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

The Highest Rated Low Watt Tube Amps for Guitar

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A lot of tube amps need to be cranked to sound good. Having a large Plexi and being constrained to forever play it at "2" can get boring really quick. This is because the power amp tubes don't saturate as much and the tone stays thin or weak.

This is where low-watt tube amps come into play. The power amp tubes are more easily driven and the tone just sounds fatter. Saturation comes in earlier and you get that grit, drive and distortion at more manageable levels.

This doesn't mean that a "low-watt" amp can't push air: a 15-watt tube amp can still fill a small club sufficiently while anything below can achieve great cranked sound at a volume your neighbors aren't likely to complain about.

Small wattage tube amps have become many manufacturers' best sellers. Companies like Orange have made several lunchbox-sized amp heads in the Terror series as well as revive classics like the original OR series in 15 watt form. All these options means finding the best low watt tube amp can be a challenge. If you’re not sure which low power tube amp is going to work best for you, we selected the highest rated amps for our updated recommended list in July 2021.

The Best Small / Low Watt Tube Amps

Author & Contributors

Raphael PulgarRaphael Pulgar

An audio engineer of nearly 20 years who specializes in rock and metal recordings, he also plays guitar and produces original music for his band and other content creators.

The Highest Rated Low Watt Combo Tube Amps

Vox AC15C1 15W 1x12"

96
GEARANK

96 out of 100. Incorporating 1100+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$700
Vox AC15C1 15W Tube Combo Amp

At publication time this was the Equal Highest Rated Tube Guitar Combo Amps Up To 15 Watts along with the Vox AC15C1X.

The Vox 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.

The Greenback speaker, which is used in this amplifier gives it a more modern tonality, suitable for today's generation of rockers.

Features:

  • 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

Pros

The majority of owners and reviewers note that the greenback speakers paired with the classic Vox circuitry make for a more versatile sound than other variants.

Cons

A few users reported rattling at higher volumes. Also because it's a classic design, many users wanted a bit more clean headroom. More modern 15w amps can achieve louder volumes compared to the AC15C1.

Overall

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. Take note that the AC15 may not be loud enough for more modern forms of music but if you're after a good mix of all things British, the Vox AC15C1 with it's Celestion Greenback speaker has got you covered.

Vox AC4HW1 4W 1x12"

94
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$840
Vox AC4HW1 4W Handwired Tube Combo Amp

The Vox AC4HW1 is a low-wattage, hand-wired tube amp.

Amps that are hand-wired feature connections that are all wired in a chain with one another, as opposed to being wired to a circuit board.

Because early amps were hand-wired, tonal purists feel that hand-wired connections give a more organic sound.

This is in part due to the component legs and wire being made of solid cores that have less resistance and therefore preserve more harmonic content in the circuit.

The Vox AC4HW1 ships with a 12” Celestion GM12 Greenback speaker which is uncommon for amplifiers in this power range.

Features:

  • Power Rating: 4-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 2x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 1 x EL84
  • Speaker: 12” Celestion Gm12 Greenback
  • Cabinet: Closed
  • Controls: Volume, Treble, Bass, Hot/Cool Switch, Master Volume
  • Input(s): High, Low
  • Output(s): Speaker Out
  • Weight: 29.74 lbs
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Blues, Indie

Pros

The portability and tone make it a great amp for coffee shop gigs where the music doesn't have to be loud according to a few users. One reviewer noted it sounded great for recording with a ribbon mic since full saturation can be achieved by the amp at lower volumes.

Cons

Overdrive tone may be loud enough for some gigging guitarists but the clean headroom left a few reviewers wanting more. Another caveat is that the Greenback speaker may not be "vintage accurate" for some purists.

Overall

With boutique construction paired with a great sounding speaker, the AC4HW1 is a luxurious studio or bedroom amplifier that supplies you with great British tube amp tone at manageable levels. As with amplifiers at this wattage, live use may be limited unless miked up properly and fed to a monitor mix but what it lacks in stage volume, it makes up with juicy saturated tones.

Vox AC15C1X 15W 1x12"

96
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$900
Vox AC15C1X

At publication time this was the Equal Highest Rated Tube Guitar Combo Amps Up To 15 Watts along with the Vox AC15C1.

The Vox AC15C1X is essentially the same amp as the Vox AC15C1, but with one key difference: the speaker.

The C1X uses a Celestion Alnico Blue speaker, while the C1 uses a Celestion Greenback.

Alnico Blue speakers have a more traditional Vox chime reminiscent of British bands like the Beatles.

Features:

  • Power Rating: 15-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 3 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x EL84
  • Speaker: 12” Alnico Blues Speaker
  • Cabinet: Open
  • Controls: Gain, Treble, Bass, Volume, Hot/Cool switch
  • Input(s): High, Low
  • Output(s): External Out, Speaker Out
  • Weight: 48.5 lbs
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Blues, Indie, Alternative, Ambient/Post-Rock

Pros

Reviewers note that it is worth spending a few extra dollars to get this version of the AC15 because of the speaker and how it more accurately replicates the vintage Vox chime that the amplifier is known for. Many who have tested both versions describe the Alnico Blue speaker sound as "sweeter" and more mellow than the AC15C1with the Greenbacks.

Cons

The amplifier itself does not present much in the way of cons but users note that because it leans more on the vintage side of things that it may not be able to do modern styles like metal or effects-heavy guitar playing.

Overall

If you want to get close to that 60s Vox Chime without spending more for their handwired and limited models, the AC15C1X is a great pick. It may not be able to handle all styles of music as well as its sibling but what it does for vintage Vox chime, it does very well.

Fender '57 Custom Champ 5W 1x8"

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 225+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$1000
Fender '57 Custom Champ Tube Combo Amplifier

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. The Weber speaker designed especially for this amp was made 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.

Features:

  • 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

Pros

Almost all reviews have people singing praises about this little amp. While small and one of the lowest in wattage in our list, the 57' Custom Champ gets its praises by reviewers from its straightforward tone that many have found to be easy to record.

Cons

The primary con listed by reviewers for the amp is its wattage. At 5 watts, it was never intended to be a stage amp though many acts have used it live by miking it up. If the club doesn't have the means to mic up cabs, it might not be able to keep up with a full band as noted by several forum users. Its high price for a low-watt amp discouraged some reviewers as well.

Overall

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 for live use, for practice, recording or playing a light jazz gig, the 57' Custom Champ punches well above its weight with purebred tone.

Fender '57 Custom Deluxe 1x12" 12w

94
GEARANK

94 out of 100. Incorporating 80+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$2000
Fender '57 Custom Deluxe 1x12" 12-watt Tube Combo Amp

Countless digital multi effects have this specific amplifier in their line up but nothing can replace the original '57 Custom Deluxe in all its tweed glory. This 1x12" amplifier is the stuff of legends.

While most amps have a clean tone that's just it: a clean tone; the '57 Custom Deluxe's tones range from pristine but touch-sensitive clean to smoky and gritty overdrive when cranked.

The cabinet is finished in classic "blonde tweed", completing the vintage look.

Features:

  • Power Rating: 12-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 1 x 12AY7, 1 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x 6V6 Power tubes, 1 x 5Y3 Rectifier
  • Speaker: 1x12" 8 ohm Eminence Special design Alnico speaker
  • Cabinet: Open
  • Controls: 2 x Volume, 1 x Tone
  • Input(s): 2 x 1/4" (instrument), 2 x 1/4" (mic)
  • Output(s): 2 x 1/4" (including internal speaker)
  • Weight: 26 lbs.
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country. (also a great platform for pedals)

Pros

Many users who bought the amp either tried a vintage specimen or owned one. They were pleased to find that this modern recreation is made in the USA and still retains all the tone of the original. Some differences were forgivable since most vintage amps have aged components. They note that the '57 Custom Deluxe is what a brand new amp purchased in the '50's would sound like.

Cons

The price is an obvious barrier to entry. Many felt that it was hard to justify the price after trying the amp, noting that it's not the amp for them.

Overall

If you are one of those that wished you could travel back in time, snatch one of these for retail and come back to today, the '57 Custom Deluxe is your time capsule. For Blues, Country, Bluegrass and other classic rock sounds, the only "competition" would be boutique amplifiers - which are usually variations on this amplifier anyway!

Budget Combo Tube Amp Option

Bugera V5 Infinium

93
GEARANK

93 out of 100. Incorporating 650+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$229
Bugera V5 Infinium

Tube amps need not be expensive. The Bugera V5 Infinium packs a lot of vibe despite the price tag.

It features a switchable 5 watt, 1 watt and 0.1 watt setting as well as a great sounding reverb.

The single 1x8 Turbosound speaker can also get quite loud and vibey; great for small gigs, recording or practicing at home.

Features:

  • Power Rating: 5W Class A (5W/1W/0.1W settings)
  • Preamp Tube(s): 1 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 1 x EL84
  • Speaker: 1 x 8" Turbosound speaker
  • Cabinet: Open
  • Controls: Gain, Tone Volume, Rverb
  • Input(s): Normal
  • Output(s): N/A
  • Weight: 22 lbs.
  • Suitable for: Classic Rock, Blues

Pros

Users who bought it for as a practice amp were greatly satisfied by the tone and quality of the V5 Infinium. The amp also takes being pushed by pedals really well. For the price of a practice amp, it's noted by some as a serious musician's tool. Some were even able to gig with it after miking it up.

Cons

Not versatile enough for louder, more distorted styles unless you use effects pedals. The vintage saturation may be too "loose" sounding for some.

Overall

If you're looking for a great bang for buck tube amp that you can squeeze a lot of vibe out of, the Bugera V5 Infinium is a great budget pick to get you started on tube amps.

The Highest Rated Low Watt Tube Amp Heads

Egnater Tweaker 15W

97
GEARANK

97 out of 100. Incorporating 250+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$400
Egnater Tweaker 15W Tube Guitar Amp Head

At publication time this was the Highest Rated Tube Guitar Amp Head Up To 15 Watts.

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.

Features:

  • 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

Pros

Users love the amount of control they have over the tone as well as the customizability of the gain response. The overall versatility of the amp was the primary reason why a lot of the users purchased the amplifier.

Cons

Critical reviews note that the sounds claimed are just caricatures of the real thing since it only tweaks select parts of the circuit. Other reviewers didn't like the basic sound of the amplifier and tweaking could only get them so far with it. The lack of the ability to make the tweaks footswitchable was also a concern for some as is the single channel nature of the amplifier.

Overall

If you need to be able to go from American Clean to British crunch, the Egnater Tweaker makes for a great home or recording amplifier. While loud enough for the stage, the limited switching options mean you are essentially operating one, single channel amp at a time. The effects loop gives it versatility but unless you plan on riding your volume knob, it may not provide enough flexibility on the fly. Nonetheless, its range of sounds make it an amp to own for a small recording studio that needs different tones.

Orange DA15H Dark Terror 15W

96
GEARANK

96 out of 100. Incorporating 250+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

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

The original Tiny Terror was a 15-watt, single channel amplifier that derived most of its overdriven tones from pushing the power amplifier. This resulted in thick, classic sounding overdrive which a lot of rock players loved.

Metal players on the other hand wanted more out of the Terror so Orange lead designer Ade Emsley designed the Dark Terror; a 15-watt amplifier that gets most of its distortion from a 4 stage preamp.

While the Original Tiny Terror was discontinued in 2016, the Dark Terror still feeds the desires of guitar players that seek high gain in a compact package.

Features:

  • 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

Pros

Many people think that the Dark Terror was designed to do just high gain. Several users were surprised to find that the Dark Terror also excels in low and mid gain scenarios with a sparkling clean tone and breakup. The 15/7 watt attenuator switch is said to be very useful for achieving more saturated tones at lower volumes when needed. A tube-buffered effects loop in the back allows players to ride the volume knob to achieve clean tones without affecting the way the amp interacts with their effects.

Cons

The single channel of the Dark Terror proved to be a limitation for some people who wanted channel switching. Others say that even on the 7-watt mode that the Dark Terror is still very loud which may be a drawback for people who want to buy it for bedroom use.

Overall

It's not surprising why this dark one has so many devoted worshipers. Sometimes all you need is one channel and that's what the Orange Dark Terror advocates. With a roaring overdriven tone enough for the sludgiest of metal bands (and the volume to keep up with the drummer), this lunchbox amplifier is not to be taken lightly. The Dark Terror pairs best with players that know how to rein in their guitars' controls to achieve different tones.

Orange Rocker 15 Terror

95
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$649
Orange Amplifiers Rocker 15 Terror Guitar Tube Amp Head - 15-Watts

The Rocker 15 terror is a lunchbox sized amplifier with true 2-channel operation.

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.

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

Features:

  • 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

Pros

Users that wanted a hybrid between the Tiny/Dual terror and the higher gain Rockerverb rejoiced with the introduction of the Rocker 15 Terror. While not quite the same as the Rockerverb, the Rocker 15 still puts out thick saturation that is unmistakably orange. At lower gain settings, users love the warmth of the crunch in contrast to the brighter sounding Marshall style crunch. At higher gain is when the Orange Rocker 15 Terror bares its fangs. 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 are more in line with the brand of tone the Rocker 15 Presents. Warmer sounding modern rock tones are also easily achievable.

Cons

Users that preferred tighter tones disliked the Rocker 15 Terror's loose feel with palm mutes. The neutral sounding clean tone was also pointed out by users who wanted a bit more sparkle. Needs an overdrive to tighten up the tone.

Overall

The Rocker 15 Terror lives up to its name: it was made to do rock and it does so exceedingly well. Lovers of thick tone gravitate towards this little monster. If you want an amp that gets your "nasty face" on doing big Sabbath-esque power chords, this is the amp to get.

Orange OR15H 15W

95
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$699
Orange Amplifiers OR15H 15W Compact Tube Guitar Amp Head

The OR series from Orange goes back to the first amplifiers that Cliff Cooper had 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.

Additional features include a switchable 15/7 watt attenuator for stage or studio as well as a valve buffered effects loop for your pedals.

Features:

  • 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

Pros

A user review noted that having a single channel amp like the OR15H encourages creativity with both playing and songwriting. Others state the use of the volume and tone knobs on the guitar helped them find new tonalities. They don't see the single channel as a limitation. The amp itself is said to be a great pedal platform as well. With a surprising amount of headroom at 15w, gigging reviewers say that it is indeed loud enough for live use for small venues and as for larger venues, where it's already common practice to mic up cabs.

Cons

It was tough finding bad reviews outside of the usual b-stock/lemon issues, though quality control is still excellent. One user review mentioned that the initial sound was harsh but a tube swap remedied it. Having a single channel was seen as a downside as one user wished it came with a channel switching sister model. For this, I'd personally recommend the Orange Rocker 15 Terror.

Overall

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. It is one of those pieces of equipment that you need to play around with to find your personal sound. 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.

PRS Mark Tremonti Signature MT 15

94
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$749
PRS Mark Tremonti Signature MT 15 - Guitar Tube Amp Head - 15/7-watts

People tend to underestimate the power of 15 watts. With monsters like the Mesa Boogie Rectifier series reaching up to 150 watts, metal-minded guitar players sought a smaller, lower wattage amplifier capable of the same roaring grit at more manageable volumes.

Mark Tremonti is the guitarist of the bands Creed and Alterbridge. His tone comes from the aforementioned Rectifier series amplifiers plus Bogner Ubershalls. Signing with PRS, he sought an amplifer that delivers the same high gain, 6L6 power tube equipped roar as the amplifiers he's grown used to using. All this but in an affordable and compact package. The result is the MT 15 Signature amp.

PRS adds their own flavor to the Mark Tremonti MT15 amplifier. It is a 2 channel lunchbox style amplifier at a deceptively loud 15 watts. It features tones ranging from crystal cleans to roaring but tight high gain.

An effects loop helps patch in your desired effects to augment its already amazing clean section.

Features:

  • Power Rating: 15W (7W setting)
  • Preamp Tube(s): 6 x JJ ECC83S
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x JJ 5881
  • Controls: Master, Presence, Clean (bass, mid, treble), lead (bass, mid treble)
  • Input(s): 1 x 1/4"
  • Output(s): 2 x 1/4" (8 ohms parallel), 1 x 1/4" (16 ohm)
  • Misc: Effects Loop, 1 x 1/4" Footswitch (channel gain/clean), External bias jacks and bias adjustment, Pull clean channel treble for boost
  • Weight: 17.8 lbs.
  • Suitable for: Modern Rock, Alternative, Punk, Metal

Pros

Many reviews note the amp is a "game changer" as very few lunchbox amps in this price range offer the same tight, high gain tone with a great balance of features. A few liked that the clean channel had a usable volume. With the clean boost, the amplifier essentially becomes a 3 channel amp with clean, crunch and lead channels. Users compared the tone to be a cross between Tremonti's amplifiers: A Mesa Boogie Rectifier and a Bogner Uberschall. Despite being 15 watts, many found it to sound louder than what they expected it to be.

Cons

Ironically, people who bought the amplifier for home use found it too loud. The clean channel was noted to be sterile by some. Other user comments had issues with noise that popped up a few times but upon reading through the discussions, it was more of an environment issue than an issue with the amp.

Overall

If you're looking for a tight sounding, modern metal lunchbox amp, the PRS Mark Tremonti MT 15 is the amp to get.

Things to Consider When Buying a Small Tube Guitar 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 drumkit. 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”.

Amplifier 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

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 common size, a 12” speaker is the most common between the two.

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 July 15, 2021.

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. We ended up short-listing 46 different tube amps and gathering over 11,100 relevant reviews, ratings and forum discussions about them. All these data were fed into the Gearank Algorithm to produce 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

Raphael PulgarRaphael Pulgar

An audio engineer of nearly 20 years who specializes in rock and metal recordings, he also plays guitar and produces original music for his band and other content creators.

Aside from endlessly window shopping and watching hours of gear reviews for leisure, he enjoys playing competitive FPS games, MMORPGs and caring for his 5 cats. He is primarily influenced by guitarists like Kurt Ballou and Paul Gilbert. His favorite pieces of gear are his Ibanez RG550RFR, Orange Brent Hinds Terror amplifier and EQD Acapulco Gold fuzz.

Contributors

Alden Acosta: Product research.
Mason Hoberg: Supplemental writing.
Jason Horton: Editing and illustrating.

Media

Main/Top Image: Compiled using photographs of the Vox AC4HW1, 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.

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:

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