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10 best metal amps 2021: time to unleash hell with these heavyweight heads and combos

10 best metal amps 2021: time to unleash hell with these heavyweight heads and combos
(Image credit: PRS / Paul Reed Smith)

Chances are if you play in a metal band or any kind of metal project, you will want your riffs to defy the laws of gravity in heaviness and ultimately sound bigger than everyone else’s. It’s not much to ask for, right? More often than not, it will all come down to the amp you choose. That’s where this guide to the best metal amps comes in.

Of course, different pedals can be used to add some volume boost and drive, and the right pickups can certainly help harness the full sonic potential of your instrument, but a lot of the greatest metal tones ever recorded simply boil down to the guitar amp that was chosen and how it was dialled in. 

And in some cases, it may have been numerous amps – each bringing something unique to the table in terms of gain levels and EQ – but nine times out of 10, it will be an amp aimed at the higher gain/metal player, with enough distortion to bring those speedy symphonies and breakdown chugs to life. 

If you want to know what we think are the best metal amps on the planet right now, keep scrolling, or hit the buying advice button above to find out the science behind the current cream of the metal amp crop...

Best metal amp: MusicRadar's choice

Metallica and Tool have been responsible for some of the most jaw-dropping high gain tones in heavy metal history – both bands making good use of their Diezel VH4s over the years and to great effect. Truth be told, it seems like this four channel 100-Watter, also used by the likes of Matt Bellamy, Myles Kennedy and Billy Corgan, will never ever go out of fashion.

For anyone on a tighter budget, you really can’t go wrong with Mark Tremonti’s PRS MT 15 lunchbox head. A meticulously assembled 15-watter, the MT 15 delivers boutique-vibed distortion tones for a modest outlay, all while boasting a snappy clean channel and switchable LEDs.

Best metal amps: Product guide

Best metal amps: Peavey Invective 120 Head

(Image credit: Peavey)

1. Peavey Invective 120 Head

This is one of the best metal amps, hands down

Price: $1,799/£1,799/€1,730
Type: All-tube head
Output: 120W, switchable down to 60W
Number of channels: 3
Tubes: 6x 12AX7, 4x 6L6
Weight: 22kg
Reasons to buy
+The perfect modern metal amp+Mansoor-approved+Loaded with features
Reasons to avoid
-Cheaper amps are available

Peavey’s 6505 (originally dubbed the 5150 before Eddie Van Halen parted ways with the company) has long been heralded as the contemporary metal head to beat - until now. Periphery mastermind and influential djent maverick Misha Mansoor partnered with Peavey to refresh the format for today’s players, and (forgive us) knocked it out of the park.

Offering a more refined, multi-layered distortion than its forebear, the Invective 120 packs a trio of channels - including a surprisingly accomplished clean - each with pre- and post-level controls and individual boosts.

Just about everything you could hope for has been covered, including a built-in noise gate, half-power switching and two assignable series effects loops. This really is the modern metal head perfected.

Read our full Peavey Invective 120 Head review

Best metal amps: PRS MT 15 Mark Tremonti

(Image credit: PRS / Paul Reed Smith)

2. PRS MT 15 Mark Tremonti

A compact metal head pumping out pro tones

Price: $749/£529/€589
Type: Lunchbox tube head
Output: 15W, switchable down to 7W
Number of channels: 2, with clean pull-boost
Tubes: 2x 6L6, 6x EC83S
Weight: 8.1kg
Reasons to buy
+Excellent value for money+Premium tones+Tasty clean channel
Reasons to avoid
-You might need more power

The Alter Bridge guitarist spec’d out this compact head to deliver professional-quality tones at an affordable price point, and he absolutely nailed it - you’d struggle to find better distorted tones for the money.

Two channels are onboard, but naturally, it’s the MT 15’s distorted side that’s the main selling point here, with the kind of saturated tones you’d expect to hear from boutique brands like Bogner or Diezel, but with a more manageable 15W output, which can be dropped down to 7W.

There’s also a Twin-voiced clean channel with switchable boost, plus a series effects loop – and even LEDs that change from blue to red when you kick in the distortion channel.

Read our full PRS MT 15 Mark Tremonti review

Best metal amps: Diezel VH4

(Image credit: Diezel )

3. Diezel VH4

A modern metal classic

Price: $4,399/£2,700/€3,490
Type: Tube head
Output: 100W
Tubes: 4x KT77, 4x ‘individually voiced all-tube preamps’
Number of channels: 4
Weight: 21kg
Reasons to buy
+Hetfield-approved+A modern classic+Distortions are hard to beat
Reasons to avoid
-Cleans aren’t much cop

The VH4 counts the likes of James Hetfield, Billy Corgan and Matt Bellamy among its artist roster, and with good reason: this German-engineered monster is truly a modern classic.

A 100W output is teamed with four preamp channels, each with their own distinctive tone, spanning clean, classic-rock crunch, high-gain rhythm and lead. Make no mistake: the cleans are nothing to write home about, but the defined, harmonically rich distortion sounds are truly among the best in the world.

What’s more, each channel has its own individual insert, while the effects loop can be configured as serial or parallel.

Read our full Diezel VH4 review

Best metal amps: Boss Katana-100

(Image credit: Boss)

4. Boss Katana-100

A top metal amp from the effects masters

Price: $359/£329/€399
Type: Digital modelling combo
Output: 100W, switchable down to 50W, 10W and 0.5W
Number of channels: 5, plus 58 effects
Speaker: Custom 12" speaker
Weight: 14.8kg
Reasons to buy
+Ace features and tones for the cash+Versatile technology inside+Not just for metal
Reasons to avoid
-Not much

Boss’s ingenious Tube Logic solid-state/DSP technology is the secret behind this versatile combo, which punches well above its price point in both features and tone.

Five voices are onboard: Acoustic, Clean, Crunch, Lead and Brown, with the latter providing the tight, high-gain solo tones of your dreams, while each sound can be stored in one of eight tone setting memories.

There’s a stunning array of effects included, too, spanning all the modulations, delays and reverbs you could ask for, as well as direct USB recording, power scaling, a choice of cabinet resonance and a built-in tilt-stand.

Read our full Boss Katana-100 review

Best metal amps: Orange Micro Dark

(Image credit: Orange Amps)

5. Orange Micro Dark

The best metal amp if you’re on a budget

Price: $249/£129/€224
Type: Tube micro head
Output: 20W
Number of channels: 1
Tubes: 1x 12AX7 tube
Weight: 0.78kg
Reasons to buy
+Authentic tones+A fantastic budget option+Works as a headphone amp
Reasons to avoid
-Only one channel

Its proportions are ridiculously small, with a price to match, but underestimate the Micro Dark at your peril. This diminutive head is very much a real amp, boasting a 20W solid-state power stage teamed with a 12AX7 tube preamp.

The Micro Dark’s tones are utterly authentic, too, with sounds that capably ape the company’s $2,000+ Dual Dark heads and plenty of gain on tap.

Sure, it’s hardly versatile - there’s only one channel - but you’d be surprised how much mileage you can get out of the mid-tweaking Shape control, while a built-in CabSim emulation makes this a handy headphone amp, too.

Read our full Orange Micro Dark review

Best metal amps: Mesa Engineering JP-2C Head

(Image credit: Mesa Engineering)

6. Mesa Engineering JP-2C Head

Play prog metal? This is the best guitar amp for you

Price: $2,749/£3,769/€4,199
Type: Tube head
Output: 100W, switchable down to 60W
Tubes: 5x 12AX7, 4x 6L6
Number of channels: 3
Weight: 18kg
Reasons to buy
+Variety of voicing switches+Loaded with tech+Range of tones
Reasons to avoid
-TBH, we’re struggling

If your playing is of the prog-metal persuasion, you’d be hard-pressed to better this awe-inspiring head from the Dream Theater speed demon.

Essentially a heavily updated take on Mesa’s legendary Mark IIC+, this Boogie somehow manages to cram three independent channels and two separate five-band graphic EQs into its diminutive chassis.

There’s also an abundance of voicing switches - including a Shred mode - built-in CabClone speaker-emulated DI output and 100/60W power switching, while serious tech-heads can control the whole lot via MIDI. The tones more than deliver, too, with the kind of fat, smooth high-gain sounds that have seen original Mark IIC+ prices soar in recent years.

Read our full Mesa Engineering JP-2C Head review

Best metal amps: EVH 5150III 50W EL34

(Image credit: EVH)

7. EVH 5150III 50W EL34

The best metal amp for old school tones

Price: $1,099/£999/€1,095
Type: Tube head
Output: 50W
Tubes: 2x EL34, 7x ECC83S
Number of channels: 3
Weight: 15.8kg
Reasons to buy
+Channel EVH+Tour-ready+Old school tones
Reasons to avoid
-Not for the faint-hearted

This impressively put-together head distils Eddie Van Halen’s arena-demolishing tone into a 50W format, equipped with an EL34 power section, just like Eddie used back in the day.

Three channels do your clean, crunch and lead business, with a shared EQ across 1 and 2, and a dedicated EQ for the third. All three shoot for hot-rodded Plexi tones, and deliver on all fronts, with the kind of crystalline cleans, hard-rock crunch and hugely dynamic solo tones you’d hope for from an amp with this kind of lineage, making it one of the best amps for old-school metal tones.

Add in MIDI control, presence and resonance, and a series effects loop, and this is a pro-quality touring head worthy of the world’s biggest stages.

Read our full EVH 5150III 50W EL34 review

Best metal amps: Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit 200

(Image credit: Hughes & Kettner)

8. Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit 200

A great solid state option for heavier players

Price: $939/£879/€771
Type: Analog solid-state/digital hybrid head with built-in effects
Output: 200W, switchable down to 20W and 2W
Number of channels: 4, with built-in effects
Weight: 3.6kg
Reasons to buy
+Great for 7- and 8-string guitar players+Super impressive tones+Lightweight and affordable
Reasons to avoid
-Better effects elsewhere

Solid-state amps sometimes get a bad rap, but the huge strides taken recently have produced some of the most reliable, tonesome amps you can buy today, and Hughes & Kettner’s Black Spirit 200 is one of the best metal amps around.

This ridiculously compact 200W head plays host to four channels - clean, crunch, lead and ultra - with fully programmable gain, volume and EQ knobs, plus a boost, raft of digital effects, programmable effects loop and Red Box DI cabinet emulation.

It’s the tones that really impress, however, with the kind of touch sensitivity you’d get from H&K’s all-tube offerings, while the Ultra channel is worth the price of admission alone, with plenty of definition for seven- and eight-string players.

Read our full Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit 200 review

Best metal amps: Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III

(Image credit: Fractal Audio)

9. Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III

A fantastic all-round solution for modern metal guitarists

Price: $1,999/£2,449/€2,599
Type: Digital modelling head with profiling and digital effects
Number of channels: 250+ plus built-in effects
Weight: 6.8kg
Reasons to buy
+Improved UI+Premium metal tones+Huge array of effects
Reasons to avoid
-That price!

The amp modeller that defined the sound of djent is back and better than ever in its third incarnation, now boasting a redesigned user interface, colour screen and improved front panel.

Like its previous incarnations, the Axe-Fx III truly excels at metal tones, with the Ultra and FAS Modern models based on Peavey’s 5150 but taken to ‘perfect metal amp’ extremes, while there are some stunning Rectifier, VH4 and Marshall models, too. We haven’t even touched on the staggering array of effects.

While it’s not one for tube-amp purists or plug-and-play types, the Axe-Fx III represents perhaps the best all-around rig solution for modern metal players, particularly those of the djent persuasion.

Read our full Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III review

Best metal amps: Marshall 2525C Studio Silver Jubilee

(Image credit: Marshall)

10. Marshall 2525C Studio Silver Jubilee

A scaled-down version of something very legendary

Price: $1,599/£699/€699
Type: Lunchbox tube head
Output: 20W, switchable down to 5W
Number of channels: 2
Tubes: 2x EL34, 2 x ECC83, 1 x ECC83 (phase splitter)
Weight: 10kg
Reasons to buy
+Two channels of classic tones+Sleek silver Jubilee series looks+Options for lower power mode and extra distortion
Reasons to avoid
-Some players may want more power

Blues rock virtuoso Joe Bonamassa has used numerous amps over the years, but the Marshall Jubilee has always remained a firm favourite for some of his higher gain sounds. It’s capable of a lot more than blues rock too – with some truly mouth-watering metal tones that will cover everything from Black Sabbath to Megadeth, Slayer and beyond.

This well-priced 20-Watt version of the classic Marshall amp launched in 1987 is worthy of its rich legacy, offering two channels (which is one more than the other models in the Studio series), as well as power reduction down to a practice-friendly 5-Watts and a pull rhythm clip for extra distortion. And finally, of course, there’s that silver aesthetic – which certainly feels more boutique than the standard Marshall finishes in black and gold. 

Read the full Marshall 2525C Studio Silver Jubilee review

Best amps for metal: Buying advice

Best metal amps: Diezel VH4

(Image credit: Future)

When assessing what makes the cut for the best metal amp, a killer distortion channel is flat-out essential, but there are a few other considerations you'll need to factor in too. Chief among these is budget, but you also need to think about what kind of venues you’ll be playing.

Many metal-orientated heads – for example, the Diezel VH4, Mesa/Boogie JP-2C, and EVH 5150III 50W EL34 – are designed to be played loud. That’s no problem if you’re already established on a local gigging scene, but if you’re just starting out, or playing in your bedroom, you probably want something a little more manageable.

That’s where solid-state and digital offerings strike a fine balance between live and home use. This includes affordable combos such as the Boss Katana-100, through to Hughes & Kettner’s solid-state Black Spirit 200, and pro-quality processors like the Kemper Profiler Head and Fractal Audio’s Axe-Fx III. Each of these metal amps is capable of delivering formidable high-gain sounds at any volume, making them suitable for the (home) studio and the stage.

You may also want to weigh up the importance of a clean channel. Increasingly, you can find utterly usable clean channels for those arpeggiated middle 8s, but some all-tube amp heads require you to compromise somewhat on your non-dirty sounds.

There’s also the question of effects when it comes to the best metal amps: solid-state and digital offerings come loaded with modulations and delays to bolster your sound, but traditional tube heads will give you a reverb at most.

External effects are likely to be more versatile in this regard, so don’t discount any amp that isn’t packed with bells and whistles: if it’s made the cut here, you can rest assured it has an effects loop (to keep your pedals sounding their best, post-distortion), not to mention tone to die for.