Back in the day, bass players used to get a raw deal!
Bass guitar amps were often the size of houses to accommodate all that lovely low end – which is fine for stadium bands with road crews, groupies and massive trucks – but what about the humble pro or semi-pro working bassist making his or her living schlepping around pubs and clubs?
For those guys it was a trade off between power, what you could physically lift and what would actually fit in the car or van.
Fortunately bass amplification has moved on. Still plenty of power but in a much smaller form factor. Today, there’s much more choice and through the advent of technology like Class D amplifiers, some of the best bass amps around are now available in small packages.
With 10 solid state amps under the spotlight, covering combos, amp heads and practice amps, rest assured there’s something for everyone in this best bass amp article.
We’ve included everything that will help bassists make informed bass amp purchasing choices. There are no tube amp models in this list, just solid-state amps with many using Class D power amp technology which makes bass amps light, powerful and efficient.
Generally, we’ve looked at: specification, power, portability; price; sound and features.
- 1. Aguilar Tone Hammer 500W Bass Amplifier Head
- 2. Trace Elliot ELF Bass Amplifier 200W
- 3. Darkglass MicroTubes 500 v2 Bass Head
- 4. Ampeg Rocket Bass RB-210 500W Bass Combo
- 5. Fender Rumble 500W V3 Combo
- 6. Orange 500W Terror Bass Amp Head
- 7. TC Electronic THRUST BQ250 250W Bass Head
- 8. Boss Katana-210 Bass Combo
- 9. Fender Rumble 25 V3 Bass Combo Amplifier
- 10. Hartke HD25 Bass Combo Amplifier
- What to choose? Bass amp/head or combo?
Titanic tones in a lightweight package
From modern tones to vintage, think Aguilar and quite possibly the first thing that will come into your head are the tube-like distortion/overdrive pedals that the company is renowned for.
The good news is that Aguilar has managed to harness these highly desirable sounds into a compact solid state power amp (Class D) bass head.
The Aguilar Tone Hammer 500W incorporates the same preamp – and Aguilar’s proprietary AGS (adaptive gain shaping) circuit – as its hugely popular Tone Hammer preamp/DI pedal.
The whole thing weighs just 4lb (1.81kg) and dimensionally we’re looking at 10.75” (W) x 8.5” (D) x 2.75” (H) so power and portability are major selling points.
The front panel is functional but not over-complicated. There’s a ¼” jack input and -10dB pad for high output basses and then we’re into the real nuts and bolts – gain, mid-level, bass, drive, mid-freq (sweep) and treble.
Also on the front panel you’ll find a balanced Out (XLR) with post and pre switch for connecting to recording equipment or a larger PA.
The sound is fat, warm and quite vintage sounding. Although this is a solid-state amp it has definite tube-like tendencies.
- Incredibly light, powerful and punchy. Astonishing power to weight ratio
- Three-year warranty
- Fat low end. Extensive EQ and overdrive
- If it matters to you – it’s made in America
- Not the best for totally clean tones
- Quite expensive
- No headphone jack
- The Balanced Out jack is a bit noisy. It’s noticeable when recording. The Ground Lift switch really helps though
The Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 is a fantastic amp head that’s supremely versatile and portable. It takes pole position on our best bass amp shortlist.
From clean(ish) to crunch to fuzzy, it does it all. It gets as close to the classic Ampeg SVT sound without actually being one, but it can also deliver really funky middly clean tones and a trouser wobbling low end.
The amp of choice for ultra portability
Since its formation in 1979, Essex, UK-based Trace Elliot has designed and manufactured some of the best bass amps in the world.
Their distinctive green fascia paint lettering against a black background coupled with an instantly recognisable graphic equalizer were legendary in bass circles in the 80s and 90s. Now, the brand is owned by Peavey.
Today, Trace Elliot bass amps are far from the colossal weighty beasts they once were – but they’re still up there with the best where it matters – in the sound department.
The Trace Elliot Elf for example weighs a gravity-busting 1.6lbs (0.73kg) yet pushes out 200W of continuous power into 4 ohms or 130W into 8 ohms. At 6.75” (W) x 4.1” (D) x 1.25” (H) it really will slip effortlessly into a pocket. This is portability on steroids!
Controls are basic but do the job. There’s an input jack, a multi-functional Gain knob, Bass (center 80Hz), Mid (center 400Hz) and Treble (center 4.2KHz) EQ, a Master Volume and power indicator and signal LEDs.
Trace Elliot says the Gain control is the single most important knob on the entire front panel and that’s because it’s multi-functional offering gain, compression and overdrive which kick in the harder you drive it.
Those of a certain age will know that Trace Elliot bass amps are renowned for a particular bass tone – bright, punchy and quite middly – a sound pretty faithfully reproduced by the Elf. However, that inherent brightness may not suit all players.
- The size of the thing is incredible. 200W at 1.6lbs
- The amp may be small, but the knurled knobs are normal sized and easy to grip
- Pretty loud
- Fantastic price
- Gets pretty near that legendary Trace Elliot signature sound. Good EQ
- Neat little carry bag included
- The fan can get pretty noisy
- The overdrive is only good for light crunch. For really nasty stuff you’ll need an external effects pedal
- When running the overdrive flat out, there’s quite a bit of compression/limiting going on. When pushed to the limits, it can actually make notes drop out
This little amp punches well above its weight and for the price it’s hard to beat. Good to see the Trace Elliot brand back with a vengeance.
Versatility meets raw power
In our ‘Essential Bass Pedals’ article, Finnish company Darkglass made the shortlist with its fantastic Alpha Omega overdrive/distortion pedal.
It’s best known for being a leading player in the rock/metal genre mainly because of its excellent distortion/overdrive effects pedals so it won’t be a surprise to learn that the MicroTubes 500 v2 certainly excels in this department.
Because in this powerhouse of an amp, you’re effectively getting two Darkglass overdrive/distortion pedals thrown in. The crunchy warmth of the Vintage Microtubes pedal and the modern high gain tones of the B3K Bass Overdrive. Both sound fantastic – and you’ve got both to choose from.
Designed, built and engineered in Helsinki, Finland, this is a 500W highly efficient Class D amp with an all-analog preamp. You’ll get the full fat 500W only if your cab configuration is 4 ohms. At 8 ohms, this reduces to 250W. It can apparently run on cabs as low as 2 ohms – according to a note on the rear of the panel.
Size wise this certainly isn’t as bijou as the Trace Elliot Elf but then it’s got much more under the hood. However at 5.29lbs (2.4kg) it’s not going to aggravate any hernias or bad backs so it definitely sits in the ‘highly portable’ category.
- A beast of an amp and it’s very loud
- The Microtubes Engine gives you two different distortion circuits (think modern high gain and tube like vintage) and a compressor. Both are excellent. The Blend control allows you to blend between clean and distorted for a wealth of tone options
- The 6-band EQ. The 4-band mid section in particular is perfect for bass
- Three different cab impulses are available as well as the clean DI sound. Free factory cab impulses available through Darkglass Suite software
- Overdriven/distorted sounds are second to none, but the cleaner sounds are pretty killer too
- Not cheap but for what you get, good value for money
- Bluetooth would have been a nice inclusion on the amp. The only way of using the Darkglass Suite with this product is via USB cable connected to a Windows or Mac computer
The Darkglass Microtubes 500 v2 is hard to beat for overdriven/distorted sounds. The VMT/B3K options will provide enough grungy goodness for just about anyone. Personally we prefer the warmer tube-like tones of the VMT but metalheads will no doubt disagree.
But it’s too easy to stereotype Darkglass as a grungy one track pony. True, it is a go to brand for rock and metal but the Microtubes 500 v2 is surprisingly versatile, scrubbing up pretty well on cleaner sounds as well.
Legendary Ampeg sounds – without the hernia
Ampeg is a name synonymous with the dawn of stadium rock when bands simply needed more volume on stage and the gear around at the time had trouble keeping up.
At the 1969 NAMM show, Ampeg launched its now legendary Super Vacuum Tube – or SVT – bass amp. Unheard of at the time, This was a backbreaking 300W 14 tube, twin cab, 19 speaker behemoth.
Today, Ampeg is owned by the Yamaha Corporation and the company continues to evolve many more products – the Rocket Bass series of combos for example. Here we’re taking a look at the RB-210 500W.
Compared to those heady days of the late 1960s, the RB-210 is positively featherlite compared to the gargantuan SVT bass amps of the past. It weighs just 38lbs (17.7kg) so Ampeg have factored in portability when designing this amp. It’s made for the gigging musician.
Two custom 10” speakers provide sound projection. A 3-band EQ section coupled with Ultra Hi/Ultra Lo switches are pretty killer and a definite plus point. It’s a ‘musical’ EQ that offers a wide range of sounds.
If you dig that Ampeg crunch tone, you’ll love the footswitchable SGT (Super Grit Technology) overdrive circuit on the RB-210 which starts at light crunch, extends to full on overdrive with various levels of growl in between
- With its impact resistant metal corners and black diamond vinyl grille, we like the RB-210’s retro look
- Excellent SGT overdrive circuit
- Portable. Ideal for practice and performance
- We really like the 3-band EQ, Ultra switches and switchable horn
- Despite having only 10” speakers, you get a surprising amount of low end that can comfortably handle the low B on a 5 string
- You’ll need an extension cab to get the full 500W
- The tweeter horn, when engaged, is a little hissy
‘That’ Ampeg sound with the SGT circuit is a winning combination. It’s rich, with plenty of bottom end, defined mids and, if you want it, high end clarity via the switchable tweeter.
Classic Fender tones, portable, punchy and loud
Rumble is certainly an appropriate term to describe this solid-state Class D 500W bass amplifier because it delivers plenty of low end goodness in a really compact, well-designed, lightweight package.
Considering its impressive output, the Rumble is incredibly light, weighing in at 36.5lbs (16.56kg).
Two 10” Eminence designed ceramic magnet speakers lurk inside the cabinet section, but a nice touch here is that the horn tweeter can be switched on or off, affording a wide range of tones.
Control-wise you get a relatively simple but totally functional set of knobs to play with. Yep, there’s standard issue gain and volume and a nice 4-band EQ – but also included is a nifty overdrive circuit and three button voicing options: Bright, Contour, and Vintage.
The Rumble 500 sounds just fine with no additional voicing controls selected but they do offer extra tonality versatility. Bright adds additional top end presence; Contour is like a mid-frequency scoop which lends itself quite nicely to slapping styles; Vintage is old school – dark, rich and slightly compressed.
- The sound. Rich, full, punchy and room shakingly loud
- Simple but highly effective tonal versatility via the EQ, overdrive circuit and triple voicing options
- At 36.5lbs it’s really very light – due entirely to its weight-saving design
- Its vintage vibe. Aesthetically, we think it looks the business
- For what you get, it’s great value for money
- A bit awkward to carry via the single top located handle
- You won’t get the full 500W of power unless connected to an external cab. If not it’s 350W
- The line out output is directly affected by the amp’s controls so if you make manual changes mid-gig to your settings, it will directly affect the sound received at the mixing board as well
This is just a great sounding bass amplifier in a form factor that is easy to schlep around. The extensive sound shaping options mean it’ll appeal to a variety of bassists and styles.
The lunchbox – full sounding and fat
Iconic British amp company Orange has been designing and manufacturing game-changing amplifiers since its formation by Cliff Cooper in 1968.
Four decades later, the original 500W Terror Bass amp was launched in 2008 – but then in 2018 it underwent something of a revamp, sporting a new valve preamp, and a 500W solid state Class D amplifier with sounds closer to Orange’s flagship AD200 all tube amp head.
The Terror heaves out 500W at 4 ohms and 250W at 8 ohms BUT this amp features a tube preamp so before switching on, remember to connect to a speaker or the DI. The two speaker outputs are SpeakON connectors.
The layout of the new Orange Terror Bass amp is pretty similar to the previous version. One standout addition is the inclusion of a Clean switch which, not surprisingly throttles back on the gain, smooths the top end tone and provides a bit more headroom.
The front panel is impressively simplistic: on/off switch; indicator light; and master volume, treble, middle, bass and gain controls. Note with the EQ knobs, zero is at the 12 o’clock setting.
The Orange Terror Bass head is often affectionately described as a lunchbox, and it’s not difficult to see why. The carrying handle on top of the unit certainly makes this amp simple to carry around and at 10.25lbs (4.65kg), it’s pretty portable.
Fans of the Orange sound, won’t be disappointed with this amp. The warm crunchy distortion is full and fat, but it also performs well with cleaner settings.
We weren’t keen on the amp and full tilt with the gain full up though. Not sure if ‘farty’ is a technical term but that describes it.
- The sound of this amp, providing you don’t want face melting distortion is fantastic. For grit, crunch and raunch, it ticks the boxes
- Highly portable. Great carrying handle
- Plenty of power for most situations
- Basic EQ but it works
- The Clean switch makes this amp much more versatile sonically than its predecessor. Offers headroom without distortion
- The DI is excellent. Perfect for FOH PA and recording – but a shame there aren’t post- and pre- options
- You get a nice padded gig bag thrown in
- It won’t suit metalheads and lovers of hi-gain distortion. If you want that, you’ll need to wheel in your own pedals and effects
- Would have been a nice touch to have the clean channel foot switchable
- While this is a great sounding amp, it’s not as versatile as others in this list and offers less options for sound shaping. The clean isn’t really clean
This is a beefy old amp. Played with fingers and the clean switch engaged, the sound is warm and full. With a pick, it’s more of a percussive attack.
With warm tube tones available in spades, it’s perhaps not surprising that this will appeal to bassists at the rockier end of the spectrum but it performs admirably with cleaner sounds as well. The Clean Switch is a welcome addition, but the full on distortion sounds are disappointing
Value for money with a bass-centric EQ
Founded in 1976, TC Electronic is now part of the Music Tribe – a group of brands that also includes the likes of Tannoy, Behringer, Bugera, Midas, Turbosound and Klark Teknik, so it’s in good company!
The Thrust BQ250 is a 250W micro bass head designed with portability in mind. It’s a Class D amp so it’s hellishly compact and weighs just 4.9lbs (2.2kg).
The front panel, in line with its modest dimensions is minimalistic – but there’s a knob for everything you need: Gain, Thrust (compressor), Bass, Lo-Mid, Hi-Mid, Treble, and Master. Connection to an external cab is via SpeakON connector.
- The Class D amp provides power and portability in droves. Just throw it into a gig bag or backpack
- Whether dialing in clean or crunchy tones, for its size this is a really punchy little amp. Ideal for practicing, rehearsals and small to medium gigs. Excellent EQ
- Refreshingly simple but functional controls
- Great value for money
- Three year warranty as standard
- We researched this and it appears that the GAIN switch on the BQ250, which is used to select active or passive basses, is sometimes wired in reverse. Not a dealbreaker but be warned
- Not as small or light as some micro bass heads
- The Thrust control (compressor) is OK but don’t overdo it. It really squashes the sound excessively when full on so adjust to taste. I think we’d prefer an external compressor pedal
For the price, this ticks most of the important boxes. We liked the EQ which is clearly designed for bass and the non-cluttered control layout means you can get down to business dialing in tones quickly.
It’s hard to beat if you’re on a budget and at 250W it’s powerful enough for most situations.
Best for effects
Since their introduction in 2016, Boss’ Katana series of tube logic combos have made a seismic impact in the guitar amp world so it’s an evolutionary – and much welcome – step to spread some of that innovation to bass amps.
And that’s exactly what the Japanese company has done with the Katana-210 bass combo (2 x 10 inch speakers 160W) and its smaller sibling the Katana-110 (1 x 10 inch speaker 60W).
A notable feature of the Katana 210 (and indeed the 110) is the fact that it uses a Class AB power amp which means, by design, it not only sounds good, but operates efficiently. Arguably more tube sounding than Class D.
Not only that but it’s a bi-amped configuration where the main speaker and tweeter are powered separately. The tweeter can be switched on or off to taste and that will depend on your own particular style.
Boss is an undisputed world leader in the development of guitar effects so you won’t be surprised that Katana bass amps are absolutely bursting at the seams with effects and tone shaping controls.
These include three unique amp voicings (vintage, flat and modern) used in conjunction with a Shape switch which offers a choice of three distinct tonal characters.
You also get a comprehensive 4-band EQ and four independent effects sections (compression, overdrive, FX1 and FX2). A Blend control section enables you to mix in the dry sound when you need a bit of clarity and there are six memory slots for storing and recalling favorite sound settings.
Boss has designed some decent free software and an app to use with this amp and to get your mitts on it, head on over to http://bosstonecentral.com
There’s a variety of live sets to download plus the rather excellent Boss Tone Studio software which is available for Mac/Windows, iOS and Android.
You can hardwire the Katana 210 (using a USB cable) to your Mac or Windows computer and control it from there, or hook your device or laptop up and control the amp via Bluetooth.
For Bluetooth connectivity however, you’ll need to purchase a separate BT-DUAL adapter. Compatibility with an optional footswitch and/or expression pedal adds even more convenience especially for live work. The footswitch enables you to switch between Banks A&B and Channels 1&2.
- Punchy, rich sounds. Loud for its size
- The physical size and 160W power of this amp means it’s compact enough to be used at home, at rehearsals or on stage for small to medium gigs. There’s a 1W power option which sounds surprisingly good at very low volumes
- Excellent software and app which control the Katana settings remotely in real-time and enable you to download tone libraries
- The effects are superb and there’s lots of them
- The sound shaping options are virtually limitless
- Some will definitely say there’s simply too much going on with this amp and it’s over-complicated for bass
- Its identity. At 160W it’s unclear exactly where the Katana 210 sits in the big picture. Arguably too big for practice, too small for gigs
- It’s quite heavy (48lbs 1oz – 16.8kg)
- A little expensive
- We reckon Bluetooth should be built-in as standard (an adapter is required to get it)
- Doesn’t really have the low end to handle 5-string basses convincingly
It’s fantastic that Boss has extended its excellent Katana guitar amp range to include bass. The Boss Katana 210 is a great sounding mid-range amp with an absolute ton of options to help sculpt your dream tone.
If you like shed loads of effects and need endless options in the sound department, this is easily the best equipped amp in this list.
This is also its potential weakness though. There’s so many buttons, switches, knobs and effects. It’s up to you dear reader to decide if this floats your boat.
Practice Amp Perfection
The Fender Rumble family of bass amps really does have something for everyone.
We’ve already taken a look at the 500W model elsewhere in this review. In terms of power, the Rumble 25 is somewhat more sedate, but we all know good things sometimes come in small packages!
At 25W (8 ohms) and featuring a single 8 inch speaker, the Fender Rumble 25 is plenty loud enough for both practicing at home, volume restrained rehearsals or even a coffee shop gig. You won’t get above a drummer at full tilt with this amp but it is surprisingly loud for its size.
Control wise on the top panel you’ve got everything you need: ¼” input jack, 3-band EQ and a Master Volume knob – but there’s also a headphone jack (32 ohms minimum impedance) and a 1/8” (3.5mm) stereo Aux In jack to take a feed from a device so you can play along with your favorite tunes.
There’s also two smaller switches: one is to enable the overdrive circuit; the other is to access the mid-frequency scoop contour switch. The former is OK – if a little fizzy that gets increasingly more fizzy as you crank up the volume.
- It’s quite loud, smooth and fat sounding for a 25W 8 inch speaker combo. At 21lbs you’ll know you’re carrying it but it’s definitely portable
- Impressive sounds and Fender-esque lows. It can even handle the low B of a 5-string pretty well
- Nice retro look vinyl black cabinet with silver grille
- The 3-band EQ and Contour scoop offer a wide palette of sound options
- We’re pleased to see the inclusion of the Aux in jack – it’s always good to be able to play along with songs as you’re learning them
- The price
- Only one really – the underwhelming fizzy, non-controllable overdrive – but on the positive side it does provide a volume boost. If grunge is important to you, just use an external pedal. Sorted
There’s always a danger, with small bass combos in particular, that corners are cut to keep the price low. Not so with the Fender Rumble 25.
For its size, the sound is commendable across all frequencies. You’re not going to shift tons of air with an 8 inch speaker but Fender has done a good job of ensuring that the sound spectrum is universally covered, even the low end.
The EQ really helps get the best out of this pint sized amp.
Big presence in a compact combo
With its HD25 bass guitar combo, Samson Technologies-owned Hartke has managed to cram a non-Class D 25W power amp and 8 inch speaker into a 15.2 (387mm) x 14 (355mm) x 10 (254mm) (HWD) inch package weighing just 24.7lb (11.2kg) so this’ll be pretty portable and easy to transport around.
Hartke incorporates its HyDrive (half paper, half aluminum) speaker cone technology into its HD bass combo amps.
We really don’t know if HyDrive is marketing hype or not – but what we do know is that the amp/speaker combination does produce some nice warm bass tones as well as plenty of attack and bite via the EQ if you need it. Note there’s no overdrive circuit on this combo amp.
According to the manufacturer, the warmth comes from the paper; the attack and punch emanates from the aluminum which targets the mid and upper frequencies. This is a very versatile bass combo that’ll do the business on everything from jazz and funk to country and rock. It performs well on slap.
- Less is more. We liked the HD25’s no frills approach
- Excellent build quality
- Very usable sounds, even at low volume. Clean, rich and punchy tone – even on 5 string instruments. And quite loud!
- Good value for money
- None to really speak of. The controls are basic – some may hanker for more sound shaping capabilities like a more comprehensive EQ section
- Quite heavy
It appears the HyDrive paper/aluminum speaker design isn’t a gimmick after all. Despite its limited controls, the Hartke HD25 pushes out some serious (for its size) low end.
What to choose? Bass amp/head or combo?
Before you take the plunge and shell out on a bass amp, the first question you’ll need to ask is whether to go for a nice convenient combo setup or a more versatile head/cab arrangement?
As is always the case with music gear, there are pros and cons for each so let’s break this down a bit.
Combos win hands down here. While some combos can be pretty weighty, generally they’ll always be lighter than separates. Obvious really. Their integrated design makes them less cumbersome – ideal for throwing in the back of a car or van for gigs or rehearsals.
Combos again. Matching up a cab to an amp head is not always straightforward. You have to start thinking about things like impedance and power handling. Get it wrong and you could blow your bass cab to smithereens. With a combo, you remove the ambiguity – you know it’ll work.
Combos (most of the time) are cheaper than head/cab-based rigs. Manufacturing costs are kept lower because everything is part of a single unit.
Round four goes to the amp/cab setup. You can hook up extension cabinets to bass combo amps but usually that’s to ensure that they operate at full power (the Ampeg Rocket bass 210 in this list for example). But the most powerful setups are usually separates.
Customization and Versatility
Again, separate amps/cabs take the honors. With a combo, you’re stuck with the speaker. With an amp head, the sky’s the limit. Mix and match to your heart’s content.
Combos are the preferred weapon of choice here. They’re neat, compact and integrated. Ideal for a bit of bedroom strumming or taking round to a friend’s house.
Amp head and cabinet setups shine in this department. Need more volume (providing the amp can handle it), get more cabinets.
Beginner bassists often start with a combo. Smaller practise amps like the Fender Rumble 25 and Hartke HD25 in this list are ideal amps to kick off your bass playing journey because they’re relatively cheap, portable and light. They also sound pretty good and have enough power to make a decent racket.
As you move up the ladder and start playing bigger venues, chances are, at some point, you’ll go for separates. The key advantage here is versatility. You can mix and match amp/speaker configurations to open up a wealth of different sounds.
Perhaps you fancy a dual cab set up with a 1 x 15 and 4 x 10s. You may even want to mix and match different manufacturers? All this is possible with separates.
Your choice will depend on your own individual circumstances, but wherever you are in the journey, there will be something that fits the bill in our best bass amp shortlist.