The 11 best guitar amps under $/£500: our pick of the best amps for beginners and experts

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(Image: © Future)

From tiny desktop amps to do-it-all modelling machines and tasteful vintage-aping valve combos, there has never been a better choice of cheap guitar amps available.

Of course, a low price point is nothing without a strong tonal performance, so in this buyers' guide we've gathered the very best budget guitar amps available today, in terms of sound, features and overall functionality.

We believe these amps represent the best bang-for-your-buck value in the world today - they're ideal starting points for beginners, those looking for a small 'at home'/studio boxes and gigging guitarists alike.

Ahead, you'll find lunchbox tube heads, digital modelling combos, desktop amps and mini amps, which will suit players of all styles and abilities.

Now, get to it: find your next amp!

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1. Boss Katana-100

Versatility and affordability make this one of the best budget amps for gigging

Launch price: $409 / £329 | Type: Digital modelling combo | Output: 100W, switchable down to 50W, 10W and 0.5W | Number of channels: 5, plus 58 effects | Speaker: Custom 12" | Weight: 14.8kg

Hugely versatile
Excellent built-in effects
High-gain tones rival tube amps
Affordable
Not for anyone looking for a simple amp
Not the greatest-looking amp

Boss is an effects legend, but thanks to the digital expertise of parent company Roland, the brand now also has an amp that promises organic, valve-like tones at an impressively low price. It does this by using the same Tube Logic technology employed in last year’s 150-watt Waza Craft head, and other Roland amps. The K100 doesn’t invite direct comparison with specific amp brands and models. Instead, there are five generic voices: Acoustic, Clean, Crunch, Lead and Brown. You can pre-load 15 different effects types into the amp, with 55 to currently choose from when you link the Katana to the Boss Tone Studio application. The Katana may look plain, but its tones are truly exceptional. The Crunch voice is responsive and dynamic, while the Brown solo sound is as good as many USA valve-powered competitors. Start using the Tone Studio editor and the Katana’s edge becomes sharper still, with different effects chain presets and assignable control parameters.

Read the full review: Boss Katana-100

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(Image: © Future)

2. Orange Micro Dark

The cheap, high-gain micro amp head you can gig with

Launch price: $249 / £129 | Type: Tube micro head | Output: 20W | Number of channels: 1 | Tubes: 1x 12AX7 tube | Weight: 0.78kg

Awesome high-gain sounds
Surprisingly loud
Searing high-gain sounds
Built-in CabSim output
No switchable channels

It may look like a toy, but the Micro Dark is every inch a real amplifier, with a very usable 20-watt solid-state power stage coupled to a preamp that uses a single 12AX7 for authentic valve-overdrive timbres. One of the reasons the Micro Dark is so small is that it relies on an external power supply: a laptop-style brick providing 15 volts. This aside, everything else is where you'd expect to find it. The Micro Dark is a straightforward single-channel design with controls for gain and volume, together with Orange's very versatile Shape tone control, which boosts mids in one direction and scoops them in the other. There's also a very usable headphone output that features Orange's authentic CabSim speaker emulation, in addition to a speaker output, and a fully buffered effects loop. It's astonishing just how much great tone Orange has managed to squeeze into such a small box - with a 4x12 or 2x12, this amp is plenty loud enough for home practice, rehearsals or even small gigs. At less than the cost of many high-end overdrive pedals, here's a proper amp that's small enough to live in any gigbag, yet powerful enough to handle almost any situation.

Read the full review: Orange Micro Dark

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3. Blackstar Fly 3

The best guitar amp for beginners, students and guitarists on the move

Launch price: $69 / £49 | Type: Digital modelling micro amp | Output: 3W | Number of channels: 2, with delay effect | Speaker: 1x 3" | Weight: 0.9kg

Perfect for students, travelling and desks
Excellent tones for the size/price
Great value
Built-in delay!
You're not going to gig with it… but that's not the point!

Building on the already compact ID:Core series, the Fly 3 takes the micro amp concept and runs with it, packing three watts, two channels, digital tape delay and Blackstar's Infinite Shape Feature for British and American sounds. What's more, you can even buy an extension cab to create a stereo rig, which works brilliantly for playing tunes via the 3.5mm audio-in jack. It's the tone that makes the Fly 3 such a resounding success, though; it sounds as good as practice amps four times the size, with a meaty bass response, American-style cleans and hefty gain. Dialling in a touch of tape delay helps to enhance the size of the sound, too. Its small size and impressive sound makes the Fly 3 the best guitar amp for beginners, as well as anyone searching for an affordable desktop amp.

Read the full review: Blackstar Fly 3

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4. Yamaha THR10

The ideal practice amp for quiet practice and music playback

Launch price: $299 / £229 | Type: Digital modelling desktop amp | Output: 2x5W | Number of channels: 8, with 7 effects | Speaker: 2x 3" | Weight: 2.8kg

Excellent tones
Three-dimensional sound
Can be used for music playback
Easy recording via USB
Sounds good at low volume levels
No Bluetooth

Yamaha's THR10 is a desktop amp that's designed to look good, be used at low volumes, play your music via a 3.5mm input, and enable direct recording to your DAW via USB. It's an impressive feature set. Under the hood, the THR units uses Yamaha's Virtual Circuit Modelling (VCM) technology for core sound generation, with the control response designed to mimic the 'real thing' - valve amps. In this instance, the five amp models offer a range of Fender, Vox, Marshall and Boogie-style benchmark sounds, as well as bass and acoustic channels. These amps have been designed to sound good and retain dynamics without sounding overly processed, whatever the volume level, and Yamaha has certainly achieved that. It's refreshing to play through an amp that doesn't sound worse when you turn it down, and that's what makes this one of the best practice amps for use at home.

Read the full review: Yamaha THR10

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5. Roland Blues Cube Hot

Killer clean tones make this one of the best gigging amps for pedals

Launch price: $499 / £409 | Type: Solid-state combo | Output: 30W, switchable down to 15W, 5W and 0.5W | Number of channels: 1, with boost | Speaker: 1x Custom 12" | Weight: 12.6kg

Great for practice or small gigs
Ideal for pedalboard users
Great tweed-inspired, tube-like clean tones
Reliable gigging combo
USB recording output
Not the most versatile combo

Roland has duplicated not just the tone, but the organic response and dynamic envelope of a vintage tweed valve amp, using a clever mix of analogue and digital circuits. The Blues Cube Hot is a single-channel design with footswitchable boost and EQ, as well as four output levels, from 30 watts down to around 0.5 watts, to properly reproduce the sound of a valve power stage driven into cut-off at any volume level. The Blues Cube Hot needs no tweaking to find a great tone; the sonic gratification is instant. It's not just the tone that impressed us, though; the Blues Cube Hot has that dynamic squashy response that you expect from valves, flattering single coils and humbuckers alike. At full power, it's loud enough for small gigs, while at the other extreme, the 0.5-watt setting is perfect for home practice and recording, with no loss of tone or feel. Solid-state has come a long way in the last decade, and when amps as good as this one come along, it's hard to deny the benefits. Portability, reliability, consistency and affordability are a given, but great tone is what really counts. But this sounds and responds like a top boutique valve amp, with none of the valve drawbacks.

Read the full review: Roland Blues Cube Hot

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6. Fender Mustang GT 40

The desktop amp with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a staggering array of tones

Launch price: $249 / £205 | Type: Digital modelling desktop amp | Output: 2x20W | Number of channels: 21 amp models, with 46 effects | Speaker: 2x 6.5" | Weight: 6.25kg

Clever technology
Impressive range of tones
Great design
Bluetooth makes for easy music playback
Sounds aren't quite as convincing as some other modelling amps

The Mustang GT series are the first amps to feature both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which makes for easy updates, music streaming and tone tweaking via the Fender Tone mobile app. The Mustang GT 40 promises new, more realistic amp and effects models and spillover when changing patches so reverb and delay tails aren’t abruptly cut. The core sounds are superb, with 20 amp models, mostly inspired by classic Fenders from the tweed and blackface eras but a fair smattering of British sounds as well, together with dozens of delays, modulation, stompbox and reverb effects. The amp’s small screen means that there’s quite a bit of page shifting, but it’s not too tedious as the interface is generally well organised - and, of course, you can always use the app.  With 20 watts a side in stereo, through a pair of full range 6.5" speakers in a ported enclosure, the Mustang has impressive volume and clarity, not quite big enough for drum-powered gigs but more than enough for home practise, rehearsals and recording. The design is well thought-out and perfectly executed; aside from some fizziness with some high-gain models, it’s hard to put a finger on anything that’s less than excellent.

Read the full review: Fender Mustang GT 40

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7. EVH 5150 III LBX

One of the best lunchbox amp heads, especially for high-gain tones

Launch price: $599 / £450 | Type: Tube lunchbox head | Output: 15W, switchable down to 4W | Number of channels: 2 | Tubes: 2x EL84, 5x ECC83S | Weight: 7.3kg

Incredible high-gain and classic-rock tones
Rock-solid construction
Power-switching
No clean channel
Pushes the budget a little in the US!

Okay, so it pushes the budget a little in the US, but if your budget stretches, this is one of the best amps for high-gain guitar sounds. With this lunchbox head take on the 5150, the designers have opted to do away with the clean channel and keep the blue (crunch) and red (lead) channels everyone uses, so the smart front panel is clear and easy to understand, with controls for gain, low, mid and high EQ, volume and presence. The rear panel has mains and standby switches, together with a quarter-power option that knocks the output down to around four watts. It's surprisingly fully featured for a lunchbox amp, with a series effects loop, jack for the single button footswitch, resonance control to tweak the 5150's low-end response, and a single speaker outlet with an impedance switch. Even though the LBX lacks a proper clean channel and shares its controls, there's more than enough range on the blue 'crunch' mode to cover most needs. Activate the red 'Full Burn' mode, and the overdrive and distortion is borderline insanity, with so much gain that even the weediest single-coil pickups turn into high-gain solo monsters. Compared with other lunchbox heads, the 5150 LBX does the same thing its full-sized versions do to most other amps in this genre: it comprehensively blows them away.

Read the full review: EVH 5150 III LBX

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8. Marshall CODE50

Versatile digital modelling from the Brit amp legend

Launch price: $299 / £229 | Type: Digital modelling combo | Output: 50W | Number of channels: 14 amp models, with 24 effects | Speaker: 1x custom 12" | Weight: 13kg

Impressive range of classic Marshall sounds
Slick interface
Good looks
Built-in effects
Giggable
Speakers aren't full-range, so not the best choice for streaming music
For live use, you'll need to buy the separate footswitch

For the CODE, Marshall developed a range of modelled preamps, power amps and speaker cabinets in collaboration with software plugin supremo Softube, calling the result MST (Marshall-Softube). There's plenty of choice, too: the CODE50 comes loaded with 14 MST preamps, four MST power amps and eight MST speaker cabinets - these cover every classic Marshall tone from the past 50 years. It all compares favourably with amp modelling combos from the likes of Line 6 and Blackstar. Coupled with this mouth-watering choice of tone, 24 effects cover practically all vintage and modern needs, together with studio-quality reverbs. Editing is done either from the front panel or Bluetooth, using Marshall's Gateway interface app, which updates settings in real time. Other clever features include a USB interface, used for updating firmware and recording to your PC or DAW, and there's also a built-in tuner, mp3 player input and headphones socket. The tones are at least as good as the competition, and although streaming music into the amp via Gateway or USB sounds okay, you face the limitation that the amp speakers are for guitar, not full-range hi-fi.

Read the full review: Marshall CODE50

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9. Line 6 Spider V 60

A colossal array of features and sounds makes this one of the best practice amps for beginners

Launch price: $299 / £281 | Type: Digital modelling combo | Output: 60W | Number of channels: 78 amp models, with 23 cabinets and 101 effects | Speaker: 1x 10" woofer, 1x hi-freq tweeter | Weight: 9.3kg

Huge feature set
Responsive amp models
Giggable
Intuitive app
Onboard looper, metronome and drum loops
Built-in screen is a little small

This latest update to Line 6's best-selling practice amp series features over 200 high-quality amp, effects and cab models, with over 100 presets, together with a built-in tuner, metronome and even 19 real drum loops to jam along to. As if that wasn't already enough, there are Android and iOS apps and a built-in receiver for Line 6's Relay wireless transmitters, not to mention an aux in - and a USB out that will let you record to a PC using the bundled Cubase LE software, or to your tablet or mobile phone. The Spider V's controls are intuitive, although the display is a little on the small side. The updated sounds are excellent; the new full-range speaker system means better quality at low volume and more balance at higher volume levels, and not just for electric guitars - your acoustic will sound just as good, too. The new Spider V range represents great fun for guitarists at all levels - the new and improved amp models are highly playable and represent a significant advance over the competition, while the built-in looper, metronome and drum loops make this one of the best practice amps.

Read the full review: Line 6 Spider V 60

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10. Blackstar ID:Core Stereo 100

One of the best gigging amps under $300

Launch price: $299 / £281 | Type: Digital modelling combo | Output: 100W | Number of channels: 6 amp voices, with 12 effects | Speaker: 2x Blackstar 10" | Weight: 12.5kg

Diverse range of sounds
Impressive octaver and looper
Lightweight
Ideal for gigging
Easy recording via USB
No app-based editing

The giggable ID:Core 100 combo uses a pair of special design Blackstar 10-inch loudspeakers to deliver 50 watts of power per channel in Super Wide Stereo. It packs six amp voices, and a multitude of effects, including a polyphonic octaver and a looper. In use, the ID:Core 100 generates plenty of volume that can easily fill small pubs and clubs; the amp voices have been enhanced for live use and easily cut through the cacophony of a live band without sounding harsh and brittle. The included USB recording interface means the ID:Core 100 is still just as handy for home and studio use - despite the higher power, it's still very portable, weighing in at just over 12kg. Blackstar's app builders have come as close as anyone to providing the perfect interface that's intuitive and, above all, fun. The best news of all is that this amp comes at a price that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, and it includes a handy two-button footswitch that gets you straight into using the looper.

Read the full review: Blackstar ID:Core Stereo 100

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11. Vox Valvetronix VT40X

Impressive tube-assisted tones from this feature-packed hybrid modelling amp

Launch price: $340 / £238 | Type: Digital/analogue/tube hybrid modelling combo | Output: 40W | Number of channels: 11 amp models, with 12 effects | Valves: 1x 12AX7 | Speaker: 1x 10" | Weight: 9.5kg

Great dynamic range
Valve-assisted models
Intuitive Tone Room editor
Big sound for its compact size and light weight
May not be loud enough for bigger gigs
No wireless editing

The 40-watt 1x10 VT40X has a restyled sealed cabinet, with a clever bass reflex design to enhance the 10-inch driver's bass response. Vox has leveraged the considerable digital expertise of parent company Korg, using its VET (Virtual Element Technology) modelling system to simulate each amp down to the last component, changing gain structure, tone network, operating class and bias, all in real time. Class and bias buttons allow selection of class A or class AB, as well as shifting the bias voltage from normal to either cold or hot modes. Both buttons change the VT40X's dynamic response, affecting the Valve Reactor circuit, which uses a real 12AX7 valve to provide more realistic valve-driven tone and response. While the preamp is digital, this digitally controlled analogue part of the amp adds significant warmth and dynamics, which is still difficult to capture in the digital domain. Effects-wise, there's a choice of 12 onboard modulations, delays, reverbs, overdrives and distortions, as well as a handy noise reduction. Plus, Vox's Tone Room editor software allows in-depth editing of parameters, adds extra models and effects and lets you save personal favourites offline, in addition to eight patches you can store on the amp itself. You can also sample other user patches, which can be a great help for newbies.

Read the full review: Vox Valvetronix VT40X

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