What About Lunchbox Amps?

Small but mighty.

Ultimate Guitar
Lunchbox amps are a loose category of portable amplifiers:
  • usually with a handle for portability;
  • usually tube and between 1 – 15 watts;
  • about the size of a lunchbox (surprise!)

But Why?

Lunchbox amps are typically designed to be low wattage, which allows tube-driven tone at relatively low volumes for practice and recording. Oftentimes, people who are shopping for a tube amp are trying to make sure their amp is loud enough to jam or gig, but they don't consider when they're recording or practicing when lower volume is practical or necessary. This is where the lunchbox amps come in - you can push these amps, often at a low volume, to create the tone you can only get from overdriven tubes during home practice or while working on home recording - because most of us can't really open up a 50 or 100 watt tube amp in our practice space (which is often a den, living room, garage, or bedroom).

The actual available lunchbox amps are a fairly diverse collection of products at this point. Some of them are designed for specific tasks, while others are fairly versatile. Some of them are one trick ponies (which isn't necessarily a bad thing if they do that trick good enough), and others are packed with features. Some lunchbox amps get loud enough to gig with, though admittedly most don't unless you're prepared to mic it and run it into a PA system. The prices fall in a fairly large range, though the majority are under $600.

The first popular lunchbox amp would be the Orange Tiny Terror, which was debuted in 2008 at NAMM. The Tiny Terror runs in either a 7 watt or 15 watt mode with controls for Volume, Tone, and Gain. There are speaker outputs for 8 or 16 ohms. The whole thing weighs in at just over 12 lbs., has a handle on the top and actually comes with a bag that looks and feels about like a camera bag. Since 2008, Orange has made an even smaller version called a Micro Terror which has a tube preamp (running a single 12AX7), but solid state output section - and pumping out 20 watts. The amp is made to be paired with a 1x8 cab sold separately or bundled, or through your existing cab. This one also has controls for Volume, Tone, and Gain - but also has an output for headphones. And get this - it weighs less than 2 lbs.

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Shortly after Orange introduced the Tiny Terror, the market was flooded with options for lunchbox amps. The actual name "lunchbox amp" was solidified in 2009 when ZT Amps released "The Lunchbox," which actually only meets the definition of a lunchbox amp very loosely. The ZT Amp Lunchbox is 200 watts and completely solid state. The amp is actually only available as a combo with a 6.5" speaker, as well as having a speaker output for 8 ohm or higher. At 200 watts, with the right cab this thing definitely gets the type of volume you need for practice or a gig, as well as coming with a headphone output for silent practice at home. The amp includes an auxiliary input as well as the headphone output. The controls included on the amp are Ambience, Volume, Tone and Gain.

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Lunchbox amps got pretty sophisticated pretty quickly from there. They began to have more options for tone sculpting, some came with effects loops, fuller ranged EQ sections, assorted switches and controls. A good example of a more sophisticated lunchbox amp would be the 15 watt version of the Egnater Tweaker head, which definitely qualifies with 15 tube watts, and weighing in at approximately 16 lbs. Some of the features the Egnater Tweaker 15 brought to the table were a 3 band EQ, a buffered effects loop, and multiple voicing, EQ and gain switches. This may be the most versatile of the popular lunchbox amps.

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Vox had to get their hands in the game, and they released the Vox Night Train in 2009 which was 15 watts, but has since been replaced with an updated G2 version, as well as a series of products including a full-featured 50 watt version and a combo amp. This is absolutely the lunchbox amp for getting Vox tone in a small amp. There are still a few of the original Night Trains floating around, or the Night Train 15-G2 is still available in stores for $499.

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Of course, most amp companies couldn't sit by and not take advantage of the popularity of lunchbox amp trend, even if they flipped the script a little bit. One of the more interesting solid state additions that came out with the lunchbox amp craze was the Yamaha THR5 and THR10. The Yamaha THR10 managed to fit a couple of small 8 centimeter speakers into a lunchbox sized modeling amp, with each speaker pumping out a loud 5 watts for a total of 10 watts. It also models 5 separate guitar amps, a bass amp, an acoustic amp, and a flat setting designed for microphones. The THR10 also included a full 3 band EQ section, as well as some built in effects and software. The THR10 can also run on either batteries or AC power. Yamaha even introduced a few other models such as the THR10C and THR10X that specialize in classic tube amp sounds and metal amp sounds, respectively. The THR10 was definitely designed more with the home studio in mind, though it gets a LOT louder than it looks, and sounds great.

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Some companies dipped out of the lunchbox amp market shortly after they came in. A few examples would be:

The Jet City PicoValve, which was a 5 watt head that swapped down to 2 watts and had a rather nice hard rock sound in my opinion.

The Mesa/Boogie Transatlantic TA-15 (which oddly enough was 25 watts) had 2 channels - one channel with a US sound, and the other with a Brit sound and the whole head just weighed about 12 lbs. My theory is the Transatlantic failed because it had a street price of $1499 which put it far above its contemporaries in price.

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The Epiphone Valve Jr was another great example and technically pre-dates all the other lunchbox amps. It was originally released in 2005 and was only $120 and was 5 tube watts. The amp was very popular with the crowd who were into DIY mods - even leading Epiphone into releasing a "Hot Rod" version later on with some of the more popular mods included. This was one of the cheapest avenues into the world of lunchbox amps, but unfortunately Epiphone has removed it from their product lineup without a comparable replacement.

The Fender Pawn Shop Special Greta was an interesting anomaly, essentially being a completely tube 2 watt amplifier combo built to look like a small antique radio with a 4" driver and a VU meter to show how overdriven the signal was and with a street price of $199.

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There are a lot of lunchbox amps available on the market, and they are a fairly diverse category. For the home recording guitarist or even those confined to bedroom practice, the lunchbox amps are often a good solution. There are even a few options that would work from home or studio to gig, especially as they've become more fully featured, with some models including a DI that can be run straight into a PA. Or there are a few with enough wattage to push the type of volume you need for a gig out of a 4x12 and such.

If we missed any that you feel should have been mentioned, then tell us and your fellow UGers in the comments!

By Brandon East

22 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Might be a decent review if the first paragraph wasn't utter nonsense. If you can't crank a 50w head in your practice space, you can't crank a 5w head either and there's exactly zero correlation between wattage and low volume performance. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to have one of these smaller heads, like size, weight, convenience or simply because you want one, but low volume tone isn't one of them.
    Isn't a 50 watt head TWICE as loud as a 5 watt head? It seems like you might be able to crank a 5 watt and not a 50 watt in a practice space.
    Yes, everything else being equal, that's correct. But the "twice" doesn't really mean what it seems to on first glance. Let's say we're using a 2x12 with v30's. Pushing 5w through them will generate about 109.3dB, pushing 50w will generate 119.3dB. 109dB is roughly the equivalent of a VERY loud motorcycle (the open pipe Harleys you hear coming a block away...) 119dB is full-on concert loud. The point is that although yes, one is louder than the other, they are both EXTREMELY loud, and if you have a practice space where you can crank one you can probably crank the other. Conversely if you can't crank one, you probably can't crank the other either. And none of this has ANY bearing on how either amp might sound at low volumes, which is often the marketing point for the smaller wattage amps.
    Yes it's twice as loud, but that's not what your ears actually hear. Your ears compress sound down so that your brain is able to process a wide spectrum of different volume noises, so something that is actually twice as loud only sounds a bit louder.
    Remember the original, the legendary Pignose? Ran on batteries, had guitar strap buttons so you could walk around with it. Zappa, Clapton and others used it in the recording studio http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0453/88...
    I have one of the re-issues and it's a all right little amp. It has a very specific sound. It can't do much more than raunchy, squawky blues, but it does that extremely well. It's also decently loud. It can get uncomfortably loud for bedroom practices but I don't think it could quite cut a rehearsal, even for a small blues trio or something.
    Still have mine... Sits on the shelf mostly.. Was good for it's time, but there are better sounding options nowadays.. I do own a Micro Terror.... Can't recommend it enough. Have used it through a single 12" and a 4x12 cabinet. Has tone for days, great distortion at high gains and just an awesome clean sound. I was shocked at how much air it pushed with the 4x12, you really get that bad ass sound you can only get at high volumes, from an amp the size of thick paperback.... I'm running it with a Les Paul and just a reverb/delay to fill out the sound. Best $150 I ever spent.
    Got me a Carvin v3m last year. There's enough knobs and switches to tweak with to get a lot of good tones. Love the footprint and portability of these amps, its no surprise lots of manufacturers are pumping out more of these.
    The first bit of this article is a load of crap. It's like saying "I want a Citroen 2CV so I can drive with my foot to the floor and still only be doing 50 mph!" The power of an amp says absolutely nothing about whether or not it will sound good at low volumes. Nothing at all.
    Unless you want power amp distortion at low volumes which is only possible with low wattage amps. (Though, a 5 watt amp - let alone a 15 watt amp - is still too loud for bedroom usage when cranked. Well, actually pretty much anything, even 1 watt, cranked is not something I would call "low volume".)
    I absolutely love my blackstar ht-5r lunchbox head. Perfect for bedroom or home recording. Put a 1x12" on that thing and NOBODY will know it was a tiny little rig. Sounds huge mic'd up.
    No mention of the 1 Watt Blackstar HT1R combo? This one watt amp is ideal for low(ish) noise (music!) levels. However, it will drive a Marshall 4x12 if you want - I know, I've tried it! Hooked up to the 4x12 you will definitely annoy the neighbours! Oh, and no mention of the Blackstar fly either? These are the names in the UK. Then there are the Marshall 1Watt combos....
    I got a Kustom Defender 15H the other day super cheap and WOW I love it the clean is soo Warm VERY tube,. And is better then any of my line 6 or eleven rack gear as well being silly loud into 4x12 cabs, I also uses it a Preamp for my Eleven rack/digital gear before sending to a 1000 Carvin power amp and add real nice tube overtones.
    The ZT Lunchbox is the best $300 you will ever spend. By itself it could cut a rehearsal for a jazz combo or something. Plug it into a 4x12 and you could play any basement or club you want. It takes to pedals perfectly. It doesn't have much in the way of onboard distortion or effects but with the right board you could play anything from pop rock to straight up Brain Drill type shit. The ZZ Top guys and Takafumi Matsubara from Gridlink are both endorsers.
    The tiny terror is a legit tube amp with enough tone shaping to allow for a wide variety of tones. Every other amp in this category I have tried seem to be one trick ponies or a schtick just built to fill a spot in the market. The only thing it wont do is the kind of wide open tone you get from vintage, non-master volume amps.
    Dead Eye Dick
    Agreed, I loved my tiny terror. Only criticism was the lack of volume for full band rehearsal, you could keep up, but getting a clean tone with the amp at drummer level was too much to ask. could have probably been remedied with a bigger cab though.
    I bought a Peavey 6505 Micro head about 4 months ago. I gotta say that I'm very impressed with it! Plugged to a 1X12 Carvin cab, it's a very small set-up that sounds really great. It's great considering I don't gig and play in my room.
    I haven't played one but I would guess this would be a great option for a bedroom or apartment player. The circuitry for the 6505 gives a ton of tone at low volume due to the high amount of pre-amp gain. I have an original 5150 that still sounds great at low volume.
    My only (minor) complaint with the 6505 micro is that the 1 watt power option sounds rather weak, but the 7 and 20 watt options make up for it. I might have to do a full review on it at some point. If you're tight on space and want a tube amp, I'd recommend giving it a consideration.