I would like to shed some light from my perspective on the sound of amps. By all means I am not covering every aspect but some important ones that effect my amp selections. I’m also only covering the amps I have had experience with. There are many many more out there.
First of all, you need to consider these things.
1. Do you play with or without a band?
2. Tubey or Not Tubey?
3. How much power do you need? What volume do you like to play?
a.Live - Stage Volume
b.Home - Low to Moderate Volume
c.Bedroom/Apartment - Low Volume
4. Do you like gadgets and 100’s of possible sounds or do you pretty much play with a few sounds all of the time?
These questions should help you decide how much amp to buy (for volume) and which way to go as far as a modeling amp such as the Valvetronix series or an all tube amp which will be less versatile but will most likely sound great for what they do.
1. With or without a band? No matter which amp you buy, the tone will be different in your bedroom vs. live on stage or even in any room with a band. Some guitarists that play by themselves tend to adjust the sound to where it sounds good to their ears while playing alone. This usually consists of a little scooped EQ with some punchy bass and nice articulate highs. Mids are usually present and sound good but probably not strong enough to push through the sound levels of a band. You take these same settings and put them in a band or live on stage and your sound will be too thin. You will be lucky to cut through the band.
The truth is that a guitar is mostly a mid range instrument and when you add it to a band with the highs (cymbals) and lows of drums and a bass guitar, the mids are what makes up 80% of your tone. The creamy tones you hear when listening to a good guitarist doesn’t come form the top or the bottom but usually somewhere from the middle frequency range. The bottom end and high end are what accents the primary tones.
Tube amps are great for cutting through a band because they are designed to sound great on stage. Modeling amps can sound good on stage but you will have to be more careful when setting the highs mids and lows.
2. Tubey or not Tubey? That is the question!! Lets take a Vox AC15 or a Fender Blues JR for example. Both nice tube amps. I prefer the Vox myself but both amps are designed with particular sounds in mind. They will play that sound very well and will be very good to play on stage with a band in a small to medium venue. For a larger venue go up to the AC30 or the Hotrod Deluxe. More power and still not very versatile but sound great for what they do.
These amps are what I consider professional level amps but not very fun playing at home in your home office or bedroom if you like a lot of different sounds. Im a blues/rock player but on occasion I will want to play some screaming chunky metal shred and the tube amps listed above just didn’t do it for me.
The Valvetronix series of amps as everyone knows is a hybrid which has a tube in the power section of the amp. It is not a power tube but with the technology stack that Vox uses, they have managed to position the tube where it allows the tube tone and reactivity to be transferred through the power amp. The Valvetronix amps better emulate the all tube amps better than the other manufactures. You can go play one to see for yourself.
3. How much power do I need? Again, the question is where do you play? If you play at home or a small band, I wouldn’t go over 15 watts for a tube amp. With a 15 watt tube amp you can heat up those tubes at moderate volumes and get that nice tubey tone. With a 30 or 40 watt tube amp you would have to be in a stadium for that kind of volume.
Now, looking at a modeling amp such as a Valvetronix or Spider your power requirements will be different. A 15 or 30 watt modeling amp will sound good at low volumes clean and with heavy distortion but if you turn them up and want to feel the punch of the speaker with a heavy rock or metal sound, they will be a little weak in the bass department for that. They will play a nice clean sound at moderate volumes.
If you like to crank the amp on occasion with some heavy rock sound or Metal, definitely get at least 50 watts. I have the Valvetronix VT50 and it is great with plenty of power to move that speaker when I want to play some heavy power chords. It also sounds amazing with any clean amp models I choose. For the record, I am very happy with my VT50. I run an MXR 10 band EQ in front of it. I can change the tone for playing at home or with the band without having to adjust my user presets.
Here is my history of amp ownership in the last several years and my complaints or praise.
Line6 Spider II 30 1x12 - Nice at low volumes. Not much punch at higher volumes. Effects are cheesy.
Create V series 15 Watt All Tube with Ibanez 4x12 speaker cabinet – Nice tone from a cheap tube amp. Was able to push the 4x12 cab with ease. Good for blues or rock. Didn’t much care for the sound without the external cab.
Line6 Spider III 120 2x12 with Shortboard – Versatile amp with plenty of headroom. Sounds great cranked with a modern distortion sound. Too many presets. Too cumbersome to work manually. OK with shortboard but don’t particularly like the clean sounds. Not much warmth or creaminess.
Original Roland Cube – Small portable practice amp. Sounds great for what it is. Not very much power. Not much bass. Simple to use.
Vox AD30 – Excellent sounding clean hybrid amp but not much headroom when it came to heavy distortion sounds. I loved this amp but sold it because it didn’t fill my needs at higher volumes. Excellent effects for the clean sounds. With distortion, it was so-so.
Line6 POD X3 Live (Not an AMP) – Only limited by your imagination. This sounds great through headphones and you can dial in your sounds through your home system but try plugging in to a sound board and everything is going to change. It was difficult getting consistent sound when moving from Home to practice to venue. It sounded terrible in front of a tube amp. There were other tube amp options but I didn’t take the time to try them all out.
Fender Blues Jr 15 Watt All Tube – Sounded great with a band. At home was so-so. Plenty loud but don’t try to play with heavy distortion pedals. It just won’t do it. This amp is best played on stage with blues or country and some southern rock. Sounds nice clean but if you like changing your sound, it will be boring as it is designed for a specific sound. You can mod it to help, but it is still what it is.
Fender HotRod Deluxe 40 Watt all Tube – Same as above but with effects loop and more power. I upgraded the speaker to an Eminence Texas Heat which didn’t help it any. It was great for clean headroom but still its tone core was set and there wasn’t much you could do to change it. Nice amp but not for me. Also too much power.
Vox VT50 – I went to GC and played then bought this amp. I was excited to see and hear that its tone clean and high gain met my needs at low and high volumes. Its pure cream cleans and heavy punchy high gain amp sounds where exactly what I was looking for. I bought the 5 button footswitch and an MXR 10 Band EQ to change the shape of my sound for the venue I was playing, whether at home or with the practice band. It really meets my needs and is large enough to not embarrass me to show to my friends and small enough to not break my back or take to much space in my home studio. I almost bought the larger VT100 but am happy with the VT50. I may one day get a 2x12 cab just to see what it would sound like but its not high on my list as I like what I have. If you really want a 2x12, then go for the VT100.
I hope this helps anyone looking for an amp. There are so many other amps and areas I did not cover. Feel free to add your experience with amps to this thread. I’m sure everyone would have something to offer or learn from.