As posted previously, I only got back into guitar again last year, and a whole lot has changed since I was then involved. And while my Tone Quest has by and large been a hugely rewarding and successful endeavour, I made some significant mistakes in my early amp choices.
In my endeavour to keep things simple, I thought I could buy a great guitar, and an equally great modelling amp to cover all the bases / sounds I would need to generate. I was intrigued by the Line 6 Amplifi 150 - especially its ToneCloud features and the ability to easily and automatically select tones to play to favourite iTunes music - as well as ability to quickly load presets and tweak on the fly. Only that particular device never worked properly for me - it failed to sync, failed to stay synced, and pretty much all the main functionality was handled on the app - which - as it would not connect most of the time, rendered the ’brick’ useless. Moreover I spent the best part of 6 hours trying to update firmware - trying numerous different means via numerous different devices - every effort failed. So I resolved never again to acquire a device for which you could not operate all the controls on the actual device.
Andertons were very good to me and allowed me to exchange the Amplifi for a similarly priced Fender Mustang IV - which solved most of the issues the Amplifi had. I was hoping that solid state had caught up sufficiently to the usually tonally superior tube amps. However, after much experimenting with the Fender, I was able to achieve great Fender-style clean tones, and some decent light to middling overdrives, yet never really got to truly satisfying distortion tones. There is still much to recommend the V2 Mustangs, and I have retained mine for now.
The next amp I acquired was the Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 18 Twelve - a really great little tube amp, possibly a little overly bright for some tastes, but with a little diligent dialling in, you can achieve some very satisfactory tones. This is a great home amp with cool power scaling and great versatility for such a compact device - it is a 2 Channel device with a pseudo 3rd Channel via Lead Boost switch. It’s key limitation is a single set of EQ controls which apply across both Channels and across Clean/Crunch and Lead Boost therefore. I really like this amp, but on retrospect I should have probably bought its bigger brother - the Tubemeister 36 - which has two sets of independent EQ controls - you can read more about that below.
So, onto my current rig which is a proper stereo setup - it features the Solid State DSP Boss Katana KTN 100 on the left channel and the all-tube Carvin V3MC on the right channel - both these amps are featured in the below listing, and together sound amazing in my rig - one featuring a simulation / modelling of 12AX7 preamp and EL34 power tubes, and the other containing real 12AX7 and EL84 tubes - for great harmonics. In terms of sound-processing, I have done a complete about-turn and gone the pedal chain route - you can read more about that in my ’Pedal Chain Delight’ post.
All of the amps in this article are single 12" speaker amps, I was aiming for around 50 Watts - some are obviously more and some significantly less. For home use, you really need some sort of power scaling or attenuation feature to allow you to play at lower levels, but retain saturation and breakup of tone. In my opinion the only solid state amp worth buying currently at this level is the Katana - considering the inherent delicate nature of tube amps, I think it worthwhile to have a digital amp to fall back on. Also when generating your soundstage, it helps to have 2 amps with different profiles - to give you a fuller and more rounder, more complex sound - which works very well in my rig.
In terms of the Amps I go for - I still look for amazing feature set with great tones, and a handy form factor. Since much of my sound comes from the pedal chain, the amp must have a great Clean Channel, however I also like the ability to use the amp overdrives and distortions if the desire should strike me, which means I don’t include any purely pedal platform amps - e.g. the Wampler Bravado - which really is relatively pricey for what it offers up, and with limited versatility in and of itself - albeit very high quality hand-wired etc.. The other alternative in buying amps is to get a load of heads and use a couple of cabinets. Because of space restrictions, I am always looking for ultimate versatility and greatness in as small a form factor as is practically possible. Hence I am physically restricted to two stacks of two combo amps.
I would gladly buy any of the amps in this listing - and had I the money, the MESA/Boogie Mark V would be first on my list - I feel it is still the ultimate amp - pricey but amazing, with easily the most versatility / tone-dialing-in-ability of anything and everything out there. At some stage I will swap out the the Fender Mustang IV for the MESA/Boogie Mark V - and that will be one helluva upgrade. I will always be looking to run two amps in parallel with two slightly different profiles - so it really depends how well the two amps combine.
One thing all amp buyers should be aware of is that it takes a good 3-6 months to properly break in amp speakers - and that all will sound slightly brittle and even possibly a little fizzy to begin with. After they loosen up they get richer, rounder and smoother. So give it a while before you settle on a verdict, also remember that most half decent amps can be ’tuned’ and improved by swapping out for a better speaker - and by better I mean closer to your desired sound. I always try to look for versatility, clarity and punch - as I play entirely at home, I need some decent bass in my speaker, and I’ve always preferred punchy hi fi speakers - so a lot of this is really down to personal preference, versatility and suitability.
(Alphabetical listing by brand, one amp per brand only, slight leanings towards rock tones):
Blackstar have often been unfairly accused of being Marshall copyists to a degree (in fact nearly all modern amps are derived from either Fender or Marshall to some degree) - at a slightly more competitive price point, and there are of course some significant similarities between this amp and the DSL40C below. The key smart Blackstar feature is their cool ISF tone shaping control (Infinite Shape Feature) which allows you to flip between US and UK -sounding profiles and various varieties between. This is a really great amp, and the only thing that keeps it off my wish list is the lack of power scaling. The other Blackstar Amp I considered was the ID:30 which has an amazing feature set, is solid state, but has no power scaling either. I still think in most cases you are better off with a valve amp, and if you have to have a solid state one, then the Boss Katana is currently the best bang for you buck.
I of course have this amp as stated, and have loved it from since I first got it. Ironically, I use none of the onboard FX processing, which is decent, but does not compare to the superior components of my pedal chain. I mostly just use the Clean Channel with pedals, but occasionally like cranking the amp up with Crunch, Lead and Brown Sound tones - for which you can achieve amazing results if you just spend a little time on tweaking the dials. A great feature on this amp is the ability to save all dial settings to 4 presets, which means with the current Panel settings you can have 5 core sounds to flip between easily. The power scaling feature is also essential for home use, and if you really crank it, this amp is loud and rich in tone. Do note that it does still lack some of the amazing harmonics and artifacts that you can get with the very best tube amps, but at its price point, it is simply the best amp you can buy. The amp uses an updated version of Roland/Boss 'Tube Logic' algorithm which was initially modelled off a Fender Tweed Amp. For the Katana the modelling is on the tube level - not entirely dissimilar to how the Blackstar ID TVP valve modelling feature works - only with the Katana you don't get the option to change tube modelling by valve, but rather by gain stage - Acoustic | Clean | Crunch | Lead | Brown. The core Katana sound is modelled off 12AX7 preamp tubes and EL34 power stage tubes.
This is the most recent amp I acquired (start of the year) and current equal favourite with the Boss Katana (above) which is of course its companion in my stereo rig. I was looking for a mini Mesa Mark V type amp - and for the form factor, there really is nothing else that comes close, this is a fantastic feat of engineering. It gives you a significant flavour of the Mesa Mark V, in a much smaller form factor - essentially 3 independently EQd channels with a variety of toggle-switched tone-shaping abilites and power scaling. Of course nothing really compares to the Mesa, but this tries to do similar things in less than half the space and at less than a third of the price. Some argue that the 12" speaker cabinet enclosure needs to be signficantly larger to produce more 'rounded' and deeper soundstage, but for my needs it works really well. There seem to be a bunch of people who don't like this amp for whatever reason - but there are also a large number of us who really love it - it seems to be quite difficult to get hold of these days unfortunately - I had to order mine via Station Music in Germany.
Fender has three go-to amps for journeying musicians, of course the Hot Rod Deluxe and the Blues Junior, and now this newest more rock-leaning amp. I have chosen the least powerful version, for this alone has the ingenious Gain Structure dial which allows you to flip from Low to Medium to High Gain - giving you pseudo 3 Channels from a single channel amp. The Bassbreaker amps have a lot more grunt and low-end to them than the typical clean-focused Fenders. Depending on the genre of music you play, the aforementioned two may be better choices for you than the Bassbreaker. If I had to buy just one Fender amp, then this would be it. I am surprised Fender have not introduced the Gain Structure dial to the other amps in the Bassbreaker range!
Of course the most famous Friedman Amp is the BE-100 head, which is not available in combo format. The closest you can get to the famed core Friedman sound is this 50 Watt combo. Not a load of features here, and relatively pricey, but all hand-wired in California. And if you are after that classic modded Marshall-esque David Friedman tone, then this is your best bet for this form factor. A little loud for home-playing owing to lack of power-scaling feature.
If you are looking for a classic 60's style amp which includes hi-fidelity Tremolo and Reverb onboard, then this is your best choice. Beautiful hybrid of modern thinking with classic sounds in mind. Not an exact match for my needs, but includes most of what I deem necessary in a versatile home-play amp, including power-scaling. It really sounds amazing - very boutique, and really quite pricey too do go with its credentials, but worth it if you have the means.
As I stated above I have the little brother of this - the Tubemeister 18 Twelve - and this slightly bigger one solves most of the issues of that one, including having independent EQs for Clean and Overdriven Channels. As previously stated, many find the tone profile a little bright - very trebley, with not quite enough bottom end, but easily fixed with some dial tweaking. Most Hughes & Kettner amps are still made in Germany - they are unique and unusual in look. I got a very good price on the '18' and I still really like it for what it does - this one is more a competitor to the Carvin V3MC - which I still prefer slightly overall. If I did not have the Carvin, I would probably have replaced the smaller H&K 18 with this one though - for the improved versatility.
The classic amp from superb Finnish Björn Juhl pedal company Mad Professor - I have several of their pedals and many more on my wishlist. This is obviously a competitor to the Hamstead above - it is a third less in price, but lacks the FX loop and power scaling features of the Hamstead. For my own needs my pedal chain goes into the front of both my amps, even though they both do have FX loops - so that may not be a significant factor for you either. Even though these amps are made in England, they are not often found for sale on this side of the pond. If money is tighter and you don't need the loop, then this is a fine substitute for the Hamstead, otherwise I would encourage you to sign up and buy the slightly more versatile aforementioned one.
You can't talk about amps without mentioning Fender and Marshall, and Marshall's most versatile mid-range amp is the DSL40/C. As stated above there are significant similarities between this one and the Blackstar HT Club 40 Dlx above. Blackstar usually wins on price and overall features - the ISF is quite clever really, but if you really want that Marshall tone, you are probably prepared to pay that little extra. Both amps have 2 Channels with 2 voicing per Channels, and each has relative pros and cons - these are generally available so it should be relatively easily to compare them head-to-head in store. I am weirdly contrarian, and tend to steer clear of more traditional routes - e.g. Fender Guitar + Fender Amp or Gibson + Marshall - which is about 80% of recent guitar heritage and of that marketplace. I have gone with PRS guitars for reasons of modernity, versatility, aesthetics and of course quality and tone. Both the Marshall and Blackstar are great amps at this level and you will have your opinion, I might just save some pennies though and plump for the Blackstar on this occasion - although the Marshall does have some degree of power scaling to its benefit.
If I had 3 grand to spend on an amp right here right now, then unequivocally this would be my immediate and only choice. Currently in its 5th generation - there really isn't another amp like it. Beloved of the best recording studios around the world - no amp has as much variety and versatility and richness in tonal ability as does this amp. For may people this is total overkill, and obviously total option paralysis territory. Yet if you want a properly versatile amp, then this one is so head-and-shoulders above anything else. It also has a really smart power-scaling ability to easily accommodate home use. I have long lusted after this, and one day it will be mine! Hopefully when I have justified it a little more with vastly improved playing skills and some slight degree of virtuosity,
Since its recent troubles Peavey has been somewhat overlooked of late, and particularly after Eddie Van Halen bunked off to Fender. But despite some misfires, Peavy nonetheless is still one of the legendary American amp brands and still has some aces up its sleeve like this version of their own signature EVH sound. It applies a similar 2/3 Channel dynamic to the Hughes and Kettner above and roughly doubles the output of that. It falls back only really in its lack of power scaling / attenuation - which with its 60 Watts makes it most unsuitable for home-playing.
As a staunch PRS supporter, their amps have always disappointed me a little - not at all in quality of output / tone, but more so in feature set. I believe there is a growing target market of home-players who occasionally take their amp on the road. To suit both purposes there has to be a high degree of portability, there also really needs to be some sort of power scaling or attenuation. My Katana is set to 0.5 Watts and I rarelly get to 50% master volume of that, while my Carvin V3MC is set to 7 Watts and just the slightest touch of the dial - half a millimetre at a time, but it works - I don't tend to take volume here much beyond 1/4 of that dial. You want the option of being able to play loud at the appropriate venue - which means around 50 Watts tube is ideal or around 100-150 Watts for equivalent solid state amps. There is of course a huge range of volumes acheived with different tube types and supporting components, so that some 25 Watt tube amps can sound as loud as 50 Watt equivalents from other brands. With PRS you know you are getting a certain quality and a certain price range - and the Sonzera is kind of their SE line for amps. Yet it is the only PRS amp I would consider getting.
There are various other amp manufacturers I considered - as I mentioned in my Namm 2017 report I really like the look of the Synergy Modular Amps - but they are still not fully developed and don't currently feature power scaling. Other brands considered included Bognor, Carl Martin, Egnater, Engl, EVH (Fender really), Hayden, Koch, Laney, Lazy J, Line 6, Morgan, Orange, Randall, Rivera, Roland, Soldano, Supro, Tone King, Two Rock, Victory, Vox, Yamaha - they all just missed out on this top 12.
I am generally very happy with my current amp setup - I will most likely keep to the formula of one solid state and one tube. Form factor is important to me, and currently there is nothing that immediately suggests itself to replace the Katana or Carvin. As mentioned several times already, right at the top of my wishlist is the MESA/Boogie Mark V. I can't really see myself buying anything which does not have a some sort of power scaling either - which means that of all of the above, and besides those I have already, the only ones that truly meet my every criteria are the Mesa, Hughes & Kettner and Hamstead.
I am really hoping that other models appear in the near future that fulfil my requirements, until such a time I will just need to keep saving up for the Mark V. A recent trend has seen more and more amps in pedal form - where you still need a cabinet, and some form of control panel - and while I love stomping on stompboxes, I don't really like getting on my knees to tweak settings - so I like the fact that combo amps have tweakable dials within easy reach - that will most likely remain my modus operandi.
In a year or so I may also investigate the state of the high-end modelling amps - Line 6 Helix, Kemper Profiler and Fractal's Axe FX for instance - for now I still have plenty of learning to do with my existing rig, and most of my focus is currently actually on pedals and FX...