Are you a guitar enthusiast looking to upgrade your gear or a beginner in the market for your first guitar amplifier? One of the most important decisions for any guitarist is choosing the type of amp to use.
A combo amp has both the amplifier and the speaker(s) built into one unit, making it more portable and easier to use. In this article, I will explain what combo amps are, compare them to head and cabinet systems, and give you some of my top combo amp recommendations. Let’s get into it!
What is a combo amp?
A combo amp is a type of guitar amplifier design that has both the amplifier and the speaker(s) built into one unit. Since the speaker(s) and amplifier electronics are included in the same housing, these amps are easy to carry and set up, as there are no additional cables to connect.
Combo amps come in all sizes, from small desktop or battery-powered amps to massive 100w powerhouses.
Beginners and professionals alike often use combo amps due to their portability and convenience.
Difference between a combo amp and a head and cabinet
Here are some of the key differences between a combo amp and an amp head an cabinet.
Combo amps are designed to host both the amplifier and the speakers in the same cabinet. These amps usually have 1-2 10- or 12-inch speakers. This makes them smaller, easier to transport, easier to set up, and easier to use than a head and cabinet amplifier. Head and cabinet amps are also referred to as “stacks.”
Head and cabinet setups have two separate parts:
- Amplifier head: Contains the watts, controls, and tubes (if a tube amp). This is like the brain of a “stack” amp.
- Speaker cabinet: Contains the speakers of the amplifier. Cabinets usually have 4 speakers with a diameter of 10 or 12 inches.
This lets you upgrade or replace individual parts as needed. But this also means the setup is bigger and heavier than a combo amp, making it less portable and inconvenient.
Combo amps are not very flexible when it comes to switching out parts because they are made to work with the default set of speakers and aren’t open to drastic changes in the speakers being used.
On the other hand, head and cabinet setups give you a lot of freedom in how you shape the sound and set up the speakers. With a head and cabinet setup, you can swap between a combination of amplifier head(s) and speaker cabinet(s) according to your song’s requirements. You can also try out different speaker configurations to get the specific tone you’re looking for.
Most combo amps are made to be used in smaller settings, like practice rooms, bars, or other small venues. This is because they typically don’t have as much power and may have trouble filling larger venues.
That said, most large venues use a PA system to project guitar amps, so many guitarists use 30 to 50-watt combo amps in larger venues without many issues, especially if the combo amp has 2×12” speakers.
Head and cabinet setups are made for large venues as they have a higher power output and more speakers. This is because you can choose the exact power output and speaker configuration you need, which lets you fill larger spaces with sound. Many heavy metal and hard rock guitarists use “stack” amps as they have a big, booming sound.
Half-stack vs. full-stack
You’ll hear the terms “half-stack” and “full-stack” thrown around a lot when people refer to head and cabinet amps. Essentially, a half-stack is an amp head with a single cabinet (4 speakers), and a full stack is an amp head with two cabinets stacked on top of each other (8 speakers total).
Are combo amps any good?
Many professional gigging and recording musicians prefer combo amps because they are smaller and more convenient than “stack” amps and, in most cases, sound just as good.
Check out my article on the best beginner guitar amps for more recommendations.
More high-end combos like the 1×12 Mesa Boogie Mark V, the 2×12 Vox AC30, or the 2×12 Fender Twin Reverb ‘65 are used by intermediates and professionals alike and are some of the most popular and sought-after amps out there.
Are combo amps good for beginners?
Combo amps are a great option for beginners because they are generally cheaper, easier to use, and loud enough for most scenarios a beginner guitarist would find themselves in. Beginner practice combo amps are generally between 5 and 30 watts and typically have a single 12” speaker.
Are combo amps good for gigs?
Don’t let the small size of some combo amps trick you. Many combo amps are also perfectly capable of getting loud enough for gigging. Large dual-speaker combo amps can get very loud, and many professional musicians choose to use them for live shows. Large tube combo amps may have up to 100 watts with two 12” speakers, which may not be as loud as a head and cabinet but can still be very loud if cranked up.
Does a head and cabinet sound better than a combo amp?
There is no one true answer to this question. In some cases, a decent combo amp can sound just as good or even better than a high-quality cabinet. In the end, it really depends on what you are going for.
A head and cabinet setup allows for more flexibility and sound customization since you can mix and match different brands and types of heads and cabinets. This can lead to a wider range of tones and more control over the sound.
Half-stacks and full-stacks are also usually more powerful and can handle higher volumes. This means that the tubes will be able to handle higher volumes without distorting too much or shorting out.
So, if loud volume and a big clear sound is your thing, I recommend going for a head and cabinet amp. However, if you want a good quality tube amp that isn’t too much of a pain to transport, get a combo amp.
What should I look for when choosing a combo amp for my guitar setup?
If you decide to go with a combo amp as part of your guitar rig, there are several things to consider:
- Power/Wattage: The amp’s wattage will tell you how loud it can get. If you want to play gigs, you’ll need an amp with 50 to 100 watts of power to be heard over a drummer and other instruments in a medium to large venue.
- Speaker size: The tone and volume of the amp will be affected by the size of the speaker. Most of the time, a 12” speaker will make a louder, fuller sound, while a 6.5 or 8” speaker may be better for playing or recording quietly.
- Sonic properties of the speaker: For example, two popular speaker brands are Jensen and Celestion. Jensen speakers are known for their clear and bright sound, while Celestion speakers, like the popular Greenback model, are known for their warm and full sound.
- Effects: Some combo amps have effects like reverb, delay, and distortion already built in. Think about whether you want these effects built into your amp or whether you would instead use pedals.
- Brand reputation: Check out the amp’s reviews on the internet and see what other guitar players have to say about the specific brand’s amps. Check for dependability, durability, maintenance issues, and performance. I have written also an article on the best guitar amp brands on the market.
- Price: Combo amps can vary greatly in price depending on the speaker type and whether it’s a solid state or tube amp. The number of tubes affects the price considerably. So consider your budget and what features are the most important to you.
How much do combo amps cost?
As I mentioned above, combo amps vary greatly in price. They can range anywhere from $100 for the cheapest beginner amps to $2,000 for high-quality vintage tube amps. Factors like the speaker size, type of amp, brand, settings, and whether it is vintage or not all effect the price.
Lev’s picks: combo amps
Fender Blues Junior
The Fender Blues Junior is a classic combo amp with a single 12” Celestion speaker, an all-tube circuit that puts out 15 watts, and spring reverb that lets you give your sound more space and depth.
A footswitch is included with the amp to make adjusting the FAT switch, reverb, and driving channel simple. For guitarists on a budget who need a 1×12” combo tube amp that can handle the blues, rock, and other styles, the Blues Junior is an excellent choice.
- 15 watts
- 12″ Jensen C-12N speaker
- Preamp tubes: 3 x 12AX7, power tubes: 2 x EL84
- Spring reverb
- FAT boost switch
Countless guitarists over five decades have relied on the Vox AC30, a vintage tube combo amp. It has two 12-inch Celestion speakers and has 30 watts of power. It boasts 3x12AX7 preamp tubes and 4xEL84 power tubes, so you can expect a robust and dramatic sound with plenty of drive and punch.
The robust tubes are capable of giving you the classic crispy Vox clean tone or helping you achieve the overdriven tone that Vox AC30s are known for.
The Vox AC15C1 is a slightly smaller and more affordable version of the AC30, go read my full review of the AC15C1 amp if you are interested!
- Two-channel design with independent volume controls
- Celestion G12M Greenback speakers
- Preamp Tubes: 3 x 12AX7, power tubes: 4 x EL84
- Reverb and tremolo (controllable with a footswitch)
Guitar combo amps are as commonly found in practice sessions as they are in professional guitar rigs. Knowing how they differ from a head and cabinet setup, along with being aware of the pros and cons of each, will go a long way in achieving your dream guitar rig.
Want to know more about how amps work? Check out my article that dives deep into this.