Keep it Down: 5 Tiny Amps for Close Quarters

Every guitarist’s dream is to stand behind a wall of amplifiers and lean back against the sound; we want our tones to sing with sustain and ring out with commanding bravado. Unfortunately, most of the time, we find ourselves in our rooms and our studios, with angry spouses, groaning roommates, pissed off neighbors, and children wincing in pain as they cover their ears and run. When non-musicians are in close quarters, they never quite seem to understand the age-old explanation, “but the dynamics are better when it’s loud!” For all they care, players can take their guitar and dynamics with them to the curb. While a select few are blessed to crank the living daylights out of 100-watt stacks and get that singing sustain all of us are chasing, most of us are in our rooms and apartments, with kids, roommates or spouses in the next room. When inspiration strikes, (and it can strike at some very inopportune times), or when we finally find time to sit down and play, we need some way to get our ideas recorded or into the air at a reasonable volume, with all those lovely dynamics that other non-musicians near us can’t seem to stand. Like many before me have said: now is one of the best times to be a guitarist. Many amp companies have caught onto this home and studio market, and are putting out incredible “lunchbox” style amps for silent home recording or practicing, without sacrificing that unmistakable tube tone.

Today, I’m going to detail a few amps that are conducive to home and studio environments, that’ll give you those lovely dynamics without having to live in a hollowed-out 4x12 cab behind the bar you play every week.

Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 18

I thought I would start with this tried-and-true classic from the German amplification manufacturer Hughes & Kettner. This is one of the very first amps that took the entire package of recording, gigging and practicing into consideration. With its uniquely beautiful LED-lit Plexiglas faceplate, it’s not only a stunner in the looks department, but in the sound department as well. It is dual channel—one for clean and one for dirty—and both channels share hi-fi modern characteristics that this amp embodies. The Tubemeister is an incredible choice for those traveling abroad, as it is small enough to fit under an airplane seat, and it features an XLR output jet setters can send it to the mixing board of any venue without having to lug a cab around.

SPECS:

  • Clean and Lead Channel with shared three-band EQ
  • Switchable boost for Lead Channel
  • H&K Redbox XLR DI Output with Cab Sim
  • Switchable power soak from 81 watts to one watt
  • 2x EL84 power tubes and 2x 12AX7 preamp tubes

Peavey Classic 20

The Peavey Classic 30 was a standard for folks new to the tube amp scene looking for great tone both at home or on the stage for a good price. And for many years, the Classic 30 was sort of a cult classic affordable tube amp. However, many folks complained that it was just too loud for home use. Thusly, the amp to dethrone it was—you guessed it—the Peavey Classic 20. In a new lunchbox head size, the Classic 20 addressed most of the volume qualms people had with the Classic 30, and expanded on the ideas of the original Classic 30. It has the same lovely tweed case, with switchable pre- and post-gain channels, a three-band EQ, and even a reverb circuit! Like the H&K, it also has XLR outs with a cab sim, as well as a headphone out and even a USB out! This mini-sized reimagining of an old favorite is definitely not one to look over.

SPECS:

  • Three-band EQ with switchable pre- and post-gain
  • Mic-simulated XLR Output
  • Headphone Output
  • Switchable power from 20 watts down to one watt
  • 2x EL84 power tubes and 3 12AX7 preamp tubes

Vox Night Train G2

This little chrome beastie has been on the market for some time now, and it remains to be one of the most interesting offerings in the lunchbox amp world. It admittedly shows it’s age by not sporting the fancy XLR, USB, or power scaling options had by the other amps on this list, but what it lacks in features in makes up in sound, versatility, and sheer staying power. The clean sound has got the classic chime of a Vox, with a bit of a glassy mid scoop like a Fender. The dirty channel slightly resembles the Top Boost channel on the famed AC30, but its character resembles an early Marshall, (which was originally derived from the Bassman circuit). Some may perceive this amp’s internals as an identity crisis, but I call it versatility. The Night Train G2 can do a whole lot for its size, and it’s easy to recommend for anyone looking for a lot of tones in one small box.

SPECS:

  • Bright (Clean) and Girth (Dirty) Channel with shared three-band EQ
  • Switches for changing character of gain
  • Onboard reverb
  • 15 watts
  • 2x EL84 power tubes and 2x 12AX7 preamp tubes

Orange Micro Terror

While there is an absolute bevy of lunchbox heads from Orange aimed towards the metalhead with shallow pockets, I have decided to focus on the Micro Terror, which is quite possibly the smallest tube amp I have ever seen. It is not incredibly complex, nor is it chock full of features, and it most definitely is not expensive. This gainy little monster manages to stay so small because of its hybrid design utilizing both tube and solid-state technologies. Now before readers go all “tone snob” on me for using the “s-word,” allow me to explain. This amp does one thing, and it does it incredibly well. If players enjoy tones darker and meatier then a growling black bear on a dark mountain, this is the amp to own. Admittedly, the lack of features of this amp may deter some, but for the price and size, guitarists would be hard-pressed not to take it for a whirl. For those who want that dark Orange sound but are worried the Micro Terror doesn’t have enough features, look no further than the Orange Micro Dark, another hybrid tube and solid-state design that utilizes an FX loop and adjustable mids control.

SPECS:

  • Incredibly small
  • 12AX7 preamp with solid-state power amp
  • Aux input
  • Headphone out
  • 20 watts
  • Global tone knob for bass and treble controls

Laney Lionheart L5-Studio

I have been a big fan of Laney ever since owning my very first “serious” tube amp, the Laney Cub. The Lionheart series (like the Cub series that preceded it) is a nod to the Hiwatt sound, with really punchy dynamics, clarity, warmth, and headroom for days. The L5 Studio is Laney’s latest jump into the home and studio market, and features that same great Lionheart tone that’s found in its bigger amps. Like most of these, the L5-Studio features a clean and drive channel with a shared three-band EQ, as well as a global tone control and an onboard reverb. On the back, it’s got an XLR DI out with cab emulation, a USB out with a re-amp send, a headphone out, and FX loop, and a switchable output from the full five watts down to one-half watt. For the sound alone, this amp is worth the time if for fans of Hiwatts, but for the insane amount of extra features that this amp, it’s a very easy sell.

SPECS:

  • 1x EL84 power tube and 3x 12AX7 preamp tubes
  • Switchable clean and drive channels with three-band EQ and Presence (Tone) control
  • Reverb
  • XLR Out with cab sim
  • USB Out and Re-Amp Out
  • Dedicated FX Loop and switchable power

If you’re on the hunt for something to practice and record with, but don’t want to compromise on tube tone, these are just a few suggestions to help you on your hunt. Obviously there are far more amps that I haven’t covered, and there are more coming out all the time, but if you are looking for a solution to satisfy most of your needs off the stages, at night, or in the studio, you will invariably find something here you enjoy. Until next time!

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Mojotone Mt. Pilot, Fender Bassbreaker 007, Laney IRT Pulse

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