When you're about to spend over $1,000/£1,000 on a high-end guitar amp or combo, you definitely want to know that you're investing your hard-earned money wisely in a box that will serve up truly killer tones for years to come.
In this exalted price bracket, you can run the gamut from top-of-the-line, stadium-filling tube heads to revolutionary digital modelling amps.
Expect high wattages, top-notch build quality, and for the more tonally adventurous and technically adroit, advanced MIDI switching and effects loop capabilities, as well as power scaling for great tube/valve tone at any volume.
Whichever genre you favour, or whether you're looking for a recording studio monster or quality live mode one of the below high-scoring heads or combos is sure to fit the bill.
The exciting thing about the Kemper is that you can use it to capture the sound of your JTM45, right where it hits that sweet spot, with the microphone you prefer and that mic preamp that just adds a certain something. Then you can refine the 'profile' you've made while A/B-ing the digital signal with the original using the Kemper's onboard EQ, and save the sound alongside the library of 200 or so profiles that comes pre-loaded, with access to hundreds more via the Rig Exchange section of the Kemper website. If you fancy a little more spice you can clean up or crank the KPA's onboard gain control to go way beyond the level of drive available on your original amp, adjust sag, tweak the audible effects of pick attack and even, thanks to what Kemper claims is "digital alchemy", alter the size of your virtual cabinet from a huge stack right down to a cigarette packet, while there's also a fully loaded set of effects. We've heard various approaches to digital modelling sound good in the studio before but this is as close to a 'real' mic'd valve amp sound as to be indistinguishable. If you're the type of guitarist who records regularly, or a producer who wants 24/7 access to a personal library of refined and tested guitar sounds wherever you happen to be on the planet at any given time, the Kemper Profiling Amp is the product of the decade so far.
Read the full review: Kemper Profiler Head
The Triple Crown TC-50 is a three-channel amp, with independent preamps covering clean, low-gain and high-gain ranges. The front panel packs three identical sets of controls including gain, master volume, bass, mid, treble and presence, together with a two-way toggle switch that changes the channel gain and voice. There’s a small toggle switch for manual channel changing, and a pair of master output level controls, one of which is footswitchable. The feature-rich rear panel includes Mesa’s exceptional CabClone speaker-emulated output, with a balanced XLR, headphones socket and line out. The TC-50 also benefits from a footswitchable effects loop, separate reverb level controls for each channel, and MIDI switching for all the major functions. The Triple Crown’s clean channel is highly versatile, going from butter-sweet clarity through to edgy blues soloing, with a lot of control over that ‘just on the edge’ sweet spot. The Lo Gain channel is where the TC-50’s crunch and classic rock tones live, with a multi-layered overdrive and harmonic overtones that shift with varying degrees of pick attack. Flipping the toggle switch into Drive mode adds a subtle midrange bump, invoking JCM800-approved snarl and a dose of extra gain. The Hi Gain channel adds more of the same - lots more, so much so that in the upper reaches we think this is probably the most gain ever from a Mesa amp. No doubt about it, the Triple Crown has three channels packed full of world-class tone that only a handful of amps can compete with.
Read the full review: Mesa/Boogie Triple Crown TC-50
The 2555X Silver Jubilee reissue has the same silver vinyl covering used on the originals, and looks just as handsome. The controls are pleasingly familiar, with a simple front panel layout featuring controls for bass, mid, treble, presence, together with a preamp gain and two master volume controls - one for lead and one for rhythm. A push/pull switch on the output master volume changes channels, while another on the gain knob flips the 2555X into rhythm clip mode, changing the clean channel into something a lot more aggressive. The third rocker switch changes the output stage mode from pentode to triode, dropping the power from 100 down to around 50 watts, and softening the attack a little. The sparse rear panel also features a series effects loop, a fixed-level frequency-compensated DI output, and a jack socket for a single-button footswitch, used to change channels. Overall, the 2555X is built to last and look good for a long time, with Marshall's typically high build quality and attention to detail. 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 2555X accurately reproduces the original tone - and with a few minor exceptions, the look - of the original, at a price that's very reasonable compared with the competition, especially for a UK-made product.
Read the full review: Marshall JCM 25/50 2555X Silver Jubilee Reissue
- For something a bit less in-your-face: the best small guitar amps
The Orange Custom Shop 50 has no bells, no whistles: just one channel, four valves, 50 watts and a lifetime of hand-wiring experience. In terms of functions and features, you might think a straight-up single-channel amp is a bit simplistic, but the combination of Orange's gain, interactive tone section and HF Drive (presence) controls can return a very wide range of sounds. With no reverb built in, the lack of an effects loop might seem like an oversight, even though many amp purists would argue they're always a tonal compromise. There are other Orange amps that offer all of the above should you want them but the CS 50's raison d'etre is simplicity, so the valve complement remains minimal: a pair of ECC83/12AX7s in the front end and a pair of EL34s for the power stage. A switch on the back panel lets you configure the power section for either 50 watts class AB, or 30 watts in class A. The thick, juicy overdriven tones that this beast of a head kicks out are some of the most satisfying we've heard from any amp. From early Fleetwood Mac through AC/DC to Oasis, Foo Fighters and QOTSA, there's plenty of vintage and contemporary stylistic range on board.
Read the full review: Orange Custom Shop 50
To many, the Axe-Fx is synonymous with modern digital modelling. The myriad amp options, EQ and tone-shaping tools and the addition of a powerful noise gate made the original a no-brainer in the late-2000s for the emerging wave of ‘djent’, or modern technical metal bands, that were seeking new tones not easily delivered by a real amplifier. The Axe-Fx III is a huge update to Fractal’s flagship, bringing a host of new features to the table, such as a redesigned user interface, a large colour screen and a more ergonomic front panel. There’s also an overhaul of the processing hardware, with non-processing audio tasks delegated to a microcontroller, while two 1GHz ‘Keystone’ Digital Signal Processors handle the heavy lifting. Their benchmarks peg its performance at double that of the Axe-Fx II, and audiophile components, such as Burr-Brown op amps in the signal path, mean excellent signal-to-noise ratios that will beat most dedicated audio interfaces - plus, thanks to a USB port, you can use the unit as an interface for your DAW, and for re-amping to boot. Although competitors like the Helix are perhaps more immediate, the Axe-Fx III has made great strides in terms of usability and ease of editing. Fractal Audio has once again laid down the gauntlet for what the professional end of the modelling market should aspire to.
Read the full review: Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III
The V40 expands the elusive low-to-medium gain range, putting a wide spectrum of subtly shifting overdrive textures under your fingers. There are rotary controls for gain, EQ and master volume. The real fun starts with a two-position voice switch, which subtly changes the V40's character. Voice 1 is centred more on the early 60s 'blackface' tone; Voice 2 is edgier and a touch more aggressive, evoking the tweed amps of the 1950s. A small toggle switch called 'mid kick' adds a touch of extra gain in the midrange, not least to give weedy single coils a lift for solos. There's also a digital reverb with a front-panel level control and on/off switch. Then there's the standby switch, which has two 'on' positions for high power (approximately 40 watts) and low power (seven watts). This switch also works in the V40's single-ended mode, offering a choice of around 1.5 watts in the high-power position and 0.5 watts in the low-power setting. The V40's sonic palette made us sit up and take notice. By reducing the gain, all the mildly overdriven and chime effects normally squeezed into a fraction of the gain knob's travel now occupy the whole range. The V40 Duchess is a unique design - many of its competitors feature high-gain lead channels, teamed with high headroom and often uninspiring clean channels. By focusing on those often-overlooked but highly effective low-to-medium overdrive sounds, the V40 has effectively carved out its own niche, and looks set to become popular for blues, roots, jazz and country players.
Read the full review: Victory V40 'The Duchess'
One of the all-time classic gigging and recording amps, in this new incarnation the Deluxe Reverb is arguably more practical than ever, thanks to the extra versatility offered by being able to utilise the tremolo and reverb on both channels. Where original Deluxe Reverbs of the period would have had a Normal channel, sans tremolo or reverb, the new '68s have a Custom channel with access to those global effects and a new voicing, courtesy of a "modified Bassman tone stack" that's billed as being more pedal-friendly. Where you would have found a Vibrato channel, there's now a 'Vintage' channel with a more traditional voicing. There's a magic sweet spot between 4.5 and 6 on the volume control (depending on your choice of guitar), where the amp delivers a wonderful, dynamic dirty-clean rhythm sound at stage level that works as a brilliant core guitar sound for all manner of rock 'n' roll, Americana, blues and classic pop applications. Just add picking-hand dynamics and your guitar's volume control; there's so much range here. 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.
Read the full review: Fender '68 Custom Deluxe Reverb
The 5150 III EL34 50-watt head downsizes EVH's high-gain format, and boasts three channels: channel 1 (clean) and channel 2 (crunch) share the same EQ but feature separate gain and volume controls on clever, dual concentric pots; channel 3 (lead) gets its own dedicated EQ. A global presence control on the front panel and a global resonance control on the rear panel tune the power amplifier’s high and low frequency response to taste. The 5150 EL34 also takes MIDI program change commands, so you can sync it to MIDI-compatible effects units and floor controllers. The EL34 version of the 5150 is important because Van Halen’s groundbreaking early work relied exclusively on heavily-modified Marshall Super Lead heads, which used EL34s. Sat firmly in hot-rodded Plexi territory, the 5150’s channel 1 is capable of sparkling cleans, with enough gain for mildly driven blues sounds. Channel 2’s higher gain is perfect for crunch and classic rock leads, while Channel 3 launches into the stratosphere with gain levels that are cheerfully insane, yet works a clever magic trick by retaining most of the dynamics that are often lost at such extremes. This means the 5150 sounds properly cranked up, even at quite low practice levels. EVH’s 5150 III 50W EL34 is a highly-effective weapon for the modern rock and metal player that puts tone before unnecessary complexity.
Read the full review: EVH 5150 III 50W EL34
Assembled in Long Island, the Supro 1695T Black Magick is a recreation of the amplifier Jimmy Page used in the early days of Led Zeppelin. Beyond that black-and-white rhino Tolex hide, you get two channels, one tone control, four 12AX7EH preamp tubes and a pair of 6973 bottles feeding the 25-watt Class A power amp. You'll also find a tube-driven tremolo circuit that can be engaged or otherwise with a footswitch (not supplied), again, just like Jimmy's... The amp also boasts a pair of inputs - channels one and two with a parallel link and channel two solo. We'll wager it's the parallel link socket that will keep you most occupied. This arrangement, utilising both volume controls, provides the most gain, and it's here that you'll get closest to the distinctive breakup of Jimmy's early Led Zep tone. Running clean, there is bags of clarity and sparkle for chord work, but dig in and you'll unlock the sweetest valve compression as the volume reaches the 12 o'clock point. Keep twisting those dials and you start to reveal the Supro's natural overdrive. Unless you use a fuzz pedal, or a treble booster, the 1695T will be loud at this point. It won't make you popular with the neighbours, but the sheer dynamic response on tap means you won't need friends. Beautifully realised, the 1695T Black Magick epitomises the old-world charm of small valve amps.
Read the full review: Supro 1695T Black Magick
The GrandMeister Deluxe refines the German firm's best-selling compact head, with four flexible channels and a host of built-in effects. Just about everything is MIDI-powered, so you can edit and store presets to your heart's content. The rear panel includes the latest Red Box recording output, and there's also a new improved iPad app that you can use to edit and store presets, either at the end of a lead or using a wireless MIDI adaptor. The GrandMeister Deluxe 40's four channels sound quite different from those of its predecessor: they're more balanced, with slightly less treble emphasis and a smoother but no less powerful bass response. There's plenty of headroom on the clean channel, which dovetails seamlessly with the higher-gain crunch channel. Both clean and crunch are very tweed-influenced, dominated by a warm midrange that's equally flattering to humbuckers and single coils, especially when boosted and laced with a little of the GrandMeister's digital reverb, which can be combined to taste with delay, chorus, flanger, phaser or tremolo. The two American-voiced lead channels have all the gain you could possibly need for almost any musical genre, from classic rock to modern drop-tuned metal, with a nicely sculpted top-end that squeals and snarls on demand. As a do-it-all tool the GrandMeister 40 takes some beating. All of its many features work efficiently and it's hard to point the finger at shortcomings, because there really aren't any.
Read the full review: Hughes & Kettner GrandMeister Deluxe 40