Updated by Bobby
Updated on February 3rd, 2022
Checked links to make sure amps are still available, also made minor changes to copy and article formatting.
Parent article: Best guitar amps
Marshall amplifiers are almost universally loved and used by guitarists of all persuasions.
The only problem with buying one is that a lot of them are really expensive.
However, if you're into the heavy genres, you'll want the best Marshall amp for hard rock; one that will fit your playing style and sound like metal. In other words: A Marshall amp will help improve the music you already enjoy playing and, ultimately, make you sound better.
The good news is that some of the most popular Marshall amps also happen to function incredibly well in the hard rock spaces. Moreover, they're surprisingly affordable. As far as cheap metal amps go, they're a reliable go-to option and a consistent favorite among professional and amateur players alike.
They can also accommodate a wider range of musical styles. Like any good guitar amp, Marshalls are notoriously versatile. I'll focus on two amps that not only sound metal, but are also much more affordable than the JCM800s that the pros use. The JCM800s are good (amazing) amplifiers, but I'm assuming you don't want to target the $2500 Marshall amps.
Let's try a couple in the $600 range (and lower).
Best Marshall Amps (our top 4 picks)
Marshall DSL20 (budget-friendly)
Marshall DSL40C (budget-friendly)
Marshall JVM Head
Marshall JVM Combo
1. Marshall DSL20 (head version)
Just to be clear about volume: While it might seem like 15 watts isn't much, it's still really loud. A Marshall 15W tube amp is still going to rumble in most environments, especially small to mid-sized venues and indoors. So, don't let the wattage number turn you off. In fact, Marshall provides a Pentode/Triode switch on the back of the amp that allows you to cut wattage down to 7.5, for smaller environments or bedroom jamming.
Rest assured: You should have no trouble making noise with the 15H. Now, this is all assuming that you have a speaker cab to plug in to. The 15H amp head does you absolutely no good without it. Once you have all that setup, here's what the 15H brings to the table.
Marshall DSL15H valves
The 15H is powered by an all-valve system that features the following tubes installed into the preamp and power amp section:
- Preamp: Three ECC83 tubes
- Power Amp: Two 6V6 tubes and one ECC83
Since Marshall amps are made in the UK, ECC83 is a type of European product code for what is actually the 12AX7 vacuum tube.
This is one of the most popular Marshall amp tubes and further, is used in a slew of other amplifier brands within this price range and higher. Having surfaced in the 1940s, it has been the tube of choice for almost all tube amp manufacturers, including Fender, VOX and Marshall. That's well over 70 years at the top of the pile.
While there's a premium version of the tube (they typically retail around $40) the regular version is completely adequate for the job of the 15H and sounds absolutely fantastic. For those who are interested, you can get the 12AX7s for around $15 a piece, assuming you target the non-premium variety.
What do the two channels sound like on the Marshall 15W tube amp?
Just to recap, here are the two channels you'll have listed on the front panel of the Marshall 15H:
- Classic gain
- Ultra gain
First thing to note: These are not two distortion channels. The "Classic Gain" is your clean channel, while the "Ultra Gain" is your dirty channel.
Now, the "Classic Gain" channel does have a GAIN knob, though turning it all the way up to 10 will still only give you a slight crunch, as opposed to a full-blown saturating distortion. The "Ultra Gain" channel is the spot you'll want to spend most of your time for hard rock and heavy metal.
Particularly with the addition of the tone shift and deep buttons, it can sound really thick and heavy, which is exactly what you would want from a hard rock Marshall amplifier.
Here are some settings to start with, pulled from Marshall's own demo video:
The channel selection button will light up with the red LED when the Ultra Gain channel is selected. In the above diagram, Chris George sets the gain level to about 8 while the volume is set to four. This gives off a thick and saturating distortion, even without the tone shift and deep buttons engaged. Adding those two features gives you the following tone-tweaking options:
- Tone shift: A mid scoop that gives you a more edgy distortion
- Deep: Adds a thicker bass response to your EQ
With these two buttons engaged, you're getting a really heavy distortion that's perfect for hard rock and metal, with plenty of low-end thud and a modern-sounding saturation.
With the flexibility provided by these two buttons you won't need a distortion pedal.
What you end up getting is a really wide range of distorted tones, that are good enough to surpass the quality you'll get from most distortion stompboxes. And since it's tube-driven, the tone will have a warmth and natural appeal that you can't get from a pedal.
Both channels sound fantastic.
Back panel features via the Marshall DSL15H manual
The back panel of the DSL15H has three different outputs that allow you to go to extended speaker cabs, as well as a footswitch input and the Triode/Pentode (half or full power) switch. Here's a look from the DSL15H manual:
Three speaker outputs provide two 8ohm jacks and one 16ohm jack, which can be utilized depending on the impedance of your speaker cab. The footswitch is a channel switcher that is included with the purchase. Here's a quick look at it:
While it's tough to navigate without an LED light, it's still nice to have included at no extra cost. You'll also note that there's no way to control the tone shift and deep buttons from this footswitch, which is a bit disappointing, though not a deal breaker.
Who is the DSL15H ideal for?
Anyone who wants the Marshall tone and a good clean/dirty amplifier will find that this two-channel option is going to be one of your best bets within the $500 price tag.
It's small enough to work for bedroom jamming and garage bands, though also loud and intense enough to handle mid-sized gigging venues and most semi-professional live scenarios. It's truly a great balance between some of the cheaper amps and the more expensive JCM heads. All skill levels can make it work.
From a style perspective, anyone from the blues and jazz world to the heavy metal crowd will love the tones it provides. It's one of the "safest" amp purchases I know to recommend.
IDEAL FOR: Hard rock, classic rock, metal, those who already own a speaker cab, portability, performing and recording
2. Marshall DSL40C 40 Watt Valve Combo
Now, for those of you who don't have (or want to have) an external speaker cab: The 40C is one of the single most popular Marshall amps on the planet, catering to both the beginner and the advanced professional. In regards to guts and functionality, it's fairly similar to the DSL15H. However, the 40C does have a number of notable features that you don't get with the DSL15H.
- 40 watts instead of 15
- Celestion speaker cab
- Additional EQ options (presence and resonance)
- Lead 1/2 and Clean Crunch buttons
The main difference is that this version is 40 watts instead of 15. However, it does come in three total wattage variations:
- Five watts
- 15 watts
- 40 watts
Pricing varies for each one where, predictably, the lower wattage versions are cheaper.
A more obvious discrepency is the fact that the DSL40C has a built-in speaker. This speaker is a single 12" Celestion Seventy 80, with 16 ohms of impedance. By themselves, these speakers retail for about $75.
Celestion is a household name in the guitar amp manufacturing world, whose speakers are widely used in guitar combo amps and cabs, without regard to the brand of the amp manufacturer. So, rest assured you're not getting a cheap speaker rip off.
It's the real deal.
Another feature that might draw you to this particular amplifier is the inclusion of reverb with a separate control for each channel. Here's a closer look:
You'll also notice two additional controls in the EQ section of the panel:
Omitted from the DSL15H, these knobs provide more tone flexibility, especially when combined with the reverb controls on each channel. While it's hard to notice the difference without those controls, tinkering with them will allow you to hear a lot more variety in your tone. Personally, I like presence to be a little higher, especially since I'm used to Fender amps, most of which have presence control included.
It's not a knock against the 15H, but the 40C definitely gives you more variance in your EQ to work with. If you're big on tinkering with your tone, the 40C is likely to be more satisfying in that regard.
Additional tone-shaping features
The 40C also includes a button for Lead 1 and 2, which function on the dirty channel (Ultra Gain) basically giving you two different types of distortion. Lead 2 is a little heavier and thicker, while Lead 1 provides a brighter response. On the clean channel there's another button called "Clean Crunch" which gives you a lighter, more classic-sounding distortion, reminiscent of the classic British tube sound.
Neither of these buttons (Lead 1/2 or Clean Crunch) come on the 15H.
Marshall two-button footswitch included
The footswitch that you get with this amp controls both the reverb and channel selection via two buttons. There's still no LED, as the unit is a very basic setup. However, the footswitch itself is included at no charge and makes the amp a lot more convenient. Live performers will find this to be a fairly crucial add on.
Who is the Marshall DSL40C ideal for?
All genres and skill levels can make it work, though the extra tone-customization options seem to lend themselves really well to high-distortion environments. You'll have no need for a distortion pedal and the amp itself is plenty loud, either for live performing or any kind of large room.
The full/half power control is included here, allowing you to scale things down for smaller venues. While it is more expensive than the DSL15H, it saves you the cost of the speaker cab (often a $200ish expense) and piles on a lot more features that make the 40C more useful in a wider-range of scenarios.
Those who like to tinker with their tone, particularly distortion, won't have much to complain about.
IDEAL FOR: Hard rock, metal, distortion enthusiasts, tone tweaking, most indoor venues, transportation, session guitarists and live performances
Best Marshall Amp without Tubes
I want to highlight some solid-state alternatives that still have the Marshall name tag. Often times tube amps will have a more warm and classic tone than their solid state counterparts, though it doesn't mean those solid state options aren't worth a look if you're trying to get into the metal arena. In many cases, they're much cheaper.
Both of my suggestions are part of the MG series.
CFX is a 30 watt combo while the HCFX is a 100 watt amp head. They're cheaper than the amps in the DSL series, but are entirely solid state. With some built-in effects, they're designed more for beginners and those who don't want to invest as heavily in an amplifier. Amps priced around the $200 - $300 neighborhood will be enough to land you one.
Other Marshall amps and your thoughts
Have thoughts about the amps listed here? Perhaps you know of one that should have been included?
Let me know. I do my best to keep up with answering both emails and Twitter inquires.
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