When spending £1,000/$1,500+ on a guitar amp or combo, you still want to know that you're getting your money's worth - and a box that will faithfully serve up killer tones for years to come.
In this price bracket, you run the gamut from top of the line, off-the-shelf products from the likes of Fender, Marshall, Blackstar and Orange, through to boutique pleasure boxes courtesy of retro-flavoured brands like Magnatone and Tone King.
To help you decide, we've rounded-up every combo and head in the price bracket that scored 4.5 stars or higher in our scrupulous tests.
Expect high wattages, top-notch build quality, and for the more tonally adventurous, advanced MIDI switching and effects loop capabilities, as well as power scaling for great tube/valve tone at any volume.
Hughes & Kettner TriAmp Mark 3
The almighty TriAmp is Hughes & Kettner's go-to flagship, intended to be all things to all players, with just about every function a professional might need and a few more besides.
It's no surprise, then, that the Mark 3's front panel is a little intimidating at first glance, with no less than 33 rotary controls and 13 illuminated switches, not counting mains and standby.
"Beyond any doubt, Hughes & Kettner has raised the bar again."
FULL REVIEW: Hughes & Kettner TriAmp Mark 3 review
Mesa Engineering Mark Five: 35
The current Mark Five has over four decades of research and development behind it, and is one of the most coveted of all backline amplifiers. Recently, Mesa has expanded the range with a choice of output stages, adding a 25-watt EL84-powered head that has proved so popular there's now another new model, with four EL84s instead of two: the Mark Five: 35.
The combo exudes quality from every angle. Typically high standards of Mesa design and craftsmanship mean the Mark Five: 35 will look good and stand up to years of road use at any level.
"At this level, there's plenty of stellar competition, but only one amp has 'Boogie' on the grille."
FULL REVIEW: Mesa Engineering Mark Five: 35 review
Carr Lincoln 1X12 Combo
Steve Carr's cabinets are renowned for their craftsmanship and the Lincoln is no exception, with an upcharge two-tone vinyl finish on this sample complemented by a distinctive speaker grille and Carr's trademark thick leather carrying handle. The hint of 1950s Googie-influenced styling combined with perfect vinyl work bestows extreme 'I want' appeal on the Lincoln, even before it's plugged in.
The Lincoln's spring reverb also has separate channel-level controls, and the standby switch has a low and high power setting. Carr amps have a very distinctive construction that blends modern hi-fi components, such as Solen fastcaps and Analysis Plus speaker cable, with traditional point-to-point wiring that doesn't use any kind of board support.
"The Carr Lincoln is a tour de force amp from North Carolina's finest."
FULL REVIEW: Carr Lincoln 1X12 Combo review
Marshall JCM 25/50 2555X Silver Jubilee Reissue
Apart from its association with Slash, Joe Bonamassa, and various other high-profile users, the main reason why 2555s are so sought after is their sound.
We're pleased to report that the reissue amp is tonally as accurate as it possibly could be, with perhaps a touch more gain and low-end punch than the original. The overdrive channel will turn even the politest of Strats into a fire-breathing monster, but if you really want the Jubilee to sing, then a Les Paul with a good pair of PAF-style humbuckers or active pickups is the way to go.
"A great reissue of one of the most coveted Marshalls. After the perfect Slash tone? Time to live the dream..."
Matchless Nighthawk Reverb 1x12 combo
Based on the Matchless DC-30's channel two, the Nighthawk 15 features a special preamp that uses the EF86 valve - a small high-gain pentode designed specifically for audio circuits and used in the normal channel of early Vox AC15 and AC30 amps.
Of course, there's a price to pay for this first-class tone trip, and it's a big one. But if you want an amp to end your search for the 'perfect' guitar tone, this might just be the one, making the Nighthawk's exclusive price tag one that's worth saving up for. Matchless by name; matchless by nature!
"A stunning small combo for the valve purist, built by one of the ultimate boutique amp builders."
FULL REVIEW: Matchless Nighthawk Reverb 1x12 combo review
Tone King Imperial MkII
Boutique amp brand Tone King is coveted by legions of players the world over - and it's very expensive. Hot off the line after it's unveiling at NAMM 2015, is Tone King's re-released its MkII version signature amp, the Imperial, which is influenced by classic 50s amp sounds and features a built-in attenuator.
The Tone King's lounge-friendly looks and attenuator make it perfect for the home, as well as live and studio work. The ultra-low noise floor and frequency-compensated attenuator record superbly. And the illusion of playing through a maxed-out amp at conversation volume is both inspiring and very useable.
"Outwardly old-school, with tones to match, it's the attenuator here that heaps on the versatility. Easier - almost! - to justify its price, too."
FULL REVIEW: Tone King Imperial MkII review
BUY: Tone King Imperial MkII currently available from:
UK: Andertons Music
Mesa/Boogie Mark Five: 25
Based on Mesa's flagship Mark V - the latest version of the original Boogie - the Mark Five: 25 head is small, perfectly formed and typical of Mesa's superlative design and attention to detail.
The Mark Five: 25 is one of the best small Boogies we've ever heard, which means it's one of the best small amps there is. Its only real competition is the equally awesome Recto-Verb 25, which says something about just how much knowledge, experience and soul Mesa leveraged for this design.
"Yes: it's pricey. In all other respects, though, it's simply mind-blowingly, jaw-droppingly brilliant."
FULL REVIEW: Mesa/Boogie Mark Five: 25 review
Magnatone Super 59
Designed with input from ZZ Top's Billy F Gibbons. The Super 59 head has classy internals, with a large high-quality through-plated PCB holding the small components, while all the valve bases and control panel parts are hand-wired.
The Super 59 could easily become one of the most aspirational amps of the decade for blues and rock players all over the world. Yes, it really is that good. Excellence never comes cheap, of course, and the amp has a predictably jaw-dropping price tag.
"Stunning, tons of tone, and very expensive. If you can afford it, don't waste time: check it out now!"
FULL REVIEW: Magnatone Super 59 review
Magnatone Twilighter Stereo
The Twilighter Stereo is based on the classic Magnatone 50s design, with a square-edged solid pine cabinet covered in brown vinyl and a full-width badge overhanging the angled front baffle, bearing the 'High Fidelity' logo.
It's great to see this iconic brand revived with such impressive products. You're looking at a stunning amp from a manufacturer that we'd rate in the top 10 of the world's best amp producers.
"An old-school American/blues amp tour de force with huge tone and some 3D-like effects."
FULL REVIEW: Magnatone Twilighter Stereo review
Orange Dual Dark 100 head
Made in the UK to Orange's typically high standards, the Dual Dark is a heavyweight amp in every sense of the word.
For creating walls of overdriven filth it's pretty unbeatable. The higher-than-average retail price is a result of these amps being made in the UK with the kind of build quality and attention to detail you'd expect from Orange. So while they are a little on the pricey side, we think they're still pretty good value for money.
"A great British metal amp that will find many friends and admirers on both sides of the Atlantic."
FULL REVIEW: Orange Dual Dark 100 head review
Fender '68 Custom Deluxe Reverb
The '68 Custom Series from Fender aims to combine the spirit of the early 'silverface' era amps with a few contemporary tweaks, rather than providing exacting recreations of the original models.
One of the all-time classic gigging and recording amps, in this new incarnation the Deluxe Reverb is arguably more practical than ever. The onboard reverb and tremolo are wonderful, classic-sounding musical tools that push and inspire you to play in a certain way. Far more than a means of merely amplifying your guitar sound, this is a musical instrument in itself.
"The definitive 'amp for all occasions' just got even more versatile."
FULL REVIEW: Fender '68 Custom Deluxe Reverb review
Tone King Royalist 45C
The overall impression of the Tone King Royalist 45C is one of sophistication, elegant design and bomb-proof build quality.
Those players keen on recreating the sounds of their heroes will find a little tweaking is all you need to get anything from classic Clapton, Beck, Page and Hendrix to Gary Moore. It's more than just an amplifier; it's an emotional time machine that recaptures the excitement of plugging in to a great valve amp for the first time.
"If you want the ultimate British tone experience, the Royalist is pretty much in a league of its own."
FULL REVIEW: Tone King Royalist 45C review
Victory V50 The Earl
With former Cornford designer Martin Kidd at the helm, and a certain genius guitar player (in the form of Guthrie Govan) as its first endorsee, Victory Amplification's launch was hotly anticipated - and the V50 doesn't disappoint.
The boutique amp market is dominated by American brands, but there's room for competition from other countries and Victory has found a surprising niche here. Unlike many boutique products, the V50's deceptively simple controls provide flexibility more often associated with mainstream products - yet with world-class tones.
"With its boutique-meets-mainstream style and immense tonal flexibility, here's an amp that you really need to try."
FULL REVIEW: Victory V50 The Earl review
BUY: Victory V50 The Earl currently available from:
UK: Andertons Music
Hughes & Kettner GrandMeister 36
Four channels. Boost. Onboard digital effects. Red Box DI. Noise gate. Five output levels down to zero for silent recording. If that's not enough to get you salivating, how about total MIDI control, not just of every switched functions, but all the pots too? That's what Hughes & Kettner has shoehorned into the same slim steel chassis, with its trademark side-lit Perspex control panel.
Possibly the best amp of this decade, we reckon the new GrandMeister 36 is totally unbeatable at the price and heading for amp superstardom!
"One amp to rule them all? H&K might just have launched the amp of the decade"
FULL REVIEW: Hughes & Kettner GrandMeister 36 review
Vonhatski Purelight 1206
The Purelight 1206 is a straightforward, proper all-valve amp that could tick the right boxes for many guitar players. It's a heavy product built for life on the road, so may not be the first choice for weekend warriors where portability is a prime consideration.
However, for serious amateurs, semi-pros and professional players who want an affordable proper all-valve circuit with dual-rectifier flexibility, the Purelight 1206 - in either head or combo form - merits a much closer look.
"Like the head, this is tremendously well built with very similar sounds and an 'all-round' 50-watt 2x12 format."
FULL REVIEW: Vonhatski Purelight 1206 50-watt 2x12 combo review
Orange Custom Shop 50
No bells, no whistles: just one channel, four valves, 50 watts and a lifetime of hand-wiring experience.
There are barely a handful of point-to-point-wired, no-compromise 50-watt amp heads available from any manufacturer and what Orange has achieved here is palpably refined. In the real gigging world, the minimal feature set might make it unusable for many players, but if your needs are focused on simple, straight-up plug-in-and-go rock tone, this will keep you inspired, grinning and heard night after night after night.
"The most satisfying straight-up 50-watt classic rock head we've played in decades. Good value for what it is, too."
FULL REVIEW: Orange Custom Shop 50 review
AER Domino 2.A
The Domino 2.A houses two eight-inch, twin-cone speakers running off two parallel DMOS, monolithic IC power amplifiers for a total of 100 watts. It also features a separate neodymium tweeter.
The sound is crystal clear, plus it offers loads of input and output options, and enough power to essentially give you a mini PA in a laughably small box that can cope with small pub/club gigs effortlessly.
"Fully featured, very powerful, professional standard acoustic guitar amp and/or PA in a box: exceptional."
FULL REVIEW: AER Domino 2.A review
BUY: AER Domino 2.A currently available from:
Fargen Olde 800 MK II
If your idea of the 'ultimate' amp means a straight-up all-valve head that can cover most classic British rock tones from the 1960s to the 1980s, then we have a pretty strong candidate right here.
The amp's sounds are more idealised than accurate, meaning that it keeps all the best sonic characteristics and leaves out the bits that were less memorable. This take on some of the most popular British amps made during the golden era is a strong reminder that while modern digital modelling has got better, it will only be a facsimile at best. The Fargen, meanwhile, is the real deal - and then some.
"The Fargen is very close to being our ideal 'Plexi'-style amp. Don't pass up a chance to try one."
FULL REVIEW: Fargen Olde 800 MK II review
For many high-gain connoisseurs, a Diezel amp will always be 'the dream' - and one that's usually agonisingly out of reach. For a boutique brand such as Diezel, the D-Moll's price is pretty astonishing, and it makes a viable alternative to the likes of Blackstar and Peavey.
It has the combination of advanced features and superb, genre-spanning tones that makes Diezel amps so special, and to see it in a package this well priced is very impressive.
"High-gain amps don't get much better than this, and not at such a realistic price. If you've got the wedge to consider a pro-level amp, the D-Moll has to be at the top of your list."
FULL REVIEW: Diezel D-Moll review
BUY: Diezel D-Moll currently available from:
Marshall JVM410HJS Joe Satriani Signature
Satch used a modified JVM410H with Chickenfoot, and that has been tweaked, fine-tuned and transformed into the splendid all-singing and all-dancing signature model you see here the JVM410HJS Joe Satriani Signature head.
With four channels, 12 modes and nine distinct gain structures, it's definitely a step up from the JSX in terms of features and controllability. All in all, the JVM410HJS is amazing value for money.
"A monster head: without doubt one of the best Marshalls ever."
FULL REVIEW: Marshall JVM410HJS Joe Satriani Signature review
The three-channel Armageddon has extra features focused on the more demanding and specific requirements of heavy metal. As with most of Egnater's range, this amp is made in China, but the build and component standard is as good as anything coming out of Europe or the USA and better than some.
There is some stiff competition from the traditional leaders in this arena, but for sheer tone Egnaters are hard to beat.The Armageddon is ideal for players who like to footswitch everything and it will seamlessly integrate with any MIDI-compatible effects unit.
"The Armageddon will win lots of three-channel fans - don't pass up a chance to try an awesome amp."
FULL REVIEW: Egnater Armageddon review
BUY: Egnater Armageddon currently available from:
Laney L50H head
The Lionheart range is aimed at players who want to rekindle the excitement of playing through a simple all-valve circuit, with a look and feel reminiscent of the late '60s or early '70s - a golden age for electric guitar.
Under the skin, like all Laneys, the build quality is first class and the L50H should provide years of trouble-free use. If you're in the market for a high-end boutique amp, check out the L50H before you think about sending your hard-earned cash overseas. It's really going to surprise you.
"One of the best-sounding amps we've ever plugged into, this Laney could change your world if you try one."
FULL REVIEW: Laney L50H head review
Blackstar Series One S1-104
It almost goes without saying that the build standard on Blackstar's Series One heads is very high and the attention to detail stands up to the closest of inspections.
The four-channel S1-104 amps are ideally suited to players who need to produce a wide range of sounds at the tap of a button - add any decent quality MIDI effects unit and the variety of tones these two amps are capable of producing is practically infinite. They're perfect for semi-pro cover band specialists or pro players who need to faithfully reproduce recorded guitar tracks for live shows.
"An awesome head that rounds off the Series One range. If you're in the market for a new head or thinking about trading in that combo for something with a little more punch… start looking here."
FULL REVIEW: Blackstar Series One S1-104 review
Oozing 'top of the range' from every citrusy pore, the UK-made OR100H is a 100-watt head that draws on the considerable heritage of the company's much-loved early 1970s 'Pics Only' amps.
The OR100H is a dependable slab of pro-quality backline with world-class rock tones on tap. Valve amps might be getting cheaper and cheaper, but this is an amplifier head for players whose priorities are power, dependability and sheer visceral rock tone.
"Orange's considerable heritage and contemporary ingenuity distilled into a world- beating pro valve head."
FULL REVIEW: Orange OR100H review
Marshall JVM410H head
The JVM's cabinet and styling are what we've come to expect from Marshall - the word 'iconic' is over-used these days, but nobody would argue that it shouldn't apply here.
It is all valve, and the result is a more organic and flexible tonality than you'd previously expect from this kind of amp. The sheer power and aggression is typical Marshall - but you can do a lot more besides and that is this amp's strong point. It's a multi-channel, multi-mode monster that really works.Try as we have, we can't find a single weak point in the JVM's tonal palette.
"Versatility, great tones and build quality make this a Marshall classic."
FULL REVIEW: Marshall JVM410H head review
Lazy J Model 80 Combo
The quality of tone and build is exceptional, something that's clearly winning Lazy J plenty of friends, with recent customers including Noel Gallagher, PiL's Lu Edmonds, Pete Townshend and Doyle Bramhall II.
It's not cheap, but as a true boutique amp with real American mojo, but made in the UK. It's very good value too - if it came from the USA you could easily add another thousand to the asking price.
"Lazy J's Model 80 combo is more than just a Tweed replica, its extra features really work. And then there's the sound…"
FULL REVIEW: Lazy J Model 80 Combo review