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

Low Watt Tube Amps

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Even though huge amps have declined in popularity, we guitarists still want that huge, tube amp tone at home, in the studio or as a backup to our main rig. Low wattage does not necessarily mean low volume. 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 hear.

Back in the 60s, the average tube amp was more or less around 15 watts. The Vox AC15 was used to great success by acts like The Beatles to fill the clubs they used to play in. But, as their fanbase grew, so did the venues and the volume of screaming fans. PA Systems back then couldn't handle anything beyond vocals so mic'ing a guitar amp was out of the question. 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!

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 mic'ed 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.

As of 2019 small wattage tube amps have become so popular again that there are a plethora of options to choose from for use in the bedroom, studio and even on stage. This 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 2019.

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

The Best Low Watt Combo Tube Amps:

Vox AC15C1 15W 1x12"

93
GEARANK

93 out of 100. Incorporating 500+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$680
Vox AC15C1 15W Tube Combo Amp

The Vox AC15 is the quintessential Vox amp, and arguably the sound of the 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 contruction and materials. The Greenback speaker, which is used in this amplifier gives it a more modern tonality, suitable for today's generation of rockers.

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

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 40+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$840
Vox AC4HW1 4W Handwired Tube Combo Amp

The Vox AC4HW1 4W 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.

Specifications:

  • 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

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 mic'ed 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"

94
GEARANK

94 out of 100. Incorporating 125+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$850
Vox AC15C1X Tube Guitar Combo Amp 15-watt 1x12"

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.

Specifications:

  • 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

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"

92
GEARANK

92 out of 100. Incorporating 90+ 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.

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

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 mic'ing 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. The price for a low-watt amp discouraged one reviewer 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.

Budget Combo Tube Amp Option

Monoprice 611705 5W 1x8"

90
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$135
Monoprice 611705 Tube Guitar Combo Amp 5W 1x8

The Monoprice 611705 is 5 watt tube amplifier with features that you might expect from a more upscale piece of gear. With a 12AX7 in the preamp section pushing an American style 6V6GT power section, the tone is reminiscent of the earliest tube amp designs.

In addition to being all-tube, The 611705 comes with an 8" Celestion Super 8 GBA-15 speaker which is known to be a big sounding stock speaker on more expensive amplifiers. While controls are limited to volume, tone, a power switch, and high and low inputs, it doesn't need anything else to provide a good vintage experience.

Specifications:

  • Power Rating: 5-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 1 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 1 x 6V6GT
  • Speaker Size: 8” Celestion Super 8 GBA-15
  • Cabinet: Open
  • Controls: Volume, Voice, Power Switch, High/Low Input Button
  • Input(s): Hi, Low
  • Output(s): N/A
  • Weight: 18.92 lbs.

Pros

From our sources, the majority of positive reviews were from users that were pleasantly surprised at the value for money the 611705 provides. Due to the way it was designed as a dedicated vintage-style low watt tube amp, many knew exactly the kind of tone they were going to get and were not disappointed. It made practice, songwriting and playing guitar in general feel fun and inspiring according to a few reviews. Others mention that the amp is a good pedal platform. When cranked, it is said to make a convincing slide guitar crunch.

Cons

The one aspect most people felt the price is the build quality and consistency of the amplifiers as well as the long term durability. Tube amps are inherently more fragile than their solid state counterparts and the Monoprice 611705 gets mention of needing a bit more care in handling.

Overall

If you're looking to play some smokin' blues on a tiny but meaty cranked tube amp, Monoprice 611705 delivers enough clean and crunch to satisfy even the pickiest of guitar players. It has all you need to plug in and play some afternoon blues.

The Best Low Watt Tube Amp Heads

Fender Super-Champ X2 HD 15W

94
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$300
Fender Super-Champ X2 HD 15W Tube Guitar Amp Head

The Fender Super Champ X2 HD is a hybrid of tube, solid state, and digital technologies. At its core is a 12ax7 tube preamp and 6v6 power section which is utilized as channel 1. Channel 2 brings in the digital models selectable by the "voice" rotary knob and features several different amp models from clean to metal.

Specifications:

  • Power Rating: 15-Watts
  • Preamp Tube(s): 1 x 12AX7
  • Poweramp Tube(s): 2 x 6v6
  • Controls: Volume 1, Channel Select, Gain, Volume 2, Voice, Treble, Bass, F/X Adjust, F/X Select, Tap Temp
  • Input(s): Normal
  • Output(s): Two Speaker Outs
  • Weight: 18.5 lbs

Pros

Versatility is the top reason why reviewers rave about this amplifier. Another reason why users rated the amp high is its ability to function as a pedal platform for channel 1.

Cons

Users would have wanted the footswitch to come with the amp. Some found it to still sound "digital" despite the tube circuitry.

Overall

The Fender Super Champ X2 HD has the widest palette of sounds in this category. If you're looking for the best of tube warmth paired with several great sounding amp models, look no further.

Egnater Tweaker 15W

95
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$400
Egnater Tweaker 15W Tube Guitar Amp Head

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 customisation.

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

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

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 90+ 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.

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

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 worshippers. 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 OR15H 15W

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 175+ 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.

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

Pros

A user review noted that having a single channel amp like the OR15H can "...encourage your creativity, push you to play and write, inspire you...". 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, it's already common practice to mic up cabs.

Cons

It was tough finding bad reviews outside of the usual b-stock/lemon 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.

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.

  • 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 come in two design configurations: combos and heads. Amplifier heads are essentially just the “guts” of your amp, so it doesn’t make sound on its 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

First published on Dec. 13, 2017 written by Mason Hoberg and last updated on Jul 9, 2019 by Raphael Pulgar.

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 48 different tube amps and gathering over 7,800 relevant reviews, ratings and forum discussions. 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 this process see How Gearank Works.

Comments

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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