Is there a decent guitar amp for under $200?
February 28, 2017 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I'll soon be giving someone an electric guitar as a gift. We'd like to also get them a small, inexpensive amplifier to go with it. Which one?

I want to give them an amp that sounds decent at low-ish volume. I expect they will play a mix of jazz, blues, and fingerpicking-type stuff. I don't know that they'll need any kind of crunch.

If it matters the guitar they'll be getting is a quality Telecaster clone with two single coil pickups.

They're somewhat of an audiophile who appreciates good quality things and they are not impressed by bells and whistles. So, tubes over digital models are probably preferred. Versatility doesn't matter as much as a single decent tone.

I don't expect the guitar will ever be played outside of their living room but if it ever is they have the means to buy themselves a bigger and better amp. I just don't want to give them an electric guitar when they don't have an amplifier.

Cost should be under $200 but if I have to go a bit higher, that's ok.

Bonus points if it's something that will look attractive in a living room next to a baby grand piano.

I guess I'm looking for a small practice amp for someone with semi-refined tastes who will be mostly noodling in their living room.
posted by bondcliff to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I have a Yamaha THR-5 which is, alas, a solid state modeling amp, but - BUT - it is a good-looking, solid, highly regarded practice amp. It responds really well at low volumes - you needn't drive it to get good tone. It has a few simple effects, tap-tempo delay, and a nice hall and tank reverbs. I play a 68 tele with it - inside the house I have no need for anything more.
posted by gyusan at 9:37 AM on February 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Fender Mustang III v.2 is the best all around solid state amp to my taste in the price range. I have a 68 reissue Deluxe Reverb Limited Edition -- a $1200 amp -- with matched tubes sitting right next to my Mustang III, and I happily practice on my Mustang if I can't get as loud as the Deluxe needs to be or need more exotic tones. It has been a perfect solution for me as a lightweight amp that gets loud enough to work, sounds good quiet, and is to cheap to worry about. It has twenty zillion tonal options, of which I use three. But they get to 85-90% of totally satisfying. And that's only because I'm spoiled by my tube amps. Can't recommend it highly enough for the low price
posted by spitbull at 9:48 AM on February 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is, by the way, a perennial question on guitar forums, and people are really partisan about it. You can't really go wrong with Roland or Fender or Line6 or Yamaha gear. It's all good. I've always played Fender tube amps so I gravitate to their solid state amps by instinct. But there will be no consensus as it really is very personal. And you tend to learn to love the family of gear you learn on.
posted by spitbull at 9:52 AM on February 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have exactly the thing:

Monoprice 15-Watt tube amplifier $179

There's also a $90 5-watt version that would be plenty for the living room.
posted by ndg at 9:57 AM on February 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

My Roland micro cube has been super robust and useful (I bought it second hand ten years ago and it's had zero problems). The sound is decent enough that my partner, who is a professional musician, happily uses it as a practice amp.
posted by terretu at 10:04 AM on February 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

You may want to look at a used Vox AC4, which is a decent practice amp (I have one).
posted by thelonius at 10:06 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Without getting too gearheady, I hope, I would just counter that those Monoprice tube amps seem to sound remarkably good for blues/rock/country -- but there have been lots of complaints in guitar forum land (or see YouTube reviews) about their build quality and noise and grounding issues. Also their reverb is notoriously poor quality. They are also one trick ponies as far as tone. OP said the player is unlikely to need crunch, and might need a wider range of tones. And even a 15 watt tube amp is waaaaay louder than you'd think (comparable to an 85-100 watt solid state). Whereas a 5 watt amp might not be enough.

Given the OP's description of the home practice situation it's gonna be frustrating to not be able to crank an amp designed to be played loud, whereas the major solid state modeling amps can emulate an approximation of that tone at low volume or through headphones.

I really am intrigued by the monoprice amps myself (and sort of like amps that sound dirty because they're held together by chewing gum, which is the only way Monoprice can sell a real and powerful tube amp that cheap, when they cost less than the speakers in most tube amps) but they might not be a good choice as the only amp for a guitarist not necessarily looking to rock out.
posted by spitbull at 10:08 AM on February 28, 2017

This little Vox is pretty nice.
posted by Beardman at 10:10 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’m a big noodler with my 62 Jazzmaster and it sounds so much better with a tube amp. BUT, those amps are heavy and delicate. And I not sure anything will look good next to a baby grand.

What I really enjoy is hooking up a pair of nice headphones to my effects pedal, a Zoom G1Xon. It has enough bells and whistles to keep me noodling for hours, doesn’t keep the wife awake and I can put it out of sight when I’m done.
posted by jabo at 10:13 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I should have listed Vox in my list of "all good just a matter of personal taste" earlier. Yeah, they're excellent.

Oh and if looking good next to a baby grand matters a lot, I think Vox and Fender both have "vintage" designs that will look ok.
posted by spitbull at 10:14 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

And even a 15 watt tube amp is waaaaay louder than you'd think

QFT. The Vox AC-4 has an attenuator that lets you dial the output down to 1 watt or .1 watt, and even that is plenty loud enough for my living room.
posted by thelonius at 10:15 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

eh, 1/4 watt, not .1 watt
posted by thelonius at 10:21 AM on February 28, 2017

I have read a lot of very good things about the Blackstar HT-1, which is a 1-watt amp that lets you drive the tube hard enough for it to break up, but keep it at bedroom volume. It's a little above your budget, though.

I've also read a lot of very good things about the Blackstar Fly-3, which is a teeny 3W solid state amp, with clean/dirty channels and digital delay. It can also drive an optional extra 3W speaker as a tiny stack.

(I haven't gotten to try these yet myself, but I've been researching good practice amps obsessively for the last few months and am zeroing in on the Fly-3 which seems like a no-brainer for the price. The well-mic'd recordings I've heard on Youtube put it in a class of its own apart from all the little novelty Marshall/Fender/Danelectro micro amps.)
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 10:22 AM on February 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Fender Mustang III v.2 is the best all around solid state amp to my taste in the price range.

That Mustang III v.2 is $330 so not really in the price range.
The Mustang II v.2 would look like a better choice on the face of it, as it's only $199.99 and is 40 Watts not 100 Watts, so would be more practical in a domestic setting.
posted by w0mbat at 10:26 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

(I currently have a Mustang II and while it sounds great even at lower volumes, I find it frustratingly fiddly; it's a modeling amp capable of basically infinite combinations of amps/tones/effects, and you can connect it to a desktop via USB and use Fender's Fuse app to get even more granular. I think it's got 15 preset slots where you can store different amp tones, but I've decided that I'm much more of a "Set the tone knob to X and the gain knob to Y" person than a "spent 20 minutes dialing in volume/tone/gain/reverb/modulation effects then store it to a preset and hope you can remember which one next time" person.)
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 10:37 AM on February 28, 2017

The sub-$200 amp space is amazing compared to what it once was, thanks to the refinement of modelling amps. The Roland Cube, Fender Mustang, Vox Valvetronix, etc. offer a lot of value, as does the little portable Yamaha. Blackstar Core:ID 20 is also an option at that budget, and pretty dinky, though the Mustangs are probably better for capturing classic Fender sounds.

If you just want tube and tone, then the Monoprice 15er is an option, but like spitbull, I think those amps are a bit limited and potentially flaky.

So: I'd go with the Boss Katana 50, which is bang on your $200 budget. It's a 1x12, looks good, and can be stepped down to run at low wattage to get the gain dynamics without high volume. The cleans are really good, the "hint of breakup" sounds are also good, and while I understand your desire for tone over effects, it's really nice having access to a bit of reverb and delay and tremolo on the amp itself to fill out the sound. If you haven't tried one, it's worth a demo.
posted by holgate at 10:49 AM on February 28, 2017

Yeah, I should add a little bit of fiddly effects stuff is fine, but nothing gimmicky and he probably doesn't have the need to model 800 different amp combinations.

The Boss Katana-50 looks promising.
posted by bondcliff at 11:00 AM on February 28, 2017

Holy crap, that Blackstar HT-1 mentioned above would make me very happy, and I'm a tone dork, as well. Before I saw that, I was going to comment something to the effect of "inexpensive and tube? i wish you luck!"

If you're okay with used, you may be able to find an old silverface Fender Champ for hopefully under $250-300 - it's a 5W tube practice amp (i've got a vibro-champ from that era, I rarely turn it past '3' out of '10' in my home).
posted by destructive cactus at 11:03 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I meant a Mustang II sorry!
posted by spitbull at 11:13 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just got a Bugera BC15, $116 on Amazon. It's great for the price, perfect for the living room. Looks all vintage, and seems well-made.

If you want to spend $200, the Bugera V5 Infinitum is all tube and apparently sounds really great. Looks awesome, too.
posted by Huck500 at 12:05 PM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I own both a Blackstar Fly3 and a Blackstar HT1R (and a bunch of other tube guitar amplifiers -- tube amps are both my hobby and my weakness).

The Fly3 is a fantastic travel-friendly amp and impossible to beat in its $60 price range, but not necessarily the amp you'd want to live with day in and out. It's especially great for jamming in motel rooms and such.

The Blackstar HT1R combo, on the other hand, is a great bedroom and living room amp, and one I'd feel comfortable recommending for rock tones - everything from jangly rock to crunchier classic rock, but stopping short of metal. The "R" denotes a very decent digital reverb, giving you the whole package: tube preamp and tube power amp in a small 1x8" combo, with built-in reverb. The built in reverb part is important because reverb sits best in the signal chain when it's inserted AFTER distortion, modulation, and delay effects (for reasons too long to get into here).

To make this amp even more versatile I'd suggest upgrading the speaker to a Jupiter 8SC (8ohm). This $50 speaker delivers truly amazing tones - with the amp's EQ adjusted to its clean settings, this speaker allows the HT1R to cop some very believable Fender "black face" tones, and gives the amp a full range of American and British rock tones, as well as some warm clean tones. Fender "black face" amps were the classic Fender amps of the 1960's with black-colored control panels (and contrast with the Fender "silver face" amps of the 1970's which were a bit more strident). There's one more internal upgrade I highly recommend for this amp, a mod to its boost circuit to make the boost circuit available on the clean channel, but it involves some soldering and I won't go into it here. For the sake of completeness, here's a guitar forum writeup if anyone is interested.

That said, if your friend is mainly interested in playing "jazz, blues, and fingerpicking-type stuff," they may be a lot happier with the Roland offerings. I'd personally skip the low end stuff and save up for a Roland Jazz Chorus JC-22, a smaller version of their classic JC-40. The JC-22 which is an amp that will do everything your friend needs and more while still being compact and incredibly toneful across the full spectrum of the rather different musical genres you listed in the OP. It's about double your proposed budget. Sigh... Still, your friend may still want to save for it - it would be the perfect amp for their situation, a classy, versatile, and good looking solution that would keep them happy for years to come.
posted by mosk at 3:14 PM on February 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Kustom has some very decent amps in your price range.
posted by mikek at 10:00 AM on March 2, 2017

The Boss Katana does look good, but the Mac software for it doesn't work on the current MacOS version, Sierra (which has been out for nearly half a year now). You need the app to choose your own setup of virtual BOSS effects, the amp's unique selling point.
posted by w0mbat at 8:37 AM on March 3, 2017

Ended up with the Boss Katana. Good combination of cost, looks, and features. Gift of amp and guitar will be given this weekend.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by bondcliff at 8:00 AM on March 21, 2017

The BOSS Katana software now works on Mac OS X Sierra. I'm tempted to buy one myself now!
posted by w0mbat at 5:33 PM on March 29, 2017

Gorgeous guitar!
posted by mosk at 12:09 AM on April 1, 2017

I did buy a Katana amp, the cheapest one. It's sounds lovely clean and dirty and I no longer need my BOSS multi effects box to get my commonly used chorus + delay + reverb sound.

Mine came out of the box with screwed up effects presets (the delay effects were silent) but updating the firmware over USB fixed it.
I now suspect just a factory reset (hold down "panel" when switching it on) might have worked instead, but newer firmware is better anyway.

The Mac USB control software works and some of the other BOSS effects you can select through that are amazing, e.g. the acoustic guitar simulator.
posted by w0mbat at 11:04 AM on April 10, 2017

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