If you're forking out between $/£500 and $/£1,000 on a guitar amp, you expect great tones and the reliability to keep them singing every night - and that's precisely the case with any of the heads and combos that lie ahead.
The majority of the best amps in this sector are still tube/valve-based, but they span a huge range of formats, from single-channel pedal platforms to all-encompassing MIDI-enabled multi-channel beasts.
Amps in this area of the market are becoming increasingly compact, too, with the lunchbox head phenomenon still very much in effect, although you'll still find a few high-powered 2x12 combos among the ranks.
Whatever style of music you play - whether you're seeking sweet country clean, blues-worthy overdrive or high-gain metal distortion - you can't go wrong with any of these choices, which include big names such as Fender, Marshall and Vox, as well as innovative offerings from Yamaha and Hughes & Kettner.
Whatever genre you play, one of these high-scoring heads or combos is sure to hit the mark.
1. Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 36
The most flexible guitar amp under $1,000
Launch price: $999 / £839 | Type: Lunchbox tube head | Output: 36W, switchable down to 18W, 5W, 1W and 0W | Number of channels: 3 | Tubes: 4x EL84, 3x 12AX7 | Weight: 7.7kg
The TubeMeister 36 offers three channels for clean, crunch and lead, each with separate gain and master volume controls. There are two three-band EQs - one for the clean channel, the other shared by crunch and lead. Around the back, you'll find a series of push-button switches for the TubeMeister's built-in attenuator that progressively reduce output power from 36 watts down to 18, five, or one watt, with a mute switch. This disconnects the speaker but leaves the head's built-in Red Box speaker emulator on for silent recording. Best of all is the MIDI-in socket. All of the TubeMeister 36's switched functions can be operated via MIDI, including the power soak. The significance of that is immense because you can seamlessly go from a fat clean sound using all 36 watts for maximum headroom, through a slightly compressed crunch tone on 18 watts, to a fully saturated lead sound with the master cranked up on five watts, or any combination. If you're looking for a mid-priced amp that really can do it all, the TubeMeister 36 deserves to be right at the top of your list.
Read the full review: Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 36
2. Fender Blues Junior IV
One of the most popular amps in the world gets an update
Launch price: $599 / £609 | Type: Tube combo | Output: 15W | Number of channels: 1, with fat boost | Tubes: 2x EL84, 3x 12AX7 | Speaker: Celestion A-Type 12" | Weight: 14.3kg
The Blues Junior's compact dimensions, light weight and pedal-friendly credentials have made it one of the most popular gigging combos in the world, but for 2018, Fender has updated it to the new Mark IV specification, which features various tweaks, including Celestion’s excellent A-Type loudspeaker. Controls include gain, bass treble and middle, reverb level and master volume, with a small push-button ‘Fat’ switch. In use, the Junior unleashes a stunning range of Fender tones, from spanky, sparkling cleans, to fat and smooth midrange crunch that’s spot on for blues and classic rock. The Fat switch adds a generous midrange boost and can be remote-controlled from a footswitch for greater versatility, while the improved reverb circuit is very impressive, with no noise and a smooth, warm delay that feels more integral to the overall amp tone, harking back to the best blackface reverbs of the 1960s. No matter what guitar you use, the Blues Junior flatters single coils and humbuckers alike, not to mention drive pedals with plenty of volume. The sounds are top-drawer, comparing well against many so-called boutique amps costing four times the price. Factor in the compact dimensions and light weight, and it’s easy to see why the Blues Junior remains a firm favourite.
Read the full review: Fender Blues Junior IV
3. Blackstar HT Club 40 MkII
A feature-loaded, super-versatile channel-switching tube combo
Launch price: $879 / £549 | Type: Tube combo | Output: 40W, switchable down to 4W | Number of channels: 2, with 4 voices | Tubes: 2x EL34, 2x ECC83 | Speaker: Celestion 12" | Weight: 24kg
The new HT Club 40 looks familiar, but practically every detail has been worked on and sweated over. The control panel has separate channels for clean and overdrive, with two footswitchable voices on each channel. There’s also a new, low-power option, which reduces output from around 40 watts down to just four watts. Global controls include a master volume and level control for the Club’s built-in digital reverb. On the rear panel, you’ll find extension speaker outlets and an effects loop, with new features including a USB recording output together with speaker-emulated line outs on jack and XLR. The MkII’s clean channel has a completely reworked architecture with two tightly defined voices, best described as classic American and classic British, which can be pre-set on the control panel or footswitched. Although only one button is pressed, lots of changes happen inside, including preamp voicing, EQ and valve gain structure, as well as the power amplifier damping. A similar thing happens on the overdrive channel, with a choice of two voices called ‘classic crunch’ and ‘super- saturated lead’, which can be infinitely tweaked between Brit and USA response using Blackstar’s patented ISF control. Like the clean channel, these voices have been reworked to be richer and more responsive. In use, the HT Club 40 MkII is jaw-droppingly good - while the MkI version was efficient if a little bland sometimes, the MkII is full of character and attitude, with astonishing tonal depth and response that will have many top-dollar boutique amps struggling to keep up.
Read the full review: Blackstar HT Club 40 MkII
4. Orange Rocker 32
A killer combo for pedal users – especially stereo fans
Launch price: $1,099 / £829 | Type: Stereo tube combo | Output: 30W, switchable down to 15W | Number of channels: 2 | Tubes: 4x EL84, 4x ECC83, 2x ECC81 | Speaker: 2x Orange Voice Of The World Gold Label 10" | Weight: 23.3kg
The Rocker 32’s secret weapon is its stereo capabilities courtesy of two output stages and a mono out/stereo in valve-buffered effects loop – and it’s this that opens the door to some tantalising effects possibilities. It also features a half-power option incorporated into the front panel standby switch. The enamel control panel follows Orange’s classic 1970s ‘graphics only’ format, using pictograms to describe the control functions. The Dirty channel includes gain, bass, mid, treble and master volume controls, while the clean Natural channel has a single volume control. The Natural channel may only have a single volume control, but it’s perfectly dialled in to flatter practically any guitar and it sounds wonderful, with a glassy treble giving way to an addictive chime at higher volume levels. The Dirty channel’s gain control has a very wide range, allowing fine control of moderately driven sounds, with plenty of Dark Terror-approved filth at the top of its travel, making it ideal for everything from classic Brit rock and blues to modern metal. The Rocker 32’s stereo capability will make it almost irresistible to effects users. Plugging in a decent stereo chorus and setting the outputs to dry/wet sends a clean uneffected sound through one side and a fully wet modulated sound to the other. This wet/dry combination generates the chorus effect in the air between the loudspeaker and the ears, creating a real three-dimensional soundscape that swirls and breathes like a classic Leslie rotary loudspeaker.
Read the full review: Orange Rocker 32
5. Vox AC15C2
A classic British combo in 2x12 format
Launch price: $1,120 / £759 | Type: 2x12 tube combo | Output: 15W | Tubes: 2x EL84, 3x 12AX7 | Number of channels: 2 (not footswitchable) | Speaker: 2x Celestion G12M Greenback 12" | Weight: 30.2kg
The new AC15 'Twin' retains the all-important dual-EL84, cathode-biased output section of its forebear, but otherwise it's very different. A quick scan across the top panel reveals two inputs for independent access to either normal or top boost channels. One benefit of the bigger, 2x12 enclosure is that it provides ample room for a full-length reverb tank, housed in the bottom. There's also an in-built tremolo effect, with controls for depth and speed. But the whole point of this amp is the pair of 25-watt Celestion G12M Greenback speakers. They are the speaker of rock in so many cases and while purists might hope for Celestion Blues, they would add a good £300 at least to the price; and he increased power handling of two Greenbacks on the end of just 15 watts is quite a tantalising prospect. It's fair to say that even with the master volume set-up, the magic doesn't really start happening until the amp's lungs are at least half way open, but happily, that's not far from perfect for many of today's pub and bar gigs - it may even be too much for some. The AC15 'Twin' does sound magnificent when clean, but listen carefully to those amps or this and it's rarely completely undistorted. That harmonically rich drive that was never supposed to be there is the key characteristic that latter day, non-master volume AC users find hardest to replicate.
Read the full review: Vox AC15C2
6. PRS MT 15 Mark Tremonti
One of the best amps for metal and hard rock, especially at this price
Launch price: $649 / £555 | 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
Mark Tremonti is well-known as an avid gearhead and first impressions of the MT 15 are of a purposeful, working player’s tool with no unnecessary bells or whistles. The MT 15 has clean and lead footswitchable preamp channels, with gain and master volume on the lead channel, and volume on the clean channel. Both channels have their own bass, mid and treble controls with a master presence control and a pull boost on the clean channel to add a mild overdriven edge. Around the back things are kept simple with a series effects loop plus a half-power switch which drops the MT 15 from 15 watts RMS down to around seven watts. At first glance there’s no channel indicator, however, when powered up all the MT 15’s valves are lit by LEDs which change colour: red for lead, blue for clean – very visible and very cool. The lead channel has no less than five gain stages and the amount of gain and distortion on tap is huge. However, it’s also been carefully sculpted into a stunning barrage of harmonic filth that flatters every note and power chord. Often, very high gain can easily descend into an unpleasant mush that’s perceived more as noise than music, yet the MT 15 manages to avoid this and retains exceptional clarity and articulation. The clean channel offers plenty of headroom to cater for any guitar, while pulling the channel mid-boost function adds a sweet vintage Fender overdrive with a medium-fast response that’s great for country picking or blues.
Read the full review: PRS MT 15 Mark Tremonti
7. Yamaha THR100HD
A digital amp that captures tube tone and delivers a multi-amp sound
Launch price: $1,310 / £755 | Type: Digital modelling head | Output: 100W, switchable down to 50W and 25W | Number of channels: 5 (2 at once), with boosts | Weight: 5kg
What makes the THR100HD special is its clever digital power amp, which faithfully mimics the operation of real valves. Then there's the fact that you get two of everything: two preamps, both with a built-in booster function that behaves as a stompbox; two effects loops; two power amps; two XLR line outs. What you see is very much what you get, with a five-position amp voice selector, which packs three overdrives - crunch, lead and modern - and two cleans: solid, and er, clean. There's also a channel volume control, because the master volume control works inside Yamaha's Virtual Circuit Modelling environment, adding more drive to the THR's digital power amp simulation, which in turn has five different valve choices, as well as Class A or Class A/B operation. Lurking on the rear panel are two speaker-simulated balanced XLR line-outs, with a ground lift switch that uses the latest Impulse Response cabinet simulation. There are superb Fender-influenced cleans, bluesy touch-sensitive crunches and a choice of classic or modern lead tones, all footswitchable for your convenience. The tones are so convincing it's really hard to believe there are no valves. The interaction of the clever digital power stage with the loudspeaker is just like that of a good valve amp, and the virtual valve choices are uncannily authentic.
Read the full review: Yamaha THR100HD
8. EVH 5150III LBXII head
High-gain, Eddie Van Halen guitar tones on a budget
Launch price: $699 / £509 | Type: Lunchbox tube head | Output: 15W, switchable down to 3.5W | Number of channels: 2 | Tubes: 2x EL84, 4x ECC83S | Weight: 7.3kg
This Mk II version of EVH’s LBX looks similar, but it has a few significant differences. The white control panel is now black, while the preamp offers a choice of the clean (green) or crunch (blue) channels from the 5150 100-watt head. The controls have been expanded with separate gain and volume knobs on dual-concentric pots, greatly improving flexibility compared with the Mk I version. There’s a shared set of bass, mid, treble and presence controls, with a global resonance control for tweaking the all-important bottom-end response. Other rear-panel features include a series effects loop, a single loudspeaker jack with switchable impedance, a socket for the supplied single-button footswitch, and a toggle to flip from full power to 1/4 power. While it may be small, the LBXII packs a serious punch. Not only is it crammed with great rock tone, there’s plenty of volume, too – more than enough to cover small to medium gigs, even on the quarter power setting.
Read the full review: EVH 5150III LBXII head
9. Supro Reverb 1605R Combo
One of the best low-volume recording amps
Launch price: $999 / £999 | Type: 1x8 tube combo | Output: 5W | Tubes: 2x 6V6, 2x 12AX7 | Number of channels: 1 (with wet, dry and mix out) | Speaker: 1x Supro SS8 8" | Weight: 11.5kg
The Reverb 1605R is a simple single-channel design inspired by original circuits dating back to the 1960s and earlier. The 1605SR Supro Reverb combo has controls for gain, treble, bass, reverb level and a master volume. On the underside of the chassis there are three line outs - two fixed level ones for dry and reverb only, with a variable level mix output. This arrangement adds some useful if slightly quirky flexibility, allowing for separate processing of dry and reverb signals. Supros have a distinctive midrange, which the SS8 speaker captures really well. It’s one of the strengths of smaller loudspeakers that the frequency range is compressed into an ideal bandwidth for the electric guitar, with little or no EQ manipulation to get a good sound onto a track. This is one of the reasons why tracks recorded with small amps like this sound so huge; you’re not removing any signal to make them fit into a mix, it’s all exactly where it needs to be. The quirky nature of the 1605R will certainly appeal to recording enthusiasts. The USA origin means it isn’t the cheapest small amp out there but overall, we think you’re getting good value as this has to be one of the coolest small amps out there at the moment.
Read the full review: Supro Reverb 1605R Combo
10. PRS Sonzera 20 Combo
A highly versatile, gig-ready tube combo
Launch price: $795 / £749 | Type: 1x12 tube combo | Output: 20W | Tubes: 2x 6L6, 1x ECC83S, 3x 12AX7 | Number of channels: 2 | Speaker: 1x Celestion V-Type 12" | Weight: 19kg
Sonzera is Brazilian Portuguese for ‘cool/awesome/frightfully good tone’ and the range consists of a 50-watt head and combo, and this slightly more compact Sonzera 20 combo. This is a proper two-channel design with separate clean and gain channels. The gain channel has level and drive controls together with a bright switch and bass, mid and treble tone controls, while the clean channel offers volume, bass and treble controls. There are global controls for presence and the built-in spring reverb. The robust internals and unfussy appearance give the amp a purposeful stripped-down, ready-to-rock vibe: a player’s tool that’s meant to be taken out and gigged. The clean channel has an addictive ‘live’ quality that’s reminiscent of some of the best small amps from the mid-60s, while the gain channel can sound vintage or bang up to date, depending on how much gain you dial in. We’re seriously impressed with this wonderful combo, packing plenty of serious guitar tone into a compact, portable package with more than enough volume to handle most small to medium gigs.
Read the full review: PRS Sonzera 20 Combo review