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Ask The Bass Guy – Best Amp for < $500?

Hey Bass Guy,

I like the site. Since the Gear Review page is blank I figured I’d ask a gear review question. What is the best combo bass amp for under $500? This might be a much more basic question than you are looking for, but it’s what I’m currently interested in. I’m not a serious musician, but play occasionally with other people. For example, I’m playing a few Christmas songs with some guys from work for our Christmas party, but this is the first time I’ve played with anyone since last year. I currently use the same baby practice amp I’ve always had, a SWR LA Series 8 (30 W, one 8″ speaker). It is the right size for practicing, but I’m looking to play more and would like to improve my amp. I don’t want to spend a ton of money, hence the < $500 price. Also I’d like something easily portable, but that has enough volume and good tone to be perfectly adequate for a very amateur player in smaller areas. I might play with a couple other guys in a bluegrass group at church (big space, but small PA). I’ve played on an older model of a Fender Rumble 150 combo (150 W, one 15′ speaker w/ a horn) and really liked it and that is at the top of my list, but there are a lot of different combos out there. So out of all the Fender, Ashdown, Orange, Hartke, and Ampegs which ones should I pick and which ones should I avoid. I know this is a really general question, but any guidance would be much appreciated. I’ve enjoyed all the posts so far. Thank you.

— Jeremy Varner

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Jeremy,

The Ampeg Micro-VR is, hands down, the best bang for your buck. The 2×10 cabinet ($299) and head ($299) retail for a grand total of $600, but you can easily find one used on CL or eBay. (I bought one myself on CL for $425 from a nice guy in Macon, Ga!). You still get that classic Ampeg sound, in a much smaller package, and it even looks like a sleek, scaled-down Ampeg SVT! Also, I love the no-frills features of the head: Volume, Master, three EQ knobs.

Here’s why I think this is such a great little amp. First off, the head (which puts out 200W @ 4ohms) hardly weighs more than a lunchbox, and the cabinet (8ohms) weighs in at a mere 26 lbs.! I play everything from jazz, to LOUD post-rock, and this amp has suited me equally well in small bars, and larger venues like the GA Theater here in Athens. So long as you’re going direct into the system, and have plenty of bass in the monitor, I don’t really see a need to lug around an 8×10 refrigerator, unless, you know…that’s your schtick or something.

At home, I plug this little monster right into an Apogee Duet (also got one of these used for $400) for amazing home recordings. Throw a Shure Beta 52 on the cabinet, and send another signal to a D.I. box, and you’ve got a pro studio sound. I’ve been pretty amazed with the results that I’ve been demoing for Easter Island over the passed couple weeks, and I expect to keep relying on this setup. And on that note, I can’t imagine a better recording setup for a small apartment in NYC or ATL, and you can easily carry the amp several city blocks without getting rigor mortis.

When you’re touring with a band whose drummer totes around a 26″ bass drum, space comes at a premium. The Micro-VR takes up a modest amount of space for a bass amp, and for that reason, I can’t think of a better amp for taking on the road. Sometimes, I just throw the whole rig onto the passenger seat of my car, and I’m ready to go.

In the days when I used to think that size mattered, I toured with a ginormous 8×10 Peavy cabinet, and used an Ampeg B2R to power it. These days, I certainly wouldn’t want to lug that thing up the loading stairs at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. Save your energy for the gig. As I’ve said before – Work Smarter, Not Harder. Years ago, I owned a Gallien-Krueger 400RB 2×10 combo, which wasn’t a bad amp, but I quickly started having issues where the speakers sounded blown-out at louder volumes (this may or may not have been user error). It also just couldn’t pack a punch volume-wise over my band members in the rehearsal room. Back then, the amp sold for around $750. You can probably find one on eBay for < $500.

With the Micro, you can still get great tone at lower volumes, so this should work well for you in a church setting with your bluegrass group. Being that it’s a larger space, you might want to go in direct to the PA. Thankfully there’s a balanced XLR output on the back of the head for that reason.

In short, if you’re not in a drone metal band like Sunn O))) and sludging around in a black cloak (I got to see them at the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh this year with some folks at Team Clermont…I’m pretty sure my left ear fell off), you’re probably not going to need to push tons of sound directly off the stage. The Ampeg Micro VR is the touring musician’s bass amp, and will serve equally well for the musician/hobbyist on a budget. Just don’t let its unassuming size deceive you.

Thanks for writing. I hope this helps!

-The Bass Guy

6 Responses to Ask The Bass Guy – Best Amp for < $500?

  1. Jeff Reply

    December 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    -Bass Guy, is that Ampeg Micro VR really loud enough to keep up with the drummer in Easter Island? I’ve had the pleasure of trying to keep up with him in a slightly different setting and 350watts into an efficient 8ohm cabinet wasn’t quite enough. YMMV is applicable here, I think, but now I’m really curious about the Micro VR.

    BTW-great resource in this site!

  2. Ryan Reply

    December 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Jeff,

    My Fender Jazz bass is a Marcus Miller series, so I’ve got an extra kick from the active switch…definitely gives me more beef. Other than that, I usually turn the volume and master both to about 80% with the limiter kicked in, so I’m not exactly going easy on the amp. In order to get that “loud and pretty” dream-pop sound, we’re all inclined to turn way up and practice with earplugs. That being said, I have no problem matching Mr. Fergurson…or maybe he’s just getting soft with age. ; )

    Again, I always have plenty of monitor on stage, so playing live with the Micro-VR has never been an issue!

    Which P-Ferg group were you a part of?

    • Jeff Reply

      December 12, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      Ryan-

      Patrick and I both backed up a great singer songwriter who used to live here in town named Jason Beckham. Patrick also recorded with Jason. I came along later. We rehearsed in the Music Hates You space so there was a loud “vibe” in there. Also in the line up was Michael Gibson on guitar- no slouch in the volume department.

  3. Andrew Williams Reply

    December 12, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Bonus option: Traynor Powermate (CL @ <$100) + cab + tech 21 VT Bass (Ampeg sounds w/ a good version of the SVT)

  4. Bob Barker Reply

    January 25, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Bass Guy,

    The problem I have with your amp recommendation:
    1) It isn’t a combo configuration
    2) It isn’t less than 500 dollars brand-new
    The person who wrote you for advice specifically requested an amp that met both criterion. Instead you decided to suggest an amp that misses the mark entirely. I also have a bit of a hang up with the Ampeg Micro-VR – the hiss. I’ve only played though two but each time the hiss was present and distracting. Is there any chance you could take another swing at this question and recommend an actual combo amp that is truly under 500 bucks that will meet the needs of most amateur bass players who only want an amp for small gigs/rehearsal/recording?

    Bob

  5. patrick Reply

    February 5, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    Hi, Bob Barker!
    First off, it’s not a combo, true, but it’s sold as a combo- matched head and cabinet, sold together. It’s close enough to be a combo. How often do you see the head and the cabinet sold separately? Never? Wow, what a coincidence. Same here.

    “It isn’t less than $500, brand new.” Then don’t buy new. Duh. I guess it’s true what they say about bass players*.

    re: the hiss- I think yours is broke, dawg. If you give us your zip code, we can recommend a tech in your area.

    “Is there any chance you could take another swing at this question…?” With an attitude like that, why don’t you take a swing at a pinata full of “write your own article”?

    Warmest regards,

    -Patrick

    *Q. What did the bass player get on his IQ test?

    A. Barbecue sauce.

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