The Best Small / Low Watt Tube Amps - Combo & Amp Heads

The Highest Rated Small Tube Amps

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For practice and recording, you need a good sounding amp that's not overly loud. Low-watt tube amps let you do just that; you crank up the amp to get to their sweet spot at more manageable volume levels.

Aside from being quieter, low power rating means less components needed, so the amps can be built smaller, lighter and at lower cost. All these practical advantages have made low wattage tube amps a sensible choice for many guitarists.

Here we feature current market favorite models, divided into two main sections: Combo and Amp Heads.

This August 2022 edition sees Orange continuing their dominance with their line of highly rated lunchbox-sized tube amp heads. While others like Fender and Vox are taking pieces of the pie with their market favorite combo tube amps.

The Best Small / Low Watt Tube Amps

Author & Contributors

Alexander BrionesAlexander Briones

I've written about and researched music gear for many years, while also serving as a music director at my local church, in addition to teaching guitar, bass and mentoring young musicians.

The Highest Rated Low Watt Combo Tube Amps

Vox AC15C1 15W 1x12"

96
GEARANK

96 out of 100. Incorporating 1250+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$700
Vox AC15C1 15W Tube Combo Amp

Cons

  • Can be too trebly
  • Not loud enough to be main gigging amp

Pros

  • Subtly modified Vox AC15 tone
  • Pedal and overdrive friendly
  • Classic aesthetics
  • Simple operation

The AC15 is the quintessential Vox amp, and arguably the sound of the 60's British Invasion. While it's bigger brother the AC30 was designed to compete with growing stage (and crowd) volumes, the small, but powerful voice of the AC15 gave rise to many electrified groups in the 60s.

Today, the amp retains the Class A flavor it is famous for while employing more consistent construction and materials. It has a bright voicing that can be too bright for some, thankfully, it has a tone cut control that lets you shave off some of the excess highs.

The Greenback speaker gives it a more modern tonality with a tighter bottom end than the original. It still has the same clarity and chimey tone as the original, but more open and overdrive friendly. This makes the AC15C1 more versatile than what you'd normal expect from a vintage AC15. For a more traditional sounding speaker look at the AC15C1X instead.

It can get quite loud for a 15W amp, but it's not advisable to drive this amp too much, as it loses some of its clarity at high volumes. If you need more projection, better go for the more powerful AC30 version.

All in all, the Vox AC15C1 has everything you need for vintage 60s tone. With reverb and tremolo, many classic sounds can be achieved from The Beatles to The Shadows and beyond.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: 15-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 3 x12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x EL84
  • Speaker: 12” Celestion G12M Greenback
  • Cabinet: Open
  • Controls: Master Volume, Master Tone, Tremolo Depth, Tremolo Speed, Reverb Level, Top Boost Bass, Top Boost Treble, Top Boost Volume, Normal Volume
  • Input(s): Normal, Top Boost
  • Output(s): External Loudspeaker Jack, Extension Loudspeaker Jack
  • Weight: 48.5 lbs
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Blues, Indie, Alternative

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
YouTube Jack Fossett 96/100
The Gear Page guitkrazy 98/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Orange Amplifiers Rocker 15W 1x10"

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 200+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$899
Orange Amplifiers Rocker 15 15W 1x10" Tube Combo Amp

Cons

  • No sparkle in clean the channel
  • Limited to one amp voicing

Pros

  • Genuine Orange dirt tone
  • Built-in power attenuator (7W/1W/0.5W)
  • Neutral clean channel
  • Easy to get good tube tone

The Rocker 15 is a 15W tube combo amp derived from the Rockerverb, carrying over Orange's signature dirt tone with extra features that make it more practice and recording friendly.

At 15W and with a 10" speaker, this amp is not meant for big stages, but it has plenty of volume for rehearsals and small venues. Since 15W is quite loud for use at home, the amp comes equipped with a power attenuator, which lets you lower the power rating to 7W, 1W and 0.5W, making it useful for recording and practice at low volume levels.

Of the two channels, the Dirt channel is the amp's strong suit, with gain, volume and 3-band EQ controls. Since it utilizes two EL84 tubes in the power section, it has a British voiced tone, and this works well with Orange's thick and saturated overdrive which can go to high gain levels as you tweak the gain knob. There are no other amp voicings to switch to, so if you're not a fan of British flavor dirt tone, then this is not for you.

The clean channel has a neutral sound that doesn't add much to the sound, and only has a volume knob. It's a bit too flat sounding for those who want chimey cleans, but it does work well with pedals.

The Orange Rocker 15 is true to its name, a tube amp that can rock at lower volume, perfect for home recordings and practice.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: -Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): x12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): x EL84
  • Speaker:
  • Cabinet:
  • Controls: Master Volume, Master Tone, Tremolo Depth, Tremolo Speed, Reverb Level, Top Boost Bass, Top Boost Treble, Top Boost Volume, Normal Volume
  • Input(s):
  • Output(s): External Loudspeaker Jack, Extension Loudspeaker Jack
  • Weight: lbs
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Blues, Indie, Alternative

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Guitar.com Chris Vinnicombe 90/100
MusicRadar Nick Guppy 80/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Fender '57 Custom Champ 5W 1x8"

97
GEARANK

97 out of 100. Incorporating 300+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$1200
Fender '57 Custom Champ Tube Combo Amplifier
At publication time this was the Highest Rated Guitar Tube Combo Amp Up To 15 Watts.

Cons

  • Not enough volume for gigs
  • Pricey for a 5W amp

Pros

  • Genuine vintage Fender tone
  • Ideal volume for practice and recording
  • Compact profile
  • Premium build quality

Since 1948, the Fender Champ has been a practice and recording standard for many blues and country artists. It's been used on several iconic recordings such as Eric Clapton’s "Layla", Joe Walsh’s "Rocky Mountain Way", Aerosmith’s "Shame, Shame, Shame" and ZZ Top’s "La Grange". Many players of this generation, like jazz guitarist Julian Lage, have also found their voice in the Champ.

This amp is a custom shop reproduction of a vintage Fender Champ, as such build quality is top notch. It also means that it hits the mark when it comes to tone, albeit at a higher price tag. Even the Weber speaker used is designed especially to be as accurate to the originals as possible.

The amp also comes with a tube rectifier (a rectifier converts electricity between AC and DC, and most rectifiers are currently solid state), which helps to give that compressed tone and “bloom” common with these designs.

At 5 watts, it is not intended to be a main stage amp, although there have been acts that use it live by miking it up. While it is one of the smallest and lowest in wattage on our recommended list, the 57' Custom Champ has just the right volume for recording.

Big league tweed tone is usually reserved for those who can pay top dollar for a vintage model. The 57' Custom Champ makes the classic tone more accessible for the rest of us who just want to plug in and play. While it may not be enough for a loud band in live use, for practice, recording or playing a light jazz gig, the 57' Custom Champ punches well above its weight with purebred tone.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: 5-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 1 x 12AY7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 1 x 6V6
  • Speaker: 1x8” Weber Special Design with Alnico Magnet
  • Cabinet: Open
  • Controls: Volume
  • Input(s): Normal, Bright
  • Output(s): N/A
  • Weight: 15 lbs
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Blues

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Premier Guitar Editor 100/100
YouTube Rich Bischoff 100/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Budget Combo Tube Amp Option

Monoprice 611705 5W 1x8"

90
GEARANK

90 out of 100. Incorporating 900+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$160
Monoprice 611705 Tube Guitar Combo Amp 5W 1x8

Cons

  • Limited features
  • Not meant for rehearsals and stage use

Pros

  • Great value low-watt tube amp
  • Good sounding tube tone
  • Old school operation
  • Built-in power rating control

The Monoprice Stage Right 611705 is a compact 5-watt tube amp that has similar innards to the iconic Fender Champ, but at a more affordable price. The amp section sports a 12AX7 preamp tube and a 6V6GT power tube, and it drives an 8" Celestion Super 8 speaker. This combination gives you genuine tube amp tones that you can enjoy at lower volumes, and more importantly, at lower cost.

It only has two knobs, volume and tone. Tone behaves like an EQ, while the volume knob serves as the gain knob. Like old tube amps, raising the amp's volume knob adds grit and overdrive to the tone. You can then clean up the tone by dialing down the volume knob on your guitar.

To steer away from being a straight up clone, it has a distinct "input selection switch", it works like a power attenuator but with a twist. The switch lets you choose between 5W and 1W power ratings. The 5W setting is easier to overdrive and has restricted lows to reduce low end "mud". The 1W setting has a full range clean sound.

Given its 5W rating, this amp is meant for more intimate use, like quiet practice and recording. It doesn't have enough volume for rehearsals, let alone stage use.

Finally, the cabinet has a rear port, and comes with simple vintage style aesthetics.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: 5-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 1x ECC83/12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 1x 6V6GT
  • Speaker: 1 x 8” Celestion Super 8
  • Cabinet: Open Back
  • Controls: Volume, Tone, Power Attenuator (5W/1W)
  • Input(s): 1/4"
  • Output(s): External Loudspeaker Jack
  • Weight: 13.2 lbs
  • Suitable for: Rock, Blues, Indie, Alternative

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
YouTube Landon Bailey 90/100
YouTube Uncle Doug 90/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

The Highest Rated Low Watt Tube Amp Heads

Egnater Tweaker 15W

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 275+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$600
Egnater Tweaker 15W Tube Guitar Amp Head

Cons

  • No preset management
  • Single channel
  • No effects

Pros

  • Real tube and analog circuitry
  • Highly customizable tone
  • Multiple amp voicings
  • Classy aesthetics

For Bruce Egnater, the number one influence of an amplifier's tone is the tone stack. The Egnater Tweaker series was originally planned to be a modular amplifier with different swappable components.

Down the line, Bruce Egnater decided to use toggle switches to enable the user to choose between a British, American or AC (Marshall, Fender, and Vox respectively) tone stack. In addition, A "vintage / modern" switch, a "normal / bright" switch and a "tight / deep" switch provide additional options for tonal customization.

And tone customization is exactly what this amp is for, allowing for a wide range of parameter control while retaining genuine tube and analog circuitry. More importantly, all the tones and voicings sound good and respond really well. The Tweaker 15W does all this while retaining a small profile and a very accessible price tag. The amp also looks more classy than it actually is.

Being a single channel amp with no digital brain, there is no channel switching or preset management, which means that there is no way to instantly change the amp voicing. This limits its versatility in live performances, but isn't much of an issue when recording or practicing.

If tone customization is high on your list, and you want to do so without resorting to digital technology, then the Egnater Tweaker head is for you.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: 15-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 3 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x 6V6
  • Controls: Master Volume, Gain, Bass, Mid, Treble, Voicing Switch
  • Input(s): Normal
  • Output(s): Main Speaker Out, Extension Speaker Out (for a second cabinet)
  • Weight: 19.6 lbs
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Blues, Indie, Alternative

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
MusicRadar Nick Guppy 100/100
Premier Guitar Shawn Hammond 90/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Orange Dark Terror DA15H 15W

97
GEARANK

97 out of 100. Incorporating 300+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$649
Orange Amplifiers DA15H Dark Terror 15 15W Tube Guitar Amp Head

Cons

  • Single channel only
  • Shape control limits tonalities

Pros

  • Great heavy tones on stage and in the studio
  • Good clean tone
  • 15W loud enough to keep up with drummers
  • Very portable

The Dark Terror is a compact, 15/7W all-tube amplifier designed for heavier, saturated tones. It is great in the studio for getting more power amp saturation without overloading more sensitive mics like condensers. The preamp has 4 stages of gain like many modern high gain tube amps, while maintaining the ethos of being able to drive the power amp at lower preamp gain settings.

True to the Terror line, the Dark Terror features a very minimal control setup. It's a single channel amplifier with a Volume and Gain control that interact with each other to achieve specific tones. The shape knob takes the place of the typical 3 band EQ, a combination of a treble and bass control with a surprisingly wide range - from really dark, Sleep-esque tones to scooped, old school metal and everything in between.

What really surprised me is how good the clean tones are. They aren't pristine Fender cleans but they do have a lot of vibe and it don't feel stiff like many high gain amps' clean channels. In conjunction with the effects loop, the Dark Terror is able to be used with reverb and delay pedals for atmospheric cleans.

Orange Dark Terror Back
A rearward view of the Dark Terror. Visible through the grille are the amps' tubes. I marked the voltage for this amp on duct tape to make it easier for on-stage techs to see.

All that being said, the Dark Terror is still just a single channel amplifier. This means that to get to the clean tones, you either have to roll down the volume on your guitar or settle with one gain setting all throughout. While intuitive, the Shape control can be limiting in terms of very specific tonal settings. I would have loved to have even a 2 band EQ in place of the shape knob. For those that rely on a clean tone, the headroom of the 15W amplifier might be a bit limited at lower gain settings. This head was made to rock out so if you're looking for a clean pedal platform, look elsewhere.

The Dark Terror was designed to have a tube buffered effects loop in between the preamp and power amp stages. Since the Terror series relies a lot on power amp saturation, the Dark Terror adds a few more gain stages in the preamp to keep the power section clean enough for delays and modulation.

The Orange Dark Terror is a funny little thing. It's aggressive but can also be pristine at recording volumes. For live use however, it's all out or get drowned. It can easily keep up with heavy hitting drums on higher gain settings especially when pushing the power amp but for cleans, it might not be adequate. Where it really shines is getting that saturated chug in the studio at volumes that won't shake the walls. It's this controlled chaos that makes the Dark Terror a must-have in your amp arsenal.

See Raphael Pulgar's hands on Orange Micro Dark Review with audio samples comparing it to the Orange Dark Terror.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: 7 to 15-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 3 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x XEL84
  • Controls: Gain, Shape, Volume
  • Input(s): Normal
  • Output(s): 8ohm, 16ohm, 2x16ohm
  • Misc:Tube Buffered Effects Loop
  • Weight: 12.46 lbs
  • Suitable for: Modern Rock, Alternative, Punk, Metal
Check out Raphael's extended review with more photos and sound samples he recorded in his studio.

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Gearank Raphael Pulgar 96/100
Premier Guitar Jordan Wagner 90/100
YouTube Plague Scythe Studios 89/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Orange Rocker 15 Terror

96
GEARANK

96 out of 100. Incorporating 150+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$699
Orange Amplifiers Rocker 15 Terror Guitar Tube Amp Head - 15-Watts
At publication time this was the Equal Highest Rated Guitar Tube Amp Head Up To 15-Watts along with the:

Cons

  • Clean channel is too neutral sounding
  • Limited controls

Pros

  • Genuine Orange warm crunch tone
  • Thick saturated high gain tones
  • Good platform for pedals
  • Responsive controls

The Rocker 15 terror is a lunchbox sized amp head with true 2-channel operation, melding aspects of the Tiny/Dual terror and the higher gain Rockerverb. The clean channel is a straightforward clean-to-grit affair with no other controls except volume. Its warmth allows it to be a good platform for pedals. Channel 2 has a three-band equalizer and goes from light crunch to thick and sludgy doom metal tones.

At lower gain settings, the warmth of the crunch is unmistakably Orange, but the amp really bares its fangs at higher gain settings. Unlike other high gain amplifiers that focus on tight modern metal, the Rocker 15 Terror sounds more along the lines of early Sabbath and other saturated 70s metal tones. Modern incarnations of sludge and doom metal are more in line with the brand of tone the Rocker 15 presents.

Warmer sounding modern rock tones are also easily achievable via the controls. While controls are limited, they are very responsive, especially the EQ. This allows for good tone shaping right on the amp.

Those who prefer tighter tones will not be too happy with the Rocker 15 Terror's loose feel with palm mutes. And while the neutral sounding clean tone is good for pedals, it's a bit too plain sounding for those who prefer sparkling cleans.

It also features a tube buffered effects loop to incorporate other pedals like reverb and delay without saturating the preamp.

The Rocker 15 Terror lives up to its name: it was made to do rock and it does so exceedingly well. If you want a low-watt amp that gets your "nasty face" on doing big classic rock power chords, this is the amp to get.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: 7 to 15-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 3 x 12AX7, 1 x 12AT7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x XEL84
  • Controls: Channel 1 - Volume, Channel 2 - Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble, Gain
  • Input(s): 1 x 1/4", 1 x 1/4" (channel)
  • Output(s): 2 x 1/4" (8 ohm), 1 x 1/4" (16 ohm)
  • Misc: Tube Buffered Effects Loop
  • Weight: 14.1 lbs.
  • Suitable for: Modern Rock, Alternative, Punk, Metal

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Guitar Interactive Magazine Editor 100/100
Guitar.com Richard Purvis 80/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Orange OR15H 15W

96
GEARANK

96 out of 100. Incorporating 325+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$749
Orange Amplifiers OR15H 15W Compact Tube Guitar Amp Head
At publication time this was the Equal Highest Rated Guitar Tube Amp Head Up To 15-Watts along with the:

Cons

  • One trick pony
  • Single channel

Pros

  • Great sounding overdriven tones
  • Streamlined functionality
  • Pedal friendly tone and features
  • Switchable 15/7 watt attenuator

The OR series from Orange goes back to the first amplifiers that Cliff Cooper made with Mat Mathias of Matamp. These were branded as Orange Matamps and were used extensively on the road by Fleetwood Mac during the late '60s.

Later on, Orange developed the OR100 and OR200 which were 100W and 200W respectively. It wasn't until 1971 when the "Pics and Text" Oranges, known for not having text labels on the controls, gave the brand it's iconic midrange crunch. This pedigree continues today with the 15W Orange OR15H, housed in Orange's signature "Picture Frame" sleeve for durability.

Being a single channel tube amp with traditional controls, there are no amp voicings to play with. It is as streamlined as it gets, just good old thick and saturated Orange overdriven tone, nothing more, nothing less.

While it may seem like a one trick pony, you can get variations of the tone by tweaking the volume and tone controls of your guitar, along with the EQ found on the amp. This straightforward approach to tone also makes the amp a great platform for pedals. Speaking of pedals, the OR15H has tube buffered effects loop.

Another noteworthy feature of this amp is its switchable 15/7 watt attenuator, which lets you crank the amp at lower volumes for recording.

There are so many things that the OR15H shouldn't be able to do when you look at the spec sheet. At 15 watts, it shouldn't be loud. With only one channel, it shouldn't be versatile. The OR15H may look like a basic amp but sometimes that's all that you need. If you love classic rock and want to live the "volume knob riding" life as they did back in the day, then the OR15H is the amp for you. Look elsewhere if you want all the bells and whistles that come with more modern amplifiers.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: 7 to 15-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 3 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x EL84
  • Controls: Volume, Bass, Middle, Treble, Gain
  • Input(s): Normal
  • Output(s): 16ohm Speaker Out, 8ohm Speaker Out, 2x16ohm Speaker Out
  • Weight: 17.77 lbs
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Old-School Metal, Alternative

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Guitar Interactive Editor 90/100
Audiofanzine benoi31 100/100
YouTube Agufish 90/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Budget Tube Amp Head Option

Bugera T5 Infinium 5W

89
GEARANK

89 out of 100. Incorporating 350+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$219
Bugera T5 Infinium 5-watt Class-A Tube Guitar Head Amp

Cons

  • Not enough gain for high-gain tones
  • Can be too gritty for some

Pros

  • Affordable genuine tube tone
  • Versatile clean to mid-gain overdriven sound
  • Built-in attenuator (5W/1W/0.1W)
  • Built-in boost via the "Phat" button

The Bugera T5 Infinium is a budget friendly lunchbox style 5-Watt amp head with genuine tube preamp and power amp, along with power attenuation. The preamp section features a 12AX7 paired with an EL84 power tube, both of which work with Bugera's Infinium technology that is meant to prolong the lifespan of the tubes.

It comes with essential volume and gain controls, which allows for tones that go from clean, to slightly dirty to mid gain. The EQ knobs have good taper, which makes it easy to shape the sound. For the price, the Bugera T5 Infinum produces good sounding tube tones, and you can do so with minimal tweaks.

Allowing the amp to cross over into the mid to high gain range is the "Phat" button. This adds boost effect to the signal, essentially behaving like a pseudo 2nd channel with more gain and grit. The resulting tone makes the amp sound more premium than it actually is - full sounding and gritty, yet warm and responsive. The downside though, is that it doesn't go high full saturation gain, for that you'll have to settle with pedals. Speaking of pedals, the T5 Infinium's simplicity makes it a pedal friendly amp.

If its 5-Watt power rating is still too loud, you can use its built-in power attenuator to go lower at 1-Watt, or go even lower at 0.1-Watt. It also comes with a headphones out to make it viable for quiet practice.

In keeping with traditional tube amp formats, it comes with built-in reverb.

If you're looking for an affordable tube amp head with vintage style tones, then this is for you.

Specifications

  • Power Rating: 5-Watts (Switchable to 1W, 0.1W)
  • Preamp Tube(s): 1 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 1 x EL84
  • Controls: Gain, Phat, Treble, Bass, Reverb, Volume
  • Input(s): Normal
  • Output(s): 4ohm Speaker Out, 1 x 4" Headphones Out
  • Weight: 9.04 lbs
  • Suitable for: Clean, Blues, Rock, Alternative

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
TDPRI Garruchal 90/100
The Gear Page LPVM 88/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Things to Consider When Buying a Small Guitar Tube Amp

If you’re not sure where to start on your hunt for a small tube amp, or you just want to brush up on your background knowledge before putting any money down, check out the sections below.

Tube Amp Overview

Back in the '60s, tube amps hovered around 15 watts. The Vox AC15 was used to great success by acts like The Beatles as the loudness was adequate to keep up with the drum kit. But, as their fanbase grew, so did venue sizes and the volume of screaming fans. PA Systems back then were not as efficient as they are now. Medium size venues have sound systems that could only get loud enough for the vocals. Miking guitar cabs was also out of the question since it would distort the PA system as well. The solution was to double the wattage and double the speakers, coming up with models like the Vox AC30 and from Fender, the Twin Reverb.

As rock music grew in popularity and venues grew, The demand for high-wattage amps like the 100W Marshall Super Lead by guitarists like Pete Townshend came into vogue. Soon, stages became filled with the iconic "wall of amps" which were all actually plugged in and extremely loud!

This is why these days, having a 100W amp is more of a personal luxury than it is a necessity. Even then, these behemoths sound tame and lifeless with volume constrictions. They are also impractical to bring to gigs unless you have a team of roadies to carry their heavy frames.

The days of the guitarist’s set-up including a full-stack Marshall or a giant Fender tube amp are all but gone. Advancements in PA Systems allow even the smallest amps to be miked up and dispersed to venues of any size. Most of the time, you'd want something that can get that satisfying tube tone at more manageable levels or a portable backup to your regular gigging rig.

Wattage and Volume

The most important thing to know when looking at small, low wattage tube amps is that a linear increase in wattage doesn’t translate to a comparable increase in volume. In plain speak, a 110-watt tube amp isn’t going to be 10% louder than a 100-watt tube amp.

As a general rule, volume doubles for every 1000% increase in wattage. A 100-watt amp (assuming speaker size and construction is similar) will usually be twice as loud as a 10-watt amp at peak volume. As wattage increases, you get more volume before your amp starts to distort. Likewise, doubling the wattage only increases peak output by around 3db so a 100-watt amp is only 3db louder than a 50-watt.

For home use, the ideal situation would be an amp with less than 10-watts (depending on how much tube-based distortion you want) and a master volume control. That way you still have some headroom (headroom is the amount of volume you get before your amp starts to distort) but you can still get valve distortion without wall-shaking volume.

Combo Amps vs. Amp Heads

Amps mainly come in two design configurations: combos and heads. Amplifier heads are essentially just the “guts” of your amp, so they don't make sound on their own. A combo amp includes a speaker in addition to the “guts”.

Amp heads allow you to have a lot of flexibility in your tone. You can use different speakers and cabinets to dramatically alter your tone. The downside is that buying a head and cabinet separately generally costs more than just buying a combo amp.

Combo amps are a more cost-effective but less flexible option. Should you wish to, you can also change the speakers to get a different tone (but you will be stuck with the cabinet, which houses the speaker and electronics).

Voicing

Voicing refers to what tone an amp is based on. An “American voicing” almost always means that the amp sounds like a Fender, and a “British voicing” means that the amp is based on a Marshall or Vox.

Voicing comes from the tubes utilized, with 6L6 type tubes sounding more “American”, the EL34 and the EL84 adopting a British tonality. For the sake of simplicity (and to avoid this article turning into a 6000+ word essay on tubes and their history), we’re not going to delve much deeper into different tubes and their tone.

Speaker Size (1x8, 1x12)

As speaker size increases, so too does an amp’s representation of low and low-mid frequencies. Amps with larger speakers sound fuller and warmer, and amps with smaller speakers have a stronger high-mid and high-end representation. Smaller speakers also have a more focused and direct tone.

The most commonly used speaker size is 12”.

When you see the terms like 1x8, 1x12 or 2x12 that tells you how many speakers the amp has and what size they are. For example 1x12 means a single 12" speaker and 2x12 means two 12" speakers.

Open vs. Closed Back Cabinets

Cabinets (where the speaker is located) come in two configurations: closed and open. An open-backed cabinet has a more "airy" tone because the sound disperses in a wider area with a less focused low end. A closed back cabinet sounds more focused with a tighter low-frequency spectrum. Cabinet construction varies by manufacturer and model and warrants long discussions but to make things simple, size, material density, and speaker positioning affect the tone in more subtle ways than the distinction between open and closed-back cabinets.

Best Low Watt Tube Amp Selection Methodology

The first edition was published in December 2017 and the current edition was published on August 16, 2022.

First, we looked at small tube amps, 15 Watts RMS and under, that are top rated and popular, including both combo amps and amp heads but limited to those that can be readily bought from major US-based retailers. For this 2022 edition, we ended up short-listing 54 tube amps and gathering over 14,200 relevant reviews, ratings and forum discussions about them. All these data were fed into the Gearank Algorithm to produce our rating scores out of 100, which we then used to filter out the highest rated of each amp type - combo and head. For more information about our methods see How Gearank Works.

About the Author and Contributors

Here are the key people and sources involved in this guide's production - click on linked names for information about their music industry backgrounds.

Lead Author & Researcher

Alexander BrionesAlexander Briones

I've written about and researched music gear for many years, while also serving as a music director at my local church, in addition to teaching guitar, bass and mentoring young musicians.

I play a 2016 Gibson Les Paul Tribute Goldtop, a 1983 Fender Strat JV (57ri) and a 2008 Gretsch G5120. My favorite gigging amp is the Fender Princeton tube amp, so it only follows that I go for Fender when it comes to small wattage tube amps. I especially love the tone and feel of the Blues Junior and Champ.

Contributors

Raphael Pulgar: Orange Dark Terror review and photograph.
Jason Horton: Editing and illustrating.

Media

Main/Top Image: Compiled using photographs of the Vox AC15C1, Egnater Tweaker and Fender '57 Custom Champ.

The videos have been embedded in accordance with YouTube's Terms of Service.

The individual product images were sourced from websites, promotional materials or supporting documentation provided by their respective manufacturers, with the exception of the Orange Dark Terror rear panel which was photographed by Raphael Pulgar.

Comments

Should add the Marshal DSL1 1

Should add the Marshal DSL1 1 watt amp. Such a great sounding little amp when run through a 1x12 cabinet. You can even play with a band if you’re not intending on playing metal etc and the drummer isn’t going too nuts. Built in reverb and two channels.

You should have reviewed The

You should have reviewed The Paul Reed Smith - Mark Tremonti MT15 Tube Amp Head

Thank you very much for your

Thank you very much for your advice Anthony.

As it happens, we did analyze that amp but forgot to push the rating info out to the Music Gear Database, so it looked like we might have missed it.

When we published this category's July 2019 update, the PRS Mark Tremonti Signature MT 15 had a Gearank rating of 89 based on 70+ ratings and reviews, which was below the cutoff for inclusion in the Best Low Watt Tube Amp Heads section above.

Thanks to your prompting, I've published the ratings for the 3 amps on our short-list that we initially forgot to make public: