Showdown! Five Mid-Power Tube Combos Under $600

For live playing, it’s pretty hard to beat a tube amp in the 50-watt range. And when you shoehorn this medium power level in a 1x12 cabinet, you’ve got a portable stage rig that can be relied on to cut it in most gigging situations—even when there’s no help from the P.A. system. Descended from the medium-sized combos that Fender, Gibson, and others began producing in the 1950s, the modern 50-watt 1x12 amplifier is typically a multi-channel affair capable of dishing out everything from sparkling clean to viciously overdriven sounds. To appeal to a broad range of tastes and ages, these amps usually incorporate spring reverb, as well as the wide-ranging EQ controls needed to sculpt scorching metal tones.

A common denominator with these amps is their output tube complement—usually a pair of 6L6s or EL34s (though sometimes a quartet of EL84s), and three or more 12AX7 preamp tubes to perform the input-signal amplification, tone shaping, and phase-inverting chores. Any of these contingents of glowing glass bottles will provide enough muscle to guarantee you’ll be heard above the din of the band, the patrons, and probably even the club owner as he’s yelling at you to turn down!

Probably the most significant thing to occur in the world of tube combos is how affordable they have become. These days, a “budget” 1x12 tube combo with between 40 and 60 watts of power can range from $599 down to a measly $429 (street prices). With many amp companies having moved their production to China, it’s easy to see why the prices have dropped significantly, but even some of the models being produced on the North American continent are comparatively inexpensive. And when you look at the extensive features of some of these amps, you have to wonder what sorts of component compromises make it possible?

The challenge seemed perfect for the long-requested revival of the renowned Guitar Player multi-product shootout, now with input from multiple editors, comments from manufacturers (if they wish to offer views on the evaluations, which was not the case this time), and video footage on GPTV, where GP editors invite unaffiliated peer reviewers to put the products through their paces. We feel the result—which, at its best, provides our readers with data from all GP staffers, the people who actually make the gear, and working guitarists from outside the magazine—is the most fair and comprehensive way to deliver deep evaluations of like products.

So, is it possible that a tube amp costing $599 or less can truly cut it in the real world of gigs and recording sessions? To find out, we selected the five most affordable medium-power 1x12 tube combos currently available—the B-52 AT-112, Carvin Nomad, Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, Peavey Valve King 112, and the Randall RG50TC—and subjected them to extensive testing in a variety of locations. We pummeled them with a bunch of different guitars (Gibson Les Pauls and SGs, Fender Stratocasters, and Telecasters, a new Hamer Talladega, the new PRS SE One and Paul Allender models, and an Ibanez George Benson archtop) with the goal of discovering which could rise above the pack in terms of sounds, flexibility, and features. Check our reviews out below!

B-52 AT-112

Carvin Nomad

Fender Hot Rod Deluxe

Peavey ValveKing 112

Randall RG50TC