A bass amp head can take your rig to the next level. Having separate components to your bass amp produces more volume and power. Using a head makes it easier to customize the overall sound to your own preferences.
Many bassists opt for a combo amp when first setting up their rig. This is an easy option, but these amps are usually very bulky and heavy which makes gigging more difficult. Therefore, using a separate head and cab is a great alternative.
In this article, I will point you in the direction of the best bass amp heads and talk about some capable models under $500 and a few more premium bass amp heads under $1000.
Best Budget Bass Amp Heads Under $500
1. Hartke LH500
Hartke are the amplifiers of choice of some of the most virtuosic and well known bassists in the world. If it’s good enough for Victor Wooten, Frank Bello and Nate Watts, they must be doing something right. The LH500 is an affordable bass amp head which challenges much more expensive models in terms of quality.
This 500 watt head features a tube front-end design and allows specific tonal shaping. It offers ample power and can drive any cabinet, no matter the size. A great feature is the added bright switch, which when turned on emphasizes the treble. This is particularly useful when running your bass through pedals to create experimental sounds.
Hartke have encased this head in a steel faceplate and installed handles so it can withstand the rigors of playing shows. The metal chassis adds further reinforcement.
The TC Electronic BQ500 is a reliable bass amp head at a very reasonable price. It features a built in, four-channel EQ which allows you to get the exact tone you want from your bass.
The lightweight design of the BQ500 means it is a great option for both recording and touring. It can act as a pre-amp when run into an interface, solving the problem of recording bass through a direct input without it sounding dull. The headphone input allows you to practice silently while enjoying the warm tone of this amp head.
You might be thinking that this head is too small and lightweight to fill a room, but it is surprisingly powerful. The built in compression ensures that the volume of your bass remains high enough for small to medium venues. It’s quite remarkable that such a mobile piece of kit can pack such a punch.
The Mesa/Boogie WD-800 is a top-quality hybrid bass amp head with a tube preamp. At 800 watts, this smartly designed unit is more than powerful enough for any sized cabinet, and the largest of venues.
For such a powerful amp head, the WD-800 is surprisingly mobile and lightweight. It also comes equipped with a carry strap and gig bag.
The built in dynamic EQ allows you to have complete control over your bass sound and tone, with three mid-range bands, a bass band and a treble band. If you use effects pedals or external processors, the FX loop allows you to combine these into one input.
Mesa Engineering is known to be innovative when it comes to bass amps. Through conversations with other bassists, I’ve learned that Mesa is one of the best options on the market when it comes to tonal flexibility. This is great if you are establishing your unique sound – as the amp head will allow you to experiment freely.
Though I haven't had the pleasure of playing the legendary Aguilar AG 500, I've heard that it's one of the best bass heads out there. The AG 700 is Aguilar’s attempt at improving the 500, and they may have achieved that.
Like some of the other heads on this list, it's incredible how such a lightweight design can hold such power. The 700 watt solid state design will almost certainly fill any building or arena irrespective of size, when paired with a powerful cabinet.
The AG 700 has an XLR balanced output which goes straight into the mixing desk. The treble, hi-mid, lo-mid and bass controls allow you to easily shape your sound.
Something which stands out about this amp head is the deep and bright switches. There’s nothing worse for a bassist than going onstage and finding that the bass is getting lost in the mix, or isn’t bright enough to cut through. These switches make it easy to instantly add more high or low and get back to playing.
The Ampeg PF-20T Portaflex has a very interesting design. The front of the head includes five knobs which control the gain, EQ and volume. On top of the head there is a steel grill containing the tube preamp.
The preamp allows you to hear the tone of the amp head without connecting it to a cabinet. This is advantageous because you can tweak the tone without having access to your full rig. It's also great for practicing in small spaces.
Ampeg’s tone is notoriously warm and powerful. The PF-20T, with its glowing tubes, certainly backs this up. This tube bass amp head weighs just over 15 pounds, so moving it around isn't a problem.
Does Size Matter?
A common misconception among bassists and guitarists is that the more power, the better. However, this is often not the case.
When I first started touring, I used a huge 800 watt Peavey combo amp. It was so heavy and caused me many bad backs the morning after a gig. I bought this amp because I thought I needed something with loads of power.
That amp unfortunately (or fortunately) blew up in the middle of a show and stopped working. After briefly mourning my loss, I realized I’d never have to carry it again, and that was great news!
I researched into smaller options and eventually went for a pre-amp which I could fit in my backpack and take anywhere. To my surprise, it provided just as much power as the Peavey and arguably a better tone. Bigger isn’t always better.
Head and Cabinet Compatibility
To get the most out of your amp head, you need to consider the cabinet. Most good bass amp heads will be compatible with the majority of cabinets. Combining different manufacturers can produce interesting and unique results.
I’d recommend doing some research on the combinations of heads and cabs. Look into what your favorite bassists are using to create their sounds. This is a good way to understand how certain heads and cabs interact with each other.
As the bassist in a band that releases a lot of material, I have experimented with many recording methods over the years. A bass amp head is a great investment as it is equally as useful in the recording studio as it is on stage.
Personal preference is certainly a factor, but when I’m recording bass I want it to be consistent with the sound I get when playing live. Going into the studio with the aim of creating the exact sound you want will save you a lot of time and effort when gigging.
It’s much easier to tweak your settings, record a part, review it and repeat this process than it is to set up your sound while the drummer is sound checking their kit or the guitarist is testing their new fuzz pedal.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Most of the things I’ve learned about amplifiers and instruments have come from being at a show, watching someone play and wondering how they are getting their sound.
Most musicians are happy to talk about their setup with someone who is genuinely interested, so if you find yourself wondering how that bassist on stage is getting such a warm, powerful tone, try to find them afterwards and get some pointers on which cab to choose. Connecting your knowledge to the experience of live sound is the best way to learn.