Best Small Tube Amps for Home Use
Low-Wattage Tube Amps
As guitar players, we've had it driven into our heads that tube amps are the way to go if we want the best sound. After you've been playing for a while you may decide you agree with that sentiment, or that you don’t. There is nothing wrong with either point of view, but if the tube bug bites you, there is one problem you’ll have to overcome when you are choosing an amp for home use.
Tube amps are loud. Really loud. A 50-watt tube amp is plenty powerful enough for use in a band, and way more than you could ever need for bedroom-level jamming.
Many players solve this issue by using solid-state amps for practice, and coping with their tube addiction while playing with the band. Even solid-state amplifiers with high power ratings are much more controllable for low-volume playing, and you don’t need to turn them up so loud to get optimal sound. That's because of another one of those truisms you may come to believe isn’t really true: Tube amps need to be cranked up to the point where the tubes are glowing hot to sound best.
If you need a solid-state amp for practice and home use there are some great ones out there. But what if you don’t play in a band and you still want awesome tubey tone? Maybe you’re just a hobby player, or maybe you need a smaller amp for the house so can get great sound when practicing. If you absolutely need a tube amp, you can choose a low-wattage combo that lets you push it hard without shaking the walls. Those amps are out there, and that’s what this article is about.
For the purpose of this review I’m looking at amps that meet three criteria:
- I want a 12-inch speaker. There are many amps with smaller speakers that sound just fine, but twelves are the standard for guitar cabinets. To me, if you are going to be picky enough to need a tube amp, you ought to be picky enough to expect a decent speaker.
- I’m looking at power in the 15-20 watt range. There are some very low-wattage amps out there, but I think this power range walks the line between controllable and usable. You aren’t going to be heard over a loud rock drummer with these amps, but in certain band situations they can do the job.
- I want an amp that’s affordable. If you feel like dropping two grand on a boutique, micro-wattage tube amp you can, and it will sound amazing. But I wouldn’t, and I can’t help you there. For this review I’m going to stick with amps in the $500-$600 range.
Going by that, I've whittled it down to my top three choices. So, let’s check out some amps!
Fender Blues Junior III
I’ve always loved the Fender Hot Rod Series. I’ve owed a few of them, and they’re great amps, especially for the money. The Blues Junior is the one of the littlest Hot Rods, next to the ultra-Spartan Pro Junior, and probably my favorite of the group. It has become somewhat of a legend in the guitar world, and for good reason.
The Blues Junior is a single-channel, 15-watt tube amp with some very basic but effective controls: Volume, Treble, Bass, Middle, Master Volume, Reverb and a Fat switch to thicken up your sound. The Reverb is spring reverb, which I prefer.
On the back panel you’ve got . . . nothing. In other words: plug in your guitar, shut up and play. There’s nothing fancy going on here, no special outputs or XLR jacks, or power-cut option. You don’t need any of it with this amp. (Actually, there is a jack hidden under the back panel if you wish to use the optional Fat footswitch control).
While I like the simplicity of the Blues Junior, the tone is what it’s all about. Pairing this amp with a Stat or Tele will make it abundantly clear why it has the word Blues in its name. However, there is a little more going on here than you might expect.
In my opinion this amp sounds fantastic with a humbucker-equipped guitar such as a Les Paul, the Volume cranked and overall volume controlled via the Master. You’ll get some thick, crunchy, classic-rock overdrive and buttery lead sound.
The Blues Junior is a great small tube amp for rock, blues and country. What it lacks in versatility it more than makes up for in tone. What it does it does very well. That said, if metal or heavy rock is your thing you may be better served by one of the amps below.
Hear the Blues Junior
There are several amps in the Marshall DSL Series, from the monster 100-watt DSL100 head, down to the 5-watt DSL5C. The DSL15C is a 15-watt valve combo with a 12-inch Celestion speaker. It’s a little more rock-oriented compared to the Fender Blues Junior, and has more features.
There are two channels, Classic Gain and Ultra Gain, each with its own Gain and Volume control. There is a Tone Shift button for scooping the mid frequencies, and Deep button for a little extra low end. The EQ consists of Treble, Middle, Bass and Presence, shared between channels, as is the Reverb control.
On the rear panel you have a Pentode/Triode switch for cutting the power to 7.5 watts, your footswitch jack and additional speaker outputs.
I gave this amp a hard look a few months back and ultimately decide on its bigger brother, the DSL40C. Both amps are quite similar, with the power rating being one obvious difference. The DSL15C is also a bit smaller in size, lacks a Resonance control in favor of the Deep button, the Crunch button on the Classic Channel and the Lead 1/Lead 2 Switch on the Ultra Channel.
You can expect the typical Marshall tone from this little monster, and because its only 15 watts you can get those valves cooking. The Classic Channel ranges from clean and warm to gritty overdrive. The Ultra Channel takes you into that hard rock, hot-rodded Marshall sound.
There is a lot of gain here, and you can dial in some extreme sounds if you want to. However, in my opinion the Marshall DSL Series is right at home in that classic-rock, hard-rock, and classic-metal sound range. If you need something more aggressive you can always throw a pedal in front of it.
Or, you can consider the next amp on my list.
Guitar World Checks Out the Marshall DSL Combos
Peavey Valveking II 20
Peavey is known for metal thanks to powerful, high-gain amps like the 6505+ 112 Combo. The Valveking Series isn’t intended to be the same kind of fire-breathing beast, but it is capable of some good high-gain sounds. Really, the Valveking II 20 is a great tube-powered all-around rock amp.
I’ve been a fan of Peavey amps for over 20 years, and the Valveking doesn’t disappoint. However, it does have some features you might not expect if you are used to the 6505 setup. This little dynamo is rated at 20 watts and features a 12-inch speaker. You’ve got two channels, Clean and Lead, each with its own 3-band EQ and volume control.
The Clean channel has a Bright button to make things a bit more sparkly, and the Lead channel has your Gain control plus a Gain button to boost (you guessed it) preamp gain. You have three master controls: Reverb, Damping, which controls presence and resonance, and a patented Vari-Class control that controls tube response.
On the back panel you’ll find a power output selector that switches the amp between one, five and twenty watts. There is an additional speaker output with an impedance switch, an MSDI direct out that will let you plug into a mixing console or house system, global effects loop and footswitch controls.
As you can see, the Valveking is the most feature-packed amp in this group and, I think, the most versatile. It has clean sounds that are good enough for jazz, distortion that will get the job done for metal, and everything in between.
Even though none of these amps really are meant for gigging, you can put a mic in front of any of them for live performance. The addition of the MSDI on the Peavey makes your life a whole lot easier for recording or live shows, if you choose to go that route.
The Peavey Valveking Series
The amps listed above are my top three picks for tube amps for home use. This is based on my opinion, and as always I suggest you do your own research and get a good understanding of what’s out there. When you do you’ll find you have whole lot of options, from some of the top amp builders out there. There are expensive boutique amps to cheap, low-wattage models.
Here are a few more I thought worth mentioning, even though they didn’t make my top three for one reason or another.
- Vox AC15C1: This is an awesome amp, with some great, crunchy British tone. Vox is one of the premier guitar amp brands, and the AC30 is a legend. This little brother AC15 is a great choice for playing at home, but it is just a little more expensive than the three amps listed above and takes me out of my $500-$600 budget. That’s about the only reason it wasn’t included in my top three, but if you have the cash what do you care?
- Blackstar HT5R: Blackstar is a relative newcomer compared to other amps in this review, but I’ve been really impressed with them. I especially like their affordable and great-sounding HT Club Series, and this low-wattage version is really cool. However, at only 5 watts it is a bit under-powered compared to the three amps above. Then again, that might be just what you need for jamming at home!
- Orange Rocker 15: Orange amps are classic, versatile and have outstanding overdrive sounds. The Rocker 15 is a bit new in the Orange lineup. It is a little more expensive than my target price range, and it has a 10-inch speaker. Still, if you like the Orange sound, and of course you do, you’ll want to check it out.
The Vox AC15C1
Which Amp Is Best?
The intent of this article was to give you a jumping-off point for choose the right amp for use at home. I’ve lined up my favorite options, but of course there are others. Here are a few final thoughts on each amp:
- Fender Blues Junior: If you play classic rock, country or blues, and you want a no-nonsense amp without any bells or whistles, this is a great choice. It may not be as versatile as the other two amps, but it sounds amazing.
- Marshall DSL15C: From blues to rock, to classic metal this amp sounds like a Marshall should. If that’s the tone you want, at controllable volume levels, this might be the amp for you.
- Peavey Valveking II 20: Peavey seems to be going for an affordable boutique amp vibe with the Valvekings, and they’re doing a good job of it. The features and flexibility of this amp set it apart from the others. If things like the simulated mic’ out matter to you consider the Peavey.
Whatever you choose, remember to do your homework before choosing any piece of gear, and read up on the current specs with the gear companies themselves. Good luck on your quest to find the perfect tube amp for home use!