While many players actively seek out high gain amps that break up into ear pleasing crunch distortion, others prefer clean amps, which are amps that provide large amounts of “headroom”. A clean amp will allow a player to achieve much higher volume levels than high gain amps before hitting the point of breakup. This comes with many benefits, most notably the ability to take pedals and FX very well.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ll be reviewing the 7 best clean amplifiers on the market right now. We’ll primarily be looking for crystal clear, sparkling tones that avoid distorting at high volume, but we’ll also be checking to see how well they handle a basic pedal board.
For consistency during the test, we used the same guitar throughout, in this case, an American Performer (SSS) Fender Stratocaster. When testing the amps’ ability to handle pedals, we used a simple pedal board, featuring a Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive, a TC Electronics Corona Chorus, and a Donner White Tape delay pedal.
Our Top 3 Choices
Our Top Pick was the Fender Pro Junior IV 1×10”. If you’re looking for a blend of price and performance, this amp is peerless. It offers world class clean tones with studio quality fidelity, and enough power to handle gigging.
If you’re looking for wonderful clean tones, but you’re trying to limit expenses, take a look at our Best Budget option – the Boss Katana 50 MKII. The clean voicing on this amp outclasses many much more expensive models, and as we’ve discovered, it does pretty much any style well, making this an incredibly versatile choice.
Players who want the best clean amp out there, regardless of cost should look to our Editor’s Choice winner, the Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Neo. This has been the clean amp of choice for guitarists at the highest levels for 7 decades now, and to this day, there’s very few alternatives that can even hold a candle to it.
Classic looks and brilliant, shimmering tones
This is an absolute gem of an amp, boasting incredible clarity, intuitive operation, and looks to die for, at a much lower price than you’d ever expect. A genuine workhorse in the studio and on the stage.
The Fender Pro Junior IV is about as simple as an amplifier gets. It has 15 watts of all tube power, generated by 2 x 12AX7 preamp tubes and 2 EL84 power tubes, supported by a solid state rectifier. The results, as you’ll read below, were staggering. We got beautiful cleans, a dynamic response, and tremendous pedal performance.
Our first test was a dry signal check, straight from the guitar into the amp. The Pro Jr IV only has one input and one channel, with a single volume and a master tone knob, so the setup was the easiest of any amp on test. We worked through the volume range, starting a hair above zero, checking for clarity and cleanliness of tone. By time we got to noon, we had some serious volume output, but not even a hint of breakup – even with volume maxed on the guitar.
In fact, we pushed the volume to about 2 ‘o’ clock (8 on the dial) before we started to get any crunch at all, and of course, with 15 watts of tube power, it was very loud.
We found the Pro Jr IV to be incredibly responsive, too. Even with volume maxed, we were able to avoid distortion by softening the attach and playing with a gentler touch. We were still able to keep the tones clean at max volume when playing hard by rolling back the volume on the guitar slightly.
With the pedal board set up, we set the volume to 8 and fired up the FX. We retained the incredible natural shimmer of this amp, even through the overdrive. It handled the pedals about as well as could be expected, with no noticeable alteration to the natural character of the stomp boxes.
Verdict: The Fender Pro Jr IV is one of the most prolific clean amps ever made. A bold statement, but one made with demonstrable performance to back it up. If you’re looking to play clean, it will take care of business, if you’re looking for pedal headroom, this thing has tons. It looks incredible, it’s easy to use, and it’s surprisingly affordable.
A budget amp with cleans to rival any premium competitor
This really is a do-it-all kind of amp. It can handle, distortion, crunch, and it does cleans far better than anything else at this price point. It’s got built in FX, but it handles pedals very well, making it a great choice if you need one amp for multiple tasks.
The Boss Katana 50MKII has proven time and time again that a quality modeling amp can handle itself in just about any situation you put it in. The clean amp voicing on this model stays clean no matter what you do to it, which makes it an ideal clean amp for beginners. Because it fights off distortion all through the volume range, it also takes pedals like a pro, too.
This great little modeling amp has 50 watts of power. It’s driven by solid state digital circuitry, and features 5 different amp voicings, “clean” being the best setting to get clean tones.
We started with the dry signal test. Setup was easy as there’s only one input on the Katana 50, and the amp voicing selector is right next to the input jack. We set it to clean, turned the gain down to around 9 ‘o’ clock, and slowly worked the volume up from just above zero to maximum. We found that there was no break up at all to speak of with these settings, leaving us huge headroom for pedals.
The tones with the guitar volume maxed were super shimmery – we tried rolling them back a little, and because there wasn’t really any crunch to clean up, it really just warmed up the sound.
The on board FX worked perfectly with the clean tones, as you might expect. The sound remained clean and clear with delay and chorus effects added, and there was still plenty of headroom. We also tried it out with our small pedal board, and once again, it worked really well across a range of volume settings.
Verdict: The Boss Katana 50 MKII might not be the most powerful amp in this group, but as far as tones go, it did more than hold its own. If you’re looking to record, jam with friends, or maybe even take on small gigs, while keeping costs to a minimum, you could do a lot worse than this!
The gold standard when it comes to shimmery, crystal clear tones
It doesn’t get much better than a Fender Twin Reverb if you’re looking for clean tones. This amp shifts huge volumes of air without breaking a sweat, and won’t give so much as a growl until you ask it to.
If you’re looking for the best clean amp bar none, the Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Neo is exactly what you need. It can take on pretty much all genres, including heavier styles thanks to its unrivalled ability to handle pedals. This 85 watt monster amp is driven by 4 x 12AX7 and 2 x 12AT7 preamp tubes and 4 Groove Tube 6L6 power tubes, so it’s no wonder it manages to get as loud as it does.
On the dry signal check this amp performed flawlessly. For a big, stage ready amp, it gave us bell like clarity from the lowest possible volume setting – which let us play at responsible bedroom levels and still get great tones. We kept pushing up, and in true Fender style, we hit around 80% on the volume before any breakup started occurring. We need to be clear, that 80% volume on a Fender ’65 twin reverb is deafeningly loud, and needless to say, we were thrilled with the overall clean performance.
We pushed on up to max volume to experiment with touch response, and once again, found ourselves amazed at how a slight adjustment in attack cleaned our tones back up. Rolling the volume down to about 7 on the guitar also brought us back to a perfectly clean sound, even with the amp maxed out.
After establishing the headroom, we set up the pedal board to find out how the Twin Reverb handled it. We set the volume to about 75% and ran through the FX individually and together. As expected, we didn’t find that the amp added or took anything away from the inherent character of the pedals.
Verdict: The Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Neo is simply the best clean amplifier around. It’s an accurate reissue of the original model, and it sounds just as good as the historical examples. We loved the special edition red wine Tolex, too! We found that there was more volume that we knew what to do with, and the huge headroom meant that we had beautiful cleans all the way from bedroom levels to large venue volumes.
A legendary amplifier with classic chime and effortless style
Who says British amps can’t do clean? British amps are usually more associated with crunch than cleans, but the Vox AC15 is one of the rare exceptions (although it can absolutely do crunch, too!)
The Vox AC15 was the very first amp that Vox manufactured way back in 1958, and has remained (largely) unchanged ever since. Because of the classic design, you get classic clean and early rock tones, without huge amounts of gain. Power comes from 3 x 12AX7 preamp tubes and 2 x EL84 power tubes. It has a total power output of 15 watts driving a single 12” Celestion Alnico Blue speaker, which we found gave us some great clean tones, but perhaps not as much headroom as a Fender.
We started off as we did for all of the other amps, with a test of the dry signal to check at what point the AC15 starts to break up. We weren’t big fans of the tone of the AC15 at low volume, it was clean, but it lacked compression and the top end was a little inconsistent. By time we got the volume over 4, it started sounding much sweeter, and we got the chime that Vox amps are so famous for.
After some experimenting, we did find that it was possible to get better sounding bedroom levels by turning up the amp and rolling off the volume, which indicated that the tubes used in this Vox amp need to be pushed hard to get acceptable tones.
The headroom was good, but noticeably lower than comparably powered amps. By time we got the volume over 60% we were already starting to get some breakup. We found that this was enough to be heard over a drummer and a bass amp, but not by much. Fortunately touch response was good, and we were able to remain clean with arpeggiated passages at slightly higher volumes.
More headroom would have been nice for pedal performance. We were still able to get a proper representation of the FX units we were using, but it’s unlikely that this amp would take pedals well in a gig setting.
Verdict: The Vox AC15C1X gets all the points when it comes to nostalgia – there’s no doubt that it’s historically significant, but it was simply outclassed by Fender for pure clean tones. That being said, it has such a close association with the rock music of the 50s and 60s that it’s in many ways integral to the style, so, if you’re a fan of early Beatles works, or bands like the Shadows, and you want to replicate those chimey tones, the AC15 is still a great choice.
An incredibly clean amp that’s literally built to take pedals
This amp is the product of a collaboration between an amp manufacturer, and a pedal manufacturer, and the result? An amp with huge headroom that squeezes everything possible from every pedal in the signal chain.
If you’re shopping for a clean amp, you shouldn’t discount the Supro 1968 RK Keeley. Supro partnered with high end pedal manufacturers, Keeley, to create an amp that’s purpose made for handling pedals. It’s a 25 watt all tube amp pushing air through a single 12” Celestion Creamback by way of 2 x ECC83S preamp tubes, and 2 x 6V6GT power tubes. We found that the setup provided plenty of headroom as advertised, and handled the pedal board well.
When testing the dry signal, the Supro performed beautifully at low levels, with sweet, bell like tones. Like the Vox AC15, it got to around 60% volume before starting to break up. At this point it was loud, but not much more so than the Fender Pro Jr IV, so the extra 10 watts isn’t being efficiently used.
We found that it had a particularly British tone, which was unexpected given Supro’s typical gritty, delta blues tones. In fact, at higher volumes, the chime was pretty similar to that of the Vox AC15.
This Supro/Keeley amp had some great touch response. It handled fingerstyle very well, and really brought out the nuance in our playing. After we pushed it into some gritty tones, we were easily able to roll off the guitar’s volume and clean it up.
This amp really did shine with our pedal board. We found no muddiness in the tone with the Boss SD-1 on max gain, and it handled the reflections on the tape delay perfectly without unwanted feedback.
Verdict: The Supro 1968RK Keeley is clearly one of the best options out there if you’re looking to play with pedals. The clean performance was excellent, with incredible clarity, throughout the volume range. There were no harsh spikes at lower volumes, and despite not being as loud as expected, it was still able to keep up with a drummer. It was definitely the most unique looking amp, with a boutique style blue “Rhino-Hide” Tolex.
Retro looks and retro tones from this head and cabinet set
Fans of the clean tones of 50s and early 60s rock will love the classic clean chime from this versatile amp and cab. It’s great for everything from low volume practice to jamming with friends.
The Vox Mini Superbeetle has a pretty unique setup – it’s a small practice amp that isn’t a combo. It’s an ultra lightweight 25 watt hybrid head, and a 1×10” cabinet that can either be vertically or horizontally oriented. Power comes from a solid state circuit with Vox NuTube technology in the preamp section, and a solid state power amp. Of course, this setup offers nowhere near the same power as a true tube amp of the same output, but this does mean that it doesn’t run with as much gain, which can help in keeping tones clean.
With a dry signal the Superbeetle behaved rather predictably, the NuTube preamps did add warmth at low volume, and the clean tones were bright. Headroom was the biggest challenge for this amp, with tones starting to become excessively brittle at higher volume. In fact, we only got to about 50% before we noticed it starting to struggle.
It’s obvious that the Superbeetle is voiced to emulate an AC15 or AC30. It manages to replicate the chime pretty well until you start to push it hard, but it then starts to become a little too brash. Even turning down the volume on the guitar did little to clean up the sound.
Touch response was also a little muted, and felt almost binary. This really is an amp that you need to have dialed in to the tone you want when you want to play it.
The pedals sounded surprisingly good, despite the lack of headroom. The relatively low power output might be hiding coloration of the pedal characteristics that would be more noticeable at higher volumes, but out of the box, the Superbeetle was definitely able to handle gain, reverb, and delay.
Verdict: The Vox Mini Superbeetle is a really interesting amplifier. Having the flexibility that a separate head and cab offers is pretty rare at the price, and that’s definitely going to appeal to a lot of players. The head itself was super lightweight, weighing no more than a pedal, so it really needs to be wedged into the frame on the cab, otherwise it’s way too easy to accidentally knock off. As far as tones went, high volume performance was outshone by pretty much everything else in the test, however, we got some lovely British chime at low volume, so as a practice amp, it’s actually a superb choice.
A blend of clean and bold tones with huge power
Marshall isn’t exactly synonymous with clean tones, but the monster power afforded by this amp gives tons of headroom, making it a real weapon for pedal users.
As a brand, Marshall often gets left out of the conversation when it comes to clean amps, but some of their amps are actually capable of producing some incredibly smooth tones, even at high volume, and the Marshall DSL40CR is one of them. There is a total power output of 40 watts, achieved by way of 4 x ECC83 preamp tubes and 2 x EL34 power tubes.
With no pedals connected, we tested the DSL40CR starting just above zero volume in the Classic Gain setting, with clean mode activated and gain set to about 9 ‘o’ clock. We were genuinely surprised at the tonal control we were able to dial in at such low levels. Tones were glassy and shimmery, and actually perfect for home studio level recording.
As we got louder, we were able to keep the tones clean up to around 65% volume. Even at just 65%, this amp was no joke, and was only really surpassed by the Fender Twin Reverb.
Next, we pushed the amp into break up, and tested touch response. This was definitely one of the weaker points of the Marshall. Between 80 and 100% volume, it just wanted to do what Marshalls do best, which is put out massive crunch, no matter how delicate the attack. It did, however, respond well to a roll back in guitar volume, even at max volume, turning the guitar down below 8 gave us more glassy cleans.
The DSL40CR put up an awesome performance with the pedal board. With the volume set just below the break up point the pedals sounded fantastic. The drive from the SD-1 was natural sounding, and the texture from the chorus was perfect.
Verdict: The Marshall DSL40CR might not be the best all around clean amp, but if you play a variety of music that includes heavier and cleaner tunes, you’ll probably love this rig. There was never any doubt as to its ability to provide a nice crunch, but we found ourselves pleasantly surprised at how nice the clean tones we got from this amp were.
True clean amps require a certain set of characteristics, without which, they wouldn’t be able to maintain clean tone at higher volume. Keep reading to learn more about what you should be looking for when shopping for your clean amp:
Headroom is a term that is often thrown around in the context of clean amplifiers. In essence, it refers to how loud you can get the amplifier before it starts to hit the point of breakup. Once the sound breaks up it becomes distorted, and is no longer clean, so, the higher the volume is before reaching breakup, the more headroom there is. Lots of headroom is a desirable feature if you’re looking for a clean amp, as it gives you more useable volume with your desired tone.
Not only does it give you more volume, but an amp with lots of headroom will also take pedals better than an amp that breaks up quickly. This is because the amp’s distorted qualities won’t interfere with the natural character of the amp.
Amplifier power is measured in watts, and the higher the number, the more powerful the amp is. Remember, that an amp with more headroom will need more volume to break up, so if you’re trying to get distorted tones at practice volumes, you’ll struggle to do so with a higher powered amp.
It’s also worth noting that power rating for a solid state amp is not 1:1 with power rating for a tube amp. A 50 watt solid state can get pretty loud and will suffice for small gigs, but it will come nowhere near the volume of a 50 watt all tube amp. In fact, a 50 watt solid state is only equivalent to a 15 watt tube amp with regard to volume.
Higher powered tube amps can also have difficulty with ear pleasing tones at low volumes, it’s like the equivalent of driving a race car to the grocery store – it’s nice to have the power, but it’s difficult to manage at slow speed. Most vacuum tubes work best when they’re being pushed hard, so if you don’t need the power, you’ll be better off with a smaller model.
Final Thoughts on the Best Clean Amps
This was one of our favorite shootouts to date – we got to try out some of the world’s most iconic amps, and while some of the outcomes we reached were inevitable, we still found ourselves pleasantly surprised by the performance of other models. To recap our favorites – the Fender Pro Jr IV is a real performer with the portability to take it anywhere you need to go. The Boss Katana 50 MKII is a fraction of the price of the other models we tested, yet it could still hang when it came to glassy clean tones. If money is no object and you insist on the best of the best, there’s no better choice than a Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Neo.