Are low wattage amps better?
There are few things in rock and roll that are as iconic as a Marshall full stack. It's very difficult to deny the appeal of having an amp that is taller than you are and loud enough to wake the dead. But these days, that's just not what most guitar players are after. They're looking for a more portable, lower wattage amp that still retains all the tone of a solid tube stack cranked on high. While designs from amp builders are all over the map, most are opting to produce lower power designs as compared to days past and many players are embracing this "less is more" approach. Some people may be surprised to find that 90% of the amps we sell are rated at 30 watts or less. Still, others believe bigger means better, but in our experience that is rarely the case. In fact it may actually be the opposite depending on your application.
And so we're constantly asked why this is, how it happened, and why a lower output combo over a 100 watt head and a 4x12 half stack? Without attempting to tread on your inalienable right to excessive amplification, we wrote this article to address these questions, as well as discuss some of the better amp builders that have embraced it successfully.
Why a Smaller Amp?
Now, we're going to start off getting slightly technical. We assure you that it's necessary in order to understand the essential ingredient in how a good amp gets its tone. Vacuum tubes, which we at Humbucker Music wholeheartedly believe are at the core of every great amp, need to be pushed to a certain point before they are really at their peak performance. Without pushing the tubes into this range, you're not fully getting the tonal characteristics that make tube amps desirable. Thus, the only way to make the tubes perform to their potential is to turn the amp up. With the volume cranked, the output tubes are now running closer to what is called "full plate voltage". Depending on the amp circuit design and the type of tubes used, this is what gives an amp its punch, compression, dynamics, cut, warmth, thickness, or whatever. To put all of this simply, the harder it runs, the better it sounds. This is where the problem comes in... If you're running a 100 watt head, you're going to be VERY LOUD. Too loud, in fact for most applications. You see, a few things have changed since the larger amps were introduced. Back then P.A. Systems lacked the higher fidelity sound that we enjoy today. Even a relatively inexpensive PA can now reproduce passable sound quality for most smaller gigs. This makes it easier to mic up your amp for larger shows. This becomes even more of an issue at the larger venues outfitted with a fancy sound system and a mullet headed sound guy who refuses to let you turn up. With this in mind, it's easy to see how having a large guitar amp can be a liability at times. In a lot of cases it's almost a constant battle between trying to get the amp into the range where it sounds somewhat decent and trying to keep the amp at a usable volume. We see it all the time... You're forced to turn your 100 watt head down to 1.5, essentially killing your tone all together.
So with a smaller guitar amp, this struggle is diminished. They have this tone/volume equation more in balance than their larger counterparts. This is not only advantageous for the at home player, but even in a live situation, many amps are just too loud by the time you really get them dialed in. If you find this hard to believe, just ask any sound guy how often he has to ask a guitar player to turn their amp up rather than down. Makes one wonder if that's ever actually happened...
Another reason small wattage amps have become more popular is their ease of use at home. With the advent of digital recording, anyone can now record at home or at a small local studio much easier than before, without disturbing the neighbors or family, making the smaller "studio" combo amps much more popular with players. We sell a surprising amount of 5-18 watt amps to people who only record or jam at home.
So how much power do I actually need?
One of the most confusing concepts for many players to understand is the difference between how many watts an amplifier is rated at and how much output it actually has. The problem is that we as guitar players have grown accustomed to looking at the wattage ratting of an amp when trying to determine how loud it is. Unfortunately, watts don't really tell the whole story. There are many factors that determine the actual physical volume of an amp. It is also imperative to understand that the scale in terms of wattage versus volume is not linear whatsoever. For example, a 100 watt amp is nowhere near twice as loud as a 50 watt amp. In fact, depending on the type of circuit, the 50 watt amp may be the same volume or even louder in some cases. A great example of this is if you have ever compared a solid state amp to a tube amp in terms of volume. A 50 watt tube amp is drastically louder than a 50 watt solid state amp. Again, watts do not tell the whole story; you have to consider many variables when determining how loud an amplifier actually is and also how loud you really need it to be. Here are a few things to consider:
1) Tube vs. Solid state- As we pointed out, tube amps typically put out considerably more sound (volume) than that of a solid state amp. Most 5 watt tube amps are actually about as loud as most 25 watt solid state amps, not to mention the obvious benefit in terms of tone :).
2) Power operation "Class A vs. Class AB"- Without getting into much of the technical side of this topic (that is a whole article in itself), it is important to understand that Class A vs. Class AB is not an indication of quality whatsoever, but rather a difference in how the power section of an amplifier operates. Basically, for our purposes what is important to understand is that Class A amplifiers are considerably more efficient than amplifiers that run in Class AB operation. When comparing say, an 18 watt Class A amp to a 50 watt Class AB, many would be stunned to find out that they are almost the same volume. Because of the way that amps configured to run Class A operate, they do not need as much power (watts) to produce the same volume (loudness) as their Class AB counterparts. In our experience, an 18 watt Dr.Z Maz Jr., a Class A configured amp, is plenty loud enough to play with a drummer without a mic.
3) Primary Use- Earlier we pointed out why you may be better off to go with a less powerful amp from a tone perspective. This is even more important when you consider that, for the vast majority of us, most of the playing that we do is at home and there are volume constraints. Even for those of us who often play gigs, most places at this point have a pretty good house system as compared to 40 years ago. Either way you are probably just fine with a considerably smaller amp than most people think they need.
Why is smaller not cheaper?
For some it may be difficult to justify the fact that even though an amp is considerably less powerful, it is not much cheaper than its larger counterparts. Naturally, one would think "less watts = less bucks", but the reality is that there really is not much difference, from a construction perspective, between an identical 18 watt amp and one that is 38 watts. Most of the tonal qualities of an amp come from the preamp section, which in most smaller and larger amps of the same company is absolutely identical. The only difference between the amps is a larger transformer and a few components in the power section. Honestly, they take about the same amount of time to build and use 95% the same components. The cost from a manufactures standpoint is pretty much the same. The object of making an amp with less wattage is not to streamline production and build it cheaper, but more to optimize the output for its main application.
A Note About the Amp Builders
We have the privilege of carrying a lot of fine amplifiers here at our shop. Of all the lines we carry, there's not a builder we've seen that embraces the lower power approach more than Michael Swart of Swart Amplifiers. The most powerful amp that Swart produces at the moment is only rated at 30 watts, with the vast majority of them being rated in the 5 watt range, such as the Atomic Jr. and Space Tone Reverb. Don't underestimate them due to their power ratings though. These are amazing sounding amps and still have plenty of power for just about any application. One thing we hear from just about everyone who hooks up to a Swart is how they are blown away with how rich the tone is at such low volumes. You do not have to crank the amp to make it sound good. It is warm and full seemingly from the moment you turn it on. Most of Michael's designs are so good that you honestly don't really have to dial them in much at all to produce good tone. That is the mark of a good amp in our book.
If you've ever talked to us here at the shop, we definitely don't keep it a secret that we're huge fans of everything Dr. Z makes. Over the years the line has grown quite a bit and even now everything they make is truly phenomenal. Don't challenge us, we could sing the praises of the Maz Jr. for days. At 18 watts, it's the perfect power level and the tone is pretty much the benchmark here at the shop for what a good sounding amp should be. More recently the Doc has released some even lower powered amps that have really been embraced by a lot of players. The Maz 8, which was released in 2011, is a welcome addition to the now legendary Maz lineup. The tone is still everything that you would expect from a Maz, however, at 8 watts it is even easier to bring out all the character you would expect from a Dr. Z without blowing the windows out of the place. This year we had the honor of working with Dr. Z to develop the M12, which we feel really breaks new ground in terms of what a small amp can do. It's amazing how well this amp maintains its clean headroom and takes pedals. At 12 watts, it's the perfect amount of power for most players. We have to be honest... We're very proud that it's hit the market like a storm. CLICK HERE to read the praise from the Dr. Z Forum concerning the M12.
With all this talk of smaller amps, we have to be realistic - as guitar players, there will always be that fantasy of addressing a stadium sized crowd with a huge bank of amps at our backs. We know that that is something we never really grow out of no matter what our parents told us. But let's face it... Did you really get into music to do the sensible thing? (You don't have to answer that) With that being said, if it is good tone that you are after you may not want to overlook many of the smaller, lower wattage amps as well. In our experience most of the really great sounding amps that are being made today are less than 30 watts.
Listed below are some of our favorite low wattage amps.