‘Lunchbox’ or mini guitar amplifiers have been around for a few years now, allowing guitarists to get full-on tube tone at manageable volume levels. Great for recording, but these ‘sling-over-the-shoulder’-sized heads are also loud enough for rehearsal and small gigs (although a DI or mic’ed cab may be needed for the latter). Wattage ratings, especially in tube, or valve amplifiers, are only a rough guide to achievable volume levels; watts are a measure of electrical power, and it’s how efficiently this power is used that dictates the distance from which you can bug the folks next door.
So, following on from our recent round-up of mid-sized modelling amps, here’s a quick look at the other side of the amp divide. For the tone purists, six of the best tube-powered mini-guitar amps currently on the market:
Orange’s Tiny Terror was the first widely available ‘lunchbox’ amp, making its first appearance in 2008. The ‘Tiny’ range has evolved and expanded and the current entry-level offering is the Micro Terror.
Even with its tensile steel casing, the Micro Terror weighs under 1kg. This impressive lack of heft is facilitated by a hybrid design, utilising one12AX7/ECC81 preamp valve and a solid-state power amp stage. Aux in and phones out make this a useful practice tool, but plug it in to the matching PPC108 cabinet (or any 8-16 Ohm cab you have to hand) and the grunt-factor is impressive.
For more volume, headroom and features, check out the Orange Dual Terror, which is switchable between 7, 15 and 30 watts output and has an extra ‘fat’ channel. Unsurprisingly this is more expensive than the Micro.
The Vox Night-train has also been around a while now. Physically heavier, by virtue of its all-valve design, the NT15H-G2 features classic ‘Brit’ EL84 tubes at the output stage.
Dual (footswitchable) channels are labelled ‘bright’ and ‘girth’ which pretty much sum up the core values while an additional ‘Thick’ switch adds further beef to blues and rock tones. The Vox includes onboard digital reverb, which means one less pedal to carry around.
The matching V112NT-G2 cabinet features an entirely appropriate Celestion Greenback 12” speaker lending the whole rig an authentic, classic Vox sound, although the Night Train will go beyond traditional Vox tone into the land of high-gain distortion.
The NT15H-G2 is also available in combo form, again with 1×12 Clestion Greenback. And if you want to sacrifice some portability for additional power, check out the NT50H-G2 50 watt version.
Not quite as ‘mini’ as some of the others but still kinda cute, the 007 is the newest arrival on the small-powered tube head scene. The Bassbreaker concept is a reimagining of what a Fender amp would sound like if Leo Fender had, like Jim Marshall, taken the distortion-approach to amp design, rather than becoming known for the clean, bell-like tones of the Twin, Deluxe and Champs of yesteryear.
So, very Brit-flavoured (hence ‘007‘ and not ‘Jason Bourne’?), this is the smallest of the range and features two 12AX7 preamp tubes feeding a single EL84 power tube, and delivering 7 watts of Class-A amplification. A single channel offers a range of clean-through-high-gain tones and a footswitchable vintage-style treble-boost adds bite and harmonics for solos. There is a ¼ inch line-out for recording or direct-to-desk at the gig,
Fender offer a matching Celestion-powered 1×12 cabinet, and there is also a 1×10” (Celestion) combo version.
Mooer are perhaps best known for their range of micro pedals – and their rather charming way of translating their native Chinese into English in their marketing speil. The Mooer Little Monster AC 5w is clearly going after the sound of the early Vox amps – there’s even a top-boost switch(!) A simple pre/post gain structure allows you to dial in a range of sounds from clean through edgy to overdriven. Then a normal/top-boost and thin/mellow switches provide tonal flexibility.
Single ECC83 (12AX&) tube and EL84 poweramp tubes supply the authentic British tone. There’s minimal connectivity here (no aux in or line out) but it’s a nice-sounding box. As Mooer put it: “Extreme tiny all-tube guitar amplifier head sound extraordinary nearly to VOX AC30*
A relative newcomer, the EVH 5150III LBX Head is from rock-god Eddie Van Halen’s brand, so no surprise that this one’s tailored for the heavier end of the sonic spectrum. Blue (crunch) and Red (Full Burn) channels provide edgy-growl through to a passable version of Eddie’s famous ‘brown tone’ and the all-valve configuration ensures an impressive volume-to-size ratio.
The LBX is powered by no fewer than five ECC83S (12AX7) preamp tubes and two EL84 tubes in the output stage. Tweaking is courtesy of three-band EQ and presence controls, plus a quarter-power switch for full-fat tone at lower volume levels.
A neat padded bag (sold separately) is available to make this truly portable – ideal if you’re getting the bus to the stadium…
The clue’s in the name… Like the EVH, the Blackstar HT METAL 1H is firmly aimed at those of a heavier musical persuasion. Based on Blackstar’s original mini-offering, the HT-1R, this version is only rated at 1 watt, but it’s surprisingly loud. Ultra high-gain is provided by one ECC83 and one ECC82 tube and unique ‘push-pull’ power amp, Twin-channel design and Blackstar’s proprietary ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) allows endless tone-fiddling. A high-quality onboard reverb, which runs in stereo when the emulated speaker output is fed into separate channels of the desk.
There’s also an aux/MP3 input, external speaker output and an emulated speaker output which allows direct-to-desk output for live or recording work. And the casing and grille are just as metal as the tone.
Metal-heads should look at the Blackstar, Orange or EVH, whereas fans of Brit-tone or bluesy players may be more at home with the Vox, Mooer or Fender. All of these make great rehearsal, back-up or even main amps – although even given their surprising output capabilities, you’d probably need to DI or mic the cab if contending with a drummer and/or a larger venue.
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