Budget Boutique Amps: What Are They and Why Should You Buy One

Here’s a common scenario:

You’ve finally made your decision to slap down some of your scarce cash on a reissue or new model tube amp built in the Far East for a BIG name manufacturer. It seems like a great deal: the vintage amps of this model sell for thousands of dollars more, it looks like the real thing and the specs appear to be the same (same tubes, same power, same controls, etc.). And, it sounded pretty darn good in the store too.

So, why should you NOT buy it and instead consider a hand made, BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp?

An excellent question and on that I’m sure will generate many opinions. Following is my take on this scenario. It may change how you pursue your quest for spine tingling tone … without having to re-mortgage your house to get it!

Why shouldn’t you buy the reasonably priced BIG name amp? That question can be answered in two words:

Value and Quality

BORING you may be thinking: these are goals that any business tries to achieve. However, in this case they really mean something and by paying attention to them you can have a significantly better amp ownership experience.

Bottom line: you CAN get an amp that sounds better and is more reliable than the BIG name, mass produced amp made in the Far East … for not a lot more money.

That’s right, in exchange for a reasonable price premium (I know … yeah right, you’re thinking) you really can get kick-ass tone that puts a mile-wide grin on your face and a piece of gear that is versatile and won’t break (and if it does it’s fixed pronto by someone who cares!). That’s the definition of a BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp. Sounds like good value? It is.

Here’s the alternate scenario to the one above. Magically, you’re now presented with a second amp featuring:

  • All tube circuitry
  • Kick-ass tube tone that blows you away
  • Telepathic sensitivity to the player’s touch
  • The ability to morph from chime to crunch to face-ripping distortion with the twist of your guitar’s volume knob
  • Hand made, hand wired construction that is robust and reliable
  • Customer service provided by a company that cares about creating a great ownership experience

All for only $200 – $300 more than recent Fender reissues or the same price or LESS than many Marshall tube amps… that are made in the Far East featuring printed circuit boards to minimize cost.

How do you decide whether to spring for the BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp? Let’s play out the scenario.

Is the tone difference that big a deal?
You bet it is – that’s owners speaking, not me. The difference between playing through an amp that sounds pretty darn good vs. playing through a BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp that blows you away is huge – you deserve the experience! BUDGET BOUTIQUE amps can do that.

Touch sensitivity isn’t even on my radar screen, what’s up with that?
An amp that is sensitive to your playing dynamics and instantly responds to your picking hand is a revelation. Warm, vibrant notes pop out of the amp almost before you play them. It adds a new dimension to your sound and a whole new layer of pleasure to your playing.

In my experience I set my amp up for a good tone and go for it. If I want to change tones I twiddle with the amp or throw pedals in front of it. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. But, a really good BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp will be versatile giving you a range of awesome tones controllable from your guitar. Set the maximum volume and level of distortion you desire and then roll off your guitar’s volume to morph into beautiful clean tones and everything in between.

Won’t a mass produced amp with machine-stuffed, printed circuit boards be more reliable than a hand made amp?
Talk to owners of these amps and read on-line reviews to discover the answer. Amps that use printed circuit boards instead of hand wired boards or point-to-point wiring are inherently more difficult to repair. For example, a simple component replacement job that takes a few minutes on a hand wired amp could take an hour on a printed circuit board amp.

My local music store gives me good service. They’ll look after my amp if it breaks won’t they?
Sure they will or at least they’ll try. Unfortunately, the good people at your local music store are often stuck with a BIG name amp manufacturer’s less than satisfactory repair policy and response time. Dealing with a small amp builder can be a vastly different experience. Most recognize that satisfying EVERY customer is absolutely critical because they don’t have as many as the big guys and they know that bad customer service can sink their business. That means you get responsive service designed to get you back up and playing as quickly as possible.

Hand made, boutique amps have an image of being extremely expensive. However, BUDGET BOUTIQUE builders really do provide terrific amp value. It just takes a little effort to find them. Believe me, they’re out there all right … making great amps.

So, for a few hundred dollars more – or in some cases at the same or even lower price (!) – you can get strikingly better tone, much better reliability and personalized product support if anything goes wrong. Which amp would you choose?