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Best Tube Amps 2021: Top Choices from Fender, Marshall, MESA/Boogie and More

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Best tube amps 2021: top choices from Fender, Marshall, MESA/Boogie and more
(Image credit: Future)

In this guide, we’ll be taking a look at some of the best tube amps you can buy today. Tube amps (sometimes referred to as valve amps) have been around for a long time, with early models dating right back to the 1930s. Though transistor amps eventually arrived on the scene, replacing the need for tube technology, many players still preferred the tone and feel of tube amps. The iconic guitar sounds brought to us by the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Cream, The Rolling Stones and Queen all came courtesy of the tube amplifier. 

In recent years, transistor and digital modeling amps have improved dramatically. However, tube amps offer a particular sound and responsiveness that’s incredibly hard to mimic. They add natural, harmonic distortion that’s very musical, and compress in a way that enables you to play with more dynamics and expression. 

There’s a wide range on the market right now, all with different features and tonal characteristics – so, what are the best tube amps?

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Best tube amps: Product guide

Best tube amps: Fender ’64 Custom Princeton Reverb

(Image credit: Fender)

1. Fender ’64 Custom Princeton Reverb

The best tube amp for full-bodied cleans and classic American drive

Price: $2,299/£1,855 | Output: 12W | Preamp tubes: 1 x 12AT7, 3 x 12AX7 | Power amp tubes: 2 x 6V6, 1 x 5AR4 rectifier | Number of channels: 1 | Speaker: 1 x 10” Jensen Vintage Alnico P10R | Weight: 32lbs/14.5kg

Classic Fender cleans
Lush tremolo and tube-driven reverb
Great mid-level overdrive 
You have to really push the volume for breakup 

The hand-wired ’64 Custom Princeton Reverb delivers all the dynamics and nuances that mid-’60s Princetons were famed for. Incredibly responsive, it offers full-bodied, chimey cleans and, when pushed, classic American drive. It’s warm with a smooth mid-range and clear, sparkling highs, all of which are delivered by a 10” Jensen Vintage Alnico P10R. The tube-driven spring reverb and on-board tremolo are both foot-switchable and add a layer of versatility to an already incredible amp.

Two 6V6 tubes in the power amp section help to deliver an output of 12W, which will be loud enough for small gigs but not so loud that you won’t be able to gain incredible tones at home. There’s a good amount of clean headroom, though when playing live you’ll likely mic it up. Once you crank the volume to around halfway, you’ll start noticing some really sweet and musical breakup; keep going and you’ll get some really nice natural compression, too. The ’64 Custom Princeton Reverb is one of the most usable tube amps out there, and works really well as a pedal platform.

Best tube amps: Orange Rockerverb 50 MkIII Head

(Image credit: Orange )

2. Orange Rockerverb 50 MkIII Head

One of the most versatile tube amps on the market

Price: $1,999/£1,499 | Output: 50W, switchable down to 25W | Preamp tubes: 4 x 12AX7, 2 x 12AT7 | Power amp tubes: 2 x EL34 | Number of channels: 2 | Speaker: N/A | Weight: 46lbs/20.75kg

Incredibly versatile
Perfect for the studio and the stage
Foot-switchable attenuator   
You won’t get the most out of it at home 

The Orange Rockerverb is considerably more versatile than its name suggests. The MkIII update saw chief designer Ade Emsley add more chime to the clean channel, while retaining all the vintage warmth that helped make the older Rockerverbs so popular with a range of players. 

If you’re looking for a giggable tube amp that offers quality clean and distorted tones in equal measure, then this could well be the solution. The dirty channel offers everything from bluesy crunch to outright high-gain metal tones. 

Paired with a nice cab, this 50W head will absolutely sing. Plus, its foot-switchable attenuator and 25W half-power mode mean that you can really drive the EL34s in the power section at a more manageable volume, making this a great all-rounder for shows, rehearsals and studio sessions. 

Best tube amps: Marshall SV20C

(Image credit: Marshall )

3. Marshall SV20C

The best tube amp for dishing out classic rock crunch

Price: $1,599/£759 | Output: 20W, switchable down to 5W | Preamp tubes: 2 x 12AX7, 1 x 12AX7 phase splitter | Power amp tubes: 2 x EL34 | Number of channels: 2 | Speaker: 1 x 10” Celestion V-type | Weight: 35lbs/15.9kg

Classic tones at lower levels
That overdrive is hard to beat
True to the originals  
Even 5W is pretty loud 

The Marshall Plexis of the 1960s shaped the sound of rock music as we know it. The likes of Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton all relied on Marshall amps for their genre-defining tone, so why shouldn’t you? 

The Marshall SV20C is a scaled-down, all-in-one combo version of the manufacturer’s iconic 100W Super Lead Model 1959, reducing the output to a more manageable 20W. This is perfect for gigs and band rehearsals; however, you’ll also have the option to run it at 5W, meaning you can crank it up at home too – it’ll still be loud, but your neighbors are more likely to forgive you!

It’s laid out in the same way as the originals, with two inputs for each channel, and delivers the same classic, mid-range bite that helped shape the Marshall sound. Whether you’re looking for old-school clean tones or want to crank up the volume for that definitive classic rock crunch, this tube amp will deliver the goods.

Best tube amps: MESA/Boogie Mark Five 35

(Image credit: MESA/Boogie)

4. MESA/Boogie Mark Five 35

One of the best modern tube amps, with incredible clean and high-gain tones

Price: $2,049/£1,899 | Output: 35W, switchable down to 10W | Preamp tubes: 6 x 12AX7 | Power amp tubes: 4 x EL84 | Number of channels: 2 | Speaker: 1 x 12” Celestion Custom 90 | Weight: 44lbs/20kg

Wide range of incredible tones
Power reduction
Three voicings per channel 
It’s pricey 

Seeking a premium, high-end, hand-wired tube amp? The MESA/Boogie Mark Five 35 ticks all the right boxes. Built to celebrate 35 years of the company’s flagship range, it takes some of the most popular features from previous models and repurposes them into an impressive new package. 

It’s a 35W combo, with four EL84 power tubes, a 12” Celestion Custom 90 speaker and the ability to switch down to 25W or 10W, should you require a different feel and quicker breakup. This adjustable output means that the amp is just as well suited to home use as it is to stage or studio work. With two channels, each offering independent preamp stages and three modes, you can mine an almost unlimited array of sounds. Navigate from sweet clean tones, to a classic rock mid-range bite, to smooth saturation, all via an intuitive and well-thought-out control panel. 

Add in the classic MESA five-band EQ panel, tube-driven reverb and a cabinet-simulated DI output, and you have one of the best tube amps for anyone seeking world-class tones.

Best tube amps: Vox AC30C2X

(Image credit: Vox )

5. Vox AC30C2X

A rock ’n’ roll mainstay, serving up chimey cleans and classic overdriven tones

Price: $1,399/£1,223 | Output: 30W | Preamp tubes: 3 x 12AX7 | Power amp tubes: 4 x EL84 | Number of channels: 2 | Speaker: 2 x 12” Celestion Blue | Weight: 73lbs/33kg

Chimey cleans and smooth overdrive
On-board reverb and tremolo 
It’s heavy! 

A legendary amp, the AC-30 has been the go-to choice for many iconic artists – including Brian May, Rory Gallagher and The Beatles. It’s equipped with four EL84 power amp tubes that offer a beautiful, chimey top end, as well as a nice, bitey mid-range when pushed. The Celestion Blue speakers are fairly true to the original ’60s models and give you an open and present sound. 

Two channels serve up a variety of tonal options (with the Top Boost channel giving you control over the treble and bass frequencies). Whether you want to play jangly, British-invasion-style tunes, or driving classic rock, this tube amp can cover it.

The on-board tremolo and reverb also sound incredible, and if you need to move some more air at a show, you can hook up an external speaker. Alternatively, if you want something a little more suited to playing at home, check out the AC-15.

Best tube amps: Fender Blues Junior Lacquered Tweed

(Image credit: Fender)

6. Fender Blues Junior Lacquered Tweed

A versatile, sweet-sounding, practical tube amp – what’s not to love?

Price: $699/£669 | Output: 15W | Preamp tubes: 3 x 12AX7 | Power amp tubes: 2 x EL84 | Number of channels: 1 (with Fat switch) | Speaker: 1 x 12" Jensen C12N | Weight: 31lbs/14kg

Versatile
Sounds good at low volumes, too
Lovely reverb 
Not enough headroom for some players

For years now, the Fender Blues Junior series has given guitarists quality tube amp tones at a great price point. With 15W of output at your disposal, you’ll probably get away with performing smaller shows with it, but it’s the perfect amp for playing at home. 

It delivers lush and warm cleans with a sparkling top end, as well as some classic-sounding overdriven tones. Stick a boost in front of it to really work the preamp section, or, for heavier tones, run it clean and use your favorite distortion pedal. 

Whatever you choose to do with it, the amp’s 12” Jensen C12N speaker boasts the necessary quality to make your guitar work sing.

Best tube amps: Marshall SC20H

(Image credit: Marshall )

7. Marshall SC20H

The legendary rock and old-school metal icon gets a 20W makeover

Price: $1,399/£699 | Output: 20W, switchable down to 5W | Preamp tubes: 3 x 12AX7 | Power amp tubes: 2 x EL34 | Number of channels: 1 | Speaker: N/A | Weight: 21lbs/9.4kg

Legendary rock tones 
Power reduction helps drive the tubes 
Not the most versatile amp 

A few years ago, the Marshall JCM800 – one of the most pivotal amps in rock history – was reimagined as part of the Studio series. The SC20H is a 20W version of that classic tube head, which was used by nearly every rock and metal guitarist of the ’80s and early ’90s. 

You can run it clean, add a touch of drive and push the preamp with pedals, or dial up both the master and pre-amp volumes to get all the tubes singing. As with all the models in the Marshall Studio series, the SC20H benefits from a power reduction option that enables you to run it at 5W and get the most out of it at more sensible volumes. Plus it’s got a DI output.

More often than not, the classics are classic for a reason, and this 20W take on the JCM800 is one of the best tube amps for rock and metal that you can get. 

Best tube amps: Blackstar JJN-20R MkII

(Image credit: Blackstar)

8. Blackstar JJN-20R MkII

Unleash your inner blues power with a signature amp from one of the world’s hottest players

Price: $729/£699 | Output: 20W, switchable down to 2W | Preamp tubes: 3 x 12AX7 | Power amp tubes: 2 x EL84 | Number of channels: 2 | Speaker: 1 x 12” Celestion G12T-75 | Weight: 35lbs/15.9kg

Covers a lot of ground
Giggable, but will sound great at home too
Impressive feature set  
Green finish not for everyone 

This artist-signature tube amp comes courtesy of Blackstar and chicken-pickin’ bluesman Jared James Nichols. It’s an incredibly versatile and feature-laden amp – fitted with EL84 power amp tubes – that will cover you for a wide range of applications and playing styles.

It’s a two-channel amp; however, each channel has two voices – a British one and an American-style offering. You can use the first channel to dial in everything from warm, rounded cleans to on-the-edge breakup sounds, while your dirty channel offers everything from subtle blues crunch to higher-gain saturation. 

Not only does it sound great, it’s highly practical too. You can switch it from a giggable 20W to 2W, which will enable you to really work those tubes while retaining sensible at-home volumes. There’s also a USB output for recording directly, and a speaker-emulated DI that’ll come in handy for gigging and recording.

Best tube amps: Buying advice

Close-up of tubes in an Orange amp

(Image credit: Future)

How to choose the best tube amp for you 

Before buying a tube amp, ask yourself a few questions. Where are you likely to use it the most? Onstage? If so, look for something with a good amount of power, so that you’ll have no problems being heard. Tube heads can be good if you play regular shows, as many venues will already have a cab, meaning you can turn up with just your guitar and your head.

Marshalls have an aggressive, mid-heavy sound that’s commonly associated with British artists

If you want a tube amp to use solely at home, then it’s best to get something with a lower wattage so that you can drive the tubes while keeping the volume at a steady level. Many modern tube amps now feature power reduction, which will enable you to run them at a higher wattage when you need the volume, then switch them down for home practice.

Need to switch between different sounds a lot? Then look for an amp with multiple channels – this can save you having to use a lot of pedals. If you prefer to keep things simple, there are some amazing tube amps with just one channel. Look at how much tone shaping is possible with the amp, too – if you’re always searching for that glorious sweet spot, then you’ll want something that allows you to dial in your EQ and gain quite precisely.

Fender Princeton amp on pink background

(Image credit: Future)

Of course, the tone of a tube amp is important. If you want a similar sound to some of your favorite players, check out what sort of amps they use. Tube amps can sound quite different depending on the brand; for example, many Marshalls have an aggressive, mid-heavy sound that’s commonly associated with British artists, whereas Fender amps are often more present in the lows and highs, and represent more of an American sound.