Updated by Bobby
Updated on March 4th, 2022
Added the newest version of the Skullcandy Crusher over-ear headphones, alone with alternative retail options for each headphone set.
QUICK HIT: Roundup of small bass amp heads, all ideal for easy transportation and under a $1000 retail price tag.
First, to be sure we're all on the same page: A bass amp head is not the same as a bass combo amplifier.
Combo amps have a speaker, power amp and preamp built in, while an amp head has only a preamp and power amp, which must be paired with a separate speaker cab.
I'm assuming that you either have access to, or plan to buy, a bass speaker cab.
Best Small Bass Amp Heads (top 5 picks)
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Aguilar Tone Hammer 500
Ampeq Portiflex Series
TC Electronic BH 550
1. Orange OB1-500
While the front panel might look a little cryptic at first, it's fairly easy to decipher the unique labeling. Per the user manual, the OB1-500 bass amp head has a three-band EQ (bass, mid and treble) and a footswitchable blend and gain control.
An active/passive input switch is also included. The user manual quickly deciphers the front panel:
The amplifier is built entirely with analog circuits, so for you purists out there, you'll have no digital parts to dampen your enthusiasm. Note that the "Blend" control allows you to blend your clean and drive signal, acting as a balance knob for your distorted sound. The footswitchable aspect allows you to turn the drive on or off entirely.
Matching with a speaker cab
The wattage and impedance for the OB1 measures the same as Fender's Rumble 500 amp head.
- 500 watts
With that in mind, here are a few cabs that I would recommend.
All these speakers are 8 ohms, meaning you could double any one of them (hook one into each speaker output) for a 4Ω load. Moreover, the wattage of each one meets or exceeds 500W.
Back panel features
There's no effects loop on the back of the OB1, though this isn't likely to impact most bass players. Note the line output (labeled #2).
This output sends an unbalanced signal after the EQ and blend controls but before the master volume. This would allow you to send the signal to a PA system and be uninfluenced by the volume of the power amp. There's also a balanced XLR output with a ground and lift button (noise reduction).
IDEAL FOR: Studio, live performances, multiple speakers cabs, all styles and all skill levels
2. Aguilar Tone Hammer 500
The Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 is our third consecutive bass head that maxes out at 500W and 8Ω impedance. Like the Rumble 500, you mid EQ is parsed into two different sections:
- Mid Freq
- Mix Level
You'll also notice both a "Gain" and "Drive" knob on the front panel. Gain is controlling the volume of the preamp section (while the "Master" knob controls overall output at the power amp) and the "Drive" knob engages an over-driven sound. Aguilar also moves the balanced XLR output and a send/return effects loop to the front panel, instead of the back. The back is simply two speaker outputs and a tuner jack.
On some versions of the Tone Hammer, you'll see a -10db button, which is essentially an active/passive switch. Press it in for active pickups or leave it as-is for regular, passive pickups. That version of the Tone Hammer 500 is pictured below.
Who is it ideal for?
Aguilar gear is well-designed and often praised for its easy-of-use, allowing the musician to focus elsewhere. The Tone Hammer 500 is no exception and is a great fit for bass players who like to set things without having to worry about excessive tinkering. It sounds great out of the box and doesn't need much (if any) setup tweaking.
The effects loop is a nice bonus for those who have pedals, but overall this bass head is a universally-sensible purchase, especially since it often hovers in the low-cost $650 price range.
Once again, the output and ohm load for this amp is the same as the previous two, so I'll refer you to the cabs I recommended there as accommodating for this amplifier as well.
IDEAL FOR: All skill levels, all styles, set-it-and-forget bass players and bass pedalboards
3. Ampeg Portiflex Series PF-350
This is the first small amp head we've listed thus far, to deviate from 500W and 8Ω. Instead, the Portiflex PF-350 maxes out at 350W and 4Ω impedance. However, there are both 500W and 800W versions of the Portiflex available. Since we're focusing on small bass heads, we'll stick with the 350. Controls are quite simple on the front panel.
Once again, Gain is controlling the signal strength at the preamp level, while volume is the master signal control at the power amp level. You'll also notice a button labeled "pad" that gives you a -15db cut. This is the equivalent of having an active input.
The "Limiter" button adds a limiter circuit, which is basically a safeguard against clipping, to make sure that your signal stays clean. If you're using a distortion pedal or boost of some kind, this is a good feature to take advantage of. Audio in (for an MP3 player) and a headphone jack are also included.
Compatible speaker cabs
Since our ohm load and wattage have both changed, I'll go through a new run of speaker cabs that would be compatible with this amplifier. First, let's review what the user manual has to say about the speaker inputs:
So, we're looking for speaker cabs that meet the following guidelines:
- 16Ω, 8Ω or 4Ω
- At least 350W (or greater) power handling
The following cabs would all suffice:
1. Siesmic Audio 46G
- Impedance: 8Ω
- Power: 500 watts
- Headroom 150 watts
2. Korg RMMAG 414T 4x10 Cab
- Impedance: 4Ω
- Power: 450 watts
- Headroom 100 watts
3. Ampeg Pro Neo Series Bass Speaker Cab
- Impedance: 8Ω
- Power: 550 watts
- Headroom 200 watts
4. Orange OBC115 Bass Cab
- Impedance: 8Ω
- Power: 400 watts
- Headroom 50 watts
PF-350 back panel features
The back panel of the PF-350 is fairly basic, providing two speaker outs, a balanced XLR line out and an effects loop.
Ideal user and price
While it's similar in flavor to the Aguilar Tone Hammer, the PF-350 is better equipped to handle active electronics, which is worth considering if your bass's pickup runs off a battery.
Particularly if you play an acoustic bass, this amp could be a good fit, simply basic of the db cut and the limiter options. You should also consider that this bass head is the cheapest on ours list running under $300.
This makes it a good target for players on a budget, or those who might want to invest more heavily in a new speaker cab. However, all skill levels and styles should buy confidently. This one is a fantastic value all around.
- 350 watts and 4Ω
- Limiter and db cut buttons
- Effects loop
- Balanced XLR line out
IDEAL FOR: All styles, all skill levels, active pickups, acoustic basses and studio recording
4. Hartke TX300 Bass Head
At 300W, the TX300 is a fairly loud bass head, making it a nice fit for outdoor performances or those who play in venues that call for more volume. Front panel features include the following EQ options:
Aux and headphone inputs, along with an onboard compressor are also worth noting. Gain controls volume at the preamp level while master controls volume at the power amp level.
Possible speaker cab pairings
At 300W and 8Ω impedance, the TX300 is slightly more limited in terms of speaker cabs. The tricks will be to stay above that 300W threshold. You can use the following graphic to match impedance levels for multiple cabs:
Notice none of the total impedance calculations exceed 8Ω. Hartke does have what they call the HyDrive bass cab series, some of which (not all) are compatible with the TX300. We'll start there.
1. Hartke HyDrive 410
- Impedance: 8Ω
- Power: 1000 watts
- Headroom 400 watts
2. Gallien-Krueger Neo 412
- Impedance: 4Ω
- Power: 1200 watts
- Headroom 600 watts
3. Orange OBC410
- Impedance: 8Ω
- Power: 600 watts
- Headroom 0 watts
4. Markbass New York 122
- Impedance: 4Ω
- Power: 800 watts
- Headroom 200 watts
TX300 back panel
The back panel of the TX300 is a little different than what you might be used to.
First, you have two speaker outputs, where one is a regular 1/4" and the other is a speaker jack. They're still parallel (you can use either one) but it's recommended you use the speaker jack whenever possible.
To the left, you have three additional jacks:
- Preamp out
- Power amp in
- Direct out
The preamp out feeds in post preamp, but allows you to bypass the power amplifier portion of the TX300, in the event you'd prefer to use an external power amp, perhaps via a PA system. The "power amp in" jack is exactly the opposite, as it allows you to bypass the TX300's preamp, in favor of using an external preamp. The "direct out" allows you to go straight into a mixing console, as you might expect.
IDEAL FOR: All styles, skill levels, passive pickups, studio bassists and outdoor performance scenarios
5. TC Electronic BH 550
I'll let you read about the TC Electronic Tone Print feature separately, since it's a fairly involved matter, all it's own. To summarize:
If you're the type of bass player who is into banking effects, it'll be something you'll use a lot. Those who like a simple setup without a lot of fuss to go into their EQ probably won't use it nearly as much. The rest of the front panel is similar to the others we've looked at, though TC Electronic does add a bass tuner, which gives this amp head a major bump, in my opinion.
Other perks on the front panel are a gain knob, a mute switch and dual mid controls.
The back panel
The back panel has a lot of goodies worth mentioning as well, including a class two speaker out, the USB connection for TonePrint effects, an AUX in jack, a balanced headphone jack and a balanced XLR output. There's also a pre/post EQ switch, which allows you to send the signal via the balanced XLR out, either before or after the preamp mix.
For under $500, this bass head is surprisingly feature-rich. If you do decide to use the TonePrint feature for effects, here are a few of the "legend" bass tones that you can download and use.
Combining all of these features and available tone profiles gives you one of the more versatile and dynamic bass heads on this list. As I alluded to previously, it's best suited for bass players who like to experiment with a lot of different tones, perhaps a session bassist who has clients in a number of different genres.
Getting creative with the BH550 is easier than most other small bass heads. An effects loop would be a nice touch, but the BH550 still makes a case to be the best small bass head for players who utilize effects.
Matching bass amp to cabinet
The RS and K cab series from TC Electronic are the recommended external speakers for the BH550. I'll defer to TC Electronic's simple recommendations on this one. Basically, any two from the RS or K series.
You can use other cabs with similar specs, just make sure to double check the ohm load and total wattage. The BH550 is named according to a total output of 550W, so keep that in mind when cab shopping, if you deviate from the TC Electronic in-house recommendations.
IDEAL FOR: Effects fanatics, the tinkering bass players, studio players with a diverse clientele, and all skill levels
How I put together these lists
These lists are compiled based on several factors, recommendations and research strategies.
In a general sense, they highlight a broad community consensus.
In other words, I don't look for obscure or "under the radar" gear just for the sake of being different. Best-selling bass gear sells for a reason; namely, that people trust it and have found it to be a reliably good value. Thus, I try to target gear that is already well-liked, widely trusted and reputable within the guitar and bass community.
Those are the products I include in this lists and others like it.
Further, companies do not pay Guitar Chalk, me, or any of our contributors to put their gear in these posts. These are not paid reviews or compensated suggestions. Money, has no say in what makes it onto each list. In simple terms, I'll do the following:
- Identify a need
- Set a budget
- Research thoroughly
- Match gear with the proper context
What matters when you're buying a bass amp head?
The options you have with bass amps are a little simpler than guitar amps. For instance, you usually don't need more than one channel and onboard effects are often omitted. The perks you do want come fairly standard. Here are the ones to look for:
- Active and passive input
- On-board compression
- Headphone jack
- Balanced XLR output
- Gain control
Specs to keep an eye on would include the following:
- Ohm measurement (most are 8 or 4 ohms, which needs to coordinate with your speaker cab)
- Number of speaker outs (usually one or two)
- Line out (if you need to go straight to a mixer or PA system)
What's the difference between an active and passive input?
Some bass amps will have two inputs, labeled passive and active. Others will have a switch, that allows you to just switch between the two on the same input. Here's what the "active" and "passive" labels mean in this context:
- Active: Typically drops the signal strength, perhaps by -10db or so, to avoid clipping.
- Passive: Leaves the signal's output as-is for low to medium output bass guitars
All this means is that the active input (or switch) is giving you a cushion for using an active pickup, which might have a stronger output. These are, predictably, called "active pickups." Active pickups are typically powered by a battery of some sort, as the following diagram shows:
For most bass guitars, you'll be dealing with passive pickups, which can be plugged into any input, passive or active. The issue is that a passive instrument doesn't need an active input or switch.
At the same time, a bass with active pickups might be better accommodated by an active input, but can function without one. For most, it's a matter of trial and error. Whichever sound you prefer, active or passive, is fine. Just note that the difference is a small, but noticeable, signal reduction.
Refresh my memory on a bass amp head setup
As I mentioned earlier, a bass amp head is just a preamp and power amp without a speaker. Your speaker cab will need to be added to your bass head before you can use it. Thus, a small bass head rig will have the following components:
- Bass guitar
- Bass amp head
- Bass speaker cab
- Processors (optional)
The signal chain will look something like this:
Once the cab and amp head are paired, the two function as a single unit, just like a bass combo amplifier would. Pedals or effects processors are, of course, optional.
How do I know my cab will match my bass amp?
You're either buying an amp to fit a cab, or you're going to follow your amp purchase with a new cab purchase. Either way, the two have to play nice. How can you be sure they will?
We mentioned earlier that one of the specs you'll want to keep an eye on is ohms (indicated by this symbol Ω), which are used to measure impedance. Typically a bass cabinet will be one of the following:
- 4 ohmns
- 8 ohmns
Now, here's what you'll need to figure out:
- How many watts of power will my amp put out in different impedance modes?
- Will the cab can handle the wattage load coming from the amplifier for the given impedance rating?
To make sure we iron these two things out, we can follow this step-by-step process:
- Note your amp's output for the following ohm loads (or whichever ohm loads are supported by the amp): 4, 8 and 16 ohms
- Locate the speaker cabs recommended ohm load (this is usually on the back input plate)
- If you can't find this information on the amp or the cab itself, check the manufacturer's website and documentation for each product.
- Note that it's always a safe bet to use a speaker cab with a wattage rating 2x that of your amp's top wattage rating for the given ohm load. This is also called "headroom."
- For example, a 100 watt amp would pair safely with a 200 watt speaker cab.
- You can use a cab that matches the wattage of your amp, though you'll need to avoid turning the amp up too high (probably not past six or seven) and avoid effects that increase decibels, like booster pedals.
- In short, match the ohm load, then go for a cab with higher wattage.
Ohm loads, multiple cabs and the math of parallel wiring
If you have a bass amp head that supports 16 and 8 ohm loads, it's best to start with a 16 ohm speaker, because it actually gives you room to add more cabs. It sounds weird, but adding two 16 ohm cabs actually cuts your ohm load in half, dropping it down to eight.
The same would apply for an amp that can handle an 8 or 4 ohm load. In that situation, you'd want to target an 8 ohm cab, since it would theoretically allow you to expand your bass rig to include a second cab down the road.
If you don't want the extra cab, the lower ohm rating (4 in that case) would be fine. It's just something that, along with the wattage, should be considered as you shop.
What if I need to go straight to a PA system?
In any instance where you might need to run your bass straight into a PA system, the first thing you need to is understand the difference between a line out and speaker out jack.
- Line out
- Speaker out
A speaker out sends a "speaker level" amplified signal, while a line out sends a "line level" signal. This means the line out essentially bypasses the power amp, leaving your mixer and PA system to amplify the bass signal.
So, if you need a bass head to accommodate, you'll need to make sure that the "line out" feature is included. Speaker outs, which are always included in a standalone bass head, are not going to work, as they will overload the mixer and cause your channel to clip.
Other bass amp resources
If you need more help researching your purchase or just want to delve deeper into the topic of bass amps, here are a few resources I'd recommend:
- Yamaha Pro Audio PA System Beginner's Guide (for bands): Everything you need to know about hooking up instruments, including bass amps, to a mixer and PA system.
- Finding the Right Speaker Cab: A Reverb.com article that focuses on guitar speaker cabs, though the technical jargon applies to bass, all the same.
- Carvin's bass amplifier schematics: Schematics for all Carvin's bass amps, for those who are a bit more technical.
- Understanding bass amp gain structure: Ampeg video article that explains gain structure as it relates to bass gear.
Your Thoughts and Questions
Have thoughts or questions about the gear in this article? Did I forget something you want to bring to my attention? Feel free to leave a comment and I'll check it out. Thanks for reading.
- "Your Signal Path at a Glance." Bass Guitar Rocks. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
- "Bass Guitar Pickup Wiring Diagram." , Active Bass Pickup Wiring Diagram For Guitar. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
- "Active vs. Passive Pickups." Onvi Lab. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
- Cabs, ByTim From EarCandy. "Finding the Right Speaker Cab." Reverb.com. N.p., 13 June 2016. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
- By Jeff Gorham | Bio Thursday, May 27th, 2010. "Speaker Impedance: How to Properly Match Your Amp Head with Cabinets." No Treble: Nothing But Bass. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
- Ampeg PF Heads. N.p.: Ampeg, n.d. PDF.