Cheap Tube Amp Roundup
Cheap doesn't have to mean low quality - so here we take a look at the best cheap tube amps that deliver those smooth valve tones without breaking the budget.
This page is sponsored by Sweetwater so you can click through to get the full specifications, the latest price, and purchase any of the Tube Amps stocked by Sweetwater that we have recommended.
It's nearly 3½ years since I wrote the first version of this roundup and during that time the prices for all-tube combo amps have been steadily rising. However, there are still a couple of options for under $200, and if you can stretch your budget a little further then there are some excellent tube amps under $500 where you might be surprised to learn there are genuine Marshall, Vox and Fender amps - I outline the best options below.
Tube Amps Under $200
A good place to start is with Bugera
The Bugera BC15 is a great tube amp for beginners - for less than $110 you get a real 15 Watt amp with an 8" speaker using a 12AX7 Valve. It also has a headphone out so you can practice quietly at the same time you have the valve cranked up. You can get it at Sweetwater.com for just under $130.
More experienced players will be drawn to Bugera's V range. The best of the cheap end is the Bugera V5 - as the name implies it's a 5 Watt tube amp.
This is a step up from the BC15, with a range of more advanced features including a built in 3-way power attenuator which lets you drive its 12AX7 valve hard even at low volumes - you can run it at 5, 1 or 0.1 Watts. It also has built in Reverb and Tone controls.
You can buy the Bugera V5 for under $200 at many online stores - here's a link to the latest price and reviews at Sweetwater.com.
The Bugera range has recently been expanded with the new Bugera T5 Infinium - it's only an amp head so although it's just under $200 you'll need a cabinet to go with it. You can get the T5 Infinium now at Sweetwater.com.
Although not exactly super cheap, an honorable mention goes to the Bugera V22 - it's what we might call 'reminiscent' of old British tube amps, however it sells for far less than actual vintage amps - usually under $400 - here's the price and latest reviews at Sweetwater.com.
Tube Amps Under $500
All the tube amps I've included here are ones where the manufacturer has decided to go for quality while keeping the costs down - this means that the wattage is lower than you get in a tube modeling amp of the same price - the difference is that you get genuine tubes with these.
Fender Super Champ X2
This is a 'remake' of the 1980's Super Champ with a lot of added extras. The Super Champ X2 offers excellent value because not only can it run as a pure tube amp like the original, but this version also has digital effects and amp modeling.
The preamp uses the standard 12AX7 tube and the power amp has two 6V6 tubes producing 15 watts of output power. Together they produce the kinds of mids and treble you expect from a Fender amp with 2-band EQ to set the tones the way you want them.
Buying the Super Champ X2 will put you in good company as it's used by indie pop band "Foster The People" who won the 2012 Billboard Music Award for Rock Song of the Year with their track "Pumped Up Kicks".
The digital side of the amp has a range of features you wouldn't usually expect to have included at this price with 15 digital effects and 16 amp models - I find the Fender Twin emulations quite believable. Some of the models are labeled "British", guess which country Marshall comes from :).
I also particularly like the Mini USB port which you can use to plug directly into your computer for cabinet emulated recording.
It's available from Sweetwater.com for just under $380 where you can also read more than 15 customer reviews.
Blackstar has been coming up with high quality yet affordable tube amps, and a good example of this is the Blackstar HT-1R. Its rated at 1 Watt, but this amp can do quite a lot with its ECC83 and ECC82 tubes - thanks to Blackstar's ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) technology where you can go from American to British-style voicings with a single knob adjustment.
Obviously, this amp will not be too loud, but for recording, practice and jamming, this amp provides enough juice. And since this one is from Blackstar, you know that it can provide modern high-gain tones, at lower volume levels. Other features include having two distinct channels for on the fly tone changing, speaker emulated output for recording, and it even comes with a built-in reverb effect that's decent sounding.
If you're looking for a rock and metal friendly tube amp that's compact and affordable, then the Blackstar HT-1R is your best bet. It is currently retailing at Sweetwater.com for just under $330.
If you've read any of the other articles I've written about amps here on GuitarSite.com then you'll know I'm a sucker for the chimey-crunchy tones of Vox valve amps, and this re-lease of the classic AC10 has got me excited because it's the best way you can get going with a genuine Vox tube amp for less than $500.
It utilizes two standard 12AX7 tubes for the preamp and it has two EL84 pentode tubes in the power amp delivering the 10 watts of output to a 10 inch Celestion VX10 speaker to deliver the classic Vox tones fans love.
In a departure from the original 1960's version this one has digital reverb - but if that bothers you then you can always use an analog reverb pedal with it, it certainly doesn't bother me.
The only other significant difference between this and the original version is that the new version is not handwired, if you want to go that extra step then Vox has another, albeit more expensive option, the 4 watt AC4HW1 for $799.99.
The 10 watt AC10C1 is quite a bit more affordable at just under $450 from Sweetwater.com.
Yes it is actually possible to get genuine Marshall tube amp tones for under $500! The DSL5C may only deliver 5 watts output but it's so loud that Marshall have included a switch on the back to drop it down to 1 watt for practicing at home with full tone.
The preamp has three ECC83 tubes and the power amp has a ECC99 tube which due to being a dual triode is effectively 2 tubes in one.
It comes with classic Marshall 3-band EQ and has a 'Deep' switch for a low-end boost and a 'Tone shift' switch for reducing the mid ranges.
The DSL5C also has two channels, gain & ultra gain, and comes with a footswitch for changing between the channels. As an added bonus it also has an effects loop.
As you can see it has all the standard features that more expensive Marshall tube amps have and you can get this one for $499.99 at Sweetwater.com.
Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 5
This roundup wouldn't be complete if I left the 5 watt TubeMeister off the list although I personally prefer the Marshall DSL5C above.
It does have one additional feature that I quite like and that's the built-in DI which you can use for recording directly via a balanced signal while retaining the tones of the amp itself - and of course this lets you use cabinet simulators as well (the DSL5C can also do that but with a regular unbalanced signal).
This amp does have its fans though, and if you watch the video you'll see that Paul from Guitar World called this "Another home run from Hughes & Kettner".
It uses a 12AX7 preamp tube and a single 12BH7 for the power amp, and the signal goes through 3-band EQ before reaching its 8 inch Celestion speaker.
The TubeMeister 5 combo amp is retailing for $499. More information is available at Hughes & Kettner. If you're looking for more power, you can opt for the bigger TubeMeister 18 - available at Sweetwater.com.
If you know of any other great combo tube amps that can be bought for less than $500 then please let me know in the comments below.
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