The 3 Best Low Wattage Tube Amps Reviewed: Recording At Home Has Never Been Easier!

By Christoper Horton •  Updated: 10/07/22 •  19 min read

If you record at home and have neighbors, taking a look at these best low wattage tube amps can save you a headache! Metaphorically and literally!


The Best Low Wattage Tube Amps: (Don’t Really)Blow The Roof Off!

We have been talking a lot about amplifiers here lately, especially the difference between tubes and solid state. We have found a ton of solid state amplifiers that get really close to the sound and response of a tube amp. Most of the Line 6 Helix stuff is amazing, along with the Catalyst. Our personal favorite around here, since we all use one, is the BOSS Katana.

These are all great solid state options, and they will work specifically for recording quietly. With most of the digital and solid state modeler amps, you can easily record silently with just a pair of headphones. The same goes for playing shows, as digital is taking over. Gear like the Helix have become the norm for lots of guitarists.

I see a lot of local gigs, and so many people have switched over to using gear like the Katana and Helix because its so easy to get a great sound. Even better, you can get a bunch of different sounds. You also have a whole host of effects, so there is no need for a pedalboard at a gig. The whole idea is the more “economical” approach.

But sometimes, especially when it comes to recording, nothing can beat “the real thing” in my opinion. A cranked up tube amp is always going to sound different from an amp sim or modeler. Using a mic to record a cranked up tube amp is very old school, but there’s a reason those old recordings sound so great. Tube amps fill in a part of the frequency spectrum that no modeler can attain.

Lately, I have been blending the two sounds to great effect. I have two channels on a recording with a cranked up tube amp (BlackstarHT40), and the rest is done either with my Katana or STL Tones. The cranked up Blackstar amp adds a layer of depth that just can’t be replicated. But I also have a sound-treated room away from neighbors.


How To Use The Best Low Wattage Tube Amps

This is where a low wattage tube amp can be a godsend. You can always crank up a 100 watt tube amp and record with a power soak or attenuator, but most guitarists do not have that option. If you are limited on space, and the amount of volume you can produce, a low wattage tube amp might be what you need to spice up your tracks.

Even if you have a full home recording studio, and no problems with recording at high volume, one of these amps can come in handy. These top 3 best low wattage tube amps can be a great tool in any studio. These little guys can be a secret weapon when you need a cranked tone, instantly.

I have seen some studios in Atlanta and Nashville that have some of these low wattage amps, because they can get the sound of a loud tube amp, but they also have their own tonal character. Sure, they can replicate a loud stack at conversation volumes, but they also have something special that even bigger amps lack.

Sometimes you need an amp that does one thing really well, that you can just plug into and crank up. That’s the purpose of the amps we are going to look at today. Whether you use them as your only guitar sound, or use it as a way to “fill in” some of your guitar tracks.

So let’s take a look at the top 3 best low wattage tube amps for recording, and talk about the sounds they are capable of!


#3 VHT Special 6 Ultra 12” Combo

best low wattage tube amps VHT

We are kicking off our list of best low wattage tube amps with the VHT 6 Ultra. There are tons of reasons that I picked the VHT, but the main one is control. A lot of low wattage tube amps do one sound really well, and that is great for recording purposes.

But the VHT has some wiggle room when it comes to gain, and the different tones you can get out of this amp. If you are looking for a wall of gain that sounds like a cranked Marshall, it will do that just fine with some pedals. It will do lots more than that, if you are a little creative.

The VHT 6 ultra is one of the best low wattage tube amps because of the crazy amount of features it has. Usually with these low wattage amps, you get a fraction of the features that the VHT is sporting. Its almost like it was designed to be a much bigger amp, since it has the features you look for in a stage amp.

But the VHT is also like a “single knob” amp that was famous back in the day. This means it gets dirtier as you turn up the volume, and allows a ton of saturation to come through. It may look like one, but it doesn’t act like a single knob amp at all due to the features it has.

Although it can work like one, if you ignore the “Texture” feature . I had a hard time getting a ‘totally clean” tone out of the VHT unless I had it on the full 6 watts with the volume dialed back. The overdrive input is also volume-dependent, and at full blast it has a dirty, saturated crunch.

But it can get even dirtier if you have a single button footswitch, because the Boost function kicks everything up a notch. The Boost sounds best as an “always on” feature for me, but you could also use it while recording to break into a solo. If you like to do everything on a single take, like me, this Boost is an awesome feature.

Another surprise is the wattage knob (1 to 6 watts). This is a super cool idea that I don’t think I have ever seen on an amp of this ilk, at least not on the faceplate. You can tune the wattage for both the clean and overdriven inputs, which means I got a fully saturated gain sound with the VHT that you could talk over. This is perfect for recording at home, without disturbing anyone.

The texture feature is also something to point out, and it also works for the clean and overdrive inputs. This works like a low end filter and each of the three clickable options add more depth and low-midrange. So you can technically have 6 different voicings between both inputs.

The tone control sounds best wide-open to me, since you can always contour high frequencies with your guitar knobs. The depth control however, doesn’t just add bass to your sound. It seems to add resonance to me, and it is most useful with the clean input to my ears.

The star of the show, and why I think the VHT 6 Ultra is one of the best low wattage tube amps on the market, is the FX loop. This means that all of your pedals can be used, without modulation having to be ran through the front of the amp. This is rare for a bare bones amp, and you usually have to sacrifice an FX loop.

I tried out the FX loop with two different reverbs, a chorus, and a tape delay pedal. These all sounded amazing, and the pedals respond well to the limited control set on the top of the amp. For example, turning up the “depth” knob made the reverb tails pick up more of the bass frequency. The texture button worked the same way, changing response of the effects.

The 12” VHT speaker is the weak point for me. Don’t get me wrong, it sounds just fine and reminds me of a vintage Celestion in feel. That being said, there are tons of speakers that you can use to tailor the VHT to your style, and it is easy to swap since there is an included impedance switch for 6, 8, and 12 ohms.

Overall, I think the VHT 6 Ultra is one of the best low wattage tube amps, period. You can get pedal-friendly clean or overdriven tones at just about any volume you desire. The fact that the amp is made for mods is also cool, and its easy to change out the tubes or speaker to whatever you want to use. I would love to hear it with an EL34 and Celestion!

So when it comes to the best low wattage tube amps, the VHT is probably the most versatile, yet simple, you are going to find. It takes pedals, but it also works well as a stand-alone amp that is perfect for any studio. I played around with the VHT for about 4 hours, and I still think I missed some of the tones it is capable of!

VHT Special 6 Ultra 6W 1x12 Hand-Wired Combo
$629.99

With its additional preamp gain stage, amazing variable Watts control, unique Depth control and tube-driven effects loop, the new high-gain Special 6 Ultra combo amp rockets the popular Special 6 platform to the next level.

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#2 Marshall DSL5CR 

best low wattage tube amps

Imagine a list of the best low wattage tube amps without a Marshall DSL Series on it! I have really loved the DSL amps since they had an overhaul, and Marshall knocked it out of the park with this whole series. Nothing beats the sound of a cranked up Marshall, and the DSL delivers that classic tone in spades.

Now this is NOT the original DSL series from a few years back that was received so poorly. Marshall has redesigned the entire DSL lineup to cater more to the modern guitarist, with extra added features. The tone is there, but you have way more options!

This little guy is a 5 watt beast that has just about everything you need already built-in. A lot of thought went into making the low wattage versions, and you can tell these are made for using in the studio or at home for practice.

If the VHT 6 Ultra was a little too simple for your tastes, then the Marshall DSL5R has all the bells and whistles that make getting a great recording tone easy. You have different tonal options that you can control with the Marshall, since it has full a EQ section. This is one of the best low wattage tube amps for guitarists that record at home, or a secret weapon for any studio!

While it already works really well as a 5 watt monster, you can dial the wattage all the way down to half a watt. This is why it can be such a great tool for guitarists recording at home. At only .5 watts, you can really get a heavily saturated overdrive tone that picks up all of the nuances of your playing, and gives you tons of natural overtones, at a low volume.

Throw a mic in front of it and rock! With the wattage turned all the way down, I was able to get a killer distortion tone that you could easily speak over. The Marshall is a little bit louder than the VHT, but not by much. You definitely won’t have the neighbors mad at you.

You have two different channels that can be controlled by a single button footswitch. The “Classic Gain” is essentially the clean channel, but can get pretty dirty with the volume cranked up. I have never been a huge fan of Marshall clean tones since they are so dry, but it works well with modulation pedals like delay.

The real star of the show is the second channel, where we have the classic Marshall overdrive that everyone from Slash to Eddie Van Halen are famous for using. The “Tone Shift” knob actually gives you the option to make the amp sound a little more American, like a scooped Mesa Boogie. This…not for me.

The Tone Shift is cool, but what you really want is the regular Ultra Gain channel without the Tone Shift engaged. This gives you the classic midrange crunch that Marshall is known for, and it sounds amazing. I used my Schecter NJ HSS to try this amp out, and the tones from the 78′ humbucker were glorious.

This classic Marshall overdrive sound is perfect for recording rhythm tracks, or layering with your VST/amp sims. It just gives the overall sound a little extra oomph. I think it sounds best recorded at the 5 watt position, but it does not lose any tone when you lower the wattage.

The three band EQ is what sets the Marshall apart from the other best low wattage tube amps. You have way more control over your tone, and the “Deep” switch is a bass boost that makes palm mutes absolutely thump. Recording with a mic, you would think this was a much bigger Marshall amp!

The FX loop works great, and this is another feature that tells you this little guy was built for the studio. I put a phaser and a delay pedal through the loop and tried my best to mimic some EVH tones. The DSL5RC gets you about 90% of the way there to sounding like a loud stack on recordings!

But how does it do that with just a 10” speaker? I’m here to tell you that this Celestion 10-30 can handle some serious low end. At the 5 watt setting with the Deep switch engaged it will shake the room! I think 10” speakers can give a guitar amp a different character, and this Celestion is overrated for what the Marshall can dish out.

While the Marshall DSL5CR is definitely one of the best low wattage tube amps, it does have a few drawbacks. If you plan on using a mic to record it, and have a few pedals that you like, then the issues don’t affect you. But there are a few problems.

Now the “Silent Recording” feature with the cab emulation is totally usable, but I wouldn’t recommend it over putting a mic in front the amp. I understand some people have no choice but to silently record, but Marshall definitely missed the mark with the cab emulation. The bass and midrange gets sucked out of the signal to my ears.

The built-in reverb is again, useable if you need it. Not all digital reverbs are created equally, however. The DSL5CR lacks a lot of depth with the reverb, even when you turn it all the way up. I am actually a big fan of digital reverb, but something is just a little off with this one.

With all of that said, the Marshall DSL5CR is still one of the best low wattage tube amps I have come across, and it can easily be a great studio tool. Even if you use amp sims or modelers as your primary tones, the Marshall records incredibly well at low wattage and can add that extra flavor to your guitar tracks.

Marshall DSL5CR 5W 1x10 Tube Guitar Combo Amp
$799.99

The next generation of the Marshall DSL series has arrived! These DSL amps are laden with Marshall tone, features and functionality for the novice, as well as pros performing on the world’s biggest stages. The DSL series includes the following updated features: Adjustable Power Output, EQ Refinements, and Reverb, Resonance and Master Volume.


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#1 Blackstar HT-5R MKII

best low wattage tube amps

Don’t let the tweed and baby blue exterior fool you, the Blackstar HT-5 is one of the best low wattage tube amps for rock and metal! In fact, even if you took the last two amps and put them together, you would not have the versatility that this little Blackstar is sporting.

Just like the bigger versions of the Blackstar HT series, you have tones of control over you tone from the faceplate. Just like the others, you have a variable wattage that allows you to record at just about any volume, but there is way more to work with here!

I absolutely loved my Blackstar HT40 for touring and gigging. I was in two bands at the time, one was blues and the other was metal. That amp managed to cover any genre I threw at it. The Blackstar HT-5R is one of the best low wattage tube amps because it does the same thing, in a slightly smaller package.

You have two channels, and we can start with the clean channel. The clean channel doesn’t have its own EQ section, but it does have a tone knob that lets you shape the sound. The voicing switch lets you change between a Fender-like sound with lots of headroom, to a VOX-like sound that breaks up as the volume gets turned up.

If you are going to use pedals, both clean voicings give you a ton of options. For example, fuzz seems to sound better on the British voice on the clean channel. On the other hand, distortion pedals definitely work better with the Fender voicing, and has some midrange scoop for chugging.

The overdrive channel does have its own set of EQ controls, and it also has two different voicings. One is a more vintage style of overdrive similar to a Marshall. The second voice is high gain Metal with a bit of a scooped sound. This is how I was able to use the same amp in two very different bands!

On top of the 3 band EQ, you have the ISF knob that Blackstar is known for. This lets you dial the overall sound between British and American, no matter which voicing or channel you have the amp set to! This opens up the tonal possibilities, allowing you to create just about anything.

The built-in attenuator takes you down from 5 watts to just half a watt, and this is where this amp really shines for recording. Since you already have a master volume for both channels, you can really crank them both and get a fantastic clean tone all the way to full-on high gain.

But you can also turn down the master on the overdrive channel, without losing any gain output. This means you have a lot of versatility when it comes to volume. The overdrive channel can be almost whisper quiet and still sound great.

Unlike the Marshall, the built-in reverb is really musical on the Blackstar. The reverb tails follow the high frequencies, much like a pedal would do. Whether you have it set low or high, the depth of the reverb really adds some presence.

However, if you don’t like the reverb, then the FX loop is there for all of your modulation pedals. There is a lift feature that works in +4dbv and -10dbv. The +4 option is the “professional level” which works best with modelers, but you can keep it set to -10 for regular guitar pedals. The delays and reverbs I tried all sounded fantastic.

The USB out feature can be used for zero latency recording, and the Blackstar actually delivers with this one. But it also features a balanced output that can go right into your recording interface, you can pick the cab IR to be a 1×12 or a 4×12. I found that the best way to silently record is the balanced output, using the 1×12 emulator.

The Blackstar HT-5R is the best of the best low wattage tube amps because it can do just about anything when it comes to tones. The clean channel voicing with natural breakup sounds great, as well as the high gain voicing on the overdrive channel. It really does a little bit of everything, and you have the most control out of the 3 amps we picked today.

Blackstar HT-5R MkII 5W 1x12 Limited-Edition
$549.99

The Blackstar HT-5R MkII 5W 1x12 limited-edition tube guitar combo is a go-to studio and practice amp, packed with great valve tone and new innovative features. Thanks to the unique 5W push-pull design utilizing the 12BH7 valve, it delivers huge tone at any volume.

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The Best Low Wattage Tube Amps: Wrapping Up

best low wattage tube amps

Recording guitar is half about talent and chops, and half about the gear you choose to use. I have heard some technically great players with horrible tones. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to an amp sim, or something like the Helix to get all of your recording tones. Lots of bands have been going the digital route for over a decade now, and that tech keeps getting better.

But there is still something about a cranked up, hot as hell tube amp that modelers and VSTs just can’t nail yet in my opinion. That leaves a gap in the industry that these low wattage tube amps fill. I mean, I have a pretty large space for recording, but there’s no way I would have a rack of tube amps in here. They take up too much space.

Low wattage tube combos like the ones we looked at today can give you the same vibe on recordings that a larger and much louder amp produces. You don’t need to be playing at 100db to get a great tube sound anymore.

If you have only used digital equipment so far when recording, try out a tube amp. You’ll notice some subtle differences, especially when it comes to playing nuances like pick attack. You might be surprised at the tones you can get versus digital gear.

At the end of the day, both of methods are great ways to record. I was inspired to write this since I have been blending sounds for a while, and these are the best low wattage tube amps I have tried out. All of the amps on this list fit a certain niche that most modelers just can’t reach. I feel like blending the two methods is a great way to level-up your sound!

Marshall DSL5CR 5W 1x10 Tube Guitar Combo Amp
$799.99

The next generation of the Marshall DSL series has arrived! These DSL amps are laden with Marshall tone, features and functionality for the novice, as well as pros performing on the world’s biggest stages. The DSL series includes the following updated features: Adjustable Power Output, EQ Refinements, and Reverb, Resonance and Master Volume.


BUY NOW

Christoper Horton

Christopher has been playing guitar and piano for 27 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. He has toured for years with several bands and music projects. He worked in LA as a studio musician and engineer working with bands like IAMSOUND, Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, Reflux, and Tripping Daisy. In between giving private lessons, he is recording a solo album for 2022-2023. Christopher plays Schecter guitars, BOSS amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.

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