Wattage isn’t everything when it comes to guitar amps. You don’t need the biggest, baddest, amp to practice, record, or even play live. Some of the best small low watt tube amps will surprise you with their versatility and ability to cut through the mix and complement other instruments.
But, not everyone has the same setup. That’s why for this article, I’ve chosen to review and recommend both combo amps and amp heads, so that everyone can find their ideal fit.
Best Small Tube Amps - Low Watt Options
Table of Contents
- Best Small Tube Amps - Low Watt Options
- Combo Amps vs. Amp Heads
- Effect Loops and Why They’re Important
- Adjustable Amp Output
- One Combo Amp Design Feature Worth Knowing About
- Direct Recording
The V5 Infinum is one of the best small amps on the market. It features one EL84 tube and a 12AX7 tube in a unique preamp design. This combination gives the amp impressive clean clarity as well as a vintage 60’s vibe.
One of the things that sets it clearly apart is its modding potential. Due to the amp having its schematics available to everyone, it’s easy to customize its design to fit a variety of genres, squeeze more output power, add effects and so on.
Of course, this will require plenty of knowledge not just about tube amps in general but also electronics in general. As well as some investment in additional components. But, this is an affordable tube amp which can be used for practicing anywhere. And, in terms of customization, the sky’s the limit if you ask me.
While only professionals and sound engineers may be the only ones able to get the most out of its potential, the overall sound quality and robust construction make this amp a very appealing choice for all level guitarists.
Featuring a three-band EQ, reverb, classic gain, and ultra gain, the Marshall DSL1CR is a beast in tone versatility and distortion, among lower output amps. I like that it has individual channel volume controls, as it makes it easy to maintain your settings.
I also like the fact that it comes with ECC83 and ECC82 tubes, known for their reliability and power. The Softube Emulated output feature is even cooler. It will allow you to practice in silence as well as record your guitar without making a noise.
This is why I think this is also one of the best tube amps for practice, because it transitions well into bigger and better things. A footswitch is also included with the amp. You can use that for channel selection and turning the reverb on and off.
If you’re looking for something with a bit of an extra kick when it comes to distortion, the DSL1CR should do nicely. And, you can really start to see its true potential if you hook it up to a large extension cabinet.
Even at higher than intended volume levels, the clean channel will maintain clarity and a low harmonic distortion while the gain channel will give you rich distortion, with minimal unwanted noise.
I recommend the Super Champ X2 amp head for a variety of styles. Because it has with 15 on-board effects that are individually adjustable and 16 voices, it can do a lot with very little equipment.
You can play anything from blues to metal on this amp, as long as you don’t mind going through the list of amp types and effects. Under the hood, you’ll find a standard 12AX7 preamp tube and two 6V6 tubes.
The amp puts your 15w of power and comes with a USB output for direct digital recording too. You may also like the fact that you can switch channels from a footswitch. Although, one isn’t included with the amp head.
The amp also features a two-band EQ that will allow further tone shaping and contouring, for all the built-in effects and voices. Two of the effects I like the most, are delay and modulation which also benefit from the TAP temp control button and rate adjustments.
Packing 15w of power and a powerful single speaker, the Blues Junior IV is a very versatile amp. I recommend it for practicing, due to its lower output, but also for recording. I find it easier to record a clean guitar tone with a mic when there’s only one speaker.
Overall, the amp looks and feels minimalist. But it has plenty of tone shaping features. It features a three-band EQ and sweet spring reverb. The reverb is more smooth than you would expect and it’s this that separates the amp from a vintage Fender tone.
I think that this will suit modern guitarists a bit better. And don’t think that the amp doesn’t pack a strong punch too. Although it may only have 15w behind it, it comes with a gain boost feature. This can give you a nice overdrive and a bit of crunch.
Even though it looks quite retro, the amp doesn’t sound muddy and has a modern and balanced tonal profile. It also does a good job of emphasizing the midrange when needed, so that you can easily cut through the mix whether you’re playing clean or overdriven guitar.
For a small tube amp, the HT5R MKII sure is loaded with features. First of all, it comes with two voice switches. Then, it features an emulated output for direct recording purposes and silent practicing.
I also like the inclusion of an effects loop. This should serve you well if you use big pedalboards and help you maintain optimal signal strength and clarity. The clean channel features a volume knob and a tone knob for light tone shaping.
However, the overdrive channel comes with a three-band EQ, gain, volume, and the Infinite Shape Feature control knob. This allows for a wide range of tone customizations from super mellow to high-gain metal-style tones.
The reverb is good too and can save you a pedal space on your board. You should also know that this combo amp comes with selectable output and you can tone it down to .5w if you want. This is always great in my personal opinion, for any practice or studio amp.
This is a simple-looking, high-performance bedroom Marshall amp, if you will. I say just simple-looking because it has plenty of features on it.
While it may lack onboard effects, and even a built-in reverb, it does feature an effects loop, output adjustment, emulated output, and a tone shift control. These features will help you get a lot out of the small 5w DSL5CR combo amplifier.
The amp is also lighter than many others in this output class. It has two channels and an impressive build quality. It’s not the cheapest option, I’ll give you that. But that effects loop feature alone adds a lot of value.
The amp clearly caters more to users looking for high-gain tones. It’s the overdrive channel that impresses the most. Which in all honesty isn’t bad at all. At this output class, most amps tend to favor clean playing anyway. This one will allow you to be more aggressive, yet at softer volume levels.
The VHT Special 6 amp head puts out 6w of power. Its 12AX7 preamp tube maintains good signal clarity. The amp also comes with three speaker jacks for 4, 8, and 16 Ohms.
Although this amp is probably not for beginners, as it implies you already have a cabinet to hook it up to, it’s still very impressive. Not only in terms of clarity, as most tube amps are, but also because of its modding potential.
The amp has a top-fitted control panel. There you’ll find the volume, tone and input power controls. Note that the Special 6 amp head has low input and high input channels, as well as a standby mode.
What I like even more about this amp is how rich the tone is when used in low input mode, which is basically just using half the power. I think that this can make a big difference on recordings, especially for clean guitar parts, whether rhythm, phrasing, or solos.
Last but not least, I’ll end by saying that the tone shaping is more versatile than you would expect. Despite having just a simple tone control knob. The range of the Special 6 tone shaping covers many genres and styles.
Another impressive amp head is this one. The T5 Infinum is small, but its hand-build wiring makes it somewhat unique. It also has all the features you would need for practice purposes, including a headphone jack and adjustable output.
You can turn the output down to 1w from 5w, which makes this an ideal amp head for small rooms. The amp’s power tube is an EL84. This gives the sound a nice chime and extra crispness.
The T5 Infinum is capable of decent clean tone reproductions, at all output settings, as well as putting out a crunch that will cut through any mix. Think of British style amps and 80’s tones, as a close comparison.
The equalizer offers treble and bass control. This is enough for some tone shaping. The reverb sounds very convincing and smooth. I also like the Phat boost button that adds more richness to the tone, whenever needed.
All in all, the variable output and the extended tube life are perhaps the two build-defining features.
The Origin VT5 is a vintage-looking amp that features a hemp grill and a leather strap. Its small and has a maximum output of 5w, which is more than enough for practicing and jamming in acoustic settings.
You can also lower the output down to 3w if you want even more clarity and a quieter setup. The three-band EQ with bass, mid, and treble control offers sufficient tone shaping for beginners and intermediate guitarists.
On the inside, the amp features 12AX7 preamp and a 6V6 tube. It’s not as loaded as other ones in the same output class, but the circuitry is spot on and helps maintain signal strength, stability, and clarity with minimal guitar tone altering.
I recommend this if you’re looking for something that convincingly reproduces your guitar’s clean tone. That said, when played at high volume levels the amp does go into high-gain territory. The build quality is also impressive, fact which compensates for the price tag.
Although the boxy Celestion speaker may not offer the same bass response as other models, it’s still worth checking out this amp if you want a 5w model that can get extra loud.
10. Monoprice 611705
This amp looks really nice with its synthetic leather exterior, textured design, and cloth grill. It also sounds meaty enough thanks to its Celestion speaker and superior bass definition
The amp combines 12AX7 and ECC83 preamplification with the 6V6GT power tube. This allows for an impressive frequency response range, reduced total harmonic distortion (THD), as well as minimal buzz or noise.
I should also mention that the amp comes with both Low and High inputs. The low input is great for playing clean, while the latter gives the signal a bit of a boost. Thus, making it easier to achieve a clear overdriven sound.
In terms of controls, the amp is as simple as it can be. Apart from the input selector, you get a volume knob and a tone knob. No more, no less. The minimal amount of tone shaping is great in my opinion, for anyone that prefers using the pedalboard more in this regard.
Granted, the cream-colored leather exterior may be too reminiscent of the 50’s for some guitarists. But, you can’t really argue with the sound and overall value of the amp. It’s considerably louder than most 5w amps and preserves the signal clarity much better.
Combo Amps vs. Amp Heads
Combo amps are great for many situations. The fact that they don’t always have to rely on using two separate pieces of equipment to drive your guitar sound makes them ideal picks very often.
Amp heads on the other hand, can be more convenient if you’re playing live a lot. When traveling with your own gear, it’s much easier to carry an amp head to a gig and hook it up to a cabinet on site. Rather than carrying around a huge combo amp.
Of course, both designs can be paired with cabinets. But at the end of the day, an amp head will leave more room for sound customization and cabinet pairing than a combo amp.
I do recommend combo amps for gigging in small venues and practicing. But, I strongly recommend getting just an amp head if you already have a good cabinet and if you’re looking to spend less money.
Effect Loops and Why They’re Important
Not all guitar amps come with an effects loop feature. This is a feature that allows the guitarist to add all the effects on the pedalboard before the actual amplification done by the amp.
Once you use this feature you’ll notice that it makes a huge difference. It allows the preamp to fit anywhere in the signal chain. As opposed to being the last in the chain, as is the case with many small amps.
Because of this, the signal can always be amplified or boosted at the right time. Thus effects such as reverb, delay, chorus, and others, will sound much clearer when you’re using a distortion pedal.
That said, effects loops can be tricky to configure or figure out if you’re a beginner. So it may take additional reading and experimenting before you find your optimum setup.
Adjustable Amp Output
You’ll notice that many amps come with an adjustable output. A 5w guitar amplifier can be set to operate at 5w, 3w, 1w, or even half a watt. Same thing goes for louder amps. But what exactly is the purpose of such a feature?
Well, it determines the amount of headroom your amp has. This means, how high does it have to be cranked up for you to get a decent sounding distortion. Variable output is very important in my opinion on smaller amps as it allows you to practice with aggressive tones without turning the amp to max volume and gain levels.
Amp heads are cheaper than combo amps. They’re smaller and fulfill the role of a single piece of equipment. Because combo amps come with speakers too they tend to be more expensive.
However, there’s a reason I recommended the amp head purchase for those that already own cabinets. Without a cabinet an amp head may very well be useless to you. And, when you combine the cost of two separate pieces of equipment, you might end up spending more than getting an all-in-one combo amp.
One Combo Amp Design Feature Worth Knowing About
These amps come with either open- or closed-back constructions. The sound difference between the two is considerable. An open back design will lose some volume as it will leak sound from the back.
It may not always be an ideal choice as it requires optimum positioning at all times. For you to hear yourself and for the sound to not bother those sitting right behind it.
However, the majority of combo amps will feature an open-back design. This is also one of the reasons why the bass definition isn’t always as impressive as we would like. Especially in smaller wattage amps that have small cabinet boxes.
The best way to record your guitar through an amp is by putting a microphone in front of the speaker. Different angles will record the sound differently. But, this is not always the most convenient way to record.
Especially if you don’t need anything too professional-sounding. Having a direct recording feature on your small practice amp could be very valuable in the long run. And even more so if you already have a bigger and better amp ready for studio recordings.
Direct recording often feature a USB output which you can use to record the tone coming from your amp without making noise. This would also allow you to record through an audio interface and use your favorite DAW software to capture and adjust the tone.
Low Watt Tube Amps Are Often Underrated
Many guitarists underestimate the usefulness of small amps. Tube amps are already considered the standard in sound quality. And, many lower output tube amps can hold their own even in large venue settings, when paired with the right cabinets.
So whether you just want a low watt tube amp for high-quality practicing, keep in mind that some models transition better than others in other situations too.