After the recent pandemic, there’s a lot of guitarists twiddling fingers, as clubs and bars are closed for gigs. How are we going to rattle out those Rage Against The Machine riffs at home? Getting evicted for noise pollution (or GBH) isn’t ideal.
It’s time to look at a small guitar tube amp for the house. We can still achieve the beautiful vintage ‘amp breakup’ with lower wattage amplifiers. The newborn baby can sleep in peace and you can remain friendly with your neighbor.
Authority Guitar has dug deep to extensively review the best small tube amp, from 5 watts up to 20. Let’s take a look:
What Is A Tube Amp? A Tube/Valve Amplifier Overview (Tube US/ Valve Amp UK)
As you’ve reached this page, you’re probably already a fan of the tube amp, or you’ve heard somebody talk about how good they are. Many guitarists regard the tube amp as the bee’s knees. But is it all that? Yes, in my opinion, i love them and can’t see myself ever not having one. Whether they’re better than solid-state amps will always be debated, because tone is completely subjective.
Above is a picture of a typical tube that sits in the back of the amp and heats up. They glow a lovely orange color and after a short while they can break up your guitar signal, resulting in a lush overdrive. There is a science behind what a vacuum tube actually does, but in simple terms: It’s a device that controls electric current flow in a high vacuum.
Before the transistor was invented, the tube amp is what guitarists played. Even with all the modern technology, a large percentage of players still prefer the vintage warm, crunchy tones. Myself being one of those fans. Even though tubes are the technology of the past, all the music I like is from that era. I want my guitar to sound exactly like that. Just listen to Keith Richard’s tone, he doesn’t use any pedals, that’s 100% guitar tube amp break up.
Quick Glance, The 5 ‘Best Small Tube Amps’
- Bugera V5 INFINIUM Class-A Tube Amplifier Combo
- Vox AC10 C1 Combo
- Fender 68 Custom Princeton Reverb
- Fender Ltd Edition Lacquered Blues Junior, Tweed
- Blackstar HT-20R MkII Surf Green Collectors Edition
How To Choose The Best Small Tube Amp
How do you choose the best practice amp? This all depends on personal taste. It’s like asking an art dealer, ‘what is the best painting?’
I’ve considered budget, wattage, brand, and durability into this review, as we all have different requirements for a tube amp.
Here are some valuable facts to make your decision easier:
Let’s Start With Wattage:
Wattage is in relation to power. Don’t get this confused with the volume. It’s not the same thing. A guitar amp’s wattage will determine a point when the volume starts to distort. So, the higher the number of watts, is how loud the amp has to go before it starts breaking up. ‘Breaking up’ is a guitar term used by musicians when you’ve found the fuzzy, growling, or gritty tone on the amp. Basically, it’s the Crème de la crème of a guitar amp tone. This is a sound you need in your life.
If you’re considering spending that bit extra on a tube amp, we need to look at how to get the most out of it. Firstly, you’d need to turn it up loud (or to the breaking point, as mentioned above). This saturates the power amp and uses the speakers to their full potential. This is the point where you’ll get a warmer sound than if you hadn’t pushed the power amp enough. So it’s clear to see, if you have a 5watt amp and you only push it to 3watts, you won’t be getting the full potential. We need to find out how much wattage you require.
What Watt Do I Need?
If you’re a ‘home player’, you possibly need to consider the size of the amp. Amplifiers that give you 1-5 watts are perfect for home use as you can turn them up and get your crunchy aggressive tone, without getting a crunchy aggressive neighbor. They are light and small and can be tucked away after use.
5-15 watts, again can be ok at home. You can gig with this size amp unless you have a ‘John Bonham’ on drums! This size may suit the small venue guitarist or guitar tutor. The amps are a little heavier than the 1-5 watts, but still ok to carry around
20 Watts Upwards
Live gigs, studio use, or busker. 20+ watts is probably best for you. I have a 40 watt Fender Blues Deluxe at home, as I’ve spent the last 3 years gigging. I’ve just looked at my volume knob and it’s at 1.25! And it’s still, really loud. This volume in my house is a little too loud. When I play live, I haven’t ever been over 2.5. So, this gives you an idea of factoring in how much wattage you need.
Did You Know?
Jimmy Page pushed little tube amps to the max on the early Led Zeppelin albums. Keith Richards also used a small guitar amp and grinds it hard, live and in the studio. In the last 15 years, Keef loves using a 15 Watt Oahu Amp live! Richards really has a unique tone and with only a 15-watt tube amp. Incredible!
Tube Amp Facts and Tips
Unlike the solid-state amp, you don’t just plug in and play. Tube amplifiers need time to warm up and require cooling down afterward. By warm up, I mean, play something quietly before turning up to a gig type level. Most tube amps have a standby switch as well as an on/off. Switch the amp on and into standby mode for around 30 secs. After this period switch the standby off and play. When finished, switch the amp off, not back into standby mode. This practice alone will prolong the tube life and give you a longer lasting amp.
Tubes are a superior technology for audio. They generally have fewer elements and smaller components than a solid-state amp. Many players love the warm clean sounds of a tube amp. The overdrive is far superior to a solid-state amp, more responsive, and a very popular choice with professional musicians.
Here’s a really helpful video if you’re interested in the difference between Tube Amps and Solid State Amps:
The 5 Best Small Tube Amps
I’ve considered lower budget, wattage, brand, and durability into this review. I understand we all have different requirements for a tube amp. I’ve split the best amps into wattage sizes, from 5 watts up to 20. This way you can see the best amp for your requirements.
Best 5 Watt Amp
- Pros: Fantastic Value For Money. 2 Way Attenuator Built In. Looks Great In The House. Simple Controls. Class A Tubes
- Cons: Headphone Sound Not Great
The Bugera V5 is the perfect amp for the bedroom or home player. It’s small and compact and really good value for the money. Due to the current world situation with the pandemic, there has been a huge boom in sales of small amps. This little tank is my favorite practice amp. An incredible vintage tone for such a small amp. The Bugera is loaded with 3 x 12AX7 preamp and 2 x EL84 power tubes. An old school looking equalizer with dedicated tone control and a built-in 2-way power attenuator. This allows you to get the ultimate sound at any volume from 5 watts to 1. The best way to describe the Bugera’s sound would be sweetly purring blues to thick scratchy crunch. The clean channel is surprisingly full and very rich in tone. A real steal for the lower budget buyer.
Best 10 Watt Amp
- Pros: Packs A Punch. Classic Vox Look, Affordable, Exceptional Note Clarity, Ideal Companion At Home
- Cons: Low End Disappears At Higher Volume
The distinctive eye-catching Vox grille has been around for many years. The Beatles used these babies in the early days. Stylish cream control knobs on a simplistic black background. Small and compact size, so it can be moved around without too much bother.
Great value amp from a very reputable amp builder. Classic British Vox type tone, sweet-sounding reverb at bedroom levels. Devastating gain with the volume punched up so you won’t just be getting a jangly 60s sound. You can use the AC10 in a band rehearsal scenario or in a small venue. If you take your time and have a good play with the gain, volume, bass, and treble settings, you can achieve a surprising amount of tones. This is more than a practice amp, Vox amps do come at a cost but there’s a reason for that. They sound fantastic. It’s difficult to find any negative reviews on AC10 C1. It’s affordable and more versatile than its competition.
Best 12 Watt Amp
- Pros: Covers All Bases, Flawless Build Design, Classic Fender Sparkling Treble, Breaks Up At Volume 5, Impeccable Warm Tones
- Cons: Price
The Fender ’68 Custom Princeton Reverb Amplifier is the modern version of the traditional and legendary late 1960’s Fender Silverface amp.
There are two inputs for guitar on the front panel; input one being ” Normal” while input two has a minus 6db feature for higher powered pickups, Fender is famous for; sparkling trebles and full-voiced lows, with lovely, almost shimmery overtones. Volume 5 is where the amp breaks up. The amp is designed to break up a little earlier than expected. This is a feature I really like. This way you won’t need to blast it up to create the best tone the amp has to offer.
The 68 Custom has exceptional versatile tones that suit blues, rock, country, and funk. Although the price is higher than the competition, the sale value is still lower than the boutique models of the same mold. You are getting what you’re paying for, this amp could easily last you the rest of your guitar days. Top-notch, professional tube tones will make this versatile amp your go-to weapon. It can handle the gig scenario, is ideal for the studio, and can suitably be played at home.
Best 15 Watt Amp
- Pros: Stunning Lacquered Tweed Finish, Simple Controls, Very Nice Spring Reverb, Suitable, Value For Money
- Cons: None
The Fender Blues Junior has a clean tone that’s less cutting than the 68 Princeton above. I prefer that. Sometimes Fenders can sound too thin, but not in this case. The best way to describe the tone is a golden, a big full mid-tone from the EL84 output tubes and 3 – 12AX7 preamp tubes keeping your sounds warm.
My favorite part of this amp is the “FAT” button, we all need a generous helping of midrange Fat eh? The Fender Blues tube models are the world’s most popular. This tells you everything you need to know.
The blues junior is the most versatile of the amps in this review. It’s small, lightish, and can be played very quietly at home, all the way up to a small gig scenario.
I’ve got the 40w version of this amp, I’ll never part with it!
All in all, you get an amp which is very close to imitating the boutique amp sounds, at a quarter of the price.
Best 20 Watt Amp
- Pros: Superb Array Of Tone, ISF Function, Affordable, Comes In Beautiful Green, Blue Or Standard Jet Black, Available In Different Wattage Sizes
- Cons: No Standby Option
The Blackstar collection is a little underrated in my opinion. They make a great selection of amps with British and American style tones (what more do we need?) Lots of headroom with a beautifully voiced digital reverb. At 20 watts you can comfortably gig with a drummer yet still practice at home. Its face looks a little like the retro British style back in the 60s.
The patented infinite shape feature (ISF) control knob has the power to revert from a tight, focused, percussive response, characteristic of American amps, to a woody warm traditional British sound. This really is a super extra only found on the Blackstar. It gives you, the player, the power to create a tone using the whole control network rather than the narrow spectrum other amps allow. In simple english, the ISF gives you the option to match sounds from other established guitar brands. This is an outstanding function.
Winner: The Best Small Tube Amp
The Fender 68 Custom Princeton Reverb, fulfills the needs in all environments like no other. It’s not overpowering in one area but lacking in another. Although you’re paying more for this amp, you’re also paying for pure quality in build and brand. That alone will last a lifetime and is cheaper than buying two amps over a period of 10 years. The Fender tubes sound better and better over time and will not lose their value. This is the best amp for the money without a doubt
I took these considerations when making a decision:
- Playing at home (suitable volume)
- Busking (volume, reach & durability)
- Carrying to guitar lessons or rehearsals (good weight & durable)
- Ideal for studio work (The best sound for recording)
- Small club gigging (volume, durable)
- Gigging in an outside environment (power, reach, durable, superb mic’d up)