A short answer to the question, can you use an amp head without a cabinet, is a no. But technically, there is a way to work your way around this.
What do we mean by that?
Using an amp head on its own is not very safe. It is because –
The amp head cannot produce a sound on its own, and the output needs an outlet. This output from an amp is electrical signals that translate to sound when it reaches an outlet, typically a speaker cabinet.
But what if you are stuck in a situation where using the proper setup is not an option? Say you live in a small apartment or something similar? Or you don’t enjoy lugging around a massive cabinet?
In this post about amp head and speaker cabs, we break down everything you need to know.
Can You Use An Amp Head Without A Cabinet?
Not really. Using an amp head without a cabinet is generally not safe. You risk damaging your amp severely when you play it without a speaker cabinet. In the worst case, playing an amp head without a cab can start a fire.
As highlighted above, amps carry an electrical signal that needs to undergo a load through a medium, which is the speaker in most cases. When the electrical signal in the amp does not see this load, it undergoes immense pressure.
In some cases, this tension in the amp head can cause either damage it, blow up the transformer, or start a fire.
This is especially true if the amp in question is a tube amplifier. Experts in the industry even say that you should only power up your tube amp only after the load, the cabinet, is connected.
Of course, you can power on the tube amp without the load. However, tube amp setups are generally expensive, and you do not want to take the chance of blowing it up just because you wanted to test whether you can use an amp head without a cabinet or not.
On the other hand, a solid-state amp does work without a cab and you will have no issues. So you can power it on and use it even if the load is not connected. If the solid-state amp in question is old, you might need to load the connector first to safely switch on the power. But for modern solid-state amps, a load is not necessary to power it on or use it.
The same can be said for hybrid amps that come with a preamp section.
On the other hand, Valve-based amps can function without a proper speaker cabinet. But a dummy load or a load box is usually required to use it without risking its damage.
Does this mean that there are alternatives for using an amp head without a speaker cabinet? The answer is yes, and we go in-depth about it in the section below.
The Best Alternative To Cabs In Order To Use An Amp Head
Unless you’re strictly asking whether you can use an amp head without a cabinet or not, there is a cool alternative – using a dummy load box.
A dummy or a load box does not have a speaker, but it connects to the amp head just like a cab. This box acts as a load similar to a cab and absorbs the electrical signals from the amp head and converts them to heat. The heat from the amp head then dissipates into the air and prevents damage to the amp or the transformer, which may otherwise happen in the absence of a speaker cabinet.
Although a dummy load box does not have a speaker cabinet, it can function with headphones. In this regard, a dummy load box is a fantastic solution for recording or playing without stirring up the whole neighborhood.
Another advantage to a dummy load box is how easy it is to use it. The only necessary requirement, perhaps, is figuring out the right impedance rating to match the amps’ impedance, which is usually expressed in ohms.
If you are on the market for dummy load boxes, you will come across two choices – resistive and reactive dummy load boxes. Resistive dummy load boxes are most common and are budget-friendly. But their function is basic, so they take care of the power load from the amp head but stop at that.
On the other hand, the reactive dummy load box interacts fantastically with amp heads and can almost function as well as a speaker cab. The downside of reactive dummy load boxes is their higher price tag.
Both dummy load boxes are easy to use, so the choice comes down to your budget.
Exceptions To Record/Play With An Amp Head
Playing or recording with an amp head without a cab or a dummy load makes no sense since the amp head cannot produce sound on its own. In fact, using a cabinet is an indispensable part of recording, especially if you care about the sound quality.
However, there are exceptions where you can, technically, record or play without using a traditional cabinet head.
Below are the exceptions:
Some modern amp heads come with a headphone socket, so you can use the amp with a headphone or a cab. The advantage of using headphones with an amp head is that you can use them anywhere and at any time without disturbing anyone around you.
This is especially popular with guitar amps, and some of the tops brands have joined the amps with the headphones socket bandwagon. Among our top choices are Marshall Amps M-DSL5CR-U Guitar Amp and Fender Mustang V2 Guitar Amp.
However, using a headphone with an amp head is not without its risks. For one, headphones do not have the right wattage to relay the power generated by the amp head, which stresses it to overwork.
So unless the amp comes with a dedicated headphone socket, refrain from using the hacks that are abundant on the internet. You can end up frying your headphones and the amp as well.
Amps With Built-In Speakers
Another exception with using an amp head without a cabinet is using one with built-in speakers. Of course, the speakers are by no means big enough to handle outdoor gigs or something similar. However, these amp heads are a fantastic option for playing at home or in a garage.
If we have to pick a couple of amp heads with built-in speakers, it is the Boss Katana Head, closely followed by Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 110.
Using A Speaker-Emulated Line-Out
Some of the modern amps heads also come with line-out socket provision that you can connect to a PA system. In this case, too, you are using the amp head without a speaker cabinet.
If you have a computer set up for recording, you can also direct this audio interference to it for recording.
With some amp heads like the Blackstar HT-5RH, you can also use headphones, giving you a range of options.
Nothing will compare to using a mic’d cabinet when it comes to quality recording.
However, setting up a cabinet simulation is another way to use an amp head without a cabinet. The setup involves using a digital or an analog cabinet simulator. In some cases, using a plugin is also an option.
Additionally, you can also check out custom-built amps from IR libraries. You can access some excellent mic’d cabinet sounds from the libraries free of cost. However, if you don’t mind paying a little extra, the STL Ignite – Emissary bundle/ Nad IR Impulse Response Loader is a top-notch cabinet simulator.
Another exception where you can use an amp head without a cabinet is using attenuators. These passive devices can function as a load or a speaker cabinet and absorb the electrical signals from the amp head.
Attenuators do not completely absorb the full load from the amp heads, making it an ideal setup for a mixer or a sound card. But some high-end attenuators are equipped to absorb the full load from the amp head.
These types of attenuators come with premium pricing. Still, they have a load of features, including cabinet simulation, and you can hook them up directly into a mixer or a PA. Attenuators are sometimes referred to as tube amp expanders depending on the place, and the price so doesn’t be confused.
Note: Bear in mind that these exceptions of using an amp head with a cabinet are only recommended where the amps have the abovementioned provisions. Otherwise, recording or playing an amp head without a cabinet is only recommended if you use a dummy load.
In summary, can you use an amp head without a cabinet? Yes. If you are talking about playing in a home setting and you have alternatives such as a dummy load, provisions for headphones, or an amp with built-in speakers.
If it’s gigs or professional setups you have in mind, using an amp head without a cabinet is never a good idea.