Every time we wander down to our local guitar shack, we catch sight of another micro-tube head that’s making its way onto the scene. That got us at TheToneKing.com thinking why players are moving away from 100 Watt behemoths and towards amps that aren’t any bigger than a breadbox.
Micro tube heads started popping up as early as 2005 with the Epiphone Valve Junior. At $99 bucks, it was easy for players to add one of these 5-Watt Class A tube amps to their arsenal. Then you had the Blackheart amps, which was another 5-Watter for about the same amount of dough. Both the Valve Junior and the Blackheart were cool amps for the hundred-dollar mark, but their tone was a far cry from most tube amps. And, once everyone figured out that they were one-trick ponies, even the small price point couldn’t keep the fad going.
Then, Orange came around with the Tiny Terror. While the Epiphone Valve had barely enough punch to tickle a mosquito, the Tiny Terror was like a kick to the throat. Because of the Tiny Terror’s ability to knock the heads of even the most discerning rockers, players didn’t even flinch when they saw the $500 dollar price tag. Of course, it didn’t hurt that, up until this point, Orange amps were generally in the $2000 dollar price range. But what really seemed to keep players coming back for more was that the Tiny Terror retained Orange’s signature British sound. Orange had managed to rock the world by making a micro-head that could compete with its big brother.
It’s not hard to figure out why everyone is moving away from the 100 Watt full stacks. For one thing, they’re a pain in the ass to move around. Try lugging a 50lb head, two 4×12 cabinets, and three or four guitars, and you’re ready for a chiropractor before you even step foot on stage.
Also, where the technology wasn’t there before, manufacturers have finally found a way to make a 15, 10, or even 5Watt head that can crank. Players could finally be relieved from the constant harassment by sound guys yelling at them to turn down their amps.
Now that manufacturers are making tube amps that are less than 10lbs that can rip your face off, it’s easy to see why players are opting to go small. Finding success on the heels of Orange, every manufacturer is looking to get on the micro-tube amp bandwagon. So, who’s got the goods? Which manufacturers are doing it right? In true TheToneKing.com fashion, we thought it would be a good idea if we gave you guys a look at some of the biggest names in small amps.
The King’s Top 5:
1 – Orange Tiny Terror
Price: $769.00 MSRP $599.00 Street
Wattage: Switchable 15 or 7 watts class A
Tubes: 2x12AX7 Preamp tubes and 2xEL84 Power tubes
Ohms: Separate 16, 8, or 2×16 ohm outputs
Dimensions: 30cm (12”) width x 17cm (6.5”) depth x 14cm (5.5”) height
Weight: 7kg (15lbs)
Features: One-Channel tube amplifier with three knob configuration (Volume, Tone, and Gain)
Pros: In spite of being a mini, the Tiny Terror has enough punch to play small clubs. The Tiny Terror really illustrates the difference between 15 Watts of Class A tube power and a solid state power amp section. Really, there’s no comparison. For those who thought that 15 Watts wasn’t enough to play a gig with, their minds were changed once they plugged into the Tiny Terror. $500 for a British-voiced amp that sounds like it should cost three times as much.
Cons: One channel. Some guys can’t get past that. Unless you’re one of those guys or gals that follows the old-fashioned Marshall rule of rolling back your volume knob for your cleans, you want to go with the Dual Terror (The Tiny Terror’s big two-channel brother) Also, for some, there wasn’t enough saturation in the original Terror. Although, I thought they were nuts. But, if more gain be your thing, Orange has the Dark Terror or the Jim Root Signature Terror for all of your ear-blistering needs.
2 – Hughes and Kettner Tubemeister 18
Price: $749.00 MSRP $599.00 Street
Wattage: Switchable 18, 5, or 1 Watt
Tubes: 2x12AX7 Preamp tubes and 2xEL84 Power tubes
Ohms: 8 or 16 ohm outputs
Dimensions: 35cm (15”) width x 15cm (6”) depth x 15cm (6”) height
Weight: 5kg (11lbs)
Features: Two-Channel amplifier with Lead Channel boost. Separate Gain and Volume for each channel. Three-band EQ (Treble, Mid, and Bass) shared by both channels. FX loop. Footswitchable (sold separately) Balanced RED BOX Output with authentic speaker emulation.
Pros: Another monstrous sounding amp! Two channels and separate gains and volumes for each channel makes this little critter flexible. Switching between 18, 5, and 1 Watt changes the character of the gain structure adding to its versatility. The azure glow of the face of the amp will definitely get your rig noticed on stage. I didn’t get a chance to test the Balanced RED BOX Direct Output with authentic speaker emulation but it does promise to be a really cool feature for recording artists who don’t want to go through the trouble of micing an amp.
Cons: Even though I also listed this as a Pro, the gain structure change between wattages also makes it a pain to dial in similar sounds at lower wattages. Hughes and Kettner boast the Tubemeister’s wattage selections as being appropriate for the studio, rehearsal, and gigging. But, if your tone changes every time you switch wattages, then it’s hard to keep a consistent sound. The Tubemeister is made in China. While, there are a ton of great sounding Chinese made amps out there, and this is one of them, many players will be drawn to the German engineering of Hughes and Kettner. Can be a bit deceptive. And, the Tubemeister doesn’t come with a footswitch.
3 – Mesa Boogie Mini-Rectifier
Price: $999.00 Street
Wattage: Channel specific wattage selection. Switchable 25 or 10 Watt for each channel
Tubes: 5x12AX7 Preamp tubes and 2xEL84 Power tubes
Ohms: 8 or 16 ohm outputs
Dimensions: 32cm (12.5”) wide x 17.5cm (7”) deep x 15cm (6”) tall
Weight: 5.5kg (12lbs)
Features: Two-Channel amplifier with two style modes per channel. Separate Gain, Volume, and EQ for each channel. FX loop with true hard bypass.
Pros: Has the most versatile gain structure of any mini-amp that I’ve heard. Crystal cleans to brutally heavy to rip your ear off shredding. The Wattage selection doesn’t dramatically change the gain structure. FX loop has a true hard bypass switch. Separate EQ’s for each channel. The style modes for each channel make for a huge range of tones. This is the only amp on our list that comes with a footswitch! The fact that you can change the wattage for each channel separately also is something that we haven’t seen at TTK. And, by all things holy, this little bastard is loud!
Cons: A thousand bucks! You can find a used Rectifier for a thousand bucks! That even makes pills as small as this one difficult to swallow.
4 – Carvin V3M
Price: $599.00 after instant rebate of $100.00
Wattage: Switchable between 50, 22, or 7 Watts
Tubes: 4x12AX7 Preamp tubes and 4xEL84 Power tubes
Ohms: Switchable between 4, 8 and 16 ohms
Dimensions: 38cm (15”) wide x 21.5cm (8.5”) deep x 17.7cm (7”) tall
Weight: 8.5kg (19lbs)
Features: Three-Channel amplifier with reverb. Separate EQ, Drive, and Volume for each channel. Switches for each channel include Intense/Thick (1st and 2nd ch) and Bright/Soak (3rd ch) Expanded EQ for each channel. Master Volume and Reverb controls. FX loop. Cabinet voiced Line Out. Footswitchable (sold separately) 120 or 240 VAC 50-60 HZ switch. Selectable Blue or Red Backlight LEDs. Basically, everything but the kitchen sink.
Pros: True fans of TheToneKing.com will remember our exclusive look at this head during our Winter NAMM 2011 coverage (scroll down below to watch), or one of our three vids checking out the V3M’s separate channels, and it’s still one of our favs. Besides for being the only amp in this list that has reverb, it’s almost as versatile as the Mini-Rectifier at about half the price. Plus, at a max of 50 Watts, it has the most power of all of our picks in this list. Besides, you can change the freaking LED backlights from blue to red! How cool is that!
Cons: Doesn’t come with a footswitch. Because there is so much built into this little amp, it can take some time to dial in your sound.
5 – Marshall Class 5
Price: $349 bucks
Wattage: 5 Watts
Tubes: 2xECC83 Preamp tubes and 1xEL84 Power tube
Ohms: 16 and 8 ohms
Dimensions: 49cm (19”) wide x 20cm (7.8”) deep x 21cm (8.3”) tall
Weight: 3.04 kg (6.75lbs)
Features: 5 Watt amp with true Class A circuit. Simple design. Volume, Bass, Middle, and Treble controls. All valve signal path.
Pros: About as bare bones as it gets. The Circuit is Class A from the input all the way to the Output. For those who want the purest tone possible, this is it. Besides, you’re getting a freaking Plexi for less that $400 bucks! Then there are the dynamics. The amp reacts more to your attack than any other amp in this list. For guys that are tired of all of those over-compressed sounds out there, you’re not going to find any amp that accentuates your unique playing style like the Marshall Class 5.
Cons: A Plexi is not is not for everybody. While this thing has a lot of bark, it might not have enough gain for some of our shredding brethren.
There was a time in the 80’s that the Marshall mini-stack was one of the coolest things out there, and like most trends, even that one has come back. Less than ten years ago, players were still donning the wall of Marshall Stacks. Now everyone is making it easier on their spinal columns by making the move to smaller heads. And, why not? Most of these things sound as good, or better, than their big brothers, and they save you the embarrassment of constantly being told by the sound guy to turn the hell down.
The way it stands now, there’s a ton of micro-tube amps on the market. There’s a whole lot of good, but there’s also a whole lot of bad. At TheToneKing.com, we have our favorites. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other great amps out there to try out. Go to your local shop, plug in, and listen. You might find some gem that didn’t make our list. Then, when you get home, get on TheToneKing.com forums and make sure you let us know what you found.
In the meantime, stay tuned to TheToneKing.com where, next time, we’ll take at look at some low wattage heads that are keeping with the trend of less is better. And, while we’re at it, we might even let you in on some of our personal favorites.
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About the Author: Marc published his first novel Becoming in 2010. It’s a kick-ass book with monsters and dreams and stuff, and you should buy it. Since then, he’s written thousands of articles for TheToneKing.com, many of which have been picked up for circulation by manufacturers and other news outlets. His next book, Drugs and Pancakes, should be available early 2014 if his alcoholic editor can find time to work on it in-between destroying his liver and screaming about punctuation. He graduated from Roosevelt University with honors, which means that he’s not as dumb as he looks. He’s been playing guitar for over 25 years, which is almost twice as long as most of his students have been alive.