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Don’t let bedroom hobbyists and Internet forum loudmouths convince you that solid state is a dirty word. In fact, there’s a very strong case for solid state amps. Sure, tube amps are great and all, and they do break up nicely when driven, but let’s face it, they also come with some very real hassles. They’re expensive. They’re heavy. They require routine maintenance, and depending on where you’re plugging in, they may even sound different. Yep, it wasn’t uncommon for me to experience actual sound differences at different venues depending on what sort of power they had flowing through the walls. Total bummer when the amp didn’t act the way I knew it was supposed to.
Solid state amps have a number of benefits to them, chiefly the price. Solid state guitar amps are gonna be a helluva lot cheaper than tube amps (not only to buy, but to maintain). So if you’re on a budget, it’s almost a no brainer. Solid state amps are also far lighter than their tube counterparts, and almost never require any maintenance. And lastly, don’t get caught in the echo chamber of Internet forums: solid state amps can sound GREAT, and their sound will likely be extremely consistent no matter where you set it up. So with that said, let’s take a look at our top 5 solid state guitar amps (under $500) currently in production.
Ah, the Champion. We know, you’ve been told (and maybe even formed the opinion yourself) that the Frontman 212 was absolute shite. So you’ll NEVER give a Fender solid-state amp a second chance, right? Hey dummy, stop being so closed-minded. The new (well, new-ish) Champion 100 is a 2×12 combo that’s totally ready for the stage and studio. Close your eyes, ignore the fact that there are no valves, and truly listen to the clean tones this amp spits out. We ran a Strat, Tele and our Warmoth Jazzmaster through it and were delighted with not only how sparkly clean the cleans were, but how responsive the amp was to dynamics. Yeah, the drive isn’t all that amazing, but we were stoked with how well the Champion 100 took to pedals. Basically, you can make this amp sound like your rig in a snap with the right stompboxes in front of it.
Who it’s for: You wanted the cleans, you GOT the cleans!
Pros: Fantastic cleans (did we mention that?), takes pedals really well.
Cons: Drive isn’t anything to write home about, but again it responds super-well to pedals.
The Boss Katana 100 is a newcomer to the game, and from our first few days hands-on, it sounds HUUUUGE. Look for our complete review in next month’s issue, but suffice it say that Boss has brought its Waza sound to a much more affordable price point. Great for acoustics, too, the Katana 100 allows you to load up your favorite Boss effects, which is awesome, and even lets you go direct out, so you can record easily or hook directly into a venue’s PA to reduce stage volume. PLUS, you’ve got a power attenuator on top that lets you turn down the power for maximum gain at lower volumes.
Who it’s for: Guitarists who switch between acoustic-electric and electric, and who want lots of control over their tone-shaping capabilities.
Pros: Sounds phenomenal, LOTS of tone options, great for customization.
Cons: Must connect via USB to load Tone Studio software. No Bluetooth like on some Marshalls.
OK, you’re thinking, “This has been around a while, right? And doesn’t it suck?” Well, the MG series has been around the block a few times, but the newer series deserves a second look. Just like the oft-maligned first-gen Line 6 Spider, the new Marshall MGs have a reputation to overcome, but let’s get it out of the way: when we played the MG50CFX, we were actually forced to eat some crow. Again, don’t let loudmouth forum trolls convince you that these small Marshall combos can’t abso-freakin’-lutely RULE. Even the onboard fx, which we never really cared for on older SS Marshalls, are fairly usable here. No, they’re not gonna replace your pedalboard, but for smaller gigs where it’s not practical to bring a full rig, these’ll do quite nicely. And then there’s the gain. That glorious Marshall gain. Is it gonna replace your JCM 800? Again, no. But that’s not what it’s designed to do. It’s designed to give you a reasonably close Marshall tone in a small package, at a decent price. And it delivers. We tracked a few guitars through our DAW and were incredibly impressed with how well the MG50CFX sounds on record. Give it a second look (and listen).
Who it’s for: Axe-slingers who want that Marshall sound without breaking the bank.
Pros: They’ve finally gotten the Marshall sound right in one of their solid-state combos.
Cons: Your old Marshall solid-state amps are now worthless.
Orange has been (no pun intended) crushing it lately. We’re huge fans of their lunchbox heads, and this 1×10 combo amp is a killer value. With 2-channels and a 4-stage preamp, the crunch tones you’re looking for are ridiculously easy to dial in. We were thoroughly impressed with the saturation we were able to achieve with relatively little effort. Trust us, the Orange 35RT responds incredibly well to dynamics, and will even emulate a 4×12 cab through the headphone out. We love this little amp, and it sounds massive on record when double-tracked.
Who it’s for: Guitarists who want an old-school crunch on a tiny budget.
Pros: Sounds great, on-board reverb, drive and tuner work amazingly well.
Cons: Might need to be miked for some club gigs.
OK, before you start writing in, yes we cheated a little bit. This one runs a bit over our $500 threshold, but if you find a decent GC coupon or a used model, you can probably sneak one in under $500, all right? Anyway, the JC-40 is a modern take on the ultra-classic JC-120 Jazz Chorus, one of the only “acceptable” solid state amps that forum trolls begrudgingly acknowledge as a worthy piece of gear. This one is built for stereo, with stereo ins, outs and fx loop. So you can dial in super-lush stereo chorus sounds for Police-like tracks, and even run keyboards through it with your fave stereo patches. Squeaky clean, the JC-40 bests the Fender Champion slightly in that regard, while adding in (what we feel, anyway) is a much smoother distortion. If you can stretch your budget just a tad, the JC-40 will likely be your best new studio/stage buddy.
Who it’s for: Clean rhythms and solos, keyboards and light gain players.
Pros: One of the best solid state amps we’ve ever played.
Cons: Just a tad more expensive than other SS amps in its class, but totally worth it.
Price: $599 (yeah, we cheated a bit, so sue us).