small tube amps

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Are you wondering why someone would want to find the best small low watt tube amps? To sound pleasant, a lot of tube amplifiers must be turned up to levels that is uncomfortable for a house or recording environment.

Updated 03/16/22 to include new low-watt tube amp models.

Picture having a large Marshall stack and not being able to turn the volume much past one to keep it at a manageable volume. This is not taking advantage of what the amp was designed for and can get boring really quick. This is due to the power amplifier tubes not saturating as much, and the tone being thin or weak.

One of the reasons a lot of people choose a solid-state amp is due to it is hard to overdrive tubes in a home environment. You can use one amp regardless of the watts of power for both playing gigs and still turn it down to for a near silent practice session at home. Of course you are also going to lose that vacuum tube saturation and responsiveness that only a tube amp can give.

This is where low-wattage tube amps come in handy. The power tubes are more easily driven, and the tone is fatter giving you a wide range of clean sound and overdriven sound along with the dame onboard effects and simple control found in solid-state amps. Saturation level rises earlier, and you get the gritty, aggressive sound at lower levels.

This isn’t to suggest that a “low-watt” amplifier can’t create enough air to be heard in a club setting or be loud enough to annoy your neighbors. A smaller club might be adequately filled by a 15-watt tube amplifier, while anything less would provide excellent cranked sound at a volume that won’t irritate your neighbors.

Concerts have also seen a rise in the use of modest low-watt tube amplifiers in recent years. Guitarists are no longer necessary to deliver such a high volume to the crowd due to the recent advancements in PA technology. It’s only natural that we want to emulate our idols, but with the latest low-watt tube amps driven through a PA system, we no longer need to travel about with a Marshall stack.

Tube guitar amps with output powers ranging from 1 watt to 15 watts are readily available nowadays. Because there are so many options, finding the best low watt tube amp can be challenging. That’s where I come in to play. You don’t have to do any of the legwork because I did it all for you. I’ve split down our favorite compact or low-watt amps into a variety of usage scenarios to help you pick the best amp for your guitar tone.

Before we get started on our list, let’s cover some basics of guitar tube amps.

Understanding Tube Guitar Amps

Before jumping into a guitar tube amplifier it is good to understand a little background on how tube amplifiers work. Unfortunately it is not as easy as deciding what wattage and start cranking out the perfect guitar tone you have in your head. You will need to do some experimenting and learn a bit about tubes to make the best decision.

There are lots of terminology that is thrown around and it will be helpful during your search if you have a good understanding. For instance in a tube amp, there are power tubes to consider along with different variations (i.e. 6L6, EL84, EL34 to name a few).

In addition to power tubes there are also preamp tubes to consider (i.e. 12AT7, ECC81 etc…). You will also want to know some about the different classes of guitar amps (Class A, A/B and B amps). As you can see, if you are new to tube amps it can get a little overwhelming. Luckily, I have put together a couple of quick guides to get you up to speed in no time flat.

Our Understanding Tube Amps post walks through different tube types in addition to different guitar amp classes.

Our Guide to the Different Guitar Amps Tone is an overview of different guitar amplifier manufactures and what types of tones to expect from each.

Lastly before getting totally off topic, I recommend you to checkout our Should You Buy A Small Low-Watt Tube Guitar Amp article to make sure a low-watt guitar amp is right for your situation.

Ok, I will now try to pull us out of the tube amp rabbit hole and get us back on track with our guide to the best small low-watt tube amps.

How to choose the right small low watt guitar amp?

You may be feeling a little overwhelmed with choices and learning about amps if you are new to guitar. Before we move onto our list let me give you a few pieces of advice for purchasing an amp.

1) Do not over analyze everything when purchasing your new guitar amp regardless of the size. This is the best advice I can give any guitar player. Most likely you are going to have several over the years. Your tastes will change, your playing style will change and the gear collecting never really ends. Make an informed decision but do not over analyze specs to death, let the amp speak to you and make your decision.

2) The best guitar amps are the ones that you know will fit well within your personal playing context. I cannot count how many times I made the mistake of buying an amp without knowing exactly what I was looking to achieve. This is a common mistake among new and experienced guitar player. Take some time to truly understand what you want to accomplish with your amp. Decide ahead of time the tone you are looking for, if you need a tube combo amp or a tube head unit, is a USB output for recording with silent recording important.

Looking for a great guitar but on a budget, see our picks for Best Electric Guitars Under $500

3) If possible, go to a guitar shop and try the amps out for yourself. See how the amp responds to your playing style and see first hand what different tonal characteristics You can get out of the guitar amp. Make sure a tube amp is right for you and you do not prefer solid state amps.

With so many different types of amps on the market, it can be difficult to judge them through online demos or reviews. Once you try different amps out, you’ll get a feel for what is going to work best for you.

Best Small Amps Under 10 Watts

Best All Around Small Tube Amp 

The Blackstar HT5R MKII is our top all around pick for an under 10 watt amp. There are other amps that do specific things better (i.e. maybe you are looking for the best clean tone or best overdriven tone) but nothing compares to the versatility of this amp for the price. This small combo amp does a bit of everything and is great for someone looking for a low-watt amplifier with an incredible range of tones. My favorite tones out of this low watt tube amp was it’s classic rock sound.

Blackstar HT5R MKII 5-Watt 1x12 Inches Tube Combo Amp with Reverb

Amazon.com
as of May 20, 2022 6:46 pm

The Blackstar HT5R MKII is a well-made amplifier. The construction is solid, with no complaints about the skin, fittings, handle grip, or rubber feet. The silver piping and grille cloth are attractive, and the inscriptions are easy to read. This amp appears to be made with quality materials and construction.

This is one of our favorite low-wattage amps while it’s in use. It has a lot of functions, and both channels sound fantastic.. The “Voice” switch enhances the already pleasing clean channel tones. Additionally, the “Tone” knob is a nice feature, and it’s simple to find good sounds with it. It’s lightweight and portable, yet it doesn’t sound like a small amplifier!

I will mention I found some noise / static in produced one you start getting the tone knob up past the 2 o’clock position. This could have been the stock tubes or some electrical interference from something else in the room but did want to bring it to your attention.

The other drawback for me is I wish it had a bit more clean headroom. It starts getting distortion pretty early on.

In regards to the tone it is simply top notch to my ears for an amp in this price range. It is super responsive to how you are playing and easy to find a sweet spot for the tone. The included 12″ speaker offered some nice bass and the cleans had a very nice sparkling top end. The overdriven sound was easy to get a good tone dialed in whether I was looking for a crunchy or a more overdriven tone. The overdriven tones offered a some really nice harmonics in the mids.

I did want to touch on the “ISF” knob but will go into more detail in our full review of the amp. The ISF, intended to change the sound from “US” to “British,” gives a good range of character adjustments, but it causes harsh sound behavior at the extremes of the dial. I was able to find several “sweet spots” in the gain stages. For instance, on the overdrive channel, you can get everything from slightly crunchy to heavily distorted using the adjustment.

This small amp is a 5 watt tube amp has a lot of gain and it can get loud. It will defiantly give you all the volume you could want in a smaller room. I would not say you are going to be able to play over a drummer but it is about there in terms of volume.

Luckily for practicing or recording the amp offers a built in power attenuator. This lowers the power output while not cutting the level of the preamp. Simply stated, it allows you to still get some great, saturated tones at very low volumes. You will have to mess with the settings some but I found I could dial in a pretty heavy tube distortion at bedroom levels.

The final two features I want to touch on for this versatile, low watt guitar amp is that it has built in reverb and a built in line-out cab simulation.

Need help picking a guitar, see our guide How to Choose a Guitar for Beginners.

I found the reverb acceptable. A little past 12 o’clock on the dial I was able to add a lot of wetness to the sound. For most the reverb will be great, I am just picky and use to some of my classic vintage amps reverb. I did test some effects pedal and it works great with all the overdrive, delay and reverb pedals I tested.

The line-out is a great addition. I did not get to test it but it will hook directly to your headphones and has technology to simulate both a 1×12 or a 4×12 cabinet. This is great for a guitarist that needs to practice and not disturb anyone else.

The Blackstar HT5R MKII is a great tube amp with very few drawbacks. The tone and features are top notch for an amp in this price range. If you’re looking to get into a low watt guitar amp on a budget, then this might be just what you need. The only thing that may deter your purchase of this versatile little 5 watt gem would be if it doesn’t have enough clean headroom for your desired sound. For more information about our thoughts on the “ISF” knob (intended to change the sound from US to British), see our full review of this amplifier!

Best Small Tube Amp for the Money

The best small amp for electric guitar players in regards to tone to money ratio is the VHT AV-SP1-6 Special 6. This small amp is available as a head unit that can be used with an external cab or comes in a combo amp configuration with a 10″ VHT High-Sensitivity speaker.

VHT AV-SP1-6 Special 6 Combo Amplifier

Amazon.com
as of May 20, 2022 6:46 pm

We tested the combo and the speaker and cab was up to par with what we would expect. You could mod this easily with a say an Eminence Cannabis Rex speaker to really bring out that vintage (ala Fender Tweed) tone that can be heard in the amps design.

VHT AV-SP1-6 Special 6 as the name suggests is a 6 watt valve amplifier. It does offer the ability to lower the power via the High/Low power switch. The switch when set to Low halves the output power and gives low volume tones the smooth richness they deserve. I find the Low power great for recording or for practicing around the house without disturbing anyone. 

The VHT comes with a standard 6V6 power tube and a 12Ax7 preamp tube. Both of these tubes are common and can easily be upgraded with New Old Stock (NOS) tubes from the stock tubes included with the amp to further enrich the sound.

In addition to the High / Low switch the amp features only a simple tone and volume knob making it very easy to use and dial in your sound. 

The build quality is top notch considering the price of this low watt tube amplifier. The amp is hand-wired applying point-to-point wiring. I absolutely love this as it means it will be easy to work on and not throw away if something goes wrong with the circuit board like a lot of new amps. The point-to-point wiring also opens up a world of possibilities if you are into modding the electronics.

As for the tone, I found the clean channel sound to be bright and sparkling with in a vintage Fender tone style kind of way. For the overdrive it produces decent quality tube saturation out of the box without pedals. The over-driven sound works great for softer rock and loved the tone for playing blues. In addition, adding a good pedal in front of this small amp and you are into some tube saturation over-driven goodness. 

The VHT AV-SP1-6 Special 6 is a 6 watt valve amplifier. It is available as a head unit that can be used with an external cab or comes in a combo amp configuration with a 10″ VHT high-sensitivity speaker. The amp comes with a standard 6V6 power tube and a 12Ax7 preamp tube. The build quality is top notch considering the price of this low watt tube amplifier.

The VHT AV-SP1-6 Special 6 is a 6 watt valve amplifier. It comes with a standard 6V6 power tube and a 12Ax7 preamp tube. The build quality is top notch considering the price of this low watt tube amplifier. The over-driven sound works great for softer rock and loved the tone for playing blues. The amp is hand-wired applying point-to-point wiring, and is a great value for the money.

There are many factors that go into determining the best small amp for electric guitar players. However, if you’re looking for tone to money ratio VHT AV-SP1-6 Special 6 is a great choice. The combo offers up more than what we would expect at this price point.

It has an easy controls making it perfect for beginners or those who don’t want to mess with complex settings on their amps. You can mod this easily as it features hand wired point-to-point construction and upgrading the speaker with an Eminence Cannabis Rex would really add to that vintage tone sparkle. For the money, it would be hard to beat this small amp.

Add in the fact that it has a great sounding Low power mode and takes pedals like a pro. I loved the tone of the VHT with overdrive pedals, it made it sound like a cranked amp at louder volumes while still being quiet enough to use for a practice session. Their is almost nothing to dislike about the VHT if it suits your playing and tone you are looking for.

Best British Small Tube Amp Sound

We have covered some great all rounders in the Blackstar and VHT but what happens if you know you are specifically looking for the classic British sound in a small tube amp. Our top pick in this category is the Vox AC4 1×12.

VOX, 2 Electric-Guitar-Amplifier-Combos, Vintage (AC15C1)

Amazon.com
as of May 20, 2022 6:46 pm

British amp manufacturer Vox is a legendary name when it comes to guitar amplification. Vox amps are known for that quintessential British Invasion sound of the 1950s and 60s, famously used by bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, the Yardbirds, and many more.

While other amps are often compared to that Fender sound or that Marshall sound, Vox amps have a unique sound all their own. It’s no wonder then that when looking for a low wattage tube amp, guitarists turn to Vox to check out their offerings.

Well, it turns out the Vox AC41 combo amp is the most recommended small tube amp based on our extensive research. The AC41 is essentially a reissue of the 1961 Vox AC4. This is a 4 watt tube amp that not only gives you the famous, unadulterated Vox sound in a “practice amp” package, but it also comes with a very interesting feature to let you push those tubes and get a sublime overdriven tone at bedroom volume levels. Did we add you get all of this at an affordable price.

The Vox AC4C 1×12 is a compact amplifier that has become a favorite in the guitar world. It is an all tube amp with a Celestion 12″ speaker. This combo gives you both classic clean tones and the rowdy Top Boost tones. You have control over the volume, gain, treble, and bass which allows you to adjust from clean chimey classic Vox to serious overdrive. The AC4C1 is a cool vintage looking amp that will definitely turn some heads in the recording studio with its top of the line tube tones.

So if you’re looking for a great sounding, small tube amp, the Vox AC41-12 is our top pick for a British tube combo amps and definitely worth checking out. With its classic Vox sound, portability, and great features, you’re definitely going to love the AC4TV.

Best American / Fender Tweed Vintage Small Tube Amp Sound

In the under 10 watt category there is one small tube amp that really stands out from the crowd for the classic vintage Fender tweed sound. Although not inexpensive, the Fender ’57 Custom Champ is far and away my top pick.

Fender '57 Custom Champ 5W 1x8 Tube Guitar Amp Lacquered Tweed

Amazon.com
as of May 20, 2022 6:46 pm

This is one of my favorite amp for recording of all-time. I have an original ’56 tweed champ and this reissue matches almost all of the mystic I love about my classic, vintage amp. The Champ excels at getting that crunchy sound at low volumes. The amp does not have a lot of clean tone headroom, like say a Princeton Reverb but the clean tone it has does not disappoint. As you probably figured out, this is also not an amp for a metal guitarist.

I have modded my original and use it like an amp heads so I can output it to either a 1 x 8 or a 1 x 12.

The Fender ’57 Custom Champ has 5 watts of power and a 1×8 Tube Guitar Amp. It comes in a Lacquered Tweed finish is a hand-wired performer that is renowned for its flexibility, ease-of-use, and knockout tone. It is simply a classic rock tone machine.

This amp can produce a wide variety of playable tones, from crisp, classic cleans to naturally compressed overdrive that responds remarkably to guitar volume and picking dynamic changes. This low watt amp handles effects pedals, should we say it, like a Champ!

The 12AX7 preamp tube matched to a classic 6V6 power amp tube generates this in-demand overdrive. A protective cover is included.

Not sure what to say about the tone that has not already been said or recorded. You are most likely familiar with the Fender Tweed Champ sound from various classic recordings from the likes of Joe Perry, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton and of course that famous Fender Tele into a tweed Champ tone of Keith Richards.

Marshall Best Small Low Watt Tube Amp Sound

I know we could group Marshall in with our best British category but I like to separate Marshall and Vox as they are geared to two different players. To be honest, I do not love a lot of the Marshall tube amps under 10 watts but the one that I love and do own is the Marshall SL-5. This is the one modeled after the Appetite for Destruction Slash sound and it has been my favorite practice / low level recording tube amp from Marshall.

Marshall SL-5

Unfortunately it is no longer available new but it can still be had on secondary markets like eBay. If you have a hard time finding it next on my list is the 1 watt Marshall anniversary series but again, these are near impossible to find. You may need to move up in watts.

The EL34 tube produces a characteristic sound that is the foundation of most Marshall-based rock tones. The 12-inch Celestion Vintage 30 speaker also gives the sound more body than one would expect from an amp this size.

Control-wise, the ap is easy to use with the controls one would expect. The clean and dirty channels are controlled by a global three-band EQ, and they can be selected either via a button on the front panel or with the included two-way footswitch. The second switch engages the spangly onboard digital reverb.

I will mention the onboard digital reverb is nothing to write home about. It has been awhile since I have used it for some time as I have used a reverb pedal in place of it as I did not care for the sound. Running the amp to an external speaker Marshall stack and it has amazing sound that will make you feel like one of your guitar heroes.

One of the the amp’s major selling point can be found around the back: a switch that lowers the output from five watts down to one. This allows you to crank the amp for some fat, overdriven tones while keeping a friendly “bedroom” friendly volume.

This is one of the best low watt tube amps from Marshall that I have ever used. There’s no crystalline edge that is often heard in American style distortions. Other than me not liking the onboard reverb, I do not have many negatives to mention about the amp. You can hear each string loud and clear. For different tones, think of some vintage sound and lower-gain AC/DC or Led Zeppelin, it does these perfectly. This low watt amp with a power attenuators is great for rock players.

Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you learn more about the best small tube amps on the market. Whether you’re looking for a new practice amp or your first real amplifier, now you know what to look for! Don’t forget that these amps are great for recording as well so if you have any further questions, feel free to reach out and we would be happy to help answer them. Happy guitar playing!

If you are looking for a little more power, make sure to read our article on the Best Small Low-Tube Guitar Amplifiers 10 – 20 Watts. In this we discuss some additional models that can be used for home and for shows like the EL84 15 watt Orange Rocker 15, the versatile Egnator Tweaker that can take a variety of power vacuum tubes and is a 15-watt head unit with a master volume control and the classic sounds of the Vox AC 15 combo amp. 

If you are interested in effects pedals, make sure to checkout our Difference between Overdrive vs Distortion Pedals article.

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