Low wattage tube amps known as both ‘lunchbox amps’ and ‘compact combos’ are continuing to climb in popularity among bedroom guitarists.
The common question with these amps, however, is “how loud are they?” and what applications can they be used for a bedroom and gigging guitarist?
With my experience with these amps, I decided to write this post explaining what I known about these amps and their gigging potential.
So can a 5-watt tube amp be loud enough for gigs or rehearsing with a band?
A 5-watt combo with a typical 1 x 12 speaker cannot achieve volumes to play alongside a drummer for rehearsals or gigs without any PA support. As they are designed for optimal volume levels for home and bedroom practice.
Why 5W is Not Enough?
Unfortunately, low wattage tube amps are designed to ‘break-up’ for the amps recognizable and identifiable sound of tube /valve distortion at low volumes suitable for home and bedroom playing.
So with this information in mind, if you are considering buying a tube/valve amp for gigging and rehearsing? How many watts is needed for playing live?
Required Watts for Gigging
Keep in mind, this is a subjective question as other players will have their own personal opinion on this topic.
However, a general standard is an amp that has a minimum of 15 watts of tube/valve distortion for small sized gigs and rehearsing without PA support.
If the venue will be miking the onstage amps to a mixing desk then even better!
15-watt or 10 watts would be enough volume to play alongside a drummer with a good amount of headroom for loud clean tones without excessive break-up.
Even better would be a valve amp that includes an internal attenuator switch that can lower the wattage (15-watt all the way to 1-watt.)
Giving the best of both worlds allowing enough volume for both gigging and home playing when the wattage is knocked off. These amplifiers are also more reasonably priced than say a 50 and 100-watt counterparts.
What is Overkill?
As amps continue to get smaller and smaller in wattage which is the current trend, mainly due to the advance in front of house technology.
Even 30-watts is seen as overkill by the internet and guitar forum community. It is actually better to have a quieter amp miked on stage as there will be less sound projection bouncing around the stage.
The sound engineer will actually thank you for a smaller amp which will allow more control and a tighter grip on the overall band’s volume levels.
How to Make a 5 watt Amp Louder
All 5-watt tube amps will be louder than others, some candidates
However, If you own a low wattage amp you like the sound of but want to squeeze more volume out of it.
The way to do this is by simply adding additional speakers to the equation in the form of a 2×12 or for extra beef, a 4×12 cabinet! Adding a bigger cabinet will also ‘thicken’ the tone and make a huge difference to the sound.
The single 12” speaker that is paired with combos that are known for sounding ‘thin’ and ‘tinny.’ You can also add versatility to the sound as different cabinet have variance when it comes to bass response and tone.
How to Connect Combo Amp to a Cabinet
In order to hook up an external cabinet, you will need to identify the correct connections if your amp includes them.
Amp heads are guaranteed to include connections as they need an external cabinet to run the amp. Combos, however, tend to be a little less common. The connection you are looking for is an ‘external speaker’ jack input.
If your combo is versatile and includes the correct connection you must remember to match the resistance of your amp (ohms) matches the resistance of the cabinets resistance (ohms.)
For example, if the amp is running at 8 ohms the cabinet must also be running at 8 ohms.
Be warned! If you set a lower impedance for the speaker you can potentially damage your amp. For example, if your amp head runs at 8 ohms but your speaker is running at 4 ohms this can cause a fault within the amp.
There is not much to worry about if the cabinet is running at a higher impedance, this will only cause volume loss. Obviously, it makes sense to match both the cab and amps impedance.
On the flip side, it is obviously impractical on the wallet to buy a small sized combo and an external 4×12 cabinet.
However, it useful to know if the venue or rehearsal space has a spare cabinet to combine with a lower wattage combo to take for using for a small sized gig without a PA system.
5 Watt Tube Amp vs Solid-State
When it comes to comparing both, tube amps always sound better when pushed to higher volumes compared to a solid state. The general notion is “the harder you push them the better they sound.”
This is true when it comes to crunchy distortion tones, as with the nature of tube amps. Companies like “Marshall”, “Orange”, “Vox” etc are known for their unique and iconic British sounding distortion and iconic crunch tones.
Hence why so many low watt valve amps are so popular these days, recreate an amps signature sound without having to reach ear-splitting volumes. A compact package designed for the bedroom players convenience.
Keep in mind, 5-watts is a limited amount of ‘headroom’ for sparkly clean tones at high volumes if that is what you desire unless designed for that purpose (such as a Fender amp.)
‘Headroom’ is a term that describes, how quick that amp will distort and ‘break-up’ when more volume is applied. Hence why 5-watt amps are the perfect home companion for the lovely sound tube distortion at quieter volumes suitable for the bedroom guitar player.
Why Buy a Low Watt Amp?
The counterargument to that point is no one buys a low watt Marshall, ‘Blackstar’, or ‘Orange’ amp for their ‘clean’ tones. The main reason why people purchase these amps is mainly for the signature sound of ‘warm’ and ‘true’ valve distortion.
For a potential gigging application, however, it may not be advisable to push a 5-watt amp through a 40 min plus set for heavy gigging and rehearsing because reliability may come into question with doing so. The amp can always be used for a potential backup for a small sized venue.
The nature of low watt tube amps is that they lack in versatility compared to solid states.
However, this problem is solved by adding some of your favorite pedals to the equation. As mentioned, it’s all about the gain and sweet sounding distortion with low watt valve amps.
When it comes to solid state amps, the common criticism is their distortion sounds ‘fizzy’, ‘harsh’ and ‘digital’ the more you turn them up. Yet, solid states sound better at lower volumes which is the reason they are utilized for bedroom practice. This does not mean that solid states are not gigging worthy.
I have gigged with the mighty Boss Katana 100 watt (PA included) with good results but was never satisfied with the distortion. For gigging, a minimum of 50-watts will be needed for a small sized gig without PA support.
Solid sates also have the added benefit of generally being more versatile in sounds with ‘modeling technology’ with ‘patches’ and digital presets depending if it is a true modeling amp. They also are more durable and reliable and require few or little tube replacements.
So when choosing between a tube vs solid state amp. You have to consider if you want to utilize the amp for both bedroom and gigs.
To be on the safe side, it may be advisable to purchase a tube amp with more wattage to ensure that you have enough volume to fill a small sized venue without any front of house support.
Does Wattage Mean Volume?
This is a common misconception with amplifiers but the short answer is no! People tend to think that increasing the output power will increase the volume.
For example, assuming a 100-watt amp is much louder than a 50-watt amp. You would be forgiven for thinking this, but this is actually incorrect! Granted the 100-watt version will produce more slightly more decibels of volume.
The wattage actually refers to how quick the clean tone will start to break up and distort as previously discussed. Known as the amount of ‘headroom’. So if you need a gigging amp that can produce sparkly and crystal clean tones at loud gigging volumes.
An amp with a high wattage will be the best answer to your clean tone desires. Yes, you guessed it… a Fender amp! Hence why 5-watt amps make the perfect practice amp because they will distort at lower volumes for saturated tones without annoying the neighbors.