Cheap doesn’t have to mean low quality – so here we take a look at the best cheap tube amps that deliver great
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Thanks to their organic tone, tube amp technology never goes out of fashion, but they do continue to get more expensive. Thankfully, there are still a number of good quality amps in the sub $200 price range, the best of which are listed here. They are ideal for practice, small venue gigs and even for recording.
Stretching your budget a bit further to the sub $500 price range opens up your options to include top rated tube amps from reputable brands like Fender, Marshall and Vox. These amps allow for more volume, tone shaping, and connectivity options.
Whatever your budget and preference maybe, this guide will help you find a suitable and budget-friendly tube amp.
Things to Consider When Buying Affordable Tube Amps
Power rating dictates the amp’s volume and projection. It goes without saying that it’s unreasonable to expect super loud tube amps in this price range, but know that these amps can be louder then similarly spec’ed solid state amps. Note that for tube amps, louder is not always better, it is easier to get great tones from smaller tube amps because they can be cranked without getting too loud. As such, compact tube amps are ideal for recording and for small to mid size venue gigs.
The type of speaker and its size are important factors to consider. You can expect that ones from reputable brands like Celestion will mostly outperform generic ones. Speaker size also affects the overall tonality of the sound, with bigger speakers (12″ and up) having more bottom end, while smaller ones have more mid frequency emphasis.
While today’s tube amps are not as fragile as the ones in the past, they still require extra handling care and regular maintenance. Depending on your use, you can expect to replace some of the tubes within a year, so always be ready for this extra expense. Professionals carry replacement tubes with them to gigs just to be on the safe side. There are some who recommend swapping out the default preamp tubes with something better right at the start, to get the most out of your tube amp.
While most of the tube amps in the sub $500 are portable, expect them to be heavier than similarly sized solid state amps. They also require careful handling, transport and storage. For this reason, you’ll want to consider ones that have good weight to power ratio for your needs – i.e. get one which is loud enough for your usual gigs, while being light enough to not break your back.
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.
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 $250 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.
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 $500 – 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 $400 where you can also read 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 a good option.
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 $839.99.
The 10 watt AC10C1 is quite a bit more affordable at just under $500 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.
The TSA15 combines a genuine 15W tube driven 1 x 12″ combo amplifier with Ibanez’ popular TS9 Tube Screamer pedal circuit built into the amp. This means that you get classic overdriven tones in a compact and affordable package.
This combination is a nod to how many iconic guitarists have used the Ibanez Tube Screamer pedal to crank their tube amps – which resulted in many of the classic rock and blues
In addition, it also features a built-in 6dB boost switch for cranking up the preamp section even more. The amplifier drives a 12″ Celestion Seventy80 speaker that reproduces the grit and gnarl of classic overdriven tube amps, albeit at a more compact package.
Finally, Ibanez equipped the TSA15 with dual power mode, which lets you run the amp at a lower 5W power rating, so you can have cranked overdriven tones at lower volumes. This feature makes it ideal for practice or for recording.
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.