Roundup: Six Cool Practice Amps

January 30, 2014

The lowest-wattage segment of the amplifier market has broad appeal, not just for beginning guitarists, but for players of any level who appreciate having quality sounds in an ultra-small package. Amps in the “practice” category have certainly advanced greatly in recent years, with more and more models offering high-gain channels, DSP effects, and more sophisticated tube stages than the classic small amps of the ’50s. When played through larger speakers, some of these practice amps are suitable for rehearsing with drums and bass, and they might even get you through a gig if your main amp goes up in a puff of smoke. You may even want to opt for a tiny head (such as the Orange Micro Terror on review here) instead of a combo if the sound of a small speaker isn’t to your liking anyway, and you want something that stashes easily and can connect to your stage speakers in an emergency.

You can spend pretty much whatever you want on a modern mini amp, and there are plenty to choose from whatever your budget. An amp with a boatload of modeled sounds like the Fender Mustang Mini has obvious appeal for someone who doesn’t already own several amps and a pedalboard of effects, while the Vox AC4 or Blackstar HT-1R might appeal to those who simply want to enjoy classic British sounds without the bummer of hauling around a heavy 2x12 combo or 4x12 rig.

The amps we chose for this roundup span a range from $64 to more than $300, and, while they differ in many ways, all of them met the goal of producing sounds that would work well for practice, rehearsals, or recording. We tested them with a Fender Strat and Tele, a Gibson Les Paul and SG, PRS SC 58 and “Paul’s Guitar,” and a TMG Dover. —ART THOMPSON

BLACKSTAR HT-1R ARCTIC WHITE

Disarmingly serene looking with its white Tolex covering, the HT-1R uses a pair of dual triodes running in push-pull configuration to deliver 1 watt of power. The white “plexi” top panel sports Gain and Volume controls, an Overdrive switch, and an ISF control, which is short for Infinite Shape Feature, Blackstar’s patent-applied- for circuit that sweeps progressively between “U.S.”- and “U.K.”-type sounds as you turn it from left to right. Lastly, the Reverb knob adjusts the level of the digital ’verb, which has a rich, small hall-style reflection. The back of the amp is covered by a vented metal plate that provides excellent protection for the speaker and innards, but also completely hides the tubes.

The HT’s simple set of controls yields a range of sounds that, while heavily leaning in a rock direction, can veer into blues, jazz, and other cleaner styles. Obviously you can’t expect a great deal of headroom from a watt of output, but turn the Volume all the way up, add some reverb, and twist the ISF control in the US direction, and you get a reasonable impression of clean Fender-style sound, albeit at a low volume. In fact, the HT-1R remains on the quiet side until the Gain control advances past halfway, and then there’s a noticeable jump in loudness with more on the way as you keep upping the gain.

Of course, the audience for this amp is probably more interested in overdriven tones anyway, and the HT-1R is very adept at delivering those textures. With the Overdrive switch off, the sounds go from chunky grind to smoothly sustaining overdrive as you increase the Gain from 1 o’clock to fully dimed. In this range the HT-1R pumps out respectable volume and is quite tough sounding for a 1-watter, especially with the ISF knob in UK territory, which enhances the amp’s low-end and midrange punch.

With the Overdrive switch engaged, the effect is like switching on an OD pedal: The gain goes up by a huge factor and the sustain increases dramatically, turning the HT-1R into a raging rock or metal machine that’s perfect for practicing through headphones (which sounded great in my M-Audio Studiophile Q40 cans), home recording (the speaker emulated out is a plus here), or even practicing with a band when plugged into a larger cabinet. What a cool little combo! —ART THOMPSON

CONTACT blackstaramps.com

PRICE $319 street

SPECIFICATIONS

CHANNELS 2
CONTROLS Gain, Volume, EQ, Reverb, Overdrive switch
POWER 1 watt
TUBES One 12AU7, one 12AX7
SPEAKERS One 8"
EXTRAS ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) control. Speaker emulated line out. Stereo MP3 input. Headphone jack. External speaker out.
BUILT China
KUDOS Impressive range of ballsy rock tones. ISF control is very effective. Nice reverb.
CONCERNS Sounds clean only at very low volume.

 
 
 

FENDER MUSTANG MINI

This tiny but well-equipped combo features eight amp models (’57 Champ, ’59 Bassman, ’65 Twin Reverb, Super-Sonic, British ’60s, British ’80s, American ’90s, Metal 2000), a dozen effects (chorus, flanger, phaser, Vibratone, vintage tremolo, octave down, small room reverb, Fender ’65 Spring Reverb, stereo tape delay, tape delay + room reverb, chorus + hall reverb, Vibratone + room reverb), and 24 factory presets. You can adjust amp tones quickly via the knobs, use the Effects control to select the effects you want to pair them with, set effects levels by holding the Exit button while turning the Effects knob, and adjust delay and modulation times with the Tap button (which also activates the tuner when pressed for a couple of seconds).

A Save button allows for quick storing of your own sounds, and you can recall two presets with the optional footswitch. Connect the Mustang Mini to a computer (a USB cable is provided) and download Fender’s free FUSE software, and you can practice and/or record with your computer; do deep editing of the amp models with the help of onscreen parameter control; get greatly expanded preset storage; enjoy online patch sharing and use of artist generated content; and access the “hidden” fuzz, phaser, and touch-wah effects.

Impressive as the tech side is for an amp of this size and price, the Mustang Mini’s sounds are almost guaranteed to wow you. The amps sounded girthier and more realistic than I expected given the small speaker (the closed-back cabinet undoubtedly helps), and they have a nice sense of tube-like warmth and can be easily dialed for cleaner or more overdriven tones (scathingly overdriven on the higher-gain models) with a quick twist of the Gain and Volume knobs. The tones on the lower-to-mid-gain amps even respond well to changes in guitar volume, cleaning up as you turn down and vice versa. I was amazed by how quiet the amp is and how effective the very unobtrusive noise gate is. The Mini gets quite loud for an amp with 7 watts, and it also has good headroom, which means your cleaner tones don’t go into the trash compactor the second you turn up the Master, and your heavier rock and metal tones maintain respectable depth and tightness.

The effects also deserve praise for their warmth and juiciness. The chorus, flanger, and rotary textures all have a nice sense of dimension; the hall, room, and spring reverbs are airy and reflective; and the delays have a tactile feel and smooth decay characteristics. Listening to them though headphones really makes you appreciate their spatial qualities—especially the few that are in stereo—and again, the low noise floor makes them all the more enjoyable.

Playing the Mustang Mini for just a few minutes makes it quickly apparent how useful it could be for practicing, low volume rehearsals, home recording, and perhaps even emergency gig backup by sticking a mic on it or routing the signal to a P.A. mixer from the headphone jack. Bottom line: If you are looking for maximum bang for the buck in a mini amp, the Mustang Mini is tough to beat. —ART THOMPSON

CONTACT fender.com
PRICE $100 street

SPECIFICATIONS

CHANNELS 8 (counting amp models as “channels”)
CONTROLS Gain, Volume, Treble, Master, Preset select, Effects select. Save, Exit, Tap buttons
POWER 7 watts
TUBES N/A
SPEAKERS One 6.5"
EXTRAS 24 presets (user rewriteable), 8 amp models, 12 effects, 1/8" Aux in, 1/8" headphone jack, USB port, 1/4" footswitch jack (switch not included), onboard tuner. Fender FUSE software allows for deeper editing of amps and effects, preset storage and online sharing of sounds. Runs on 12-volt adaptor (included) or 6 “C” batteries.
BUILT China
KUDOS Impressive range of good-sounding amps and effects. Smart features. Excellent for practice, rehearsing, recording, etc.
CONCERNS No external speaker out.

 
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