10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800

12th Sep 2014 | 10:10

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Blackstar ID:Core Stereo 10

THE new ID:Core combos are Blackstar’s answer to the question: “I just bought my first guitar; now, what do I get for my first amp?”

These stripped-down versionsof Blackstar’s award-winning ID amps come in three sizes (10, 20 and 40 watts), and all feature the company’s clever Super Wide Stereo technology, which makes the sound appear to come from three feet either side of the cabinet.

The control panel is practically identical on all three models – the only difference is an extra footswitch socket on the 20 and 40. A six-voice selector switch offers two cleans, two crunches and two leads, together with knobs for gain and volume, while Blackstar’s patented ISF tone control lets you sweep the tone from UK to USA responses. There’s a familiar digital effects layout, too, with selectors for modulation, reverb and delay. Four types of each effect are accessed from a rotary selector, plus a level control and tap tempo button, which also accesses the Core’s built-in tuner.

Tonally, the lead sounds are very good – they’re a little fizzy if you turn the gain up to extremes on the two smaller models, but that’s not usually necessary; these amps have tons of overdrive. The crunch sounds are spot-on and offer the most versatility, while the two cleans cover bright modern and warm vintage tones with ease.

It’s amazing that you can get so many features and sounds for so little money – Blackstar’s ability to provide maximum bang for buck has struck again. Whether you choose the 10 or a higher-wattage version, you won’t be able to blame it for a bad sound, and it will be a worthy companion on your journey to being a better player.

For more information visit the official Blackstar website.

Full Review: Blackstar ID: Core Stereo 10

BUY: Blackstar ID: Core Stereo 10 currently available from:
UK: Andertons Music | Thomann | Gear4Music | Reidys
USA: Sweetwater | Full Compass
FR: Thomann | Michenaud | Star's Music | Woodbrass

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Orange Micro Terror

You have to hand it to Orange: if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the British amplifier company must feel justifiably smug about the way that the huge success of its Tiny Terror amp triggered a practically industry-wide lunchbox amp craze.

Time to kick back, relax and watch the cash roll in, then? Don't bet on it.

Hot on the heels of such additions to the range as the none-more-metal Dark Terror and the Terror Bass heads comes a pair of new models: the Signature #4 Jim Root unit and Orange's smallest head yet, the impossibly cute Micro Terror.

At just 16.5cm (6.5 inches) wide and weighing in at just 0.85kg (1.87lb), it would be easy to assume this is a novelty practice amp. However, the unit is not only housed in the same tough high-tensile steel case as its larger brethren, but it can also crank out a cool 20 watts into four ohms thanks to a solid-state Class D power amp.

A single ECC83/12AX7 preamp valve gives the Micro Terror two stages of gain based loosely on the voicing of the front end of the original Tiny Terror head. A 1/4-inch jack headphone output and 1/8-inch jack auxiliary input are useful additions for home practising, but don't be fooled into thinking that the diminutive Micro Terror couldn't be a serious option for live performance.

So can an amplifier this physically small really deliver the kind of juicy crunch upon which Orange built its reputation?

Before we answer that question, it's worth noting that an amp head this light can get very mobile, very quickly, even when equipped with non-slip rubber feet. With little more than a careless tug of your guitar lead, the unit can be dragged off the top of a speaker cabinet or desk.

Once stationary, with the volume and gain controls working hard, we're struck by how unexpectedly loud this thing is. Fans of classic rock guitar raunch will be in their element as this tiniest of Terrors pumps out a ferocious crunch with no shortage of character.

For fans of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC or even Oasis, there's a whole lot to love here. While the PPC108 cab might seem a little boxy in isolation, for studio recording, it's just the ticket for a Dave Davies-style garage-rock bark, with none of the boomy bottom end that you might usually need to EQ out when mixing.

Through a more substantial cabinet, there's no shortage of low end, and this translates into even bigger versions of the sounds we've already described, opening the door to everything from a rich Keith Richards-style breaking up rhythm chime right through to stoner rock. You might struggle to get pristine cleans out of the Micro Terror, however: it really does like to rock.

Despite its incredibly compact size, this is an amp that's most at home on stage or in a soundproof studio. It just sounds better with the volume working harder and the headphone output is a little harsh for sustained solo practice sessions.

For less than the price of a decent overdrive pedal, you get a physically small but sonically huge amplifier with more than enough power for the kind of gigs that most of us are confronted with. If a single channel doesn't provide enough flexibility for you, it's still hard not to recommend; it's tough to think of a better and more compact back-up for your regular gigging amp.

Read full Orange Micro Terror review

For more information visit the official Orange website.

Full Review: Orange Micro Terror

BUY: Orange Micro Terror currently available from:
UK: Thomann | Gear4Music | Reidys
USA: Sweetwater | Full Compass
FR: Thomann | Michenaud | Star's Music | Woodbrass

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800

Back in the fifties, a low-powered amp was all you could have. Then as bigger amps were invented, if you could afford it, you'd trade up.

But a powerful amp isn't always the answer: they're too loud for home playing and recording, and with advances in PA and monitoring, a lot of people don't need the sheer stage volume. Cue the recent trend of little amps, first expensive and esoteric, then cheap and Far Eastern.

The AC4 name first appeared back in 1961, by which time the cream cloth vinyl had been superseded, as had the 1958-60 TV-style cabinet design. So the current AC4 is more an exercise in general vintage aesthetics rather than a specific reissue.

We have a single 12AX7 in the preamp and a lone EL84 class-A power section. Top whack is four watts, while a three-way power attenuator enables you to pare that down to one watt and – wait for it – 0.25 watts!

You get volume, tone and a 16-ohm speaker output for a 4 x 12 extension cabinet should you wish, or indeed the matching Vox V112TV 1 x 12.

Amp buffs might sniff at the AC4TV's particleboard cabinet (ply is generally considered better) but it's such a dinky little thing, it doesn't need ply for longevity and it's questionable how much it would 'improve' the tone of such a small, closed-back box. Likewise, corner protectors aren't required, and the retro cream plastic handle could take double the weight.

The AC4TV combo comes as standard with a 10-inch custom-designed Celestion VX10 30-watt ferrite-magnet speaker that's rear-mounted to a particleboard baffle.

Plug in on the highest power setting, crank it up, and the neighbours will already be banging the walls down. It's too loud for domestic use, but perfect for rehearsals and the studio.

There's a slight element of boxiness, as you'd expect from a small cabinet. Its strong mid-range is so much more a part of 'real' rock 'n' roll guitar sounds than many modern bass- and treble-heavy tones, which sound good in isolation yet struggle in a recorded or live band mix. The closed-back, ported baffle design helps keep the low-end tight and focused.

With a vintage-style Strat and the four-watt setting, things stay clean to around 10 o'clock on the volume control, beyond which you veer into a light overdrive that doesn't suffer from raspy treble. At around two o'clock there's an audible hike in gain and we're into classic rock drive textures that will clean up again if you knock the guitar's volume back.

Swap the Strat for a Les Paul Standard and the drive texture thickens and smoothes as the mahogany and humbuckers keep a firmer hand over the whole shebang – a thick, satisfying, Bonamassa/Moore-style lead tone when cranked.

Switching down to one watt cuts headroom dramatically, enabling you to achieve drive at lower levels. Down again to 0.25 watts takes that a step further, where you can max the volume and tone for a lovely compressed distortion that just seems to knit everything you're playing together – like a 50-watt Marshall 'Plexi' or an AC30 does when they're blowing your ears out. It's a brilliantly conceived and superbly executed feature.

There's enough variation in the tone control to span dark and muddy through to present and cutting, but definition can be an issue with neck pickups, particularly if the amp is sited in the corner of a room.

So cute it hurts and it sounds great for all manner of rock 'n' roll and classic rock tones, it's better than an Epi Valve Junior, but not as full-featured as the Blackstar HT-5, which makes the £219 tag seem about right, albeit still ludicrously cheap for an all-valve amp.

Read full Vox AC4TV review

BUY: Vox AC4TV currently available from:
UK: Thomann
USA: Sweetwater | Full Compass
FR: Thomann | Michenaud | Star's Music | Woodbrass

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Peavey Vypyr VIP 3

The digital revolution continues, and some of the latest guitar amp products pack in features and functions at prices that would have been unthinkable a mere decade ago.

A typical example is Peavey's latest Vypyr VIP series, which features instrument modelling as well as the more common amp and effects modelling.

It debuted to wide acclaim at the 2013 Winter NAMM show and picked up numerous gongs, including the influential Best In Show 'Gotta Stock It' award. The series is now available in the UK and we're taking a look at the biggest of the new trio, the 100-watt VIP 3 combo.

The Vypyr is American-designed and manufactured in China. Its particle board cabinet houses an open-ended tray chassis containing separate printed circuit boards for the front panel controls, preamp electronics, output devices and switching power supply, all connected by ribbon cables.

At first glance the control panel appears clean and uncluttered, although the Vypyr VIP does a lot more than the controls suggest, making a coffee-break read of the manual mandatory...

VIP stands for Variable Instrument Preamp and the single input jack feeds a sophisticated circuit that's intended not just for electric guitars, but also acoustic and bass instruments. The Vypyr VIP is also the first amp we know of to feature instrument modelling alongside traditional amp models, with acoustic and bass guitar presets, as well as baritone, 12-string and seven-string models.

Amp models include a cool selection of Peavey and non-Peavey products that go from squeaky clean acoustic to maximum overload distortion, as well as various stompbox and rack effect models.

Your guitar, effects and amp model can be swiftly edited to taste and stored, using the amp's simple two-line LCD display and Peavey's clever WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface. A ring of seven LEDs around each of the main control knobs instantly displays the setting for that parameter, changing position as each knob is turned.

It's actually a lot more accurate than it appears, with the LEDs progressively fading in and out over 24 steps from fully on to fully off. A non-programmable master volume sits next to a Power Sponge control, which lowers the output from full power down to just three watts for bedroom use.

The Vypyr VIP 3 powers on with a Vegas-style light show from the front panel LEDs, which thankfully disappears the instant a jack plug is inserted. We've got a variety of different guitars to try out the Vypyr with, including a Takamine EAN20C and a Squier Precision bass, to see how it handles the demands of acoustic and bass instruments.

The guitar models sound impressive in a mix, maybe less so when heard in isolation, but still impressive at this price bracket. The pitch shifting for baritone and bass is very stable and, for the most part, glitch-free. That said, there's a noticeable delay to the lower pitched sounds and the acoustic models lack a bit of realism.

The amp and effects models are excellent, delivering everything from fat vintage cleans with tremolo, to bluesy crunch and the obligatory endless sustain metal ballad tone with a 'kitchen sink' effects patch. The effects levels are generally overcooked, but easy to rein in for some very usable sounds.

The Vypyr's digitally controlled analogue preamp and TransTube technology work their magic to provide excellent overdrive effects that don't smother the guitar's character. The VIP 3 sounds just as impressive with acoustic and bass instruments - the powerful 100-watt output stage combines with the rear port for significant punch to low fundamentals, while the higher-pitched acoustic sounds are very usable despite the lack of a tweeter.

Direct recording with the USB socket works fine although that might depend on your DAW and audio interface. We had good success on our Windows 7 PC, the amp loaded itself as a generic USB audio device and ran happily off the Asio4all driver; with Garageband for Mac we ended up taking the audio from the 'phones output into a separate audio interface.

We can all lust after expensive boutique amps , but in the real world where time is money and audiences are impatient, they're often impractical one-trick ponies that are difficult to dial in at low volumes and lack versatility. To compensate, you might have to add an attenuator, two or three stompboxes and a rack full of outboards, connected up to a pedalboard with maybe a dozen audio and power leads. It's hardly a recipe for a stress-free performance.

The Vypyr VIP is a powerful tool for a very reasonable price that stands proud in a crowded and very competitive sector. Like rust, technology doesn't sleep; every so often the bar for programmable guitar amps is raised, and with the Vypyr VIP, Peavey has pushed everything up several notches.

For more information visit the official Peavey website.

Full Review: Peavey Vypyr VIP 3

BUY: Peavey Vypyr VIP 3 currently available from:
UK: Thomann | Gear4Music
USA: Sweetwater | Full Compass
FR: Thomann

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Marshall C5-01

You know the old adage: you wait for one cost-effective low-powered valve amp, then 58 come along at once! Or so it seems on the congested streets of Toneville, fuelled by our desire for better sounds, but less volume. So…

Welcome Marshall's Class 5, a five-watt, class A, all-valve combo that sings simplicity, tone and portability as its three-part battle song. It's powered by a brace of ECC83s in the preamp stage and a lone EL84 for power, making it good – according to Marshall – for practice, rehearsals and small or mic'd gigs. No messin' – just plug in, turn up, wig out: exactly as it should be.

Visually the Class 5 pays homage to Marshall's revered mid-sixties 'Bluesbreaker' and 18-watt combos, with its black vinyl, 'Plexi'-style top-mounted control panel and short front insert. The piping here is gold instead of white and we have and salt and pepper grille cloth instead of the Bluesbreaker's famous striped type.

£330 for five watts, you might ask? Don't make the mistake of comparing this with a cheap, transistor combo, it's as much a serious tone machine in intention as many amplifiers five times its power and price.

There's just one input option and one volume knob on the Class 5, so you won't spend too much time worrying about how best to set it up. The time-honoured approach is to whack everything up to boiling point and use the guitar's volume pot to regulate back from there.

So, armed with a vintage-style Stratocaster and with everything on the amp set to three o'clock we get to work. The Class 5 is rudely loud – enough to upset your neighbours to legal action levels and then some.

That means it has enough grunt for sensible rehearsals and, if you don't have a cacophonous drummer, it can deal with unmic'd small gigs, so long as you don't need huge, loud clean sounds.

The overall tonality is very much 'Plexi'/Bluesbreaker, with hints of that punch-in-the-chest mid-range, but softened and rounded slightly because of the lower power and, doubtless, the EL84 power valve. With the Strat's volume up full, the overdrive feels very sixties to this reviewer – think Jimi Hendrix and 1960s Beck as the general ballpark.

Switch to humbuckers on a Gibson-style guitar and things start overdriving much earlier. Guitar volume up full, it'll sing for solos and provide good harmonic feedback. This is Bluesbreakers-era Clapton all over – fat and compressy – through to a good AC/DC-style crunch.

We'll reiterate again that this is a very loud little amp. The tone controls aren't hugely powerful in the way that classic Marshalls never are, but they're interactive. Set the bass and treble high, and regulate the main part of the voice with the middle pot for best results.

Twenty years ago, the Class 5 may well have been laughed out of the music store – back then a five-watt amp had no right to sound good. Times have changed radically though, in that many players are willing to drop their bravado guard and finally admit that a little amp cranked up is often much more satisfying than a big one tethered down to tick over.

If you're after a simple valve tone monster for crunch and classic drive sounds, however, then you absolutely have to try this amp. Its combination of satisfying tones, usable volume, portability and, of course, price all add up to a winning package. Destined to be extremely popular, and deservedly so.

Read full Marshall C5-01 review

For more information visit the official Marshall website.

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Line 6 Spider IV 75

As Line 6's Spider amp range is among the bestselling all around the whole world, and the IV series is kind of a big deal.

The range comprises smaller 15- and 30-watt combos, as well as larger, more advanced items, such as a 150-watt head and the 75-watter we're talking about here.

Kudos goes to Line 6 for the sound and feel of the light break-up to medium-gain tones in the Spider IV. For example, the red option of the Blues model – based on a 1953 wide-panel Deluxe – both sings and blooms like Katherine Jenkins in a field full of daffodils.

Likewise the Class A and Twang modes offer more usable and satisfying tones for sensible home use than all manner of small-wattage, all-valve beasties. Editing is a doddle once you're up to speed with the processes (as ever, don't forget to save), and even the 14-second looper function is intuitive, engaging and, most importantly, very simple to use.

Perhaps basing the Red Clean model on the Marshall JCM900 – an amp hardly lauded for its sparkling cleans – might prove to be something of a miscalculation, but the truth is that it sounds good nonetheless. It highlights the fact that preconceptions aren't a great deal of use when it comes to getting sounds – just use your ears and don't worry too much about the names!

There's no discernible delay between switching tonally contrary sounds, even though you'll need to shell out for either of the footswitches to do this onstage. From warm cleans and fruity crunches all the way to skull-crushing metal explosions, the Spider IV is the best sounding of the series so far.

Line 6 doesn't pretend that dialing in, for example, the Twang setting is absolutely the equal of a '65 Fender Twin – of course it's not – but it is certainly close enough for players who don't live or die by that sound, whether at home, in the studio or for rehearsing. Users of big, quality valve amps won't be convinced for live use, but if you want to continue to drag numerous amps around with you, you go ahead!

Good tones, great price and with the facility to upgrade the firmware, now is the time to try – and be thoroughly impressed by – the Spider IV. The gap is closing…

For more information visit the official Line 6 website.

Full Review: Line 6 Spider IV 75

BUY: Line 6 Spider IV 75 currently available from:
UK: Andertons Music | Thomann
USA: Sweetwater | Full Compass
FR: Thomann | Michenaud | Star's Music | Woodbrass

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Fender Mustang III V2

Hands up if you're confused about what amp to buy? The market is saturated with all manner of combos and heads that use valves, digital modelling or hybrid solid-state technologies to give voice to your pride and joy.

And do you want it for practise, gigging, recording or all three? And presumably it needs to be good value too? Fender's answer to all of those particular conundrums could quite justifiably be this.

The Mustang III follows its lower-powered I and II siblings with healthy 100-watt lungs and a single 12-inch speaker, yet it's still compact and light enough to carry comfortably with one hand, or fit in the boot of any sensible car.

Decked out in 'carbon tweed' with a silver grille cloth, it pulls off the modern-heritage aesthetic with aplomb. Likewise, a push-button panel with LCD screen and large data wheel sit beside classic 'Black/Silverface'-type knobs.

The cabinet is particleboard, while the jacks and switches are plastic and mounted directly to the PCBs beneath. This is exactly what we expect at the price and will be fine for normal everyday use.

On power up you're greeted by up to 100 presets that draw on a wide variety of amplifier and effects models. The digital signal processing is all new, according to Fender. You have 12 amplifier models at your disposal; Fullerton classics include the '65 Twin Reverb, '59 Bassman and '57 Champ, plus you have models that fall into classic Marshall and Vox territory (British 1960s, 1970s and 1980s) and more modern high-gain sounds (American 1990s and Metal 2000), for example.

Unlike some modelling amps, the individual effects parameters (drive level and tone, chorus depth, tremolo speed and so on) are adjustable too - just hit the data wheel repeatedly to move through the various options.

Back to the main pots, one important thing to remember is that the main control knobs aren't necessarily showing your actual settings. So, when you call up a preset, the knobs won't move, but the settings will.

To see exactly what's going on, hit the main data wheel once and you get a graphic representation of all your settings. If you want to change overall bass, treble, gain and so on, just twist any knob - which makes it active - and off you go.

Once you've selected your desired amp and effects models, hit save, choose the preset number you wish to save to, give it a name, and hit save again. Writing it is more complicated than doing it –-rest assured it's easy after two minutes' fiddling.

There is a further editing option via the Fender Fuse software application; load it on to your PC or Mac, connect the Mustang III via USB, and you can edit your sounds to a deeper level.

Even better, via the Fuse application you can also save and share your sounds with other Fuse users around the globe, storing virtually endless presets on your computer. If you're used to any kind of computer recording or editing - or indeed using smart phone and tablet applications - this all feels like second nature.

Should you wish to play or record silently, there's a headphone jack that doubles up as a speaker-simulated recording out. If you're also using the aux in for your mp3 player, the sound through headphones is full-range, unlike the main speaker, which is optimised for guitar: great for a Strat, less great for an iPod.

Finally, the included two- button footswitch toggles you up and down through presets in its simplest mode. By making a change in the amp's utility menus, you can also tell it to take care of effects bypass and tap tempo, or indeed simply toggle between two quick- access presets.

The sounds available include Classic Fender tremolo-and-reverb-soaked cowboy-soundtrack cleans, bluesy neck pickup drive, brutish punky fuzz and singing delayed rock leads - the sheer breadth of sounds is to be expected; that each took mere seconds to dial up (without reading the manual) and still sound perfectly credible is the bigger surprise.

In the room, the Mustang III is no less satisfying; the partially open-backed cabinet gives the sense of spread and space you expect from a Fender combo, complete with spookily authentic reverbs.

If there's a criticism, it's that like many modelling amps, the Mustang III's friendliness makes it sound and feel closer to a great recorded guitar tone, rather than the visceral reality of a pumping valve amp's speaker.

The Mustang III won't make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck like a mid-'60s Super Reverb, a tweed Deluxe or a MesaRectifier, but the more interesting observation is that precious few of us can actually exploit the 'real' thing, at 'real' volume in a 'real' environment in any case.

The 'real' experience for many guitarists is jamming at home, rehearsals and occasional pub or bar performance. For that, and thanks to its good sounds, portability, healthy output section and frankly ridiculous value for money, the Mustang III is a no-brainer.

It has pretty much every sound you can imagine and a whole load more that you can't. At this price, it's simply unbeatable.

For more information visit the official Fender website.

Full Review: Fender Mustang III

BUY: Fender Mustang III currently available from:
UK: Andertons Music | Thomann | Gear4Music | Reidys
USA: Sweetwater | Full Compass
FR: Thomann | Michenaud | Star's Music | Woodbrass

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Roland CUBE Lite

The latest addition to Roland's acclaimed CUBE range is an iOS-embracing practice amp in disguise, dubbed the CUBE Lite.

Small enough to stick away on a shelf when you aren't using it, the CUBE Lite looks pretty stylish and is available in black, red or oh-so-modern white to suit your surroundings.

The business end puts out 10 watts through a basic stereo-plus-subwoofer setup that produces an ample amount of volume without disturbing the neighbours. If you prefer silent, though, plugging in a set of headphones will mute the speaker output.

For your guitar, you get three COSM amp models, the first being an emulation of a clean Roland JC model, then increasing amounts of distortion with the Crunch and Extreme models. As well as an output volume knob, there is control over the amp's drive, bass and treble plus effects - you can have a variable amount of either chorus or reverb.

The variable drive control can add a bit of grit to the JC sound and steadily increase the distortion on both of the other already overdriven models, so you get a range of sounds to cover all scenarios - from clean chording through raunchy chord work, and edgy lead tones to fat saturated lead with plenty of sustain and metal riffing.

To our ears, the sounds worked best with a touch of reverb, especially to sit your sound in with the other instruments when playing along with other music. To do just that, there's an aux input with an independent volume knob for plugging in the likes of an mp3 player or phone. This is also the i-CUBE link connection to an iOS device, which allows two-way communication (playback and recording) with the aforementioned CUBE JAM app via the supplied cable.

Playing back recorded music usually needs a different amp/ speaker system than you'd use for electric guitar sounds, but Roland's CUBE Lite happily takes care of both. No, it won't replace your big, 'proper' amp in the rehearsal room; what it will do is provide a useful, good looking system that's tailor-made for practice and home playing. At this price, who wouldn't want that?

For more information visit the official Roland website.

Full Review: Roland CUBE Lite

BUY: Roland CUBE Lite currently available from:
UK: Andertons Music | Gear4Music | Reidys
FR: Star's Music | Woodbrass

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Yamaha THR 10

Despite making more musical instruments than any other brand on earth, Yamaha isn't exactly the first name you'd associate with electric guitar amplification.

Although the solid-state GA-15 practice amp is still a fixture of the catalogue, the DG series modelling amplifiers have long since been discontinued, and you'd have to go back to the valve-powered T50 and T100 designed by Mike Soldano in the late 1980s to find a Yamaha amp capable of getting pulses racing. However, that could all be set to change thanks to Yamaha's newest foray into the world of guitar amps - the THR.

The THR theory is sound: most serious guitarists have a big amp that does the business at band levels, but is way too loud for home use. Many will also have a smaller combo for rehearsals and intimate gigs.

But even a low-wattage valve amp with built-in attenuation can be too loud in a domestic context, and will the other half let you keep an ugly practice amp in the lounge? Forget about it.

A THR? Well, it might just fill the gap. And then some.

Unboxing the units, we're struck by the smart retro cosmetics that bring to mind in equal parts a lunchbox amp head and a high-end DAB radio. Both models have a pair of full-range eight centimetre stereo speakers onboard so, unlike a mini valve head, you don't need an additional cabinet.

Neither THR model would look out of place on a shelf or desktop and they are certainly more discreet than a 1 x 12 combo, or a home audio system for that matter. Only the textured plastic section of the casing cheapens the appearance a little - some sort of wood veneer would be
a classier alternative.

That said, these aren't strictly living room amps; eight AA batteries enable you to hone your skills or jam along with your iPod in remote locations thanks to the 1/8-inch aux input. It's perfect for an impromptu Gobi Desert blues jam session, or more realistically, for blasting out the soundtrack to a summer camping trip.

The THR10 benefits from the versatility of three additional core sounds (bass, acoustic and flat), five memory locations for storing sounds, a three-band EQ as opposed to a tone pot and separate output controls for guitar and USB/aux.

Under the hood, THR units use Yamaha's new Virtual Circuit Modelling (VCM) technology for core sound generation, with the control response designed to mimic the 'real thing' - valve amps. In this instance, the five amp models offer a range of Fender, Vox, Marshall and Boogie-style benchmark sounds that should be familiar to anyone who has used any amp modelling hardware of the last decade.

With its master and volume controls pushed hard, there's remarkable bottom end on tap that retains definition even with a high output neck humbucker, while the higher frequencies really sing. As you switch settings further up the gain scale, proceedings inevitably get a little rougher around the edges with more pronounced mids, but in a good way. With a generous helping of dirt, single-coil hum can be hard to control without judicious gating via the THR Editor software, but that's certainly preferable to having to fork out for a stompbox noise suppressor.

Crucially, these amps have been designed to sound good and retain dynamics without sounding overly processed, whatever the volume level, and Yamaha has certainly achieved that. It's refreshing to play through an amp that doesn't sound worse when you turn it down.

The company's Extended Stereo Technology makes for a spacious, three-dimensional experience that really doesn't feel like any other practice amplifier we've encountered, particularly when the stereo reverb is engaged.

To our ears, the clean, crunch and modern voices are where the best sounds sit, as the Marshall-style Lead and Brit Hi modes are a little grainy. But it's subjective, and can be fine-tuned with the Editor software.

The THR10 is very much the bigger brother of the series. Yamaha says that the large enclosure and the addition of a high-quality three-band EQ are the main factors that make the THR10 punch harder than its sibling, and the piano-like bass from the clean channel is something to behold.

Although it is designed for domestic use, so output power is something of a moot point, the larger THR would cope admirably with live performance in intimate coffee house-style surroundings alongside a polite drummer.

The Bass and Flat modes offer yet more flexibility. Whether it's four-string fun or even plugging in a keyboard, the results are very impressive.

The THR10's electro-acoustic mode feels a little underpowered to our ears, but Yamaha assures us that this is merely an issue with our prototype review model, and that the production version will have updated firmware in order to even things out.

As far as we are concerned, the important question isn't whether or not you need a THR in your life, it's which model suits you best. The features and big sound of the THR10 come in handy time and time again, making it perhaps the smarter investment in the longer term.

For more information visit the official Yamaha website.

Full Review: Yamaha THR10

BUY: Yamaha THR10 currently available from:
UK: Andertons Music | Thomann
USA: Sweetwater | Full Compass
FR: Thomann | Michenaud | Star's Music | Woodbrass

10 best guitar amplifiers under £500 / $800
Palmer FAB5

These days, most small practice amps have a list of features as long as your arm: built-in digital effects, amp modelling, programmable presets, maybe even a drum machine and an mp3 input, too.

By comparison, Palmer's new FAB5 is almost prehistoric: it has controls for volume, tone and boost level, while the rear panel features a three-way slider switch (labelled Full, Room and Bedroom) that controls a built-in attenuator. That's pretty much it.

What makes the Palmer special, however, is that unlike most of its competition, this is a pure all-valve amplifier, with a single 12AX7 preamp, 6V6 power valve, and most importantly, an EZ81 rectifier. Construction-wise, the FAB5's cabinet is made from MDF with a textured paint finish to the sides and a two-tone grille cloth that wraps over the top.

Most of the electronics live inside a robust steel-tray chassis, with the mains inlet and a few other components mounted on a separate back panel. It's all built to a decent standard and looks capable of standing up to a few knocks.

One thing that immediately endeared us to this little amp is the boost feature, which is preset to be permanently on. There's a footswitch facility to turn it off if you want, but we reckon the best way to have fun with the Palmer is to turn everything up to 10 and use the rear-panel attenuator to moderate the Eminence Ragin Cajun 10-inch speaker.

As you vary your pick attack, or tweak your guitar's volume and tone controls, there's a ton of overdrive and distortion effects, from full-on blazing classic-rock stuff to a very sweet, almost-clean rhythm sound.

Yes, the FAB5 may be short on features, but it's no slouch when it comes to tone. With very little work - a couple of SM57s is all it takes - you can get some seriously classy recorded sounds from the front and rear of the cabinet.

Add your choice of effects plug-ins, and you could be making hit records with killer recorded guitar tones, all courtesy of this little beauty. Sure, you can spend a lot less on a practice amp, but not a pure valve one. Compared with the rest of the pack, the Palmer FAB5 is real boutique tone on a budget, and we definitely like the sound of that.

For more information visit the official Palmer website.

Full Review: Palmer FAB5

BUY: Palmer FAB5 currently available from:
UK: Thomann | Gear4Music
USA: Full Compass
FR: Thomann

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