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In this age of the internet, more and more people do their purchasing online through such sites as Reverb.com, or our very own digital storefront at Chicago Music Exchange. Because a tube amp may be a significant investment, and potentially fragile, keep the following in mind when hunting for a tube amplifier:
The first thing an amp-hunter should determine is what need are they trying to fill. If you're a gigging musician performing at large venues and at loud stage volumes, then you should be looking for a big, powerful amp. Amps in this category will have a larger supply of clean headroom, so they won’t break up early and will therefore allow the player a loud, clean tone from which to work with. They will most often be associated with multiples of 6L6, EL34, Kt88, or KT66 power tubes. On the other hand, if you're playing in bars or your even in your bedroom, then a smaller, lower-powered amp may better fit the bill. These amps — say under 20 watts — will break up early and allow the player to obtain a good deal of power tube saturation at lower volumes than its bigger brothers. These amps are most often found running off EL84s, 6V6s, or a single 6L6 power tube.
After considering the power amp section of an amp, it is time to ponder the preamp. The preamp is where much of the tone-shaping of an amplifier takes place. It's also where most of an amp's bells and whistles will be found, such as an FX Loop, reverb circuit, and channel switching. Some players may want a straight up single-channel from which to sculpt their tone from, while others may want multiple channels for different setting of preamp gain.
Portability and serviceability are two criteria that often get put way down many-an-amp-hunter's list. Yet, these two criteria are very important considerations. Tube amplifiers either come as a head or as a combo where the amp chassis is mounted into the same cabinet as the speaker. Having a head only allows the player to experiment with different cabinets much easier as well as offer the benefit of being smaller and more portable than a combo. A player won’t always have to haul around their cabinet if they are going to a venue, or rehearsal in which they know a reliable cabinet is there for them to use. A combo amp can be quite portable if on the smaller size. Large combos can be quite heavy, and, for anyone with stairs, a downright disaster.
The most often overlooked piece of amp buying is serviceability. Amp techs work on amplifiers all day, every day and are a great resource for knowing which amps are a good investment from a serviceability standpoint. That amp which was purchased for a steal may end up costing more in the long run if it was built poorly and is difficult to service in a timely manner. Good quality, hand-wired amps will always be more serviceable than a circuit board amp and thus, usually cost less to service. More often than not, they have a higher price tag as well.
With so many websites to source from, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. What is the reputation of the person, or business you are buying from? A good website for buying gear will have a lot of transparency in their items. Pictures, good notes, and a comprehensive description of the sound, condition, and age of the amplifier are all extremely helpful. Reviews on products and good customer feedback are also enormously beneficial to a potential buyer. Chicago Music Exchange will stand behind all sales if the customer is not satisfied in any way, and many other stores have followed our lead. Other sellers might have a repair shop on site that ensures all items are sound before being shipped to their new owners. We have found inspections prior to shipping to be very helpful if there are any unforeseen problems and also to give the buyer peace of mind when putting down their hard earned money.
Finally, it is time to consider budget. After all of the criteria are met and a few options are gathered, what is the price range? Guitar amplifiers can range from bargain-bin $5 finds to upwards of tens of thousands of dollars for the rare and the collectable. An amp hunter should settle on a range with which they are comfortable and look for the best fit within that range.
Gear hunting online can be a daunting prospect, but should ultimately be an enjoyable one. Use the tools that are available from reliable sources and keep the points above in mind to make sure you don’t lose your way on the best scavenger hunt that I can imagine — finding your perfect amp.
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