Are you suffering from performance anxiety at home? Can't crank the volume without your spouse/partner, child or neighbor (or dog) getting on your case? Can't overdrive your tubes at lower volumes? Well, you are not alone.
And there might be a simple solution to your problem that doesn't require a doctor or cost a lot of money. You might just need a low-watt tube amp.
Seriously, when playing at home, even a 15-watt tube amp can be too loud for the domestic surrounds. Over the past decade or so, however, a slew of amp manufacturers have flooded the market with a broad range of combo tube amps that top out at five watts or so, and can be had for $150 to $350 on the used market. In terms of features, these amps range from "bare bones" to highly sophisticated, including MP3 and headphone jacks, and with speaker sizes going from six or eight inches up to 12 inches. Many of these amps can be used to drive separate cabinets, and some amps are available as "head-only" models.
There are too many low-watt (aka micro) tube amps on the market to provide a comprehensive list or overview. So, I will stick to those that I have bought or sold.
The diminutive Blackstar HT-1. Just one watt but plenty of features and great tone.
I've said this before but the folks at Blackstar, with their Marshall pedigree, are making some amazing products, especially in the "micro" tube amp category. I personally own a five-watt Blackstar HT-5R, which has a 12-inch speaker, two channels, reverb and many other features. A tone-shaping knob takes your sound from bright USA-inspired tones to darker UK styles. It has a headphone jack, an MP3 input and a speaker-out jack. This amp can easily go from bell-like cleans to Zeppelin-esque distortion. Used, you can get them for $300 to $350 but you will never see mine for sale.
That being said, the HT-1 and the HT-1 Metal, both with eight-inch speakers, are also exceptional options that can be found for under $200. Don't let the one-watt power ratings fool you. These amps are plenty loud enough for home playing, and I highly recommend them for their portability, features, tone and, of course, price.
My Marshall Class 5. Cool, classic style. Awesome tone.
I have a Marshall Class 5 that I could have bought for looks alone. It has that classic Bluesbreaker styling that screams vintage. It is one of the most basic tube amps you will find. It has a Class A, single-channel design. If you want to play clean, you need to lower the volume on the amp and/or the guitar. It can be done, with a little practice. Turn the volume up, and you start to drive the tubes to achieve some nice break up and gain. And, obviously, hotter pickups such as "humbuckers" don't need to work as hard to overdrive the tubes. The amp is as basic as they come, with only volume, treble, middle and bass knobs. On the back panel, it has a headphone jack and a very cool feature that cuts the power from five watts to one watt. The one-watt setting provides even more volume/gain versatility but the low-power setting sounds a bit flat through the 10-inch speaker.
Marshall no longer makes the Class 5, which can be found used for $350 to $450 typically, at least for the non-limited-edition versions. However, Marshall does make the five-watt DSL5C, which seems very cool and likewise has a lot of great features.
A Vox AC4TV four-watt amp seen next to a 15-watt Gibson Falcon GA-19VT...and solo.
Vox has several entries in the "micro-tube" category. The AC4TV gives you some of that classic Vox chime in a small package. With just a 10-inch speaker and retro styling, it is a very basic single channel amp. But it has a built-in power-cut feature that allows you to drop from four watts, down to one watt and even down to one-quarter watt -- which somewhat counters the lack of a headphone jack. These amps go for $150 to $250 used, and Vox also has a 12-inch-speaker version of the AC4 that I have yet to try beyond an in-store demo. I recently had a Vox Lil' Night Train NT2H (two-watt) head for a few weeks. However, I was only able to play it through an 8-inch cabinet so it was hard to gauge the full effect. Those run from $150 to $200 used.
The Hughes & Ketter Tubemeister 5 packs solid tone into a small package....and serves as a nice night light.
This post is getting a bit long in the tooth so I will wrap it up. Hughes & Kettner's Tubemeister 5 is no longer made and didn't get great reviews initially but I really thought it sounded pretty cool clean or dirty and was well made. You can find them for $200 to $300. Likewise, the Crate VC508 is out of production as well but it is a cool meat-and-potatoes, five-watt tube amp that was made in the USA. It can be found in the $150 to $200 range.
Regardless of your taste, I highly recommend adding a low-watt tube amp to your stable. For value, mobility, and ensuring a happy home life, you can't go wrong. People routinely pay $200-plus for pedals. For the same amount of money, you can add an incredible tone weapon to your arsenal.
Check out our selection of low-watt tube amps at https://smallaxemusic.com/ and let us know if you have any favorites that we missed.