While few things in this world beat the feeling of a 100-watt tube amp blasting out screaming leads or a thick crunchy rhythm, an unfortunate reality of being a musician is that for the majority of us there are times where we want to play but can’t do so at a loud volume.
You might have kids, or roommates, or parents who would prefer not to be disturbed. Which is fair, all things considered. You wouldn’t like it if someone else was blasting out their music while you were trying to sleep or relax, so it isn’t unreasonable for other people to expect the same consideration.
Luckily for you, due to the recent advent of great sounding mini-amps you can finally play at reasonable bedroom volumes and get a tone that’s at least acceptable. The only hard part is trying to figure out how to select the best mini-amp for your needs. Thankfully, this article will give you all the information that you need in order to make an informed decision. It’ll breakdown the difference between different types of mini-amps, and even give you a few great recommendations to aid you in your search.
Tube, Modeling, Basic Solid-State, and Hybrid Mini Amps
Just like full sized amps, when you’re looking for a mini-amp you have a few different options available to you. Essentially, the choices remain the same: tube, modeling, basic solid-state, and hybrid.
While there’s not an objectively better choice, we would say that for the majority of you tube mini-amps aren’t going to give you a low enough level of volume to be useable in situations where you’re trying to keep noise to a minimum. A tube amp is 10 times louder per watt than a solid-state amp, and it still requires a lot of power (volume) to benefit from its design. So for example, a 4-watt tube amp is going to have the volume of a 40-watt solid state amp. However, it’s probably going to sound better. There are also tube amps which allow you to attenuate the signal. Vox’s mini tube amp is a good example of this, allowing you to set the amp to fractions of a watt settings.
In situations where low volume is required, you have the choice between modeling, basic solid-state, and hybrid. Hybrid suffers from the same problem as tube amps, though to a lesser degree. It still require volume, but these types of amps can still be played at a reasonable volume. They’re going to have a more tube-like sound than a modeling amp or solid-state obviously, though the difference isn’t all that dramatic.
The true MVPs of this niche are solid-state and modeling amps. Solid-state amps have the capability to sound good at low volumes though they’re not very flexible. Modeling amps can sound phenomenal, though in order to get a good tone you’re probably going to have to spend a lot of time fiddling with your amp trying to dial in a tone you’re happy with.
Choosing The Correct Mini Amp For Your Needs
If you are the type of musician who just isn’t going to be satisfied unless you have the organic tone exclusive to tube amps, just save up and get the quietest tube or hybrid-amp you can find. You’re not going to be happy with a modeling or solid-state amp because they’re not capable of producing that tone.
If you’re on the fence between a modeling amp and a solid-state, we would point the majority of you towards a modeling amp. The reason for this is that modern modeling amplifiers are capable of producing a wide array of good tones, which older models weren’t capable of. Current modeling amps like Fender’s Mustang V2 series can pump out some quality tones that are easily just as good as any purely solid-state amp available. The price also isn’t that dramatic.
The only downside to modeling amps is that they have a tendency to not work very well with pedals, which isn’t a problem shared by solid-state amps. If you’d rather practice with your existing equipment, using a solid-state amplifier as a pedal platform may end up being the better choice.
Top 5 Mini-Amps
For those of you who just skim read articles like this, just know that any amp that involves tubes is going to need more volume in order to benefit from its design. A modeling amplifier is more flexible than a similarly priced solid state amp, but it isn’t going to work as well with pedals. Modeling amps are a bit more expensive on average, but you do have more tools to work with when compared to a cheaper solid-state practice amp.
As always, our recommendations are selected with widespread applicability in mind. Ideally, anyone reading one of our articles should be able to find a product that works for their situation. So while we recognize that a more expensive product is generally the better option, we also know that it doesn’t matter how good an amp is if a person can’t afford it. As always, keep in mind that the best choice for you may not be the best choice for your fellow musicians (and vice versa).
Fender Mustang I V2
When it comes to modeling amps, few models have been as highly regarded as the Fender Mustang. The amps are inarguably some of the most popular on the market today, packing in so many features for such a low price that they’ve quickly gained one of the strongest footholds possible in the market in which they reside.
While the combination of modeling circuitry and easy transportability are obviously going to be incredibly attractive to many musicians, you’re still going to want to read up on a potential purchase before you throw any money down. The bad thing about reviewing an amp like this is that it has such an overwhelming amount of features that it can be a bit intimidating to try and list them all succinctly and in an easily readable format. So for those of you who already have a working knowledge of the amp, forgive us if we omit anything that you would consider an important feature.
With that out of the way, the most important thing to know about Fender’s Mustang series is that in order to truly shine they require a computer. The amps use a free software called Fender Fuse, which allows you to meaningfully edit the parameters of the amp. This gives you an almost unparalleled control over your sound, as your able to select from a pretty hefty amount of effects and onboard amplifier models (as well as emulating cabinets). You also have physical controls for volume, treble, bass, mid, gain, and reverb.
A side-effect of the amount of features on the amp is that if you want to have control over your effects in real time you’re likely going to want to purchase a foot pedal for the amp. The floor pedal certainly isn’t a necessity, but it definitely does add a lot of utility to the amp.
Lastly, the amp has both a headphone port and an aux in. This allows you to practice along with any supported file format as well as practice in near silence.
It’s hard to review the overall sound of this amp because you have so much control over your tone. The only true consistency in the tone is that because of its size (it only has an 8-inch speaker) it’s not going to have the depth of tone that you’d find in a larger amplifier. This isn’t so much a con as it is something that you just have to expect when you choose to go with an amp of this size.
A possible con is that it doesn’t handle high levels of gain as well as something like a Peavey Vyper, so if you plan on playing heavier genres of music you may want to look into a different modeling amp. However, with that being said your experience with the amp is also going to depend on how in-depth you want to get with the presets as well as your guitar and playing style.
The Fender Mustang 1 V2 is easily one of the most flexible practice amps available, though it should be noted that in order to get the most out of this amp you’re most likely going to have to invest some time into finding/creating presets and combinations of effects that work for your guitar and your desired tone, but that task is tons of fun. Hands down, one of the best amps under $200 you can get.
Danelectro was founded in 1947 by Nathan Daniel. Like Recording King and Airline guitars, Danelectro produced amplifiers for a variety of chain stores, including: Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward. It wasn’t until 1954 that they began producing instruments and products under their own name, though they did continue producing instruments for the Silvertone and Airline brands.
They were also among the first manufacturers to break from using wood for electric guitars (excluding early manufacturers of lap steels), choosing instead to go with the much cheaper and easier to handle Masonite. Like Fender, they were also using lipstick-tube pickups around this time. These lipstick-tube pickups were literally war surplus lipstick tubes, with the guts of the pickup being placed inside this casing.
Though the guitars were budget minded, they did go on to experience cult success among musicians. There are a variety of notable guitarists who used the guitars at one point or another, including Jimmy Page. Danelectro’s Baritone guitar was also widely used in Nashville by studio musicians in order to craft the genre’s characteristic “tic-tac” basslines.
Though the amp may not have the vintage charm of instruments produced during the brand’s heyday, it is a worthy successor to the company’s ethos of producing quality pieces of equipment at a price any musician can afford.
The Danelectro Honeytone is easily one of the most portable mini-amps currently available. It’s so small that it can literally be clipped onto your belt and carried around easily, which makes it one of the best options for musicians on the go. It’s also very lightly constructed, making transport even easier.
The Honeytone can be powered by either a standard 9-volt battery or a wall-wart 9-volt adapter. It’s reported to be pretty easy on batteries, so should you choose to power it with a 9-volt you’re going to get a pretty impressive lifespan out of the battery before you have to switch it out.
The mini-amp has a volume, tone, and gain control. This is pretty standard for this type of product, but it’s a good inclusion to have as it allows you to have more control when dialing in your tone. It also comes with a AUX input, allowing you to plug in headphones for almost completely silent practice (barring those of you who have either hollow or semi-hollow archtops of course).
Lastly, the Honeytone is available in a variety of different colors. Every model of the amp also has a leather handle.
When you’re looking for a mini-amp you have to balance a few different factors. Generally, a better sounding amp is going to be more expensive and less transportable. However, this doesn’t mean that cheaper mini-amps aren’t good in some situations, though investing in a better sounding amp may be a better choice for consistent practice.
Honeytones aren’t known for having an outstanding tone, they’re known for having a good enough tone and being ridiculously cheap and easily transportable. The cleans are reasonably clear, and while the gain on the amp isn’t the best sounding example of the effect it’s by no means bad.
The only commonly cited con associated with the mini-amp is that it doesn’t come with a wall adapter, which is admittedly inconvenient. However, a standard 9-volt adapter (which is what the Honeytone takes) has a variety of uses outside of just powering this amp. So while it is another investment (though not a large one, as a 9-volt adapter can easily be found for less than $10) it will probably come in handy in the long run.
The Danelectro Honeytone may not be the best sounding mini-amp around, but it is one of the cheapest and most easily transportable on the market. Per the investment, you'll get an amplifier you can transport anywhere and have a blast with.
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Orange Micro Crush PiX
Founded in 1968 by Clifford Cooper, Orange actually had a pretty interesting start. A little-known fact about the company is that its original iteration was actually a recording studio. Cooper’s studio was failing to meet its overhead costs, so in order to compensate for the expenses it incurred he opened a music store on the floor above it.
Cooper ran into another difficulty when he found that he was unable to procure enough equipment to meet local demand, so the store eventually started dealing in second hand equipment exclusively. Though this was a more sustainable option, it still failed to cover both the costs of the store and the recording studio. So in order to turn his financial situation around, Cooper sought out Radio Craft to create products that would help him stock his shop.
This led to the venerable Orange line of amplifiers, which (though starting from very humble roots) has gone on to grace the stage alongside some of the most famous musicians the world has ever seen. While it may not pack quite the sonic punch of its larger brethren, the Orange Micro Crush PiX offers a great value to any musician on the hunt for an affordable mini-amp.
The most notable feature of this amp compared to other mini-amps is that it’s one of the more portable options available. This 3-watt amp is able to be powered by both a standard 9-volt battery as well a 9-volt adapter. This allows you, if you so choose, to pop a batter into the device and play on the go. This is great for warming up before a gig, and it’s also a nice option for musicians looking to practice in locations where power may not be readily available.
The PiX also comes with a built-in tuner, which while that’s by no means revolutionary it is a nice inclusion. It lessens the amount of equipment you’ll need to carry around in order to use the amp, which when considered in conjunction with its diminutive size and the ability to power it with a battery definitely makes it a pleasing option for the musician on the go.
The amp has a 4” speaker as well as a full regiment of necessary controls. In particular: volume, tone, and overdrive (gain). The amp also ships with a headphone output, allowing for near silent practicing. Orange has a reasonable response for its size. The clean remains tight at all volumes, so it doesn’t suffer from the mushiness common to other micro amps.
It should be noted that the amps is capable of overdrive, but it doesn’t really produce a good distorted sound. It’s a good for pumping out a bluesy grit, but if you’re looking for heavier rock you may find that this amp isn’t going to be the best fit for your needs. With that being said, there are few mini-amps that handle high-gain well, so the Orange isn’t really at a disadvantage here per it's class.
The Orange Micro Crush PiX offers a great value for musicians looking for a mini-amp with an above average frequency response for its size. The onboard tuner is also a nice touch, as it lowers the overall amount of equipment necessary when playing on the go. With that being said, there are reports of quality control issues with the amp. All things considered it’s a great buy.
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Blackstar Fly 3
Founded 2007, Blackstar is a manufacturer of amplifiers made up of ex-Marshall employees. Like many other companies, as Marshall grew those who worked with the company in its beginning stages grew to be dissatisfied with the direction of the company. A good analogue to Blackstar would be Heritage instruments, a group of former Gibson employees who did something similar and split with Gibson in order to focus on a smaller production line where quality could be more easily assured.
The best thing about companies like this is that they have a dedication to quality that’s hard to match. They have years worth of experience at the highest levels of the industry, and they use it to deliver amazing products. Though the company had relatively humble roots (though the higher level employees of the company were well respected in the industry they spent the first two years as a company working out of a shed) it’s gone on to become one of the biggest names in amplifiers. Blackstar amps are used by everyone from Gus G to James Dean Bradfield, in addition to thousands of hobbyist musicians all over the world.
Given the company’s history, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Blackstar Fly 3 is a quality addition to any musicians arsenal. The most notable feature of this amp is that it features a MP3 line in, which allows you to jam along with any audio file in the format. While this is standard for many practice amps, it’s not quite as common with amps this small.
An interesting feature of the amp is that it features a built-in tape delay effect (digital of course). This isn’t standard for the price point, so it helps to give the amp a utility not shared by many products in this price range. You can adjust both the level and time of delay through the use of onboard controls.
The amp has gain, volume, and tone controls. This is pretty standard, though it is a nice inclusion nonetheless. The amp also has a port for headphones, which is nice for those of you who are looking for the ability to practice as quietly as possible. In addition to the onboard controls, the amp has two channels: clean and overdrive. You can control the relative amount of gain on both channels. As far as tone is concerned, this amp is very highly regarded for a mini-amp.
A unique feature of the amp that other products in this price range don’t have is that it’s capable of providing some pretty meaty gain on higher settings. The onboard gain is also very deep and growly, as opposed to a lot of other mini-amps which can have a tendency to sound a bit stifled and weak.
The only flaw that we can really think of is that you’ll have to purchase a power supply separately, which will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of $10-$20. This isn’t ideal, but it’s not uncommon.
The Blackstar Fly 3 is arguably one of the best sounding mini-amps in its price range, and it’s been incredibly well received on almost every online platform. It benefits from being designed by some of the most experienced professionals in the industry, and this is reflected in both the sound that the unit is capable of and its overall quality.
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Marshall MS-2 Micro Stack
Founded in 1962 by Jim Marshall, Marshall Amplification is easily one of the preeminent names in the industry. The amplifiers have been used by some of the most notable musicians in music history. In fact, the list of musicians who have used Marshall amplifiers at one point or another in their career is so long that we could easily fill up an entire article just listing them. Chances are, if a person was famous during the 60s to early 80s there’s a 50/50 chance that they used a Marshall amplifier at some point.
Though it’s become a household name, Marshall actually had a pretty humble beginning. Jim Marshall was a music store owner who also gave drum lessons, and he noticed that for the vast majority of musicians imported American amplifiers (Fender) were unaffordable. He figured that given his experience as a musician he could create an amplifier that would perform just as well while still being affordable for the average working musician. The original Marshall amplifier was actually “inspired” by an early Bassman circuit, though the crucial difference was that Marshall used higher-gain valves, which gave them a deeper, throatier sound that was much easier to distort.
Considering the company’s history, it makes sense that they would also seek to compete in the mini-amplifier niche. The only question is: Is the Marshall MS-2 a worthy successor to the company’s lineup?
The key thing to note about this mini-amp is that it’s one of the quieter options available, producing only 1-watt of power. This is half the volume of a 10-watt solid-state amplifier (a 10-watt increase in wattage is only a 100% increase in overall volume). This makes it very easy to control the volume of the unit, making playing without disturbing those around you easily attainable.
The MS-2 has a volume and tone control, though it doesn’t have a variable gain pot. It does have onboard distortion, but you can’t tweak the amount of gain introduced into the circuit. This may prove to be inconvenient to many of you, but it is worth noting that you can lessen the amount of gain through use of your guitar’s volume control.
The mini-amp weighs in at a little bit more than a third of a pound, and it does feature a headphone jack. It doesn’t have a line in, which means that you can’t play along with your music. The low-weight of the unit does make it an attractive option for those of you looking for an easily transportable mini-amp. You also have the option to power it with either a power supply or through use of a battery, though there aren’t any reports of how this unit fairs in regards to how efficiently it uses batteries.
For this price range the Marshall MS-2 isn’t really that bad as far as tone is concerned. The only thing that really lets it down is that it doesn’t have a variable gain control, which can make it a bit hard to dial in your ideal tone. This can be compensated for through use of your guitar’s volume control, but it’s a feature that many amps at this price point include.
The defining feature of this amp is its low weight, which makes it a great option for a musician looking for an easily transportable mini-amp. Though it should be noted that the amp isn’t as flexible as other products in this price range, if you are looking for a simple and capable mini amp from a legendary manufacturer, consider the MS-2.
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Practice amps are a great tool for any musician to have, but with the wide variety of options available selecting the perfect model for your needs can be a bit challenging. But hopefully with the information here you’ll be able to make an informed decision.