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
PRICE $319 street
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.
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
PRICE $100 street
CHANNELS 8 (counting amp models as “channels”)
CONTROLS Gain, Volume, Treble, Master, Preset select, Effects select. Save, Exit, Tap buttons
POWER 7 watts
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.
KUDOS Impressive range of good-sounding amps and effects. Smart features. Excellent for practice, rehearsing, recording, etc.
CONCERNS No external speaker out.
GRETSCH ELECTROMATIC G5222 COMPACT AMP
Old school is the name of the game with the Electromatic, which recalls a time when men were men and guitar amps often resembled a small suitcase. The Electro’s tweed-covered cabinet, striped “TV” grill, leather handle, and brown enameled control panel give it a look that is straight out of the Eisenhower era. It’s not a vintage reissue per se, but a player of the time would have enjoyed its modest five watts of power, generated by a circuit with a 12AX7 in the preamp and a 6V6 for output. The single-ended (class A) design features a metal chassis with most of the smaller components (caps, resistors, pot, and jacks) laid out on two PC boards. Parts mounted to the chassis include the transformers, output jack, power switch, jeweled pilot light, and upper supports for the board-mounted tube sockets.
There’s not a lot to explain about the Electromatic’s sound except that it rules for what it is. This amp has a sweet, round tone that can be optimized for jazz or other clean styles by keeping the Volume knob at around half and jacking into the second input, which pads the signal to keep it from overloading the preamp. You can coax some crunch by cranking the Volume knob, but even with humbuckers what you get is mainly warm, soulful grit that sounds cool for semi-grungy lead and rhythm playing.
The grind comes on faster and the sound is brighter when using the first input. In this mode the Volume knob really controls distortion, and a fair amount of touch sensitive sustain with nice feedback characteristics is available when running flat out—particularly with humbuckers.
The Electromatic’s volume range is suitable for low-volume rehearsing, but unplugging the internal speaker and running the output into a bigger cab can expand its sound dramatically. Through a Bad Cat 4x12 the little amp was loud and dynamically responsive enough to probably get you through a gig if your main amp went down. Butt simple and great for just about any situation where good tone at low volume is the order, the Electromatic makes you appreciate just how right those early guitar amp designers got it. — ART THOMPSON
PRICE $195 street
POWER 5 watts
TUBES One 12AX7A, one 6V6GT (both unlabeled Chinese manufacture)
SPEAKERS One 6" Special Design with ceramic magnet
EXTRAS Two 1/4" Instrument jacks (high and low gain). Stitched leather handle.
KUDOS Ultra-simple tone machine. Sweet look.
ORANGE MICRO TERROR
With the endless stream of diminutive derring-do from dozens of manufacturers, it’s clear that the “lunchbox” amp fad is still raging. At less than two lbs, however, Orange’s Micro Terror has taken the tiny tone machine template to glorious heights. Built like a brick—if there were such a thing as steel bricks—the Micro Terror is sturdy, handsome, and not at all toy-like with its single 12AX7-powered front end and 20-watt solid-state power section. Plugging in my early-’70s Fender Telecaster, I turned all of the Micro Terror’s controls (labeled with classic “WTF?” graphics) halfway up and let ’er rip. The amp proceeded to unleash a snarling, surprisingly detailed blend of clanging clean tones and nasty-as-I-wanna-be crunchiness at a volume level that is beyond respectable for an amp of this size. Through a Marshall 4x12, the tones were robust and inspiring, and I was able use just my guitar’s volume control to roll between clean and dirty textures. However, with the Gain control much past halfway up, the Micro Terror tends to shed this ability to clean up, opting to go for the jugular by unleashing high-gain hijinks of a very aggressive nature.
With my Gibson SG Standard, those higher caloric tones were among the best the Micro Terror had to offer, delivering a wicked midrange that makes power chords bark and lead lines bite with a singing sustain that begs you to dig in. Even with the vast amount of distortion the Micro Terror has to offer, its note definition, punchy low end, and ability to be cranked and musical make it a wonder to behold.
At home, or in a quiet rehearsal or gig setting, the Micro Terror is a soulful and fun experience. I didn’t care for its sound through headphones, but it could save your bacon on a gig because its wee size allows you to stash it in your car’s center console, a backpack, or even in the back of your Deluxe Reverb in case of catastrophic amp failure.
That said, in rock band situations it will likely need to be miked up to be heard. Even running through a Marshall 4x12, the Micro Terror gets shouted down in a hurry when the band kicks in, especially if there’s another guitarist, or, heaven forbid, a keyboard player. Still, given its tone, size, and price, the Micro Terror is a formidable challenger in the mini-amp arena. —DARRIN FOX
PRICE $159 street
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, Gain
POWER 20 watts
TUBES One 12AX7, one 12AT7
SPEAKERS Tested with a Marshall 4x12 loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s, a Fender 1x10 loaded with an Eminence Red Coat, and a Fender 1x12 loaded with a Naylor Special Design 50.
EXTRAS Aux in, headphone jack.
KUDOS Unheard of tone to size to price ratio.
CONCERNS Headphone out should sound better.
PEAVEY BACKSTAGE II
As one of the first amplifier makers to come up with a way of mimicking the characteristics of tubes via solid-state technology, Peavey was on the forefront of tube “modeling” with its TransTube technology that has been used in many of its amps over the last couple of decades. The smallest is the Backstage II, the latest version of this practice classic, which is a relative powerhouse with a 10-watt output stage driving a 6.5" speaker in an open-back cabinet.
This straightforward amp has no onboard effects and just a simple complement of controls: Overdrive, Volume, a Lead switch, and two bands of EQ. Amenities include a headphone jack and a Tape/CD input (shows how long the model has been around!) to enhance the bedroom jamming experience and a hardwired AC cord—a rarity on amps of any size these days. The pebbled black covering on the small cabinet can take a lot of abuse, and on the whole this combo seems like a solid deal for 64 bucks.
Tonally speaking, the Backstage II delivers a lot for the money, too, kicking out a punchy clean sound with the Volume set south of halfway. This transitions into meaty distortion fairly quickly as you turn up the Volume knob and get the TransTube juices flowing. The tube-like warmth is apparent and so is the reactiveness in the playing feel: Dig into the strings for more grind, lighten up on the pick (or turn your guitar down) and the sound cleans up. The Backstage II churns out a fair amount of girthy sounding sustain with the Volume dimed, and that’s before pressing the Lead switch, which bring the Overdrive knob into play, tightens the sound, and increases the gain big time for nearly endless sustain and easy sorties into feedback with the Overdrive control maxed. Given the amp’s ability to pump out impressive volume, it’s kind of a shame that Peavey didn’t equip it with a jack for connecting to a larger speaker cabinet.
For practice, rehearsing, and bedroom shredding, the Backstage II is a great choice. It’s not the most feature-packed mini on the market, but it makes up for it in powerful sound from a pint-sized package. —ART THOMPSON
PRICE $64 MAP
CONTROLS Overdrive, Lead switch, Volume, High, Low
POWER 10 watts
SPEAKERS One 6.5"
EXTRAS TransTube technology. 1/4" Headphone jack. 1/4" Tape/CD input.
KUDOS Delivers tube-like tone and feel. Abundant sustain. Loud for its size.
CONCERNS No extension speaker jack.
Everyone who saw the AC4 when it arrived uttered some version of “I want one!” This thing is both cute and beautiful, with its sweet blue Tolex (which Vox used on the AC4 back in 1963— a good year for Brit rock), retro-cool grille cloth with gold piping, and days-of-yore Bakelite suitcase handle. Before I ever plugged in I wanted to stack up nine of them to be like a mini Brian May
I fired it up with a PRS SC58 and was greeted instantly with that classic Vox tone. It’s impossible to talk about an amp like this without using the term “chime” because that’s truly what it does. There is so much top end available here it’s actually kind of astounding. But unless you really go overboard—like Treble-dimed/Strat bridge pickup—the high frequencies never get harsh. It’s crazy to experience a tone this bright and this sweet. Setting the Gain low and the Volume at noon gives up a beautiful clean sound with tons of detail. At only four watts, it’s pretty easy to nudge this amp into dirtier sounds if you start to turn up either the Gain or the Volume. The semi-clean sounds instantly provide a history lesson in melodic rock. You’ll not only hear Beatles tunes as you pick through chords but also riffs from Tom Petty, R.E.M., The Edge, and loads of others. It was easy to get those magical rhythm tones that are as dirty or as clean as you want them to be, depending on how you pick them.
Maxing out the Gain control unleashed singing sustain for lead lines and big dirt for heavier rhythms, all with a brilliant treble sheen. Even at its dirtiest, however, the AC4 stays defined and dimensional. These tones are better suited to the brash and punky than the detuned and heavy in my opinion, and that’s fine by me. Because of its closed-back design, the AC4 has impressive low end for a 1x10 combo, but it also sports an extension speaker jack and when I plugged into a Bad Cat 4x12 the tones instantly got bigger, badder, and way louder. It’s a great feature and makes for a much more flexible amp.
Our test amp’s internal speaker stopped working after we auditioned a variety of cabinets via the AC4’s extension-speaker jack, and we were unable to uncover the reason (even after opening up the amp and studying its innards). We’re confident this is an anomaly, as the amp’s construction is extremely sound, and Vox’s service center and online user forums report no such problems with this model. All-in-all, the AC4C1-BL stands as a gorgeous-sounding amp that any studio or any fan of Brit rock chime would benefit from owning. —MATT BLACKETT
PRICE $299 street
CONTROLS Gain, Bass, Treble, Volume
POWER 4 watts class A
TUBES Two 12AX7, one EL84
SPEAKERS 10" Celestion VX10
EXTRAS Extension speaker jack
KUDOS Classic Vox tones. Great cosmetics. Brilliant recording amp.
CONCERNS None (internal speaker problem deemed an anomaly).