full, harmonically rich and sublimely touch-sensitive.
Price: $2,390/£2,449 Type: Tube combo Channels: 1 Power Rating: 17W Speakers: 1x Valiant 12-inch ceramic speaker Tubes: 12AX7, 12AT7, 6SL7, 6L6, EL84
Fender Blues Junior IV
+ Simple but versatile
+ Improved headroom
+ More reliable than ever
– Sometimes outgunned on stage
The Blues Junior has long been the weapon of choice for gigging bands, hired guns and home players alike. And with this current iteration, Fender has made some tweaks to this familiar favourite to provide it with a fuller sound than previous iterations: a reworked preamp, an improved spring reverb circuit, and most notably, a Celestion A-type 12-inch speaker, which greatly improves its overall clean headroom. One of the world’s most popular tube amps just got better – and it’s still competitively priced.
Price: $599.99/£569 Type: Tube combo Channels: 1 Power Rating: 15W Speakers: 1x 12” Celestion A-Type speaker Tubes: 3x 12AX7, 2x EL84
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 this thing 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 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
+ 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, but this one 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, the Blues King is 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
Fender Hot Rod Deluxe IV
+ Extremely versatile
+ Popular workhorse
+ Easier to overdrive than previous versions
– Very loud
We’d be remiss not to include this workhorse that’s been a mainstay on stages all over the world for more than two decades. In the 2018 update of the Hot Rod Deluxe, Fender tweaked the overdrive to be more defined and improved the amp’s onboard reverb for extra smoothness. The Deluxe and its larger sibling, the DeVille, have plenty in common – but if you need something more portable, the former has the edge.
Price: $799.99/£849 Type: Tube combo Channels: 2 Power Rating: 40W Speakers: 1x 12” Celestion A-Type Tubes: 3x 12AX7, 2x 6L6
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 that’s saturated with tweed clones, Jesse Hoff stands out because he adds 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.