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 vast 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 and high-wattage heads among the ranks.
Whatever style of music you play - whether you're seeking sweet country clean, bluesy 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.
Read on for our pick of the best amp heads and best combos available today.
1. Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit 200
One of the best, most technologically advanced solid-state amps ever
Launch price: $879 / £879 | 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
The Black Spirit 200 is a compact, digitally-controlled analog amplifier, producing its sounds from something H&K call the Black Spirit Bionic Tone Generator, and delivering them via a whopping 200-watt power stage that can be tamed to 20 watts or even 2 watts for offstage use. The list of features is impressively long: four channels called Clean, Crunch, Lead and Ultra with fully-programmable gain volume and EQ knobs and a boost, on-board digital effects, programmable effects loop and Red Box cabinet emulation, Bluetooth connectivity for audio streaming and real-time control from a mobile app, plus MIDI with phantom power to drive a floorboard with no need for separate mains adaptors. There's also a ‘Sag’ feature that replicates the squashed dynamics of coveted vintage valve amplifiers, together with presence and resonance controls, an aux in and a headphones socket. The sounds don’t disappoint, closely mirroring those of the amazing, valve-driven GrandMeister Deluxe 40. The Black Spirit 200 head is a brilliant addition to the H&K catalogue, offering the sonic depth you’d expect from valves with none of the usual drawbacks. It’s a great choice for those ‘grab and go’ gigs, when you’re not sure what kind of backline to expect, while the tones have enough authority to satisfy any player, from bedroom hero to pro artist.
Read the full review: Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit 200
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 one of the best clean amps in the world.
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 one of the best amps for pedals. 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 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, making it one of the best high-gain amps for metal and beyond. 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, while there is also a headphones out. 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; it's one of the best low-wattage amps available today. 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 Blues King 12
One of the best guitar amps for blues
Launch price: $599 / £599 | Type: 1x12 tube combo | Output: 15W | Tubes: 1x 12AX7, 1x 6L6 | Number of channels: 1, w/ 2-stage footswitchable boost | Speaker: 1x Supro BK12 12" | Weight: 13kg
The Blues King 12 features a lightweight, highly-resonant poplar cabinet shape that’s based on the company's 1950s Comet combo. Behind the control panel there’s a simple valve preamp and a pure class A single-ended output stage; meanwhile grafted into this vintage circuit is a cascaded FET overdrive section that adds independently footswitchable boost and gain for a wide range of distortion effects. There’s also a traditional spring reverb and a simple series effects loop, adding extra sonic flexibility to this very vintage-looking combo. From biting Chicago blues to smooth jazz, or down-home country to searing modern rock leads, it’s perfect for smaller live gigs, backstage warm-up, home practice and recording studios too, thanks to impressively low noise levels. If you’re in the market for a small, portable and versatile valve 1x12, Supro’s Blues King should be top of your list.
Read the full review: Supro Blues King 12
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