What is the best guitar for home use? We review the best portable amplifiers from Fender and moreWhat is the best guitar for home use? We review the best portable amplifiers from Fender and more
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Practice amps, as they’re commonly known, serve many purposes – they are perfect for practicing at home, quick rehearsal sessions in the dressing room, songwriting and, in some instances where they come equipped with battery power, ideal for busking on the street. They are also an excellent choice for beginners wishing to emulate their guitar heroes.
We’ve called in a tranche of excellent mini combo guitar amplifiers that behave just like their larger, stage-bound brethren, only for a lot less money.
How to choose a practice guitar amp
When it comes to choosing a practice amp, the field is literally littered with models from historic establishments like Fender, Marshall, Mesa Boogie, Peavey and Orange and, more recently, manufactures like Blackstar, Line 6 and Positive Grid.
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There are two main types of guitar amplifier – combo and amp head and cabinet. Practice amps are always of the combo variety, that is to say the pre-amplifier, power amplifier and all controls are combined with the speakers in a single, easy-to-carry cabinet. Amp head and cab systems are usually much larger and allow artists to mix and match amps and pre-amps with speaker cabinets of their choosing.
Guitar combos come in a variety of sizes. Some are no larger than a shoebox and are really easy to transport while others are a lot larger and too heavy to carry around.
Most practice combo amps run on electricity only which means that, while they may be louder and a great choice for low-key band practice, they are not well suited to busking with unless you have an electricity generator or 240v battery pack to hand.
Smaller shoebox amps, on the other hand, often run on batteries or electricity and are ideal for taking anywhere, whether it’s the garden, on holiday or up a mountain. Just don’t expect ear-shattering volume from their tiny speakers.
How many watts do I need?
Contrary to popular belief among first timers, you don’t need an amplifier with a large amount of watts. The loudest amps here wade in at 40 watts apiece – easily loud enough for a band rehearsal with drums – while the smallest is just three watts.
Nevertheless, to put it into perspective, even the tiny 3-watt Orange Crush Mini at full pelt is loud enough to wake the neighbours.
How to use volume and gain controls
The vast majority of the world’s amplifiers invariably have two types of volume controls – gain and volume – and it’s the combination between these two knobs that dictate whether a guitar sound is ‘clean’ or ‘distorted’.
In short, it’s the gain knob that makes the most difference to the tone so more gain equals more distortion and vice versa. However, turning up the gain also increases the overall volume so to counteract this, simply turn the volume knob down a tad and that way you’ll have a raunchy Slash sound at really quiet volume.
Fender Mustang Micro
If you want to make a really loud noise but don’t want anyone else to hear it, this sensational little headphone amp is far and away the best option for you.
Fender is one of the most prestigious brand names in the music industry and this diminutive plug-in device is frankly unbelievable for the price.
Instead of knobs galore which can often be a bit hit and miss when searching for the guitar sound you want, this amazing USB rechargeable gizmo comes armed with 12 superb colour-coded preset amp models (from clean all the way through to raunchy metal) and 12 effect combinations with parameter modify control.
A single charge of its lithium-ion battery provides up to four hours of playing time.
The Mustang Micro is equipped with a row of buttons, each assigned to a different task. Hence, you can select a preferred amp model, add an effect like reverb or delay and then modify the levels of each.
You can also make small adjustments to the EQ. The fact you can’t fettle too deeply is what makes this game-changing device so ridiculously easy to use.
Simply pick up your guitar, plug in the Mustang Micro and a pair of headphone and indulge yourself in some of the fattest guitar sounds you’ve ever heard without faffing about with any gain and volume controls. T
he clincher is that it’s Bluetooth enabled, too, so you can jam along with your favourite Spotify or Apple Music tunes.
Fender has absolutely nailed it with this remarkable device and selected the best sounds and effects from its popular Mustang amplifier range so users can experience instant gratification with the simple tap of a button. Warmly recommended.
Blackstar iCore V3 10
This keenly-priced 10-watt model from British manufacturer Blackstar is chock full of tantalising tech.
Along with volume and gain, the iCore V3 10 comes with six pre-set guitar tones (Clean Warm, Clean Bright, Crunch, Super Crunch, OD1, OD2), Infinite Shape Feature EQ, a raft of special effects like delay, modulation and reverb, and even a guitar tuner. The two clean presets are definitely worth highlighting since they make any guitar sound rich, deep and fat.
This amp features two three-inch speakers that are angled outwards for spacial stereoscopic sound but you can also use the headphone output for privacy.
A built-in USB output also provides access to Blackstar’s Cab Rig Lite software which opens up a whole new world of speaker sounds – simply load the software into your computer and select your preferred cabinet, mic and room environment.
The iCore V3 10 is arguably the best-value combo amplifier in this round up and, at 34 x 18.5 x 26.5cm, it’s also the largest and therefore the biggest sounding.
So, if you’re after a practice or rehearsal amp that truly impresses straight out of the box, the iCore is your best bet. You won’t be disappointed.
IK Multimedia iRig Micro Amp
Looking for a travel-friendly compact amp that kicks some serious bottom? Perhaps this titchy battery and mains-powered titan will do the trick. The 15-watt iRig is a perfect choice for making a racket well away from civilisation since it runs on six AA batteries (an optional mains transformer is also available) and that means it can be played anywhere you like.
The iRig measures 210 x 125 x 155mm, weighs a svelte 1.26kgs and is equipped with the obligatory gain, volume, bass, mid and treble controls.
It also has three further pre-select buttons for clean, drive and lead sounds and can be synced with the AmpliTube app for iPhone, iPad and Mac for access to a plethora of extra amp sounds.
You can also use the rear speaker output to connect it to a larger cabinet for extra oomph, use a pair of headphones with it and even connect your MP3 device to play along with your favourite songs.
For such a small and cheap little amp, the iRig goes really loud, while its warm sound profile is easy on the ears and nowhere near as shrill and thin as you might expect.
Granted, it isn’t a great deal cheaper than the better Blackstar but then it is a lot smaller and much more portable.
Positive Grid Spark
This is one of the most advanced, tech-filled amplifiers on the market but it’s also quite a bit more expensive than the others reviewed here.
Mind, that extra expense is perfectly justified in this instance because this amplifier has everything you could wish for, whether you’re a pro, amateur or total newbie.
Unlike most plug-and-play amps that use conventional circuitry, the Spark also utilises amp modelling (emulation of different classic amplifiers) to a massive degree and that means you can quite literally select the sound of your favourite guitarist or iconic guitar sound using the accompanying app.
But that’s just one teeny facet because this amplifier also provides the wherewithal to record an eight-bar chord sequence and play along to it with full drum and bass backing or play along to a range of pre-set musical genres.
The app will even analyse a song on Spotify and tell you what the chords are. To say this amp is clever is an understatement. And yet, it can be used just like any other practice combo because it comes with all the usual range of conventional controls like volume, gain, bass, mid and treble, plus simple effects like reverb and delay.
The 40-watt Spark is superbly built – it weighs 5.2kgs – and is arguably the most versatile amplifier on the market right now. Although it’s more expensive than the other models here, it is 100% worth every last note.
A highly recommended portable amplifier for home practice, guitar learning, low volume band rehearsals and pre-concert warm ups.
Orange Crush Mini
Orange is synonymous with the classic British crunch sound favoured by iconic bands like AC/DC, Arctic Monkeys and Oasis and this is the company’s dinkiest amp in the range.
Aside from the headphone-specific Fender Mustang Micro, the battery-powered Crush Mini is the smallest amp on test (just three watts of power), but it’s no slouch when it comes to making a noise.
Now it must be said that you won’t get a particularly clean sound out of this model without careful balance between the volume and gain controls, but if you like a crunchy distorted sound with oodles of sustain then it may well be right up your street. Just be mindful that there is only so much depth and bottom end you can get out of a four-inch speaker, though it’s good to know you can always ramp up the volume and increase fatness by using the rear speaker output to feed a bigger cabinet. You can also plug in a pair of headphones.
Along with standard volume and gain knobs, the Crush Mini comes with a ‘Shape’ control pot that adjusts EQ over a wide range of frequencies. And like the iRig, it too runs on battery power (with an option to run it on mains), in this instance a single 9-volt.
Another cool thing is that it doesn’t have a physical on/off switch – instead it turns itself on and off when you plug in or unplug an instrument. For an amp that is just 15cm tall and 14.5cm wide, the Orange Crush Mini packs quite a punch.